How many airports does London have?

Gatwick: not, technically, in London. Image: Getty.

How many airports does London have? This feels like it should be a question with a simple and straightforward answer, turns out not to be anything of the sort, and – this is key – concerns a type of transport infrastructure. That makes it CityMetric gold, so let’s have at it.

If we’re going to be absolute purists about this, the answer is just two. The only airports inside the city limits are Heathrow, the behemoth 16 miles to the west, and City, a minnow (Is a minnow the opposite of a behemoth? best check - Ed.), nine miles to the east. So if you want to know how many airports are actually in London, the answer is just two.

Except we don’t hold with official but largely arbitrary city limits around here – honestly, we explained why in one of our very earliest articles, nearly five years ago now – and anyway how many airports are in London is not the same as how many airports London has. Which you can tell from the fact that most of London’s slightly silly number of airports are missing from our list.

London’s second airport, on any measure of size you can find, is Gatwick, located in Sussex, 28 miles to the south of the city and about eight south of its current boundaries. There’s also Stansted (39 miles north-north east in Essex) and Luton (34 miles north-north west in Bedfordshire). Between the three of them, these guys actually move more planes and more passengers than Heathrow does. As our future descendants will one day curse, as the sea laps around their ankles somewhere in the Peak District, London has a lot of air capacity.

But the London airport system – the list of airports online booking systems will consider if you ask for a flight to or from “London (all airports)” – actually includes a sixth option. That’s the tiny London Southend Airport, 40 miles to the east on the Essex coast.

At the moment it handles only about a third of the traffic of even City. It also takes the better part of an hour to get to from London, on a stopping train from Liverpool Street to Southend Victoria. This, one suspects, is the reason why – even though it’s only a mile further away from the city centre than Stansted – it tends to be the only official London airport that sees large number of people on social media whining about how it shouldn’t really be considered a London airport at all.

At any rate: a better answer for how many airports London has is six. It has six airports. Six.

Lydd is the optimistically named London Ashford Airport, which is actually closer to Lille. Look, just don’t ask, okay? Image: Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons.

Except... well.

For a start, there’s London Oxford Airport out in, well, you can probably guess. That’s, give or take, about 56 miles from the centre of the capital. It’s not an official London airport – not in the aforementioned London Airport System – but it brands itself as London Oxford because, well, you would, wouldn’t you?


Then there’s Southampton Airport. that doesn’t seem to have ever branded itself as London Southampton, best I can tell, though that surprised me a bit because I could have sworn that I once flew from it and it did. What seems to have happened here is that sometimes airlines refer to it as London Southampton in an attempt to get me, and more fool me because it worked.

Anyway. That’s a whole 66 miles from the capital, and takes just over 1hr10 by train, but that’s only 20 minutes longer than Southend so maybe they should chance their arm.

And then there’s Birmingham Airport. Okay, I know this is getting silly now because Birmingham is an entirely different city, and on a strict distance measure it’s 96 miles from London, which is nearly 100 miles, which is a bloody long way.

Except for two things. Firstly, the train journey is 1hr14 which is, to within the margin of error, the same length of time it takes from “London” Southampton airport. That’s only on fast, and so expensive, Virgin trains admittedly. But that leads us to our second thing: in the event High Speed 2 ever happens, it’ll come with a whole new Birmingham Interchange station which, like the already existing Birmingham International, will also serve Birmingham Airport.

At which point two things will happen:

1) The trains from London to Birmingham Interchange will be even quicker;

2) The trains from London to Birmingham International will become, at least relatively speaking, cheaper, in an attempt to compete;

And a third thing will very probably happen too:

3) Some bright spark will come up with the idea of rebranding it as London Birmingham Airport because, once again, you would, wouldn’t you?

At any rate. London has a lot of airports, it has an indeterminate number of airports, and the London Airport System seems likely to grow rather than shrink.

Don’t get me started on private airports, life’s too short.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.