HEATHROW Airport is the biggest passenger airport in the whole of Europe. Its expansion project failed spectacularly last year, leaving communities in Hillingdon desperate to rebuild after years of blight. Reporter DAN COOMBS met with owners BAA to discuss their plans for the airport, and importantly Sipson and Harmondsworth, where they have become the single biggest landlord in the villages.
THE owners of Heathrow Airport have said they have no intention of selling the 280 homes it now owns in Hillingdon while the Third Runway remains an option.
Airport owners BAA bought up the homes in the villages of Sipson and Harmondsworth last Summer, as part of a compensation scheme offered to residents affected by almost a decade of blight from R3.
Despite the cancellation of the scheme last Summer, and wavering opposition party support to Heathrow expansion, BAA still believe it is vital to the country's national interest.
In an exclusive interview with the Gazette, Nigel Milton, director of policy and political relations, said: "We are not going to sell the properties in the short term.
"We believe there is a strong economic case for additional airport capacity in the south east.
"The third runway is an option. While it remains an option, it would be premature of us to sell the properties.
"But we are not actively working on the third runway, or lobbying on its behalf.
"We admit in the past our image has not been the best, but going forward we want to be as open and honest as possible."
In the meantime the villages have been left in a period of transition, with residents complaining of a lack of community, and a perception of increased crime levels, but Mr Milton insists this is not the case, and BAA are committed to creating a vibrant village community.
"Last month I went into the lion's den which is Sipson Community Hall, and there was a lot of emotion.
"There are difficulties with village life across the country, post offices, and pubs close and are under pressure. People are a lot more mobile, don't just stick to one village, and travel into nearby towns.
"Social behaviour is changing and this is a reality of modern life. These problems are not exclusive to Sipson, although here these trends are may be more exaggerated.
"People who have moved out lived here a long time and were well known.
"Who has moved in? New people are strangers, with fear of the unknown people perceive that crime may be up but that's not the case and the police support our view.
"If any body breaches the code of conduct we agree they must sign up to, we can take the decision not to renew their lease 12 months later, and even take action sooner."
BAA were criticised at the meeting Mr Milton attended of not using 'local' workers from the villages to spruce up the properties, many of which needed plenty of work to bring them up to modern day standards. So far they have spent £850,000 on refurbishing the properties.
"For us that just is not realistic or practical, local workers to us means businesses in the five boroughs which surround Heathrow, and that is who we have chosen to employ.
"We have taken notice of complaints. We were told our contractors were starting work too early, causing noise and we've stopped that. We were also told that certain workers were staying overnight in the empty properties and we've made clear that is not to be repeated. Where valid complaints are raised we will take action."
While Mr Milton is fine to admit there have been plenty of fair points raised concerning BAA's impact on the villages of Sipson and Harmondsworth over the past decade, he is keen to stress the company is not responsible for everything wrong with the villages.
"Hillingdon Council have also accepted they neglected the villages, basic things needed work, starting with pavements and street lights, and they are now slowly starting to correct this.
"Also private landlords have also let certain properties go to rack and ruin, and people assume that's down to us, that these properties must be BAA properties, but often they are not."
When the compensation scheme was opened last May, it was offered to a total of 732 properties in the villages. A total of 280 home owners agreed to sell their homes, more than one third, with the offer above the then market price, feeling the offer was too good to refuse, and would not come again.
Of these 280, more than half, 145 transactions have been settled, and of these 118 have been occupied. There are still up to five cases of residents who missed last June's deadline who have since applied citing exceptional circumstances, either that they did not know about it, or missed the opportunity as they were in hospital. These applications are currently being considered and may be approved on the grounds of goodwill on BAA's behalf.
Local residents have indicated to the Gazette previously, and also at the recent meeting in the community hall, that who moves in is key to the villages' chances of prospering.
BAA say they are keen to attract families, with the OfSTED approved outstanding Heathrow Primary School in Harmondsworth Lane a certain factor in their favour. Ironically the school was one of the many buildings which would have been demolished if plans for a third runway and sixth terminal at Heathrow had gone ahead.
"For now the challenges are looking at how can we make sure there is a sense of community, and that does mean encouraging the new people to take advantage of the services available in the villages, but what they do eventually is down to them."
"We want to get families in, airport workers are also offered a 20 per cent discount, and we are in discussions to extend this to key workers."
