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Boost for Thames airport

Multi-billion pound plans for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary to replace Heathrow were given a boost this week with London mayor Boris Johnson’s launch of a new report into the economic benefits of the proposal.

‘A compelling vision’

Publication followed the launch of the Halcrow/Foster Thames Hub proposal earlier this month (NCE 6 November).

Johnson stopped short of backing any specific scheme, pointing out instead that the vital step was to persuade the government that investment in a new hub airport was key to the nation’s economic future.

“We are suffering from a poverty of ambition”

Boris Johnson

“Lord Foster has produced a compelling vision and of course there are other proposals on effectively the same theme,” he said, making reference to, among others, a previous offshore scheme worked up with ICE past President Douglas Oakervee and nicknamed “Boris Island”.

“What matters is that you have a realistic solution. It is a good thing to have multiple contenders at this stage,” said Johnson.

New report

The mayor’s comments came at the launch of Transport for London’s new report A new Airport for London at a discussion organised by the Institute of Directors (IOD).

As the second in its series setting out the case for new airport capacity in the capital, the report is intended to influence the government’s forthcoming sustainable framework for aviation, due out in April next year.

But, coming just a week ahead of chancellor George Osborne’s critical Autumn Statement, it is also intended to secure wider political support for the project.

“How do we raise £50bn and get the planning system out of the way? Very hard in a democratic place like the UK”

Hudson Institute director Irwin Stelzer

Johnson was adamant that any pans to increase existing capacity at Heathrow with a third runway would be a “catastrophic error”. It would, he said, introduce significant environmental and social problems and not solve capacity shortfalls on routes between the UK and China and the emerging economies of Latin America.

With Heathrow now at 98.5% capacity, Johnson said the UK’s only hub airport was already unable to take advantage of increased economic activity around the world. Heathrow, he said, could still exist in future, but in a different, regional airport role.

“We are suffering a poverty of ambition,” he said. “We need to think big and have a long term solution.”

Fundraising will be tough, says economist

But Irwin Stelzer, an economist and director of the US think-tank the Hudson Institute, told the IOD meeting that raising the estimated £50bn needed for such a scheme might be harder than anticipated.

Stelzer said that, rather than plough ahead with a new hub, regulations limiting capacity at Heathrow should first be relaxed. A third runway should then be built to cope with shorter term demand increases.

“We have to look at the problems that Johnson has quickly disposed of,” he said. “How do we raise £50bn and get the planning system out of the way? Very hard in a democratic place like the UK.”

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