“No you can’t get through down there. They’ve got a full set of anti-terrorist police. Machine guns and all. They’ll jump out at you if you go beyond that fence. Mind you, it helps keep the crime down in the village”. The tall man with white hair straggling out from under his black hat and a pentagram on black sweatshirt, had come along the top of the seawall with a rolling gait. We’d asked him whether we could follow the footpath past the distant blocks of the Grain Liquid Natural Gas Terminal. The late afternoon sun was still bright, reflecting off the waters of the Medway swirling out to the Thames. We squinted into the haze and far off could make out a high fence that presented a barrier to our plan to walk around the Isle of Grain and away west towards Rochester.
The village and land of the Isle of Grain, at the east end of the Hoo Peninsula jutting out in to the Thames Estuary and the North Sea, has long been considered ‘remote’. Just over 1,500 people live here and it must be one of the few parishes within thirty miles of London where the population is declining. A place hard to reach, a place set apart. Indeed offshore – cut off from the mainland until the mid-nineteenth century by the tidal Yantlet Creek. It’s near where I live and I watch it carefully.
In the 1860s the island became permanently linked by road to the rest of Kent. For in response to the British government’s perception of a threat from the French navy, the Isle of Grain and the Hoo Peninsula became a military bastion. Steam ships freighted massive boulders of Cornish granite up The Channel. Steam winches assisted the unloading of the blocks from offshore onto the island’s patch of higher ground. And steam hammers built the stone into Grain Fort. Mighty muzzle loading guns were brought to defend the entrance of the Thames and Medway and vital Navy dockyards at Sheerness, Chatham and Woolwich.
A century later, following the Second World War, changes in the nature of weapons and warfare had rendered Grain Fort redundant. But the island was once again transformed to meet the strategic needs of the British state. On the marshlands to the south side of the island, a refinery was built to process crude shipped in from offshore, from Iran and elsewhere, in order to feed British consumers, the most crucial of whom was the Royal Navy with its bases at Chatham and Sheerness. The project was of national significance, undertaken partly by the state and partly by a private company, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP). The construction was proudly celebrated in two films The Island (1952) and The Tower (1953) both made by the leftist Data Film Productions. Pile drivers resounded across the marshlands as the refinery utterly transformed Grain and the surrounding area. The community, and the nearby villages of Hoo, Stoke and High Halstow, grew rapidly with new houses erected for the 1,000s of workers employed in the building of the plant. There is little record of any opposition to this symbol of British progress and modernity, apart from a line in The Island from the vicar of St James’ Grain who says: ‘We don’t really like changes’ but qualifies this with ‘we must have oil to live today’.
Whilst the Kent Refinery on Grain was under construction, far off in Iran a popular uprising finally shook off British imperial influence. On 1st May 1951 the democratically elected Iranian government under President Mohammad Mosaddeqh nationalised the assets of Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The AIOC had held near monopoly control of the Iranian oil industry for over four decades. The government demanded a renegotiation of the AIOC’s oil field concessions and the ownership of the Abadan, the world’s largest oil refinery. As Mosaddegh explained to the Iranian Parliament:
‘With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence.’
Abadan and the oilfields that fed it were the most valuable assets that the AIOC owned. The company came within inches of collapse. The infamously belligerent chairman of AIOC, Sir William Fraser, Baron Strathalmond, was determined to put up a fight. Over half the shares in AIOC were held by the British state and the government of Winston Churchill was equally desperate to avoid the fall of one of the pillars of the national economy. Churchill persuaded US President Eisenhower to instruct the CIA to engineer a coup. On 19th August 1953 Mosaddeqh was violently overthrown and lived the remaining fourteen years of his life under house arrest. The story of those 27 months of struggle is graphic illustration of the extraordinary power of a corporation such as BP.
The threat of the nationalisation of an asset such as Abadan only reinforced the British government and AIOC’s view that the rapid construction of a major refinery in England was vital to the economy. The building of Kent Refinery became part of a strategy to shift the processing of crude oil to the ‘mother country’, where it could be protected from the rising tide of anti-Imperalism which was sweeping through Britain’s formal and ‘informal’ empire.
In the same year as the CIA coup overthrew the Mosaddeqh government, the refinery on Grain was completed and began processing crude from Iran and elsewhere. The arrival of the first tanker was filmed by Pathe news. For the next forty years the steam and the stench of the refinery filled the air, the flares burnt day and night, and Grain and the eastern Hoo Peninsula became a zone of sacrifice dominated by the processing of hydrocarbons shipped in from offshore
Our conversation on the seawall took place in the shadow of Grain Power station. This vast grey hulk of a building, smeared with rust stains, stands empty and on the brink of demolition. It was conceived of by the state-owned Central Electricity Generating Board in the mid-1960s as the largest oil-fired power station in Europe. However, long before the time it was commissioned in 1979 the UK was gripped by the ‘Oil Crisis’. The struggle between the oil corporations’ drive for profits and the governments of the Middle East desire to assert sovereignty over their resources (as Mosaddegh had done) had led to a massive spike in the price of crude. Oil consumption in the UK began (at least temporarily) to fall, Kent Refinery was hit by the decline in demand and the power station became utterly uneconomic. It limped on as a white elephant for thirty years until it was finally axed in 2012 by its owners, E.ON UK, a subsidiary of the German multinational.
