A while ago, I came across a rather nondescript document entitled “The London Exhibition Centre at Northolt: Design/Cost Feasibility for the Greater London Council 1970” produced by Lyon Group Technical Services. Well, the title got my pulse racing even if the document itself – essentially a compendium of technical reports from structural engineers, quantity surveyors and environmental consultants – looked as dry as dust.
Who can resist the lure of an abandoned infrastructure project?
The sense of what might have been is always intriguing: grand schemes and visions untainted by the anti-climax and practical indignities of compromise, day-to-day operation and inevitable decline. Between them, the London County Council and Greater London Council provide rich material for fans of unrealised planning dreams. From the New Town at Hook in Hampshire which exists only in book form, to the Motorway Box which never travelled beyond its stubby Eastern and Western extremities and from Holford’s re-imagining of Piccadilly Circus through to the proposed concreting of Covent Garden. Add to that list the GLC’s plans for the London Exhibition Centre in Northolt.
This is the story of the exhibition centre that never was.
The need for a new exhibition centre
London had been a global leader in major international trade fairs in the late Victorian era and early twentieth century. The Great Exhibition of 1851, the White City Franco-British Exhibition of 1908, and the Wembley British Empire Exhibition in the mid-twenties were just three major events to have gained a worldwide audience. Olympia and Earls Court also established themselves during this time.
Yet in the period after WW2, large, modern and well-equipped exhibition centres began to appear in many European cities (1). They threw into sharp relief the shortcomings and inadequacies of Olympia and, increasingly, the newer Earls Court, with issues such as hall size and accessibility in the motor age coming to the forefront.
There was a strong sense from central Government that “something must be done” if the UK was to remain competitive against these new and attractive European operations. The early running was made by the Board of Trade, with a succession of committees and inquiries considering the position in the 1950s and 1960s.
Finally, a plan emerged that would see the redevelopment of the former Crystal Palace site. The proposal was for Government, Industry and the London County Council to take equal shares in a non-profit-making trust that would finance, build and manage a comprehensive development of one million square feet of exhibition halls at a construction cost of £12 million (2).
Crystal Palace was an attractive option for the LCC. The London County Council (Crystal Palace) Act of 1951 empowered the Council to redevelop the site for the purposes of “education, recreation and the furtherance of commerce, art and industry” (3) and this ambitious scheme fitted the bill.
With the reorganisation of London government in 1965, the newly formed Greater London Council picked up the initiative. Yet the costs of the proposed scheme were escalating (minutes of the GLC’s 20 July 1965 meeting put the estimated bill at £15 million), and concerns over the impact on traffic in the local area were coming to a head. A year later, in July 1966, the Council heard that, including new road building to deal with traffic congestion, total project costs would probably come in at £28 million. This appears to have been enough to kill off the project.
But the need for better exhibition space had not gone away.
Birmingham versus Northolt
While the GLC was mulling over alternatives, the Government was increasingly focused on Birmingham as a potential home for any new centre. It publicly confirmed its backing for a West Midlands alternative in early 1970, citing planning and congestion issues in London and a lack of interest from the GLC. This latter comment appears to have outraged the Council, whose Strategic Planning Committee sought to “put the record straight” in its report of February 1970, commissioning an urgent feasibility study to support a re-making of the case for London.
Having started with a long list of 44 sites across the capital, the study ultimately focused on a short list of three locations: White City, Northolt (which the Government had also been interested in prior to its Birmingham decision), and a re-consideration of Crystal Palace (4).
The location finally alighted on was a plot of c144 acres in the Green Belt just to the north of RAF Northolt, bounded by the railway to the north, Stafford Road to the east, Austin’s Lane to the west and Yeading Brook to the south – a site described by the GLC’s Director of Planning and Transportation as “unostentatious, pleasant West Middlesex countryside”.
Yet by July 1970, with Ted Heath’s new Conservative Government reaffirming support for Birmingham, the GLC’s Strategic Planning Committee decided to throw in the towel, deciding that “in view of the lack of support from the Government no further action be taken on the Northolt project in the present circumstances but any new proposals by other parties be considered on their merits” (5). In the event that viable private proposals did emerge for the Northolt site, the GLC’s Policy and Resources Committee was prepared to allocate up to £10 million of Council funds.
Enter the Lyon Group
As it happens, two private schemes worthy of detailed consideration were put forward (6). The first, from Wynson Developments Ltd, was quickly dropped, while the second, from the Lyon Group, led directly to the technical plans that set me off on this story.
