Opinion: Chocks away for a green flight to the estuary

I hate airports. Far too much of my life has been wasted in them. I especially hate Heathrow. It is a truly awful place to get to and spend time in; a choking, noisy, gridlocked example of unplanned, unfettered airborne and urban sprawl. It has outlived any pretension of social usefulness. A rise in aircraft movements by a third or more means unmitigated misery for millions.

There is much to sympathise with in the macho-green conference motion, proclaiming a pox on all your runways and terminals. But such is the inexorable rise in international business that, if Britain is to live by global trade, to say nothing of tourism, the reality is that London needs further airport capacity. Certainly, many people don’t want to lose their cheap flights abroad.

Some demand can and must be reduced by building more British high-speed railways, and extend the radius reached by rail in Europe. But that doesn’t solve the problem of how we expand capacity and global trade. Or of speedy transit to and from Heathrow. That leaves three options:

• Another runway at Stansted, where the cost of transforming its rotten rail links into anything resembling Fast is prohibitive.

• So too at Gatwick, where it is impossible to connect by rail to Heathrow, and where too many people now live.

• The estuary solution; preferably more Medway than Thames.

My airport would be on the far, south-eastern, side of the existing deep-water port on the Isle of Grain, roughly below the village of Grain. A railway runs the 15-odd miles to where it could join the Channel high-speed line to St Pancras or Paris. Thus about 20 minutes to London, and a bit more on the new high-speed branch line to Heathrow.

But it can only be justified if it is one of the greenest airports. Accessed only by train; cars would be banned. A remote check-in and holding terminal would be about five miles from the runway. Passengers would transfer, just-in-time, to the boarding area when the plane is ready to go. Much of the pollution at airports occurs on land rather than in the air. Traffic congestion is appalling within miles of Heathrow. A traffic-free airport zone has to become the norm this century. Wherever we do locate an airport, as eventually we will have to, it must ban all vehicles. Heathrow and even Gatwick are incapable of doing so.

As a former candidate for Gillingham, I believe its many lowly-paid residents would benefit hugely from the arrival of well-paid jobs. Of course, many local Lib Dems and voters disagree, possibly because they compare it to existing airports. Grain would minimise disturbance and noise. Aircraft would take-off and land mainly over water, not people.

* Jonathan Hunt is President of Camberwell & Peckham local party and chair of the Southwark Co-ordinating Committee. He is an elected Life Member of the NUJ, and a former parliamentary candidate.

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  • Sheila Ritchie 6th Sep '12 - 10:48am

    What about the wildlife implications of Kent? They are horrendous.

  • jenny barnes 6th Sep '12 - 10:57am

    Qantas have shifted their hub to Dubai. That looks like a good option for Eastern routes. A380s to Dubai from major UK airports…and then on to wherever. Maybe BA could shift an eastern hub there too, with some flights changing gauge to go on to less busy destinations.
    Reduce aircraft movements by taxing aircraft , rather than passengers, maybe auction slots.

  • Boris Island and Medway are both bonkers as solutions.

    Look at a map of the UK. Anything tucked below London or to the right of London makes no sense whatsoever (which rules out Gatwick and Stanstead/Boris Island). Especially if you are wanting a hub to take transatlantic traffic.

    The reason that Heathrow still persists is that it is in a good geographical position for both London and a huge chunk of England. The problem now is that pressure on communications links and overdevelopment of the South East mean that Heathrow is becoming unfit for purpose and any attempts to upgrade are merely Elastoplast solutions. It’s becoming harder and harder to expand an airport sandwiched between gravel pits, the M25, and a lot of very expensive real estate.

    My favoured solution is a brand-new airport north-north-west of London, close to the M1 corridor, designed with room to grow, and high-speed rail links to London and the rest of the country. Look at Google Maps – the ideal place is somewhere between Rugby and Hemel Hempstead. If you wanted to be *really* far-sighted, you could have enough space for anything needing a very long runway (if hypersonic flight/space plane ideas actually become reality).

  • Jonathan Hunt 6th Sep '12 - 12:48pm

    “The ideal place is betwen Rugby and Hemel Hempstead”

    Martin: Do you mean Luton?

