As far as off grid low impact community projects go, grow Heathrow is probably one of the most politically controversial as well as being one of the most well known. When a group of people decide to reject consumer capitalism, start growing their own fruit and vegetables, generating their own energy and opting for community living over the daily grind in an increasingly alienating and individualistic society, it does indeed turn a few heads. But to do all this on someone else’s land on the edge of the small village of Sipson (a town ear marked for demolition should Heathrow airport’s proposal for a third runway get the go ahead), puts Grow Heathrow right inside the belly of the beast as a spiky change making activist thorn! They are a peaceful and steadfast presence in the area and have been for around 5 years since a group of ‘anti airport expansion’ activists decided to usurp the untended plot known as Berkley Nurseries (it used to be some kind of garden centre). They have cleared 30 tonnes of rubbish from the site, built eco structures, and attracted thousands of people through its courses and workshops on permaculture, activism and spirituality. They are the physical expression of Transition Heathrow driven to bolster the resilience of Sipson, Harmondsworth and other villages fighting against Heathrow expansion.
There have been murmurings that plans for a third runway at Heathrow might be back on the table after plans were dropped in 2010 after a 10 year campaign battle was won by a coalition of activists, local resident groups and national environment groups under the umbrella movement ‘Airport Watch’ http://www.airportwatch.org.uk/. With yet more talk of airport expansion in West London, meaning hundreds of homes to be destroyed, Heathrow becoming arguably the biggest CO2 emitter in the UK, greater noise and air pollution and another 150,000 people under the new flight path, it is no surprise that when Grow Heathrow had its eviction notice given for 8 am on August 15th, they were going to make a scene!
The day before the eviction, around 200 friends, activists, campaigners, local residents and Grow Heathrow residents past and present filled in to show solidarity with Grow Heathrow and everything it has stood for over the years. They ran workshops on the airport expansion campaign, rights and legal standing for protesters and a workshop on trauma from direct action. I spent one hour listening to a local resident from Harmondsworth talk about her involvement with the residents group HACAN http://hacan.org.uk/ and the 70 year struggle to stop Heathrow from expanding. You could see that she was tired; tired of constantly battling, tired of the noise, tired of Heathrow lies and deception and tired of being referred to as a NIMBY. She has an elderly mother who lives in a cul-de-sac in Harmondsworth which under new Heathrow boundary proposals would not officially be up for demolition, but as you can see from this map:
For all intents and purposes the people living in this cul-de-sac, would be living inside the airport! They will have Boeing 747s taking off not only in their back yards (which they have been doing for years) but now right on their front doorstep too! I had never been particularly aware of the resident’s plight around airports having been more concerned with the obvious environmental problem that comes with an insatiable appetite for flying and airport expansion. Now I have lived next to the airport at Grow Heathrow, listening to the regular roar of planes (which occasionally interrupted the workshops!). I have listened to local residents in the area, some of whom have been living there for generations (before Heathrow even existed). These are villages that face being torn in half. Half will have their homes bought for market price +25%, the other half will be left with nothing but noise. The only people who want to buy property in the area are landlords who will fill the houses with workers from the airport. This makes it yet harder for campaign groups like HACAN to drum up support in the community … they don’t even know who their allies are anymore.
This struggle is at the heart of what Grow Heathrow is about. They are also about showing what is possible when you chose to go off grid and live in a community, their very presence throws up big questions around land access and ownership. They call themselves a community project and I believe that their solidarity with groups like HACAN play an important part in staying connected to the community. But I would probably say that Grow Heathrow is more of a community hub for people who are already aligned with environmentalism or activism, and they come from all over the country to attend. They are a colourful sight, as one local resident said to me: “It makes us look more colourful!” But to forge really strong connections as a community project, I believe that Grow Heathrow would have to be less overtly different from its surroundings. People need to feel safe to get involved and unless you are a staunch activist anti airport campaigner, you are probably not going to take a wonder down to Grow Heathrow.
Who knows what the future of Grow Heathrow might be. I believe they have so much potential and should they manage to keep the plot, I sense that there will be a time of transition and re-establishing of collective vision. There has been tension and conflict within the community, some long standing residents have left, and there is a lot of work to do if they are going to become an invaluable connected part of the community. After an early start on the 15th, everyone was involved in something: Locking on to concrete blocks, making lunch, singing, planting outside the front gate…I was involved in making pedal powered smoothies for press and bailiffs, but the bailiffs never turned up!
Behind the main gate a piano barricade poured out fun tunes and songs were sung for several hours until it was decided that we had achieved the desired result. For now at least, Grow Heathrow has not been evicted!