This will be a controversial blog post – touching on a topic which is more political than practical – the future of airports in the South-East of the UK, but sometimes I just need to express opinions about things.
Like any debate on a topic as large as this, whatever proposal is chosen, there will be a thousand individual downsides and maybe a thousand upsides. The key is not to fixate on just one downside and say it destroys the entire argument, unless it actually does.
I am going to start with some assumptions, which you may not agree with – but they are the core of the issue as I see it.
More airport capacity is needed
Even if you rationed flights so that there is no increase in how often people fly, or even cut the rations allocated to people – you still need more runways to cope with population growth.
Heathrow airport is in the wrong place
No one today would ever put an airport with its main approach/takeoff over a major city, and to expand capacity at Heathrow is just exacerbating what was always a bad decision.
Those are my two core assumptions.
So, we have to seek either an option that adds capacity to other airports, or we build an entirely new airport somewhere else.
I am going to add another requirement though – a big one. We close Heathrow Airport entirely.
This is not mere annoyance about the fact that it is in the wrong place, it is a very necessary step towards paying for a replacement, or expansion elsewhere.
The area of land occupied by Heathrow airport is vast. It could swallow the whole of the City of London – twice, or the entire Isle of Dogs four times over. The redevelopment opportunity is not limited to just the former airport though, as large swathes of West London have been heavily restricted in development by the need to avoid having planes flying into tall buildings.
There can’t be many cities in the world with a vast area of land ripe for redevelopment that already has good road and rail links into its heart. Heathrow has the tube lines, overland railways and sits next to two major motorways.
A long term programme — running over 30 to 50 years — to clear the land and develop it as the new “docklands” could fund most of the cost of whatever is built to replace the airport.
It’s difficult to put a value on what the land could be worth – the bits of Canary Wharf still owned by the original company are worth around £2.5 billion, and I guestimate the total estate at around three times that. Heathrow could swallow the Canary Wharf estate ten times over and still have space left over – but obviously you can’t built ten more Canary Wharf sized developments.
The residential land value on the Isle of Dogs has also soared as the offices rose upwards as well. With housing, landscaping, amenities and two Canary Wharf sized office developments, I wouldn’t be that surprised if the long term value of Heathrow could top £30-£40 billion though. Which is 60-80% of the cost of a replacement airport, depending on which reports you read.
There are downsides – obviously.
The main one is that the surrounding areas would see a period of time when house prices collapse in value as airport workers migrate to the replacement sites, but the offices and services have not replaced them to need houses or create jobs.
This would call for funding support for displaced workers who are selling devalued houses and buying new houses elsewhere. One potential upside is that a large number of devalued but perfectly usable properties would be available – and could be a huge resource for low-paid workers who might otherwise not get onto the housing ladder. Some sort of financing deal to ensure that the eventual “profits” from the sale of those houses when Heathrow starts attracting well paid office workers is shared with some agency managing the migration to cover the airport transition costs would again help to mitigate the financial burden on the airport closure.
However, the long term prospects that would make turning Heathrow into a western counterpart to Docklands would not just be economically viable, but it supports the current policy of encouraging development around the fringes of London instead of in the centre.
One of the side-benefits in environmental terms is also that replacement housing/offices at the new airport location can be constructed to modern building codes with vastly better environmental standards compared to the 1970s era buildings around Heathrow.
That curiously means that whatever the eventual solution is, the overall package could end up being less environmentally damaging than the current Heathrow airport.
But where does the replacement airport capacity go?
One option would be for capacity increases at both Gatwick and Stansted airports. Both airports are single runway designs, and giving each of them two runways, with options for a third each would be controversial, but it would create two Heathrow sized airports on either side of London, sufficiently far apart that they wouldn’t interfere with each other, and neither flying over London itself.
London’s total capacity would rise from 4 runways to 6 runways, but spread out over a wider area to the north and south of the city.
Of course, this decision would upset two communities. Upsetting one community is bad enough, but two fighting expansion plans is a political nightmare. There is also the legal issue that Gatwick cannot be expanded immediately, but realistically, it’s going to take a decade to start anything anyway.
Finally, two airports with 3 runways is not as good as one airport with four runways in terms of efficiencies in hub traffic, which is the core function of Heathrow anyway.
So, we come to the Estuary Airport.
An airport in the estuary area — whether build on low-populated land next to the river, or on a new island — offers a considerable number of benefits.
One thing we have to accept though is that a new airport (or airport expansion) cannot be a green development. Airports are an environmental disaster — but a new airport can be less bad than upgrading an existing facility as you take advantage of modern building and planning technologies.
Building the least bad airport from an environmental perspective is expensive, but it is something that frankly the UK can, and should be able to afford – and those skills and developments are ripe for exporting to other countries who are building new airports of their own.
A new development, not just of the airport but also the new housing and services should be based around intensive use of public transport, with local light rail links snaking around newly built housing developments, replicating how the DLR snakes around residential and employment areas in East London.
An airport though is not just humans moving around, but also a lot of cargo. The majority of cargo passing through Heathrow is shifted by road – but a replacement airport can be designed with rail freight at its heart. Indeed, an estuary airport could be unique in this aspect, as there is a vast sea port under construction close to where the airport would end up. A short rail link between the two creates a unified sea and air cargo facility that also ties in with existing freight rail links to the rest of the UK.
Such a location would substantially reduce road traffic from lorry movements below the current levels – another environmental win.
Talking about rail traffic, wherever the airport ends up will need high speed rail links into London. These are not cheap, but do also offer benefits for the wider community as intermediate upgrades along the lines will help developments along the Thames Gateway, a long cherished plan of several governments.
Any new airport should seek to minimise road traffic from cars as well, but frankly there is a limit to what can be done in that aspect. However, high speed rail links to London would intersect with the M25, and it may be possible to encourage park-and-ride services from long stay car parks based at south of Dartford and at Thurrock would be one improvement. Maybe.
All this good news though cannot take away from one big howler of a bad thing – an airport in the estuary will not be good for bird-life. Not at all good.
However, current UK and EU planning regulations require mitigating measures to be taken, and creating alternative mud-flats is not impossibly difficult around the UK’s coastline and rivers (Wallasea Island being a good example). Also, removing Heathrow has to be good for bird life in London. It may be coincidence that the collapse in London’s urban bird populations since the 1980s is attendant with the surge in aircraft flying into Heathrow.
What is needed to be looked at is whether the downside for wetland habitats is so bad that any upside from the creation of replacement wetlands elsewhere and the benefits for city aviation life cannot be overcome.
So in conclusion:
A new estuary airport built to the latest environmental standards with public transport and rail freight at the core of its ground transport options, supporting the redevelopment of the Thames Gateway area – and funded in large part by the long term redevelopment of a closed down Heathrow site.
For that reason, in a society that needs air transport, I conclude that the estuary airport is the best of the available options for the South-East of England.
You may now rip my conclusion to pieces.