Extinction Rebellion co-founder ‘plotted to ground Heathrow traffic with drones’

Extinction Rebellion’s co-founder plotted with others to fly drones near Heathrow in order to “paralyse” the airport and “embarrass” the Government into abandoning plans for a third runway there, a court has been told.

Roger Hallam and other eco-activists wanted backing for the protest, launched under the name Heathrow Pause, to go viral and shut down the airport while also triggering arrests and lots of publicity, London’s Isleworth Crown Court was told.

Hallam told detectives in his police interview that the aim of the September 2019 protest was to “close Heathrow for the foreseeable future”, the jury heard.

Hallam, 57, of Wandsworth, south London, Larch Maxey, 51, of no fixed abode, and Valerie Milner-Brown, 71, of Islington, north London, have pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.

Another man, Michael Lynch-White, who is not appearing at this trial, has pleaded guilty to the same charge, jurors were told.

Hallam, Maxey and Milner-Brown are accused of conspiring with Lynch-White and others on or before September 14 2019 to close the transport hub to air traffic by the “unauthorised and unlawful flying” of drones within Heathrow’s 5km (3.1-mile) flight restriction zone.

A media campaign was launched and “random people” who believed in the cause were invited to “pop up” and make sure the “threat was multi-headed and compelling”, prosecutor James Curtis KC said.

He said: “It was to put the operators on alert of the risk of potential catastrophe. As operators concerned primarily with safety, they would have to scramble their ultimate safety measure.”

Mr Curtis added: “This case is not about the merits of the various measures which are desired to save the planet nor is it about the beliefs of the people who want to achieve those ends.

“This case is about the closure of Heathrow airport in the short term or, as they contemplated, in the long term, closing it down to world traffic.”

Mr Curtis said the defendants’ “stated aim, made in note after note, public pronouncement after public pronouncement, was to paralyse the major transport hub of Great Britain which is also the busiest in Europe” and to do it “not just for an hour or so but a week, two weeks” or “an indistinct period”.

The court was told the protesters’ “agreed plan” came from the “most laudable aims – to save the planet from imminent destruction” – and the deaths they predict could come from carbon emissions.

Mr Curtis said the protest was aimed at “forcing the Government and Parliament to reverse the go-ahead for Heathrow’s third runway project” and they sought to do this “by paralysing a major organ of the country and forcing Heathrow to shut down”.

It is not suggested the activists plotted to kill anybody or cause an aircraft to crash.

Mr Curtis said their aim was to force operators to face a “potential catastrophe” so they would ground flights.

He said: “There is terrible danger for aircraft being struck or nearly struck by flying objects. It would be a risk that the operators would not be able to afford to take with human beings or vital cargo on board and with homes nearby on the ground beneath.”

People joining the protest would also have posed a risk because “most of them were new to drone flying, with little or no experience of flying machines”, the court heard.

A plane taking off from Heathrow
Holidaymakers could have been caught up in the chaos, the court was told (PA)

Claims by the protest group that they hoped passengers could have made alternative arrangements and that stringent safety measures were taken by the activists were described by the prosecution as “pie in the sky”.

The court was also told the environmental activists met police before the protest to discuss their plans to fly toy drones in the Heathrow exclusion zone.

Mr Curtis said they ignored the “misery and inconvenience” to passengers, which could have included holidaymakers, people visiting dying relatives or the vital transport of medical cargo.

He said they ignored “the vast economic damage” that could have been caused worldwide because “what mattered was in their hearts – they were on a mission of ideals”.

The hearing was adjourned to Tuesday at 10am.