Archive of the Month January 2020

A New Airport for London

Our references:  AR 32/2008; AR 21/2005; AR 8/2019



The material depicted was created by two different sides in the debate surrounding the location of a third airport for London during the 1960s and the 1970s: the Wing Airport Resistance Association and the Roskill Commission appointed by the UK Government. During 2020 we will be exploring Space and Place in Buckinghamshire; what better way to start than looking at a major infrastructure development and peoples’ attempt to preserve their area.

Wing Airport Resistance Association leaflet circa 1971

Air travel began to boom in the 1960s as prices of overseas holidays came within reach of more of the population.  Existing airports Heathrow and Gatwick were not enough to cater for growth in demand across the south-east of England and London.  At the highest levels of Government this was accepted, however, where to put a new airport?  This airport was to have four runways, more than at Heathrow, and a new town to support it.  The idea was controversial not just because of the disruption to a rural site, but because no one wanted it on their doorstep due to the noise associated with big jet aircraft.


Harold Wilson’s Labour Government established the Roskill Commission, a seven-man panel charged with hearing submissions from all interested parties regarding potential four sites (whittled down from an original seventy eight). The commission met from 1968 to 1970 and the enquiry was conducted in five stages.  We have a full set of the findings of the Commission, which were published in 1971 (AR 21/2005).


The first stage was a preliminary stage before the four sites, all very rural, were announced. Stage Two saw the commission unveil their four preferred locations, in four separate counties: Foulness on the Essex coast; Nuthampstead in north-east Hertfordshire a few miles from Royston; Thurleigh a few miles north of Bedford and Cublington. Perhaps because of its aviation associations, the Cublington site was more often known as Wing. The Stage Two hearings were conducted close to each of the four sites in turn.


The four county councils involved opposed the plans and Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire worked particularly closely to oppose Wing and Thurleigh. In addition to the county councils other bodies such as environmental groups opposed the plans and local groups were formed to fight the proposals such as Wing Airport Resistance Association (WARA) and Bedford Airport Resistance Association (BARA). The Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies has archives from the county council and from WARA AR 32/2008.


Front page of Volume 23 of the Report of the Roskill Commission

Stage Three saw a research team appointed by the Commission to carry out investigations in order to produce a report. Technical submissions from interested parties were received and studied. Stage Four saw a series of meetings at which the Commission, the research team and representatives of those parties who had been granted leave to appear at Stage Five discussed aspects of the research team's report.


Stage Five was a gruelling 74 days of hearings which took place at the Piccadilly Hotel in London during which all interested parties stated their case and underwent cross-examination from counsel employed by other parties. The hearings were broken down into seven types of evidence as follows: Subject A: Principles and Methods of Valuation in the Cost/Benefit Analysis; Subject B: the Timing of the Need for the Airport; Subject C: Air Matters (i.e. air traffic control, the effect on other airports and on defence installations and air safety). Subject D: Site Matters (airport design, location, construction & layout and meteorology Subject E: Surface Transport Subject F: Environment & Planning, including Noise and Urbanisation Subject G: Any Other Relevant Matters (including financial implications).


A list of those making submissions about Cublington, other than the county council and WARA, included: Oxfordshire County Council; Milton Keynes development Corporation; British Airports Authority; British European Airways; British Overseas Airways Corporation; British Rail; British Gliding Association; London Gliding Club (based at Dunstable Downs); British Association for Control of Aircraft Noise; Noise Abatement Society; RSPB; Country Landowners Association; Council for the Protection of Rural England and the National Trust.


Not all the various groups worked together, as can be imagined, some were keen to see one of the other sites chosen instead of their own. For example, as the commission drew to a close WARA advocated building the airport at Thurleigh.


Leaflets produced by the Wing Airport Resistance Association circa 1971

At the end of the process the Commission recommended, on a majority decision, that the Third London Airport, together with its surrounding "Airport City" should be sited at Wing on the basis, as ever, of cost-benefit analysis. At this point the chairman of WARA wrote to BARA asking for its help in fighting the decision despite WARA’s action in supporting the Thurleigh site! BARA sent a positive reply.


One member of the Commission, town planner Colin Buchanan, dissented from the decision, believing that Foulness was the best option and building at Cublington would be an “environmental disaster”. Can anyone now imagine an airport bigger than Heathrow in quiet Cublington, with a sprawling airport city surrounding it effectively joining Aylesbury and Leighton Buzzard in a conurbation rivalling Milton Keynes in size?


In the event the Wing option was discarded and the government of the day (Edward Heath’s Conservatives) eventually decided to build the new airport at Maplin Sands (Essex), not far from the original Foulness site.


However, in July 1974, the Maplin project was abandoned. Harold Wilson’s second administration then considered other options, including making Luton into London's third airport. By December 1979 Margaret Thatcher’s first administration considered the expansion of Stansted airport to be the best solution.

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