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Transport / Mass transit

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

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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