  • Building an airport in the Thames estuary would be a social, economic and environmental catastrophe. it’s the kind of plan that could only be thought up by someone that isn’t aware of the population of the UK living outside of the M25.

  • Why are the number of people who live under the Heathrow flightpath close enough to be disturbed always exaggerated? Millions? Millions of rats maybe. Build a new runway at LHR in 2015 – and plan a new super-hub properly integrated with public transport replacing Heathrow and Gatwick to be completed in 15-20 years time, 30 miles or so NW of London. You dont even need public money, companies are queuing up to invest.

  • Alex Macfie 6th Sep '12 - 5:18pm

    That “many people don’t want to lose their cheap flights abroad” is not a reason to expand airports, especially when the principal reason for said cheap flights is the hidden subsidy created by the lack of taxation on aviation fuel. I agree with jenny barnes that taxation should be shifted to aircraft, in order to create an approximation of fuel taxation and discourage half-full flights.

    On expanding the radius of rail travel, it’s potentially wide already: the obstacles to wider use of rail travel to mainland Europe are mainly political, rather than anything to do with capacity or time constraints. For instance, cross-channel train services to and from the UK provinces were originally planned when the Channel Tunnel opened, but were abandoned principally because they were to be prevented from carrying domestic passengers in the UK, thus completely undermining the economics of such services. Until this changes, through train services from, say, Birmingham to Paris are most unlikely to happen, even if the infrastucture existed to enable high-speed operation the whole way. Other obstacles to the wider uptake of train travel to mainland Europe include the expensive gold-plated safety regulations that apply in the CT, and poor ticket integration between different operators. Tackling these issues with rail travel would allow many more passenger train services to run through the Channel Tunnel, replacing short-haul flights and thus reducing the pressure on airports without building any new infrastructure.

  • Jonathan:

    “Martin: Do you mean Luton?”

    Have you seen Luton? There’s a danger that planes could overshoot the runway, launch off the precipice at the western end of the runway and crash into the adjacent Vauxhall factory!

    If we need a hub, then it need to be a hub for the nation (as Colin said earlier). And it’s easier to build afresh than to cobble something together from what’s already there (which is the attitude that has hampered Heathrow from its inception).

  • I was at Fosters today, talking about airports, because I am writing a report about aviation for CentreForum/PolicyExchange . Fosters have answers to some of these questions (their presentation is online), but I think that there are better solutions. Watch this space!

  • @Alistair 6th
    “Why are the number of people who live under the Heathrow flightpath close enough to be disturbed always exaggerated? Millions? Millions of rats maybe. Build a new runway at LHR in 2015”

    Your point is totally untrue and quite offensive. I live TEN MILES from Heathrow in West Hampstead and some nights there is a constant stream of heavily laden jumbos taking off for the Far East which keeps me awake until 11.30pm.

    Heathrow already IS an environmental disaster for large swathes of West and South West London. The improvement in quality of life in many areas of London if Heathrow were closed or scaled down would be massive. It is simply in the wrong place and we need to think strategically about where we need capacity, how to use existing airports better and how to improve ground transport to make the most of them.

  • I agree with Martin. Boris Island makes no sense at all. Damage to the environment. Airplanes and large birds really do not mix, with dramatically negative consequences for them both. We currently have the world’s largest airport employing thousands of people on the west side of the city – a huge % of the economically active population of Hounslow, Hillingdon and Ealing are supported directly or indirectly by Heathrow, and we’re just going to pick it up and drop it in the middle of nowhere? And turn our back on far more realistic, achievable and cost-effective expansion of our existing well established airports? Boris must have his reasons for coming up with such an impractical idea – his delight in extreme overly-imaginative proposals probably being high on the list – but a sensible solution to the air capacity problem? Err, no.

  • Mark Fitzpatrick 7th Sep '12 - 12:14am

    One of my earliest political memories is the debate about the ‘new London airport’, which included Maplin and various other sites. A Thames estuary airport would be extremely damaging environmentally – plus (according to the comments I’ve read) not fit in easily to other flight patterns from Schiphol and other nearby airports.

  • Mark Fitzpatrick: The head of NATS, Richard Deakin, is on record as saying Grain is not possible for air traffic control. Fosters response is that planes would not descend in a straight line towards the airport, but would come from the north/south and do a sharp turn as they approach.

