The government named Foulness as the place for the airport, and everybody lived happily ever after. The people of Stansted, Nuthampstead and Cublington were relieved; the airlines dreamed of expansion; the Secretary for the Environment was photographed in front of a traffic jam and spoke about “a country fit to live in”.
The saga of the Third London Airport is indeed a mass of make-believe. It began in 1965 when the government — Labour then — announced the airport and Stansted, Essex, as its site. Protests and objections made a national issue over the implied annihilation of beautiful rural surroundings. A crowd of Labour MPs were to be rebels against the proposal, until the Party Whip was applied and they almost all trotted through the lobby to vote in favour after all; a note of imitative deference to grazing flocks, at any rate. Then an Enquiry, a Commission, and other thoughts as to the site. The Isle of Sheppey, Nuthampstead, Cublington were named in turn. For each, the Stansted protests were repeated in kind and intensity. Eventually opinion settled on Foulness, helped by a commercial proposition for reclaiming its marshlands, and the final decision was the one believed-in. The whole affair is seen as some kind of triumph: for the protesters, for democracy, for concern over the quality of life.
The fact is that an accessible site for a modern airport cannot be found without destruction and making life intolerable over a large area. The town or village named is almost insignificant in the bone-shaped contour twenty-five miles long which is the pattern of activity round an airport such as the one proposed. Stansted is in itself no beauty-spot or haven: an uninteresting place on a trunk road, suburbanized by a mass of spec-built estates. Its surroundings, however, are miles of arable farm land sprinkled with villages and hamlets. (At an early stage in the Stansted row the government amiably agreed to re-align the intended runways in case jet-roar cracked the spire of Thaxted church, ten miles away.)
In the past, because the problem was smaller, there was no trouble over this kind of thing. Industry made noise, smoke, smells which rendered life dismal and disgusting. The automatic answer, however, was to place industry on the sides of cities where the proles could endure it without disturbing the well-to-do; or create areas where the same principle applied. An airport is too large to make such distinctions, though there are echoes of them in the satisfaction over Foulness — it is, after all, in the estuary below muckiest London, the nearby conurbations an East Enders’ seaside resort and a new town of Council blocks. True, there were airports before the war. But those were the days of small, less noisy planes which represented romance and trips for the rich, and there was even a certain social prestige in living near an aerodrome.
The voice of the objectors at Stansted and the other country places was predominantly the voice of the well-to-do and the socially satisfied: landowners, professional people, commuting executives, and those who had gone out of cities for a bit of peace and quiet. There is nothing discreditable in that — cities are nerve-wearing places, and a home away from them is many people’s dream. Nevertheless, there was another view of which little was heard. Had a plebiscite been taken in the area to be affected by Stansted, or any of the other rural sites, it would almost certainly have produced a strong majority in favour of the airport. For the world of leafy lanes, thatched cottages and golden cornfields is also the world of bread-and-scrape wages — farm and road labourers taking home eleven pounds a week, and their wives doing charring for their betters to try to make ends meet. For such people, the transformation of rural life appeared no tragedy. The tragedy is, indeed, that their hopes would have been disappointed: the well-paid jobs would not have materialized for them, the hoeing and ditching exchangeable only for shovelling cement on runways.
All the same, there was a certain instructiveness in the militancy of the anti-airport protesters. Respectable Citizens who condemn strikes and disparage political demonstrations talked of non-co-operation. At Cublington there was something about home-made weapons for a siege. One may see this as what people will do to protect their property or their stakes, but it is also a lesson on a political theme: the capacity to agitate, obstruct and paint slogans on walls isn’t after all exclusive to industrial workers.
What was taken for granted from the outset was that a Third London Airport was necessary. The aim of the objectors in each place was simply to direct it elsewhere — self-interest fostered by the government’s condition that opponents of Stansted at the Public Enquiry must put up an alternative site: a version of Divide and Rule. This exemplifies one of the great inescapable dilemmas of capitalism. Commerce is pre-eminent, making the life of society dependent on the flow of commodities. Their production and consumption are compulsive; yet the by-products and consequences are endless social problems which are treated as if they can somehow be separated from their cause. Thus, society wants a proliferation of cars without a traffic problem; industrial benefits without pollution; chicken on Sundays but not factory-farming; air travel without the effects which gigantic airports have on life.
