The Airports Commission says ‘no’ to a Thames estuary airport, but Boris hasn’t given up

borisislandBoris Johnson’s proposal for a new London airport on the Isle of Grain in the inner Thames estuary, to replace Heathrow, is not dead in the water despite being rejected by the Airports Commission. The Commission’s decision on the proposal was published today.

Whilst acknowledging that a new (‘ITE’) airport on the Thames estuary would provide extra capacity and improve noise impact, the report cites the loss of protected habitats, the issues with being sited next to a Liquid Natural Gas storage facility, plus the costs of infrastructure, housing and access improvements. The cost of the airport could be anything from £67 billion to £120 billion depending on whether it had three or four runways.

It also claims that the location of the airport would be less convenient than Heathrow for most passengers, and would have a  “significant negative economic impact on the surrounding local area” around Heathrow.

It is not clear, in any case, that an ITE ‘super-hub’ would present an attractive solution to the UK’s long-term aviation capacity needs. It may be less flexible in responding to changes in the aviation industry than other, more incremental options. Also, if UK carbon emissions are to be kept within the overall cap, concentrating a very high number of flights in one location could limit the scope for growth elsewhere and hence reduce the overall diversity of the UK airports system.

As such, the Commission has concluded that the option of a new airport in the inner Thames Estuary should not be shortlisted for more detailed development and appraisal as part of the second phase of its work. The Commission will therefore proceed to consultation in autumn 2014 on the three currently shortlisted options.

The three current shortlisted options are:

  • A third runway at Heathrow
  • A second runway at Gatwick
  • Lengthening an existing runway at Heathrow, increasing capacity

Boris Johnson has responded angrily by saying that:

In one myopic stroke the Airports Commission has set the debate back by half a century and consigned their work to the long list of vertically filed reports on aviation expansion that are gathering dust on a shelf in Whitehall.

Gatwick is not a long-term solution and Howard Davies must explain to the people of London how he can possibly envisage that an expansion of Heathrow, which would create unbelievable levels of noise, blight and pollution, is a better idea than a new airport to the east of London that he himself admits is visionary.

A Lib Dem Voice survey of members two years ago revealed that 79% opposed a third runway at Heathrow although 77% supported an increase in airport capacity (not necessarily in the South East).

On a personal note, I have always been puzzled by the idea of a runway at sea level in a river estuary, especially one that is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels. The airport in Kingston, Jamaica is located on a spit of land in the middle of the huge natural harbour. The causeway links together several tiny islands, some reclaimed from the sea, and the airport has been built on one of them.  The problem is that the causeway floods when the weather is severe, which means that the airport is unusable after hurricanes, at exactly the time when supplies are needed.

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Update: Caroline Pigeon, Leader of the Lib Dem Group on the London Assembly, has issued this statement:

The Mayor of London has shown immense folly and wasted immense amounts of public money in pursuing the fantasy of a Thames Estuary airport.

On grounds of practicality, cost and environmental impact the airport commission have rightly thrown out his proposal.

It is time the Mayor finally accepted defeat and stopped wasting Londoners’ money.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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16 Comments

  • The majority of the UK’s population live west [and North] of London. Boris Island lies to the East [and South] of London. There is no case for building a national air transport hub on Boris Island.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '14 - 2:43pm

    Sounds like the Commission has produced nonsense.

    If Boris Island is to be rejected on the grounds that a single super-hub is not what is wanted, then all three of its retained options should have been rejected too. Instead, the commission should be considering upgrading Northern and Western airports, such as Birmingham or Manchester or Newcastle or Liverpool and Cardiff, and creating a distributed hub from several airports throughout the UK, perhaps connected by high speed train.

    Nor is the cost a problem per se. The cost will cover works and if the works are done by UK workers that’s good for employment and good for the economy. In effect Boris Island is demand, and is demand for employment too, both of which are what this economy needs!

    The LNG storage facility is not likely to be a big safety issue. Most airport-related crashes occur in the airport or on the approach lanes.

    Everywhere is going to have some environmental issues. There’s no a priori reason why the ones at Boris Island can’t be solved as well as the ones elsewhere.

    The “significant negative economic impact” at Heathrow is also a pretty startling objection – in essence we can’t go anywhere except Heathrow for this reason!

    So I think the Commission needs to scrap its current recommendations, sack itself, get some people with some common sense and consistency appointed, and start again. Not that I’m in favour of Boris Island, but I am in favour of doing things for the right reasons. The best option as far as I can see is a distributed hub with high speed rail links. Takes pressure off Heathrow, good for the whole country, and probably a whole lot better as far as air traffic control and safety is concerned.

  • peter tyzack 3rd Sep '14 - 8:26am

    if the extra capacity is needed in the south-east, then why not add runways at Stansted and Luton as well as Gatwick.. with maglev connections between them creating Richard’s hub, the total capacity would be massive, allowing greater flexibility of use, better safety gaps between slots, and all at a much lower cost that some crazy destructive white elephant.

