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Norman Foster slams Heathrow third runway as 'band-aid solution'

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Norman Foster has again hit out at Heathrow expansion, calling it a ‘short-term’ solution to Britain’s infrastructure needs

Foster, speaking in Manchester Town Hall at the Designing the Future: Starting in the North event, hosted by the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust, argued that his alternative ‘Thames Hub’ proposal could be connected to Europe with High Speed 1 and link London directly to cities in the north.

If it was used as a terminus for the planned High Speed 2 rail link, he added, it could help relieve the pressure of freight on the roads. 

Howard Davies’s independent Airports Commission, set up by the government four years ago, ruled out Foster’s plans for an airport in the Thames estuary, saying it would be more expensive than the alternative options of a new new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick. 

But Foster, who unveiled his estuary airport plans in 2011, told the audience: ‘I accept that there is going to be a third runway. It’s a band-aid solution. It is short-term. It’s not thinking in terms of the wider issues of transportation.

’What is guaranteed is that when that third runway comes into action, Heathrow will again be at full capacity.’

I would guarantee the absolute inevitability that one day [Heathrow] will no longer be sustainable

He continued: ‘I would guarantee the absolute inevitability that one day [Heathrow] will no longer be sustainable in community terms, political terms – just [on account of] the sheer logistics. It cannot continue.’

’There is only one way to go and that is out in the direction of the sea […] eventually Heathrow will no longer [be] fit for purpose.’

Foster compared the Thames estuary proposal to his successful Hong Kong International Airport, built on the largely man-made Chek Lap Kok island to replace to the closed Kai Tak Airport, whose expansion options were similarly limited.

He argued that an airport on the Isle of Grain would provide opportunities for new developments as London expands, and could be combined with existing initiatives such as the proposal to build a new Thames Barrier. 

Foster spoke of the importance of long-term infrastructure plans to Britain’s economy, pointing to how northern cities and the canal and rail systems which connected them drove the Industrial Revolution. 

In 2014 the Airports Commission concluded, following a feasibility study, that a Thames hub airport would be too expensive to build. 

At the time, Howard Davies said: ‘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.’

Estuary airport

Estuary airport

Estuary airport

Foster’s proposals were previously supported by former London mayor and current foreign secretary Boris Johnson. In 2015, in a letter to The Telegraph Johnson branded the plans for another runway at Heathrow ‘madness’ and ’short-termist’.

The government’s decision to build a third runway at Heathrow was welcomed by Grimshaw, which in July this year beat Zaha Hadid Architects, Benoy and HOK in the contest to design a new ‘hub airport of the future’ as part of Heathrow’s £16 billion growth plans. 

It is expected to be another year before MPs vote on the decision for Heathrow and construction is not likely to begin until 2020 or 2021. If approved, the runway could be completed by 2025.

  • 10 Comments

Readers' comments (10)

  • Two points:

    1. The Honourable Boris Johnson, MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, used the Heathrow expansion controversy to lever his way back into Parliament while still the Mayor of London by campaigning noisily against the third runway (repeating the same trick that got him to be Mayor by campaigning noisily against the 'bendy buses').

    2 If built, Sir Norman Foster' s vision of a 'Thames Hub' to replace Heathrow could clearly be an extremely valuable prize for the architectural firms appointed to design it, but would involve enormous waste in making redundant the existing infrastructure serving Heathrow - in addition to the colossal cost and environmental impact of the Hub and its associated infrastructure.
    All on the premise that London must keep expanding - and that assumption needs critical review.

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  • Heathrow is the 21st century equivalent of the Royal Docks, and will eventually close because it is in the wrong place and cannot do what London needs. After closure, it will become the most desirable new town project in Europe -- the London Borough of Heathrow, supplying a sufficiency of housing for the rest of the century.

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  • Forty years ago, the government chose an estuary airport.

    In the 1960’s the BAA said that Heathrow would be operating to capacity by 1977 and wanted to expand Stansted. This was rejected by the government, who set up the Roskill Commission in 1968, to evaluate four sites, including an estuary site. Following an Inquiry, the Commission recommended an airport at Cublington, but a minority report by Sir Colin Buchanan, recommended the Thames Estuary.

    A debate in the House of Commons resulted in a vote in favour of an estuary airport. In April 1971 the Conservative government agreed to an estuary site and in 1972 published a Maplin Development Bill and set up the Maplin Development Authority, which started work.

