Many hundreds came to see the options proposed for Stansted airport as presented by the Department for Transport on 30 and 31 August. On the Saturday, by mid-day, the queue stretched from the exhibition suite at the airport's Hilton Hotel right across the main reception area.
At the same time a demonstration against these proposals was taking place at the main entrance road to the hotel. It was led by Norman Mead, Chair of Stop Stansted Expansion and Alan Dean, Uttlesford District Councillor for Stansted. A forest of posters greeted vehicles turning into the hotel. Demonstrators held aloft red cards and chanted "NO NO" – "NO MORE RUNWAYS". It was all very restrained and very peaceful, the only disturbance being the noise of arriving and departing planes. The lone policeman chatted with Norman and the cameras clicked and a brief moment even reached the BBC TV "Look East", complete with the smiling children proclaiming "Save our village".
Then, suddenly, things changed - the hotel fire alarm sounded, the hotel was rapidly evacuated to the sound of loud speakers advising all to remain calm. More policemen appeared and ushered the demonstrators back to the hotel, and so lining the forecourt with NO MORE RUNWAY posters, together with the staff and the (probably) bewildered guests. (What did the tourists think? Would the airport be closed? Was this a terrorist threat? Or just another British oddity?) We awaited the arrival of the fire engines, which seemed somewhat tardy considering the possibility of a fire in a major airport hotel not too far from the fuel storage area. They were followed by a van load of policemen. The loud speakers continued to advise people to leave the hotel.
After a relatively short space of time we learnt that there was no fire, all was well. What happened? The Manager appeared - at first only guests and staff were allowed back. He was later heard claiming that one of the demonstrators must have interfered with the fire alarm, perhaps by inserting that little red card into some vital part. However, in spite of his suspicions, everyone was eventually allowed to return and business proceeded as before.
What about the exhibition itself? Councillor Alan Dean had managed to negotiate space in the Hotel reception area for a table for Stop Stansted Expansion objectors to dispense posters and leaflets. This must be an unusual event in the Hilton especially when associated with an official Government exhibition and the Manager must be congratulated for his initial decision, even though it appears that he may have had second thoughts! The table attracted most of the people who came to visit the exhibition and many departed with posters and leaflets, leaving a variety of comments behind.
The exhibition material was scanty. Visitors, after signing in, were presented with a single sheet providing 11 "Key Facts" ranging from statistics about the numbers of passengers using airports in the south east, to the key forecast of demand in 2030 of 300 mppa. (No mention that it is a somewhat disputed forecast.) Unlimited supplies of the consultation document were available as well as the CD Rom. The only materials on show were 6 large size maps, two for each of the proposed options that required one or more additional runways. For each option, one extra runway, two extra, and 3 extra, there was illustrated the land take required and, separately, in the second map, the predicted noise contours. Details were given of the number of houses that would be destroyed, the agricultural land needed, the number of people exposed to an average noise level of over 57 decibels – all the information which is given in the consultation document, but presented in a form that is easier to comprehend.
People living in Bambers Green, for instance, could see which option would destroy their village. People living in Henham, for example, could more clearly see the sweep of the new connecting road up to the M11 skirting round their village.
No attempt had been made to predict where a new railway to London would run. On questioning it was suggested that it "might" run alongside the existing WAGN line.
Neither was there any indication that the M11 would need widening from the Harlow junction up to the A11 turn off.
A few other written panels informed us of various points such as "Why are we consulting?", answered by the oft repeated phrase "Forecasts predict that demand will grow", "Evidence of a shortfall of runway capacity in the South East", "Other airports in Europe are expanding and there will be greater competition", "How much extra capacity is needed and where?", "What is a hub airport?"
- Nothing about Air Quality. (In answer to a question, why no maps? - "The predictions are that very few people will be affected by air quality exceedances" – but - the SERAS predictions are much less than the forecasts produced for the 25 mppa expansion application by the same consultants! - the answer - "well, computer predictions of air quality are very imprecise, only about 50% correct, and very dependent on weather patterns".
- Nothing about the inevitable extra houses, schools, hospitals, retail and other services required, for example, for 93,000 employees (the 4 runway option) – just a statement that some extra houses would be required! No maps showing the suggested expansion of Harlow, of Braintree, of the 'settlements' in West Essex or even of a proposed new town east of Stansted where all these houses could be built.
Nothing about the extra traffic - where are those predictions for 2015, 2030?
Nothing about the new flight paths - "They will have to be modelled for the CAA, a major exercise that would take years to produce".
Could any Government really be foolish enough to determine a 30 year airports policy without some idea as to the feasibility of actually routing aircraft in and out of the chosen airport? When even the District Council's consultants cast doubts upon the ability of the airspace to accommodate safely the number of flights required for 25 mppa.
How can those living outside the 57dB noise contour estimate how they will be affected? Would they be subjected to a continuous stream of overflying aircraft?
Our verdict on the exhibition. A minimal presentation. It cannot be described as a serious study of the effects of expanding an airport into a predominately rural area, urbanising the nearest stretch of genuine countryside for Londoners to visit and changing for the worse the way of life of thousands of residents. They may be fewer in number than in other areas such as Heathrow, but the life of every person is important, decisions should not be made on this kind of number comparison. Neither should the loss of the countryside be underrated. It has been preserved by good planning throughout the development of the present airport. That in itself has been an achievement. It should not now be sacrificed to the perceived needs of possibly non-existent air travellers.