Boris Johnson has his eyes on Tory leadership with his ‘risky’ Thames Estuary airport plans, says former Secretary of State for Transport, who claims Heathrow expansion is the ‘only credible option’
London Mayor Boris Johnson’s proposals for an airport in the Thames Estuary are part of his strategy to win the leadership of the Conservative party, Labour peer Andrew Adonis has told the AJ.
The former Secretary of State for Transport said the London Mayor’s East London airport is a bid for West London’s support in a future leadership campaign.
‘He believes West London is key to securing the leadership,’ Adonis said. ‘I don’t know that I agree with him.’
The comments came following a panel discussion at the BCO conference in Madrid on transport and offices, during which Adonis described the Estuary airport as ‘a huge ask’ and ‘risky’.
A feasibility study and masterplan for an airport in the Thames Estuary, since nicknamed ‘Boris Island’, have received significant media attention. In February Johnson made his intentions even clearer by appointing Zaha Hadid and aviation experts Pascall + Watson to look at concept proposals for a new airport east of London (AJ 07.02.2013).
But Adonis listed a litany of barriers to the plans:
‘It’s a 30 minute trip from London on high speed rail, it’s a huge bird sanctuary, there’s the matter of [sunken ship] the SS Montgomery… and you are taking a big risk with the massive relocation of businesses, who may be just as likely to move to Frankfurt than move [60 miles] east.’
Adonis said the expansion of Heathrow was ‘the only credible option’ and ‘the single most important policy decision.’
‘It will be very difficult, if not impossible to move out to the East,’ said Adonis.
‘The only credible option is the expansion of Heathrow, either a third runway, or to move all the runways further west, away from the built-up areas, and do a fourth runway.’
David Begg, also on the panel, agreed. An academic and director of the Campaign for High Speed Rail, Begg said the construction and subsequent failure of hub airports in Hong Kong and Montreal showed how the Estuary plan would fail.
‘If you build another hub airport, Heathrow has to close. There’s no case for another hub airport. The implications of that are absolutely enormous,’ said Begg.
‘The top 300 headquarters in the UK are all located in the Thames Valley, in close proximity to Heathrow. If Heathrow goes, unemployment will double. And what will happen to property values in the West? An international airport adds to property prices.’
Begg added: ‘Most of the London boroughs do not want the closure of Heathrow.’
Fellow panel member Helen Alexander, chair of UBM and the Port of London Authority, also pooh-poohed the Estuary plans. ‘The Port of London authority is the second largest port in the country. An airport would require another barrage – we have a barrier, but anything firm across the whole river is much more difficult for shipping. The port is still there and is still very important.’
But despite their resounding dismissal of the Mayor’s East London plans, the panel urged government to take decisive action on the development of a hub airport.
Also speaking at the conference, Stuart Hampson, Chairman of the Crown Estate and former Chairman of John Lewis, said ‘We must have a better airport.’
‘I’m not entering into the debate on where it needs to be, but the longer we spend arguing about the location, the longer we hinder the UK economy. Our brave new world depends on making brave decisions.’
Responding to criticism that additional capacity could be found at other UK airports, Adonis said a ‘critical distinction’ needed to be made between the issue of airport capacity, and the urgent need for a hub airport.
‘There are a lot of airports in the UK that have capacity, but international airports don’t want to fly there because they don’t have the connections of Heathrow. In terms of getting a connecting flight, there are other options: Frankfurt, Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and increasingly, Dubai.’
Begg concurred: ‘Heathrow is not a London airport – it’s an airport for Europe and the UK. Expand Heathrow, or don’t expand Heathrow and build a hub airport… but the worst option is to allow expansion at Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow at a cost which the market won’t bear.’
Hampson claimed the airport debacle was ‘illustrative of the inability of government to take decisions.’
The debate of the airport keeps being kicked into long grass
‘The debate of the airport keeps being kicked into long grass,’ said Hampson. ‘The leaders of business want to know now what the location of this airport is going to be? Government doesn’t take these decisions the way business people would and this is frustrating.’
Hampson said: ‘Once you’ve decided where it [the airport] is, then you might decide where to put these rail lines,’ added Hampson, referring to Crossrail 2 proposals currently undergoing public consultation.
Richard Kauntze, chief executive of the BCO also criticised government inaction. ‘As a nation, we agonise over decisions. Why can’t we just get on with it as the French do – be it new runways at Charles de Gaulle or their high speed rail.’
However, Adonis cautioned against forcing politicians to take a position on which airport should be developed prior to the general election, saying this could further delay a decision on the matter.
‘I hope the politicians can remain sufficiently neutral so that a decision can be immediately taken after the next election,’ said Adonis.
‘The advice you need to be giving them is not to rule out options, but to say they will study carefully the results of the Howard Davies report,’ Adonis said, referring to the independent Davies review which will recommend expansion options after the general election.
Adonis added: ‘If we’re going to see an expansion of hub capacity over the next two years, the two major parties should go into the next election without making any firm commitments. A decision must be taken as soon as possible after the next election.’
Both Adonis and Begg called on the government for a more strategic and decisive approach to infrastructure.
‘Heathrow itself is a testament to the government’s failure to take decisions in a timely manner,’ Adonis said. ‘The airport is in the wrong place. It was then expanded because the government could not make a decision.’
‘Transport has been badly managed since before the war. The average tenure of the minister of transport is just over a year and a half, and you can tell. The system has been badly managed, and airport capacity is itself a testament to the chronic inability of the state to plan since 1945.’
‘If we’re going to get infrastructure right we really need politicians who are thinking long term,’ Begg added.