A decade after Swampy, environmental protesters are set to make a comeback. This time, their target is not the bypass but the runway, in a bid to scupper government plans for air travel expansion. We look at how contractors can avoid getting caught in the crossfire
If you were lucky enough to jet off on a summer holiday this year, it is highly likely that you travelled to your exotic destination by aeroplane. In fact the number of people taking advantage of ever cheaper flights is growing at such a rate that there are expected to be more than 500 million air passengers by 2030 - up from 180 million in 1998. To cope with this rise in demand, the government intends to expand Britain's airports' capacity by nearly 300%.

The plan is simple: a white paper will be released in the next three months identifying the best sites for development; airport operators and construction firms will then secure planning permission; and building will get under way. But actually getting those new runways built could turn out to be far from simple Developers face opposition from locals, and the hardcore road protesters of the early and mid-1990s - remember Swampy? - are stirring again, threatening to switch their attention to aviation.

Former eco-warrior Stig, a veteran of the Newbury bypass and Manchester runway protests, says the airport extensions could bring her cohorts out of retirement. "Aeroplanes are so much more polluting than roads," she says. "The obvious next step [for environmental campaigners] is to combat air travel. There are so many cheap flights now and everyone is flying everywhere. Lots of the former protesters are living in communes and doing political campaigns at a local level. But if they had a cause, they'd go back on site – they're still active. They haven't gone away."

In fact, the movement is already beginning to build again, according to anti-roads campaigners at the RoadWatch website: "Things are really moving again – there was a great action on the site of the Birmingham Northern Relief Road a few months ago when the original Twyford Down people occupied it, that really kicked the movement back into action. I'm sure the airports issue will bring new supporters into the movement, too."

Stig also emphasises that it is not just experienced campaigners who are up for the fight. "Hopefully this [airport expansion] will attract a new generation of protesters living on sites," she says. "The construction of Manchester Airport's second runway in 1997 caused huge protests. These new plans are so much bigger, it's bound to attract much more opposition. It's going to cause a big storm, definitely." And whereas anti-road protests could sometimes be calmed by re-routing a stretch away from controversial sites, there is little chance of this with new runways, she adds. "The old protests were partly anti-car, but they were also about the trashing of that particular bit of land. But the Manchester protest was simply about the fact that it was going to be a new runway."

There have not been any significant protests yet, but could this be the calm before the storm? A spokesperson for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association says construction companies haven't yet noticed disruption to their work from protesters, but he remains cautious. "Our members aren't concerned about it yet. It's quiet at the moment but it could spring up very possibly anywhere. In the 1990s it was a massive inconvenience – it's impossible to say how much delays could cost." A few committed activists would be able to delay work for weeks, he emphasises. "It only takes one Swampy to hold up a whole road – by tunnelling, for example. That's the most difficult protest technique to deal with."

And it seems that his caution is warranted. According to anti-airports campaigner Rowan, protesters could move onto threatened sites as early as Christmas. "An announcement as to which sites have pulled the short straw is expected towards the end of the year," she says. "That's when the protest camps will be set up - there's just not enough people to go round all the threatened sites at the moment, so it will have to wait until we know which ones definitely need fighting."

So what can construction companies do to minimise the hassle they may face from protesters? Pre-empt the problem with plenty of local liaison work before you move in, suggests Balfour Beatty. "We would do an environmental impact study as a matter of course; we also undertake consultation with the local community; and we now appoint community liaison officers," a spokesperson says. "You can try to secure your site against protesters, but we'd aim to avoid that situation arising in the first place."

However, if it is too late to implement such measures and the project is already facing well-organised and determined environmentalists, your main aim should be securing the site.

"The level of security you need will depend on the level of the threat, so get as much information as possible about the protesters beforehand. It's impractical to fence the whole of a long thin site like a road scheme, but you should have a visible security presence at certain key points, which will discourage them."

In the mid-1990s, contractors began to tackle controversial schemes in sections – clearing one section of protesters while building on another recently cleared area. This is one way of mitigating expensive delays. Another way is to collect intelligence on protesters, a contractor who did not wish to be named told Building. The client will have been aware of protesters' presence on the site for a long time and should be able to help. And obviously your own security has a vital role to play. "Security must alert the project team to the threat of protesters before they become encamped, because then they start to acquire legal rights and it's a lot harder to get rid of them," says Balfour Beatty's spokesperson. Specifically, once treehouses are in place protesters can claim legal residence on the site; treehouses have been officially recognised as dwellings since 1993, making it much harder to be evicted.

