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.