Saint Helena is a British protectorate island in the South Atlantic, small in size but huge in significance to the UK and her history: this was the island that Napoleon was held on after being captured; here ships stopped in on the way to and from Africa and Asia, building the Empire; the Saints as the islanders are known are an eclectic racial mix famed for their hospitality as much as the island they inhabit.
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The only way of reaching the island currently is by boat, either your own or via a single Royal Mail Ship which is reaching end of life and operates an infrequent and expensive service. Thus it has been proposed to build an airport on the island, a project that was about to commence until the Treasury put an unexplained hold on it.
The project is an essential lifeline for the island - this is not about building an extra runway on a busy hub, this is about a single crucial link to an otherwise isolated island, which will benefit residents and enable tourism as a source of income. Given that the island currently is subsidised by the Government, this project will end up paying for itself. Why the hold-up?
Hence the protest today.
The crowd assembled opposite Downing Street at midday. I would estimate that around 50 people had turned out, and several had placards, along with a large banner. "Save Saint Helena; Build the Airport Now" was the chant, as we were marshaled for various photographs.
People were very friendly, as were the large contingent of police out to supervise us, and I was asked several times (by attendees, not police!) about my connection with the island. It is simply that my old boss from Railtrack, Vince Thompson, has emigrated there with his wife April. Several people knew or knew of Vince, including Brian, Fred and Tracy Williams.
In fact I hoped to visit when in Cape Town, but the cost and frequency of the boat proved prohibitive. I would certainly like to visit some day though, whether on my own boat, on the new plane to the new airport, or perhaps by a charity swim from Namibia!
So, after some time a delegation from the group went to Downing Street to present the petition regarding the airport, and on their return we marched down Whitehall to Parliament Square, where more photos were taken with Big Ben as a backdrop, and the MP championing the island's cause, Bob Russell MP (Chair of the St Helena All Party Parliamentary Group) addressed the group, to applause and thanks from those assembled.
All in all a successful day, and the Gods are certainly smiling upon the demands, as shown by the "island weather" enjoyed by the protesters today! A Windhoek beer would surely complete the picture :)
More information about Saint Helena on Wikipedia here, or another island site here, the RMS ship which currently serves the island here, and their weekly newspaper is available for download here.
FYI: Here is the Private Eye report about the situation from a couple of issues ago:
ST HELENA AIRPORT
Eye 1227, 9 January – 22 Jan. 2009
The announcement that there is to be a “pause” in plans for an airport on the remote south Atlantic island of St Helena is trying the patience of the Saints – as the islanders call themselves.
International development secretary Douglas Alexander told parliament that “in light of the changed economic climate” there would be a pause in negotiations to allow discussion on value for money options for access to the island.
The island (population 3,900) is currently reached by infrequent mail boat from Cape Town, but the RMS St Helena is due to reach the end of its working life next year. It was hoped that the airport would bring in tourism and replace the £16m-a-year subsidy the island currently gets from the Department for International Development (DfID) to supplement money earned through coffee, honey and fishing. If successful, the £100m airport would pay for itself.
Of course the airport plans wouldn’t be affected by the downturn if the project hadn’t been so dogged by delay. In 2006, after years of feasibility studies and modelling by consultants Atkins, all three bidders pulled out complaining about the lack of detailed site information and saying the project was too high risk (Eye 1167). A new shortlist of two bidders wasn’t ready until January 2008 and Italian firm Impreglio SpA was only selected as preferred bidder in October. With the contract apparently imminent, Impreglio staff visited in November to assess the local workforce and facilities.
Islanders fear the current pause could result in the scheme going tits up yet again. To lose one set of bidders was unfortunate, to botch it now would look like carelessness.
To contact the Eye team, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Update: The protest featured in a news item on BBC Oxfordshire, as many former Saints now live in Swindon. Unfortunately the report will have been removed by now.
I will report back when any new reports become available.