Big Business Jets In
Keith Parkins investigates the collusion of MoD officials, Arab billionaires and Tory councillors determined to bulldoze their way through the planning process to create Europes largest business airport at Farnborough.
18th November 2002
The small advert secreted on the back page of the Surrey-Hants Star certainly looked innocuous enough. Just an obligatory public notice of a planning application; no obvious reason for alarm.
And yet if Rushmoor Borough Council give consent, as looks likely, the commercial development of the MoD-owned Farnborough airstrip will continue its breakneck pace towards becoming the biggest business airport in Europe.
Farnborough has long played host to a biannual International Airshow. Once a family day out, the event has now become a full blown arms fair, with foreign governments of dubious record invited to come and buy British. The event is organised by the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC), an umbrella organisation for a large number of companies including BAe Systems, Britains largest arms manufacturer. In 2000 the show brought in a record breaking $50 billion in orders for military equipment.
In the same year Tory-controlled Rushmoor Borough Council granted outline planning permission for TAG Aviation to build and operate an airport at Farnborough exclusively for business executives. Despite having yet to obtain full planning permission or a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) licence, TAG began its commercial operation and have submitted subsequent planning applications designed to expand the horizon of the development.
Farnborough already has a higher density of local populace in its immediate crash zone than any other airport in the country (including Heathrow) and Rushmoor Councils outline planning consent went against both the recommendations of a local planning inquiry, and the overall Local Development Plan which had only been agreed a few weeks before.
The Local Plan put a 20,000 aircraft movements a year limit on the airfield. TAG Aviation applied for 25,000 aircraft movements and Rushmoor Council granted them 28,000. Rushmoor Council also upped the aircraft weight limit, only just agreed in the Local Plan, from 50 tonnes to 80 tonnes to accommodate larger aircraft. Public consultation and media coverage has been scant but behind the scenes a powerful network of big businessmen and politicians have their foot firmly on the accelerator Understandably a sizeable proportion of the Farnboroughs population arent happy with the situation; there were 1,200 letters of objection. Residents point to the fact that more and more business executives are flying into the area in the morning and out again in the evening causing maximum peak time noise disturbance. And then there is a major issue of direct public safety which seems to have been lost or deliberately ignored in the unusual haste.
In the UK, a one in 100,000 risk contour is used to define official Public Safety Zones (PSZ) around airports. That is, if one person stands in one spot within this zone for 365 days of the year, the probability that they will be killed in an aircraft accident is one in 100,000, with the frequency and weight of aircraft arrivals and departures included in the formula. The PSZ is widely acknowledged to be an incomplete criterion of public safety given that it doesnt take into account either density of population or non-mortal injury. As the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) observes: "The risk modeling is only intended to calculate the average individual risk at an airport and its environs for a given mix of traffic. It takes no account of the population on the ground."
For reasons of public safety no development can take place within a PSZ contour. However, any airfield expansion does not require the removal of existing developments.
At Farnborough the PSZ is already filled with development including houses, offices, a kindergarten, old peoples homes, and even Farnborough College of Technology (where several thousand students and staff may be at any one time). Paradoxically the kindergarten itself wished to expand but was refused planning consent because it was within the PSZ.
Assuming 28,000 aircraft movements, a spokesman for the Aviation Policy Division of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions said: "The Department does not dissent from the figure of a 25 per cent risk of a crash outside the airport boundaries during a ten year period."
With their massive investment in the project TAG have made no secret of the fact they intend to seek major increases on the aircraft movement limit they have already been granted. When Caroline Lucas MEP visited TAG she was shown business plans which revealed air traffic at Farnborough was growing by 11 per cent a year and that TAG were aiming for 70,000 aircraft movements a year in the long term. At this year's Farnborough Airshow, Roger McMullin, TAG Aviations Chief Executive, told a press conference that "Farnborough is to become the Teterboro of London". Based in New Jersey and serving New York, Teterboro is a 24-hour round-the-clock operation, the world's biggest business airport. The number of Farnborough residents living and working in the PSZ is already the highest in the UK, further expansion will increase the figure.
The airport development has also involved the destruction of surrounding natural environments including hundreds of acres of heathland to the west of Farnborough Airport where all the trees have been removed, the undergrowth grubbed out and even the soil scraped bare. The heathland consists of easily erodible, fragile sands and soils. Various mitigation measures, such as leaving 40 per cent of the understory and not working when it was wet, detailed in TAG's own Environmental Impact Assessment, were ignored. All three damaged areas are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, though English Nature has taken no action.
Despite this overt disregard for planning procedure, local consultation or environment, TAGs seemingly unstoppable plans continue to progress at speed. Indeed, every where you look behind the scenes, heavyweight corporate interests and well connected politicians demonstrate a remarkable ability to bulldoze through planning procedure.
Usually any major planning application is accompanied by glossy material giving a glowing account of a company's credentials. The TAG application was remarkably silent in this respect. Not beholden to shareholders, there is relatively little information available about TAG in the public domain.