The problem is exacerbated by the shape of cities, where interests and rights and expedients cross one another in a tangle from which there is no extrication. As soon as the Foulness decision was announced, plans and speculations and hopes for the airport and its influence on the near environment were laid down. The first plan, official, is for what would anyway be an obvious consequence — a new conurbation of a million people in south-east Essex, virtually completing the extension of London to the coast. The hopes were expressed in an article in the Sunday Times (2 May) by Professor Colin Buchanan: for this extension, the whole corridor from Foulness “to the gates of the City of London” to become an area of magnificent buildings and high-quality living.
The simple answers to Professor Buchanan’s hopes are in two other articles on the same day. In the first — in the same issue of the Sunday Times, in fact — three aviation writers summarize practical prospects for the airport. Almost their last word is:
But in the end it is the airlines and their demands for the future that should dictate the shape of Foulness. They will, after all, be the most important financial ingredient in the scheme.
Of course that is so. And in that connection it is worth noting that though the big scheme has gone elsewhere, commercial airlines have developed the existing Stansted airport since 1965 and are quite likely to want to continue doing so.
Still more to the ultimate point are remarks made in an interview in The Observer by Peter Walker, Secretary for the Environment. Amid much piety over preservation, pollution and the need to be “much more positive and professional” about traffic problems, he says:
If suddenly we find in a National Park the world’s greatest platinum mine, which will transform our balance of payments and enable me to get a massive amount more money from the Treasury for all sorts of new projects, I couldn’t say now I would refuse permission . . . If I decide against mineral development, to some extent I’m making a judgement against the national prosperity of the country.
Professor Buchanan’s observations are put in perspective by qualifications like these; but they also show remarkable insensitivity to what life is like for most people. He speaks, for instance, of great benefits Heathrow has brought to the west side of London — “new industries attracted, a vigorous, indeed over- vigorous housing market created, the higher paid executives of firms and airlines settling and spending their money in towns and villages in a 20-mile arc thrown west of Heathrow, and new hotels cramming themselves in near the West London Air Terminal”; and urges that Foulness should bring eastern London “a chance to get some of these goodies”.
“Goodies” — really? Does Professor Buchanan seriously argue that life in the crowded, traffic-harassed region of Heathrow airport is highly desirable? Extraordinarily, he makes no mention whatever of noise. The Observer editorial on Foulness utters similar hopes to his, but with a less enchanted view of Heathrow: “It may seem illogical that an airport should bring such benefits to the east of London when its presence to the west is rightly held to do such harm. But London puts its best face to the west, where the noise hazard is becoming intolerable.” It has been said, and illustrated, often enough that ordinary conversation is barely possible in houses in some areas round Heathrow because of aircraft noise.
The piece about “higher paid executives” settling twenty miles from Heathrow is a remarkable piece of misdirection, so ingenuous as to border insolence. The higher-paid do this, indeed: twenty miles is probably the minimum, the distance being in direct proportion to their means to get as far as possible from delectable Heathrow. Some of the bitterness at Stansted and Cublington came from employers and executives who had chosen — because they could afford — to live in pleasant surroundings a long way from what their workers had to put up with. One can be sure that the higher-paid will live as far from Foulness, too, as they can. Modern enterprises do, of course, lead to better working-class housing, but the point here touched-upon is vital. Working people are disabled over housing not only by its common inadequacy, but also in regard to mobility. Only the better-off can choose where they live.
Air travel is, on the whole, a luxury today. Some of its necessity as passenger transport may be questionable. There is a prestige element in it; and, as with other mechanized forms, an accelerated central process tends to disguise long preliminary and after-processes which often reduce what is actually gained in time. Nevertheless, it remains essential for humane and informative purpose at least. The principal problem today is not airports as such, but the size of aircraft — and this is a subject of international competition, bigger meaning better in commercial advantage.
There is no sense in saying society can do without the aeroplane. It is perfectly possible, however, to envisage and plan cities or regions incorporating airports which do not make life insufferable for everyone round them. Perhaps every airport should be a coastal one, and every plane a smaller one; perhaps a forgotten version like the flying boat offers an answer; certainly technology already knows answers to many of the problems. The possibilities are numerous enough, but their condition is a different motivation of society. The criteria for airports and air travel now, and all the things one thinks are amenities, are cost and commercial efficiency. Given the continuation of those as social measures, the airports will blight life round them. Foulness will be Heathrow again.
The alternative is to change society so as to make human choice and need the measures for innovation. Our environment is not a government department: it is the world in which we live, and technology offers us means for it to be a good world. It is not because it is still capitalism’s world. The first step to changing it is to reject the make-believe with which monster airports and squalid lives are supposed to be made acceptable, and see that the choices offered by capitalism are no choices at all.