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Grow Heathrow: here to stay?

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OT: What is Grow Heathrow? What’s it about and how linked are you to the transition town movement?

Paddy: Grow Heathrow is a squatted market garden in the centre of where the third runway was due to be built. Our project was set up by Transition Heathrow which was a sort of the mother project which aims to create a resilient, sustainable space in the community that can survive many generations, survive any shocks or attacks it might face. Grow Heathrow as a project shares those aims but also has quite particular geographical space in which it does that.

OT: The site we are in is right on the outskirts of London. Do you feel part of the city, or apart from the city?

Paddy: I feel like we’re on the edge. Permaculture is a set of principles that we try to use at Grow Heathrow and Transition Heathrow. A Permaculture principle holds that the edge is the most productive space, the space where two worlds meet. In this case, it might be the city and the countryside or our way of running things here and the industrial complexes seen at Heathrow and the M25 and M4. We’re on the edge. That’s a where a lot of the power comes from, but also a lot of difficulties.

OT: Would you say that’s a point from which you can resist? Is it a defensive line to prevent encroachment or that the changing nature of the space makes it less stable?

Paddy: It’s all of those things really. Speaking for myself, I’m an urbanite. I grew up in the city. So, if we take me as an example, what happens when someone from the city, or people in the city, meet the countryside? Not just by going out to the country and being overwhelmed, but what happens on the edge space? And that’s quite productive. Suddenly, a lot of my ideas can be applied to this space but within the concept of living among wild plants and animals, which is new. It creates a different perspective to everything I’ve done before. Let’s take the building materials for this building. If we lived in the woods in the middle of Wales, we wouldn’t have the building materials because we wouldn’t be able to go out to all of these skips where people just drop something off from the city; all of it’s waste that we’re making use of. So, we’ve knocked this space up, with no money because there’s that waste. But we’d not be able to knock it up without this space, and this space is open land. It’s a countryside of sorts. That’s a productive space.

OT: What does sustainability mean? From going round the camp it seems you are remarkably sustainable in areas of food, energy and housing.

Paddy: Sustainability is a good word, isn’t it, because it’s much abused nowadays. The word that we’ve also been using is resilience. The transition movement is quite interested in the idea of resilience. In terms of sustainability and resilience, I personally and somewhat collectively hope that we take the approach of the Native American style of thinking which is that you consider the impact of your decisions seven generations on. And when you’re thinking about something and trying to make a decision, you look back seven generations for guidance. Seven generations back in my home, my community, my family, who am I talking about? Where will the seventh generation from me be? For me that’s what sustainability really means, and if we’re going to have resilient communities, that’s how we need to think. It’s something I aspire to, I’m learning how to do it because it’s such an alien concept.

OT: That word, resilience, is interesting too, as one being used in those glossy, global capitalist conferences where crisis is seen as a systemic norm. ‘How do we teach people resilience’ etc. Do you see it as a transformative thing that can actually challenge this logic, or is it inevitable?

Paddy: I think the most interesting work on this is being done in the transition movement, where they really focus on resilience and community resilience. On a very basic level, they’re saying: how can we plan for a time 30 years from now when, on a very practical level, we’re able to operate in a healthy way as a community without fossil fuels and an abundance of oil? How can we do that without a reliance on outside agency and without relying on governments or some giant corporate aid structure? In terms of fossil fuels, I guess that is a certain definition of resilience. But once you start trying to do that then resilience expands, because that’s actually really hard. It requires total transformation of how we live, in the West, to ways which we have forgotten and ways which don’t yet exist.

And so resilience becomes this massive question. In the three and a half years we’ve lived on this site whole areas of life opened up to me which I just didn’t even begin to factor in. The largest factor has been our Wellbeing Group. We knew we were going to be into using non-fossil fuels and DIY, skill sharing, building and growing food and so on. These ideas were all present at the start of the project. But the idea of having to learn how to cope with living in a collective where one person’s emotional trauma from their childhood starts fucking up your life and everyone else’s interactions on a daily level… how do you begin to deal with that? You have to learn a whole load of stuff, around psychology, psychotherapy, group dynamics, stuff that none of us who started the project had a clue about. Stuff that we’ve had to learn in order to survive. So that all becomes part of what it means to be resilient, how do you do that as a collective? For me, this has been the largest area of learning.

OT: So could you say you’re developing an infrastructure for a sustainable resistance. Are you anticipating a greater crisis? If you’re learning to live and work collectively and build a culture where you have this resistance, does that feedback into the city?

