I first remember walking along the North Woolwich Road in 1978, the year I came to London. The lively pubs my uncles – seamen from Scotland – had talked about were lively no more. Much of the area was on its last legs. The docks, which had provided so much employment for the area, were to close down just three years later, in 1981.
East London needed new sources of employment. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, formed the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) to redevelop the area. It was its chief executive Reg Ward who first proposed an airport in 1981. Community reaction was mixed with polls showing a majority of local people supporting it but also much local opposition. The then leader of the Greater London Council, Ken Livingstone, also opposed it.
However, it was given planning permission and commercial operations started on 26 October 1987 – thirty years ago.
The new airport was allowed to go-ahead on the strict basis that there would be no more than just over 30,000 flights a year using turbo-prop aircraft, the famous “whispering” planes.
Many long-term residents feel that the airport created in their midst would have been tolerable at that sort of level.
In 1989, however, just two years after its opening the airport owners submitted a planning application to extend the runway to allow the use of a larger number of aircraft types.
In 1992 the application was approved and the extended runway opened in March of that year. At the same time the glideslope was cut to 5.5 degrees to allow the larger aircraft to serve the airport. The glideslope (the angle at which planes descend) had been 7 degrees so as to reduce the number of people disturbed by the noise.
1n 1998 approval was given to increase the number of passenger flights.
In 2002 a jet centre catering for business jets was opened. They were not to be included in the total number of flights permitted to use the airport.
In 2009 the airport finally got permission to increase flights from a maximum of 80,000 – 120,000 a year.
So, within a dozen years, the number of aircraft permitted to use the airport had risen from 30,000 to 120,000. Many local people felt betrayed. Most had little option but to stay in the area.
Of course the airport brought jobs and, it is argued, attracted businesses to the area. It is the reason why Newham Council, the planning authority, continued to back it. Many local people saw it as an asset and welcomed the employment prospects it might offer their children growing up in what for many years was one of the poorest boroughs in the UK.
Only people who have never experienced the pain of unemployment would dismiss lightly any development which brings jobs. As a boy I heard stories from an earlier generation of my family who had experienced the utter despair of not having a job during the Depression in 1930s Glasgow.
It was this mission to create jobs and prosperity in East London that drove many councillors to back the expansion of the airport in the 1990s. It was a noble aim but it did leave a litany of broken promises made to residents about the noisy neighbour in their midst.
Over the years London City has developed a credible record in assisting the very local community around the airport with compensation, mitigation, training and investment in local facilities. It has done less well in looking beyond the immediate area to the impact of its flight paths on areas further afield. The most startling example of this was its decision to concentrate all its flight paths in 2016. Complaints jumped fourfold.
So, what is our 30th birthday message to City Airport? You’ve created jobs which many people value. But your activities also create air pollution and noise which can affect people’s health and quality of life.
So, three wishes as you move beyond thirty.
1. No further expansion – it is essential that the current cap on the number of planes allowed to use the airport remains. It is expected that, because of the new housing planned for the area, London City could come to impact 74,000 people which would mean it would overfly more people in the UK than any airport except Heathrow and Manchester and almost twice as many as Brussels or Schiphol.
2. No concentrated flight paths – the concentrated flight paths have created noise ghettos in areas across east and south east London. The Civil Aviation Authority is currently assessing how the flight paths have worked during their first year of operation. A solution needs to be found which provides some relief for the people of the noise ghetto.
3. No increase in noise and pollution – planes are becoming a little quieter and cleaner. The way to ensure residents benefit from that is to make sure that the current cap on the number of flights permitted to use it each year remains.
And one more thing. Moving forward, no more broken promises?
Chair HACAN East