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Thames Estuary back as airport hub contender

The companies behind two Thames Estuary hub airport schemes have this week joined forces to create a £47bn alternative to rival Foster + Partners’ Isle of Grain proposal.

The team behind the original Boris Island scheme, The Thames Estuary Research & Development Company (TESTRAD), and leading UK architect Gensler, which was working up its own London Jubilee Airport scheme, have now pooled resources and unveiled their mega London Britannia Airport scheme and submitted it to the Davies Commission.

The commission, chaired by former Financial Services Authority executive chairman Sir Howard Davies, is examining the “scale and timing” of requirements for additional airport capacity. The deadline for making submissions closed on Friday, with Davies due to make his recommendations in July 2015, two months after the next General Election.

Both original TESTRAD and Gensler proposals were based offshore in the Kentish Flats deep in the Thames Estuary, but Gensler’s plans for six floating runways have been abandoned in favour of TESTRAD’s preference for fixed runways.

TESTRAD director Bridget Rosewell told NCE: “We were both working separately on similar schemes in the same area of the Kentish Flats and it seemed crazy not to work together.

“We had long discussions about floating versus fixed and decided that fixing them was essential to security; making sure they couldn’t move.”

At £47bn the Britannia airport would come in at some £23bn more expensive than its onshore Isle of Grain rival, with the extra costs largely down to the fact that a tunnel would be needed to link the offshore runways to the terminal building in Ebbsfleet near Gravesend.

Estuary options

London mayor Boris Johnson says expanding Heathrow is “crackers” and wants to replace it with housing. He has tabled three options: London Britannia, a four-runway hub on the Isle of Grain or expanding Stansted Airport. With cost ranging from £23bn and £49bn Johnson has said the Isle of Grain scheme is his preferred option.

London Britannia

Britannia Airport

Partnership between original Boris Island backers TESTRAD and UK architects Gensler. Between four and six runways would be built on the Kentish flats linked by a tunnel to Ebbsfleet at a cost of £49bn.

The Isle of Grain

Foster + Partners’ four-runway onshore scheme is isolated enough to allow it to operate 24 hours a day but only 26 minutes away from St Pancras. Working with CH2M Hill, Fosters has costed the scheme at around £23bn. Environmentalists have expressed dismay at the project, claiming it will devastate the Isle’s renowned bird population.

Goodwin Sands

Situated 3km off the east Kent coast at Deal and some 100km from the capital, the scheme is the brainchild of marine engineering consultancy Beckett Rankine. The most unobtrusive of all the major proposals, the airport would be built on a 25km2 site situated on a largely submerged sandbank with plenty of room to cater for future expansion.

Despite the price hike industry expert and director of Civic Patterns consultancy Rod MacDonald described the new partnership between TESTRAD and Gensler as “excellent news”:

MacDonald said: “There is an enormous amount of good thinking behind that project and you have to be able to express that good thinking in a way people can understand and Gensler can help achieve that.”

There is also a third Thames Estuary airport contender still in the mix; Beckett Rankine’s £39.2bn Goodwin Sands scheme which lies to the north east of Dover (NCE 20 December 2012).

However in his submission to the Commission London mayor Boris Johnson omitted the Goodwin Sands scheme, focusing instead on three options for creating a four-runway hub: building the London Britannia or Isle of Grain airports in the Estuary or expanding Stansted.

Johnson specifically opposes expansion of Heathrow, which remains the option favoured by many aviation experts. Its owners have proposed a building a third runway at one of three sites just outside the airport’s existing boundaries.

Gatwick is also pushing for expansion by building a second runway.

Project leads from each of the Thames Estuary proposals were keen to point out flaws in rivals’ schemes.

Rosewell conceded that the revamped Boris Island scheme was considerably more expensive than the others, but she said the use of Ebbsfleet as a terminal was a trump card because of its “excellent connectivity” with London.

However, Foster + Partners partner Huw Thomas dismissed Rosewell’s claim countering: “We have the same transport links. Bridget goes past us to get to the island.”

Thomas, who said his scheme would bring in a “pot of money to address any environmental concerns”, added: “What are the risks with having an umbilical chord link?” Is it really worth building a new channel tunnel?”

Beckett Rankine director Tim Beckett said he “had a lot of time” for TESTRAD co-founder and High Speed 2 chairman Doug Oakervee.

“I had no time for Gensler’s floating scheme; it was away with the fairies. It was a publicity stunt, albeit one that has worked.

“With Doug on board he may now bring a sense of reality to the scheme,” said Beckett.

