‘That runway will be built over my dead body. And i mean that literally’

Tamsin Omond may not look like a threat, but her struggle against Heathrow’s third runway has fascinated the media. Emily Wright found out what she’s planning next, while overleaf we hear the pro-runway case from a rather more conventional figure …

Tamsin Omond is giggling uncontrollably. She has half a mushroom hanging out of her mouth after a very public toasted sandwich disaster, her chair is covered in shreds of lettuce and her lap is full of crumbs. Looking at her today, it’s hard to believe this elfin 24-year-old could become the construction industry’s worst nightmare.

Omond shot to fame in February last year after scaling the roof of the Houses of Parliament to protest against the proposed third runway at Heathrow. Although she didn’t stop the scheme from gaining approval, she quickly became the best-known member of Climate Rush, an all-female group inspired by the suffragettes. She is also part of Plane Stupid, an anti-airport expansion group that is engaged in a media battle with pro-runway organisations such as Future Heathrow, a trade union group led by Lord Soley. Her campaigns, protests and other imaginative public appearances – the most recent being a mass Victorian tea party in Heathrow’s Terminal 1 – have caused BAA and the government such a headache that neither would agree to be interviewed with her. Both sent emails saying that any other protester would be preferable.

And you can see why. Although her mannerisms are childlike to the extent that she even claps her hands over her eyes and shrieks when faced with a question she doesn’t want to answer, her passion for her cause knows little restraint. “That runway will be built over my dead body,” she says, sitting in her favourite Shoreditch bar. “And I mean that literally.”

“If the runway gets built, it undermines everything the UK is doing to stop climate change,” she goes on, rocking back and forth as she talks – her knees pulled up to her chest. “Unless planes that run on hydrogen exist – which they don’t – it will be impossible to meet our carbon reduction targets of 80% by 2050. The aviation industry alone will account for all of that. We have one of the best climate change policies in the world, but it is meaningless if this expansion goes ahead. I would do anything to stop it.”

Though she eventually concedes that dying for the campaign may be a step too far, she says if construction goes ahead Heathrow would become an “iconic site of struggle” and she would be prepared to stand in front of bulldozers. “I imagine blockades and camps. I don’t know what this would mean for construction workers, but I’d urge their trade unions to react in these circumstances. This should be a debate which involves them, too – they should already be looking at where we’re headed with climate change and be asking government why sustainable construction projects are not being provided and workers retrained.”

The obvious response here is one she knows is coming: what she is suggesting will affect a group of people that she is not a part of, and workers with mortgages and children can’t be as idealistic as a 20-something who camps out in juice bars with her laptop and lives in a vegan flat that doesn’t have a fridge. “Urgh,” she shrieks. “I know. I’m sure people are reading this and thinking, ‘How dare she’. But wouldn’t they prefer to choose? Because in years to come the government will realise how serious climate change is and people will be forced to change. Bosses will take their bonuses and run, leaving workers in the shit.”

She adds that preparing for a greener future now, complete with a more sustainable infrastructure, includes a high-speed rail link to Manchester. Omond believes this would remove much of the requirement for the third runway and that it would offer the construction industry green collar jobs instead of those on projects such as Heathrow. (This is, of course, what the Tories also think, and if they win the next election Omond may yet have her way.)

In years to come people will be forced to change. Bosses will take their bonuses and run, leaving workers in the shit

“When I say I don’t want a third runway at Heathrow I’m not saying I don’t think there should be any big infrastructure or construction projects over the next 10, 20, 30 years,” she says. “But I do believe that the only way to create jobs long term is to invest in and expand industries like construction to help workers and the environment. If the UK is to prepare for the effects of climate change, both by making our lifestyles more energy efficient and stopping coastal areas from going underwater, it’s going to take huge construction projects that will need to be government-led. And investment into this would be well advised during this recession, as energy efficiency will save everyone money. But for some reason we’re bailing out banks and the car industry instead.”

When it comes to exactly how this investment and retraining will be achieved Omond admits she is at a loss. “I wish I had the solutions in my hand,” she says, “but I don’t.” She says the country is in a catch-22, with people thinking that the government will deal with things as important as climate change and the powers-that-be waiting for popular support before feeling confident enough to act. “Grassroots activism is a first step towards breaking the deadlock,” she says.

And her thoughts on covering political figures like Peter Mandelson with green custard, as fellow Plane Stupid protester Leila Deen did earlier this month? “It’s not an action that I would do myself, but it makes a good point and forces politicians to defend their decisions. I will watch with interest to see who Leila slimes next,” she says, smiling.

Omond admits it’s hard to lead a normal life these days. Most police officers in London know her by name and her parents have seen her ripped apart by the press: her Oxbridge background and aristocratic ancestry have led to her being dubbed a posh troublemaker and a champagne Swampie. “I really don’t know what to do about it,” she shrugs. With no giggles or campaign talk, Omond seems at a bit of a loss. “It’s a lot to take on. I just try to be myself and ignore the bad things said about me. I sometimes feel lonely – like I’m screaming into a vacuum. I feel there should be more people getting involved. But then the numbers do keep rising and support is building up.

“That’s why I do all the press and the stunts – to keep the cause in the public eye. And if an article comes out where I look like a prat, well, then I was probably being a bit of a prat that day.”

