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.

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16 comments on “In which I discuss the future of Heathrow Airport…
  1. Ken Robbins says:

    Very well thought through and convincing,I have signed up for your mail and look forward to it.
    I live in Glastonbury but not trippy hippy but a shoe designer working mainly for Merrell the US brand.Very well travelled but want to do more other than work,I hate China!

  2. I hadn’t considered recycling the swamp that is Heath Row, and it’s a point I’d not head made before. And would certainly make a dent in London’s housing shortage. Interesting…

  3. Mike Prior-Jones says:

    There is another option, which seems not to have been discussed very much – a new four-runway airport on the outskirts of Oxford, which could possibly also incorporate the military air transport functions currently carried out by RAF Brize Norton. Details here:

  4. john b says:

    Interesting and thoughtful piece. I totally disagree with it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect it. 🙂

    For me, the main problem here is premise 2, or at least, the conclusions that stem from it.

    If you build an airport that’s a commercial and residential centre, and that’s near London, then it will link up with London. At which point, you *still* have “an airport with its main approach/takeoff over a major city“, because half of the flights will still be going west. The only difference that Estuary Airport makes is that the people who’re subjected to lower-lying aircraft are East & Inner Londoners instead of West & Inner Londoners (you can’t solely take off and land planes to the east, because that’s not how airports work).

    The only solution to the problem in 2, if we accept it as a problem, is to build a new airport that’s too far away from London for it to ever link up, and where planes are mostly going in and out over green belt land. Which points towards Gatwick, Luton, Stansted or new Oxford.

    FWIW, I don’t accept that 2 is a problem, since modern planes crash vastly less often, make vastly less noise, and emit vastly less non-CO2 pollution (NOx, CO, etc – the stuff that makes kids choke when released near them) than previous generations. But if it’s a non-negotiable premise for you, then I don’t think it’s compatible with a new East London hub either.

    I’m also sceptical about the carbon point. Take a look at the area round LHR, and I’m not sure that you’ll really find most buildings are 1970s standard. The nature of the industry means they’re forever being replaced and upgraded (Terminal 3 is now the only piece of LHR passenger infrastructure containing anything at all that dates from before 1986…).

    You also need to consider the CO2 impact of demolishing all of this infrastructure (very little is reusable for non-aviation use, apart from motorways and mainline railways), and then building vast new developments on both sides of the city. While I agree that the CO2 ‘operating expense’ of your setup would be lower than now, the ‘capital expense’ in building it will be vast.

    Finally, there are two time-related problems:

    1) using the Heathrow redevelopment to fund the new airport isn’t completely straightforward, since you’d need to have the new airport completely open, finished and ready before you could even start redeveloping Heathrow. This means the government’s going to be spending around GBP50 billion-ish upfront.

    Let’s say we can build the airport and associated infrastructure over a 20-year period, which is optimistic – we’re adding GBP2.5 billion a year onto the deficit for 20 years even before we consider interest (which is over 2x the annual investment in Crossrail or HS2). Then it’s another five years minimum before Heathrow New Town evens starts generating revenue, and based on the Docklands experience about 25 years before you’re anything close to full.

    This isn’t insurmountable, but it’s fiscally awkward. “In a time of mass austerity and desperate infrastructure need, why are we cutting schools and hospitals and railway improvements in order to move an airport from one side of London to the other, when the existing airport’s private operator is happy to pay out of its own pocket for a new runway?” isn’t a question I’d want to be answering if I were PM.

    2) London needs more airport capacity far sooner than in 20 years’ time. So even if Estuary Airport goes ahead, we’ll still need to do *something* at Luton, Gatwick, Stansted or Oxford that can open within the next decade. Which makes it harder to dodge the ‘upsetting communities anyway’ problem.

    If the aim is to shut Heathrow in about 2033, we could go for a major expansion at Stansted immediately (combined with HS passenger rail and new railfreight links to London) to add capacity, which could be finished by 2023, then a major expansion at Gatwick that finishes in about 2033 and allows Heathrow to close.

  5. John says:

    I agree an estuary airport is best, with enough money reserved to buy and flood land elsewhere so the marshland and bird life actually benefits.

    The air/railfreight argument is foolish. Anyone who pays the premium for air freight doesn’t want things languishing on trains, they want it in lorries asap.

