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Row breaks out over estuary airport rejection

A row has erupted following the decision of the independent commission investigating UK aviation capacity to throw out proposals for a Thames Estuary airport.

The Davies Commission decided against shortlisting for further development proposals for an Estuary airport in December.

It argued that insufficient evidence had been presented to support the scheme.

Instead it said that two options at Heathrow and one at Gatwick were in the running to provide a required new runway by 2030.

But this week the London Mayor’s office hit back at Commission chairman Sir Howard Davies’ claim that there was not “a lot more information” that mayor Boris Johnson could provide on the scheme.

Anti Heathrow expansion

Johnson had favoured the creation of an Estuary airport or expansion of Stansted, and is explicitly against expansion at Heathrow.

Johnson’s aviation adviser Daniel Moylan told the RunwaysUK conference this week that Johnson had “reacted angrily” to the news that an Estuary airport had been excluded from the shortlist and that he was “puzzled” and”profoundly disappointed” by the commission’s ruling.

He also claimed Johnson was not suitably consulted.

Project assessment criteria

The Davies Commission last week began consulting about its proposed framework for assessing in detail the Heathrow and Gatwick runway proposals it shortlisted last month.
Deadline for responses is 28 February and a final revision of the proposals is due in the spring. When the framework is published, the shortlisted scheme promoters will be invited to submit their updated scheme designs for scrutiny within six weeks.
Commission chairman Sir Howard Davies explained that what the commission was now looking for could be broken down into five components:

  • The strategic argument Including how a scheme will address future UK aviation capacity and connectivity needs and how it will generate regional connectivity
  • An airport masterplan The airfield’s design and mode of operation including airspace requirements
  • Engineering plans Including costings, energy and utilities requirements, geoenvironmental issues and surface development plans
  • Mitigation plans Limiting impact on the environment and local communities
  • A development strategy

How the initial capacity increase will be funded and project managed to delivery.
The commission then intends to publish evidence-based cases and feasibility assessments for each scheme for formal consultation in the autumn.
Davies said there would likely be an “element of trade off” in the schemes, in that it was “highly unlikely that one scheme will dominate all the others in every respect”.

Responding to Davies’ criticism of the information provided for the Estuary scheme, Moylan said: “In fact there is a lot more the mayor can offer.”

Speaking earlier at the same event, Davies justified the commission’s decision.

“The lack of evidence for the scheme was commented on by researchers. More was needed,” he said.

He accepted that the Estuary airport plan was “a once in a century option” that was “bound to capture the imagination”
but that it had many challenges and risks.

These included the environmental challenge of protecting habitats and managing flood risks; the transportation challenge of linking the airport to London, 50km away; and the economic challenge of the “rather daunting” £80bn to £100bn cost.

Davies explained that the door had been left open to backers of an Estuary airport, with further work being allowed to hone the proposal.

“We were unable to reach a final decision on an inner estuary option,” said Davies.

“When we looked at it we asked: ‘Can we sensibly and prudently rule this in or sensibly and prudently rule this out?’ We concluded that we could do neither based on the information that we had at our disposal.

‘Defensible and soundly based decisions’

“And what we absolutely want to do, need to do in this process is ensure that all the decisions we make are defensible and soundly based and that is why we are doing the additional work.”

Davies rejected suggestions that allowing the additional work gave the scheme unfair advantage. He told NCE he had sought legal advice on the matter.

“The Estuary option, were it to be shortlisted, will have to go through the same process as the others,” he said.

“We have been most scrupulous about that and we have taken legal advice.”

“That legal advice suggests that what we are doing is defensible and that there will be a level playing field for all options.”

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