Suddenly we’re having to think about the future of Middlesex without its biggest employer, its largest single commercial site, the one feature which probably really is visible from space: Heathrow Airport. The Norman Foster scheme for a giant airport and transport hub in the Isle of Grain in Kent, the most likely version of ‘Boris Island’ which will soon be the subject of a public consultation, has to involve closing Heathrow — according to Willy Walsh of BA — otherwise the private financiers who’d have to fund it won’t be able to get their money back.
The Foster scheme has a second implication for the former-Middlesex boroughs of North and West London: the new rail links to the North and to the Continent skirt them entirely. So the old county would be lose its historic importance as the gateway to London, which it had as the site of the Roman roads, the docks, the railway approaches and most recently as the birthplace of aviation. It seems almost as politically impossible to shut down Heathrow as it’s been to find room for more runways in the South East. Ken Livingstone has been making defending Heathrow a plank of his mayoral campaign. But the national threat of high unemployment and negative economic growth can be powerfully persuasive. The kind of fate that could be in store for Heathrow’s 12 sq kilometers is depicted in the sort of plans prepared for places like Old Oak Common, very similar to the instant developments taking place in China’s new giant cities. Another and better approach would be to re-evaluate the unappreciated potential in the urban sprawl of the Middlesex suburbs. Heathrow was once a Neolithic monumental site.
Much more recently it was rich market gardens, in the heart of a county largely dedicated to Londoners’ pleasure and recreation. The wheat of Heston, just to the east of Heathrow, was so good that Queen Elizabeth used it for her manchet bread , according to John Middleton, author of A View of the Agriculture of Middlesex (1798). The most attractive way to plan for Heathrow, and more generally for Middlesex, will be through re-appreciating existing buildings and finding new uses for them, and by showing an appreciation of local history — the same kind of approach, in fact, that revived Notting Hill and Islington in the 60s and 70s and Hoxton, Shoreditch and Dalston in the last few years. And with Heathrow’s agricultural history and its legendary soils, at least some of its 3,000 acres might be used for new allotments.