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London Southend Airport; An Inevitable Conflict?

Begin in 1993; Southend Borough Council, owners of their local airport, decided to sell it in an effort to return the facility to profitability as it had been making losses steadily since the heady days of the 1960s when it was one of the top five busiest airports in the UK. Having rebranded itself as London Southend (SEN), and changed ownership yet again when the Stobart Group bought it in 2008 for £21m, the Essex airport has seen a huge increase in the number of flights, particularly those of easyJet and Ryanair, in recent years.

The increase in use is not really a surprise; Stobart wouldn’t have taken it on unless there was the potential for growth. Their investment in the airport saw a new ATC tower rise in March 2011, closely followed by a railway station and a 984ft long runway extension at the 06 end (nearest London), complete with a 187ft turning circle at its end. The circle was needed as the taxiway serving 06, taxiway Charlie, didn’t go as far as the threshold – it hasn’t done so for decades. The airport’s new terminal opened in February 2012 and Southend’s revitalised airport was ready to go. It has seen airline traffic increase ever since – along with the complaints.

In 2013, a year after the new terminal came into use some 1,000 claims against the airport were made, citing aircraft noise as the reason for a loss in value of people’s homes, particularly those that border taxiway Charlie. The story behind the claims was reported by the BBC and the local newspaper, the Southend Echo.

The original airport buildings, including the old terminal and several hangars, are located on the southwest side of the cross formed by the two runways the airport had at the time. Right behind them is a housing estate and the most westerly of these homes are very close to taxiway Charlie. None of these houses however, existed when the runways and the taxiway were first built. Grainy black-and-white photographs from the 1940s and 1950s show some houses had been built but the hangars shielded them from the airport itself. By 1967 however, the housing estate had grown further west until the back gardens of some of them formed the boundary of the airfield. Rather curiously, beyond the housing estate is an area of open land before the urban spread begins again. Yet it is also this period that saw SEN at its busiest with British Air Ferries and their Carvairs operating every day. The Carvair was that ungainly-looking modification of the DC-4 carried out by Aviation Traders, led by Freddie Laker – cars in at the front, people at the rear and one was featured in the James Bond movie ‘Goldfinger’.

Yet again, the drop in use by passenger airlines since that time had been put down to local opposition to the extension the primary runway, 06/24 (the cross runway, 15/33, closed in 1992) but despite the opposition, the local council clearly believed that there was a future for the airport. After all, it was the council, as owners, who had built the two runways and the taxiways that served them, after World War II. A little oddly, the RAF, who used the airfield during the war, had not laid down runways themselves, keeping the grass surface that had existed since the airfield first opened in 1914.

With the new terminal in use, the older apron area and taxiway Charlie needed upgrading as aircraft needing to depart from 06 had to backtrack a long way down the runway to reach the turning circle and it was the completion of this work that has led to the current furore. Before completion, the taxiway had been used primarily by light aircraft and not passenger jets.

Making national news, predictably, newspapers have made some somewhat exaggerated claims; The Daily Express wrote: ‘A NIGHTMARISH scenario has become a reality for those living on the doorstep of the newly revamped Southend Airport, as colossal aircraft begin their taxi to the runway at the bottom of people’s gardens’. The paper went on to say: ‘The ludicrous scene has been captured on video as every twenty minutes an international carrier belches fumes over residents’ washing lines. Up to 50 such planes take off every day from the Essex airport - one of five which serve London’.

Photographs were published showing two residents, a man and a woman, in their back garden, the man sitting in a deckchair, apparently reading a book, the woman also sitting in an identical chair, holding a cup. Behind them is a line of substantial bushes, next door’s garden shed and then the airfield. Parked are some light aircraft and beyond them, on taxiway Charlie, a Ryanair Boeing 737. Other images show an easyJet Airbus A319.

However one cares to interpret it, these are not ‘colossal aircraft’. It would however, be true to say that if one is living that close to an active taxiway, the noise disturbance would not be insignificant (although considerably less than it once was). The more pertinent questions however are, why are those houses there to begin with and how long have the current residents lived in them? The airport was there first and one of the most vocal complainants (and featured in those newspaper reports) says that she has lived there for the past seven years – since the new terminal opened therefore.

As to why the houses were built so close to begin with, given the scale of operations at SEN when they were, it’s a fair bet that most, if not all, were occupied by people who worked at the airport; Aviation Traders, Channel Airways, British Air Ferries, Heavylift and their former RAF Shorts Belfast freighters, among others. Even today, and for many years, SEN has been the home to maintenance companies as well as Air Livery, who repaint aircraft. Aircraft and the noise they make is not new at Southend.

That the amount of activity at SEN declined throughout the 1990s is undeniable so it isn’t really an eyebrow-raiser that people moved away but for those who then arrived, if one buys a house with an active airport at the end of one’s garden, one must live – or move – with the possible consequences.

It is difficult not to have some sympathy with local residents however, and perhaps the airport operator and Southend Council must take some responsibility. The council wanted a successful airport; now they have one. The airport operator obviously needs it to be successful and it is. But the houses on that estate are in the wrong place and always were. The present conflict is, in many ways, typical of the UK. Whether one cares to really believe it to be a ‘London’ Airport or not, Southend plays a vital role in the capital’s transport infrastructure and everybody can’t have their cake and eat it. Granted there is a considerable expense involved but the obvious solution would be for the houses to be bought from their present owners and demolished and if that means a co-ordinated approach involving the airport, local council and national Government, then such an approach needs to be adopted.

A statement from the airport said:

'We recognise that the Wells Avenue properties were built close to the Charlie Taxiway. We want to engage constructively with those residents and as such, we have been holding quarterly meetings.

We held one of these meetings yesterday and felt we had a productive discussion. Having listened to residents, we agreed to investigate accelerating the development of a holding loop. This will reduce the impact of the current Charlie taxiway.

We will also investigate the potential for sound barriers and continue to monitor air quality, which remains considerably below government limits.

Ultimately, the airport has ambitious plans to grow. We want to do this hand in hand with the local community. We will always keep our door open and listen to local residents, taking action where we can, while working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority.

It is important to all of us at the airport that we ensure that London Southend can deliver our growth while remaining safe and environmentally responsible. We are confident that this growth will provide jobs and economic benefits to people throughout Essex and the south east.'

Either the UK wants to be a part of the world or it doesn’t. Air transport isn’t going away and the benefits it brings far outweigh the disadvantages.

© Kevan James 2019.

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