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Norman Foster hits out at Heathrow expansion plans

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Architect says airport will ‘never accommodate long-term needs’ as he defends the sustainability of his Thames Hub airport and other major infrastructure schemes

Norman Foster has defended the sustainability of expanding the UK’s airport capacity while taking another swipe at plans for a third runway at Heathrow.

In an interview in yesterday’s Observer, Foster launched a passionate defence of building mega infrastructure in the context of climate change, saying successful projects should be able to ‘anticipate the issues of future generations’.

While no final decision has been taken by the government, Foster’s plans for a Thames Hub, a major new airport in the Thames estuary with associated flood defence and high speed rail links, have been sidelined by the government’s Davies commission in favour of expanding Heathrow in west London.

Foster told the paper: ‘The reality of a hub airport is that you can never ever do that at Heathrow. If you do that at Heathrow now you can absolutely guarantee that we will still be pedalling furiously to stand still. You can never accommodate long-term needs there.’

Asked about the wisdom of promoting air travel given its high carbon emissions, he said: ‘The reality is that all society is embedded in mobility. You’re going to take that flight. You’d be better to take the flight out of an airport that is driven by tidal power and which uses natural light, and which anticipates the day when air travel will be more sustainable.’

He also said air travel compared favourably to eating beef in terms of emissions given the ‘amount of methane produced by cows and the amount of energy and water needed to produce a hamburger’.

I have no power as an architect, none whatsoever

He added: ‘You’re probably going to have your hamburger in spite of the fact that you’re going to make a much greater impact than any travel.’

In terms of Foster’s own ability to make a difference on key issues such as climate change, he claimed ‘advocacy’ was the only power that he has as an architect.

‘I have no power as an architect, none whatsoever. I can’t even go on to a building site and tell people what to do.’

Foster will be speaking alongside chairman of the government’s new infrastructure commission, Andrew Adonis, at this Thursday’s Urban Age global debate at the London School of Economics.

  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • Lord Adonis should get to grips with the biggest single transport issue which will face London and the UK over the next few decades. He and government should heed Norman Foster's wise words, and abandon the footling idea that expanding Heathrow (the Royal Docks of the 21st century) is relevant to our needs. By all means add to Gatwick and Stansted, but an estuary airport is the right long-term strategy, weirdly abandoned in the 1970s in the ad hoc British fashion. More advocacy required.

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  • An estuary airport might be the right long-term strategy for London, but it looks mighty like the wrong long term strategy for the rest of Britain's population - which, unfortunately, lies to the other side of London.

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  • In the 1960’s the British Airport Authority said that Heathrow would be operating to capacity by 1977 and wanted to expand an existing small airport at Stansted. This was rejected by Harold Wilson’s government, who in 1968 set up a Royal Commission, under Lord Justice Roskill (the Roskill Commission) to evaluate four alternative sites, including one on the Thames estuary, chosen from a short list of 30 sites in the south east of England. I was one of a team involved in research and analysis of the four sites, which were subject to a Public Inquiry at the Piccadilly Hotel in 1969. Following the Inquiry, the Commission recommended that the best site for the construction of a Third London Airport was at Cublington in Buckinghamshire. A minority report by one of the Commissioners, Sir Colin Buchanan, recommended that the airport should be constructed at Foulness in Essex, later known as Maplin, on the Thames Estuary.

    The House of Commons debated the Commission's recommendation and following in the wake of public opinion, voted in favour of a Thames Estuary airport. On 26 April 1971 the Edward Heath government announced that they accepted the need for a Third London Airport with its first runway operational by 1980 built on a reclaimed area of the Maplin Sands in Essex. Associated with the airport was a new town north of Southend, a deep sea port for the Port of London Authority, including an oil terminal, and new motorway and rail links. At the end of 1972 the government published a Maplin Development Bill and subsequently set up the Maplin Development Authority to implement the project.

    In 1974 Edward Heath lost the election and the new government under Harold Wilson scrapped the Third London Airport (and also work on the Channel Tunnel) and the BAA got what it wanted all along, a major expansion at Stansted airport.

    Forty years later, we should get what London needed in the 1970's, an international airport on the Thames Estuary. I hope so. It was the sensible and only publically acceptable solution then, and it is the sensible and only publically acceptable solution now.

    John Peverley

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