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Foster’s estuary airport ruled out by Airports Commission

Foster + Partners’ vision for an airport in the Thames Estuary has been ruled out of the running in the battle of the airport expansion options

Confirming the proposal had not been shortlisted as an option for providing new airport capacity, the Airports Commission said it had ‘serious doubts about the delivery and operation’ of the four-runway project.

Following the feasibility study, it said the estuary airport could cost up to £90 billion, making it significantly more expensive than the alternative options, and also more expensive than the £47 billion put forward by the bid team.

Airports Commission chair Howard Davies said: ‘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.

‘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.’

He added: ‘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.’

But Norman Foster said the decision ‘called into question the Commission’s validity’.

Adding a third runway at Heathrow is merely a short term fix

He said: ‘I predict that Londoners will be scathing in their condemnation of today’s announcement, when confronted with the inevitability of the blighting influence of Heathrow -  the risks, noise and environmental impact of overflying London - and its inability to cope with predicted growth. They will ask why there was not even the courage to further explore – to study – to research - a strategic long term alternative to the instant gratification of a sadly predictable compromise. Adding a third runway at Heathrow is merely a short term fix - it will inevitably lead to a fourth runway in order to maintain international hub status.

‘By contrast, a new national airport in the Thames Estuary is a true design for the future, especially when linked into existing and new high speed train networks.  It can be achieved more quickly and, based on independent analysis, there would not be a substantial cost difference between a fresh start at Thames Hub compared to a stop-gap solution at Heathrow.

‘Elsewhere in the world, relocating an airport that no longer serves its purpose is considered normal practice.  France did it twice in a matter of decades.  In Hong Kong we created a man-made island the size of Heathrow and built what was then the largest airport in the world – all in the space of six years. The pattern of the most competitive emerging economies is to replace the old and obsolescent and go boldly forward with the new, an opportunity today’s decision denies this country. The outcome of this process calls into question the validity of the Commission.’

Last month the Davies Commission published four highly critical feasibility studies which set out the huge financial and engineering risks of building a huge new airport east of the capital - Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s preferred solution for the UK’s aviation capacity problems.

Johnson has hit back, vowing to continue to fight for the solution, dubbed ‘Boris Island’. He told the commission that by failing to shortlist his scheme its work would ‘become increasingly irrelevant’.

The Airports Commission has set the debate back by half a century

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.’

Chris Williamson, partner at Weston Williamson, who had put forward plans for a four-runway vision for Luton Airport, said the debate was not over yet.

He said: ‘I don’t think that will be end of the debate the commission will have delivered what was expected of them in the short term but the debate will continue.

‘We need to decide whether we need an efficient 24-hour four-runway hub airport to serve the South-East. If the answer is yes there are very limited places where one can be built due to the land take (or reclamation). First we need to define the problem before posing a solution. Our proposal for Luton allowed this to be done incrementally.’

The Airports Commission’s decision paves the way for either a potential new runway to the south of Gatwick Airport, or one of two options at Heathrow - a new 3,500m runway to the north-west of the airport or an expansion of the existing northern runway allowing it to ‘operate as two independent runways’.

Further comments

Terry Farrells, founder, Farrells

‘We have always pursued “integrated connectivity” and a holistic linked network as the answer to the aviation debate, so I agree with Howard Davies that London needs a system of competing airports. I also agree with Boris that a third runway at Heathrow would be a disaster but in my view closing Heathrow would be just as disastrous. Expansion at Gatwick, then, is the obvious answer. It is the most deliverable option with the least environmental impact and the UK and London will have two world class international airports as a result.’

Ian Mulcahey, managing director of Gensler and a TESTRAD Consortium project manager for London Britannia Airport

‘TESTRAD wholly support the Aviation Commissions conclusion that the Isle of Grain location is unsuitable. However, the Commission is now highly susceptible to being discredited as it has seriously underestimated the air capacity that the UK requires. This decision will result in not just one runway at Heathrow and one at Gatwick but four or five, which is an intolerable situation for the residents of London and the South East. If the Airports Commission had properly assessed the alternative Estuarial locations they would have found that an outer Estuary option would be a demonstrably better alternative to the Isle of Grain, or even Heathrow or Gatwick.’

