The central London airports that (mostly) never were

Battersea Helipad: not quite the Sci-Fi central London aerodrome 1930s visionaries had in mind. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Last week the government finally (maybe) ended years of banging on about London airports by endorsing a plan to build a new runway at Heathrow, as opposed to Gatwick, or in the middle of the Thames as Boris Johnson was obsessed with doing for some reason.

The thing is, none of these places are really in London, are they? Okay, Heathrow might say it’s in London, but we all know it might as well be in Berkshire. But back at the dawn of air travel London’s planners and architects had dreams of far more convenient airports, right in the heart of the capital.

King's Cross

In 1931, architect Charles Glover proposed that Kings Cross could double as an airport  - in his plan, three half mile long runways would be built on top of a network of buildings in the area, intersecting to form a giant wheel in the sky. Unfortunately, even if it had been built, the entire enterprise would by now have been obsolete for decades, since commercial runways are now nearly three times as long as those in Glover’s design.

 

Westminster

Still more practical than the garden bridge, Lumley. Image: Popular Science/Public Domain

This charmingly bizarre suggestion from the 1930s would have involved constructing a gigantic bridge right next to the houses of Parliament – the interior would form a hanger, the roof the runways. Unfortunately there’s not much evidence this was anything more than the fevered imaginings of an artist working for Popular Science magazine and it’s hard to imagine it being a goer with politicians, for fairly obvious reasons.

Liverpool Street

After the Second World War, another rooftop airport was proposed to the east, this time to take advantage of Liverpool Street’s transport links – the design would have featured five skyscrapers constructed in ‘formation’, with two crossed landing strips passing over their roofs, though architects Lindy and Lewis were primarily thinking of it as landing place for the newly invented helicopter, rather than for planes.

 

Hyde Park

In the 1970s the British Institute of Geographers published a report making the case that should London need increased airport capacity, a cost-benefit analysis demonstrated that Hyde Park was in fact the ideal site, not least for reasons of convenience. This was picked up by the Sunday Times, who had apparently failed to notice that author John Adams was an anti-expansion campaigner satirising the controversial decisions of the Roskill commission, then considering a location for a third major London airport. Still, a retired Air Vice-Marshall wrote to the paper congratulating all concerned on their “courage”, so the non-existent project had at least one fan.

Waterloo

The 1950s and 60s saw a whole range of over-optimistic proposals to accommodate helicopters – thirty years after his first Kings Cross airport proposal, Charles Grover had another suggestion – Covent Garden market was then looking for a new home, so he proposed another development at Kings Cross, with a helipad on top of a new covered market. Other proposed heliport sites included St Katherine Docks by Tower Bridge and the roof of Charing Cross station: in the end none of these came to fruition.

In the end, the closest thing central London ever got to an airport was Waterloo Air Terminal, which in 1955 offered passengers the options of being flown by helicopter to Heathrow, where they could board planes to their final destination. The economics of this never quite worked as it was mostly used by people who just wanted to have a go on a helicopter, with no intention of meeting a flight; the service was dropped after less than a year.

Sadly these days if you’re absolutely desperate to get into central London by air, the closest you can get London Heliport, a small jetty over the Thames in an unremarkable bit of Battersea. But you can always sit on the top deck of the number 19 bus into town and pretend it's a really low flying plane.


 

 
 
 
 

Budget 2017: Philip Hammond just showed that rejecting metro mayors was a terrible, terrible error

Sorry, Leeds, nothing here for you: Philip Hammond and his big red box. Image: Getty.

There were some in England’s cities, one sensed, who breathed a sigh of relief when George Osborne left the Treasury. Not only was he the architect of austerity, a policy which had seen council budgets slashed as never before: he’d also refused to countenance any serious devolution to city regions that refused to have a mayor, an innovation that several remained dead-set against.

So his political demise after the Brexit referendum was seen, in some quarters, as A Good Thing for devolution. The new regime, it was hoped, would be amenable to a variety of governance structures more sensitive to particular local needs.

Well, that theory just went out of the window. In his Budget statement today, in between producing some of the worst growth forecasts that anyone can remember and failing to solve the housing crisis, chancellor Philip Hammond outlined some of the things he was planning for Britain’s cities.

And, intentionally or otherwise, he made it very clear that it was those areas which had accepted Osborne’s terms which were going to win out. 

The big new announcement was a £1.7bn “Transforming Cities Fund”, which will

“target projects which drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and utilising new mobility services and technology”.

To translate this into English, this is cash for better public transport.

And half of this money will go straight to the six city regions which last May elected their first metro mayor elections. The money is being allocated on a per capita basis which, in descending order of generosity, means:

  • £250m to West Midlands
  • £243 to Greater Manchester
  • £134 to Liverpool City Region
  • £80m to West of England
  • £74m to Cambridgeshire &d Peterborough
  • £59m to Tees Valley

That’s £840m accounted for. The rest will be available to other cities – but the difference is, they’ll have to bid for it.

So the Tees Valley, which accepted Osborne’s terms, will automatically get a chunk of cash to improve their transport system. Leeds, which didn’t, still has to go begging.

One city which doesn’t have to go begging is Newcastle. Hammond promised to replace the 40 year old trains on the Tyne & Wear metro at a cost of £337m. In what may or may not be a coincidence, he also confirmed a new devolution deal with the “North of Tyne” region (Newcastle, North Tyne, Northumberland). This is a faintly ridiculous geography for such a deal, since it excludes Sunderland and, worse, Gateshead, which is, to most intents and purposes, simply the southern bit of Newcastle. But it’s a start, and will bring £600m more investment to the region. A new mayor will be elected in 2018.

Hammond’s speech contained other goodies for cites too, of course. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • £123m for the regeneration of the Redcar Steelworks site: that looks like a sop to Ben Houchen, the Tory who unexpectedly won the Tees Valley mayoral election last May;
  • A second devolution deal for the West Midlands: tat includes more money for skills and housing (though the sums are dwarfed by the aforementioned transport money);
  • A new local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester, as well as exploring “options for the future beyond the Fund, including land value capture”;
  • £300m for rail improvements tied into HS2, which “will enable faster services between Liverpool and Manchester, Sheffeld, Leeds and York, as well as to Leicester and other places in the East Midlands and London”.

Hammond also made a few promises to cities beyond England: opening negotiations for a Belfast City Deal, and pointing to progress on city deals in Dundee and Stirling.


A city that doesn’t get any big promises out of this budget is – atypically – London. Hammond promised to “continue to work with TfL on the funding and financing of Crossrail 2”, but that’s a long way from promising to pay for it. He did mention plans to pilot 100 per cent business rate retention in the capital next year, however – which, given the value of property in London, is potentially quite a big deal.

So at least that’s something. And London, as has often been noted, has done very well for itself in most budgets down the year.

Many of the other big regional cities haven’t. Yet Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby were all notable for their absence, both from Hammond’s speech and from the Treasury documents accompanying it.

And not one of them has a devolution deal or a metro mayor.

(If you came here looking for my thoughts on the housing element of the budget speech, then you can find them over at the New Statesman. Short version: oh, god.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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