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Page last updated at 15:09 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 16:09 UK

Archive: Blot on the Runway

A look back at 1985 Panorama documentary Blot On The Runway shows long battles over airport expansion plans are nothing new.

More people in Britain are flying than ever before and London's airports are terminally full.

BAA, which owns six UK airports including Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, says that the only solution is expansion - a call which has triggered protests and lobbying in equal measure.

As Panorama investigates the case for building a third runway at Heathrow we look back at a 1985 Panorama documentary Blot On The Runway.

The history and development of airports policy on the part of administration after administration of whatever political colour has been characterised by ad hoc expediency, unacceptable and ill-judged procedures, ineptness, vacillation, uncertainty and ill-advised and precipitate judgements
Graham Ayre QC, making recommendation on Stansted

The programme explains the origins of the current expansion calls and illustrates that many of the concerns about aviation growth that held centre stage in the 1980s remain the same today.

Blot on the Runway was broadcast in the wake of newspaper leaks reporting that, after a debate lasting almost 40 years, the government had finally decided to develop Stansted as a major international airport.

Today, the village of Sipson - a community of 1,500 people, with three pubs, a post office and a primary school - is threatened with being razed to the ground if the third runway is built at Heathrow.

In the late 1960s airport expansion was just as contentious and the period saw the first of many successful campaigns against developing the-then tiny airstrip at Stansted.

'Forty minute decision'

The Stansted saga began almost as soon as the decision was made during World War II that London's major airport would be located at Heathrow.

An inquiry led by Graham Ayre QC puts Stansted back in the frame

In 1985 former MP Douglas Jay said that the Heathrow decision was made at a meeting which "lasted only 40 minutes" - a sharp contrast to decision making ever since.

Stansted, which had started out as a World War II US aircraft base, was long-favoured as a potential site for London's third airport behind Heathrow and Gatwick.

However, the anti-Stansted lobby defeated an inquiry into the development in the mid-1960s and it disappeared for a number of years.

High profile campaigners

As the anti-Stansted crowd celebrated, the government instead turned its search for a third London airport site to Cubblington in Buckinghamshire.

But the plan sparked a revolt, spearheaded by a number of high profile campaigners including the-then Labour MP Robert Maxwell who argued that "people matter more than money".

However, the inhabitants of villages like Sipson today are unable to rely on friends in high places. In the present day it is BAA which critics say has such friends.

Debate also rages about whether a fifth terminal should be built at Heathrow

Campaigners in Cubblington successfully highlighted the environmental damage that would be done to the countryside and, as safeguarding the environment became a new political watchword, the Tory Government in 1971 looked for yet another site.

The new site was Maplin - on the mudflats off the Essex coast - but ultimately it was deemed to be too far from London.

In the late 1970s attention swung to Stansted once more and another inquiry, which was to run for three years this time, soon began.

Graham Ayre QC, who led the inquiry, eventually presented his 10-volume report to the government in 1984.

In it he recommended that to ease overcrowding and chaos at Heathrow, Stansted should be developed into a major international airport and at Heathrow itself, a fifth terminal built.

The debate in the 1980s saw things very much in terms of either development at Stansted or a fifth terminal at Heathrow.

Scathing attack

Lobbying is vital for the success of the multi-million pound third runway project. A similar large scale campaign was conducted on behalf of BAA with MPs in the 1980s to build support for the fifth terminal.

Although there were never accusation of impropriety, those involved, like MP Alan Haselhurst were critical of the scale of the lobbying operation, saying that lobbyists "never left us alone" and I think that has left a very unpleasant taste in the mouth".

Ahead of a decision on a fifth terminal, the aviation industry lobbied on a grand scale.

This year Heathrow's fifth terminal finally opened, but although in the years since Mr Ayre made his recommendations Stansted has been transformed into a major international gateway, it finds itself at the centre of a expansion debate once more.

Airport expansion has always been a contentious issue.

In 1984, Mr Ayre's report included a scathing attack on the policies of successive government which was eerily prescient of current concerns:

"The history and development of airports policy on the part of administration after administration of whatever political colour has been characterised by ad hoc expediency, unacceptable and ill-judged procedures, ineptness, vacillation, uncertainty and ill-advised and precipitate judgements.

"A strong public cynicism has inexorably grown. Political decisions in this field are no longer trusted," Mr Ayres wrote.

The last seven decades have seen similar battles on aviation expansion being fought time after time.

And there has been one other constant factor: our desire to fly seems unabated.

Panorama: Blot on the Runway was broadcast on 3 June 1985.

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