    I live 8 miles from Heathrow, and hear relatively few planes.

  • Richard Dean 7th Sep '12 - 1:09am

    There is another option, which is to include several more airports within the same single concept of “hub”. Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Cariff, Edinburgh, and Belfast all have airports are all centres of energetic industry,

    These aiports would be ideal to take most of the European and some US flights away from Heathrow, leaving Heathrow able to handle the remaining US and the long-haul destinations without new runways. Onward connections through Heathrow could readily be handled by seamless integration with a new superfast train network linking all airports of the hub.

    This option is certainly consistent with the aim of spreading economic well-being away from London and the South-East, at the same time relieving some of London and the South-East’s housing and other problems.

  • Richard Dean 7th Sep '12 - 1:16am

    Foster is not likely to be offering unbiassed oprinions, in my view. Their answer does suggest that Deakin’s answer is nonsense, except that doing a sharp turn on approach is likely to be VERY DANGEROUS!

    Even if it means that only one in a thousand flights get into difficulties, that’s probably one or two accidents a week!

    What about an airport five miles south of Brighton? A fifth option, without ay of te benefits of the fourth, but it’s certainly straightforward from a civil engineering perspective.

  • Charles Beaumont 7th Sep '12 - 3:29am

    Why not expand Stansted? So it’s going to need better rail links but can that really be harder than building a whole new island?! Connect the M11 north to the M1 and upgrade the trainlines and you’ve got an airport with good access to the north, midlands and London.

  • Dennis Brown 7th Sep '12 - 8:50am

    I wonder how many of the people who fly in via Heathrow (or Gatwick) actually then stay in the south east of the UK? Surely this needs to be considered rather than limit the debate to presuming that extra capacity in only needed this part of the UK. How about some analysis of actual demand rather than limit any discussion to reflecting the egos of those living in the south east….

  • @Ian:

    “No insult to Staines-on-Thames intended. My daughter’s lived there – 3 times.”

    So she escaped twice – is it like The Great Escape, where if she gets caught escaping a third time she’ll be shot there and then?

  • Richard 2 – I am also interested in Richard 1’s idea of the airport 5 miles south of Brighton, especially the bit claiming “the civil engineering would be straightforward”! Perhaps Richard 1 knows something about the depths of the English Channel, and the busiest shipping lanes in the world, denied to the rest of us?

  • I can’t speak for Richard, but i think he was being ironic. Building an airport 5 miles south of Brighton is just as barking mad as building it in the Thames – a highly complex morphodynamic system – the construction work will have a huge impact on erosion and deposition across the estuary no to mention the damage to sensitive ecosystems and the re-routing of an incredibly busy shipping lane. Come to think of it, five miles south of Brighton is far less mad (but would also be on the wrong side of London).

  • Jonathan Hunt 7th Sep '12 - 11:40am

    I note remarks about London-centric locations. I would not be opposed to a new airport in the so-called Golden Triangle (or is it Pyramid?) that covers Oxford, Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Bedford and south to Luton that the last government chose as containing the new industries suitable for fast growth and investment.

    But it would have to meet three criteria:
    • close to a high-speed rail track;
    • fast (minutes) access to Heathrow;
    • accessed by passengers only by rail.

    The most likely high-sped line is the one planned to run from a link in north London to the Ashford-St Pancas line, with a spur to Heathrow.

    Too many contributors still seem to believe that people should get there by millions of individual little motor car journeys, with the consequent need for more and wider roads and huge land spaces reserved for car parks. Surely, just a drive to Heathrow should convince anyone that this nightmare must end.

    If we are to have airports, a minimalist approach is essential. And that runways don’t have to be located bang next to the main holding terminals. Closeness in time to Heathrow is required to enable it to remain the main global hub until such time as Golden Triangle International takes over.

    But the Isle of Grain would not be remote in terms of time. Some 35 minutes from Heathrow should an hour or so from the West Midlands, and a couple from the North. Although you can spot sizable white spaces on maps of Bucks and Oxfordshire, people will tell you the counties are already full up.

    I will stick to Grain for now as the most suitable and cost-effective green airport.

  • @Jonathan:

    I note remarks about London-centric locations. I would not be opposed to a new airport in the so-called Golden Triangle (or is it Pyramid?) that covers Oxford, Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Bedford and south to Luton that the last government chose as containing the new industries suitable for fast growth and investment.

