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Monday, 29 July, 2002, 08:39 GMT 09:39 UK
Living under a sky of sound
It was the sudden, thunderous roar of a 747 over his Clapham flat in 1996 that was to change the course of John Stewart's life forever.
That area of south London was seldom bothered by airliners landing at Heathrow. Aircraft noise was the inconvenience experienced by an unlucky group of residents who lived in the west of the capital, on the edge of the runways.
But soon after that fateful day, as the "sky of sound" got louder and its range stretched to areas as south east of London as Greenwich, Mr Stewart realised that he could not just simply allow it to continue.
"It was do something, or go slowly mad," he said ruefully.
Using his skills as, ironically, a land-based transport adviser, he and a group of some 50 other beleaguered residents got together to form ClearSkies - a pressure group that would bang the drum for peace.
Six years on and Mr Stewart is chairman of Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (Hacan) ClearSkies, boasting a membership of 25,000.
Together they have fought the campaign against the building of Terminal 5. While they lost the battle, they won concessions to limit numbers of aircraft flying into and out of the UK to 480,000.
Now the group faces an even bigger threat with Transport Secretary Alistair Darling's plan to add an additional shorter runway to Heathrow.
But, the group's biggest success to date is getting a European Court of Human Rights ruling last year in favour of eight residents who claimed the nightly flights were an unjustifiable infringement of their human rights.
But the group has warned that it is prepared to take direct action if ministers ignore their pleas for a decent night sleep or if the aircraft limit is exceeded.
For Mr Stewart, the fact that as many as 500,000 Londoners have to put up with constant noise pollution is incentive enough to carry on with the campaign to stop night flights.
"It dominates your life," he said. "The one place you feel you can escape from the bustle of the world is your own home. Once you shut your door, that's it, you have shut out the world.
"But this noise invades every part of your home, almost every part of your being and you just feel there is no escape.
"I would effectively be woken up from about 5.30am. I got to know everything about farming because that was what was on the radio at that time of day.
Mr Stewart stressed: "Often people are told: 'You can move away', but the truth is a lot of people just can't.
"People on very low incomes don't have the choice, old people, disabled people and people with families. They are stuck because of their situation."
The amiable 52-year-old clearly remembers the moment in 1996 when his life and career literally took off.
He had lived in Clapham since 1980 and never really thought about planes.
"They didn't impinge upon my life. They were the sort of things that happened in West London. I would visit Richmond for a day out, but I wouldn't live there because it was too noisy.
"But one night it was almost bed time and I suddenly heard this noise. I thought thunder - how odd? It hadn't been raining.
"It couldn't be an explosion, but I could see these planes coming over. I thought they must have been diverted.
"I foolishly believed this will just go away, but of course it didn't.
"The planes suddenly started coming over my flat, sometimes one every 90 seconds. On a bad day they came throughout the day."
As a transport adviser, Mr Stewart realised taking on the system would be "one hell of a task". "I even thought: 'Do I really want to do this?'"
But his decision was made after returning to the melee from a peaceful month away in his native Scotland.
"I just thought: 'No, this has got to stop'. Other people were talking about it and I knew something had to be done."
At the same time, across in West London, Hacan realised that after years of working "within the system", it would have to try another avenue if its campaign was going to achieve results.
"The members were terribly polite, reasonable and terribly Richmond like really," said Mr Stewart. "But their illusions were shattered by the fact a promise had been made limiting the number of flights following Terminal 4 and it had been ignored."
Next on the horizon was the 1995 public inquiry into Terminal Five. It was the impetus Hacan - and latterly with ClearSkies - needed to take another tack.
"A decision was taken to fight the inquiry, majoring on the problem of noise," said Mr Stewart.
"At the same time we started legal proceedings on the night flights and we went through the British courts and then the European Court of Human Rights.
"We never say it would be better if air traffic was moved to another airport, but we know there are other areas that would welcome the custom."
The Terminal 5 inquiry over and Hacan ClearSkies realised that while its reactive voice had been heard - it was now time to be pro-active.
Mr Stewart started to devise short and snappy reports on the group's activities, even attracting national press attention when members, posing as house buyers, found that 60% of estate agents failed to mention that certain properties were under the flight path.
In May the protesters, together with a cross-party group of MPs, launched a coalition to put pressure on the government to ban night flights to Heathrow Airport.
Explosion of airports
It is now linking up with other residents' organisations who live close to airports across the continent and has formed the European umbrella group UENCA.
"The idea is to try to show the British government in our case, but Europe more generally, that there is a significant protest around Europe about the explosion of airports," said Mr Stewart.
"For all of us, the current number of planes is a problem, whether it is noise or emissions."
"But if the government completely disregards the 480,000 flight limit, or it goes ahead with a third runway and at the same time night flights continue, it will mean that residents views don't really matter," said Mr Stewart.
"If that happens, then, I think, it would be justifiable for Hacan ClearSkies to look at blockading the airport or something like that because it seems to me there would be no other way of beating the system.
"Direct action has been shown to work - look at the poll tax protests and the fuel protests," Mr Stewart added, wistfully.
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