Christopher Choa, principal, urban design + planning, AECOM

‘The Mayor should be applauded for underscoring the importance of developing the UK’s global aviation hub – this was not a well understood issue until he personally brought the discussion back to the public table. However, the Commission’s recent decision to rule out the Thames Estuary airport option brings some welcomed clarity.

This airport debate is about much more than just runways

‘This airport debate is about much more than just runways. London and the UK urgently need to secure their global gateway hub at Heathrow.

‘Relocating the London hub 55 miles from its current location doesn’t make sense, no matter how pure the potential aviation diagram in the estuary.

‘The performance of Heathrow hub rests not only on the aviation capacity of the airport itself, but also its close and growing connectivity with the city and specializing industries that have grown organically in step with the airport. It would be irresponsible to turn away from decades of investment, development, and infrastructure connectivity.

‘For many reasons, London needs to work hard at encouraging its compactness; the urban sprawl that would eventually be induced by the estuary option was a glaring environmental weakness. The economic argument that the estuary airport would potentially help build up East London was also misleading; Stratford and East London are already much closer to Heathrow that it would ever be to the estuary site. With Crossrail, the global hub at Heathrow is a 45-minute ride from East London.

‘The debate should now shift to how the broader areas around the airport can best specialize to create the greatest economic, social, and environmental benefit for the surrounding boroughs and London itself.

‘London is very strong at regeneration; we instinctively understand the value of adapting and reusing our assets rather than casting far afield for greenfield sites. We should take our extraordinary experience of re-imagining the post-industrial area of the Lower Lea Valley to heart. Expanding the UK’s global hub at Heathrow builds on strength, not weakness.

‘Growth at Heathrow is the most effective way to support the vitality of London, in the shortest amount of time, with the least amount of public expenditure.’

Richard Gammon, global director of aviation and transportation, HOK

‘For some time, we have been seeing competitors in Europe and beyond benefit from our lack of spare airport capacity, and it is widely accepted that if the UK is to retain its position as a global destination for business this needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. I’m therefore in agreement with today’s decision from the Airports Commission to reject the Thames Estuary option due to the high costs and long timeframes which would have been involved. Whilst Heathrow undoubtedly provides the most sensible choice to address the short-medium term needs, we would also now strongly encourage the Commission to look much further into the future and give consideration to the endorsement of expansion at both Heathrow and Gatwick. In other words, let’s be proactive about the issue of long term capacity, not reactive.’ 

Jolyon Brewis, chief executive, Grimshaw

‘The Airports Commission has made the right decision. For the UK’s future prosperity we need London to be the most accessible city in the world. The way to achieve this is to continue to improve the excellent airport infrastructure we already have, and radically improve links into central London.’

Previous story (AJ 01.09.14)

Boris hits out at Heathrow as Estuary Airport plans face rejection

Boris Johnson is to continue the fight against the expansion of Heathrow airport after it emerged his plans for an Estuary Airport are to be rejected by the Airports Commission

The commission headed by Howard Davies is expected to announce that the Mayor-backed bid to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary will not make the shortlist of options when the commission makes it’s final recommendation to the government next year.

In a letter in the Telegraph, Johnson has branded re-opening the debate over a third runway at Heathrow as ‘madness’ stating that ‘no government in the Western world would even contemplate an act so self-defeating, so short-termist, and so barbarically contemptuous of the rights of the population’.

Johnson, who is expected to return as an MP next year, has campaigned vigourously for an airport in the Thames Estuary - which has been backed by Norman Foster who submitted his own plans for the scheme.

