Foster's fantastic plan isn't just an airport, it's a £50bn leap into our connected future
Foster’s ambitious estuary project is about a great deal more than just an airport, says Paul Finch
There is nothing new about the idea of an estuary airport serving London from the east. Until last week I had assumed that Foster + Partners’ proposal for just such an airport, on the Isle of Grain, was a sophisticated reworking of the 1970s proposal to locate one on Maplin Sands.
In reality, the breadth and complexity of what is being proposed goes way beyond infrastructure – it shows how powerful thinking by a mature practice, which has the resources and willpower to undertake research, can produce a strong, convincing argument about the future of the entire UK, not just the greater convenience of airline passengers.
The starting point for the analysis is the long-term requirement for connectivity in respect of data, power transmission, rapid movement of goods and people, and reinforcement of the UK’s role as a regional hub for northern Europe and beyond. This concerns the revitalisation of a series of key UK ports and how they can link to an upgraded rail network that runs around London rather than through it, thereby removing a serious bottleneck from the programme.
This is the context for developing the airport, a flood barrier (thank goodness someone is taking this seriously), new roads and the inevitable ‘airport city’, which would emerge as part of a Thames Gateway megaproject. All in, and including a significant contingency, the project could cost some £50 billion and be created in 15 years once government approval is given. Is this fundable? Almost certainly. But only if there is unambiguous political support for the principles of the project and the anticipated timescale – which would cross at least two electoral cycles. That is a big requirement but not an insuperable one, as the creation of the Channel Tunnel rail link proved.
As far as challenges go, the biggest one would be deciding what should happen to Heathrow once the new airport opens. Fosters is unambiguous about this: Heathrow has to close. I have long believed Heathrow is the 21st-century equivalent of the Royal Docks – doomed to closure. It is wrong to subject millions of citizens to the noise and potential danger of planes flying above a world city 18 hours a day. Heathrow is in the wrong place and should close the moment the new airport is complete. This can all be negotiated, not least because the owners will be able to create a massively valuable piece of world real estate on the airport site.
What about the workers? Apart from the point that much of the associated airport jobs are low-level, manual labour (sandwich-making for instance), which is all being automated anyway, it will of course be possible to envisage reasonable commute times out to the new airport for those who want to follow the air fleet. This is especially the case given that it will be linked to Crossrail and the ‘javelin’ train from St Pancras.
Of course, workers can always move, just like the birds who in exemplary Darwinian fashion find new environments when an existing one changes. As it happens Fosters has ideas about how to deal with this, which are positive and radical rather than frightened and defensive.
Talking to Fosters’ director Huw Thomas this week reminded me of conversations I used to have with Cedric Price at our weekly breakfast meetings in the 80s and 90s – about architecture not as design and aesthetics, but as part and parcel of propositions about politics, infrastructure, interactive information systems and lateral thinking about the long term. How he would have loved what Foster’s is proposing today. All we need now is for George Osborne to think big enough.