They are renting out the properties through West Drayton based estate agents Campsie.
"We essentially get to take our pick of who lives here, and we want to make it work."
With such great responsibility, comes pressure, and with residents naturally sceptical about BAA's long term vision for the villages, they will be quick to seize on any problems.
One carrot the new owners are dangling in front of residents, is the fact they now own one commercial property in Harmondsworth, and wish to re-let it as a community resource.
The site at 45 Holloway Lane was an old timber yard, and was vacated around a year ago. BAA have pledged to clean up the site, and pay for any costs involved in making it usable for a community facility of the community's selection. This would involve any change of planning condition, which currently stipulates it must be used for light industrial use only.
"We will pay for the refurbishment, we want to hear suggestions about what it can be used for.
"We've already been told we don't want it to be a nursery, for all the cars it would attract, but one suggestion was that it could be a dotcom style internet café, like the one in West Drayton, and act as a centre point for the villages, but this is just a suggestion at this point, we want to hear more, and get a range of views from different people, and then we will look at how we decide."
One option is that the property could become a base for a community development worker, funded by the Hillingdon Community Trust.
The HCT was set up in mid-2003 with BAA as a charitable trust, to spend £1 million of the airport operator's money on six borough wards north of Heathrow, as a condition of Terminal 5 getting the go ahead.
The trust have been working hard to establish practical ideas for Sipson and Harmondsworth over the last few months, and believe funding a community development worker is the most practical option.
This worker will be able to promote and lobby directly on behalf of the villages and their residents. The trust also decided at their recent board meeting, to approve funding for flower planting across Harmondsworth in conjunction with the Harmondsworth Village Allotment Society to brighten up the environment.
Despite all this money being available, and it has been spent wisely with community groups, BAA admit there are little visible physical signs of its investment in the villages.
Previously there had been a reluctance from anybody, househunters and businesses alike, to invest any money in Sipson and Harmondsworth with the threat of the third runway hanging over them.
In plenty of ways, residents feel it still is, and will do, while BAA own more than one third of the properties in the villages. Council Leader Ray Puddifoot has already called on BAA to sell. Villagers feel the project is dead in the water and think BAA should give up on it too. Politically, the main parties are currently dodging the issue.
The Government last month launched an 'aviation scoping report'. This will consult on emissions and aircraft noise, and is the first step towards a review of the country's busiest airports.
Industry figures insist there is an travel capacity problem that must be addressed, most likely with an extra runway at one of London's airports.
A group of 74 business leaders wrote an open letter to Transport Secretary Philip Hammond this month criticising, overcrowded airports and warning that Britain's lucrative international air links are in danger, accusing the Government of ignoring the issue of air transport. Heathrow offers 183 destinations but once offered 200. They feel the controversial issue is being sidestepped for now with HS2 a priority. The opposition, who wanted the third runway, are also quiet on the subject.
Mayor Boris Johnson has even suggested building a new airport entirely in the Thames Estuary. While this presents its own set of problems and dilemmas, Nigel Milton is keen to stress that any step forward which involves Heathrow not being London's number one airport would be devastating for the local economy. One in 14 residents in Hillingdon works at the airport.
"Businesses would decide to move away from Heathrow to the new airport, which would see a reduction in jobs. It would be bad for West London as a whole."
Stockley Park in West Drayton exists in principle because of its convenient location for large businesses such as Apple and BP, located minutes from Heathrow.
Until a decision is made by any ruling Government to built elsewhere, BAA have made clear they consider that the third runway will remain an option on the table, whether it is under formal consultation or not.
For now, Mr Milton has pointed out a more pressing blight on the village of Harmondsworth.
The high speed rail route from London to Birmingham currently being consulted on will eventually contain a link to Heathow Airport.
This will take shape in the form of loop, heading off at Northolt, in the direction of the airport, and it is likely much of this will be underground, and require tunnelling. As yet, no concrete plans have been revealed in terms of a route, and will not be until next year at the earliest.
The problem is that it is impossible for residents to judge how they will be affected, without any way of being able to see which route the rail loop will take, but Mr Milton is confident Heathrow villagers have a right to be concerned on the matter.
"Harmondsworth is also now suffering blight of high speed rail, with any tunnelling likely to affect it. We are of course aware of the situation."