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Instead of expanding Heathrow, the government should listen to Norman Foster

Paul Finch

Foster’s estuary airport is the only long-term proposal for improving UK infrastructure which makes any sense, writes Paul Finch

It was probably inevitable that Heathrow would get the government’s backing for expansion, even though prime minister David Cameron delayed it deliberately for political purposes, and then sacked his transport secretary, Justine Greening, for supporting government policy to oppose a third runway.

Let’s hope this does not spell the end of Norman Foster’s Thames Hub project, colloquially known as the Estuary Airport. Both names are highly misleading, neither giving any indication of the breadth and depth of inquiry undertaken by the Foster office into a far more significant question than the location of an additional airport, important though that is. In a jump of scale, the thinking that went into Foster’s Masdar project in Abu Dhabi at a city scale has, with the Thames Hub, been translated into an analysis of the infrastructure requirements of a huge part of Great Britain. That analysis was undertaken long before the Brexit vote, but one might argue that makes it an even more significant proposal today. Simply put, the project is to help define Britain’s economic relationship to Europe, and to north-west Europe in particular, over the course of this century.

The scenario envisaged is one in which Britain acts as a hub and conduit for goods, services, people and information, exploiting our geographical location, long coastline and trading history. The logical outcome of the analysis is not a leap into the detailed design of an airport, but a consideration of existing infrastructure and where it needs fundamental investment.

So the first move is to strengthen our many ports, which tend to be underestimated in terms of capacity. For example, the Port of Liverpool handles a greater tonnage now than it did at the height of empire in the late 19th century; the unused or re-used docks and warehouses in the traditional dock areas may look like evidence of decline, but in reality business has just moved along the river to make container freight easier to handle. The same is true of London’s docks. 

The second move is to strengthen road and rail connections to, from and between the ports, taking into account other elements of national infrastructure, for example regional airports. That, in turn, results in the provision of additional infrastructure, which allows all movement for traffic and freight to bypass London en route either to the Channel Tunnel, or, in the Foster proposition, to a large new airport complex on the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary – importantly not a safety hazard to Londoners suffering from ever-increasing air traffic.

Foster’s project is the only long-term proposal which looks at the future of Britain in the round

The Foster arguments for an estuary hub airport are impressive. It would operate 24 hours a day, unlike Heathrow. It would eliminate noise nuisance for at least five million Londoners. It would be capable of huge expansion if required, and is therefore a century project. It would be reachable using existing or planned transport routes more quickly for more people than an expanded Heathrow, whose proposed new runway would fail to fulfil anticipated capacity targets by the time it opened. Passengers from many regional cities would be able to access it more quickly than Heathrow, though the overall strategy envisages regional airports strengthening and expanding. 

Almost as a by-product of the Foster proposal, there would be a second Thames barrier, since the first one is now inadequate to protect London from serious flood – about which Foster is very concerned, having been briefed on the exponential increase in catastrophic weather events.

An estuary airport project was in fact given planning permission in the 1970s, but was never built because of political procrastination. Foster’s project is at a bigger scale, so would face greater difficulties. But it is the only long-term proposal which looks at the future of Britain in the round.


Readers' comments (11)

  • It's surely important not to get carried away with what might appear to be a good idea if by its location it treats parts of the country - notably Southwest England - as of little importance in the grand scheme of things.
    Foster's proposals are most relevant to the future prosperity of southeast England, and from that point of view the Isle of Grain location works.
    If you live in Bristol it might work, with a feeder flight, although rail to Heathrow might well be easier, particularly if the western link into the airport, planned for 2028, is actually built.
    If you live in Plymouth you've got the short end of the straw - the direct flights to Heathrow disappeared long ago when slots became worth their weight in gold, the city's airport has more recently been viewed as valuable development land and shut down, the rail link to London hasn't improved since the advent of the high speed train forty years ago (and is now regularly threatened by the sea) and people could be forgiven for thinking that we have a London-centric government that might even rival the dysfunctional Borough of Kensington and Chelsea when it comes to cynical self-interest.
    As for the idea of developing the 'hub' principle, this surely works far better in the context of sea freight than it does for air passengers, given the costs involved in developing a new mega airport - and while aircraft (like high speed trains) have become more fuel-efficient over the years, the environmental implications of encouraging more and more transit passengers through London seem to be considered of little importance.

    I have to declare an interest: living in Western Scotland, but with roots in South Devon, the days of a convenient train service between the two are over - the remaining through trains have been re-routed at the behest of the DfT around by the East Coast, adding up to three hours to what is now a remarkably expensive and tedious meander around England and rendering same-day public transport connections at each end of the route impossible.
    The quicker alternative of changing trains at Birmingham is little more attractive now than it was before New Street station was rebuilt as a glorified food court. My options are either to take a cramped, usually full and rather noisy - albeit cheap and quick - turbo-prop 'cigar tube' between Glasgow and Exeter, or relatively cheap fast trains via London, with the likely need for an overnight stay at the 'hub' balanced by the opportunity of catching up with the latest museum and gallery exhibitions (OK if you can afford the time & London hotel)

    So, by all means promote a new airport on the Isle of Grain (obliterating the land that might still be familiar to Charles Dickens) but charge it to London's account, not Britain's, and don't insult the many people for whom this would be of little or no benefit.

