Opinion: The Lib Dems should back Lord Foster’s plans for a new Thames Airport

Imagine if the Lib Dems had been in power in the west of England in the 1830s during the construction of Brunel’s visionary Great West Rail line. 19th century equivalents of ‘Focus’ leaflets (which, on reflection, would probably have looked much the same and have been produced in much the same way) would have dropped through the letterboxes of local residents in affected towns and villages warning them of terrible noise and rural devastation from years of construction activity that would permanently scar their cherished landscape.

Or imagine Lib Dems in opposition in the 1930s, who would have campaigned against those unsightly electricity pylons, towering over all before them like the industrial behemoths they were. Yet again, little bits of paper would have been dropped through letterboxes in parishes up and down the land, warning communities of rural devastation from years of construction activity and a permanent scarring of their cherished landscape.

Sadly, this Luddite Liberalism appears to have reared its bearded head again in the debate around a new London airport in the Thames estuary. The arguments for the airport are fairly clear: we are at the limits of airport capacity in the South East of England and we will lose economic competitiveness if we do not expand capacity to ensure that the booming cities in the rapidly developing BRICs nations, and others, cannot get direct access to London, and through connections, to the world. We need new airports, basically.

Once you accept this, and of course not all do, the arguments for going east of London in particular are clear: we are at the limits of what communities around existing airports will tolerate; the centre of gravity is shifting east anyway, with new infrastructure (notably high speed rail to the continent and the north) and housing being located there; and the fewest number of people will be adversely affected by a new airport in the Thames estuary compared to the other options.

If you look at Lord Foster’s pretty compelling case for the Thames hub airport, you’ll see he adds weight to the argument for it being located in the Thames estuary by linking its construction to the construction of a necessary second Thames barrier. The barrier would not only protect London against rising sea levels but would also itself generate enough electricity to power the airport. It would also allow a new road, rail and infrastructure tunnel to go under the Thames, improving linkages and connectivity in a deprived part of South East England.

It seems the Tories are backing this. If so, it may be just about the only policy of the blue wing of the coalition I agree with. Labour, too, may yet come on board, although Ken Livingstone has attacked it as being ‘anti-jobs’ in West London (oddly he seems to have not realised that it will be ‘pro-jobs’ in East London). It also seems that business will back this with pension fund investment. However, business will not be willing to get involved if there is a perceived political risk to it going ahead. LibDem recalcitrance may therefore put the whole project at risk (although this depends on how likely the party is to be in Government – or indeed in any position of influence or relevance – after 2015).

So I ask, why is the party wedded to no new airport capacity in the South East? Are business travellers from Sao Paolo really going to want to fly to Manchester for a meeting in Canary Wharf? Are Kent residents going to want to go to Birmingham to get a flight to Beijing? Obviously not. Equally, while the case may be strong for a rail line rather than a plane to take you from Birmingham to Paris, the same isn’t true for long distance international travel. There simply aren’t substitutes. Further, while we may not like the fact that planes cause pollution, we will always want and need to get to places around the world, and if we have to fly to Paris or Amsterdam first in order to get a flight to China, we won’t have actually done the planet any favours.

The party should put its sandals away and get behind this visionary project. I hope Brian Paddick and the London Lib Dems, as well as Vince, Nick and Danny, all back plans for a modern airport that meets future needs, regenerates the Thames Gateway, builds our needed national infrastructure, and maybe even frees up land for housing in leafy west London. That would at least create extra mansions to tax!

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  • Nonconformistradical 19th Jan '12 - 10:17am

    Two points;

    1. When you’ve built a new airport near to London – and the infrastructure to serve it – and that airport is filled to capacity – where are you going to build the next one? Because the easier you make it for people to travel (when they don’t necessarily need to because of technological improvements to communications) – the more people will travel.

    2. If we really need more airport capacity – which might be disputed – then it ought to be somewhere north of London where it might service the needs of more of the country as opposed to concentrating ever more job opportunites and travel infrastructure in the already congested south east.

  • It’s nice to see an article on LDV that reminds people the Liberals used to be the party of progress and business, not just short-term nimbyism or technophobes. Why we feel saving a few minutes to Birmingham is vital public infrastructure, while enabling more of the world to visit our capital is an assault on our ancient liberties, is unclear to me.

