Airport expansion and the Thames Estuary

Having held the party line on High Speed 2 and given the go-ahead to the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, despite security concerns about Chinese investment in the project, the attention of the Prime Minister Theresa May will now turn to the other major construction project in the pipeline – a new airport runway around London. 

A decision over the country’s airport capacity has already been dragged out for more than 15 years and the potential expansion of Heathrow remains hugely controversial.  Concerns include the cost, the already dangerously high pollution levels around Heathrow, and noise, since its flight paths go over some of the most densely populated parts of London.  For these reasons and others, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heathrow has recently released a report saying that even if the Government does give the green light to its expansion, they do not believe it will go ahead. 

“The proposal to expand Heathrow is as undeliverable now as it always has been, and it’s time we stopped wasting time trying to make it work.  There is a growing consensus that we do need more airport capacity in the UK, but our analysis shows in the starkest terms that Heathrow cannot be the place to do it” – Dr Tania Mathias, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heathrow.

It is therefore worth reconsidering a ground-breaking scheme previously ruled out by the airport commission.

The building of a Thames Estuary Airport, sometimes known as “Boris Island”, would be a long-term, strategic, investment for the country. In reality, in addition to the issues outlined above, another runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow would provide only a short-term solution to Britain’s air capacity problem.  The Airports Commission has itself noted that even with a third runway at Heathrow as it recommended, extra capacity will likely be needed by 2050.  As such, by the time a third runway at Heathrow is built, we will be having another debate regarding where yet another runway can be placed.  In contrast, an airport in the Thames estuary would allow us to build a four-runway airport.  It would also bring greater potential for further expansion in the future.  

Crucially, since an airport in the Thames Estuary would be free from night-time noise restrictions, it would also enable us to operate a truly 24-hour hub, along the lines of other major airports of the world such as Dubai, Beijing and Mexico City.  This would provide better connectivity for travellers coming into and passing through the UK and boost our long-term competitiveness.  At three runways, Heathrow’s 17 hour operation would only allow 740,000 annual transport movements compared to the 1,200,000 the Thames Hub would enable.

With around 100,000 jobs projected to be created from the project, a Thames Estuary airport would also bring significant local economic benefits to some of the most deprived parts of England.  Since London’s population is expected to rise to 10 million by 2030, with most of that growth taking place in the East, a Thames Estuary airport would also be in line with wider growth trends.    

Ducking the chance to build capacity for the long-term, in order to get a quick-fix solution via one of our existing airports would only store up problems for the future.  The Government must be brave and seize the chance for change.