Paddy: I think some people would look at it like that. I suppose I’m more pessimistic. There’s a common trope around here of ‘getting ready for the apocalypse’. It’s a bit post-apocalyptic, the world we’ve created here. I guess how I see it… if everything unravels just a bit… power structures as they are, resistance movements as they are… then the things that are resilient enough to survive, their politics will be quite powerful, their ways of doing things quite influential. And so, if we can create something strong enough to survive with the political values that we hold, then hopefully that can be recreated in a time of greater need. So, in that sense, it does feed back into the city. But, the pessimistic bit is, I don’t know what the city will look like that it will feed back into. I think it’s going to unravel in a major way, in the way that cities like Detroit or Liverpool have, where the populations have collapsed and there’s large elements of urban decay and securitisation of the centres of wealth and their surrounding areas. That’s how I see London developing – increasingly securitised in the centre, the removal of many of the working class / poorer residents to the edges. And then, at some point, the drop off of the income that London brings in. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but I know it’s not very nice and I definitely think that people will then be looking to meet their basic needs in more traditional ways i.e. getting back to the land.

OT: How good are your relations with others in the village?

Paddy: Pretty good actually. The wider community here is massively damaged, that’s the travesty. When we moved there was a strong community, but it’s no longer strong because the airport bought out most of the [home]owners in the villages, so most of the people who have been here the longest and have most invested in the villages, have all been made an offer that they couldn’t refuse, which created a critical mass – the more people that accepted, the more people that took it. It was also a time-limited offer as well which created panic: ‘shit, if I don’t take this now, I might be blighted by this airport for the rest of my life and I’ll never be able to get out’. So, the community got ripped out and there are very few long term community people left; replaced by short-term tenants, most of whom work for the airport. Interestingly, some of the only people left are those with long-term social housing. They couldn’t sell their houses, didn’t want to leave, and are some of our biggest supporters.

OT: Has the council tried to move in and help clear them out?

Paddy: The council is opposed to expansion, officially. You could say that they are systematically undermining the community so that there is no one to fight them. If they come back in five years, they might find that they have been successful. As a project that aims to build community and create community links, we have really suffered. Nearly all of our neighbours we had really good relations with in our first year, have now left. They are basically all gone.

OT: So, I just want to talk about your ideas on direct action because I think what you are doing is clearly direct action. Do you conceive it as being something that you think lots of other people should be doing right now and it’s something to follow, or do you see it as being something symbolic, talking more about your ideas of the worsening crisis? Do you think it is possible to live alternatively inside of capitalism, or do you think that you are spending most of your time having to struggle to reproduce what you already have and trying to maintain it?

Paddy: Yeah, I think it’s possible to live alternatively. I mean, if we assume capitalism is a set of social relations and it’s how we relate to each other, if we break those relations down and look at what they really look like, and actually what relations we would like them to be, and we start to relate like that… being a bit forceful about it and really having to struggle with that, or whether it comes naturally… it’s possible. And so, maybe it’s ‘doing alternative’ in spite of capitalism, and I would argue it’s undermining capitalism and the relations that hold it together. In terms of how possible is it, I think there are lots of interesting non-capitalist legal avenues to exploit, that we don’t always exploit. So, for example, here we are trying to set up a community land trust. A community land trust is an old idea – it goes back to the cooperative movement – that land should be held in trust for the benefit of the community. It only recently (in 2009, or 2008) got legal recognition as an established legal ownership structure, but since then, the movement of community land trusts has really taken off in the UK and there’s loads that have come into being and there’s loads more in planning. That’s one avenue: a community land trust is a very real way that we can carve a little bit of legal space out in which we can live in alternative social relations that are non-capitalistic social relations.

And, there are others, such as cooperatives, cooperative businesses and other forms, and lots more. So yes, I think there are lots of avenues open and people should be exploiting them and are exploiting them. Sometimes I wonder if there is a tension between positively living those relationships or positioning oneself as anti-capitalist and almost relying on the thing you’re opposing to define yourself. And, I think here, we have walked the line between the two, but we are definitely much more on the end of trying to create positive new forms of social relations and experiment with new forms of social relations which are post-capitalist. Part of being able to do that is about the environmental setting and context… living on the land and seeing that that land and the elements can give you almost everything you need to survive… gives you the belief in an autonomy outside of capitalism. I think it’s harder to believe in that when you are living in a squat in central London and you get all of your food out of skips or shoplift, or whatever compromise you have to make – it’s harder to believe in it and it’s easier to then just define yourself as an anti; as an oppositional force which then reinforces the whole.

