Touch down after 504 days

Room GO28 at the Renaissance Hotel, overlooking Heathrow Airport's constantly congested runways, is home to Britain's unlikeliest legal office.

What once was a bath, is now a makeshift filing cabinet, the wash basin vanity unit serves a tiny tea-making area, and, where once weary travellers flopped down to sleep, sits the desk of Craig Pile.

Pile, Hillingdon Council's Terminal 5 inquiry instructing solicitor, is squeezed into the barely converted hotel room beside 4 Breams Building barrister David Smith and two council staff.

Each day, Pile trudges through the hotel lobby and into what was the swimming pool, but is now the Terminal 5 inquiry room, awash with papers, submissions, scale models and lawyers.

At the deep end sits inquiry inspector Roy Vandermeer QC.

Guarding the entrance of the inquiry room is “Norman the doorman”, a kind of gruff legal bouncer. Behind him is a board listing how many days the hearing has been running, with a smiling face drawn hastily underneath.

Pile finds little to smile about after being locked in the Terminal 5 inquiry for more than 500 days. The torturously long inquiry is hearing arguments as to whether a fifth terminal should be allowed to be built at Heathrow, one of the world's biggest and busiest airports.

“You start off thinking this is a wonderful job to have, it is a significant national and local issue, and it is just one job,” says Pile. “It was great for a while, but it palled.

“I think everybody, including the inspector, feels it has gone on too long,” he says.

The fifth terminal proposal that was conceived by BAA in the mid-1980s, with a planning application lodged in 1993. The inquiry began on 16 May 1995 and, when it finishes in the middle of March, it will have extended its original hearing deadline by almost three years.

Vandermeer is expected to take nearly two years to write his report. The Government is expected to hold the politically sensitive final decision until after the election in May 2000 and, if Terminal 5 gets the green light, BAA admits it will be 2006 at the earliest before it is completed – a full 20 years after it was first mooted.

The length of hearings has senior government, business and legal figures questioning whether a Kitty Hawk inquiry system is really suitable in a Concorde age.

“It is just too long,” says Pile of the hearing. “I don't know what system should be put in place, but you can't have a system that is going to do this again.”

Surrey County Council solicitor Joanne Mortimer, who acted for nine councils under the banner of Local Authorities Against Heathrow Terminal 5 (LAHT5), agrees with Pile.

LAHT5 had to pull its two counsel out of the inquiry a year ago after legal funding was warned.

With critics claiming that BAA can write its legal costs off through tax, a row has already broken out over equality of representation in long-running inquiries.

2 Mitre Court Buildings barrister Michael Humphries, part of BAA's four-strong barrister team, warns that the search is already on for scapegoats.

He is adamant that complexity rather than any legal dilly-dallying is the reason for the run on.

Certainly the Terminal 5 hearings have been as complex as they have been bitterly contested.

The term terminal is misleading, for what BAA is proposing is a maximum 414 metre long by 44 metre high £1.8bn structure that will eventually handle 30 million passengers and be the third largest airport outside of Heathrow and Frankfurt.

Opposing it are environmentalists, councils and local residents who have up to 42 planes an hour thundering over their roof tops.

At stake is billions for the South East economy and the desperate need to ease congestion at Heathrow airport, where 60 million and growing passengers use facilities designed for 54 million.

Building Terminal 5 will involve diverting two rivers, altering both the M25 and M4, extending the Piccadilly Underground Line and the new Heathrow Express and relocating an existing sewage works on the site and the birds that go with it.

Faith may move mountains. Only planning lawyers, it seems, can locate airports.

The inquiry was divided into 11 topics and a huge number of interested parties, from British Airways to the West London branch of Friends of the Earth, have appeared.

Vandermeer is praised by inquiry lawyers for allowing residents in particular appearing at the tribunal to have their say but for not allowing them to ramble on endlessly.

However the sheer weight of interested parties who were bitterly opposed to the terminal is seen by council lawyers as a key reason for the inquiry dragging on.

Vandermeer is now under severe pressure from Government ministers to wrap up the inquiry and quickly.

The recent 500th day of the inquiry was marked with little fuss so as not to annoy the Government paymasters.

