Heathrow, has outlived its usefulness. Let's turn it into the world's greatest New Town
The Foster proposal is about far more than an airport and is based on serious research into the future of the UK economy, writes Paul Finch
Let’s face it, Heathrow is a lousy location for an airport. An almost accidental development, it was never envisaged as having to handle the current volume of traffic, let alone the anticipated increases now prompting demands for its expansion. Air traffic was a gentler matter pre-1939 - only warfare filled the skies with planes. In 1943 Lutyens envisaged a new London Airport on the South Bank (honestly). The remnant of that idea is London City Airport - in a better location but certainly not suitable for major expansion.
MPs are ‘demanding’ Heathrow be given an additional runway or two, oblivious to the noise that blights the lives of millions of Londoners. Airlines and the private company that owns Heathrow frequently collude to sanction illegal night or early-morning flights that add insult to injury. (I have not believed anything the Heathrow authorities have said about their future plans, ever since they told outright lies at the public inquiry into Terminal 5, when they said they had no plans for a further runway or terminal - in fact engineers and architects were already commissioned to work on both.)
Boris Johnson and Norman Foster, who are promoting rival alternative schemes, have responded vigorously to the transport select committee. They were too polite to comment on its make-up, but I have no reservations about saying the MPs involved are inappropriate people to make recommendations about any part of London.
Here are the areas that they represent: Liverpool, Wycombe, Rotherham, Heywood & Middleton (Manchester), Spelthorne (Surrey), Redditch, Lincoln, Manchester Central, Torbay, Milton Keynes, Blackley & Broughton (Manchester again). What a ridiculous geographical grouping. No wonder David Cameron asked Sir Howard Davies to conduct an independent review, which was rumoured to like the idea of expanding Gatwick.
As readers of this column may recall, I support the Foster + Partners proposal because it is about far more than just an airport and is based on seriously impressive research into the future of the UK economy, its infrastructure needs, and how a new airport helps to complete the picture. The architecture at this stage is neither here nor there. This long-term strategic vision is infinitely preferable to Richard Branson’s default position that if another Heathrow runway suits his short-term interests, it must be good for the UK.
However, what is certain under the Foster proposal is the demise of Heathrow as an airport. Since I have long regarded it as the 21st century equivalent of the Royal Docks, this makes sense to me. You can shut big airports when they have outlived their usefulness - look at Hong Kong Kai Tak and Berlin Tempelhof. Tired arguments about deleterious economic impact ignore the dynamic economic effects of new or expanded airports in other areas.
Moreover, the closure of Heathrow would create the most extraordinary opportunity to resolve the long-term housing deficit in the capital: it should become the world’s greatest 21st century New Town, an exemplar development in terms of design, planning, infrastructure, energy, community and employment. It is a chance to think seriously about long-term issues of density, resource consumption and new patterns of living.
What might be done with a redundant Heathrow is now the element which needs consideration in order to inform a truly balanced decision about where the UK, in the long term, locates its major world airport. In the short term, Stansted or Gatwick. But please let’s accept that the populations affected by Heathrow noise pollution need their misery, eventually, ended.