Cover Story: The case of the Olympic missiles

Anti-aircraft missiles spark tower block row

It’s not every day somebody asks to position anti-aircraft missiles on the roof of a tower block, so when the Ministry of Defence selected two residential sites in East London it raised rather more than curious eyebrows – some residents were up in arms about the whole idea

By Mark Cantrell

First published in the June 2012 edition of Housing magazine

BY now the man’s eyes were surely rolling. Certainly, the tone of his voice suggested so, as Lieutenant Colonel Nick Short of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) sought to reassure yet another journalist that it was perfectly safe to put missiles on residential rooftops.

The rooftops in question belong to a couple of apartment blocks in East London. The first, Fred Wigg Tower, is a traditional tower block in Waltham Forest, managed by ALMO Ascham Homes. Strictly speaking, the second site is atop a water tower at the Lexington Building in the Bow Quarter, Tower Hamlets, rather than a rooftop per se, but nonetheless residents were perturbed to learn it would play host to high velocity missiles.

Apparently there’s little need to worry; it’s rather like letting off a firework from the side of a milk bottle. Nothing happens to the bottle; likewise with the missile, if the worst came to the worst and it had to be fired, then nothing would happen to the fabric of the building that might endanger residents, he explained. “The Army wouldn’t be putting dangerous stuff on buildings without thinking it through first. Strange thing that,” Lt Col Short added, with – it must be said – a certain rising exasperation.

Okay, so what about the residents’ security, you might wonder; doesn’t placing a weapons system on top of an apartment block kind of turn it into a target for the bad guys? Again, it gets short shrift from the Lieutenant Colonel, who said it wouldn’t be a “bright idea” to attack a point defended by soldiers
and police.

“In all my years in various conflicts around the world and dealing with terrorists, I’ve never really seen them go and attack a strong point – they always attack the weak point. This hasn’t been done without any thought. It’s been a long, considered process by professionals who do this all the time,” he said.

“We’ve offered our military advice and no decision’s been taken but we’ve come up with the best solution for protecting a lot of people. It’s just a shame that a few people are getting all upset about it, without any real knowledge.”

To be fair, it’s not every day that someone comes calling to say they’d like to stick a missile battery on the roof. Most of us on Civvie Street lack the Army’s ready familiarity with the technology. The most we usually have to go on are Hollywood movies and newsreel footage, neither of which tends to focus on the mundane realities, but rather seeks to emphasise the ‘wow’ factor. Doubtless many people envision missiles akin to the Rapier trailing plumes of fire as they streak skywards, rather than the kind of system that was actually deployed, but even with all the assurances, it’s bound to cause some misgivings.

A spokesperson for Waltham Forest Council confessed they were all rather “surprised” when the MoD made its approach regarding Fred Wigg Tower, though generally it’s more at ease with the prospect than some. All told, the news of the rooftop missiles has provoked a cocktail of surprise, incredulity, concern, worry, fear, and outright outraged opposition.

“It’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear, but we sat down with them and they explained why it was strategically the best place,” said Waltham Forest’s spokesperson. “It’s fair to say we were quite taken aback by the prospect of it. Yes, it was surprising, somewhat daunting, but once you sit down and go through it, you realise they’re professionals, they know what they’re doing, and you feel they’ll be able to do this without much disruption to local people at all. I suspect it will probably be one of the safest places in London to be during the Olympics.”

The missile systems were deployed as part of Exercise Olympic Guardian, what might be called a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the main event, as it put the military assets through their paces over nine days spanning the May Day bank holiday weekend. Both the ground-based Rapiers and rooftop-positioned Starstreaks are cited as the final line of defence in the event that an aerial attacker manages to evade the RAF’s Typhoon jets that are to form London’s primary defensive ring.

Fred Wigg Tower and the Lexington Building were selected as sites for the Starstreaks because of their strategic vantage point and unrestricted views over the Olympic venues and surrounding areas, according to the MoD. The exercise was as much a showcase of the Government’s determination to keep the Games safe as it was a test of the security services’ preparedness, but it’s fair to say that those missiles – only a tiny part of the exercise – pretty much stole the show. For all the wrong reasons.

“My worry is that the gun may make the [Fred Wigg] tower a target,” said John Cryer, the Labour MP for Leyton and Wanstead. “I have met most of the residents. Many of them speak English as a second language and are struggling to keep their jobs in the current economic situation. I wonder if the authorities would be foisting a piece of military hardware on a block if it was in a leafy, middle-class area and full of middle class residents.”

A dash of class conflict often adds a little spice to any controversy; unfortunately it’s rather spoiled by the fact that the Lexington Building, in the Bow Quarter, is a rather leafy, pleasant-looking gated community populated by, well, rather a lot of affluent middle class types. One of them, Neil Midgeley, is a journalist with The Telegraph, who blogged: “In the eight years I have lived here, this is certainly the most dramatic – and controversial – thing that has happened. The last leaflet that I received from BQRM [the management company] was about the installation of new equipment in our on-site gym.”

Not every resident was so sanguine about it all. Bow Quarter resident Brian Whelan – also a journalist – brought the matter to national attention, when he ‘tipped off’ the media. In his view, the missiles were effectively ‘foisted on’ the community.

The MoD said it had conducted extensive consultation, including “extensive talks with local authorities and landowners, briefing local MPs, discussions with community representatives, and, most recently, delivering leaflets to residents’ homes”.

Whelan disputes this, however, claiming the first he heard was the leaflet shoved through the letterbox only a few days before the exercise was to take place. He said: “It’s not been well thought-through; it’s not been well-planned, and they’ve not properly engaged with anyone in the community.”

As yet, the Government has still to make a formal decision on whether or not the missiles will be deployed during the course of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, until then residents are left in the shadow of uncertainty. It may be that the deployment of the Rapiers or the Starstreaks or both is deemed unsuitable or unnecessary for providing adequate defence. However, in an effort to pressurise Ministers and Generals into saying ‘nay’, local people in Tower Hamlets have established a campaign group called – appropriately enough – ‘Stop the Olympic Missiles’.

Councillor Rania Khan represents the Bromley-by-Bow ward on Tower Hamlets Council. Speaking at the campaign’s launch, she expressed similar concerns to Whelan and other residents.

“We all agree that protecting the Olympics from the threat of terrorist attacks is important and it is also a priority... [but] it is important to get the balance right between those attending the Games and the safety of the residents who live in the vicinity of the Games – and I am one of those residents too,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the plans of the MoD to place a missile defence system on the top of the Lexington strikes me as the wrong sort of balance. In my view, they handled this issue quite badly. They should have consulted properly with residents. I got to know about this on the day from the newspapers. So they haven’t consulted properly with residents. Instead they have tried to reassure – the council – that if they go ahead with deploying the missile system, it will be manned by professionals. I should really hope so. I would hate to think what might happen if they were operated by amateurs.”

If the Government decides against the missiles, then such concerns become moot; if they say yes, however, then they might well find they have a rowdy crowd of concerned citizens to deal with. For those of us beyond London’s borders, meanwhile, it’s a rather curious conundrum – how would we feel about it all if it was our roof? Be honest now.

Olympic security is a serious business; heaven forbid that any of the military measures deployed will be needed, but for all the MoD’s efforts to set minds at ease, it’s only natural that local people will have concerns about those missiles. After all, they’re bloody big fireworks.

This article first appeared in the June 2012 edition of Northern Midlands and Southern Housing magazine. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 21 June 2012.

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