    But in 1974 the Conservatives were ousted by Labour, who cancelled the estuary airport and Stansted was expanded.

    The government in 1971 had vision, and if the project had not been scrapped, the country would have benefitted from an estuary airport affecting few people.

    There are environmental issues with an estuary airport, but these are far outweighed by the benefits that an estuary site brings to the lives of millions of people in London and the south east.

    Theresa May said “we must invest in things that matter, the things that give a long term return”. Will next year's vote in the House of Commons have the vision to opt for a new approach, as their predecessor’s did, and build an estuary airport?

    John Peverley

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  • Ironically the most sensible place for a new hub airport is Norman's own Stansted. 4 runways and a new town for the workforce needed to run the airport. Environmental constraints have become more important since the 70s, and the birds, the Montgomery and fog do not make for a viable location. And it would be very economical to connect Stansted to the North, London and the Channel Tunnel by high speed rail.

    Heathrow would then take over the existing infrastructure to become a new housing suburb for London, with existing large buildings converted to shopping, sport and other uses.

    In the meantime a new runway should be built at Gatwick, funded by foreign and private sector investment. Perhaps we need a Donald Trump, capable of a volte face to save us all time and money?!

    David Farmery. Sensible Party.

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  • LONDON ESTUARY AIRPORT .

    Forget the details .

    Why are Amateurs ( Politicians, inexperienced persons in the field ) with Subjective Opinions and not Professional ( experienced persons in the field ) with Objective Opinions , listened to ! ?

    Norman Foster should like say Lucio Costa ( Brasilia ) be appointed as Masterplanner , while also providing architectural input and advice on the appointment by Competition , additional Architects and Landscape Architects etc .

    As in numerous instances throughout History , most people cannot envisage the BIG PICTURE !

    Norman Forster , for one , certainly can !

    John Meagher .

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  • Why has Manchester or the North of England not been given any consideration with an extension programme?

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  • John Peverley is right a Government with vision would have a built an estuary airport. Norman Foster is right a third runway at Heathrow is band-aid. David Farmery is right, Stansted makes a better option for expansion. Paul Finch is right - Heathrow would provide lots of much needed housing in an excellent location. John Meagher is right, planning is best left to experts. But the options are too complex to be left to the London centred view of the world. Does London need a hub airport at all. Will air travel expand or contract in the next 50 years? Maybe Manchester or Birmingham airport linked to the rest of the country is a better option? The options on the table were devised pre-brexit. Is it time to take a deep breath and see how things develop from here? A positive "Doing nothing" is the one option that gets crossed off the political (or any) to do list. Many years ago Norman Foster had a fine line in lecturing architecture students on questioning the brief.......maybe the client doesn't need an extension but wants a divorce.

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  • MacKenzie Architects

    Oi bin thinking abahht this.

    Actually, a London Airport hub is just as much for travellers from UK, and for international travellers. If London -and unfortunately it has to be London- wants to get worldwide revenue from American, Chinese, Indian travellers who want to fly in from far-off lands and then then take some regional flight into Europe or Africa, then they need to make this decision yesterday, and it will pay for itself.

    Actually, until we dump the ridiculous air passenger duty tax, we aren't going to attract any long haul business. £142 on top of your airline price for any distance over 2,000 miles.

    Why do MPs need another year before they decide? Because they know they are not competent to make any decision.
    So take the decision away from them.

    I use at least one out of Stansted, Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton weekly; they are all terrible band-aid solutions. The UK has had a mental block for over 100 years now on everything, patch up and make good. Never a clean slate.
    Sadly, every single one of us knows that London's Airport expansion will be years late, inflexible, and too small when it is finally ready. If I was Sir Norm, I would stick my planning application in now.

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  • Thank you Simon Carne for endorsing my comment that Stansted is the logical location for the new hub airport, but it is not time to delay the decision and see what the future holds. We and Gatwick need the new runway now, based on the existing figures. We also need to start planning the new rail links, as they take time to put in place. Look how long HS1 took. 20 years? And HS2 even longer, by all accounts.

    And I'm sorry Manchester and Birmingham, good airports though they are, the world wants to fly to a hub near London, partly because they see it as handy for Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels; via air or rail. As well as the City, Buckingham Palace, Oxford St. and Harrods.

    David Farmery
    (Designer: British Rail, Channel Tunnel and Airports worldwide)

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  • The options are too complex to be left to the London centred view of the world. https://www.horizonfostering.co.uk/

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