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