An environmental coalition led by Greenpeace has thrown a monkey wrench into expansion plans for London's chronically congested Heathrow Airport.
The group, which includes Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson and prominent comedian Alistair McGowan, announced Tuesday it had purchased a plot of land on ground earmarked for a proposed third runway at Europe's busiest airport.
Greenpeace director John Sauven said the new owners will never sell the property, roughly half the size of a football field, to the government or the airport operator.
"The legal owners of the site will block the runway at every stage through the planning process and in the courts," he said. "They will never sell the land to Spanish-owned airport operator BAA, and if it comes to it many thousands of people will be prepared to peacefully defend their field in person, standing in front of bulldozers and blocking construction."
The land was purchased for less than 25,000 pounds ($36,500) in the village of Sipson, where hundreds of family houses will be destroyed if the runway project goes forward. Campaigners wrote "Our Climate Our Land" on the property in giant letters Tuesday.
The surprise delaying tactic came as Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Cabinet were wrangling over whether to support plans for a multibillion pound third runway project.
Brown's spokesman, Michael Ellam, said a much-delayed decision on the runway plan would be announced this month.
He said the government had already agreed in principle to add capacity at Heathrow if it does not lead to Britain violating European air pollution targets.
"The decision when it comes will not only be about Heathrow, but include announcements on wider transport and infrastructure projects," Ellam said.
The Cabinet appears divided over the issue, which pits environmental concerns — and Britain's commitment to controlling climate change by reducing carbon emissions — against economic growth and job creation.
Some supporters believe the runway would help create 65,000 new jobs.
Advocates say the new project would allow Heathrow to maintain its prominence as an international hub while opponents say it would scuttle Britain's ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions.
Some opponents within the government, including some Labour Party legislators, say Heathrow needs money spent on linking it to a high speed rail network rather than another runway.
Thompson, one of Britain's best-known actresses, said she had joined the group that purchased the land because it was "hypocritical" for the government to promise to reduce greenhouse gases while greatly increasing air traffic capacity.
"I don't understand how any government remotely serious about committing to reversing climate change can even consider these ridiculous plans," she said, vowing that the new owners would move to the property and defend it if necessary.
Bid to delay before election
The expansion plan has also sparked fierce opposition from legislators representing towns and villages that would be adversely affected by the increased air traffic.
One of the new land owners, Conservative Party environmental adviser Zac Goldsmith, said the coalition hopes to use the land to slow down and ultimately kill Heathrow expansion.
"Eventually the government will probably be able to buy the land through compulsory purchase, but the question is how long it will take them," said Goldsmith, who plans to run for Parliament from Richmond Park, one of the affected districts. "I think this one single act will prevent anything from happening before the next election."
He said that could effectively end the expansion plan since the Conservative Party, which enjoys a healthy lead in opinion polls, opposes construction of a third runway. Britain's next general election must be held by the middle of next year.
The third-party Liberal Democrats are also against the expansion plan, as is London Mayor Boris Johnson.
"I'd like to see any decisions, or any kind of work, delayed until after the election," said Goldsmith. "We're telling any contractors or workers to be very careful about getting involved because the Conservative Party will end this project if it wins."
Greenpeace posted a notice on its Web site Tuesday urging supporters to sign up to become legal owners of the property on the deeds in a bid to make it more complicated for the British government to take the property or negotiate its purchase.