Britain must stop dithering about a Thames estuary airport - it could be the infrastructure project that gives us the neccessary fire power to defeat the economic downturn

Enter the Dragon! I am in Kuala Lumpur at the Chinese New Year looking at projects. There are four or five of them in prospect, all private sector and about $1bn each. No one talks in millions any more around here.

Malaysia is a secular state with a Malay Muslim/Chinese population of 27 million, a GDP per capita of $8k a year (the UK’s is $43k a year), is spread across 878 islands and has been the cub of the Asian Tigers. Despite the Petronas Towers that put Kuala Lumpur on the map and the construction of a whole new political mini city within Kuala Lumpur itself, it has lagged behind Singapore, China, Korea and India. But perhaps it’s time has come as its stars align.

To have london’s major airport to the east makes economic, aviation and geographical sense […] the air/sea freight possibilities would be entirely new

It has a plan to attract 100 top companies and to increase its population by 4 million in 10 years with routes to the all important “PR”, permanent residency, for top people. It wants to become the Switzerland of the East, where Asian and, notably, Muslim Banks can gather. It is particularly attractive to successful liberal minded Muslims from the Middle East and Pakistan. People are flocking here to live, to be educated, for medical care and to recreate. And why not, it’s a great place; it has wonderful lush countryside, fabulous beaches and coastline, and friendly, relaxed people with a liberal lifestyle.

Despite being half the population of the UK with a tenth of our GDP, Malaysia has big infrastructure and development projects. £3bn will be spent on a high speed (400kph) rail link to Singapore, £10bn on a Mass Rapid Transit system for Kuala Lumpur and £3bn on the all important greening of the city. Government and business work hand in hand and no one is “throwing logs in front of the train”.

Unlike the UK. As I left the argument was just starting about a new London airport to the east in the estuary. It took 20 years to build T5 at Heathrow and 24 years to build Stansted. How long will we fiff and faff over this more radical decision? There is a great irony here as (Romans aside) the UK pretty much invented infrastructure in the modern world. Railways; intercity, underground and suburban are a British invention. And then there are the sewers, the penny post, telephones, tarmacadam, canals, heroic bridge building etc.

Back to the airports; Britain has been a major trading nation for five hundred years. We used to trade goods out of our seaports; we now trade services and intellectual property out of our airports. London is not only the capital of Britain but also of Europe (sorry Nicolas and Angela) and arguably the central time zone.

Luton is plain horrible, Stansted is too small and Gatwick can only be accessed from london by rail and is badly placed for the rest of the UK

Heathrow used to be the envy of Europe and a great hub but as London has washed over it and the demands of air travel have expanded exponentially it has become everyone’s least favourite airport. Travellers find it a nightmare to use and the local residents, in an otherwise prosperous part of London, hate it. Try having a BBQ in your back garden in Kew (never mind Hounslow) and you’ll know all about why Heathrow is a bad idea. As a pilot I know that because of the prevailing wind all UK airports are approached by aircraft on a long slow five degree glide path from the East and are departed on a steep climb-out to the West followed by a brisk turn towards their destination. So to locate the major airport close to the West of London was a schoolboy howler as planes have to fly low over London to get to it.
London’s other airports have their problems too. Luton is plain horrible, Stansted is too small and Gatwick can only be accessed from London by rail and is in the wrong place for the rest of the UK.

To have London’s major airport to the East makes economic, aviation and geographical sense. Aircraft will not fly low over the capital, new fast, modern infrastructure can connect it to London, the country and, via the Chunnel, the continent - New York to Paris or Brussels via the London Estuary? The air/sea freight possibilities would be entirely new. An airport to the London corridor of development will make the Thames Gateway a practical reality and Heathrow could be sold for lucrative housing and commercial development. Perfect, it’s just what the country’s doctor ordered; lots of capital spending on infrastructure works in the recession and great air, road, rail and sea connectivity to drive us out of recovery in a few years time. All this could be achieved in less than 10 years with Olympic style British construction know-how, if we have the political will. So, do the British have fire in their belly in the Year of the Dragon?

Jack Pringle is a partner in Pringle Brandon

This article was originally published under the headline ‘Enter the dragon’