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Long-term plans in a short-term society

The UK needs to develop a new multi-mode transport hub in the south east to become a global economic powerhouse of the 21st century. At least that was the message last week from a group of engineers and architects who have become the latest to join the lobbyists for a new Thames Estuary transport development.

A sneak preview of the Thames Hub plan — developed by consultant Halcrow and architect Foster+Partners — reveals a new estuary airport and transport links to the capital.

Halcrow/Foster+Partners Thames Hub plan

Halcrow/Foster+Partners Thames Hub plan

Sound familiar? There is little protest from anyone involved that this progresses previous proposals by Sir Terry Farrell and London mayor Boris Johnson (aided by past ICE president Doug Oakervee) for regeneration east of London and a new airport on artificial islands.

However, the Halcrow-Foster team is arguably more ambitious and has come up with an all-encompassing plan that reaches for not only a new 150M passenger airport to replace Heathrow, but adds in rail freight connections between the UK’s main sea ports, a new flood barrier and a tidal energy barrage.

This latest plan came about via Halcrow and Foster+Partners self-funding the £100,000 study. And unlike Johnson’s “Boris Island” vision, this one begins with rail, not the airport. “Those of us working on it see the rail links as central,” says Halcrow group development director Mark Brown. Foster+Partners partner Huw Thomas adds that the new flood barrier “seems inevitable” and was thus included. The addition of the tidal barrage seems perhaps unsurprising given that Halcrow involved itself in resurrecting the government-panned Severn Barrage.

By the time these core parts were thought through, the team had most of the infrastructure that would be needed for an airport, says Thomas.

Too ambitious? Some may question the wisdom of coming out with such a grand plan that comes with a price tag of around £50bn and a programme stretching 50 years. But scale is precisely the point, says the team.

“Like other design consultancies, architects and engineers we’re global — we all see what everyone else is doing and we see what we in the UK need to do to compete globally,” says Thomas. And it’s only of the scale of what is happening more and more in places like China and the Middle East that smack of the UK being left behind, he and his teammates suggest.

There’s phenomenal potential for a trade corridor right through the UK that connects to Europe

Huw Thomas, Foster+Partners

Brown adds that the team is “aware” that increasingly global projects are getting larger and more complex and clients are looking to “package more and more infrastructure into megaprojects”.

And the scale is important on a domestic level with the project leaders keen to stress that this is not a London-centric plan but rather incorporates the needs of, and rewards with economic benefits, the rest of the country.

“There’s phenomenal potential for a trade corridor right through the UK that connects to Europe,” Thomas says, adding that with a Thames Hub there is an ability to create connections with the manufacturing lifeblood further afield in the UK, via the West Coast Main Line for example. In the other direction, there is potential to create the rail link to Europe via the Channel Tunnel as well as capitalising on the air cargo capacity from the “new Heathrow”.

In principle the plan may not be too ambitious after all. But there is one small problem — and that is the current government, which has all but ruled out the Boris Island plan and is vehemently opposed to such airport expansion in the south east.

While the Thames Hub contrasts in scale to Boris Island, Transport for London deputy chairman Daniel Moylan says it can only be a good thing to be talking about such proposals in the face of adversity.

“Boris completely welcomes the architects, engineers and designers getting together to come up with this kind of proposal,” Moylan says. “But the government should wake up and recognise that it is a good thing too.”

The next step is for the Halcrow-Foster partnership to release the full details of its plan. This is due next month, as is the publication of the scoping document — ahead of the economic case by the end of the year — for Johnson’s plan.

The horizon looks set to become more dominated by Thames regeneration chatter over the coming months, but it remains to be seen whether central government will be swayed by mayoral enthusiasm.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Tim Swift

    I love this plan - not aesthetically - but certainly for it's vision and scope. I for one applaud Halcrow/Foster+Partners for their efforts in bringing multiple fields together to create the possibility of an effective, cohesive infrastructure plan with guts.

    Please, sell it well - I look forward to getting involved sometime in my lifetime!

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