  • LondonLiberal 19th Jan '12 - 10:51am

    Kevin – your (quite right) concern is exactly what the Foster proposal adresses, very successfully in my view. I strongly suggest you read his proposal linked in my article, but for ease i reproduce his opening paragraphs here:

    “The Thames Hub incorporates a new Orbital Rail link around London, which would connect with a future high-speed rail line from London to the cities of the Midlands and the North – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool – and become part of an integrated network, linked directly to Continental Europe. Connecting the ports of Felixstowe, Tilbury, the new London Gateway and Southampton with the planned Atlantic Gateway development at Liverpool and Manchester will create an unrivalled freight distribution network and put Britain at the centre of manufacturing distribution in Europe.
    By moving freight by rail, pressure would be released from the roads and commuter networks – an important
    benefit. The Orbital Rail link will also help to create a more efficient and reliable passenger rail system.
    A new flood barrier in the Thames Estuary is a necessity, but has the potential to deliver other comprehensive improvements, while securing London’s future flood protection: it can alleviate housing shortages by creating new flood protected land for residential development; it can provide a platform for an integrated rail and road crossing to open up new trade routes between the UK and Europe; it can generate renewableenergy from tidal flows; and it can bridge the Estuary to create a vital new corridor for utilities, communications and data. Combining these elements into a single structure allows greater efficiencies of time and money in construction.”

  • LondonLiberal 19th Jan '12 - 11:09am

    – the Hub airport would have a capacity of 150m people a year. Heathrow, at 98% capacity, handles 67m. This would accommodate demand for many, many years to come. Where to build the one after the Hub? Let’s just get the Hub done, a big enough task in itself, before moving on.

    As for making it easier to travel, well, why not just cancel all spending on transport infrastructure? That would save countless tonnes of carbon as people stayed at home and videoconferenced their lives instead. I know what you’re saying, and i would tend to agree normally – its like the argument that building roads just encourages more cars. But often there are public transport alternatives to more roads. I don’t think the same substitution applies for long haul flights. As for creating airport capacity outside of London – if there’s demand i quite agree with you. But that doesn’t negate the fact that you need an effective hub to replace heathrow to cope with current – let alone future -demand.

    Colin – i totally agree with your first point. Your second isn’t viable in my humble opinion, either politically or without causing intolerable amounts of noise and air pollution in a heavily built up part of London. As for your third point, i’d suggest that it’s generally not a good idea to put an airport next to where people live, however convenient it may be to get to! The Foster proposal incorporates massive transport infrastructure that, I think, addresses your accessibility concern.

  • This is a stupid place to put an airport because there are large numbers of large migratory birds there which are more than capable of bringing down passenger jets as was recently demonstrated by the jet that ditched in the Hudson, and because its on the wrong side of London for nearly all the population. Personally I would extend Heathrow and connect it properly with the rail network (not everyone lives in London!) -maybe even go wild and connect it properly to Gatwick, which itself has some spare capacity since T5 opened.

  • While the author has gone out of his way to annoy readers by deriding those who wish to protect our environment and cultural and natural heritage as “Luddites” (wrong use of the term, btw), he/she does actually have a case, kind of. Let’s have a look.

    (1) Further expansion at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted would have terrible consequences for anyone living in those areas, and for the surrounding environment. The closure of those airports would release much-needed land for development, in addition to giving a lot of people some peace and quiet, and taking the pressure off the M25, A4 and their affluents.

    (2) The Thames Estuary option is the one that causes the least environmental and cultural damage. The Isle of Grain is not a very scenic place, nor is the approach strip down the M2. However, there are extensive breeding grounds for wildfowl in the area, and we have to be sure that the birds can be relocated safely (there is a similar, but much smaller, problem with Canada geese at Heathrow). Building the airport in the middle of the Estuary, rather than on the Isle of Grain, would be the preferred (but much more expensive) option from the environmental perspective.

    (3) The areas around Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted would lose a lot of (mostly unskilled) jobs, but these are regions that are likely to be front of the queue for any economic growth we might get. The North Kent coast, by contrast, is a region with much poorer prospects, has been neglected by successive governments, and includes some of the most deprived parts of the South East (the Isle of Sheppey, Margate, Ramsgate, etc). A Thames Estuary airport would regenerate North Kent.

    (4) The infrastructure does not exist at present. Neither the HS track running through Ebbsfleet nor the M25/M2 could cope. They would have to be upgraded at huge expense. But it is do-able, and doing it would create many, many jobs – and cause little environmental damage.

    Even though the suggestion appears to come from Johnson (actually, it was first mooted by Professor Peter Hall, a Lib Dem), we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, as Brian has done (rather glibly and prematurely, I feel). We should look at it in depth and think it through. It might just be the right thing to do.