  • Peter Tyzack
    If you live in my bit of South West London, Luton and Stanstead do not seem like the South East. It is much easier to get to Southampton from here than to get to Luton! Stanstead or Boris fantasy land. From where I live I can watch the planes stacking up and cuing every thirty seconds to land at Heathrow. Fortunately here in Kingston we only have to endure the noise occasionally when flight paths are temporarily altered. Elsewhere in the Richmond Park constituency I can sit in friends gardens on a lovely sunny afternoon and have my conversation blasted out every minute by aircraft noise and then get stuck in traffic on the couple of miles to get hom because the tailbacks and grid-lock caused by existing Heathrow traffic. Schools near Heathrow have to take extra preventative measures to block noise sothat children have a chance of hearing their teachers.

    Expanding Heathrow, Luton, Standstead or building Fantasy Island are not answers to these problems.

    I wonder if the establishment figures who are trying to foist an expanded Heathrow onto us have ever been to Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol, Birmingham and considered that expanding airports there might be sensible be rather than loading yet more capital expenditure into the overheated London economy.

  • I seem to have invented a new word — “cuing”.

    Given the context perhaps it should have been — “Kewing”?

  • John Probert 3rd Sep '14 - 9:38am

    A new (or expanded) airport should be located in the Midlands and connected to Heathrow via the high speed rail link between London and Birmingham.

    Thist will reduce the economic dominance of London and the South East – especially when accompanied by the progressive relocation of government departments to the Midlands.

    Let’s make it a strong manifesto commitment.

  • John Probert
    There is a lot in what you say.
    My preference would be Manchester or Liverpool — but Heathrow would be madness.

  • Toby Keynes 3rd Sep '14 - 11:03am

    Richard Dean:
    “If Boris Island is to be rejected on the grounds that a single super-hub is not what is wanted, then all three of its retained options should have been rejected too. ”
    The report is not rejecting the concept of a single super-hub (unfortunately). In fact, the report casts doubt on “an ITE ‘super-hub'”. That is specifically referring to Boris’ Inner Thames Estuary (ITE) proposal.
    “Everywhere is going to have some environmental issues. There’s no a priori reason why the ones at Boris Island can’t be solved as well as the ones elsewhere.”
    Well, some places would create environmental issues that are more damaging, or more expensive to remedy, than others. All airport proposals are environmentally damaging, but Boris’ is particularly bad.
    Where we can agree is that we need to shift the emphasis from the South-East towards the rest of the country.
    In any case, the South-East has a fair amount of unused capacity away from Heathrow and Gatwick. Since 2011, Southend Airport has demonstrated that improving facilities and transport links can massively increase usage from a virtually standing start, with one relatively short runway extension.
    Personally, I’d prefer that the basic cost of getting on a plane reflected the horrendous environmental damage that air travel does; much demand comes from the fact the cost of air travel doesn’t begin to reflect that damage and its associated costs. But if the people really want more flights, and if politicians care more about cheap flights than the planet’s future, Southend shows that you can have plenty more flights without building new airports or even new runways.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 3rd Sep '14 - 12:54pm

    On my flights coming into Heathrow Airport over Her Madge’s house in Windsor, I have watched the local motorway traffic on the M4 to the west and north before landing eastwards beyond the M25. Have the planners looked at that area for a new runway or are they only concerned on joining a runway closely to the existing terminals. Why would a planner add all the infrastructure to another area like Boris Island when there is capacity comparatively near to Heathrow? – without flying over other urban areas – and has two motorways already on hand to provide access. Just wondering.

  • Paul in Wokingham 3rd Sep '14 - 1:13pm

    @JohnTilley – as a stand-up comedian once said at a comedy club in Richmond: “I didn’t want to go from A to B: I wanted to go to Kew”.

    If there is to be additional runway capacity then it should be located outside of London/South-East. The existing levels of noise pollution from Heathrow are appalling and a third runway would further blight the lives of millions of Londoners.

    Given the undeniable economic benefits of runway capacity and its infrastructure and location, I would think that Birmingham is the best candidate.

  • David Allen 3rd Sep '14 - 1:31pm

    “The best option as far as I can see is a distributed hub with high speed rail links.”

    Where, anywhere else in the world, has anyone succesfully built this mythical concept called a distributed hub?

  • Richard Dean 3rd Sep '14 - 1:58pm

    @David Allen
    Can this be true? Can someone be saying “No-one else has done it yet, therefore we can’t do it” ?

  • Barry Fleet 3rd Sep '14 - 4:06pm

    re Rchard Dean’s comment about solving the environmental issues of Boris’ preferred site: how many times does it have to be said that ‘Boris Island ‘ was fatally flawed because of bird migration routes ?
    A generation ago, the previous proposal for an estuary airport on Foulness island foundered on this issue – and Stansted was selected instead.
    Last winter there were many thousands of brent geese adjacent to the proposed site for the fantasy island site.

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