Monday, 15 June 2020

Milton Dreams - The City That Never Was - Chapter Twenty-Six

CHAPTER TWENTY – SIX – Milton Keynes London's Third Airport

I will begin this chapter by typing up some words from my 1994 book Not The Concrete Cows. I will then add a few 2020 thoughts to the text. Oh, here we go..............

Seasoned travellers of the airways will be familiar with the coded baggage tags that ensure your suitcases arrive via the same aircraft with their owner at the correct destination:
LHR = London Heathrow   SFO = San Francisco   LAX = Los Angeles  JFK = New York Kennedy   LGW = London Gatwick

But what about LMK = London Milton Keynes ?  Daily flights to New York, Cairo, Rome, Bombay and a hundred other far away destinations ?

Don't smile because this was very nearly the case !  If the now infamous Robert Maxwell, one time labour member of parliament for area, had had his way intercontinental jets would constantly be roaring overhead.

Thirty years ago (That was as of 1994) advance planning was calling for a new airport to relieve the strain that anticipated demand would place upon Heathrow and Gatwick in the next century. (That's this century now isn't it ?) One of the best options looked to be the building of London's third airport at Cubblington just south of the area designated for the construction of a new town.

Within the triangle of roads between Stewkley, Wing and Cubblington is the site of a former World War II airfield from which the Royal Air Force flew against the might of the Third  Reich. It is upon this site that the proposed airport was planned, only six  miles from Milton Keynes. But the project intended extending to a staggering seven and a half thousand acres, bulldozing everything in the way. The destruction would have included obliterating the entire village of Stewkely, claimed to be the longest village in England, and rehousing its eleven hundred residents.

North Buckinghamshire is already on the Atlantic  route with dozens of heavy jets passing overhead every day but these are all but these are all well on their way to their initial cruising altitude, flying sufficiently high to be relatively unnoticed. Had the airport come here instead of Stanstead then living in Milton Keynes would have been akin to residing at the bottom of the runway. Perhaps Milton Keynes would have become a replica of Crawley to the south of Gatwick. Instead of a multi-industry the city would have almost entirely dependant upon the airport for its employment. It is estimated that fifty thousand people would have worked at the airport !

It was the most efficiently organised public protest since the Anti Corn Law League of 1839 that saved us. The outward manifestation was a host of signs reading NO AIRPORT HERE. They sprang up overnight along roads and adjacent to the railway between Bletchley and Leighton Buzzard. But the organisation went much deeper.

The WING AIRPORT RESISTANCE ACTION (WARA) under the chairmanship of  Demond Fennel, later to become Justice Fennel and head of the Kings Cross Enquirt, and Evelyn de Rothschild, from the family of merchant bankers, as treasurer, the local population banded together to prevent at all costs an airport being built on their doorstep. Many other famous names like Johnny Dankworth, Cleo Lane and Roald Dahl, who all lived in the area threw their unqualified support. (Robert Maxwell, millionaire publisher and MP, joined in but history now shows that his motives and intentions were decidedly unclear.)

They knew only too well that they had an uphill task ahead of them for in every way Cubblington/Wing was the best site for the airport. Had it come to North Buckinghamshire, London Milton Keynes International Airport may not have become London's third airport at all but the COUNTRY'S FIRST AIRPORT ! There would have been non need for Luton, Birmingham or even East Midlands Airports and much of the traffic would have been stolen away from Heathrow.

I recently spent a pleasant evening with WARA executive committee member Dennis Skinner in his Witchurch home, enjoying his hospitality about a roaring log fire, as he explained the airport perimeter fence had been been planned for no more than a hundred yards from where we were sitting !  It is his belief that Milton Keynes would have needed to expand south to meet the airport, swallowing up everything as far as Leighton Buzzard. The resulting conurbation, some planners saw it reaching right down to Aylesbury, would be little like the new city we know today.

On another evening I chatted with Farmer Morris and his wife from Manor Farm, Hoggeston realising we were right in the middle of where the main runway would have been. Their family has farmed land in the village for ten generations dating back to the 1700's. What a personal tragedy it would have been to fall victim to a compulsory purchase order.

