The Thames Gateway is the perfect location for an international airport that won’t annoy the neighbours like Heathrow does, argues Nick Raynsford
It is ironic that just as we are about to celebrate the triumphant opening of Terminal 5, the Department for Transport is in the final stages of a consultation about further expansion at Heathrow.
In part, this reflects the exponential growth of air traffic; in part, the very long lead-in times for new infrastructure investment. But the real irony lies in the fact that when Roy Vandermeer, who had presided for years over the T5 planning enquiry, finally gave it the thumbs up, he also firmly recommended against a third runway.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the consultation about further expansion at Heathrow has proved highly controversial. Despite strong evidence that Heathrow is creaking at the seams and that London’s economy will suffer if we don’t tackle the capacity blockages, all the main candidates to become mayor of London have come out against the proposed expansion. This is a forceful indication of the strength of public opinion against a third runway and a substantial increase in the number of aircraft flying over the capital.
That of course brings us to the nub of the problem. Because of its location, flights into and out of Heathrow inevitably affect a large numbers of people who live in the densely populated areas surrounding it. However much technological advances reduce noise nuisance and polluting emissions, the harsh truth is that keeping London’s premier airport and the UK’s main aviation hub at Heathrow means imposing significant disadvantages on a sizeable sector of the population.
If there was no alternative this might have to be accepted as a necessary consequence of the economic success of London and the South-east, but for more than 30 years it has been recognised that the Thames Estuary is an appropriate alternative location for London’s main airport.
The case for siting a new airport away from major areas of population, and somewhere it can be approached over water, was recognised at the time of the ill-fated Maplin Sands proposal. Since then, the emergence of the Thames Gateway regeneration scheme has added enormous weight to the case for an estuary airport.
A new estuary airport with excellent public transport links will reduce the volume of road traffic, which is a major cause of emissions around Heathrow. On noise pollution, the choice is a no-brainer
Not only would this really boost the eastern end of the Thames Gateway development, it would also facilitate links to Europe by air and rail. Unlike Heathrow, an Estuary airport could easily connect into the High Speed One train route to Paris at Ebbsfleet, and flights would not need to fly over densely populated areas. The estuary is, therefore, far better placed than Heathrow to fulfill the airport hub function without the negative effects of increased air traffic.
The consultation on Heathrow expansion is predicated on a series of assumptions about how the adverse environmental impacts can be mitigated.
In the case of carbon and other emissions, action through technology, an effective emissions trading scheme and appropriate tax reforms are essential wherever the airport is located. However, a new estuary airport with excellent public transport links will reduce the volume of road traffic, which is a major cause of emissions around Heathrow. On noise pollution, the choice is a no-brainer.
In the short to medium term some limited further capacity growth at Heathrow may be inevitable if the UK economy is not to be damaged by congestion and capacity blockages, but as Roy Vandermeer concluded, Heathrow is not the right site for continuing airport expansion.
This time we really must draw a line in the sand and say no to continuing and exponential growth at Heathrow. Britain deserves an appropriately located international airport hub which will serve generations to come and support the economic, social and environmental needs of London and South-east England – a properly sustainable solution.
Nick Raynsford MP is chairman of the Construction Industry Council and a former construction minister