    Travel times to the airport will rise as its away from people, so it might be viewed as a interchange hub, good for business, but not the British, so harder to sell

  6. Ewan says:

    Interesting post Ian. I think that if the location of any new airport was to be determined on geographic sense then the estuary wouldn’t be near the top of the list – but it seems to be the least objectionable location at the moment, as just about everywhere else has a greater population density or (quite understandably) more NIMBYs.

    Given that we’ve already got one to the south, and one to the northeast, the best balance would be one to the northwest – Oxford – and link it with HS2. I don’t see that happening though, given the campaigns already being waged against the rail line.

  7. Andrea Marchesetti says:

    Very interesting post. The Town and Country Planning Association also made a similar suggestion to redevelop Heathrow and turn it into a garden city

  8. Colin says:

    Interesting thoughts. To satisfy John B above, any estuary airport would be much further from central London than Heathrow – of the proposed locations, the closest is about twice as far away. But I do agree that we need to do something much sooner than 2030 or 2040.

    Although it will be a shame to lose the great view of central London that you get when landing at Heathrow. (When it’s sunny, anyway…)

  9. Dan says:

    I like the idea. I’m not a fan of the estuary airport, as I have family on the North Kent Coast. So, a NIMBY, basically. I have a couple of thoughts:

    1) I’m not sure of the value of that land as a ‘new docklands’ if the nearest airport is Gatwick or Luton … at least Docklands has City Airport and an extensive transport system in the DLR that connects externally and internally. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t build a Heathrow Light Railway, or my preferred approach – extend the Business Car Park Personal Rapid Transit thing. But, it remains stuck on a single spur of railway, and a very very distant spur of tube, that some of the brightest transport minds have failed to make a better connection to. Airtrack was stymied by the need to integrate with the old system of twin-tracks and level crossings in south-west London. Admittedly, the capacity of transport requirements to the area would drop significantly, but that leads me on to …

    2) I’m willing to accept that more capacity is needed, and I’m almost willing to accept that the Estuary is a reasonable location, but to bump up the current (very sketchy) plans to account for replacing Heathrow entirely would mean sticking a cork in the mouth of the Thames, which I think is a step too far. You’d also have to legislate to stop people coming by car. At least Heathrow is situated in a position where the majority of the UK can travel there without going through London – in 2011 almost 60% of people using the airport – 27 million – arrived by ‘Private’ means, and that doesn’t include public road transport. (I can’t break that down further because the CAA charge for that data!). Obviously, that is a situation that needs to change regardless of whether the airport stays in Heathrow or not, but funnelling a lot of that traffic for an extra 75 miles, or according to Google 1 hour 40 minutes of driving (I’m assuming Heathrow->Allhallows for guesstimate purposes – coincidentally exactly the same distance going via the North M25 and A13 to Canvey Island) – well, lets say about a fifth (I think that’s pretty generous) of that 27 million have to make that additional journey, the M25 and western A2 (or western A13) aren’t going to handle an extra 20k vehicles a day particularly well. Replicating the 12 lane stretch around from junctions 12-15, which handily also has a big ‘pipe’ into the airport in the shape of the M4, is going to take up another nice chunk of greenbelt land whichever way you send them.

    Anyway. I’ll shut up now.

  10. ChrisMitch says:

    I think we are stuck with Heathrow as it is for the forseeable future.
    Building a new airport from scratch on a greenfield site would be too expensive.
    I would also challenge your first assumption – I think flying will become more expensive as green taxes are introduced and fuel costs rise, thus providing a form of rationing by price.
    It is more likely, in my opinion, that both Stansted and Gatwitck get upgraded a bit, so that we have 3 reasonable sized, but still a bit shabby, airports around London.

  11. StephenC says:

    I was initially attracted by the Esturary, but have now decided against. “More airport capacity is needed” and “Heathrow airport is in the wrong place”. Both true, but don’t lead to some of your conclusions (and realistically there’s really nothing much we can do about Heathrow).