The Mayor has previously claimed that an estuary airport would support more jobs than an expanded Heathrow airport.

In his latest letter he describes the option of a third runway as a danger to public health, with more than a million residents affected by noise levels over 55db from a third runway, which Johnson argues can contribute to stress and heart disease.

‘A runway would be a disaster for hundreds of thousands of people living under new flight paths, who currently have no idea of the peril,’ Johnson added.

‘As soon as a third runway opened, in other words - after the interminable judicial reviews and appeals - there would be instant pressure for a fourth; and we would be put through the whole miserable argument again.’

Previous story (AJ 26.08.14)

Mayor says Thames Airport would ‘support more jobs’

The Mayor of London Boris Johnson has claimed that a new Estuary Airport would support a third more jobs than Heathrow and more than five times as many jobs as an expanded Gatwick

The new figures, showing the number of jobs which could be supported by the operation of each airport, come a fortnight after Foster + Partners made a final plea to the Davies Commission not to rule out the Thames Estuary airport, despite growing concerns over its feasibility.

In July the commission published four highly critical feasibility studies setting out the huge financial and engineering risks of building a huge new airport east of the capital - Johnson’s preferred solution for the UK’s aviation capacity problems.

However the Mayor, who has today (26 August) announced he is going to stand as an MP, has claimed his own report paints a much rosier picture of his proposals, especially in terms of job creation.

He said: ‘There is no better example of the stark choice between planning for the future and depressing short-termism. A new hub airport, properly planned, has the potential to reshape the economic geography of London and the whole of the southeast for decades to come.

‘It would be a project of a scale we are no longer accustomed to in this country, though it has become commonplace elsewhere. We simply cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities a new airport would give us.’

The report can be downloaded here.

Previous story (10.07.2014)

Estuary Airport is ‘huge financial and environmental risk’

Boris Johnson’s plans to build an airport in the Thames Estuary have suffered a serious blow after a new study concluded it would cause ‘huge environmental financial and safety risks’

The feasibility study for the Airports Commission, which was carried out by Jacobs, claimed the habitat loss from the new airport would cause huge problems for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds and could cost £2billion.

A previous study by Foster + Partners had estimated the cost of habitat relocation at £500million.

The mudflats and marshes of the Thames Estuary are home to a number of migratory bids which nest on both the north and south of the estuary. The area is also home to several sites of special scientific interest.

The report states that moving this number of wildlife is ‘technically possible’ but is on an unprecedented scale for the UK.

The study is one of four which have been compiled for the Airports Commission which aim to look at different aspects of the Thames Estuary airport. The other schemes include social-economic issues, surface access and a study on airline behaviour.

The reports have been commissioned to give a more detailed information on whether the Thames Estuary scheme should be included in the final report Howard Davies presents to the government after the next general election over the options for future airport capacity in the South East.

The Jacob’s research found that even if a replacement habitat could be found, the airport would still be at a ‘high risk’ of a lethal bird strike.

Reacting to the study London Assembly Labour Group Transport Spokesperson, Val Shawcross, said: ‘The idea of a Thames Estuary airport has long been dead in the water, but if a final nail in the coffin was needed, this is surely it.

‘Boris has wasted millions of pounds on this vanity project. With this latest report in mind, he needs to accept that the evidence is now totally against him and that no more public money should be spent pursuing a Thames Estuary airport.’

Readers' comments (2)

  • Please let this be the end of the Estuary scheme and further discussion of it. We have been here before with Maplin Sands (much the same area) in the early 1970s. Cancelled then on the basis of excessive costs so the Brent geese and Southend cocklers were left in peace. Yes, Heathrow/ Gatwick are awful but then so are all airports. Try flying less. A lot of air travel is quite unnecessary; I know much of my casual use of air passenger travel in my youth and middle age was.

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  • Just out of interest regarding Val Shawcross' comments, why was any public money spent on the project ? Isn't BAA a private company anymore ?

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