In the 1990s, environmental protests were a massive inconvenience – it’s impossible to put a cost on delays

Civil Engineering Contractors’ Association spokesperson

Security must alert the team to the threat of protesters before they are encamped, then they start to acquire legal rights

Balfour Beatty spokesperson

What’s the big problem with air travel?

  • Each person on a transatlantic flight causes as much pollution as driving a car for a year. Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of climate change, responsible for about 10% of current measurable changes.

  • Living near an airport is bad for your health. Planes produce toxic emissions including nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). US research has linked VOCs to increased rates of cancer around Chicago-Midway airport.

  • World Health Organisation studies have shown that aircraft noise can cause stress, psychiatric conditions and heart problems, and could impair children’s ability to concentrate. One in eight people in the UK are already affected by aircraft noise, and WHO noise limits are regularly exceeded.

  • To add insult to injury, the airline industry isn’t paying all its costs – airlines don’t pay tax on their fuel, and there’s no VAT on tickets or new aircraft.

  • Rail travel is more eco-friendly and is often quicker door-to-door for trips up to 1000 km. Shifting all the people travelling less than 1000 km from planes to trains would remove 30 million air passengers from the skies.

Protest site sequel: Revisting Twyford Down

The M3 extension was finally built on Tywford Down near Winchester in 1993, after a long and bitter battle with environmental activists. As compensation for the destruction of meadowland and hillside, then home secretary Malcolm Rifkind promised in writing that the old bypass would be returned to fields.

The area was grassed over 10 years ago and now supports more than 200 flowering plant species. It is easily accessible and well-used by the local community – but Hampshire council is “redeveloping” the area into a park-and-ride car park. Attempts to fight the plan in court have been unsuccessful, and a month ago several committed protesters set up camp next to the construction site, hoping to save part of the meadowland.

“We feel we’ve been conned,” says Bryan, a local man who was the first to set up camp. “They promised it as meadowland, we have it in writing from the minister at the time. Public opinion is 90% against this scheme. It’s not park-and-ride we oppose per se, it’s generally a good thing. But when they’re digging up meadows and rare butterfly habitats to do that, that’s not right.”

The council had two brownfield sites, either of which would have been an equally good location for the car park, the protesters say. So why was the meadowland chosen instead? “They came here because they wanted to build around the M3 motorway,” Bryan says. “The drainage they’ve fitted here is too big for just a park-and-ride, and the roundabout is massive. We think it’s going to be an industrial estate.”

So what has driven these protesters to take the extreme step of moving onto the site? “We’re blocking the link between the old park-and-ride and the new one. We have to raise the issue that the council are just going ahead and doing this against the wishes of the people.” The small group are determined to stay “until they physically drag us off”.

Unlike many protest sites, the eco-warriors’ experience of the contractors has been positive so far. “The company – and the security guards – aren’t the enemy,” says Newbury bypass veteran Kay. “They’re just doing their jobs. We’ve got no quarrel with the workers – it’s the people in white collars, the businessmen, who are telling them to do it.” And the protesters are quick to scotch the stereotype of environmentalists as dreadlocked out-of-towners with suspicious ulterior motives. “There are plenty of respectable folk who support this, it’s not just a bunch of wasters and agitators.”

So what will happen to their fledgling camp, complete with cooking fire, treehouse and entrance gate? Contractors Mildren were not available to comment, but it is unlikely that the protesters will win a reprieve for their little patch of nature, and they anticipate being evicted in October.

“This might just be a bit of chalk,” Bryan says wistfully, “but it’s my bit of chalk, and my family’s, and everybody’s. This is not just about the car park – they’re redeveloping loads around here. I know we can’t live without vehicles, but do I have to look at just concrete, all around me?”

Further information

www.roadalert.org.uk – lists of anti-road campaigns
www.airportwatch.org.uk – anti-airport campaigning
www.carbusters.org – anti-car campaign
www.transport2000.org.uk – promotes green transport policies
www.aef.org.uk – lobby group the Aviation Environment Federation Copse by Kate Evans – a history of the British road protest movement