The village of Sipson, bordering West London, looks dull and sleepy under the grey November sky. How deceptive appearances can be. Hidden down a cul de sac, off Sipson Road, is a brightly painted gateway that contrasts starkly to the surroundings. It is the entrance to ‘Grow Heathrow,’ a squat community of activists who are protesting against airport expansion and global climate change.
Since Theresa May’s government announced their plans to go ahead with expanding Heathrow Airport, the local communities’ decades-long struggle against the move seems to have been for nothing. But Sadiq Khan’s promise today to help legal challengers of Heathrow expansion brings hope to locals fighting an ongoing battle against the third runway. Squatting on land close to the airport, the activists quietly support these local people to continue in their struggle.
Comprised of two greenhouses, several buildings made from cob (a mixture of locally-sourced hay, clay and sand), and an upcycled shipping container, the site is more hamlet than camp. It is impressive. In the ‘Alt Space,’ a cob building used for music performances and theatre, I speak to Andrea Grainger, the spokesperson for ‘Grow Heathrow.’ He is a slight man with elfish, wavy blond hair, who has been working on a new protest site in the area. In a soft voice he explains how he wants to involve the local community in creating a sustainable village. “We want to re-localise the economy, give people back power through local currency, co-opted banks, direct democracy. Because at the moment the people work elsewhere for big corporations that take a large share of what they deserve.”
Whereas Andrea studied environmental science at Keele University, others have more practical skills which they hope to share with local residents in the area. Living in the camp are carpenters and experts in permaculture gardening, water filtering systems, wind power, solar energy and battery systems. Thanks to their skills the camp has been made sustainable with a wind turbine, solar panels on every roof and a bicycle-powered washing machine. Andrea hopes that sustainability can be fostered outside the camp too. “It’s about putting people back into connection with each other and inspiring them to work together to transform the local community,” he says. “We want to create jobs in the local area for local people, have people gardening, building solar panels, doing organic gardening.”
The long-term work of ‘Grow Heathrow’ contrasts to one-off protests by other campaign groups. Last year, activists from Plane Stupid chained themselves to a Heathrow runway, causing “absolutely astronomical” costs, claimed a district judge dealing with the court case of trespass by the protesters. Andrea thinks that dramatic protests are effective but, he says, “I’m not so keen on one-off publicity stunts. I’d like to get publicity from converting the area into a sustainable local community.”
It is clear that the activists at ‘Grow Heathrow’ have great ambitions for improving the lives of people in the local area. However, at present their circumstances are bleak. “A lot of the people here have given up in a sense. They’ve been fighting for decades. They don’t know whether their community is worth fighting for.” This isn’t helped by the fact that the airport has been buying up houses around the area and renting them out to employees or people who don’t have any connection to Sipson. “It’s been hollowing out the community,” Andrea laments. “A lot of residents here have just left and given up along the way. There is a lot less of a community there now. If they decide to leave they’ve given up and they’re gone.”
Outside, sawing wood, I find one of the carpenters who is working on a new building for the camp. He introduces himself as Luke Green. He has been here longer than Andrea and his anger is audible as he describes the effects of Heathrow airport buying up properties around the area. “On the sly they keep buying up houses in Sipson. They own about 80% of the houses. They bought up a huge majority of the houses in Sipson with this unbelievable deal. They gave them pre-blighted prices – that’s their own terminology – I like that because it recognises that the airport blights the area.” He laughs darkly. “That ripped the heart out of Sipson.”
The effect on local communities drives ‘Grow Heathrow’ to encourage locals to persist in their struggle against airport expansion. Andrea says, “We need to build up strength in the community and show people that this could be a good place to live, that it’s worth defending, that it’s worth fighting for. And if we can get the sustainable community to a point where is works as an exemplar for other communities then we can bring in the media.”
Today ‘Grow Heathrow’ seems peaceful. With only two days of work a week, the activists have a lot of time to relax. I join a group of the activists in the protest camp’s main greenhouse. A couple of them sit at the table. One is whittling a piece of wood with a penknife. There are chopping boards laid out on a table, as if they will soon prepare the evening meal, and lounging on the sofa, Mordechai, a Hungarian man wearing all black, is reading about Sutton Hoo vikings. Occasionally he approaches someone to ask what a particular word means.
Later on in the evening he turns to me and explains why he came from protesting in Hungary to ‘Grow Heathrow.’ His words are inflected with both the history of viking warriors and his own history of activism. “I heard that Heathrow could be under attack very soon,” he says. “So it’s a kind of sleeping fortress. I am really amazed by the revolutionary importance of this site. Now the time has come that around Heathrow airport is going to be a battle field. This battle has been fought a couple of times. The government do not have enough power to build the airport. It looks to me like it’s going to be a very funny and easy battle. It is always funny and a bit dangerous, very fucking annoying, tiring. Your real power and humour must overcome theirs.” Far from being a sleepy, benign village where nothing much happens, according to Mordechai, the inhabitants of Sipson and ‘Grow Heathrow’ are preparing for war.