Their £21 million scheme for Northolt promised:
- One million square feet of indoor exhibition space, with potential for further expansion
- 250,000 square feet of outdoor display space
- 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space
- 10,000 parking spaces
- A 600 bed hotel, which Grand Metropolitan Hotels expressed an interest in operating
- A direct road link to a proposed interchange on the A40 Western Avenue (which would be one of the first calls on the GLC’s potential contribution of £10 million)
A further enhancement to transport links was anticipated as the site was to be next to the Ringway 3 road scheme. But that, of course, is the tale of another abandoned infrastructure project…
Much consultation took place as the planning application was publicised. Tantalisingly, the GLC committee papers refer to architectural models and other plans put on public display, yet all I can find so far is a map of the proposed site and some elevation and cross section sketches, which I have taken the liberty of reproducing below.
Unsurprisingly, local residents had a thing or two to say about the scheme. By June 1971, 1,517 letters of objection had been received. There were just three letters in favour.
The most commonly stated grounds for objection were:
- The need to protect the Green Belt
- The high local amenity value of the site’s open countryside
- Traffic congestion (especially as the A40 still required upgrade works)
- A risk that the whole idea was redundant given the Government’s support for the Birmingham scheme
- A fear that it would “become a derelict eyesore as is Wembley” (presumably a reference to the rotting pavilions of the British Empire Exhibition)
- The assertion that the centre would be “for the financial benefit of a few to the detriment of many”
A decision is taken
In light of the objections and the fact that the scheme represented a substantial departure from the GLC’s own Initial Development Plan, referral of the whole project to the Secretary of State for the Environment was inevitable. The subsequent public enquiry into the plans was conducted over the summer of 1972.
And then, in July 1973, the hammer blow was struck. The outline planning consent was refused. Green belt considerations and inadequate road transport infrastructure were cited as the main concerns (7). The Government also deemed a new London exhibition centre to be of lower national priority given the construction of the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre.
Quite what the Northolt development would have meant for Earls Court and Olympia is unclear. In the late 1960s, Olympia had been diversifying out of exhibitions in anticipation of a new national exhibition centre (8) and it foresaw and feared a price war with any major new facility. Earls Court was hardly better placed, being “financially strapped” (9) and in 1972 was taken over by property developer Jeffrey Sterling (who later acquired Olympia).
Major exhibitions were indeed lost by Earls Court and Olympia to the Birmingham NEC, most notably the Motor Show. Had the oil crisis, subsequent economic stagnation and commercial property crash of the early-mid 1970s not intervened, the (by then) merged Earls Court and Olympia (“ECO”) halls might have seen significant redevelopment with a much smaller exhibition footprint proposed. The reduced capacity might have worked in Northolt’s favour, but it was not to be.
Yet the financial difficulties of ECO were trivial compared to those of the Lyon Group. The flamboyant Ronald Lyon (whose Sunningdale mansion boasted “the finest badger colony in the south east of England”) and his property empire were even bigger casualties of the 1974 collapse in the commercial property market (10). They went under with £52 million of debts (which Ronald Lyon had himself personally guaranteed), the covenants on the Group’s funding arrangements having been breached. Even if Northolt had proved viable, it wouldn’t have been the Lyon Group at the helm.
With the Northolt proposal long dead, the GLC gave ECO £5 million in 1979, to be repaid when profits reached an agreed level. ECO embarked on a significant revamp of its halls unlocking frozen exhibitor rental tariffs (11), and diversifying into entertainment and large concerts. A revival in the fortunes of ECO culminated in the opening of the £100 million Earls Court 2 in 1991.
Yet the underlying unsuitability of the ECO operations remained a concern. The absurd sight of large luxury boats being towed gingerly through the streets of west London en route to the Earls Court Boat Show is an abiding memory and a perfect illustration of the problem. But future London competition for ECO’s exhibitions and entertainment trade – ultimately fatal for Earls Court – would come from developments in the east of the city, principally ExCel and the O2 arena, rather than suburban Northolt in the west.
The “unostentatious, pleasant West Middlesex countryside” on the borders of Northolt and Ruislip remains intact to this day, and the London Exhibition Centre has been placed in the “what might have been” file…
(1) E.D. Mills “The National Exhibition Centre” (page 7), Crosby Lockwood Staples, 1976
(2) ibid (page 8)
(3) W.E. Jackson “Achievement: A Short History of the LCC” (page 224), Longmans, 1965
(4) GLC report EP648/SP239 for the Environmental Planning Committee and Strategic Planning Committee 8th June 1971
(6) GLC report EP643/SP232 for the Environmental Planning Committee and Strategic Planning Committee 7th June 1971
(7) Report of the GLC’s Planning Committee tabled at the Council’s 25 September 1973 meeting
(8) John Glanfield “Earls Court and Olympia” (page 126), Sutton Publishing, 2003
(9) ibid (page 127)
(10) Ronald Lyon obituary, Daily Telegraph, 7 December 2004
(11) John Glanfield “Earls Court and Olympia” (page 132), Sutton Publishing, 2003
I am grateful to the London Metropolitan Archive for access to the minutes and press releases of the GLC.