Each time Shasha Khan passes the Viridor incinerator in Beddington, near the Croydon-Sutton border, he cringes. “It is a monument to my failure,” he says.
It has been nine years since the Green Party acitivist started his journey to stop the waste management plant, which began test runs last month. He admits the facility’s completion was the end of the road for many campaigners, who believe the incinerator will worsen air quality.
But as Viridor lights up the £205m incinerator, which will serve four south east London boroughs, so too is the fire reigniting in Khan’s belly. “They are very wary of me…They probably know there won’t be much stopping me from doing what others may be uncomfortable doing, for the cause.”
It is difficult not to wonder if this is just hot air. In his neck-tie and sweater, the father of two toddlers seems an unlikely candidate to stand against a mega corporation – Viridor is a subsidiary of the Pennon Group – and the Sutton, Merton, Croydon and Kingston councils, who all agreed to the facility.
Except that he has done that, and almost won. In 2014, the Stop the South London Incinerator group he led took Viridor and Sutton Council to court over alleged irregularities in planning approvals.The case reached the Court of Appeal forcing a delay in construction – a consolation for Khan, looking back.
“I think they were surprised that someone came forward, raised the money required and stopped them in their tracks. And I did. For a year, construction stopped. And that cost money. It cost the council. It cost everyone.”
In financial terms, the legal battle cost campaigners £25,000. But other costs have been heavier. Recently, a friend shared on social media a picture of when Khan and fellow campaigner David Pettener had handcuffed themselves to the public gallery railing during a Croydon Council meeting, after they were told to leave while the council discussed the facility’s contract. “It doesn’t look good when you’re trying to get a job, as I found out to my detriment.”
Therein lies Khan’s love/hate relationship with the campaign to stop the incinerator. At the height of the campaign, he was a single man, working at a family business, ready to stop at nothing for the cause. The family business was sold the same year the legal battle was lost. Today he is a family man and a private contractor in a competitive market. “My wife would like me to absolutely take a step back and focus on other things, like our family.”
But it is difficult to remove himself from what turned out to be the longest project of his life.
Graduating with a degree in politics and economics, Khan pursued his passion for dance music by deejaying and establishing a music promotions outfit. But now at 45, he is a veteran politician after standing for elections five times – both at local council and Parliamentary level – not quite the person spinning in clubs in the late 1990s.
The turning point, he says, was the Iraq war and a conversation with a local MP who was “ready to take a country to war for politics”. It drove him to join the Green Party.
It was in these early days in Khan’s political journey that the Party received a tip off that an incinerator was planned. It was the only respondent out of 41 in the public consultation process who was not from a waste management firm.
But the courts eventually found that due process had taken place. Two years on, Khan’s eyes still widens with incredulity as he talks about the decision. The conversation flits between his disenchantment with centrist politics, his weariness of the fight against the incinerator, comrades leaving the campaign and an old friend asking why he does it, after winning just one percent of the vote in the last polls.
He says the Sutton and Croydon Green Party took on the campaign to raise its profile, putting him in the driver’s seat. And now it’s time to rev up the engine again, says the man dubbed the Green Knight for his valiant fight against the incinerator. “It’s not the end at all. What I have is the knowledge about the journey. I know everything there is to know about this incinerator…It’d be remiss of me to not continue the fight.”
In a way, he has come full circle. He is certain the testing phase will alarm the community, especially those new to the neighbourhood. In anticipation, he has updated the group’s website, and is watching the chatter on its Facebook group.
In his head, he already sees the next campaign meeting. He is thinking of what to do when the trucks start bringing in waste and he is planning to “be there when they make a mistake”.
“I expect there will be new fresh people [joining the campaign] who have not had to endure failure, who will say, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ Just like how I was.
“When I first joined the Green Party in the early 2000s, I was among Sutton Green Party members who have been members since early 1990s. They have been campaigning since then and it wears you down, you get fatigued. So maybe my role now will be as a facilitator, not an activist.”
A light bulb turns on in his head. “That’s good, isn’t it?”