    But it would have to meet three criteria:
    • close to a high-speed rail track;
    • fast (minutes) access to Heathrow;
    • accessed by passengers only by rail.

    a) one is being built – HS2.

    b) why? A new purpose-built hub can be 30-45 mins to Central London. If it’s good enough for the people of Chicago to travel to their local airport and regional hub at O’Hare then it’s good enough for Londoners. This smacks of selfishness from London residents who object to having to travel.

    c) Nonsense.

    The idea that you should design for how you want people to behave is disastrous. We’ve seen this policy enacted on modern housing, where local planners deliberately restrict homes to having a single car-parking spot.

    This ends up causing social problems – over-crowding of residential roads with the additional cars households need to get to work, the damage that results from this over-crowding, the anti-social aspects of over-crowding, and of course the conflict that occurs between neighbours when there isn’t enough car room to go round.

    Cars in one form or another are here to stay. Any attempt to design them out of the picture is short-sighted and irresponsible behaviour from someone who claims to be a planner.

  • the most cost effective solution is RAF Fairford, with its massive runways and aprons going to waste. The USAF have stopped using it for B52s going on carpet bombing raids, the existing RAF use could be easily shunted to any number of RAF bases around the country(they really do have an over capacity), and for the building of a terminal and a rail link from Swindon/Gloucester/Oxford and a motorway spur from M4, M40 and M5, it could be up and running for a fraction of the cost in a fraction of the time..

  • I do not understand why business must rely on physical travel.

    Have none of these people heard of video/teleconferencing?

  • Richard Dean 8th Sep '12 - 12:56am

    Yes, 5 miles South of Brighton would be in the sea. But an airport is not really that big, and ships can easily manoever around it as long as they know it’s there .

    Google Earth indicates that the water depth 5 miles South of Brighton is only about 15 metres, which makes it simple to construct an articfical island there. There’d be effects on the wave climate and ecology and environment which would need to be assessed, of course, but some of the effects could be beneficial, and it could rejuvenate Brighton – what fun to be on Brighton Beach watching hundreds of aircraft take off and land! The island could be connected to existing trransport infrastructure by road and rail tunnels whose construction cost might be rather small compared to what is being proposed for the Thames.

    But I personally favour the distributed hub concept, including Birmingham at least. It’s better for the regions as well as relieving London and the South East of their burdens. And a distributed hub is the way other countries in Europe may go, and once they do, we’d look rather foolish!

  • Richard Dean 8th Sep '12 - 1:09am

    The other thing about 5 miles South of Brighton is that it provides something that might conceivably catch people’s imagination, and will provide something offshore to compare the Thames proposal with.

    For instance, how do the effects on flora and fauna compare? The Thames is also a pretty busy shipping channel. And an island in the Thames will also nhave massive effects on erosion and deposition there. Anyone supporting or criticising the Thames would need to explain why whether the same things apply 5 miles South of Brighton!

    In other words, 5 miles South of Brighton might be useful as a vehicle for thinking (what’s the word for that ?) as well as a good idea in its own right!

    (posted from an offshore oil platform 5 miles East of Manzanilla Beach!)

  • Paul McKeown 8th Sep '12 - 1:59am

    What a load of nonsense.

    Aviation burns hydrocarbons to produce carbon dioxide. Anthropic carbon dioxide emissions are cumulative as they currently overwhelm the ability of natural buffers to absorp them and lay them down as mineral deposits.


    Well http://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/features/19417327 just to start. And burning off one of nature’s largest solar mirrors only makes climate change much faster of course. One degree Celsius in a century so far. The next degree Celsius in two decades or less.

    By the time any new airport is built, people will be lynching the fools who thought it such a great idea.

  • Richard Dean 8th Sep '12 - 5:17am

    Globally, I’m told that cars produce about 4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. By contrast, Wipipedia says that “the contribution of civil aircraft-in-flight to global CO2 emissions has been estimated at around 2%”. Increasing air travel won’t necessarily increase this percentage, since other factors may increase faster.

  • Hear hear, Paul!

  • Assuming air travel remains part of the transport picture I agree it is essential that we are able to present a workable plan to ensure demand is met, and that it is done in the most environmentally and economically sensitive way possible.

