Nearly a decade ago, the Labour government announced they were backing proposals to build a third runway at Heathrow.
This news – being, as it was, also news that CO2 emissions would be hugely increased – didn't go down too well with climate campaigners, who've done all sorts of things to demonstrate against the plans, including: setting up a weeklong protest camp in 2007, climbing on top of the Houses of Parliament and unfurling two large opposition banners in 2008, and chucking custard at Peter Mandelson in 2009.
The most enduring protest action, however, has been that of Grow Heathrow, a collective of activists and campaigners who have spent the past five years both promoting sustainable living and demonstrating against the Heathrow expansion. In 2010, with support from locals, the group occupied a derelict plot of land in Sipsom, a village that will be completely tarmacked if the plans go ahead.
Since moving in, they've transformed the space – which used to be a bit of a shithole – into a ideal example of sustainable living and community spirit. When I arrived for the birthday celebrations last week I saw the plot was packed with fully-functioning DIY greenhouses, thriving workshop spaces and a bunch of innovative creations that allow residents to continue living off-grid, like a bike-fuelled washing machine and their well-maintained "humanure" system.
Towards the end of the day I had a chat with Cameron Richardson, a Grow Heathrow activist, to talk through the project and the threat of eviction.
VICE: Hi Cameron. Can you run me through how Grow Heathrow came to be?
Cameron Richardson: It came from [the Heathrow] Climate Camp in 2007. There was a group of activists there who were really inspired by that, and they decided they needed to fight this fight. They moved into a rented house down the road and started Transition Heathrow with the local community, against the third runway. They were invited by the local residents to squat this bit of land that was originally an illegal scrap yard and source of antisocial behaviour. Over five years we've transformed it into this amazing community project.
We have a great relationship with the local residents from Sipson, Harlington, Harmondsworth and all the Heathrow villages. We run workshops and we actually use this space, where it was disused before. Neither us nor the local residents want a third runway; it would destroy this area and it would be a climate catastrophe. That's what binds us all together. The local people have been fighting this Heathrow expansion for 60 years and more – Some have been living here since before mechanised flight.
I understand this as a protest site, but it also feels a bit like a human experiment.
It's an alternative on your doorstep. We're trying to develop a life without reliance on oil. All of our heat is produced by wood; our shower is wood; there's the straw bale house, which is carbon negative as opposed to carbon positive, which most modern buildings are. We're not confessing to this being "the way", we're just showing examples of things that could lead to living a life without dependence on oil. In the space of where they want to build a climate disaster, we have built something that is the exact opposite.
Has anything changed with the legality of you being here?
There are two land owners here. We were meant to be in court on the 19th of February for this back bit of land with Lewdown Holdings Ltd, a faceless company registered in Guernsey. But we got a three-month adjournment so we're definitely here for another three months. We've been to court about the front bit of land and there's an eviction warrant on it, but when we were supposed to get evicted the bailiffs didn't show up. Residents from all of the surrounding villages came down to support. When we go to court in May we have local people with witness statements, as well as ourselves, going along. We've always had fantastic local support.
So the bailiffs are letting you off for now?
Well, they could come any time. We're not under any illusions about that. We have our preparations for that. But [squatting] isn't the main focus of Grow Heathrow; that's not our primary thing. We are here as a community project. The local residents and us want it to stay, and that's why it's been here so long.
Can you talk me through some of the sustainable features you have here?
We use a lot of bikes. Bikes are really good for using your energy efficiently, getting a lot more out of what you put in. One of the best examples of sustainable building is our shower; it's fed by the mains but has a radiator on top of a fire, which heats the water through convection, much like a boiler does to a tank in your house, but we use fire instead of gas. It's completely green; we use zero carbon. It's all built from materials that were found or donated to the site. This is just one of the many ways that you can live off-grid and still be clean and warm.
A lot of it appears to be foraged bits and pieces of rubbish.
It's upcycling and recycling. It's creating something positive out of society's waste. We take something that's negative for a community – waste, and what was essentially a car breaker's yard – and we turn it into something positive, where people can learn how to live sustainably. The straw bale house was built through a series of workshops where the community came and helped us build it. As a result, there are a lot of people in the villages that know the basic principles of building a straw bale house.
How do you keep it safe?
Interesting question. We have an ethos of working together, fighting the third runway and living sustainably. This is the difference between a squat and a project. To live here you have to buy into what the project is about. We all live and work through consensus, where we find the middle-ground between everyone collectively. So everyone is happy. We keep it safe by working together, and everyone needs to agree on whether someone can live here or not, based on the fundamental values behind the site. It's a working project; it's not somewhere you just come and live.
Do you ever fall out?
Yes, of course, sometimes. In the real world, if you fall out with somebody at work you can go home and forget about it, whereas here you see them all day and have to work together helping each other out. So you have to learn to get along and be patient.
How has your time here been?
My time here has been great! It's so nice to live communally and work communally. It's a different way of living. The benefits here aren't just for the community, they're also for yourself. It's about how you interact with the world. It's a different way of interacting with space and with people. Everybody tries to help each other out here all the time, which doesn't always happen in the real world. It's a great place to live. I would encourage anybody interested to come down to Grow Heathrow, or similar spaces like Yorkley Court in the forest of Dean. They're facing eviction on the 12th of March for doing something very similar to us.
What have you got to say to the heads of Heathrow?
They've been trying for decades to get a third runway and it's been rejected every time. It's got to stop. The wider community don't want it. There's a way of life that has been here since way before the airport. The residents aren't asking for the airport to be shut down, they want to live with the airport. We are not a threat to the airport, but the airport is a threat to the climate and the people that live here. You can't have an expanding aviation industry, which is what the government are planning, and meet our 2020 or 2050 CO2 targets – it just doesn't work. It's time to stop bullying the community. On environmental and community grounds, this runway should never be built.
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