Away from the seawall we followed the road out of Grain. The sun hot on the tarmac and acres of concrete slab, gravel, rusting chain link fence and buddleia – the remains of Kent Refinery. The plant closed in 1982 but the site was not returned to the marshland it once was and the dominance of hydrocarbons over the island continued. By the late 1960s gas had been discovered offshore in the North Sea and a number of places on the east coast of England and Scotland were transformed into gas terminals. However the decline of those gas reserves beneath the UK’s seas was inevitable and the oil corporations recognised that profit was to be made from the importation of energy from further offshore – via liquid natural gas, LNG. Grain LNG Terminal opened the same year that the refinery closed.
As we passed the high security fences of the LNG plant there was no sign of the Anti-Terrorist Police, but it was clear that this part of the Isle of Grain is strictly off limits to the ordinary citizen – just as Grain Fort had been for nearly a century. Indeed a reach of the river itself – the shipping channel at the mouth of the River Medway – is placed off limits when the huge LNG tankers come up the Thames and dock at the terminal. Much of this gas is extracted from deep beneath the Sahara Desert in Algeria, from places such as BP’s In Salah field. (We’ve revealed the relationship between BP and the authoritarian regime of Algeria in a previous report.) The gas is pumped along 1,200 km of pipelines to the Mediterranean coast. At the plant in Skikda it is frozen until it is becomes a liquid and is then pumped onto tankers. These ugly ships with their gas domes pass through the Straits of Gibraltar, cross the Bay of Biscay and head for the mouth of the Thames. At the terminal on Grain the liquid is turned back into gas and pushed through the National Grid. In Algeria the gas field, pipeline and terminal are all heavily defended by the army. At Grain, the terminal is guarded by its special police. Up to 20% of the UK’s gas passes through here.The entire route that brings energy from offshore is off limits, effectively militarised. It is one continuous zone from desert to estuary under the control of two states and generating profit for two companies, Sonatrach of Algeria and BP.
Our Sunday walk was partly a journey of celebration. We’d stared out at the mudflats, the Black-Headed Gulls, ships passing in and out of the mouth of the Thames up Sea Reach. We’d gazed at the pale outlines of the distant tower blocks of Southend and nearer too the black masts of the sunken Liberty ship, the SS Montgomery, packed with over a thousand tonnes of high-explosive shells from 1944. This place of serenity had had a lethal threat lifted five days before.
On Tuesday 2nd September 2014 Sir Howard Davies, Chairman of the Airports Commission, announced that the plan to build an airport larger that Heathrow in the Thames Estuary had been rejected. Bullishly promoted by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, it was known as ‘Boris Island’. If the airport had been constructed all of the Isle of Grain, except the LNG terminal, would have been buried under two of the four planned runways. The villages of Allhallows, Stoke and much of the Hoo Peninsula would have been obliterated by the airport, and the rail lines and motorways constructed to feed it.
The designs for the airport drawn up by Foster & Partners have the futuristic look of a space station in orbit. The massive construction was to exist offshore, in a zone of it’s own, an island. All the rhetoric around the plans was of how it would service the transit of people around the world, a ‘hub airport’, a global interchange for millions of passengers, many of whom would see no more of this country than the airport terminals. Johnson toured the planned ‘aerotropolis’ at Hyderabad in India and praised its vision. That 1.2 million square foot site will have its own exhibition and convention centre, a Canadian business school and private health clinic ‘offering fly-in, fly-out operations’. The Thames Estuary scheme was pushed, by at least parts of the British government and the Mayor’s Office, as a scheme of such strategic and national importance that it should trump local concerns in the pursuit of the ‘international profile of London’. It was also driven by corporations – from architects to construction companies – who saw it as a prize job and a means of generating profit. Much of the capital that was courted by the promoters was from abroad, from China or The Gulf States. Offshore capital.
This is the second airport proposal in the Thames Estuary to be defeated in a decade. The first was Cliffe Airport, planned to be constructed at the heart of the Hoo Peninsula. It was met by a ferocious campaign both locally and nationally, and although the opposition to Boris Island was more mooted, the front windows of houses in High Halstow, Cooling and Higham were plastered with ‘No Estuary Airport’ posters. In both campaigns of resistance residents have again and again stressed that it is the unique environment that must not be destroyed, and that the rich birdlife must not be sacrificed. In reacting to the BBC reports on the rejection of the airport the MP for Gillingham said:
“it would be totally impractical, costly and would destroy important environmental sites”.
The Leader of Medway Council declared:
“It would have resulted in the mass destruction of habitat and wildlife that could never be replaced.”
And Rolf Williams of the RSPB explained:
“They would have had to clear 13km radius around the airport of birds just for safety…In the end the only way would have been to kill the birds.”
I live with my partner in Higham, close to the marsh and near to the planned transport infrastructure for the airport – the line of a high-speed rail link and a motorway. What strikes me is how resistance to the plans has increasingly expressed a distinct picture of what this part of the Estuary should be like. Johnson condemned the decision not to go ahead with the airport as demonstrating a lack of courage and vision. But I would see it otherwise. The strong resistance to the plans locally, which placed pressure on Medway Council and the RSPB to oppose the airport with determination, arises out of a vision of Grain and the Hoo Peninsula as a place with its own inherent value and its own vital ecosystem. A place that is deemed ‘special’ because of its birdlife. This is a vision that has been increasingly articulated over the past decade. It is a vision that inhabitants and people from further afield have had the confidence to assert – in the face of the Mayor of London, parts of the British civil service, construction corporations, and international finance institutions. And we’ve won again!
Thanks to John Urry for his book ‘Offshoring’, Roger Bowdler and Jane Trowell