Forget Heathrow – here’s why we should shut down London City Airport

Up, up and away. Oh wait, that's balloons, isn't it? Never mind. Image: Getty.

Zac Goldsmith, the people’s dog-whistle-prone freedom fighter against the scourge of Heathrow expansion, has lost his pointless and taxpayers’-money-wasting campaign to be re-elected as an independent MP for Richmond Park & North Kingston in an unnecessary by-election that he himself forced. Sad!

But in the midst of all this Heathrow grandstanding, preceded as it was by the advert-scattered battle between Heathrow and Gatwick, another London “hub” has been quietly expanding.

In July, Philip Hammond, Chris Grayling and Sajid Javid clubbed together in their new roles as chancellor, transport secretary, and communities and local government secretary respectively, and announced a £344m expansion programme for London City Airport. The plan included an extended terminal, new taxi lanes, and more parking spaces for places.

In the immortal words of Liz Truss, that is a disgrace.

The case for the prosecution

London City Airport pretending to be a legitimate and valid airport is a bit like how Liechtenstein pretends to be a country. Or how Daniel Hannan pretends to be a politician. Stop trying to make it happen. It’s not going to happen.

When it was opened in 1987 in the midst of the money-mad Thatcher years, its developers must have thought they were jolly clever. Some land between two docks, shaped like a runway, right slap-bang next to the unfortunate bit of East London they had chosen to become banker-central? Wow!

Except, not. It’s too small for most big aircraft. The biggest plane that can stop there is the Airbus A318 – a plane that can just about manage transatlantic flights to New York, but only if it can stop at Shannon in Ireland on the way out there so that it can pick up a bit more fuel.

It has no jet bridges, either (those are the gangways that you walk through to get onto a plane). So the only way your average FT-reading Canary Wharf pinstriper can board his morning flight to Zurich is to suffer the indignation of walking along the tarmac and going up some stairs. It doesn’t even have any space for covered aircraft hangars, meaning there’s nowhere to do any serious repair work on damaged planes.

It’s not even like the airport is wildly popular, either. In September, British Airways killed off one of its twice-daily all-business class flights to New York from London City citing economic reasons – in other words, it couldn’t sell enough tickets. Sure, passenger numbers ticked up by 15 per cent between 2014 and 2015, but put that in gross figures, and that’s an increase of just under 600,000. Compare that with Heathrow, which gained 1.6m in the same period. When you think about all the new developments in housing and business in the area, it’s perhaps surprising the airport hasn’t grown faster, until you remember IT CAN’T EVEN GET YOU TO NEW YORK PROPERLY.

Approximately 125,000 people live within two miles of the hustle, bustle, pollution, noise, and aggravation of London City Airport. Sure, lots of people live near Heathrow, too, but does Heathrow have the country’s most densely populated area just round the corner? Is it about to have Western Europe’s tallest residential building erected three miles away? No.

What’s more, for all the whining from the locals, Heathrow has been there since 1929 (though admittedly, much of its growth came after the war). Almost everyone who lives there now arrived since then, and it’s safe to say they probably knew there was an airport there. When London City was slapped down in the 1980s, the poor unassuming inhabitants of East London certainly hadn’t budgeted for it.

It doesn’t even make that much money. London City Airport takes up 500,000m2 of prime Zone 3 territory, and makes around £100m a year. That works out at roughly £200 per square metre per year.

Just a hop and a skip away, the ExCel Exhibition Center is a similarly gargantuan structure that might not seem all that useful. But at 45,000m2, it pulls in around £500m a year, making about £1,100 per square metre per year – more than five times more than London City.

But it’s so close to crucial business passengers! Well, yeah – but in the spirit of 2016, aren’t we supposed to be taking back control from the wealthy elites of the City and Canary Wharf? What’s more, Crossrail will make Heathrow closer than ever, whilst improvements to Thameslink services should change the way a flight from Gatwick often feels like a death sentence. Also, cry me a river.

Land of opportunity

So, what to do? In this year’s mayoral campaign, the Green Party candidate Sian Berry proposed shutting it down and converting it into housing, but because it’s the Green Party a sum total of zero people took the idea seriously.

But the idea had some credibility, and similar things have been done before. Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport is now a park beloved by high-level cool hipsters; Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong is slowly being converted into grim-but-authentic hi-rise housing blocks; Edmonton City Centre Airport in Canada is becoming a rather nice town-within-a-town.

Look at all this lovely land. Image: Getty.

London City was bought by a suspicious-sounding consortium, comprising Alberta Investment Management Corporation, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and Wren House, in March 2016 for £2bn. Sian Berry’s idea was that we lobby the new owners to shut it down, on the premise or promise that you could make a whole load more money if you converted it to lovely flats and shops and schools and houses.

Business mogul super-rich owner-types don’t have a great track record of doing what you want them to. But what if the Government just straight up went and bought it off them? Even if they paid £2.5bn for it – a handsome 25 per cent return within a year on the consortium’s investment – that capital expenditure would be an investment of very good value.

London City Island, the newly-developed Lea Peninsula, is 12 acres in size, and host to 1,706 new apartments. The site of London City Airport is around 120 acres. If apartments were built at a similar density, you could in theory build 17,000 homes.

Say you split those properties in half and kept one group to rent as social housing – sorely needed – and sold the other half privately. Selling 8,500 units around the average price for the borough of £352,211 would raise £2,993,793,500. Spruce up a few of them into swanky penthouses and you’ll easily hit the £3bn mark. Job done.

Rent out the remaining 8,500 units at a price a healthy dose below the borough average of £1,234 per calendar month, and you net £102m a year. In ten years, the government would have almost doubled the cost of buying the airport in the first place. Not bad going, huh?

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @jacko_may.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.