    I would be interested to hear what Tim Leunig, who is an economist and comes from North Kent, thinks about it.

  • Richard Swales 19th Jan '12 - 1:41pm

    I heard that a lot of these planes that are circling over London and annoying residents are full of people from other countries in Europe simply using us a place for changing planes (someone will maybe post the actual percentage of passengers).
    Two observations –
    1) This shows how other, smaller countries are able to develop without direct flights to everywhere in the world.
    2) If we put up landing fees to control the demand for space, then some of this through-traffic would presumably go elsewhere.

  • I don’t understand why this additional airport capacity absolutely needs to be in the South East. You say a business traveller won’t want to fly into Manchester – why not, with HS2 running? You argue that a holidaymaker won’t want to travel up to Birmingham to catch a flight – why not, after all we don’t all live in Kent.

    Overcentralising the aviation infrastructure in this country is leading to a huge competitive disadvantage for the regions and an entrenchment of the role of London as the country’s only going concern. While you could argue that its best to bolster that success, I would argue that to be truly successful, Britain as a whole needs to be more than a one horse nation.

    Expanding a regional airport, any regional airport, would free up capacity in Heathrow by removing the need for all us Midlanders and Northerners to keep travelling down there as our only option for long haul flights. That would address the need for a new London hub to replace Heathrow. And the presence of a large scale international airport in the regions would go some way towards levelling the competitive disadvantage faced by cities like Birmingham or Manchester.

  • LondonLiberal 19th Jan '12 - 1:53pm

    Thanks for everyone’s comments. I’ll do my best to answer them. I should preface this by apologising for not making clear in the article something i had in the back of my head when i wrote it – that i think an estuary airport could and should eventually replace heathrow. This would free up huge amounts of land in west London for much needed housing and free Londoners- and many in the home counties – of the blight of aircraft noise and pollution.

    kevin – i’m not sure why you bring up the issue of connecting between airports as an objection to a hub airport. it would have enough capacity to handle more than heathrow and gatwick combined, so i’m sure flights could fly to and from the hub. If connections were still required, however, and if you read the proposal, you see the airport connects to HS1 and therefore to euston, and thus onward central london connections to other airports.

    Alistair – birdstrike is, i think, the biggest practical reason against the Hub. It seems that the issue needs to be explored in greater detail, but i think that is a major obstacle. However, your assertion that the Hub is on the ‘wrong side on London’ is bizarre – railways can get us all round the country now, and the fact that Stanstead and Gatwick are in the middle of nowhere doesn’t seem to have hurt their popularity. And I’m afraid that Gatwick doesn’t have as much spare capacity as you think – it is currently running at 95%.
    Alex – you make good points, i agree!
    Simon – exactly. Hence my deliberately provocative use of the word ‘Luddite’. I might have used Canute-like instead, but it wasn’t alliterative enough.
    Geoffrey – I’m so sorry you felt patronised. Or course I don’t want to see global warming increase, and i do refer to ‘saving the planet’ in my article, but i’m afraid that if we build no new airports, and even if we tax aviation fuel (which we should), and build HS2 (which we should), and make airlines use their planes better (which we should) we are simply nowhere near the historic peak of air travel. Billions of people around the world are getting richer every day, and whether you like it or not, even with all the most reasonably restrictive demand mitigation measures you can imagine, people will still want, need and be able to fly. The question is, how do we cope with that reality. With creaking, at-capacity, poorly located infrastructure, or something rather more aspirational? I also take it from your comments that you never fly anywhere 🙂 ps the reason i use a pseudonym is because i work in a non-political role in local government, so need to be publicly impartial.
    Orangepan – agreed.

  • Paul McKeown 19th Jan '12 - 2:01pm

    If the LDs supported this idiotic proposal, I would stop voting for them. No doubt many others would, too.

    I had been considering providing no transfer after voting for Brian Paddick in the coming Mayoral election, as I consider Johnson and Livingstone both rather ghastly. However, in view of Johnson pushing this monstrous folly, I am now minded to vote 1. Paddick 2. Livingstone. I genuinely despair at the idea of either Johnson or Livingstone as the Mayor, but this proposal is truly awful and must be resisted.

  • Building another air[prt in the South-East is mad. The population have already suffered enough because of the London airports’ cartel. There are already far too many of unneccesary journeys to the far-flung South-East, putting increasing strain on the internal transport network. If we are serious about building an integrated transport infrastructure then any new development (if indeed new airports really are needed) must be in the Midland/North. More than half the population lives outside the South, but they don’t appear to have as much say as a few ‘business’ vested interests in London. Bit like everything else really.