Planning minister Richard Caborn is expected to release a consultation paper on the issue of inquiries like Terminal 5, although this paper itself has been delayed with no release date yet set.

Planning lawyers are expecting the consultation paper to recommend that governments give the political go-ahead for schemes like Terminal 5, with the subsequent inquiry dealing solely with planning matters and not public objections.

“I think this is the last of these huge inquires we are likely to see,” says Nabarro Nathanson planning partner Gary Graves, whose has extensive involvement in inquiry work. “There is a real appetite for reform.”

An outside observer of the Terminal 5 inquiry, Graves says it dragged on because it was called on to decide UK airport policy, and not simply where and when the fifth terminal should be built.

Both BAA and LAHT5 agree.

The problem for a government that likes to portray itself as a listening one is that, by making a clear political decision it turns any subsequent planning inquiry into a show trial in terms of hearing public opposition.

But Mortimer says the electoral system for central government means people can have their say.

Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, Dr Vincent Cable, says what is needed is not a political green or red light on whether to proceed with large scale structures, but clear policy guidance.

“The Government hasn't spelt out clearly what its strategy for airport policy is,” he says.

BAA counsel Guy Roots QC agrees. “What would have made an enormous difference would have been if the Government had indicated what its policy was on a number of issues that were controversial.”

The irony is that the Government is understood to have already made up its mind in allowing Terminal 5 to go ahead but is keeping mum to prevent influencing the outcome and sparking a future appeal. Senior government figures have told a national newspaper that Terminal 5 will be the last big airport development in the South East.

But Pile denies Terminal 5 is a fait accompli.

“There was a general feeling that the decision had already been made, but I think that feeling has lessened,” he says.

The Government is likely to blame the lawyers for the Terminal 5 hearing over-run. But clearly advocates on both sides believe a lack of political will has contributed with.

Roots is wary of producing an early post-mortem.

“I think it's too soon to say if this inquiry could have been shortened substantially,” he says, and his faith in the inquiry system remains unshaken.

“I'm utterly convinced that a public inquiry is the best way of examining these issues.

“While it is something controversial, no one has yet come up with a better forum than a public inquiry.”

Terminal five twilight zone

There is only one good reason to go to Heathrow Airport and that is to leave Heathrow Airport.

Yet the lawyers working on the Terminal Five inquiry are trapped in a travellers twilight zone – almost close enough to touch the big jets that thunder past their windows and on to exotic worlds, but never getting off the ground themselves.

The inquiry has been running for so long that the hotel it is being held in has become a kind of legal biosphere – an intriguing experiment where there is a chance the participants will go stir-crazy after four years of confined legal hearings and run screaming naked down the corridors.

Perhaps sadly for science and journalists, the lawyers involved have remained completely sane, if not sometimes forgotten.

When 2 Mitre Court barrister Reuben Taylor popped into his London chambers to pick up some papers, he was challenged by a pupil who did not realise that Taylor had worked there for nine years – albeit four of them based at Heathrow.

The opposing legal teams, while maintaining a largely professional relationship, have found solace in each others' company.

“We actually get on quite well,” says Hillingdon's solicitor Craig Pile. “Lord Silsoe is a charming man, you couldn't fall out with some one like that,” he adds.

Silsoe is a legal marathon masochist. He was involved in the Sizewell B nuclear plant inquiry that has only been beaten in length by the Terminal Five inquiry.

Other barristers at the hearing privately admit that they have lost all their other clients because of its length and, come the end, they will effectively be unemployed.

Inquiry inspector Roy Vandermeer QC, however, will have to toil on for another two years writing his opus – and it ain't going to be a best seller.

But Terminal Five has had benefits for others.

Pile was technically redundant after Hillingdon reorganised its legal departments in 1993, but Terminal Five has given him six years work. He will retire at the end of the hearings.

Residents around Heathrow have also won a four-year respite from further noise, and the lawyers have gained millions in fees.

Perhaps the real winner of the Terminal Five inquiry is the Renaissance (formerly Ramada) Hotel. Not only have the inquiry team taken up nearly a floor of rooms, but others, like BAA counsel Lord Silsoe and Michael Humphries, take guest rooms five days a week.

Little wonder then that the grateful Renaissance hosts an annual mid-year and Christmas party for all those involved in the hearings.