Gwyn Topham, The Guardian, March 05, 2012
In one small, sunny corner of south-east England, many miles from the congested M4 corridor, is a sight to make the owners of Heathrow weep with envy. Under the benevolent gaze of local parishioners, construction workers finish surfacing a brand-new runway, and – even as it lops off the corner of his churchyard – the vicar is going along to the opening celebrations.
Welcome to the ambitiously named London Southend airport, officially reopening on Monday, with a runway now large enough for easyJet's planes, and set to export the holidaymakers of south Essex and to lure unwary Spanish visitors.
Given the opposition airport expansion has faced elsewhere, many in Southend on Sea are astonishingly serene about the development on their doorsteps. A new terminal building gleams proudly opposite the bungalows of Southend Road, close enough for residents to peer from behind the net curtains into departures. The transformation is clear from the green expanses still displayed on Google Earth.
As Alastair Welch, the beaming director, put it: "You start with a field, then add a railway station, a terminal building, train up a crew and then the planes start coming. Happy days!"
Perhaps even more surprising than its renaissance is the airport's claim to have once been Britain's third largest, before BAA built Stansted and grabbed all its business. Pathé footage records Southend's glamour days, when passengers could take their cars to the continent aboard British Air Ferries planes.
After decades in the doldrums, with nothing more than a flying club, the odd cargo flight and aircraft coming in for repair, the airport was purchased by the firm of the legendary lorry magnate Eddie Stobart. Welch joined in 2007 with a vision to extend the runway to cope with the demands of flights to the Mediterranean.
An investment of £100m has brought a control tower, ("You couldn't actually see the runway from the old one," said Welch), a distinctive steel railway station (a £2.70, five-minute journey from the town centre) and a Holiday Inn under construction – the basic infrastructure for Stobart Air to have a fully-fledged international passenger airport on its hands.
From 2 April, easyJet starts flying from here to destinations including Malaga, Ibiza and Mallorca, routes to excite the Towie stars who graced the airport's launch party, where the leader of the council spoke of bringing "jetsetters" from Spain to Southend. Visitors may have reason to be tempted: a 52-minute ride to Liverpool Street station makes its rail connection to the capital roughly equivalent to Stansted's, but cheaper, and on a line that stops at Stratford for the Olympic Park.
The first arrival to reach the new terminal landed shortly after 2pm on its first day of operation this week, an Aer Arran propeller-engined aircraft from Waterford. First off was Michelle Hill, 37, from nearby Benfleet, a competition winner who had departed via the old, fading wooden terminal hut to return to Southend's bright future. "Really nice," she said. "Most people are into it – it's creating jobs, bringing tourism." Did she think they would really be heading here from Spain? "Yeah, why not? We've got a lot to offer: doorstep to London, the town centre, a beach, the pier." Although, she conceded, the pier has been closed since a fishing trawler crashed into it last month.
Only 10 passengers had yet troubled the check-in attendant, who sat waiting for standby passengers on the day's only departure, back to Waterford. A well-heeled Irish couple eventually ran through, boarding with just 15 minutes to spare. They had been on holiday in London – and this was a lot easier to deal with than Heathrow, the woman explained.
Although its limited destinations don't yet allow duty-free, the manager of the airport store – stocking Eddie Stobart memorabilia alongside obligatory Toblerones – said they had were already exceeding sales targets.
According to Welch, there will be 500 more people working at the airport this summer than last. The old terminal, a hundred yards or so away, is still open to the public with a dozen or so people, mainly pensioners, congregating inside. "They like to wander in and have a bite to eat, so we'll just leave it open, as long as they want it," said Welch. "It's a community facility."
Not everybody is convinced, though. Denis Walker is spokesman for Stop Airport Extension Now, a local group. While his opposition is partly environmental, as a member of Friends of the Earth, he believes the council has failed in its duty to warn the people of Southend of the extra noise and pollution. "It's a really stupid place for an airport," he says. "There will be 20,000 people directly under the flight path."
Despite a tortuous process of consultations, planning appeals and aborted judicial reviews, he says there has never been the full public inquiry and independent scrutiny a development such as this deserves. Southend will have 20-30 passenger daily flights this year, but Stobart hopes to eventually carry up to 2 million passengers annually and plans to extend the terminal further this summer.
But opposition has been limited, and the church was the key, Welch said, to winning over locals: something that previous would-be expansionists failed to factor in. At St Laurence's, a former churchwarden, who gave her name only as Beryl, recalled: "When they sat in the chancel in 2003 and said this church has to go, hackles did rise."
The eventual compromise has been one demolished wall and a lost row of trees; Stobart has stumped up for a new road, a low yew hedge and a "much nicer" driveway with a turning circle big enough for hearses. "It is nicer," Beryl agreed. Looking over the new wire fence separating the graves from the runway, she added: "They'll get over the trees."