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The Third London Airport in Thurleigh

Thurleigh Airfield control tower January 2015
Thurleigh Airfield control tower January 2015

In 1946 the old United States Army Air Force base at Thurleigh became the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, where research was carried out on behalf of the Air Ministry, later the Ministry of Defence. By the mid-1960s lost cost air travel meant that Britain’s airports particularly those around London, were in danger of not having sufficient capacity to deal with demand. As a result the Roskill Commission was set up to investigate the possibility of a third airport to serve London (after Heathrow and Gatwick). The inquiry was held over five states between 1968 and 1970.

The first stage was to announce the four shortlisted sites and stage two was to publish information about them. Foulness in Essex, Nuthampstead in Hertfordshire and Wing (really Cublington) in Buckinghamshire were all shortlisted, as was Thurleigh. Hearings were then held in the vicinity of each potential site at which evidence from interested parties was heard.

On the whole the reaction of people in Bedfordshire, both those in the north to Thurleigh and in the south to Wing, was negative. Noise was a major factor as was strain on roads and services. All local county councils, including Bedfordshire, opposed the sites. In addition the Bedford Airport Resistance Association (BARA) was formed to be the voice of the local people opposing the scheme. A smaller group, Thurleigh Emergency Committee for Democratic Action (TECDA) welcomed the proposals, seeing them as good for the local economy. These local hearings took place in 1969.

At Stage Three a Research Team appointed by the commission carried out investigations in order to produce a report. Technical submissions from interested parties were also received and studied. The fourth stage was a series of meetings at which the Roskill Commission members, the Research Team and representatives of those parties given leave to appear at Stage Five (including Bedfordshire County Council, BARA and TECDA) discussed aspects of the Research Team’s report.

The fifth and final stage was 74 days of hearings which took place at the Piccadilly Hotel in London during which all interested parties stated their case and underwent cross-examination from counsel employed by other parties. At the end of the process the Commission recommended, on a majority decision, that the Third London Airport, together with its surrounding “Airport City” should be sited at Wing. One member of the committee dissented, believing that Foulness was the best option.

In the event the Wing option was discarded and government decided to build the new airport at Maplin Sands in Essex, not far from the Foulness site. However, in July 1974 the Maplin project was abandoned and the government the considered other options, including making London’s Third Airport at Luton. By December 1979 the decision was taken to expand the airport at Stansted in Essex instead of making a brand new airport.

Bedfordshire and Luton Archive and Record Service has an extensive collection of Third London Airport material as part of the Bedfordshire County Council archive [CS/LA] which includes material for all four original sites. It also has material from BARA [Z118 and X841]