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.


 

 
 
 
 

Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.