    I can understand the Tory’s londoncentricity and how its led to their decline in Scotland and regions far from London, but why would the Lib Dems want to become a regional party as well?

  • @T-J
    “You say a business traveller won’t want to fly into Manchester ”

    Quite. Presumably the largest conurbations in the UK other than London (Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpoool, Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh, etc) don’t have business people working there. The only real business people live and work in London! I’m sure if there was such a thing as a business-person in any of those cities then they would all prefer to fly from London!

  • “Are business travellers from Sao Paolo really going to want to fly to Manchester for a meeting in Canary Wharf? Are Kent residents going to want to go to Birmingham to get a flight to Beijing?”

    Err, no, but as I’m sure the author knows Heathrow wouldn’t be at 97% capacity if so many travellers from the north didn’t have to travel down to London in order to fly to Sao Paulo (which btw is spelt with a u), Beijing or most other long haul destinations. Is there a reason he or she is opposed to building new airport capacity in other areas of the country instead of the South East, thereby not only freeing up London airport capacity but also decreasing the number of connecting train journeys needed? Or is that idea too Luddite?

    And goodness knows this party isn’t adverse to “free and frank exchanges of views” 🙂 but there are ways of being deliberately provocative without indiscriminately insulting anyone who disagrees with your position. Assuming anyone on the other side of an argument is simply a Luddite, a Nimby or insert-stereotype-here is rude, intellectually lazy and invites people not to take you seriously.

  • LondonLiberal 19th Jan '12 - 4:13pm

    Hi Catherine, if you’d have read my comments above, you’d have seen that i’m not at all opposed to building new airport capacity in any region where there is demand. And you’re quite right to suggest that a reduction in the number of domestic flights would certainly free up some capacity at the many and varied London airports. I think HS2, which i support, will help in this regard. However, from what i’ve read and heard on the news (no references i’m afraid) that would only be a short term solution given the pace of demand and the nature of the airport requirements of short-haul flights vs long-haul ones. Sadly, however, reading some of the comments above, there is I’m afraid a definite ‘Luddite’ tendancy in the party, or at least among some LDV readers, who seem to wish that planes and their attendant pollution had never happened. While i agree that there is a serious environmental issue around all transport, including aviation, simply effectively banning any airport capacity increase in the South-East at this random point in time because you don’t like global warming is, in my view, effectively Luddite, if not also, as i said above, Canute-like.

  • “because you don’t like global warming”, etc

    That really is an astonishing thing to write. I don’t even know where to begin.

    Firstly, I find it strange that you think having a concern about global warming is similar to not liking a particular flavour of ice cream, whereas in reality, the effects of global warming on the human population are going to be severe.

    Where is the oil to fuel these planes? If we haven’t reached peak oil production yet, it’s no more than 5-10 years away at maximum. Alternatives to crude oil would require massive quantities of agricultural land to be set aside – it production wouldn’t be anywhere near as cheap. The economic case for the expansion of Heathrow was (if I recall correctly) based on oild being priced at $65 a barrel by 2035, or something equally silly. Have you had a look at the price of oil recently? How do you think the aviation industry would fare if it had to compete on a level playing field with other forms of trsanport by actually paying tax and duty on their fuel like everybody else?

    Why is today a random point in time? It happens to be the only point in time we’re all living in.

  • Why would any sane person needing to use an airport near London want to go through London (or even around London) unless they really really had to?

  • Actually I don’t think HS2 will help alleviate passenger pressure on London airports, it’ll just make onward journeys quicker for non-London-based passengers.

    What would help is if airports in other regions expanded so that instead of travelling to London in order to fly to Brazil / China, passengers living outside the South East could fly straight from airports closer to them. According to the Civil Aviation Authority’s passenger surveys, about 24% of all Heathrow passengers are “domestic-international connectors”, i.e. flying domestically to Heathrow before flying on to their overseas destination. The % of this type of passenger is even higher at Gatwick. That’s a hefty chunk of traveller numbers that could easily be moved out of London if airports in other regions expanded instead.

    And that’s just the passengers flying onwards, so not even counting those taking connecting train journeys. Only 74% of “terminating passengers” at Heathrow (i.e. those not taking a connecting flight) have a final destination in the South East – the other 26% come from the north / East Mids etc. In other words, the numbers cast serious doubt on claims in the London-centric media that airport expansion in other regions is just a “short-term fix”.