    The first issue revolves around location, more specifically where demand is coming from.

    Heathrow is the UK hub because it caters to the nation by providing routes to more destinations, and resultingly more people from more parts of the country use it. Equally Heathrow provides better access to London, which is by far the most visited city for foreign visitors.

    So talking about expansion of regional airports may satisfy some criteria, but if these have spare capacity it begs the questions why airlines don’t think scheduling routes from, say Cardiff or Southampton to Rio de Janeiro or Wuhan, is sustainable.

    London’s 4 main airports carried about 130m passengers in 2011 (out of 220m countrywide), with Heathrow’s two runways accounting for half of this figure on 1,305 passenger flights daily. The basic problem of getting more travellers to and from it means a third runway is beyond contemplation for Heathrow, even before taking any other factors into consideration. Gatwick carries half as many, with one runway, but is further from secondary population centres, although more developed connections make it easier to reach.

    By the same measure Stansted could double, and Luton could more than treble the number of passengers before reaching the same level of usage. Equally Manchester is as popular as Stansted with 18m passengers, while Birmingham and Edinburgh are comparable to Luton at 8m each.

    The second, related issue is therefore about accessibility – is it feasible to create comprable road and rail links to each of these places?

    Obviously an underground line to Luton might be excessive, but Edinburgh’s eventual tram system will reach it’s airport, and any sensible long-term plan should include interchange between the widest variety of transport modes.

    So the problem clearly isn’t simply about runways.

    Heathrow’s latest Terminal 5 and the plans to demolish Terminal 1 to build Phase 2 of the new Terminal 2 (completion 2019) indicate the additional key matter of passenger handling capacity (with more plane stands, check-in desks and, ahem, sufficient immigration facilities etc).

    Deal with these and any question of additional runways is completely by-passed.

    But on top of these the best option is relatively painless and would resolve the pressure on passenger capacity by moving freight movement away from the more popular airports, which could easily be achieved through differentiating pricing mechanisms.

    Just for fun here’s BAA’s own statistics on flight movements at it’s ariports over the past 10 years – notice cargo flights account for 1.5m tonnes through Heathrow in 2011, compared to 132 tonnes through Southampton, and see how freight is shifting towards the more popular passenger centres where we’re told there is less capacity!

    I’d like to hear an analysis of how BAA’s dominant position is enabling it to distort the market and thereby artificially create unnecessary policy challenges.

    A new-build airport is nothing more than a trophy project. It is for ambitious politicians and corporate engineering interests of a certain ilk – it is not competent policy, it is not affordable use of infrastructure budgets, nor is it liable to be brought to fruition anytime soon. All flash, no substance.

    It’s no coincidence that Fosters dubbed the fifth Thames option ‘Boris’ Island.

  • Jonathan Hunt 8th Sep '12 - 3:44pm

    Heathrow will continue to be the main hub for a long time to come, as Orangepan points out. We are grateful to him for his relevant research.
    It is ingrained in the minds of international business travellers as the place they think they should fly to get to London, or anyway where they go to work, or change flights.
    Because their customers want to go to Heathrow, so too do the airlines. It will take a long time for passengers to believe they could fly to a different airport and still be close in terms of time to Heathrow. To do that requires frequent high-speed rail links.
    Somewhere in the Chilterns would be close enough, when HR2 is built. Given the hospitality of the locals, all seeking like the French to have the HR2 running near their homes, competition to welcome an airport should be fierce, The middle-class peasantry would especially extend a welcome to the millions of cars polluting. .
    Gain offers many advantages:
    • access to existing rail links convertible to higher-speed tracks to a remote terminal, and onward to boarding units,
    • transit passengers could reach Heathrow very quickly, and central London in less than 30 minutes.
    • traffic-free, with passengers and goods having to travel by train
    • Environmentally friendly project reduces overall footprint and eco-impact
    • Obviates need for expensive and potentially vulnerable artificial island.
    • Aircraft would mainly fly over water, not people.
    • Adaptable local workforce available
    It is not ideal, but nor is anyone else. It would have the same positive effects on regenerating the area to the east of London, but without the same impact and need for expensive and expensive construction.
    But let’s try and find somewhere better.

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