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Why does London have more airports than any other city, anyway?

London has more airports than any other major city - which is a bit odd, really. This video helpfully explains why.

When you think about it, London does seem to have a lot more airports than it should. In descending order in terms of number of passengers per year, there's Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City and Southend, which is ridiculous, as YouTube vlogger and musician Jay Foreman explains in episode three of his Unfinished London series.

Believe me when I say it's a bit exciting (if you're a sad infrastructure geek like me) that Foreman's actually got around to making a third episode - it's been three years since episode two, and the first one came out in 2009. They're witty walkthroughs of the ways London's stop-start, never-finishes-what-it-starts approach to urban planning has made the city what it is today. Episode one deals with the Northern Heights plan, which would have connected the stub of the Northern line with Mill Hill East on it with Edgware, and likely have brought with it thousands of new homes in what is now, still, a semi-rural area; episode two is about the Ringways, which would have seen London surrounded by four ring roads, of which the M25 is the main survivor (and which was abandoned halfway through, thus why the "south circular" isn't).

Episode three, though, is about the capital's airports, which are mostly built on what were aerodromes built in the inter-war period by wealthy plane nuts indulging their hobby, who in turn saw a money-making opportunity in accepting passengers. Yet the first airport in the city, Croydon Airport, couldn't survive after the Second World War as its runways weren't long enough for new, larger planes, and neither could most of the other aerodromes or airports, which found themselves surrounded by urban sprawl. We have Heathrow where it is because it was near the edge of the city, with enough room to be the city's main airport - and Gatwick is even further out because it was the best candidate of the nearby RAF airfields to be London's backup. And, as they in turn became constrained by planning issues, Stansted (an RAF airfield) and Luton (a small regional airport meant to serve the Home Counties) were commandeered to serve ever-growing London. City was part of Canary Wharf's regeneration, and Southend is the most-recent, becoming London Southend as part of a rebranding exercise. That brings us to six.

This is only civilian airports doing international flights, though, because "airport" is a fuzzy definition. There are nearly 20 further airfields and aerodromes within Greater London and just outside it, as well as RAF Northolt - and then there's the fact that some airports that aren't meant to serve London are, nevertheless, as close as some of those that are (like Lydd Airport in Kent), while some that say they're meant to serve London (looking at you, "London" Oxford Airport) probably don't in practice. If you include all these extra types of airport then, well, it's probably impossible to judge who has the most - a city like Los Angeles, or Moscow, will easily match London on it.

Worth noting, too, that Foreman points out that a Thames Estuary airport was first proposed back in the 1970s, before London did what it's always done - take an existing airfield instead, and expand it. History has a funny way of repeating itself.

Here's hoping episode three, part two doesn't take another three years to arrive.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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