London City Airport (LCY) has always been an unlikely development project. In an age when new airports - if built at all, given the planning and political obstacles involved - are usually located away from big cities, LCY has continued to increase its reach in the heart of the London Docklands’ financial district in the three decades since it opened in 1987.
Last year’s announcement that it had received planning permission for a £344m expansion that will be completed before Heathrow’s third runway is ready to welcome a single new aircraft, demonstrates that airport development, even in big cities, is still achievable.
So how has this new extension come about? What will it comprise? And, once complete, what will it do for the airport and for London?
LCY was first proposed in 1981 when Margaret Thatcher’s government set up the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) with the aim of creating a new financial district away from the City of London and transforming the almost redundant docks.
The first commercial aircraft took off from the airport between the Royal Albert and King George V docks on 26 October 1987 and the flight was only possible because of the advent of short take-off and landing aircraft that could use runways of little more than 1km in length.
The planning process that led to that first flight took only 63 days and was successful despite strong opposition from the Greater London Council. Roll on three decades and it is a rather different story.
The new consent took three years to secure and was almost scuppered by then London mayor Boris Johnson, who directed Newham Borough Council to overturn its ruling granting permission in 2015, a decision that was reversed last year by the secretaries of state for communities and transport.
LCY chief executive Declan Collier, who will step down from his position later this year having led the planning application from start to finish, describes the process as “a lottery” and adds: “The UK planning system is a big issue for strategic infrastructure projects like ours.”
In his view, while the planning system is pro-development and pro-investment, the processes and procedures are too unpredictable.
Unless you have real tenacity, you may be put off making a planning application in the first place
“Unless you have real tenacity and resilience and are prepared to sit for a very long time, you may well be put off making an application in the first place,” he says. “You just can’t be sure what is going to happen to your application. It is a real shame and I think it’s an issue generally for people who want to invest in the UK and want to do business here.”
The planning process lasted longer than it should have done and as a result was far more expensive than it needed to be, he adds. This was despite the broad support from the local authority Newham council, which understood the airport’s business model and the potential benefits the expansion would bring to the local economy.
The problem, says Collier, is that it “got embroiled in essentially a political process with the mayor of London that delayed it and made it more expensive.”
The airport found Johnson’s opposition hard to swallow given that his previous policy decisions appeared to support the airport’s plans to run a larger operation. Indeed, when he first came into office, Johnson agreed a planning permission in principle for the airport to host 120,000 flights a year, a significant increase on the 70,000 it handled at the time.
But the final decision he took in his second term as mayor was to refuse permission for LCY “to build the concrete that was required to allow us to implement his first decision”, as Collier puts it. “It was quite illogical and against the recommendations of his own planners.”
The expansion will provide new aircraft movements at a time when [we are] in dire need of that
Despite the mayor’s opposition, the airport stuck to its guns because the management believed that its plans for expansion were robust and resilient enough to get through the process on appeal. They were right.
The planned expansion, which begins later this year, will benefit the wider London airport system, which is the busiest in the world but also the most restricted when it comes to accommodating growing demand. It will see the extension of the terminal and the development of a parallel taxiway, seven new aircraft stands and a new hotel.
“The expansion will allow us to provide 35,000 new aircraft movements into the London airport system well in advance of any likely future increase in capacity at a time when that system is in dire need of it,” says Collier. “We know that the government has taken a decision to allow Heathrow to proceed with a new runway but my best estimate of that runway being commissioned is around 2030. We will complete our development programme at London City in full by 2023.”
The landside section of the expansion project includes a terminal extension that will see the space increase in size from 193,654 sq ft to 557,586 sq ft.
As a result, the retail space within the terminal building will also be enlarged. The landside provision - which includes a Pret A Manger, a Panopolis coffee shop, a WHSmith and airline ticketing and currency exchange facilities - currently totals 5,834 sq ft of retail and catering space.
The new development will add an additional 8,622 sq ft of retail, food and beverage space, bringing total provision up to 14,456 sq ft. Potential occupiers could include restaurants, coffee shops, health and beauty brands, convenience food outlets and travel money outlets.
Airside, the expansion will accommodate seven new aircraft stands, which are needed to house more and larger aircraft, particularly at peak times.
The expansion will also include new car parking spaces along the southern edge of the King George V dock, including a decked car park close to the proposed new hotel and the surface-level car parking beyond.
The 260-bedroom four-star hotel will occupy around 150,000 sq ft and be located 2,000 ft from the airport terminal’s front door.
Local transport links are also set to be upgraded. Part of the proposal is to build an extra station on the Crossrail network within 2,000 ft of the airport to improve public transport connectivity.
LCY predicts the new development will create 1,600 new jobs at the airport - a big boost to the local economy. It is estimated the expansion will create another £800m in economic benefits for London.
Beyond the current expansion project, there is little prospect for further development of the airport’s property portfolio.
LCY owns 250 acres of land but its focus has been on using that exclusively for “airside operations”. The new hotel is one exception.
“We have some small plots of land around the area we are developing,” adds Collier. “We are using one of those plots for a school, the Oasis Academy Silvertown, and that will be opened shortly, but there is nothing major that can be developed for anything other than airport use.”
LCY’s soon-to-be-realised expansion plans are an unusual success story in UK aviation. The development will transform the airport, enabling it to accommodate quieter, next-generation aircraft and add more capacity. Last year, it welcomed 4.3 million passengers. The new facilities will allow for 6.5 million passengers by 2025 and the potential to accommodate 111,000 flight movements a year.
It seems that one of the UK’s newest airports will probably also be the first to add badly needed aviation capacity in the South East, while its much bigger and older airport peers continue to jostle to have their own expansion plans rubber-stamped in the face of continued opposition.