The Mayor of London calls a third runway at Heathrow “simply mad” but the only truly mad option in this debate is the Mayor’s own pie in the sky proposal for a Thames Estuary Airport. By pushing that, as his alternative to Heathrow expansion, Boris played into the hands of the vested interests of BA and BAA and a richly resourced lobbying campaign for Heathrow expansion.
I am delighted that we have held off the prospect of consultation on options including an estuary airport yet excluding Heathrow. I warned the Prime Minister that such a consultation could be overturned by the courts, as I helped overturn the Labour government’s 2003 consultation including ‘Cliffe’ airport yet excluding Gatwick. Justine Greening as Transport Secretary was understandably concerned to protect her constituents in Putney under the Heathrow flight-path, but the new transport team can fairly assess all options on their merits.
The reality is that adding a runway to an airport, such as Heathrow, with existing infrastructure will always be incomparably easier, faster and cheaper than building a new airport, and it is ridiculous for Boris to suggest otherwise. Indeed, the ‘research’ which he commissioned, concluding that a new airport in the Thames Estuary would take only two year longer to build than a third runway at Heathrow, was so manifestly absurd that it was not taken seriously. Foster+ Partners’ claim that a new airport could be built in the estuary for £23 billion is similarly incredible, even before you consider they want airlines using Heathrow to pay for it, and that infrastructure for the airport is on top, and they want taxpayers to pay for that!
If the Mayor of London is serious about stopping Heathrow expansion, he needs to get back in the debate, drop his pie in the sky estuary airport proposals, and look at other serious options for increasing aviation capacity for the South-East of England, such as:
Birmingham could take 25 million more passengers, even without a second runway for which they are safeguarding land. Their existing runway is currently being extended to take the largest fully-laden jets to allow a large range of services to Asia and the Americas. The airport is in the middle of the national motorway network and is easily reached by train from Kent on HS1 and then via Euston, as a delegation from Medway and Kent councils discovered when we visited last week. When HS2 is built, Birmingham Airport will be only just over half an hour from Heathrow, 40 minutes from Euston and 57 minutes from Ebbsfleet.
Stansted could take 17 million more passengers (and took 6 million more than now in 2007) but is held back by poor transport connections. For £3-4 billion (rather than £50-80 billion for an estuary airport) we could build a Crossrail spur from Stratford to Stansted allowing transfer from the airport to the City in 23 minutes, and to the West End or Ebbsfleet in half an hour. The Coalition could agree this rail investment now, leaving any decisions to build second of third runways, for which there would be plenty of space, until existing capacity is properly used.
Gatwick has a real window of opportunity now to come off the fence and push for a second runway, which their planning agreement could allow from 2019. Gatwick could then be set free from price controls to compete with Heathrow and really build its business following recent success in attracting Asian airlines. We should also improve train links from Kent as well as London to Gatwick as the best option for supporting Kent travellers and our local economy.