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Support for Heathrow new town grows as airport hub gains momentum

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Front-runners in London aviation capacity report will kick-start redevelopment of west London mega-site. Rakesh Ramchurn reports

The Davies Commission, set up by the government to consider proposals to increase London’s aviation capacity, has retired with more than 50 proposals vying to be the capital’s premier airport hub.

The commission’s deadline for contributions from stakeholders passed on 31 July and an interim report is expected in December.

The front-running schemes, backed by London mayor Boris Johnson, are the construction of a new, four-runway airport on the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary, a second estuary scheme commonly known as ‘Boris Island’, and the redevelopment of Stansted into a hub airport.

Any relocation of London’s principal airport hub away from west London will lead to a wave of regeneration work, including the tantalising possibility of a new town developed on the vacated Heathrow site.

Graeme Bell, vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), welcomed the idea of moving London’s hub airport eastwards as an opportunity to create an ‘inspirational’ place to fly from.

He said: ‘The perverse thing is that we have British architects of international repute – Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Chris Wilkinson – and they are doing their best work abroad.

‘This is a terrific opportunity to start with a clean sheet, to produce a world-class international hub airport with architecture that is absolutely stunning.’

Bell said he preferred the inner estuary solution at the Isle of Grain, as it would have a greater effect on the regeneration of east London.

‘That whole area east from Woolwich and from Canary Wharf is crying out for high-quality regeneration,’ he said.

‘[A new airport] in the east of London would be a terrific economic driver. You would have housing; you would have commerce; you would have manufacturing; the service industry – the whole spectrum.

‘It would transform the whole area, and there is no reason why the impact couldn’t expand further up the north Kent coast.’

Others have backed the Stansted development plan for the benefits it would bring further outside London.

Adam Peavoy, senior architect at Cambridge-based practice Mole Architects, spoke of the ‘huge impact’ the Stansted proposal could have on Cambridge’s science and technology parks. But he warned this could clash with conservative planning regulations.

‘[Developing Stansted] would undoubtedly be a good thing for the science parks as they are international businesses linked to Japanese and American companies,’ he said.

‘The city is already under pressure to expand, but there has always been a historic planning approach to keep the city restrained in size, so it would put further pressure on the decision as to whether Cambridge becomes a city that keeps on growing almost exponentially, or whether it’s capped.’

Whether the new hub is in Kent or Essex, west London faces major redevelopment. The Independent Transport Commission earlier this year warned that a new hub airport would be likely to lead to the closure of Heathrow.

Aviation expert Peter Hall of the Bartlett described Heathrow’s potential for new town development as ‘very considerable’.

He added: ‘You have the best rail and motorway connectivity that you will ever find, with an Underground line and good train connections into central London. There is also superb ICT connectivity with the world’s best broadband capacity in that site.’

Bell, who wrote a paper for the TCPA outlining how the Heathrow site could be developed into a garden city, with 12,000 houses accommodating 30,000 people, believes the site could also become a new business district.

He said: ‘You could put the footprint of Canary Wharf on the footprint of Terminals 1, 2 and 3 of Heathrow Airport, so you could actually build a counterpoint to it, a bit like La Défense in Paris.

‘At a stroke you could have high-quality, executive-type positions for people in that part of west London, maximising the transport connections so you don’t waste them.’

Ed Ferrari, lecturer in town and regional planning at the University of Sheffield, agreed that there was huge potential for a new town at Heathrow.

‘Handled sensitively, there’s no reason to think a new town at Heathrow wouldn’t be a success,’ he said.

‘It already has major infrastructure in place, and it’s in an area with an overheated housing market. If it could deliver a big chunk of affordable housing, it would help to rebalance housing in the area.’

Ferrari also spoke of the need to maintain the stock of affordable housing in east London. He said: ‘The issue with rebalancing the housing market will be that it will involve the displacement of lower economic groups from east London, in particular, the groups the airport will need to function properly. Where will they all live?’

Chris Shepley, principal of Chris Shepley Planning, agreed that there was great regeneration potential for the South-East in relocating the hub airport, but warned against over-emphasis on London at the expense of development in the regions.

He said: ‘We’re probably the most unbalanced country in Europe. The mayor of London makes a very strong case for development in London, but you have to look at the whole of the UK really, and nobody seems to be doing that.’


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