OT: The community here seems to work very well, without formal disciplinary structures, do you think this is something applicable to wider and larger communities?

Paddy: There are disciplinary structures, but they are just less explicit because we are a relatively small number of people and we are close-knit. If someone is behaving badly, it then becomes a collective issue and something will have to be done on a pragmatic level. And, on a social level, people will start to let you know in other ways, if not in a straightforward way. It’s a live question here, and I can imagine it’s harder for places like Occupy. So, when we set up here, at the time there was a project called Kew Eco Village that was next to Kew Bridge, and it was like proto-Occupy; it was open, public… welcoming all comers onto the land, with no clear focus with what they were there for, other than to be, which is cool, but it looked like hard work, fucking hard work. It came from a place of massive idealism, which I guess maybe Occupy did as well, but the difference I guess is that Occupy was performing the spectacular, which also Kew Bridge was to a point. It was cool, but we weren’t as idealistic, and we were like, if we do that then our lives will be overrun with crazies and we are already crazy enough ourselves.

I like to think of it as pragmatism. Ideals are your signposts; you try to move towards them as much as is pragmatically possible and it’s always going to be more possible the more you work at it. Hopefully, they are good ideals.

We have played a spectacular role, in the sense of we are here and not just quietly somewhere where no one is really paying attention, because of the power of the potential example we might be able to create; we didn’t know we would create it but we hoped to create it. And, from the beginning of Transition Heathrow as a concept, that was why we did it here. There is all this attention on this area, there is all this powerful community politics – a community which we can relate to. It is sort of rural as there are distinct villages surrounded by fields, and yet it relates to large numbers of people who live in the city; they can all come here, and do. So, it was us trying to perform that middle ground and as a result of it being next to an international airport, being on the edge of London and being on this contested site, in terms of memes, it has gone all over the world! Travellers come from mad places. People come and say ‘yeah, we heard about you in Africa’.

The antecedent is the Climate Camp for us, so Occupy existed after we had already set up, but a lot of how we could even imagine this is because of Climate Camp. A number of us were involved enough in Climate Camp to learn that you can build a compost toilet, have a rocket stove, that you can squat a little bit of land, and ‘process’ in a major way – working groups that can relate to each other in a non-hierarchical way and so on. And, Climate Camp because of the numbers and the level of skill and organisation that was brought to it, for me, was a real learning experience that made this possible and made it possible to think about how to do this for quite a while.

In some ways, Climate Camp is also the antecedent for Occupy in the UK. And then, I love how ideas travel through movements, if you look at how Climate Camp coalesced a lot of years of good, hard learning experience around the road protests and the camps that lived there and the movement that spun off from that, Climate Camp gathered a lot of that learning and put it together in a really high quality way that people could experience. That all came out again in other movements, and what I loved about Occupy is watching how something I experienced through Climate Camp, was then spread memetically around the whole world through the Occupy movement. Consensus decision making, even the idea of waving your hands, is a known possibility because of Occupy.

OT: How can people get involved and help out?

Paddy: Come and visit and get stuck in. Every Thursday we have an open work day where we just do useful jobs on-site, and everybody who lives here will be here if they can, to show you around and how to get involved. Also, there are specific open times of the week. If you are into bikes, we have a Wednesday afternoon bike workshop where we try to teach people how to fix their own bikes. On a Friday we have a foraging workshop. On a Sunday we run a growing club. And, once a month we have an open arts-based workshop on a Saturday afternoon. Those are our regular things, but we also run one-off events that happen here all the time. Our website or announcement list is a place to learn about that. If people visit and they find that they like it, it is possible for them to become a longer term visitor and get more involved. It is also possible for them to become a resident if it fits for them and the community. We don’t have any money, we only have the land and the energy people offer!

On July 3 the Court of Appeal announced its decision regarding the future of Grow Heathrow. The judges failed to reach a unanimous decision on the case but by majority, the appeal was dismissed and permission was granted for the owners to seek a warrant for an eviction.

One of the judges did find that squatters as well as tenants are entitled to respect for their home under article 8 of The European Convention on Human Rights and that the court should consider the individual circumstances of those affected when deciding how soon to make an eviction.

Grow Heathrow are now working with their lawyers on a further appeal to the Supreme Court to define the arguments about whether article 8 is relevant to private landowners.

In the meantime, there is a low risk of imminent eviction.

Grow Heathrow | Transition Heathrow

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: Growth Heathrow website.

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