Article originally featured in Kent on Sunday – Click Here To Download
The Mayor of London and Foster & Partners are not the first to suggest building an airport in the Thames Estuary. The last government did that with Cliffe airport. That was ruled out, not least on grounds of cost, and these latest reheated proposals lack feasibility just as their predecessors did.
Despite Boris’ gung-ho attitude, support for a Thames Estuary airport remains extremely limited. The substantive report by the Transport Select Committee, published on Friday, which drives a coach and horses through the proposals, follows hot on the heels of the London Assembly’s findings that a Thames Estuary airport is not a viable option.
By advocating the Thames Estuary airport, Boris wanted to take the focus off Heathrow expansion, but by backing such an ill-advised, economically and environmentally unfeasible scheme he only succeeded in putting the focus back on Heathrow, although other options may make more sense.
I welcome the decision by the Transport Select Committee to reject a new hub airport in or around the Thames Estuary. It is a huge boost for the thousands of residents across Medway, particularly those living on the Hoo Peninsula, who are opposed to such proposals. However, it is important that we stay focused on our ultimate goal of seeing off these pie in the sky plans once and for all.
With cost estimates ranging widely from £70-100 billion, this scheme would not only have added at least £50 to each plane ticket but would also require huge swathes of public subsidy, money which we simply do not have. Not only would the estuary airport impose a massive financial cost to the nation as a whole, it would devastate Medway and subject many across Kent to constant aircraft noise.
Moreover, Heathrow could not continue to operate alongside a Thames Estuary airport, or airlines would not relocate from Heathrow to a much more expensive and less commercially attractive new airport. Airlines themselves have indicated that they are not prepared to move to an estuary airport from Heathrow – and are even less willing to pay for such a scheme.
Therefore, for an estuary hub to work, Heathrow would have to be forcibly closed. How this would happen in practice is a question which remains unanswered and it has been suggested taxpayers would have to pay £20bn to compensate Heathrow and associated businesses. The closure of Heathrow would necessitate a shift of at least 75,000 directly employed staff to a Thames Estuary airport. No council in peacetime has ever been asked to re-home so many people and the implications of such a task would be almost unimaginable for our area.
RSPB map showing full extent of Foster+Partners’ proposal
The site of the proposed airport is home to many internationally protected wildlife and environmental sites as well RSPB bird and nature sanctuaries. The likelihood of bird strikes on planes would be far higher than at other airports. The location chosen for the estuary airport would not only be environmentally devastating, but on the wrong side of London for access from most of the UK, as well as being technically unfeasible in key respects.
Richard Deakin, chief executive of air traffic management association, NATS, pointed out that four runways in the estuary would mean some approaches and departures being over London, compounding noise problems and conflicting with the flight paths of other airports, including Schipol.
There are other far more realistic solutions for increasing airport capacity. If £5 billion were spent on a Crossrail spur from Stansted to Stratford this would link Stansted to the City in 25 minutes and to the West End or Ebbsfleet in 35 minutes, with Heathrow less than an hour away. Stansted is currently operating at only half its potential capacity and therefore could greatly increase its number of flights without even needing a new runway in the short-term. Gatwick is now pushing for a second runway once its planning agreement which prevents this expires in 2019. Expansion at Gatwick and/or Stansted with one becoming a hub which competes with Heathrow would benefit Kent with better connections.