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  • I hope Paul Finch will give maximum publicity to any Foster’s contribution to this debate, including reviewing it in print in the Architects Journal. The decision to back a 3rd runway at Heathrow is amazingly short sighted, and only goes to highlight the inadequacies of the current Transport Secretary and his advisors.

    The proposal for a new airport on the Isle of Grain does have many advantages, not least the creation of a high speed motor launch and helicopter link to the City of London. It does however have some serious factors counting against it. Viz: the wreck of the Montgomery, the number of days of fog in the Thames Estuary, the increased risk of bird strike and a threat of habitat loss for those birds. The ornithology would also provide a poplular a reason for refusal of planning permission.

    The obvious location for the new airport is to expand Foster’s Stansted. This would involve 3 new runways, high speed rail connections to HS1 and the diversion of HS2 to provide a link to the north, so it is not seen as a London centred project. It is also on dry land, and would not be threatened by the predicted rise in sea levels, although this might be prevented by a new barrier? And, Norman already has the drawings of the exist topography and buildings to hand?! To tide us over until the new airport is operational Gatwick should be given immediate permission for another runway.

    The most important task is to halt the current 3rd runway proposal. To this end the MPs who have expressed an opinion, and are under the existing flight paths, Zac Goldsmith, Justine Greening and Vince Cable should be enlisted to support an alternative, well documented proposal. Perhaps the combined power of the AJ and Fosters can make this happen? This is the only way I can see of stopping the expansion. Heathrow would become a Garden suburb, leading to clean air, more housing and the necessary capital.

    (If you need any help, the AJ subscription Dept has my contact details.)

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  • I hope our ideas for a 4 Runway, international airport at Stansted will help Robert Wakeham and the good residents of Scotland and Devon! The proposed rail link between Cambridge and Oxford and the GWR will also help his journey westward? Ho! The whole country would benefit from a new airport. 24 hour operation and more efficient flight paths would prevent stacking and minimise the production of greenhouse and noxious gases?

    And as we seem to disagree on so much on your pages, if he calls in on his next journey through London, we could have a very interesting, if not heated discussion. My wife might be persuaded to offer him the spare bed for the night to save him the usual costs. He would however be woken by the 4:30am flight into Heathrow?!

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  • Short-term expand Gatwick; medium-term expand Stansted; long-term build the estuary airport. Can't we get a strategic grip instead of arguing about trivialities?

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  • 'Trivialities'? I'd argue that the devil is in the detail, and in terms of getting a strategic grip Foster's proposal is in need of just as much thorough analysis, and justification, as the current 'the nation has spoken' argument for Brexit.
    David Farmery's proposal for expansion of Stansted, with a link to the Cambridge - Oxford rail route, is of no use to the southwest as the links beyond Oxford are back towards London with a change either at Didcot and then around by Bristol, or at Reading - both routes more awkward overall than still going into London, transferring from Liverpool Street to Paddington and then out again. Faster and easier to fly direct from Stansted to Exeter. Although (for Paul Finch's information) the journey from Exeter airport into town can be delayed by buses meeting on a narrow stretch of road, or even an escaped cow.
    As for the 'good residents of Scotland' - they might well find it easier to fly long-haul out of Glasgow or Edinburgh, or transit through the likes of Schipol rather than bother with the London airports.
    Lastly, doesn't adding runways to Stansted and Gatwick cause similar environmental problems to those created by expanding Heathrow, albeit on a smaller scale as fewer people's lives would be impacted?
    Or is the notion of 'keep the majority of the electorate sweet and sod the rest' part of the great London airport debate?

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  • Detail is tactics; the important thing is strategy. Without the latter, the former is irrelevant.

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  • These are not trivialities Paul. I have listed the severe, if not insurmountable problems that would face the Estuary Airport. It would also be unnecessarily expensive. The idea has also been blighted by the Boris and Home Counties effect, and would not be popular with the Provinces, as Robert has pointed out.

    It is a shame, as another airport on sea like Hong Kong, on which I worked, would be amazing, and possibly a fitting climax to Norman Foster’s illustrious career?!

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  • I suggest readers check out the HS4Air proposal by Expedition Engineering as a strategic and pragmatic (affordable) short to medium term solution to all this........

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  • HS4Air is one of several proposals to tie existing rail lines and airports together. It presumes Heathrow is retained. That will not be to the benefit of West London or Britain as a long term solution. This is about getting rid of Heathrow. 2050 and beyond.

    Heathwick is another proposal. Has anyone co ordinated all these with Old Oak Common that looks as if it is going ahead, with a large residential and commercial component. If the Oxbridge Link goes ahead it must be connected to GWR at Didcot or Swindon, if only to increase ridership and satisfy Robert and the Northerners?! Railway provision doesn’t need to be London Terminal centric. An outer railway ring is needed, the Oxbridge Link and HS4Air would be part of that.

    Isn’t the Dept of Transport thinking about and co ordinating all this?? It’s not rocket science.

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  • Thinking and co-ordinating don't seem to figure that high in the skillset of the current DfT crew.

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