Joshua Neicho: Hounslow has paid a heavy price for Heathrow’s pandemic troubles

Joshua Neicho: Hounslow has paid a heavy price for Heathrow’s pandemic troubles

The London borough of Hounslow, particularly its western half, is one of the parts of the capital most heavily affected by the pandemic – largely because of its economic dependence on Heathrow airport across the borough boundary in neighbouring Hillingdon.

There have been huge impacts on jobs and communities, drawing a range of local political responses in a strongly Labour borough which has, nonetheless, been represented by a Conservative on the London Assembly since its creation in 2000 as part of the South West constituency, which also takes in Richmond and Kingston.

Before Covid-19, Heathrow supported around 133,600 jobs in six local authorities in west London and its environs, Hounslow included. In 2013, the airport estimated it employed 20,250 Hounslow residents directly and indirectly – more than in any other borough – and that if it were closed, local unemployment would double.

Given this, it is easy to see why the impact of the virus on Heathrow has had such devastating wider impacts. Passenger numbers dropped by 73 per cent in 2020, contributing to Hounslow having the second highest furlough rate of London’s 32 boroughs last summer (38 per cent) and the fourth highest this February. In March, Hounslow had 10,000 more unemployed residents than in the same month last year. The situation might be even worse than that, as agency and zero hours workers are sometimes denied furlough.

The damage could be long-term. Gross Value Added growth projections show the drop in Heathrow activity may cause a loss of £1 billion to Hounslow’s economy over three years. The council has warned of a possible 40 per cent decline in output. 

The problems faced by local businesses involved in international trade have been compounded by a combination of related factors, including UK border delays, the government’s quarantine and testing regimes, and Brexit deal red tape, charges and duties.

Amardeep Singh started a new business importing corporate womenswear a month before the first lockdown. It is a market sector which has since collapsed, leaving him with a £120,000 inventory hanging in a warehouse near the airport on which he has a three-year lease. His architecture business has also slumped. But his neighbours, Heathrow workers in their mid-50s, are in a worse position – out of work for a year and lacking the IT skills to find an alternative job. 

Accountant Thiagarajah Kumar, who has an office in Hanworth, has been dismayed by seeing clients having to furlough staff and by the lack of scrutiny to ensure that companies use the furlough system honestly. And Covid has struck him personally – he was incapacitated by it for weeks, unable even to walk when he came home from hospital. “I can’t take a third wave,” he says.

Others consider themselves luckier. “The only benefit of Covid-19 is that most entertainment businesses avoided the chaos of Brexit,” says Martin Corr of Feltham-based rock concerts and festivals transport specialists Sound Moves. He has retained his 25 staff on furlough, but notes the knock-on effects of having to abandon suppliers and service providers.

The economic costs of Covid are being felt at every level and in every corner of people’s lives. New food banks have been established in Cranford and in Hanworth. Brentford-based Hounslow Community FoodBox went from supplying 2,000 people to 9,000, including many who never had to seek support before. The disproportionate impact of Covid job losses on women, young people and minorities has led to Labour’s candidate for the South West Assembly seat, Hounslow councillor Candice Atterton, backing the idea that companies should be required to report “protected characteristics” among those they make redundant, to help combat discrimination. 

At Reach Children’s Hub, attached to the Reach Academy in Feltham, project lead Egle Peleckaite reports that three-quarters of people they surveyed in April 2020 said they had no family or friends to help them if they had to self-isolate. And Feltham & Heston MP Seema Malhotra says that among Hounslow’s Asian communities (who make up 34.4 per cent of the borough’s population) enforced separation during the height of the pandemic was “an unbearable cruelty”, especially when a bereavement had taken place. She also recalls the “horror of teachers having to print and courier classwork to kids who didn’t have computers” in their homes.

There have, though been some benefits from the pandemic. For many locals, the quieter skies caused by Heathrow’s troubles have been a welcome relief. A long-time Hanworth Park resident says the experience has, as elsewhere, made people more supportive of local businesses and boosted community connections. And there is an underlying story of vigorous growth. The 2011 census found that Hounslow had the fifth highest population increase in the UK. There are excellent transport connections, cheaper housing than other south-west London suburbs and plentiful Asian grocery shops.