What the airports want


Heathrow south west option

Unsurprisingly, Heathrow is against a rival hub airport, the option favoured by London Mayor Boris Johnson. Instead the airport is keen to convince Howard Davies’ commission that a third runway to be delivered by 2029 is the best way forward.

Three possible sites for the £14bn to £16bn runway have been submitted to the commission; two sites to the north and one to the southwest.

With 80 million passengers a year currently passing through the airport, a third runway would, say the airport, boost passenger numbers by between 43 and 50 million, with the number of flights rising from the current 460,000 a year to around 740,000.

However, building the runway which would be between 2.5km and 3km long will mean the razing of up to 2,700 homes as well as other compulsory purchase orders and re-jigging parts of the nearby M25.

It seems the battle lines are drawn. The Board of Airline Representatives said no other proposal so far on airport capacity could “deliver the UK’s hub airport capacity quicker, at the right cost, or in the right place for airlines and their passengers”.

But Johnson and residents’ groups have promised to fight the proposal, with Johnson describing any expansion as: “…politically, environmentally and socially unacceptable”.


Gatwick airport

Like Heathrow, Gatwick (owned by Global Infrastructure Partners) has also told the commission that it should be allowed to build an additional runway at a cost of up to £9bn.

But unlike its London rival the West Sussex-based airport wants to spread the load among a ‘constellation’ of two or three two-runway airports, possibly teaming up with Stansted or Heathrow.

Already the world’s most busy single-runway airport, Gatwick says its three proposals for a second runway up to 1000m to the south of the existing strip would boost passenger numbers from 34 million a year to between 67 and 87 million depending on which option is selected.

Although land for a second runway has been secured since 2003, a legal agreement prevents any new build until 2019 and despite claims that its expansion would have less of an environmental impact than a three-runway Heathrow, Gatwick faces stiff opposition from local residents and environmentalists.

Opting for the expansion of Gatwick would also mean that at some point a high speed link to Heathrow could be needed; a piece of infrastructure that would add significantly to costs.

Last week world renowned architect Sir Terry Farrell who is helping Gatwick draw up its proposals caused a storm in a teacup when he likened Boris Johnson’s plan for a Thames Estuary airport to the grandiose visions of Nazi architect Albert Speer.

Farrell told London’s Evening Standard: “When people say that you have got to have vision, well Hitler had vision.

“Vision can be a madness where you get so obsessed you throw everything you have got on the roulette table and hope you got it right.”



Charlie Cornish, chief executive of Manchester Airports Group (MAG) has launched a two-prong strategy for what is currently the UK’s fourth busiest airport.

One option is for a second runway and the embracing of the ‘constellation’ approach favoured by Gatwick.

But it is Cornish’s second proposal for a four-runway airport to boost passenger numbers from a modest 17 million to a whopping 160 million that has grabbed all the attention.

The CEO’s figures are based on Stansted stealing the limelight from Heathrow and becoming a hub; an idea that is one of three options to receive backing from the London Mayor.

Drawn up by Make architects, the up to-£18bn plan includes a 20km extension to Crossrail 2 from Epping to the airport and also the extension of Crossrail 1 from either Stratford or Canary Wharf;  the latter requiring a 11km tunnel and then new track alongside the M11.

Whether it’s a single new runway or a four-strip hub MAG faces stiff opposition from well-organised Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) campaigners.

SSE Chairman Peter Sanders said: “With the airport currently operating at only half its permitted capacity a second runway – never mind a four-runway hub double the size of Heathrow today – is completely unnecessary on business grounds and it would be completely unacceptable on environmental grounds.”


Birmingham airport’s chief executive, Paul Kehoe has said the UK needs a “network of long-haul national airports” to help “rebalance” the UK economy.

And Kehoe reckons that by building a single extra runway his airport, which currently has 9m passengers a year, could be part of that network, boosting those passenger numbers to a potential 70m a year.

The second runway would also require a new terminal and any future prospects of the scheme are intrinsically entwined with that of High Speed 2. That is because initial proposals suggest that the airport and station would be sited together to the east of the existing airport on the southbound edge of the M42.

Kehoe has commissioned a series of adverts underlying what he sees as the importance of the airport to UK manufacturing including one featuring William Wang, managing director of MG Motor UK, who asks: “The UK’s manufacturing base is not near Heathrow. So why do I have to fly from there?”

However, independent air industry expert Laurie Price told the BBC that Birmingham suffered from apathy from the airlines: Laurie said: “Birmingham is great, but it’s only got one runway. Locationally it’s terrific. But there is nothing to stop any airline flying into Birmingham today. If the market isn’t there, the airlines won’t go there.”

Work on extending the existing runway for long-haul flights has already begun.

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