    Furthermore, if the government is serious about rebalancing the regional distribution of the economy, it will expand northern / western / east mids airports before even considering expanding the London ones (let alone building a whole new one). Yes, currently most large companies have their head office in London. But – here’s a radical thought – perhaps if other regions had better international transport links, especially to emerging markets, more businesses would move their central operations to other regions. I never said you were opposed to regional airport expansion, but what I’m saying is that we should go down that route before spending billions on a new hub airport in London.

    Another consideration is that one of Heathrow’s most popular flight destinations is Paris CDG. Other European destinations also make up sizeable proportions. The reason for this is that flights are so competitively priced compared to the Channel Tunnel (which as Alex Macfie pointed out above is running at about 57% capacity), because aviation gets a massive tax break compared to trains. Considering aviation growth will be one of the main contributors to carbon emissions in coming decades, surely it’s not too much to ask that the government not subsidise the whole sector by exempting it from fuel taxation?

    The Luddites opposed new technology on principle (well, and because it put them out of jobs), an attitude I completely disagree with. I have yet to read a single comment on here that opposes aviation just “on principle”. To want to reduce something, such as carbon emissions, that has a damaging side effect to which we currently have no antidote isn’t Luddite. Global warming isn’t some abstract concern about polar bears. If we don’t cut emissions significantly the resulting changes in climate are likely to devastate economies and agriculture in some of the poorest areas of the world.

    Finally, even if the government is hell bent on increasing specifically London airport capacity, there are other options that don’t involve building a new airport in a major wetland area that provides habitat for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, and incidentally right next to a major shipwreck containing a sizeable amount of explosives that no one currently has a viable plan for removing. Stansted and Luton could be expanded without the associated environmental damage, risk from bird strike or disruption of underwater explosives, or the need to construct new transport links to central London from scratch. Or the need to try and uproot major airlines from Heathrow (if they’d even agree to leave – BA’s boss said today he’d be very reluctant). What exactly was the point of building a new state-of-the-art 5th terminal at Heathrow if we’re going to move our hub elsewhere?

  • James Jennings 19th Jan '12 - 7:17pm

    Hello all ( first post here)

    This is a complicated issue and I am glad we are having a debate about it. I was disappointed with the announcement yesterday as I am in favour of it for the simple reason that it is the least worse option available to us to make sure we can accommodate the needs of the aviation sector in the UK for the foreseeable future. Heathrow is not fit for purpose, it was only supposed to be a temporary measure when opened post second world war but it has been allowed to grow out of control and it can no longer meet future demand. I also feel that environment impact is negative to London and that is a reason to my opposition for a third runway. I share London Liberal opinion that Heathrow should close and be replaced with the Thames Estuary airport.

    Some have mentioned that we should measure out capacity to the regional areas. I am supportive of this view but the reality is that many of the overseas airlines will vote with their feet and not fly there and in terms of revenues, its not that lucrative compared to flying in to London. Some may say we have the likes of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar flying daily to either Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham. These are mega carriers, the Man Citys of the airline industry and since they are backed by oil money, they can absorb massive losses. The world is their oyster. BA tried and failed to set up secondary hubs in Birmingham and Manchester, the losses incurred was too great for the business. As one person has said, the economy needs diversifying to the regions but that will take time and even if that is achieved, I still feel the demand for routes will not be as great as London/South east. The Department for Transport have been encouraging non EU carriers to take up free fifth freedom rights ( the right of an airline of one country to land in a different country, pick up passengers, and carry them on to a third country) and launch services from regional airports, but take up has been low. Cathay Pacific have rights to fly between Manchester and Hong Kong via Moscow, but wont be taking them up anytime soon.

    Some on here has said that we should rule out building anything has it has a detrimental impact on the environment and we want to prevent people from flying. LondonLiberal is right; if everything stays the same, people will be flying more to get to their destination in that people will be taking more connecting to hubs in Paris CDG, Frankfurt, Zurich and Madrid Barajas. To tackle it, you need to act in concert and not unilaterally. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme is a good example of that and many countries outside the EU ( especially US, China, India, and Australia) are kicking up a stink about it. The EU is also improving the aerospace within its jurisdiction so that airliners can fly more directly to destinations thus spending less time in the air ( thus using less fuel) Aircraft technology is improving as well with aircraft manufacturers and airlines collaborating on a number of initiatives such as aircraft design and alternative fuels.

    I believe we need the new airport because doing nothing would hurt us economically big-time when the key hubs in Europe are able to meet demand and expand sustainably. Whether we like it or not, aviation is a growth sector in the economy and provides a benefit.

