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Long battle

1967: ‘People before planes’ – the Stanstead airport battle

15 November 2016

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The Battle of Stansted, long drawn out and agonizing, has reached another critical stage. When the attack on the apparently impregnably fortified lines of technological bureaucracy began, it seemed incredible that the lightly armed attacking forces would be able to make any headway at all through the morasses of official secrecy and duplicity or produce any impression on the deep concrete dug-outs of the ministries. But their élan and their indignant sense of the essential rightness of their cause has sustained them and carried them forward to the point of pushing back the stubborn defenders and even coming in sight of the possibility of a total victory.

Mr. Anthony Crosland, the new commander of the defending forces, is by no means so dedicated an exponent of the aggressive offensive-defensive as his predecessor at the Board of Trade, Mr. Douglas Jay. The first result of his assumption of the command has been a tactical withdrawal from his most exposed positions in the shape of a government decision to re-align the runways at the proposed new airport, so as to halve the number of people in the area affected by aircraft noise. This concession would add several million pounds to the cost of the scheme.

White and Black

Meanwhile a dangerous attack has developed on the flank of the defenders’ position at the White Paper redoubt, which was thought to have effectively covered that sector of their line. Here formidable reinforcements for the attackers have appeared, led by Mr. J. W. S. Brancker, an aviation expert of international reputation, the technical assessor appointed by the Government at the famous inquiry into the Stansted scheme.

This able officer has driven a sap under the White Paper position and exploded an extremely destructive device, the Black Book of Stansted. The resulting havoc has laid that section of the defenders’ position wide open. The appendix to that analysis reproduces the text of an interesting assortment of nine official reassurances given before the inspector at the inquiry had reported that the proposed airport would be ‘a calamity for the neighbourhood’. (The Black Book is published by the North-West Essex and East Herts Preservation Association, Dunmow, Essex.) Meanwhile attacks have developed on other sectors. Mr. Bernard L. Clark, head of a firm of consulting engineers in Victoria Street, Westminster, heads thirty engineers who, after four months’ study, have produced a report affirming the feasibility of constructing an airport at Foulness.

By extending the island on the principle used in the ‘New Land’ scheme in Holland and the new Europort at Rotterdam, it is claimed that an integrated air pattern could be achieved. The noise nuisance would be reduced to a minimum. The size of the airport would be far less restricted. Visibility at Foulness is better than at Stansted. Approach and take-off routes over water would be far less dangerous in the event of accidents than over land. A three-tier elevated link with London would include a monorail and two single-direction motorways. The Noise Abatement Society supports the scheme.

‘People Before Planes’

In the face of such powerful assaults from so many directions the defenders of the Stansted project can scarcely expect that the development order will enjoy a smooth and unopposed passage through both Houses of Parliament. Indeed, the decision to re-align the runways so as to affect different people and different land destroys the identity of the present scheme with that originally planned.

The situation might provide the very ground on which the House of Lords could make a popular and intelligible stand to illustrate and demonstrate its essential constitutional function as a House of Second Thoughts to prevent a temporary and fortuitous majority in the House of Commons from rushing through legislation against the wishes of the country as a whole.

The growth of separatism in Scotland, Wales and even, in embryo, in Cornwall is a symptom of the discontent which the remote, unsympathetic and largely unchecked control of Whitehall engenders in the governed, a reassertion of the rights of local personality and local patriotism. Before the restiveness rises to a cry of ‘Back to the Heptarchy!’ the technocrats would do well to heed the implications of the battle cry of Stansted, ‘People before Planes!’

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