Green party London mayor candidate Sian Berry has revealed her party’s plans to close London City airport, and replace it instead with a new settlement.
Berry says that a developed site would “create at least 16,000 more jobs than the airport provides” and could be the site for thousands of new homes. A visual drawn by architects Ash Sakura outlines a series of buildings of up to nine stories in city blocks, developed either side of the existing airport runway.
With the airport said to be currently up for sale as a going concern, Berry and local Green party supporters in Newham are lobbying for a buyer to taken on the £2 billion investment, but to instead develop the site for alternative uses.
Berry’s arguments draw on an argument advanced in April 2014 by think tank the New Economics Foundation, which argued for the closure of the airport on the basis it creates little value, costs jobs, unfairly makes local residents bear the costs, and is no longer needed. It claimed the airport delivers just £110m in economic contribution to the economy, compared with £513m delivered by the nearby ExCel exhibition centre, from a smaller footprint on the ground.
“Our vision for this extraordinary site is of the site broken up into smaller plots, with a range of tenures for housing, including non-profit models such as co-operatives, co-housing, community land trusts and self-build, sitting alongside innovative businesses,” says the Green party.
The DLR would be extended along the spine of the site, with development built around car free streetscapes, with open air markets, shared roof gardens and cycling encouraged.
Berry says that other air transport infrastructure can accommodate the flights currently handled by City Airport, which sees just 4.3m passengers a year, or 1.5% of the UK’s passenger numbers.
“The airport will become even more irrelevant once Crossrail opens and provides a fast connection between Canary Wharf and Heathrow. And it’s holding back London’s economic potential, undermining the existing enterprise zone here in Newham, and causing untold health and environmental problems to thousands of local residents.”
The idea of closing and reusing an airport does have some international track record. Denver, Colorado closed Stapleton airfield due to environmental considerations. In Europe, Munich closed Reim airport in 1992, while the City of Helsinki is said to be considering the closure of Malmi airport, for redevelopment with homes for up to 25,000 people.
Architect Cany Ash said of the plans put forward: “The runway of City airport is a dramatic strategic territory easily reabsorbed back into the urban fabric of London, no longer a block but a catalyst to the organic expansion of London eastwards. London, like Amsterdam and Hamburg, might have recognised the opening up of the Docklands as a unique opportunity to reinvent the city. The deep East End should be a place of experiment worthy of its entrepreneurial past. Floating villages, urban beaches and cable cars are foolish distractions from the business of city making. Meanwhile, seemingly random commercial developments continue to line the docks with little interest in incubating authentic forms of neighbourhood or reconnecting to the big city life.”
Meanwhile, this month should see a shortlist of bidders for the airport decided. Current owner Global Infrastructure Partners will sell the airport on, having owned the asset since 2006 and paid around £750m for it. Passenger numbers have doubled to 4m a year since 2005.
Further growth is planned, with Newham council approving a £200m investment that would grow the airport’s capacity to 6m a year by 2023. But mayor Boris Johnson overturned the decision, arguing that growth would “lead to an unacceptable increase in noise for east Londoners and would not be for the greater benefit of the city”. The airport has appealed Johnson’s decision, and awaits an inspector’s verdict sometime this year.
LPA Perspective: The Green party vision of a new settlement in the Royal Docks is an idyllically drawn view of development that can never practically happen. But its utopian ideas could, perhaps, help feed into some other schemes now starting to take shape around the Royals. The design could easily migrate to the north side of the docks, where Chinese investors are now promising to start work, or help inform developments yet to appear immediately to the west.
As for the airport, it will celebrate 30 years of flights next year, and right from the start of its existence has had to fight for the right to be in its current location. It has grown in scale, without substantially blighting additional sites around it, while presenting a compelling supporting case for international companies looking to locate in Canary Wharf, and in east London. What started out offering flights to Plymouth, now sees two departures to New York as well as connections to a host of European cities. Aircraft have become quieter and cleaner in that time, and the airport has established itself as a sufficiently good neighbour, that Newham planners saw fit to approve its idea for further expansion.
With growth has come a substantial uplift in commercial value. Such that buying the site for £2bn is unlikely to deliver anything like a return from building a new settlement on it.
Suggesting that airport passengers can simply jump on Crossrail and fly from Heathrow instead rather misses several points about the type of flights offered at the two airports; and the relative efficiency of the two airports, when passing through as a passenger.
The logic for putting the airport in the Royals in the first place still stands. The area is still poorly linked, with a lack of connections across the river, and in the almost 30 years that the airport has been running, there has been stuttering progress to develop nearby sites. That’s clearly not been down to any blight from the airport, more down to economic realities. So there’s plenty of other space to develop in the Royals, before City Airport needs to come under any pressure to go.