Final Bell: protestors at Harmondsworth in 2007 when it was under threat of being bulldozed for a Heathrow third runway. (Photo: Getty)
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Will Self: A field trip to Heathrow via Harmondsworth Great Barn

A picturesque anomaly near the airport, ever waiting to be submerged by the tarmac of runway three.

It’s a blustery grey day on top of the short-stay car park at Heathrow Central. Down below us the new Terminal 2 building is taking shape in a series of steely whale ribs and arabesques. It doesn’t look like it will turn out to be anything much, but then nothing in the built environment nowadays looks like anything much; or, rather, it all looks like too much – too much airy embellishment, too many wave-form roofs, too many great expanses of curved glass parametrically wrapped around hideous atria. At least Heathrow has this solid virtue: it’s an almost historic airport that has been subjected to over half a century of chopping, changing and concrete-pouring, so that its ugly hugger-mugger of buildings replicates the very disorder of the unplanned metropolis it was never properly designed to serve.

Heathrow is the fons et origo of British spatiality. It was here in 1784 that Captain William Roy measured out a baseline that became the starting point for all subsequent trigonometric surveys of the country. These grew in the years following his death to become the Ordnance Survey. Note the “ordnance” – Roy’s mapping was for military purposes, and really our commonsensical internalised sense of rational, three-dimensional space relates to the ballistics of death-metal.

At either end of Roy’s baseline stands a memorial cannon, and not far from the one in Heathrow (the other end of the line is at Hampton) is the café frequented by London cabbies doing the airport run. There’s a nice circularity to it, all those cab drivers with their posterior hippocampus enlarged by sopping up the exhaustive Knowledge of the capital’s streets and public buildings, homing in day after day on this: the point at which accurate mapping began.

We’d set our sights on Heathrow because, for the second year in succession, I was taking a group of my psychogeography students to visit the Great Barn at Harmondsworth, then walk back from there, through the watery edgelands to our campus near Uxbridge. We like to think that space is a predetermined category into which objects fit, just as events can be slotted inside incremental time – but of course this is the kind of nonsense we psychically resist the whole time. The psychoanalyst manqué Adam Phillips asserts: “All of us may be surrealists in our dreams, but in our worries we are incorrigibly bourgeois.” To which I would add: all of us may be Newtonian in our daily go-round of calibrating time, distance and money, but in our minds we are transcendent disciples of Einstein.

The problem is to actualise this innate grasp we have of the relativity of space-time, and to that end I lead the students down off the car-park roof and on to the U3 bus, which chugs back through the tunnel under the runway and drops us on the peripheral road. A short walk across a dormant field and we’re in the village of Harmondsworth. This picturesque little anomaly, with its flinty church and whitewashed pub, has long been under threat of submersion beneath a third Heathrow runway – a threat that, though temporarily lifted, still hangs in the sky overhead, like a cloud of tarmac in suspension, waiting to pour down and heat-seal a new Pompeii. We liaise with Justine Bayley, a local resident and one of the leading lights of Friends of the Great Barn, who has agreed to show us round.

The Great Barn was built in the early 1500s and is the largest timber-framed building in England. John Betjeman, in between calling for air strikes on Slough, described it as the “Cathedral of Middlesex”. The barn’s history recapitulates the sorry deterritorialising tale of our property rights. Built by a religious foundation – Winchester School – it was briefly in royal ownership, and then passed through the hands of only three families over the next half-millennium; it was still actively used for its original agricultural purpose as late as the 1970s. However, in recent years, property speculators bought up the barn, bargaining on a profit to be gained from its compulsory purchase in the event of the government deciding to build runway three. It languished until English Heritage managed to acquire it – but what they’re going to do when the ’dozers come a’rolling is anyone’s guess.

The barn is a beautiful structure that looks like very little. Its oaken pillars and mighty trusses instantiate a unity of form and function that endured through time because the productive basis of its spatiality remained unchanged: the sheaves of wheat that were piled along the earthen floor of its nave; wheat that was harvested where Airbuses now bombinate. Not, I hasten to add, that I bring my students here out of nostalgia for a time and mode of production that none of us ever knew – my aims are as contemporary as those of any Gate Gourmet worker stirring up a mess of airline pottage in a steel barn. By getting my students to use their own bodies to mediate between these two very different spaces, I hope to detach them from the man-machine matrix that keeps us all calculating our mileage allowance, rather than simply wandering through the world.

Three hours later when, muddy and footsore, they stagger back to the university, I think I can spy just such an epiphanic consciousness flickering in their young faces – but then again it could be just me who’s hopelessly spaced-out.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.