Eighty year old Rector of Dunton, the Reverend Hubert Sillitoe - brother of Sir Percy Sillitoe head of wartime MI5, preached Hell, Fire and Damnation against all airport planners. He was a popular character, if a little eccentric, and achieved fame in the Sun newspaper who dubbed him "A Modern-day Elijah".  They quoted one of his speeches".......this damned sacrilege we will fight on the doorsteps of our homes, in the fields of our farms, at churchyard gates and church doors !"  A later edition of the paper had on its front page a picture of the campaigning cleric setting fire to a giant copy of the government's report and reprinting his prayer..."that these inhuman and sacrilegious proposals be so absolutely rejected and reduced to flames of the fire shall reduce this copy of the Roskill Report."  The reporter went on to describe how the flames leaped upward as the brass band played the funeral march. But others attracted less favourable media attention. There were those who thought the best thing to do would be to load up their tractors with manure and dump the lot on Downing Street.  Mr Justice Roskill, detailed by Harold Wilson's government to study the various sites for the airport, actually received death threats. Some of the protest posters and cartoons in the national press made no secret of the intention many had of actually turning the campaign in o a literal fight if talking failed ! mannered man himself, he doubted if he would have actually been involved

I asked Mr Morris if he thought people would have really engaged in hand to hand fighting with the bulldozers. A mild mannered man himself, he doubted if he would have actually been involved but was certain others would. WARA not only had to tackle the politicians and bureaucrats but also to disassociate themselves from any threats of violent activities if they ere to maintain credibility.

The membership of Robert Maxwell was also hardly an asset to the group. Maxwell, as recent events now only too clearly show, was a past master when it came to playing one person off against another. He played WARA off against his own political party and the local community against the planners but never failed to keep his own business interests uppermost. It was reported in the Guardian on 15th June 1970 that Maxwell said to a Bletchley factory worker: "Let's get Milton Keynes first; if we can have the airport as well so much the better."

Three days later he lost his seat to Bill Benyon, so ending his parliamentary career and subsequently left the executive committee of WARA.

Dennis Skinner is convinced that it was the election of a conservative government, under Prime Minister ted Heath, that finally saved the day. Wing was the best, was the best, but also the most expensive option, in his opinion a Wilson government would have had little regard for the cost. Tories, on on the other hand, weighed finances with rather more care and eventually went for the cheaper Stanstead project.

WARA attacked the finances of the proposals on every front. It strived all along to avoid becoming a political body, something that frustrated Robert Maxwell, but to truly represent everyone who was against the airport. This included Buckinghamshire County Council, The Milton Keynes Development Corporation and just about every living soul within twenty miles of the proposed airport.  There was little to be gained by stressing the environmental issues which carried no weight in the swinging sixties. Instead the organisation employed professionals to undertake their own investigations then question every facet of the government's Roskill Report.

Their arguments were presented to every member of parliament whose final decision found against Wing, WARA managed to convince them that the costing was wrong, indeed it was.  Nearly a quarter of a century later it has become clear that a London Milton Keynes International Airport, as well as handling more than its fair share of business and cargo traffic, would have developed into the nation's number one holiday airport. Nobody in the 1960's quite foresaw such an explosion in leisure travel.

There was a victory torchlight procession from Stewkley Church on 26th April 1971, a tree planted in the churchYard at Whitchurch proclaims; THIS TREE IS PLANTED TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN THANKFULNESS FOR HAVING BEEN SPARED THE 3rd LONDON AIRPORT 26th November 1972.  Buckinghamshire County Council planted a spinney at Cublington upon the site originally intended for the terminal building.

Little now remains from the actual protest, the signs have been taken down, the graffiti that once adorned motorway bridges has been sponged off but in the barn at \Manor Farm where many of the rallys were held there is still a mural demanding NO AIRPORT. When I saw it a couple of weeks ago a herd of cattle ambled about their winter quarters oblivious to the fact that they could have been jumbo jets.

But would Milton Keynes be a better place at double its size and serving one of the world's major airports ? Perhaps, perhaps not: it is difficult to say. During the campaign the activities of WARA can not have escaped the notice of teenager Richard Branson, then a boarder at Stowe School near Buckingham. Would it be better if Virgin Atlantic, together with British Airways, American Airlines and all the rest, brought their vast needs for employment to the area ?

next time you are sitting in the traffic on the M25 as you head off on holiday via Heathrow or Gatwick you can weigh up the advantages and disadvantages then decide for yourself ?

1994, wow was it that long since I wrote Not The Concrete Cows. I remember so well all the people I have spoken about picking their brains to gather information. The obvious question to now ask is: Would Milton Keynes have achieved city status if it had been an airport. In my opinion NO ! Although the dream of Milton Keynes one day becoming a city is a far away dream it may still happen. Airport ?  Nobody is ever going to make an airport a city !

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