Andrew Thorpe-Apps sets out why he backs an estuary airport.
Heathrow Airport, Britain’s air travel hub, is the third busiest airport in the world. Unfortunately, it was built in the wrong place. With 80% of winds from the west, planes are forced to fly low and slow over Europe’s most populous city. Heathrow has expanded over the years, and it has now developed to maximum capacity. Yet when compared to the international airports of Shanghai or Hong Kong, Heathrow feels small and tired.
Foreign businesses – which Britain so urgently needs to attract – are in danger of being underwhelmed by the country’s limited vision for transport development and modern infrastructure. National transport policy, as with energy policy, needs a long-term approach and a willingness to invest in Britain’s future
The plans put forward to expand Heathrow’s two runways are short-sighted. An extra runway will be little more than a ‘sticking plaster’, and it will not be long before the full capacity of a new runway is reached. Britain’s hub airport needs to be ready for the future – and that means having four or more runways. Yet given the political difficulties of building Heathrow’s third runway, including the current London Mayor’s staunch objection, it is difficult to envisage how a fourth runway could ever be sold to the public.
Heathrow expansion would require the demolition of substantial parts of West London. It would also increase the noise and atmospheric pollution across the city, reducing the quality of life of millions. Crucially, it would actually be dangerous to increase air traffic over London. The skies above the capital are already crowded – more planes means more potential for mistakes, with dire consequences.
The all-party 2M Group, which represents more than 20 local councils close to Heathrow, wants a guarantee that ‘runway alternation’ and night-flight restrictions will not be sacrificed to allow for more flights. The group says that allowing both runways to be used in tandem for arrivals and departures, known as ‘mixed mode’, would be just as damaging as creating a third and fourth runway.
Yet those who want Britain to remain competitive should not lose heart. Boris Johnson has backed an exciting alternative to Heathrow expansion. The proposal is known as ‘Boris Island’, an airport in the Thames Estuary. As Singapore did in 1981, and Hong Kong in 1998, airports can be built off the coast. The idea of a London estuary airport has actually been around since the 1970s. It would allow flights to arrive and depart 24 hours a day. The airport’s new flight paths would massively reduce the impact of air and noise pollution over London.
Admittedly, there will be considerable upheaval involved in moving London’s main airport to a new location. Further, a superfast train line will be needed to connect the new airport with central London. But other major cities have managed to achieve this in the recent past, notably Athens in 2001 and Bangkok in 2006. There is no reason to believe Britain could not do the same. Indeed, the country has good form when it comes to innovative infrastructure projects – the Eurotunnel being a prime example.
The cost of such a project would indeed be high, estimated at about £50 billion (though this could be largely financed by private investors). But current plans would see an airport with capacity for 150 million passengers per year, double the amount currently served by Heathrow.
The estuary airport would allow for modern, integrated transport planning. A high speed rail link to the nearby High Speed 1 would make London’s airport a more suitable hub for north-western continental Europe. Crossrail could also be extended to connect the new airport, and even the Eurostar could be easily accessed. Furthermore, infrastructure around the airport could combine with a new flood barrier, and this system could be used to generate energy through tidal power. In short, the scheme is teaming with possibilities.
Opponents of the ‘Boris Island’ plan claim that it would take too long to construct, and Britain needs to find an aviation solution quickly. While it is true that Britain does need to move quickly to solve its airport capacity problem, an estuary airport could be built within 14 years – only two years longer than would be needed to complete a third runway at Heathrow.
What would become of Heathrow if all this went ahead? Clearly, it will continue to act as Britain’s main airport for the next decade. But should Heathrow become redundant due to a new four-runway airport in the Thames Estuary, it would free up around 2,500 acres of land in west London. This land is close to the M4 and has excellent rail links. It would be a prime location for development and could do much to relieve London’s chronic housing shortage.
Heathrow has many limitations placed on it, and while it remains Britain’s hub airport, so does British aviation policy as a whole. It is time to think big and give Britain the solution it deserves.