Friday, March 12, 2004

The Maypole Action Group

It may prove to be good preparation for a future at Westminster but I’ve just come from a village meeting that more closely resembled a revolutionary council than a democratic debate.

I’m writing, of course, about a village protest against planning permission that seeks to increase the daily number of permitted flights from the flying club at Maypole Farm, from the present twelve to a maximum of twenty-five.

As a guest at this Hoath village meeting, I was immediately worried, as were others, by the abrupt ejection of the airfield owner before the meeting even began. Surely, any truly democratic process demands a balanced argument and by throwing out the one person who could explain the finer detail behind the planning application, the audience in the packed village hall lost any real opportunity of being able to arrive at a truly informed opinion. Instead, it was offered the equivalent of a drum head court martial by the chair. “It’s our meeting and we can decide who attends, so please leave now before we call the police”.

Much useful information was, as a result lost and at times an almost comically exaggerated view of the problem was offered. Some examples being:

• “A possible nine thousand flights a year”.
o “Up from an average of three a day”?
• “Manston has three runways”
o “No it has two”
• “What if an aircraft hits the village school”?
o “From Manston or from Maypole?”
• “Our property is being devalued”.
o “No it’s not”.
• “How do we know that illegal immigrants aren’t being smuggled in by the pilots”?
o “We don’t”.
• “Our property is being blighted by continued growth of the airfield”
o What evidence is there of this?
• “There’s environmental damage, birds are being scared away”
o There’s no evidence of this
• There is no longer a flying club at the airstrip
o Completely untrue.

And so on.

Let’s be clear. The villagers of Hoath have an absolute, proper and democratic right to express their concern or objection to any extension to the number of take-off’s and landing permitted on Maypole’s grass strip. This could be for broader environmental or simple noise reasons, although there is, at present no evidence that regulations affecting either or indeed CAA or Health & Safety rules are being contravened in any way.

The airfield owner, Andy Haigh, explained to me afterwards and I have attached a letter from him here, that if the Maypole pilots could use the twelve movements allowed each day spread over the year as a single number, then he’d be entirely happy (4,380) but the rules don’t allow for a planning request for a single number of flights and there are weeks and sometimes, even months in the winter when flying is impossible, so in real terms his total allocation is never reached and the average is closer to three movements a day or less. As a consequence, he says he has asked for a doubling of the present twelve flight limit, which has only ever been met once, to bring the airfield into line with others in Kent and to ensure that on any summer’s day, there are enough movements available to accept visitors – who may only land with prior permission - and allow the dozen or more local flying club members to fly if they wish to.

There is, says Andy, absolutely no intention to ‘develop’ Maypole commercially and to suggest otherwise flies in the face of the facts that he was entirely happy to present to the meeting in the village hall and which was refused when he was asked to leave by the organisers.

In any debate of this kind emotions can run high. However, writing as one who has frequently championed the democratic process, I believe that the people of Hoath were badly directed in their meeting. A prosecution offering often vague and unsubstantiated allegations over procedure and safety denied the residents the facts they needed for a truly informed and not an arbitrary opinion on the merits or otherwise of the planning application.

In a free society, people have a right to make informed choices and an equal right to be heard. Denying such rights denies a process that started with Magna Carta and which today is being quickly unravelled by David Blunkett. What I witnessed in the village hall I found profoundly disappointing, because middle England above all, should protect its hard-won democratic principles of fair play or risk losing them forever.

A Letter from Maypole Farm

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Save Maypole Airfield from The Developers?

I’ve just returned from a fifteen minute loiter above Thanet in the fog, to find the road through the village of Hoath to the A229 dotted with fluorescent red posters asking people to “Fight further development of the Maypole airstrip”.

What development is this I wondered? After all, Maypole is a farm strip to the West of the village and my own little Cessna is tied-down on the grass there together with an assortment of around ten other light aircraft, most of which are rarely used.

Could it be an unpublished extension to the runway at Manston, ‘Kent International’ airport, ten miles to the East or perhaps the Defense Minister, Geof Hoon, plans to move what’s left of the RAF to a tiny stretch of grass in Kent which doubles as a livery stables?

In fact, to find Maypole, you have to know where it is, a ‘Catch-22’, which took me three years before I found the gate. There are, I'm told, people in the village of Hoath, adjacent to the airstrips who don’t know where it is either, so coming across this protest comes as a surprise to me and other pilots.

Village of Hoath on the left

I think we need to be accurate about that emotional word ‘Development’. People are worried about the further development of Manston, to accommodate even larger, cargo-carrying aircraft and they are also worried about the development of Gatwick and a plan for the development of a new London airport in the Thames estuary.

Maypole is just a little different in terms of development because no concrete is involved. I supported the application, we made for additional air movements per week from Canterbury council. The reason behind this is that on one of those rare and perfect summer days, it’s possible that everyone might just want to go flying or as in the case of the summer fete, we could have more movements so that we can give rides to the village children.

On most days, like today, with just three flights showing, Maypole isn’t exactly on a par with Heathrow’s runway 27. The flight path doesn’t intersect the village at any point and the horses and the sheep have lost interest in the aircraft. Why I wonder has someone decided that this mythical ‘development’ is a threat to the local environment and posted the news in fluorescent red too. But there’s a hidden agenda I’m sure. There always is

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The Grave of Commander William Henry Norman

A letter to the editor from Australia.

Dear Editor, I'm contacting you from The Other Side of The World to draw your attention to the fact that the grave of Commander William Henry Norman is in the Birchington Churchyard just near the intersection of the pub yard wall and the churchyard wall. Norman was the first Commander of the Victorian Colonial Navy and from 1856 until his death 12 December 1869 made a huge contribution to the survey of the Victorian coastline, the rescue of shipwrecked people, the laying of the telegraph cable from the Australian mainland to Tasmania, the transport of atlantic salmon ova and trout ova from the UK to Tasmania to introduce those species to Australian waters and, of course you've heard of the famous Australian Explorers Burke and Wills, well Commander Norman took HMCS Victoria from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpenteria and spent many months organising searches for these lost men.

He returned to England in 1869 to supervise the fitting out of the new Victorian Government purchase "Cerberus" but died before he could undertake this task. He died at Ramsgate but left a memorandum for his sister who lived locally that he wished to be buried with his father, Thomas Norman, died 1858. W.H.Norman's eldest son, William Thomas Norman (by his first marriage) did not come to Australia with the rest of the family in 1856 but followed in 1858 and we presume that this was after the death of his grandfather.

Maybe some day the Australian Veterans Affairs Department will see fit to restore this grave. I've a photo of it in its original form but it is a poor photocopy which I could send you by snail mail if you are interested. My husband and I spent a day in Birchington in 1999 finding this, my great grandfather's grave. And we were fortunate to enjoy a wonderful few hours of the bells being rung that evening. (M.Levin)