Estuary Life

It is envisaged that the Thames Estuary airport would enable the UK to retain its global aviation hub status. Operating 24 hours a day, it would have a new rail service to whisk passengers to and from central London in just 30 minutes. (All images – Foster+Partners)

The concept of a new London airport is gaining ground, reports Bruce Hales-Dutton.

It is envisaged that the Thames Estuary airport would enable the UK to retain its global aviation hub status. Operating 24 hours a day, it would have a new rail service to whisk passengers to and from central London in just 30 minutes. (All images – Foster+Partners)

It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of an airport in the Thames Estuary was a bit of a joke.
But now laughter over the airport – nicknamed “Boris Island” after prominent supporter and London Mayor Boris Johnson – seems to have faded.  The Mayor is no longer alone and the notion seems to be gaining ground with a mention in the Autumn Statement from Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.
Mr Johnson has been a vocal campaigner for a new hub to replace Heathrow since his election in 2008.  Now, renowned architect Lord Norman Foster has announced similar plans for a huge airport capable of handling up to 150 million passengers a year.
His £20 billion (US$31.2bn) airport would be one part of what he calls the Thames Hub, together with a £20 billion high-speed Orbital Rail line around London and a £6 billion ($9.4bn) Thames barrier with additional river crossing.  Lord Foster estimates a total cost of £50 billion ($78bn) for his “integrated infrastructure plan for Britain, inspired by the lessons of 19th century pioneers.”
The Thames Estuary airport would, he claims, enable the UK to “retain its global aviation hub status.”  It would operate 24 hours a day and there would be a new rail service to whisk passengers to and from central London in just 30 minutes.  With 300,000 people passing through each day, the hub station would allegedly be the UK’s busiest.
It can be argued that the key element here would be connection with the national rail system.  Lord Foster believes that a four-track, high orbital route would carry traffic around London and provide connections with the capital’s radial lines.  Connections could also be made with the proposed high-speed rail line to the Midlands and the North.
Mr Johnson’s proposal features an artificial island in the Thames.  However, in a self-funded £100,000 ($155,740) study, the team at Lord’s Foster’s firm Foster+Partners, in partnership with infrastructure consultant Halcrow and economist consultant Volterra, put forward use of reclaimed land on the Isle of Grain.  This area is the easternmost point of the Hoo Peninsula in the north of Kent, lying between the Thames and Medway estuaries.  At present, the Isle of Grain is home to a major liquid petroleum depot, but it is also one of the most sparsely populated areas in the South East.
This is far from being Lord Foster’s first ambitious airport project.  His firm’s Beijing Terminal 3 was briefly the world’s largest, while Hong Kong International Airport’s Terminal 1 is built on reclaimed land.  In the UK, Lord Foster’s credits include Stansted Airport.
Airport developments form just the centrepiece of Lord Foster’s and Mr Johnson’s ideas.  As the Financial Times’ Architecture and Design Critic, Edwin Heathcoate, points out, Lord Foster offers: “a complete re-imagining of the UK’s transport, energy and communication infrastructure, a vision of the kind of integration in transport and utilities that has not been considered since the great age of canals and then of railways.”
The London Mayor’s Thames Estuary Steering Group, which is chaired by Sir David King and includes two members of parliament, said in a recent report: “It is necessary to create a vision and a framework which will inform planning policy and decisions over the next 30 years.”  But the group warns: “We need to be sure that actions now do not compromise the ability of the Estuary to support the UK’s economic growth in the future.”
The promoters of both plans could hardly fail to be aware of the environmental hornets’ nest they’re stirring up with proposals to develop the marshy estuary area which is rich in wild life.  Lord Foster’s team says it plans to look for an alternative location for species displaced by the development.  “Our aim,” it said, “is to create a world-leading new habitat that will allow not only new breeding and feeding areas but the opportunity for Britain to lead in addressing the impacts of rising sea levels.”
Predictably, none of this has influenced the opinions of local people.  Kent County Council, Medway Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are united in opposition.
Councillor Rodney Chambers, Leader of Medway Council, called Lord Foster’s plan: “Quite possibly the daftest in a long list of pie-in-the-sky schemes that have been put forward.”  He added:  “The Isle of Grain is home to the largest Liquefied Natural Gas terminal in Europe and around a fifth of the UK’s gas supply is offloaded by container ships and stored there.  It is plainly obvious that aircraft and huge gas containers are a potentially lethal mix.”
Mr Chambers also worries about the SS Richard Montgomery, the wrecked American liberty ship which lies just a few miles from the proposed location and is “laden with explosives.”  The ship has threatened the area since it sunk in 1944, but there are suggestions that its influence may have been overstated.  One observer noted that the ship is probably “a bit of a red herring,” pointing out that if it were found to be located within the public safety zone of a new airport, it would be necessary to conduct a risk assessment and proceed accordingly.
The Port of London Authority is concerned about possible disruption of shipping lanes serving what it says is about to become the UK’s biggest port for the tonnage handled.  “The main access channels are from just off Harwich, down the Essex coast, and east-west along the Kent coast,” the authority’s Chief Executive Richard Everitt told Airports International.  “We are strongly against a barrage of any sort.”
Despite the opposition, the proponents took comfort from the Autumn Statement, even though, on the face of it, there was little to get excited about.  Mr Osborne said:  “We will explore all the options for maintaining the UK’s aviation hub status, with the exception of a third runway at Heathrow.”
The Autumn Statement was accompanied by a list of infrastructure projects to be delivered over the next few years.  It included improvements to both Heathrow and Gatwick airports, but London’s The Times called it “limp” and “lacking vision.”  Yet some sections of the news media saw Mr Osborne’s Delphic utterance as favouring the Estuary airport.  Lord Foster pronounced it “very encouraging” and added:  “This is an opportunity to reassert Britain’s role as a global hub and an international gateway.”
The UK’s air traffic service provider, NATS, has already made it clear that an Estuary airport would mean the closure of Heathrow. It declines to comment officially this time around, but during a House of Commons debate in November 2011 the MP for Central Ayrshire, Brian Donohoe, Chairman of the All-Party Aviation Group, said: “In NATS’ expert view a four-runway airport could not operate in tandem with Heathrow if Heathrow were to remain the same size as it is today.”

