Julian Huppert MP writes… Boris Island is no more than an election ploy

Just one week after the Government gave the green light to a multi-billion pound high speed rail network, taxpayers are being asked to consider another tranche of infrastructure investment.

But the case for a £50 billion Thames Estuary Airport, dubbed ‘Boris Island’ after London’s inimitable Mayor, is so confused that it no longer constitutes a coherent proposal at all.

The main argument in favour is that, in order for London to retain its ‘hub’ status, we need significant investment in a brand new airport, because we’ll shortly be at capacity. If we don’t act now, Britain will lose vital economic growth.

It sounds reasonable so far, but the argument starts from a number of key premises, none of which are certain, and most of which are plain wrong.

Let’s look at the assumption that we will reach capacity and that we have to do something about it now.

The Department for Transport has made expressly clear that there is “inherent uncertainty involved in forecasting to 2050”. Of course, there is always uncertainty in any long term projections, which doesn’t mean we should ignore them.

What it does mean is that we should be extremely careful about committing ourselves to vast expenditure based on these figures. Where possible, we should only make investment where and when we are sure it is needed.

But the real killer blow comes when we actually look at last year’s projections from the Department for Transport. They show that if we had unrestricted capacity – if we had all the airports we could possibly need – there would be 520 million passengers per annum in the UK by 2050.

DfT analysis then showed that, without any new runways or airports, this number would in fact be 470 million passengers a year by 2050. That’s a capacity gap of around 50 million passengers a year.

Boris, on the other hand, is assuming that we need capacity for 700 million passengers per annum by 2050. He’s assuming a capacity gap of 230 million passengers a year, nearly 5 times that which the Department for Transport is predicting.

To his credit, this ‘700 million’ figure was an absolute upper estimate from the DfT. Although I won’t give him too much credit, given that it makes absolutely no sense to spend that much money based on an unrealistic worst case scenario.

Even if you did accept Boris’ forecast, do we have to act now?

Boris has proudly claimed that the airport could take six years to build. Let’s say he runs over by a couple of years (I’m being generous now), this takes us to 2020.

DfT’s more reliable medium-term projections for 2030 say that this is the year when we could reach capacity in London and the South-East. From then on we could allow regional airports to take the burden. Not only are Boris’ timings a bit off, but he seems rather concerned to keep growth in the South-East.

For these reasons, the Liberal Democrats opposed any expansion of airport capacity in London and the South East at the last election, and we oppose it now.

But there are plenty of other reasons why Boris Island should be opposed, and why we should be proud of Liberal Democrat attempts to block it.

In this country we have legally binding climate change targets for 2050. The Committee on Climate Change set a cap of 380 million passengers per annum by 2050 if we are to meet those targets.

Boris is creating capacity for nearly double that at 700 million, and there is no clear strategy as to how he would increase the number of passengers without increasing C02 emissions.

In addition, the location of the airport endangers thousands of birds which use that estuary as a migratory route. Boris is putting at risk not just local wildlife, but global species which shelter there for migration. The numbers are huge and there’s real danger to passengers from ‘Bird Strike’.

And it’s not just wildlife which resides near the planned airport. Just a stone’s throw away from the proposed construction site lies the SS Richard Montgomery, a WWII Liberty Ship with 3000 tons of munitions which could go off at any time.

In 2004 a New Scientists report said the resultant explosion would be one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts ever, and last year’s Government report on the site concluded that the result of disturbing it is ‘difficult to predict’ and collapse was ‘getting closer’.

Unsurprisingly, the Department for Transport has not backed the airport, instead stating that “the Government will consult on a sustainable framework for UK aviation this spring, at which time we will set out our long-term plans for the sector”. Long-term plans which will no doubt be based on actual evidence.

So why the confusion? Why are Boris’ conclusions so far from that of myself, the Liberal Democrats, the Department for Transport and even the CEO of BAA?

Because his premise is simple. Boris has an election in May. He needs a grand transport plan – one which he can promise to deliver, without actually paying for or delivering. The airport, then, is a perfect ploy.

In the words of Caroline Pidgeon this is “an initiative by Conservative Ministers to give credibility to Boris Johnson’s discredited idea of a Thames Estuary airport ahead of May’s elections”.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • I’m ashamed to be a LD voter over this. This is just a short term political game from the LDs

    The Foster’s plan, which is being talked about, has far more benefits that you are ignoring. Please take time to read the report here http://www.halcrow.com/Thames-Hub/PDF/Thames_Hub_vision.pdf

    Some of the benefits include:
    New thames barrier, increasing protection size by 150%, producing renewable energy and providing a new road crossing

    New high speed and freight orbital train line around London, reducing London bottleneck and connecting up all of the UK’s ports to a single airport. With the combination of HS2, means that this airport would be far more accessible to the people of the North than any of the current London airports

    Then of course a new airport, out at sea, meaning far less disruption and noise pollution in London, leading to the closure of Heathrow. It can operate 24 hours a day. Far more connectivity to the emerging economies- if you want to rebalance the economy, to a more manufacturing base, then you need to be able to sell your goods to the emerging economies – with little to no connection, we are seriously falling behind.

    The problems you talk about.
    1) Cost – The airport itself could be financed by sovereign wealth funds
    2) Climate change – I agree obviously that this is a problem, but seeing as aviation makes up only a small amount of UK emissions, it possible to expand and still meet the 80% reduction.
    3)Bird Strike – There are technologies around (employed at EVERY airport) that can help prevent this. Similar airports, such as Hong Kong International, do not seem to have this problem.
    4) Protected birds – Yes obviously these should be protected. It is estimated that 20km^2 will be destroyed in the construction of this airport. However. You have failed to mention that the Foster plans include a new 60km^2, made from land reclamation, will be built little further North
    5) SS Montgomery – Scraping the barrel here Julian, the problem can easily be avoided by err…not going near it in construction. The location is already one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world – has been a problem so far.

  • Boris is as worried about the lack of flights to China and Brazil now as he is about a theoretical lack of capacity in 2050. We need to move away from doing the absolute minimum necessary and have a vision that will deliver better long term results.

    It’s very much like the Borisbus. It one sense that was also a cynical election ploy, but it’s also more than that. We could have used an off the shelf double decker, but we’re getting something better. The fact that Boris is happy to bring this kind of long term planning into elections is something to be applauded, it’s democracy in action. People are going to get a say on an airport long before any public consultation.

  • jenny barnes 22nd Jan '12 - 9:56am

    We don’t need a hub in London. There’s a very good global hub in Dubai. With flights from all sorts of places in A380s and 777s. Emirates operate direct flights from both major London airports, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham…with onward connections to the rest of the world.
    But Boris island looks like a great idea to me. As long as we can tax aviation fuel. I think that would be fair.

  • A hub in Dubai is not much use if I want to go to Halifax, Nova Scotia!

  • John Faulkner 22nd Jan '12 - 12:40pm

    I find it depressing in all these conversations that the dangers of climate change, resource depletion and other environmental issues are put in a separate box as soon as we discuss other issues. There is no business as usual going ahead. Green issues have not become embedded in our way of thinking yet, it is very sad.

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