Airports Commission Rejects Thames Estuary Option

Boeing 747The Airports Commission has announced its decision not to add the inner Thames estuary airport proposal to its shortlist of options for providing new UK airport capacity by 2030. Its statement said:

“Following detailed further study into the feasibility of an inner Thames estuary airport the commission has concluded that the proposal has substantial disadvantages that collectively outweigh its potential benefits.”

The Commission’s Chairman, Sir Howard Davies commented: “We are not persuaded that a very large airport in the Thames estuary is the right answer to London’s and the UK’s connectivity needs.

“While we recognise the need for a hub airport, we believe this should be a part of an effective system of competing airports to meet the needs of a widely spread and diverse market like London’s.

“There are serious doubts about the delivery and operation of a very large hub airport in the estuary.  The economic disruption would be huge and there are environmental hurdles which it may prove impossible, or very time-consuming to surmount.  Even the least ambitious version of the scheme would cost £70 to £90 billion with much greater public expenditure involved than in other options – probably some £30 to £60 billion in total.

“There will be those who argue that the commission lacks ambition and imagination. We are ambitious for the right solution.  The need for additional capacity is urgent. We need to focus on solutions which are deliverable, affordable, and set the right balance for the future of aviation in the UK.

“The commission received and developed a substantial body of evidence that it considered very carefully over a number of months before reaching this decision.”

Alongside today’s announcement the commission has published a paper in which it sets out in more detail the reasoning behind its decision.  The commission says it will now continue its appraisal of the three shortlisted proposals for additional capacity and will publish the appraisal for public consultation in the autumn.

Despite the decision, the estuary option’s champion, Mayor of London Boris Johnson, has vowed to fight on.  His office issued the following statement.  “The Mayor of London has told the Airports Commission that their failure to take forward the only credible option for aviation expansion means their work will become increasingly irrelevant, as he cannot conceive of any possible scenario in which a Government would approve the expansion of Heathrow.

“Responding to news that the Airports Commission intends to consult on plans for new runways at Heathrow and Gatwick, but will not proceed with consultation on a four-runway hub airport in the Thames Estuary, the Mayor expressed deep regret that the Commission has taken the debate back to two options that have been on the table for half a century without ever reaching take-off.

“The Mayor expressed disbelief that while the Commission seemed to have no single reason to rule out an estuary airport, they appeared unable to recommend it simply because of its sheer scale and vision.  Sir Howard Davies has told the Mayor that the debate on a second additional runway would need to begin by 2020, well before construction of either a third runway at Heathrow or a second runway at Gatwick could start.

“It is clear to the Mayor that the political Kryptonite of a third runway at Heathrow will run into immovable political opposition, as it has in the past, because of the appalling environmental consequences it will deliver to a million or more Londoners.  And building a fourth runway at Heathrow would be an environmental disaster for London.  Equally expanding Gatwick Airport will fail to provide the global connectivity that can only come from a large, four-runway hub airport.  As a result the Mayor remains convinced that a future Government will return to plans for a hub airport on a site to the east of London, and any future recommendation made by the Davies Commission will be irrelevant.

“The Mayor points out that, in rejecting the possibility of a new airport, the Commission has also turned its back on the rapidly growing population of London. “That population desperately needs the homes and jobs that his Estuary proposal offers. The regeneration of east London and the Thames Gateway, entirely in line with current Government policy, would transform the south-east and create 336,000 jobs across the UK, whilst contributing £92 billion annually to UK GDP by 2050, dwarfing both Heathrow and Gatwick.  A regenerated site at Heathrow could provide homes for up to 190,000 residents and as many as 90,000 jobs.  Without a four runway hub airport it is clear that cities around the UK whose airports have already lost their connection with Heathrow, will fail to get it back as a third runway will be full from day one.  Even the Airports Commission’s calculations show that.”

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said: “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, and which would create the jobs and growth this country needs to remain competitive.  It remains the only credible solution, any process that fails to include it renders itself pretty much irrelevant, and I’m absolutely certain that it is the option that will eventually be chosen.”

The Mayor has confirmed his team will continue to make the case for a new airport to the east of London and ensure that the ongoing debate is considered with the needs of Londoners at the forefront.  He has expressed his determination to ensure that the remaining options receive the fullest possible scrutiny.  His team have been alarmed by wildly inaccurate claims being made in regard to the costs of the different schemes, and the Mayor has made it clear that he will use the consultation to ensure those costs – and the associated economic and social benefits – are properly scrutinised and corrected where necessary.

Meanwhile Heathrow CEO, John Holland-Kaye, responded to the Airport Commission’s statement by commenting:“We have always agreed with the Mayor that Britain needs a successful hub airport to compete in the global race for jobs and growth.  Heathrow is now the only hub left in the race.  We would like to work with the Mayor to deliver Heathrow expansion in a way that benefits the whole country while reducing noise impacts for local people compared to today.”

Gatwick’s response to the Thames estuary decision came from airport’s Chief Executive, Stewart Wingate: “This is an important juncture in the aviation debate because now Britain’s choice is clear; expand Gatwick and support genuine competition, lower fares and greater choice for passengers or expand Heathrow and return to the stale monopoly of the past and watch the cost of going on holiday, travelling for business and exporting goods and service go up. “We believe Gatwick has the strongest case.  It is the only option left on the table that can be delivered with more certainty than either of the Heathrow options, and it can be delivered without the significant environmental impacts expansion at Heathrow would inflict on London.  It can be delivered faster than any other option, and at low cost and low risk. “Furthermore, expanding Gatwick will ensure the UK is served by two successful world class airports.  It can liberate hub capacity at Heathrow and open up the opportunities for affordable long haul travel to emerging markets for the benefit of everyone, made possible by new generation of aircraft such as the Dreamliner.”

Meanwhile, a statement Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (BAR UK) welcomed the Airport Commission’s decision. Its Chief Executive, Dale Keller, said “Airlines were never convinced that the Thames Estuary was either affordable or a convenient location for the majority of their customers.  Since airlines and their passengers will ultimately have to pay for the development costs of the selected expansion site then the business case must stack up in order for the UK to remain globally competitive.  We call upon Boris to support the important work of the Airports Commission and ensure that the right decisions are made about Heathrow and Gatwick.”