This is the third part of our series on the Mayor's big ideas for London. We've discussed the plans for a new Thames estuary airport plenty on this site (you can find just some of our articles here, here and here) and today it is in the news again (at time of writing the Prime Minister is re-shuffling, possibly moving his Transport Secretary to open the possibility of further Heathrow expansion).
It's now seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that the South East is in desperate need of airport capacity.
There are various ways of getting to where we need to be: more effectively using the capacity that is available in the SE; a third runway at Heathrow; expansion of Gatwick and Stansted; high-speed rail links between existing airports; and expansion of regional airports such as Birmingham.
However, in the Programme for Government, which both Coalition parties signed up to following the election, certain commitments were made about air capacity:
- We will cancel the third runway at Heathrow
- We will refuse permission for additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted.
This would suggest that at least two of the options above are immediately crossed off the list, leaving the choices of an estuary airport or growth of a regional hub more likely. Of course, a Government breaking a manifesto pledge, especially under the cover of economic need cannot, and should not, be ruled out.
There are three ideas currently in play for a new hub airport:
- The first, the Mayor's, was led by Doug Oakervee and examined the feasibility of a four runway Estuary Airport. The report (pdf download) published suggested that there were no real barriers other than political will to a scheme going ahead.
- The second, championed by Lord Foster, is a bigger project in the Hoo Peninsular which considers also secondary transport, flood protection, energy production, an orbital rail link around London, and freight management. Foster + Partners have information on their website and, controversially, plans for how to fund it.
- The third has only appeared recently, described, excitingly, as a secret plan for a 'London West' airport - four runways in either Oxfordshire or Berkshire at a cost of £40-£60bn.
So, those are the options. We're approaching capacity, the Mayor is layering on pressure, and those who favour infrastructure investment to boost the economy seem to be on the ascendent in Government.
The Mayor's plan is bold. Certainly something needs to be done (and soon) and a third runway at Heathrow would be little more than a very annoying, short term, sticking plaster. The Government should think carefully about what London, the South East, and the UK needs and act before it is too late. Interestingly, a report for the Foster + Partners plan suggests that an estuary airport could be built for £23bn within 14 years, only two years longer than a third Heathrow runway would take. As the saying goes, follow the money.
Of course, before any new airport can be approved, there are issues to put to bed: environmental concerns; the future of Heathrow; issues with air traffic interfering with Schipol, and the small problem of a sunken ship full of explosives in the Thames. None of these are easy.
However, we believe that it's time for the Government to think big.
Here's Daniel Moylan, a Mayoral advisor:
“Building this airport will be transformative for London and the Thames Estuary in a major way and have huge long-term benefits. It’s not an exaggeration to say the effects will still be felt in 500 years’ time.”
We agree. As today's reshuffle shows, this is an issue that's not going to go away any time soon. It's time for the Government to follow the Mayor's bold lead.
A couple of people have suggested that Justine Greening moving from Transport means that a third runway is going to go ahead.
I may (well) be wrong but if the Government is going to have a full and open inquiry into the best way forward then it makes sense to have the person nominally in charge not prejudiced against any of the options (as JG is against a third runway). If she does go I don't read this so much of a statement of intent as much as administering the inquiry fairly.