Front cover of Bill Bryson novel, The Road to Little Dribbling

A Small Island

A Small Island.  I’m currently reading one of Bill Bryson’s funny books and he beautifully describes a little-known area near Heathrow airport which has somehow escaped development. The Staines Moor pocket of land has been untouched for over a thousand years and is the only green space for miles that Staines residents can enjoy. Heathrow has two runways and plans for a third are afoot. It’s already a most polluting airport, second only to Dubai in the world. I mention this because consultations are now well underway for Gatwick to become the same size.  It’s privately owned by Black Rock and Vinci, who also own airports in France and Portugal.  Their desire is to match Heathrow’s income by creating a new runway in place of its existing emergency one.

Our weather has been dire this winter, with rain the norm. It’s a conundrum.  Getting away for some sunshine elsewhere adds to this change in climate problem: warmer air can hold more moisture. 
Running (well, shuffling really) this week, I was aware of my lungs wheezing again.  After two weeks of lockdown they were briefly marvellous!  Sadly, that stopped as transport resumed. Our air quality is massively impacted by the microscopic particles from the planes’ tyres maybe even more than from the fuel burned: it’s called the invisible killer.

Adding another 40 million passengers a year will obviously add millions more cars, plastic, sewage and waste of all sorts as passengers are held in the shopping and eating areas for longer and longer as shopping, car parking and even driving through makes more and more money. The southeast is reaching its limits of liveable growth due to lack of water, depletion of soils, lack of space for nature.  Gatwick has actually objected to Horsham District’s Local Plan on the grounds that increasing biodiversity by 12% will create problems for their planes.

Private airport expansion UK wide, as our government is encouraging, is a very dangerous game to play. We have Luton, Stansted, London City and Farnborough (serving more private jets than anywhere in the UK), all crowding the south east skies so much that all Gatwick flights would be directed south over Horsham district.  Imagine that!

Rather than keeping these very damaging businesses artificially cheap by not taxing aeroplane fuel, we could be subsidising greener jobs, and a group called ‘Safe Landing’,  started by Gatwick airport staff,  is leading the way. 

As an American, Bill Bryson’s huge love of the UK, of all its quirkiness, of the beauty of its landscape is inspiring. Funny how it takes an outsider to point out what’s going on under our noses!  We are only a small island, a small planet, so where does this trajectory of continual ‘growth’ (a.k.a. building) take us?  Is Gatwick expansion the Emperor’s New Clothes?  And am I a hypocrite?  Yes, I do fly. Do I support expanding Vinci and Blackrock’s business? No. I’m not saying let’s close Gatwick; let’s simply maintain the status quo. It’s enough.

By Morag Warrack