From a Hangar in a Field to a Global Transport Hub: the necessary expansion of Heathrow

The proposed third runway at Heathrow is moving ever close to becoming law, sparking the protests and debates inevitable with such large infrastructure developments.

Climate change activists at the forefront of anti-expansion protests. Many have the support of their local MPs

There is little argument that Britain’s airports need greater capacity and that Heathrow’s location close to London – where most international businessmen and tourists wish to visit – made it a logical candidate for expansion. Of course there will be significant costs, not least the destruction of good chunks of the villages of Longford and Harmondsworth.

Yet such brutal decisions have precedent when it comes to Heathrow and, indeed, have helped transform the airport from an inauspicious beginning to the global transport hub that it is today.

Great West Aerodrome

In 1929 the Fairey Aviation Company purchased 60 hectares of farmland near the hamlet of Heathrow to establish a factory airfield.  A hangar was subsequently built on the land, which began operating as Great West Aerodrome in June 1930.

The airfield was used to test aircraft that had been manufactured at the Fairey Aviation Factory in Hayes.  These aircraft included the Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber and Fairey Hendon heavy bomber aircraft.

May 1931: the rather limited facilities of Great West Aerodrome; a single hangar and grass landing ground

In 1939 the airfield increased in importance, as Fairey aircraft production was stepped up to meet the wartime requirements of the Royal Navy.  In the early years of WWII the airfield was used to disperse aircraft from Royal Air Force (RAF) Northolt, a fighter station in west London.

In 1943 the airfield and surrounding countryside was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for the creation of RAF Heathrow.  This was intended to host United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) long-range bomber aircraft.  Construction work began in May 1944, requiring the total demolition of the hamlet of Heathrow.

Now you see it, now you don’t: the disappearance of Heathrow hamlet

Alas, the USAAF never required Heathrow and the airfield ended WWII having done little to turn the tide of war.

An international airport of the future

With the military having no requirement for it, Heathrow was slated as a new civilian airport for London. This was at a time when many former RAF bases were being put forward for civilian development.

London Airport, as it was known, opened in May 1946, albeit much of the airfield facilities remained under construction.

Unlike many of the wartime RAF bases, Heathrow had huge tracts of farmland surrounding it that was ripe for development. What’s more, it had never been used as an operational military base and therefore did not have to go through a decommissioning process like many others. It was, in essence, a blank canvas.

13th November 1946
1st June 1951

A convenient location on the outskirts of the capital was bolstered by the construction of the M25 to its west, resulting in a rapid expansion of Britain’s new international airport.

By 1966, the renamed Heathrow Airport was firmly established as the country’s pre-eminent international gateway. It has subsequently been progressively redeveloped, with new east-west runways and additional terminal buildings constructed.

What next?

Along with High Speed Two (HS2), the Heathrow expansion is the major infrastructure development of its generation. It is understandably controversial, likely to cost an exorbitant amount of money and turf people out of their homes.

Nevertheless, as with HS2, this is a positive statement from the British government which has demonstrated its willingness to invest in the future of a country many around the world now see as irrelevant. We want people to visit our country, to be able to access its more remote parts with convenience and at speed. That means big decisions have to be taken.

What’s more, the development will create and sustain thousands of jobs across a multitudinous supply chain.

The proposed expansion

One can obviously not take the destruction of property lightly and over-the-odds compensation should be offered to those whose homes lie in the path of the proposed third runway. Re-housing opportunities should be provided as close as possible to original dwellings at reduced prices. There cannot be a repeat of the regeneration of the East End, where residents have been turned out to the rural outskirts of the London/Essex border in the name of progress.

Distasteful to some, this is necessary. Whether the Fairey engineers back in the early 1930s thought their little aerodrome would see such expansion and cause so much controversy, I very much doubt it!


London is not England: the question of equality in the UK

“London is not only England, but to a very large extent Scotland and Wales as well…it is merely to recognize the centralization of the interests of a comparatively small and densely populated country about an urban agglomeration which contains one-fourth of its entire population, and which is at the same time its political, social, intellectual, financial and industrial capital”. (Scarborough, 1934)

London in the 1930s - a bustle familiar to today
London in the 1930s – a bustle familiar to today

Harold Scarborough made the above statement in relation to the superior standard of the London press compared with the rest of Britain yet his general point remains relevant 80 years on. London is so essential to the economic and political status of the UK that even considering to try and disseminate national influence to provincial cities may seem pointless.

This is not to say that areas outside London are unproductive or in any way worthless. It is simply that, even as a capital city and seat of government, London hoards a disproportionate amount of national power.

As such, many people are criticising the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) project, which proposes to develop a new rail link between London and Birmingham by 2026 and then on to Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds by 2032. With the costs anticipated to go beyond £50bn, and large swathes of rural heartland set to be obliterated from the map, such criticism is understandable.

What even those not affected directly by HS2 argue is that the improved commuter times and rail links will not actually rebalance the economic and political influence of the country, or create jobs further north, which is what the government hopes will happen.

Protests against HS2 flare-up periodically
Protests against HS2 flare-up periodically

Whilst businesses are unlikely to relocate further north simply because of infrastructural improvements, there could still be an indirect net gain for the provincial cities. Particularly, workers will have the potential to live further away from London and yet still commute to the capital easily. Therefore the economic catchment area of London will expand, raising the values of properties further north and hopefully leading to reinvestment by businessmen in their local communities.

The likelihood of political and trade conferences being held further north – something already being addressed by the main political parties – would also increase.

What must never be forgotten, however, is the already existing cultural and intellectual importance of Britain’s outlying counties. Home to a variety of reputed academic institutions and think-tanks, patronised by a plethora of diverse cultures, locations outside London are essential to the make-up of the UK. To overstate the ‘North-South Divide’ is damaging.

As Scarborough noted in 1934:

Among the provincial newspapers the Manchester Guardian stands head and shoulders above the rest as a national, and indeed an international force…it is, in the best sense of the terms, an intelligent, liberal, reasonable and urbane newspaper, read as carefully by its opponents as by its adherents.

Whilst sceptics might point to the fact that the Manchester Guardian is now a left-leaning, London-headquartered newspaper, it is an example of the historic intellectual and cultural contribution of the provincial cities (just look at Oxbridge for another). Whilst the decline of British manufacturing has diluted their economic contribution, that is not a reason to slander their efforts or precipitate jealous questions about London’s privileges.

The influence of the Oxbridge colleges on London politics cannot be overestimated
The influence of the Oxbridge colleges on London politics cannot be overestimated

The capital may lead but it is only as good as its constituent parts; and many of these parts originate in the so-called provinces.


Scarborough H, ‘The British Press’, Foreign Affairs (April 1934)