There’s still a chance to blend new and old at Jersey Airport

by Alastair Layzell

Jersey Airport in 1938 (27943357)
Jersey Airport in 1938 (27943357)

WHAT is the case for saving Jersey Airport’s original terminal, which celebrates its 83rd birthday next week? In 1937 it was a source of wonder; Jersey’s biggest (and most expensive) building. It put the Island at the cutting edge of airfield technology.

It was designed by the architect Graham Dawbarn who went on to create the terminal at Birmingham (today splendidly retained and restored by the Council) and, much later in his career, the famous BBC Television Centre.

It remains an important survivor of the pre-war, pioneering era of flying, rated by heritage experts an excellent example of Britain’s proud aviation heritage.

It is the only airport in the British Isles to have been operated by the Luftwaffe. Just before the German occupiers took it over, the little-known Charles de Gaulle walked through it as he fled from Bordeaux to London to rally the Free French; the airport manager, Jack Herbert, took him to lunch at the Star pub while his ’plane was refuelled.

It has been at the centre of our public consciousness for over eight decades – for the many who have worked there down the years, and the millions who have passed through it.

It is regarded with affection and considered sufficiently important, historically, socially and architecturally, to be listed Grade 2.

And, with Jersey having declared a Climate Change Emergency, it makes no sense to demolish a building with so much embodied energy. As wise people say nowadays: ‘The best green building is the one you already have.’

Jersey Airport’s original terminal is still doing what it was designed to do and has another 80 years in it – at least.

What is the case for demolition? It rests, principally, on the fact that the 1937 building encroaches a safety zone marked on maps as an ‘V’ rising from the centre-line of the runway, an invisible line splaying north and south. As the side of the V spreads up and out it passes through the northern end of the original terminal. On the other side of the runway it passes through the spire of St Peter’s Parish Church. No-one has suggested we demolish the church. But, the 1937 terminal is thought to be expendable.

The safety argument seemed incontestable when it was first raised 20 years ago. Though successive planning committees and ministers resisted the idea of losing this architectural gem, matters came to a head in 2014 when Ports of Jersey produced a letter from the then Director of Civil Aviation (DCA) – the regulator of the Airport.

In it he said that, unless he could be assured that the building would be removed in due course, he would impose greater restrictions on aircraft landing in poor visibility, potentially leading to more delays for travellers.

This was the knock-out blow and the Environment Minister of the day reluctantly agreed to do two things: accept his advisers’ advice that the terminal be listed Grade 2 and then, moments later, grant consent to knock it down.

Ports of Jersey, meanwhile, got on with planning a £42 million redevelopment of the Airport.

The first scheme relied upon the removal of the 1937 terminal and its replacement with a faux Art Deco building a few metres further south. This would act as the Arrivals Hall. That scheme was replaced by the ‘one-box solution’ in which a mezzanine would be created in the 1990’s terminal to cope with both departures and arrivals, work on which has started. Now, the 1937 building was not an essential part of the redevelopment and there was no reason for it to come down.

Except, of course, that Ports of Jersey continued to say it was a hazard. Unfortunately, they chose to ignore what was happening around them; a global rethink on safety rules and the introduction of new landing aids which use GPS technology and are more flexible and accurate (and cheaper) than the Instrument Landing System in use since the 1960s.

Much has changed in 20 years. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which makes the rules on airfield operations, reviewed the safety zones that had been designed in the 1940s, when piston-engined airliners were unreliable and needed a wide margin of error on landing.

ICAO discovered that the zones were overly generous and have proposed their reworking. That includes the V-shaped transition zone which would be redesigned in such a way that, when applied to Jersey, the 1937 terminal would no longer be caught by its slope.

All this is to come. But the reorganisation of Britain’s airspace to operate on GPS technology – in the airways and on landing – is happening now.

It is these advances that Save Jersey’s Heritage researched last year and put in a comprehensive report to the DCA and Ports of Jersey. The DCA kept us waiting six months and then declined to comment on our conclusions.

Ports of Jersey clearly didn’t want to hear what we had to say. And now, shortly after we shared our findings with them, they have advanced the demolition of part of the 1937 terminal from the end of 2022...to this week!

Looks odd, doesn’t it? But this sort of thing happens all the time when conservation is inconvenient.

In 1980, the Secretary of State, Michael Heseltine, decided to list the Firestone Tyre Factory on London’s Great West Road, a superb Art Deco creation by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners.

Five days after learning this, over a bank holiday weekend, with staff unaware what was happening when they left their pencils on their desk on Friday night, the owners sent in the bulldozers and knocked it down. There was nothing left to list.

In the case of Jersey Airport, who should act now? The Environment Minister, Deputy John Young, certainly. He is the custodian of our listed buildings.

If the facts upon which his predecessor based his decision to allow the demolition of the ’37 building have changed he is entitled to intervene in the public interest and should stay any demolition for the time being.

And the Treasury Minister, Deputy Susie Pinel. We should not forget that Ports of Jersey is wholly owned by the Government of Jersey; Deputy Pinel holds all the company’s shares on our behalf. She should ring up the chairman of Ports of Jersey and seek an explanation of the company’s actions.

How galling it will be, when the ICAO rules are changed in the next few years, to think that, if only we had waited, we could have had a new airport and a 1937 historic gem sitting side by side; a celebration of the old and the new.

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