The idea is said to be gathering support in both the Treasury and Downing Street with the Government’s Head of Strategy, Steve Hilton, rumoured to be in favour.  The Times’ Financial Editor noted that:  “Big foreign investors, particularly sovereign wealth funds in Asia and the Gulf, are also interested in putting more money into British projects.  City bankers say it would not be hard to fund even highly ambitious schemes such as the competing proposals for a new airport in the Thames Estuary, which could cost up to £50 billion.”  The Observer followed a similar line a few days later.
But The Times’ Business Editor, noting that Mr Johnson was also encouraged by the Chancellor’s words, mused somewhat mischievously on the uses for Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which could be made redundant by a new hub.  Perhaps it could be transformed into Britain’s biggest department store or a service station for the M25 motorway.
Air traffic services provider NATS has already made it clear that an Estuary airport would mean the closure of Heathrow.  It declines to comment officially this time around, but during a House of Commons debate in November, Central Ayrshire MP Brian Donohoe, Chairman of the All-Party Aviation Group, said:  “In NATS’ expert view, a four-runway airport could not operate in tandem with Heathrow if Heathrow were to remain the same size as it is today.  Such an airport would need to be a replacement for Heathrow.  There would be significant implications for other airports in the region, most notably London City, Southend, Stansted and Biggin Hill.  It is not simply a matter of shifting traffic patterns to the east.  International co-operation would be required.”
In response, Aviation Minister Theresa Villiers pointed out that the government has “no plans to build a new airport in the Estuary or in the Medway or anywhere else in Kent.”  Acknowledging the “very significant airspace capacity issues,” Ms Villiers added that the government also had no plans to redevelop Northolt as a third runway for Heathrow.
There have been rumours for some time about the possible development of Northolt – at present a military airport that is nearer to central London than Heathrow.  Its supporters point out that in the early 1950s, Northolt handled the bulk of London’s short-haul airline traffic, making it one of Europe’s busiest airports.  However, even they admit that it would need considerable work to make it suitable for today’s traffic, including re-aligning its runway.
Meanwhile, the industry is concerned that the planners are seeking to re-align London’s centre of gravity eastwards.  “Where would the workforce to run the new airport come from?” asked aviation consultant John Strickland.  “All the myriad skills needed currently exist in the west of London around Heathrow, but cannot easily be replicated in the east.”
History shows that if a new estuary airport were to be built, Heathrow would have to close completely.  “Airlines need all their capacity in one place,” noted Mr Strickland.  “They wouldn’t want to move half their capacity to the new airport and keep half at Heathrow.  They would need the seamless ability to transfer everything at once.”  Airport consultant Paul Le Blond agrees:  “If you didn’t close Heathrow then the airlines would clamour to remain there.”
Mr Le Blond, who worked on the Maplin airport project in the early 1970s, says that major new residential settlements would be needed to house people working at the new airport.  Pointing out that towns like Bishop’s Stortford and Harlow have grown considerably since the early 1990s when the current Stansted development was opened, he says: “You can’t expect not to have major residential development associated with a new airport.”
Another question is what would happen to the current Heathrow site if the airport closed?  Even more importantly, what would happen to the economy of West London?  Mr Le Blond says: “You’re looking at a wholesale change in economic geography on the same sort of scale as the closure of the London Docks and all that led to in the second half of the 20th century.”
Simon Buck, Chief Executive of the British Air Transport Association (BATA), is more concerned about providing new airport capacity for London where it is most needed.  He hailed Mr Osborne’s reference to airports as recognition “at last” of the importance of the current debate and as “a light in a very dark place.”
BATA remains concerned about the relative decline of Heathrow at a time when Frankfurt has just opened a fourth runway.  “The Department for Transport will be issuing a consultation document in March,” Mr Buck noted.  He told Airports International: “That is only a few weeks away and we’re looking to the Department to produce firm proposals and firm options for the future.  We can’t keep on skirting around this issue.  It’s far too important.”
The year 2011 was difficult for the air transport industry, but it wasn’t a landmark one for aviation policy either.  Following the departure of Philip Hammond from the Department for Transport, who has been given the defence portfolio, the whole matter has landed in the in-tray of his successor Justine Greening.
How she deals with the issue remains to be seen.  But whatever happens there is still a wistful feeling among seasoned observers that if Britain had grasped the mettle of an offshore airport years ago, the industry and the nation as a whole might be reaping the benefits today.
So will there be people in 40 years’ time telling another generation:  We missed a golden opportunity back then?