Campaigners claim victory as court orders review of runway expansion plan at Heathrow. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
Joss Garman, The Guardian
The distinguishing feature of the campaign was the way in which it galvanised people into repeatedly taking direct action
It was more than four years ago when George Monbiot wrote on these pages: "At last the battlelines have been drawn, and the first major fight over climate change is about to begin. All over the country, a coalition of homeowners and anarchists, Nimbys and internationalists is mustering to fight the greatest future cause of global warming: the growth of aviation."
Now the frontline in that battle, the third runway at Heathrow, has been officially cancelled, and so too have the new runways that Labour planned for Stansted and Gatwick. What began with a strong campaign by local people in west London whose communities were under threat from demolition and staggering levels of noise and air pollution, turned into a climate movement opposing airport expansion, and ultimately led to victory - and with it an example of Labour getting on the wrong side of the political argument.
It is telling that despite previously insisting Heathrow's expansion was absolutely essential to the prosperity of our country, in the hung parliament talks with the Liberal Democrats, Labour's team of negotiators seemed happy to have an excuse to drop the runway. Aside from anything else, as The Economist acknowledged, the economic arguments that represented the cornerstone of the government's case just didn't stack up. Bob Ayling, an unlikely green activist as the former chief executive of British Airways, said: "A third runway at Heathrow is against Britain's economic interests."
Even before the new Liberal-Conservative government was able to actually scrap the plans last week, the runway's future already looked more than shaky. The actress Emma Thompson and TV comic Alistair McGowan had joined Greenpeace in buying up the runway land from underneath Brown's nose in a plan McGowan termed "Operation Baldrick" on account of its cunning nature. Then last month's legal ruling of the high court judged the government's entire aviation strategy to be "untenable in law and common sense", and ordered the then transport secretary Lord Adonis back to the drawing board to come up with a policy that would be compatible with the Climate Change Act. Waiting in the wings just in case, was an army of green activists ready to lie down in front of bulldozers should the need arise.
Indeed, what distinguished this whole campaign was the way in which it mobilised people into repeatedly taking direct action. Who will forget Leila Deen throwing green custard over Lord Mandelson, or those protesters rebranding the House of Commons as "BAA HQ" from the roof of the Palace of Westminster to highlight the government's collusion with the air industry? John Stewart, the leader of the local residents group, HACAN, and the person who can take more credit than anyone for seeing off the runway says: "Direct action played an absolutely critical role in the campaign. Its edginess both dramatised the issues and plied new pressure on the authorities. It was when the Climate Camp came to Heathrow that the campaign literally went global."
The most powerful tool in the armory of the critics of the runway was the fact that a movement existed, comprising all sectors of society. From the local residents and their councils, to WWF and the RSPB, through to Greenpeace, Plane Stupid and the Climate Camp. Working together they took on the combined might of British Airways, the CBI, and the government, and won. It was the galvanising of this coalition, which explains the success of the Heathrow campaign. The triumph now surely ranks alongside the stopping of Kingsnorth as one of the biggest victories for the British climate movement so far, and reminds me of something the founder of Greenpeace, Bob Hunter, said in 1978. "Big change looks impossible when you start and inevitable when you finish."