Inevitably, there have been delays and setbacks. The 528-unit High Street Quarter development by Barratt Homes (pictured), including the 27-storey Kempton Tower, has been unluckily timed, with launch dates repeatedly put back. The opening of a flagship Cineworld in the development, with the USP of showing new Bollywood releases, has been delayed, while the cinema chain’s Feltham site has lain empty, like all its UK venues, since 5 October.

But Alan Rides from Hounslow Chamber of Commerce says that, while it’s impossible to set dates in the current climate, the new cinema is on track and he has “absolute confidence in work to rebuild and regenerate the town centre”, the eleventh largest in London. He adds that Hounslow High Street’s footfall is now “virtually back to normal levels”, while one pub he has visited, away from the town centre, reported record takings in its first week back trading, even though it only served customers outside. A question for Hounslow is whether it can raise average customer spend as well as visitor numbers. 

Conservative Assembly candidate Nick Rogers, who has a rail industry background, says it’s vital to ensure the Piccadilly Line signalling upgrade goes ahead to realise the benefits of the £1.5 billion new trains for the line. Delayed after Crossrail cost overruns and described as TfL’s “number one priority” by the then commissioner Mike Brown, the upgrade currently looks more remote than ever. Rogers argues that Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey’s proposed Infrastructure Bank could finance these kinds of projects. He would also like to see Hounslow build resilience through diversification, including culture, capitalising on local aviation heritage.

What will be next for Hounslow? In its Recovery Plan, the council emphasises jobs and re-skilling, plus community engagement, for example in its proposed Green Enterprise Zone, Green Skills Academy and a 15-minute neighbourhood model developed through a collaborative design process with business and residents. Among many other initiatives, it held a summit calling for targeted government support for communities across the UK impacted by the reduction of aviation.

Trade union Unite is developing a Heathrow learning hub for up-skilling, re-skilling, careers guidance and lifelong learning. Egle Peleckaite warns policymakers that “it’s not enough to have a scheme. People need to be supported directly in obtaining and retaining a job,” with a focus on moving beyond zero hours and agency work into sustainable jobs.

There are plans to create “silicon valley of aviation” in the Heathrow area, driving research and industrial partnerships around zero carbon air transport and associated sectors. Co-chair Andrew Dakers, chief executive of the West London Business group,  sets out the need and opportunity for aviation jobs, “to ensure we can work to build Zero Carbon industry at scale”. 

But for Greens, a fundamental rethink is needed. With one return London-Los Angeles flight generating more CO2 per passenger than the average Pakistani in a year, Andree Frieze, the party’s candidate for South West says “if jobs are causing the climate crisis, which the airline industry is, they’re not the right jobs”.

She argues for a large-scale shift of Heathrow workers into retrofitting homes or the health and care sectors and queries the depth of the council’s environmental and community commitments, contending that its Green Belt Review has been driven more by Heathrow expansion objectives than local engagement.

Heathrow faces an increased challenge following last month’s decision to include international aviation emissions towards the UK’s Net Zero target. Last December, the Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling against a Third Runway going ahead, but Boris Johnson’s history of opposition to it along with the Net Zero agenda could see the plan grounded for a long time to come. Then there is the question, raised by campaigner John Stewart, of how communities across south London will react to the return of pre-pandemic aircraft noise levels.

The immediate outlook for Heathrow and local jobs is so serious, says the Liberal Democrat candidate Gareth Roberts, the leader of Richmond Council, “it has the potential to be the equivalent of Thatcher’s mine closures”. He calls for urgent post-election action by whoever is Mayor to use the office’s “considerable economic firepower to bring Heathrow and the unions together, find out what is needed”.

However it is approached, Heathrow is another colossal entry on London’s post-Covid checklist, with guaranteed turbulence ahead for Hounslow.

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