“4,000 homes will go, 8,000 to 10,000 people will be forcibly removed from their community, the biggest forced removal of human beings since the Scottish highland clearances”

That’s what Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, told the Commons on Monday during a debate on Heathrow expansion.

The MP for Hayes and Harlington has long argued against the third runway – his constituency lies directly below the airport’s flight path.

But in the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary debate, he seems to have got some of his figures wrong.

“4,000 homes will go”?

We spoke to the Department for Transport, who confirmed that 783 homes near the existing perimeter of Heathrow airport will be demolished to build the third runway. Those properties will be subject to a compulsory purchase order, and homeowners will get a compensation package including:

  • the “unaffected market value of the property” – i.e. how much the house would be worth if the Heathrow project had never been proposed, plus
  • an additional “home loss payment” worth a quarter of the unaffected market value of the house, plus
  • residents will also have their stamp duty, moving and legal costs covered when they find a new home.

So how did Mr McDonnell come to the 4,000 homes figure? It looks like he’s talking about the additional 3,750 houses in the “Wider Property Offer Zone”.

Residents in those homes can choose to stay put, or take a compensation package from Heathrow.

The terms of that package are the same as the one offered to the 783 homeowners facing compulsory purchase. In other words, people in the Wider Property Offer Zone could get a payment worth 125 per cent of the value of their house, and have their moving costs covered if they leave.

“The biggest forced removal of human beings since the Scottish highland clearances”?

We’re not sure where this claim comes from. We assume Mr McDonnell is referring to the period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when farmers and clans in the Scottish highlands were moved or forced from the area. The clearances are still a highly contentious and emotive issue in Scotland.

And it’s an unusual comparison to make with Heathrow.

For one thing, there’s no single reliable estimate of how many people left the highlands over that period. Some sources suggest that around 70,000 highlanders emigrated to North America, Australia and New Zealand in the late eighteenth century; others put the figure closer to 150,000.

Crucially, there remains debate among historians about how many of these were forced evictions. For example, in 1826, the Lord of Rum offered his tenants money to emigrate to America because he could no longer afford to keep renting out the land after a recent potato famine.

We asked Labour exactly what Mr McDonnell was basing his claim on. They haven’t given us an answer, but we’ll update this article if they do.

And even if 4,000 homeowners were being “forcibly removed” from Heathrow as Mr McDonnell says, it still wouldn’t be the “the biggest forced removal of human beings” since the nineteenth century.

Excluding war, genocide and famine, recent examples of forced displacement from around the world include the removal of 1.4 million people to build Three Gorges Dam in China between 1994 and 2006. While in India, over 40,000 people were displaced to build the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the 1980s and 90s.

It may be that Mr McDonnell had the UK in mind when he made his comparison.

Update: After we published this article, Labour asked us to clarify that Mr McDonnell did indeed have the UK in mind for this comparison.

But it’s not clear that the 783 homes under compulsory purchase order to build Heathrow would represent the biggest removal of people by the British government in modern times.

In 1968, the UK began to forcibly depopulate the Chagos Islands, a British overseas territory in the Indian Ocean. Estimates vary, but it’s believed that between 1,500 and 2,000 indigenous people were forced off the archipelago over a period of five years.

What does Labour say?

A spokesperson told FactCheck:

“You cannot compensate Heathrow residents for the loss of their communities. Schools have been forced to close, religious centres, community centres, open spaces and hospices are being threatened.  The air local residents are breathing is already above 2010 EU air pollution limits and the health consequences include respiratory conditions and cancer.

“John has been contesting the figures used by Heathrow airport for the last two decades. Initially the airport only admitted to only 200 homes facing demolition but in recent years according to campaigners the airport have admitted to around 1,000 homes facing demolition and well over 3,000 in the compensation area where homes are bought from Families who cannot survive in them because of air and noise pollution. This means that these families are all being forced out by demolition and homes being rendered unliveable.”

FactCheck verdict

It’s true that about 4,000 homes could end up being abandoned or demolished as part of Heathrow’s expansion.

But only 783 of those are the result of “forced removals”. A further 3,750 homeowners will be given the option to leave, and a substantial compensation package if they do.

We don’t know why Mr McDonnell is making a comparison to the highland clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it’s hard to find a single reliable estimate of how many people were forcibly displaced.

Either way, there have been many more significant “forced removal[s] of human beings” since then, including by the British government.