Never quite sure on the exactness of the ‘once removed/twice removed’ distinction, but the easiest way to put it is that my father once had a cousin who lived in Maidenhead, Berkshire – the Parliamentary constituency currently represented by our Glorious Leader. When I spent a couple of nights at my dad’s cousin’s home as a nine-year-old in 1977, the nearest comparison I had at the time re the residence and neighbourhood was that of Margot and Jerry’s abode on ‘The Good Life’. Like Paul Eddington’s character, her husband also worked in London and commuted back to the suburbs each evening; their neighbours included Diana Dors, Michael Parkinson and Frank Bough (oo-er) and I remember her once telling me she could get me tickets for ‘Top of the Pops’ if I wanted to be a member of the audience once I was old enough. I only wish I’d taken her up on the offer.
The teenage record collections of her grown-up son and daughter that had been left behind when they’d flown the nest were ones I recall spinning on the family turntable, including the likes of Sweet, T. Rex and early Queen. They provided an invigorating alternative to Roger Whitaker and The Carpenters, which were the standard vinyl fare back home. That the same holiday also encompassed my inaugural stroll around the capital enshrines it as one of the few childhood vacations I can recall with fondness.
What has this got to do with anything, you may ask? Well, I only use the remembrance of an introduction to a different world as a roundabout means of leading into the story of Heathrow’s third runway. The house in question – which was, incidentally, the first I ever set foot in that had en-suite bathrooms – was directly beneath the flight path of what was then the world’s busiest airport. In ‘Remember Me’, Melvyn Bragg’s moving account of his first marriage, he writes of the mental trauma the noise of planes overhead caused his wife in their marital home in Kew, though I became accustomed to the sound during the short time I spent in Maidenhead. The aircraft quickly assumed the status of background ambience for me, though I appreciate this isn’t always the case for those residing in the vicinity for longer than 48 hours.
The news that the government has finally reached a decision on gifting Heathrow a third runway was bound to open a can of worms, and the first headline-grabbing consequence of the belated thumbs-up is the earth-shattering blow that Zac Goldsmith will be standing down as an MP due to his long-standing opposition to the move. The failed London Mayoral candidate announced he will honour his pledge to campaign against the expansion of Heathrow by resigning his Richmond seat. Whilst this may not necessarily be regarded amongst Theresa May’s Tory circles as a great loss, it is an indication that the Prime Minister’s final word on the long-running saga is a contentious one.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has long been a vocal opponent of a third runway at Heathrow, harbouring his own unrealisable ambitions for a completely new London airport during his stint as the capital’s Mayor, and he has already labelled the announcement as ‘undeliverable’. Education Secretary Justine Greening is also in the Boris camp, while Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (whose own constituency includes Heathrow) has reacted with a predictable lack of enthusiasm to the news.
Theresa May’s predecessor ducked the issue throughout his premiership, under pressure from assorted NIMBY lobby groups as well as party members with constituencies that would be affected, though the PM coming out with a decision so early into her tenure at No.10 perhaps suggests an end to dithering on a subject that has been something of a hot potato in the South East for years. Adding a new runway to Gatwick was viewed as a less incendiary decision, as was extending the existing Heathrow ones rather than building a third. Now that the go-ahead for runway No.3 has been given, the saga is set to continue for several years, with first reports indicating it could be as late as 2020 before work even begins on building it; and who knows who will be in Downing Street by then?
A third runway promises upwards of 260,000 more flights into Heathrow per year (which will no doubt please those living nearby), though the cost of constructing it is rumoured to be upwards of £17.6bn, not to mention the demolition of an estimated 783 homes in the way of the redevelopment. With London currently experiencing the most severe housing crisis in its history, this is hardly the kind of news Londoners wanted to hear. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has added his voice to the condemnation, as have Greenpeace, with the organisation’s UK chief John Sauven claiming the decision will increase pollution; some union leaders, however, such TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, have backed the proposals by viewing them as a boost to jobs and the economy. That this kind of statement allies the unions with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is evidence that the third runway is something that cuts across party lines with Marmite-like precision.
Of course, if one doesn’t reside beneath the Heathrow flight path or faces eventual eviction as a result of the expansion, yesterday’s announcement has no impact upon day-to-day doings whatsoever. But for the residents of a small Middlesex village called Harmondsworth, much of which stands to disappear once building work begins, there is a weary resignation that two decades of campaigning against the third runway has resulted in defeat. Some are happy to be making a mint from the compulsory purchase of their properties, whereas others are understandably devastated – particularly the ones whose homes won’t make way for the runway and will therefore be essentially worthless as property investments once it arrives.
Over 150 years ago, the even greater destruction of Camden Town during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway was documented in Charles Dickens’ ‘Dombey and Son’, and despite the author’s reservations over industrial progress, the railways were a necessary great leap forward; it would seem a third runway at Heathrow representing similar progress ultimately depends upon whether or not one stands to profit from it. And there, in a sentence, is the story of our times. The best and the worst.
© The Editor