    Firstly, the Heathrow land has value, but not that much value. It would be on the wrong side of London for an Esturary airport and its hard to justify another CBD there. (CBDs work via the agglomeration effect which is partly due to allowing a very large pool of people to access jobs, critically *without* requiring them to move home. Heathrow is unlikely to ever be as accessible from peoples homes as the West End, City or even Docklands)

    Secondly, as others have pointed out, closing Heathrow results in massive compensations to home owners, businesses (all those hotels!) and much more. That would swallow up the value of the land alone.

    Thirdly, Gatwick has needed a second runway for many years as the world’s busiest single runway airport. It serves Sussex, east Surrey and Kent as well as South London, and is an effective location where noise for a second runway would not be a major issue (I lived in the area, the flightpath is pretty rural). A third runway seems unlikely though, nor is it needed. Realistically, an Esturary hub would need to reduce Gatwick flights as well – more compensation.

    Fourthly, the Esturary isn’t very viable. Its airspace would interfere with Amsterdam. Its the wrong side of London for the rest of the country. It still causes noise issues for London, just a different set of Londoners. And the transport access would never work.

    Think of the last few times you flew. How did you get to the airport? In 90% of my trips I drive or take a taxi. Thats because I travel in the morning or late at night (no trains at 3.30am, nor will there ever be, and nor will building new lines help). Or perhaps its because I had luggage. Or perhaps its because I had a family to transport. While I may be pro-public transport, and making that an option where possible, we must be realistic – the car frequently wins for airport journeys and for good reasons, not bad ones. Thus, Heathrow, Luton or somewhere in Bucks are by far the best locations when considering how people actually get to airports and *want* to get to airports (rather than what planners want).

    Finally, does London need a hub? A 4 runway hub is based on the principal of flights in and flights out connecting to allow weird journeys, in the meantime providing a critical mass for destinations that might not otherwise be served. Amsterdam and Frankfurt are in good locations for hubs to Asia, because western Europe flights are headed in the right direction already. London is only suitable for flights in the right direction from Scotland and Ireland – too small a market, or the US – too many options already and don’t fly our way to Asia. Forget the hub, London is big enough to be a “destination”. Like New York, people want to come to London because its London. We just need runways to land them Gatwick vs Heathrow vs Stansted is a relatively minor issue. (And multiple options provides resilience).

    So, two runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted (and maybe Luton) will suffice for London. Any larger upgrade (3 runways) must be drivable, which means a large population in the local catchment area of a 60 minute drive, which points at Heathrow (maybe moved 2km west on top of the M25) or Luton (moved closer to the M1). The Esturary is pie in the sky I’m afraid, and for lots of very good reasons.

  12. Tom says:

    Continuing from Twitter earlier, many of my points have been made above, particularly by John B and StephenC, but here goes anyway:

    1) The ‘wrong place’ argument. There isn’t a black-and-white concept of ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ places for an airport, for the simple reason that there are complex and often mutually contradictory variables at work here. My preferred simplification (which is admittedly too simple) is that there are good places for an *airport* and good places for *runways* and they’re very rarely the same place. An airport needs to be accessible for passengers and freight and near suitably built up areas to house workers. Runways need to have unrestricted flat ground and as far as possible as few neighbours as can be arranged. 100 miles out to sea is a great spot for some runways, for example, as is the interior of, say, Greenland. Or Australia. This is one reason the USAF use big flat bits of the nearly empty western US for secret aircraft tests.

    This fundamentally irreconcilable dichotomy was at the heart of the split decision of the Roskill Commission, with the majority opinion favouring the best airport site (which was and remains north west of London somewhere in the M4-M40-M1 wedge) and Colin Buchanan favouring, for environmental reasons, the best site for runways of out beyond Southend. Eventually Buchanan’s airport idea was adopted only to be sunk by a combination of the oil crisis, recession and the astonishing cost of providing sufficient surface access (two motorways and a dedicated four-track railway). This latter is still the best reason not to support an estuary airport.

    2) Housing – Heathrow supports, indirectly, probably 250,000 people in west London and the Thames Valley – this is based on a rough estimate of 70,000 workers and a multiplier of 3 and a bit for dependents. That’s a London borough moving to within easy travelling distance of your new site. You can’t put them offshore, so that’s got to go in Kent or Essex, upfront, with suitable incentives to move from west London plus public services, schools, hospitals etc. ready to go from day one.

