1. Economics
October 26, 2016updated 04 Aug 2023 9:32am

The decision to expand Heathrow is a betrayal of the Attlee government's New Towns programme

By Nick Hilton

We have a housing crisis in 2016: that much is relatively uncontroversial. But compared to the housing crisis in 1946, it’s fairly small time.

In the years after the Second World War, Britain, and particularly London, faced up to the reality of the destruction wrought by the German Luftwaffe. One in three homes had been damaged during the war, with 250,000 left uninhabitable and a further 250,000 severely damaged.

Exacerbating this was the fact that, before the war, the government had been building an unprecedented 350,000 new houses per year – a supply that was cut off by the outbreak of war.

In 1945, the government estimated that, to afford separate houses to each family requesting one, some 750,000 houses would need to be built. Over the next few years, Britain’s government would undertake the most aggressive, ambitious house-building programme of modern times.

Why is this relevant in 2016? The long-awaited verdict on airport expansion has been delivered and awarded a third runway to Heathrow. Alongside HS2, this will form the most ambitious infrastructure project of the next two decades, creating, in its wake, jobs, housing, and civic construction.

It is perhaps unsurprising, given the coagulation of air industry interests in the Heathrow project, that the West London site has been selected – but it risks further disavowing the housing projects set in motion by the Attlee government of 1946.

Facing up to the reality of overspill slum dwellings in London, the Labour government of 1946 – coordinated by Nye Bevan, the minister of health with responsibility for housing – put in place the legislation to create a series of new towns, predominantly in satellite positions around London. Seven decades later, these towns are busy but also much-maligned. Despite being inextricably linked to the post-war philosophy, these towns took decades to build and populate; by that time, public opinion had turned against them, as costs rose and fashions changed. A political football, kicked from Attlee’s Labour government back to the Tories, and then back to Labour in 1964, nobody wanted to claim ownership of the project.

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And now, Theresa May, the 14th different prime minister since the creation of the New Towns, has foregone her responsibility to them. For all the talk of environmental and noise issues, and resident disapproval, the expansion of an airport brings with it security and prosperity – it is fundamentally a good thing for any community. Heathrow expansion privileges West London suburbs, particularly Hounslow, and the town of Slough (not a New Town, though it is often mistaken for one due to its unfortunate architecture), where industry is already due to be consolidated by the arrival of HS2. That’s without mentioning that Heathrow is already the busiest airport in Europe and 6th busiest in the world. Further development of Heathrow risks over-centralising London’s aviation industry on a single site – jeopardising the success of a housing project that’s been 70 years in the making.

The problem of Crawley

The New Towns Act was not just designed to draw residents out of London, but also jobs. The expansion of Gatwick after the Second World War provided an industrial hub for the South-East that facilitated a decentralisation of housing development.

Without that concurrent development, neither the business-oriented New Town of Crawley or the cultural capital of Brighton would’ve been able to thrive as they have done. The Attlee government’s strategy was to push jobs out of the London metropolis, into areas where cost-effective housing could be built; by putting all our eggs into the Heathrow basket, we are disadvantaging a precarious situation in the South-East.

Much has been made of the employment health of the areas surrounding Gatwick, but the reality is that they are highly dependent on the airport. Companies such as Thales, Virgin and Novo Nordisk are headquartered in the area due to its transport links. The imbalance that will be created in the capacity of Heathrow and Gatwick will not simply create jobs in Berkshire, it will take jobs away from Sussex.

If the New Towns Act were being written now, it would share many of the philosophies of the Northern Powerhouse, albeit with more socialist ideology. Since expansion of Manchester airport was not viable under the proposals offered to the 2012 Airport Commission, many held Heathrow up as the “rest of the UK” option, apparently under the fallacious impression that Gatwick is somehow hemmed in by London.

It’s not: Gatwick is better supplied by rail from major London hubs like Victoria, Euston, London Bridge, and Liverpool Street, and whilst only served by the M23, that road is less busy than the nightmarish M25/M3/ M40 axis that serves Heathrow. More to the point, both Gatwick and Heathrow fall in the South-East region, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. We must understand and accept that this decision was, in its essence, about how best to distribute the inherent London privilege.

Decentralisation of industry was written into the founding documents of the New Towns, but with the government’s expansion of Heathrow we are creating an homogenous and insuperable air monolith. Travel is one of our most important industries, even in this post-Brexit world. And putting the arguments for cost and construction aside, the government has a responsibility to follow through on the promises of a reconstruction programme started in our country’s darkest hour and which is still thriving in the murky twilight of today.

In his final report outlining the project before it went to parliament, Lord Reith called the New Towns “an essay in civilization”. That essay is being unwritten, and it is those in need of jobs and housing who will lose out.

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