Founded in 1975, the privately held TAG Group or Techniques dAvant Garde to give it its full title, was first established in Geneva (TAG Finances) and Paris (TAG France). In order to bring together its diverse business interests, a holding company, TAG Group SA, was registered in Luxembourg. Owned by two Saudi brothers, Mansour Ojjeh (President) and his younger brother Aziz (Vice President), the company now has offices in Geneva, Paris, Washington DC and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. TAGs diverse business interests include aeronautics, auto racing, real estate and executive aircraft. The companys venture capitalist strategy pursues diversification in high technology and prestigious, high profile consumer products. Hence TAG has a 30 per cent stake in, and joint operational management control of the McLaren Formula One racing team. TAG Aviation, a Swiss registered sub company operates Farnborough which manages the MoD owned airfield at Farnborough.
In his revelatory book, "In the Public Interest", former boss of the arms manufacturing company, Astra, and a major player in the Iraqi Supergun affair, Gerald James, describes Aziz Ojjeh as a "Saudi financier and Middle East arms broker". He claims Aziz Ojjeh was a close business associate of Wafiq Said the Syrian-born tycoon and arms dealer who was the BAe-Saudi link in the £20 billion Al Yamamah arms deal of the 1980s; the largest ever British arms deal and until recently the largest ever arms deal in the world. Famously Wafiq Said was a guest in the Ritz Hotel in Paris the same weekend as Jonathan Aitken's notorious stay.
More recently Wafiq Said has been embroiled in a controversy regarding the conversion of a listed building in Oxford for a business school in which he invested £20 million. Leaked memos led to public allegations that Tony Blair had intervened in the planning application on Saids behalf. Thatchers former foreign policy adviser, Sir Charles Powell, brother of Tony Blair's chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, is chair of the school's trustees and a director of several Wafiq Said companies BAE Systems by far the biggest financial beneficiaries of the Al Yamamah arms deal - is headquartered alongside the TAG operation at Farnborough. BAE Systems, together with SBAC and MoD, are the major backers of TAGs bid to operate a business airport at Farnborough. BAE Systems are major backers of and beneficiaries of SBAC. BAE Systems fly in and out of Farnborough on a regular daily basis.
For the first time this year, executives and dictators alike were able to fly direct into Farnborough for the Airshow/arms fair. On the first trade day around 70 corporate and VIP aircraft were handled by TAG, some business had to be turned away. TAG used the airshow to gain more clients, mainly business and Middle East. According to Roger McMullin: 'Some of the Middle East aircraft could be based here for six months of the year.' Conservative leader of Rushmoor Borough Council, John Marsh, works for BAE Systems. He claims there is no conflict of interest. Last summer John Marsh and Rushmoor Councils Chief Executive, Andrew Lloyd, went on a freebie trip to Paris - courtesy of SBAC - to visit the Paris Airshow. They neglected to tell their own council of the trip beforehand. When they were later challenged over the trip they claimed it was no big deal. Their excuse was to see how the Paris Airshow was organised but Rushmoor Council does not organise the Airshow, it is organised by SBAC.
It was claimed that the trip had no connection with the TAG planning application. At a planning meeting in August 2001, only weeks after the trip, the main concern was how the TAG application may affect the Airshow.
SBAC were, at the time, wanting to turn their temporary exhibition site one of the largest in Europe - into a permanent site with its own motorway link, airport and nearby mainline railway stations. To do so would require planning consent. Immediately after this year's Airshow, SBAC held a joint press conference with Dutch company De Boer Structures (contractors for the site and owners of the temporary structures). At the conference they announced that the site, to be known as Space Farnborough, was going to be a permanent exhibition site, ideally suited with fast links to London and its own airport. It came as no surprise to the local community to learn that this had all been agreed in secret talks with Rushmoor.
When William Hague was Tory leader he flew into Farnborough during an election and used TAGs facilities to give a pep talk to his flagging Tory troops. Gerald Howarth, Tory MP for Aldershot, bragged of how TAG now had the support of everyone from the lowliest councillor, through himself to the Party Leader himself. Gerald Howarth, a former parliamentary private secretary to Margaret Thatcher and now front bench Tory spokesman on defence, also involved himself in the Iraqi supergun affair. According to his book, Gerald James received a phone call from Howarth the night before he was due to give evidence on the affair to the Commons Select Committee and was warned "not to go over the top" with his evidence.
At Farnborough International 2002, TAG Aviations CEO, Roger McMullin thanked MoD and BAE Systems for their help during the planning process. He might just have easily included Gerald Howarth MP, and Tory-led Rushmoor Borough Council on the thank you list. Meanwhile, local residents, living in the shadow of an increasing numbers of executive jets but denied a voice in the process, are seeking a judicial review of the development. They face an uphill struggle. The fact that big business can bulldoze its way through local concern in such an overt fashion, however, is a reminder of the way global big business gets its way when it has designs on a locality.
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