‘Without it, There will be an unemployment disaster’’

He may lack the instant media appeal of Tamsin Omond, but Lord Soley makes up for this with his comprehensive collection of evidence in favour of expanding Heathrow.

Lord Soley
Credit: Michael Clement

‘If I stood up in the middle of the debating chamber and did a striptease, would I be on the front pages of the papers?” ponders Lord Clive Soley. “Probably. Do I want to win this fight that way? Of course not.” The fight he refers to is over the third runway at Heathrow – of which he is firmly in favour. And his suggestion of nudity in the House of Lords is a dig at some of the headline-grabbing stunts carried out by anti-expansion groups. “I do wish they would grow up,” he tuts. “You know some of them camped out in my front garden and decorated my house with bits of string?” He pauses and smiles ever so slightly. “They were all dressed as clowns for some reason.”

I do wish the protesters would grow up. You know some of them camped out in my front garden and decorated my house with bits of string?

Soley has a long and dignified history in politics. He became the Labour MP for Hammersmith in 1979 after spending his teenage years as a drifter in south-east London and putting himself through university in his mid-twenties. He retired from the House of Commons in 2005 when he was made a peer in the reform of the House of Lords and was approached to become chairman of Future Heathrow, the pro-expansion trade union group. He jumped at the chance and has been lobbying for the construction of the third runway ever since.

Compared with the antics of his opponents, Soley’s choice of approach is quiet and its real weapon is research. Speaking from his office in the House of Lords he is like a walking encyclopaedia of world airports, and he uses his index of facts and figures to outline why he thinks the expansion of Heathrow will be vital for maintaining construction jobs and the UK’s position in the global economy. And while he may not be prepared to climb onto the roof of the Palace of Westminster to make his point, he is working hard from the inside to make sure his case is heard.

His backing of the expansion comes down to two major arguments – unemployment and loss of investment, the first of which will affect the construction industry. “There are 72,000 jobs on the Heathrow site,” says Soley. “It’s the largest single site employer in the UK. And there are another estimated 100,000 jobs that depend on it remaining a premiere European hub, and on the building work that will be required to make this happen.” He says that without the expansion there will be an unemployment “disaster” in west London and Kent, where the infrastructure to support the third runway would be developed. “All those people, particularly in construction, will be at a loss as the infrastructure projects will come to a standstill if the airport doesn’t expand. All the houses, railways, hospitals, schools, the lot. The infrastructure is enormous for a hub airport of that size and it will be a mega problem for the building industry if plans don’t go ahead, just at a time when jobs are suffering.”

As well as job losses, Soley is concerned that without the third runway the UK could rapidly fall behind its European competitors in the global economic market through lack of investment. “When Chinese and Indian airlines want to invest in Europe, initially they look to London but there are no landing slots for aircraft. India’s Jet Airways wanted to locate itself in London when it started to fly to Europe, but had to go with Brussels and Paris instead because they couldn’t get landing slots here. All the people that then might be based here, all that business, is going elsewhere and not because these foreign markets want it to, but because no London airport can offer the right services.”

He adds that as the global economy suffers and shifts, continental European economies are fast becoming the world’s strongest and that being an island without first-class transport links is not a good idea: “We are not a central part of continental Europe and though we can’t move geographically, offering a good hub airport will be hugely beneficial. It would keep up interest in investment if businesses and individuals see that they can easily access other parts of the world from London.”

And Soley believes that if we don’t offer an effective hub that attracts more flights, then Heathrow could die within five to 10 years because of foreign airports waiting in the wings. “Heathrow used to be able to fly you to 220-230 destinations and can now only fly you to 180,” he says. “Amsterdam can fly you to 20 regional British cities, Paris can fly you to 19 and Heathrow can fly you to 8. If you look at Amsterdam’s website you will see it is actually already becoming Britain’s second hub airport. Just after Christmas it boasted flying one and a half million passengers from the UK. That’s because people coming from the UK fly on from Amsterdam instead of Heathrow.”

It seems Soley is set on a new runway. He dismisses suggestions of an alternative, such as building a new airport in the Thames estuary – something London mayor Boris Johnson is backing – or replacing it with a high-speed rail link to Manchester, as the Tories are proposing. “Building a new hub would mean the construction of three or four new runways instead of one, which makes little sense and a high-speed railway would still have an impact on the environment, would be incredibly loud for those living along the line and I don’t think preferable to living under a flight path.”

The rail link is also the favoured solution amongst eco-protesters – see Tamsin Omond, above – and, as the interview comes to a close, Soley has some final thoughts on this matter. “Some green campaigners are very responsible,” he says, “and I do have a lot of time for them. But groups like Plane Stupid and protesters like Tamsin Omond are not good for the environment. They create problems not solutions. On the day they scaled the Houses of Parliament, thousands of people from all over the country came to lobby MPs about the EU and didn’t get any coverage at all because of five young people who were fit and devious enough to get past security. What message does that send out to anyone wanting to stand up against the government democratically? Seventy-five-year-old pensioners who are angry about Europe are not going to be able to climb onto the roof of the House of Commons, you know,” he concludes, with satisfaction. Point made.