    3) Economy – arguably you’ll be looking at substantial economic mitigation for the resultant devastated west London economy. This latter (and I work in it, so may be biased) contains some of the world’s leading companies plus the emerging agglomeration of TV companies in London (which is worth a post in itself, actually). and by closing their local international airport and removing a big part of the local economy you’ve just destroyed a chunk of the value of companies with major recent investments in buildings (as an exercise, plot the head offices of BP, McLaren, GSK, BSkyB, Cisco on a map some time). Heathrow isn’t just an airport, it’s a big old wodge of GDP.

    4) Politics – There’s only one political system that really allows the combination of major infrastructure projects, mass population movements and the central direction of industry, and it isn’t ours. This is probably the one where it falls down – just because certain politicians have an emperor fetish and a secret fascination with Soviet command and control doesn’t mean we should actually pay them any attention.

    For my own part, the order goes:
    1) Do nothing on the basis that predictions of future air transport are about as reliable as, well, predictions of future road use
    2) Allocate Heathrow short haul slots as franchises with a single operator for a defined period on the rail model, rather than competitively (i.e. fly one big plane London-Edinburgh instead of two smaller ones). Long haul you leave to the market, that’s not where the capacity gets eaten. Losing bidders are welcome to start a railway company on HS2, open up from Stansted or use the…
    3) …second runway at Gatwick, which is the Civil Service long term option anyway, and for good reason. One problem is that Gatwick’s only really suitable for south of London destinations, but that’s most of the world, so fair enough, and if you want to go north there’s a…
    3) …second runway at Stansted, by which time the oil price may well be such as to preclude much other than long haul ultra efficient aircraft (787, A350, A380 derivatives) from making much of a go of it and we’ve got a sensible immigration policy that opens up more of Europe to high speed rail (OK, I’m really stretching it now).
    4) Build a hub at RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, not just because it’s well connected, near the centre of the country and not far from HS2 and the M40 but because the flight path goes over Jeremy Clarkson’s house.

  13. Ken says:

    Nice article.

    But personally I don’t think you need to close Heathrow – it is already running at over capacity leading to airlines wasting fuel in holding patterns, and it is very wasteful in so many ways to close an airport as a whole ecosystem is destroyed. Closing it would not generate much money.

    On the other hand keeping it open would ensure we have the best capacity of any city in the world once a new airport is also built.

    The answer is to build a new airport as you say and to create a superb transport system linking all ‘London’ airports so they they together become one giant hub with enough capacity to take us to 2100. A starter would be to provide free buses between airports – this would encourage passenger transfer and would not cost much.

    This would allow the new airport to be built in stages. Stage one could relieve Heathrow of 20 per cent of its capacity, making it a decent airport again. Stage two would take another 20 per cent and so on….but during this time Heathrow would be allowed to focus on airlines that need a real hub airport and it could grow that business. The fact that it would have plenty of capacity would make it even more attractive to those airlines as it could almost guarantee take off and landing without delays. This saves airlines money and allows Heathrow to charge the highest rates.

    The Thames Estuary seems like the best idea as it would give a further boost to East London which has been kickstarted by the Olympics but another possibility is expanding Gatwick – which although terrible for the people nearby is logical.

    One small point. Heathrow isn’t that close to London and its closeness is not unusual. Many cities have an airport within 8 miles of the centre.

    The airline industry is peddling the myth of the hub airport. The truth is no city can really provide the ultimate hub anymore. The budget airlines have proved that what drives most fliers is cost and they don’t care about going to a hub airport – they want to get their cheaply and on time.

    The hub airport is the preserve of the business and first class flyer. So let’s let them have heathrow and create a world class alternative that caters for everything else.

    The fact is Western governments now derive huge revenue from taxes on flying, so they have a vested interest in seeing passenger numbers rise despite the environmental argument against.

    So lets bite the bullet and build a new airport in tandem with an aggressive campaign to make Heathrow the best in Europe for the long term.

  14. Queen Pauline says:

    As hs2 is going to make Manchester airport only 58 minutes from London, could expansion there be considered? Could Manchester AIrport be the new Heathrow and serve London??

  15. Paul D says:

    I used to be in favour of the Estuary airport ideas, but now I think this idea is the best of all, it just somehow doesn’t get much coverage:

    All possible options require compromise somewhere. But perhaps this is the best compromise of all?