    I don’t think any of you are Luddites, nimbys etc. I just feel as Liberal Democrats we should have had the debate a long time ago.

  • Senseco writes: “I would be interested to hear what Tim Leunig, who is an economist and comes from North Kent, thinks about it.”

    I think it is a nutty idea. It would hugely increase commuting times for many people travelling. For example, many businesses with overseas links are in the broad LHR catchment – eg Reading, or Woking or out along the M4 corridor. How do you get to Grain from there? Drive round the M25 I guess. A train into Waterloo, a tube to St Pancras, and a train from there is not a sensible option.

    To have Britain’s major airport on the side of London that no-one lives clearly makes no sense. In an ideal world the major airport would have been NW of London from the beginning, and industry would follow. As it is, thinking creatively about how to get more out of a two runway LHR is the sensible way forward. That is what I am currently doing – I will write about it for LDV in due course…

    Regional airports will not have many long haul flights until the demand is there to fill wide bodied jets, day in, day out, with premium passengers. That is where the profits are. If you look up on Kayak.co.uk you will find that the flights to the US (for example) from regional airports usually use much smaller planes. If you then look at seat guru you will find that those planes have relatively low numbers of business class seats – for example, the American Airlines 9.50 departure to New York is a 757 with just 16 business class seats. The 9.55 AA departure for LHR (operated by BA) is a 747-400, with either 66 or 84 1st/bus class seats. The economics of the two routes are radically different, because demand levels are radically different.

    Until Manchester is the economic size of London, it will never have London’s connections. It is hard to see Manchester growing to 7m people any time soon.

  • Perhaps there is space for a new airport in Cheryl Gillan’s constituency. That is a safe place to put it NW of London. You can rely on her to threaten to resign but not actually resign.

  • Jonathan Webber 20th Jan '12 - 8:25am

    London-centric nonsense.

    Invest in developing regional capacity, invest in developing regional jobs, invest in the future. It’s just over an hour by train from Birmingham International to London Euston.

  • Barry Fleet 20th Jan '12 - 9:59am

    A generation ago it was proposed to build a 3rd London Airport on the Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary off Foulness Island on the Essex coast, as an alternative to expanding Stansted.
    One of the main reasons it was abandoned was the great risk of bird strike as the east coast of England is one of the main migration routes for many species of wildfowl. For example there are significant numbers of Brent geese in the estuary at present.
    I am sure we can all imagine the impact of a large flock of geese on a jumbo jet.
    The RSPB will quite rightly campaign vigorously against this – they have over a million members !
    Our estauries are not an empty space to be developed at a whim – they are important natural areas. I thought we Lib Dems were greener than the other parties.

  • Londonliberal 20th Jan '12 - 10:30am

    If capacity can be shifted to Manchester, Glasgow etc then great. But as James cogently and eloquently informs us, this has been tried and failed in the past, and faces big obstacles still. But it’s certainly worth further effort. It just strikes me that if we are to accept flying as a fact of life- indeed, as a wonderful human invention that has, like so many of our inventions, unwelcome environmental costs – then we need to decide where the best location for our main national airport is. It may be that Fosters hub may not be practical for birdstrike reasons. But heathrow is also impractical, aside from being a deeply unpleasant travelling experience it is far too close to major population centres- as boris has said, 25% of people in Europe who suffer from aircraft noise pollution live round heathrow. As for the notion that the hub airport would be the ‘wrong’ place, I think those people are missing the point about good infrastructure planning. The point is that you build the infrastructure before the people move in, so you don’t have terrible, long and expensive rows with residents about where vital infrastructure goes later. When canary wharf was built it was in the middle of a pat industrial wasteland. Development followed, however, not least because infrastructure was added to make it more viable. The hub would be east of London in the Thames gateway, long seen by both parties as an area of economic deprivation and underperformance. The hub would boost the local economy, and Tim, while you are of course right that businesses in the m4 corridor would have further to travel, over time as population and business grows in the east- which it already is- the airport will be convenient for them. Plus, im sure that businessmen can factor in an extra hour for the journey east. We all do when we go abroad! The issue there is surely having good transport connections both to London and the national rail network. I think we should also consider that, if heathrow could be replaced over time, the amount of land that that would free up in an area of chronic housing need is would be substantial- and would have ready made infrastructure present with three tube stations and an express train to London.

