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A new airport might tick a lot of our society's boxes

At last, Boris Island is back on the UK infrastructure radar. Well it’s not exactly Boris Island and it’s not exactly back, but we are at least talking about this critical issue again.

The inescapable fact is that the UK needs a replacement for Heathrow, which has now outgrown its geographical location. Its two-runway, five-terminal configuration is now operating at near-full capacity and the spectre of yet more jets circling directly above one of the world’s densest cities is ludicrous.

The point was emphasised at a recent business breakfast hosted by Transport for London. The discussion by business leaders in the room made it all too evident that the UK must radically raise its game when it comes to airport capacity − and fast.

Costing the nation

In short, the government’s failure to present and embrace any kind of tangible aviation policy is costing the nation. Without a commitment to radically enhancing the UK’s hub capacity, we will continue to lose out more as firms are forced to shift their business elsewhere. That means forgetting about Heathrow as a potential solution.

Because regardless of whether or not a third runway at Heathrow is ever politically deliverable − which is isn’t by the way − growing capacity at Heathrow just does not stack up.

There isn’t sufficient geographical space or transport capacity to create the scale of hub facility required to compete with the six runways at Schipol and four at Paris, Frankfurt and Madrid.

“One of our problems is that current thinking around capacity remains rooted in the old world of travel within Europe and the US. But the reality is that the world is rapidly moving on”

One of our problems is that current thinking around capacity remains rooted in the old world of travel within Europe and the US. But the reality is that the world is rapidly moving on. What counts now is access − not just to these traditional destinations but more importantly access to China and Asia.

The point was highlighted by London mayor Boris Johnson in July: “If you want to get to the big growth opportunities in mainland China, you have 31 flights a week from Heathrow, 46 from Schiphol, 64 from Paris and 70 from Frankfurt,” he said.

“If you want to fly to Guangzhou you have 10 direct flights per week from Amsterdam, 12 from Paris, 3 from Frankfurt and none from Heathrow.”

The key right now is to focus on the solution to this overarching problem beyond debating the merits of expanding Heathrow against building a Boris Island.

And the beauty of the Thames Estuary plan is that it isn’t just built around airport capacity (see analysis p10). It is ambitious, but also incorporates tidal power, flood prevention and transport links, all of which are, in their own right, critical infrastructure.

As I have so often said, infrastructure delivery needs vision and the ability to secure political support across the community. A scheme like this new airport is challenging but it ticks a lot of boxes.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (1)

  • Michael Paul

    As a former Essex resident who remembers the plans for the Maplin Sands airport/port project back in the 1970's - which would also have "ticked a lot of the right boxes" - I fear that this idea won't get past the discussion stage either. Unfortunately there don't seem to be enough people convinced that London's need for a new airport is an inescapable fact. In Britain (and to some extent in Germany too) such ambitious visions tend to get bogged down in a mire of arguments, where the short term costs (we can't afford it....!) are often used as a scare tactic, and too little is made of the long term benefits, economic or otherwise. Fortunately for civil engineers other countries are somewhat bolder in their approach, so we do get the chance to build such interesting things - albeit abroad!
    Mike Paul, Stuttgart, Germany

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