  • James Jennings 20th Jan '12 - 10:32am

    Tim Leunig

    Interesting points about your rational about sticking to the status quo. I do not think you can get anything more out of Heathrow unless you introduce night-time flying. The current plans for the third runway would only ease pressure on the two main runways and thus not solve our capacity problems. There hasn’t been a credible plan on how Heathrow should grow sustainably neither do I think it will happen given the opposition to the third runway ( still official Labour party policy).

    Moving the main airport to a side of London where no one lives is the best option we have. There will be no issues on expansion as that would be factored into plans. I re.member ( was in my teens) the move of Hong Kong airport from Kai Tak which was in the centre of Kowloon to Chek Lap Kok of Lantau Island. That was a controversial project but necessary. To this day, it is one of the most expensive airport projects in the world as they had to build road and rail links, as well as the Tsang Mai bridge ( seventh longest suspension bridge in the world) to link up Kowloon with Lantau Island. Chek Lap Kok was designed by Foster and engineers have said the Thames Estuary project would be less complicated as land reclamation would be a lot easier ( water is deeper of Lantau Island).

  • Jonathan Hunt 20th Jan '12 - 10:48am

    One of the advantages a new airport on the Isle of Grain offers is an existing railway line as far as the deep-water port.
    The line could easily, and relatively cheaply, be expanded to carry passengers and freight, with cars and lorries banned. This in turn would reduce the need for a highway infrastructure, which is the cause of almost as much pollution at airports as the planes themselves.

    And by a simple connection to the high-speed Ashford to St Pancras line, and the new junction at Old Oak Common, transport passengers to Heathrow and beyond in less time than it now takes people to get from the apalling man-made concrete hell that is Heathrow to central London.

    Runways beyond the deepwater port, running roughly north:south with planes plying over the sea, would lead to relatively little disturbance tand noise to people who live in Gillingham and the Medway towns. As a former Lib Dem candidate for Gillingham, I can testify to the high unemployment and low wages, and the huge economic boost an airport would bring.

    But an environmentally sensitive airport, with remote terminals where people arrive and depart only by rail, and where another train takes them in simple just-in-time departures to board planes.

    The location offers an opportunity to keep environmental damage to the minumum, certainly less than any land-based complex, while meeting the unfortunate need for a new global hub, while bringing about much needed economic regeneration.


  • If I’m flying for a short business trip I’ll happily go to the airport by train. If I’m going skiing for a couple of weeks and have my maximum luggage allowance with me, and have to pay for the rail fare myself, then driving is the only rational option whether the flight is from London, Manchester or Exeter. But it seems to me that the proposed location is massively inconvenient for the vast majority of the target customers, whether they arrive by road or rail. It would make far more sense to expand Birmingham or East Midlands, or to build a proper airport at Bristol.

  • andrew purches 20th Jan '12 - 12:40pm

    If there is a need for a new hub airport, then the Isle of Grain is most certainly NOT the place for it to be for all the reasons given. Apart from killing off Heathrow,with considerable damage inflicted upon BA ( albeit a Spanish based Corporation – so why should one care ?), a new hub should,as has been suggested, be on the North side of London, where quick links to the West End are paramount for most International passengers. The Isle of Grain,even with access to the super quick rail link to the east of London, will not appeal to many. A Heathrow / Luton link up is possible, but there is a sitting third runway not being used or exploited in N.W.London which has great potential in my view – at the expense of a Golf Course – and this is the RAF Northolt airfield in Acton. We have no RAF to speak of anymore to use it, and I am sure it will be closed down in the near future. A rapid rail link to both Heathrow and Luton from Northolt can be envisaged creating at considerably less expense a practical alternative to a Doctor’s Foster / Johnson aero island in the Thames Estuary.

  • LondonLiberal 20th Jan '12 - 12:58pm

    Wouldn’t the probelm with building a Heathrow replacement in north west london be finding enough land that was appropriate for such a large scale project where few enough people live not to be adversely affected? Thats why building out into the estuary is so appealing – very few people live there, and those communites close to there need the jobs, so, as our former candidate for Gillingham says, the airport would contribute to the regeneration of the area. transport connections to the west end (euston) are in Lord Foster’s plan, and would be rather faster than current rail journeys to Gatwick, Luton or Stansted from their respective central london rail stations. If the economics of the airline industry – and include freight needs, and passenger expectations and demand in that, nbot just the airlines themselves – suggested that a Birmingham, Bristol or East M<idland airport would be best, i'd be sanguine about that. But just as i suspect that people like to fly to new york, not albany, and paris not lille and berlin not leipzig, i wonder how practical is it to ask people to fly to brum not london. but if it works, go for it, i say.

  • – Seems to me like the whole daft idea is being driven, behind the scenes, by the construction industry who stand to make the most out of building an all-new structure, ie, a re-run of the Severn Tidal Barrage, and other construction fantasies. Why is it that no-one comes up with an idea that will be low-cost? eg. They always want to build new homes on green fields, not because it costs less to do so, but because the land owner/investor will make the most profit out of it, to hell with whether it is the right thing and what the community needs. Time our politicians got a grip, stopped listening to the influence of their funders and started making decisions on what is best for the Uk, we need a rational look at our air transport needs.
    Andrew Purches makes the best suggestion. Equally he could have suggested Lyneham(ex Hercules base), a little further from London, but on direct link to Heathrow via M4 and GWR. Thanks to WWII there are a great many idle runways around the country, designed for much heavier aircraft than today’s fleet. If we need the extra capacity then re-open them, with nominal disruption(compared to Boris Island) to our valued countryside.

  • Old Codger Chris 20th Jan '12 - 2:26pm

    Enthusiasts for enhanced airport capacity often tell us that London is losing out to other European cities as a hub. But, other than the airport operator and shops, who benefits from people changing planes?

  • LondonLiberal 20th Jan '12 - 4:00pm

    old codger – a really good question. i would argue that there are jobs in the aviation industry from airline head offices and support workers, but i don’t personally thnk that that is a particularly strong argument for us having a major airport hub compared to, say, frankfurt. i personally think that the stronger (and very selfish) argument is the time saving for UK citizens to not have to fly to frankfurt to get their onward flight to china.

    Others have suggested that somehow i don’t care about the environmental impact of air travel. of course i do, but as james has said, planes are getting ever more fuel efficient, with a full 737 in some cases being more fuel efficient than a car with one person making a similar journey. also, as i understand it, libdem policy isn’t against more planes, it’s about creating bigger airports outside the south east. so i don’t see party policy here saying ‘this far and no more’ in terms of aviation emissions, however desirable, but rather no more airport expansion in SE England. If those who have argued that I don’t care about the environment are so concerned about it themselves, why are they not arguing to close down heathrow, since it simply encourages us to use planes and cause associated harm? They might respond by saying that it’s a ridiculous response and they’re simply being realistic. But why is the current amount of aviation acceptable or any more ‘realistic’ then? What evidence or research infomrs the view that today’s level of emmissions is sustainable? Why not 1990 levels, since that is used for other environmental purposes? or 1960’s levels? 2012’s level of aviation is one point in time, the point we’re all living in, as someone above said, but it’s not a level determined by a study of what the economy needs, what people might demand given tax rises to discourage use, or what is sustainable environmentally, which is why i think it’s arbitrary.

    as for other possible sites, they all look like greenfield sites, and a lot fo people woudl live undder the flight paths. The advantage of the hub is that very few people live there, and it would be built on water and existing industrial use, saving valuable greenfield land. As i say, the downside is the loss of wetland habitat and possible birdstrike.

  • “i wonder how practical is it to ask people to fly to brum not london.”

    If they want to get to brum (or anywhere closer to brum than london as many of those currently forced to go to London) then it’s obviously more pracitcal.

    Getting to the point of actual future demand:

    Economic demand may well rise slightly in the future if we have economic growth. However, and it’s a rather big however, we have probably reached global peak oil production as stated above (if we haven’t then it’s no more than a maximum of five years away). This means that the supply of flights available to the consumer will contract because of the additional costs involved in buying the scarcer commodity. Effectively, this means that airlines will only be able to offer less flights at higher prices. i.e. the quantity of flights demanded is very likely to reduce in the coming decades, not increase (a rather obvious conclusion really).

    There are no alternatives (and never will be) to using crude oil derivatives to fuel a plane as cheaply. The cost of fuelling a plane from renewable agriculture would be astronomical given the amount of land required and inefficiencies involved in doing so. It never ceases to amaze me how people think that sufficient new oil reserves will magically appear or how technology will suddenly produce a wonder-alternative, based on nothing more than wishful thinking.

    Our air infrastructure has been disgraceful for decades. Who on earth decided to put a major airport on completely the wrong side of London at Gatwick?? If we are going to develop the infrastructure, it needs to be further North, to actually servce the population. It’s easy for the airlines to increase the capacity of Heathrow anyway, by simply flying bigger planes to short/medium haul destinations (same number of flights but more passengers). As the price of oil continues to rise, it may well be the only way the airlines can stay afloat.

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