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Thames Hub: Bold vision for infrastructure

A £50bn proposal this week by consultant Halcrow and architect Foster + Partners for a new Thames Hub is a bold attempt to deliver a much needed integrated infrastructure strategy to the UK. Antony Oliver explains the plan.

In the introduction to this week’s report detailing the ambitious Thames Hub proposal for the Thames Estuary, renowned architect Lord Foster highlights the sorry state of the UK’s recent infrastructure ambition.

“We need to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th century forebears if we are to establish a modern transport and energy infrastructure in Britain for this century and beyond,” he says.

Courage and political will

If we don’t now find the courage and political will to invest in infrastructure, he adds: “We are denying future generations to come. We are rolling over and saying we are no longer competitive.”

It is a point reiterated by consultant Halcrow group board director David Kerr in the report. Britain ignores development and investment in infrastructure at its peril, he warns.

“We need to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th century forebears if we are to establish a modern transport and energy infrastructure in Britain for this century and beyond”

Lord Foster

The Halcrow/Foster team hopes that with £150bn in economic benefit to offer, the Thames Hub report will kick-start discussion and, of course action, by politicians to turn around the decades of inaction on this vital issue.

It is “recognition that the UK’s infrastructure capacity needs to increase dramatically to meet the demands of a fast-growing population and an evolving global economy”.

The headline grabbing part of the Thames Hub proposal is of course the plan to construct a new 150M passenger a year, four runway hub airport on reclaimed land off the Isle of Grain on the Hoo Peninsula in the estuary.

Such a scheme has of course been talked about since London mayor Boris Johnson commissioned past ICE president Douglas Oakervee to carry out a feasibility study into a possible estuary airport - unshakeably dubbed Boris Island - back in 2008 (NCE 11 November 2008). This work revealed the need for much wider investigation of options (NCE 22 October 2009).

Passport to development

“Look around the world and you see the way in which China and Latin America are investing heavily in infrastructure,” he says. “They see it as a passport to strong economic development.” Oakervee, his partner on the project, and economist Bridget Rosewell, remains involved in the Thames Hub.

And clearly this part of the plan remains key to the overall integrated plan - it will after all deliver £35bn of the promised benefit.

The debate over whether or not to construct a third runway at Heathrow, the UK’s only current hub airport, is now effectively politically dead, not least since new transport secretary Justine Greening led a high profile constituency campaign against expansion. UK aviation policy is in a difficult place.

Threat to competitiveness

Yet we also see that by failing to address the UK’s lack of aviation policy the nation risks becoming less competitive as airlines shift their hub business away from over capacity and outdated London to the new hub facilities at Amsterdam’s Schiphol, Frankfurt and Paris.

“An integrated approach embraces everything…rail, freight, access to airports and aviation”

Bridget Rosewell

And the world is changing, moving away from the need for simply transatlantic access. Now critical is the need to boost the number of flights from the UK into and from the emerging nations and regions such as China, Latin America, Eastern Europe and India. Here the UK remains poorly served.

The report says this failure is costing the UK economy £1.2bn a year with the cost of doing nothing perhaps as high as £14bn over the next 10 years.

However, according to the Thames Hub team, the priority is to move the debate away from a simplistic choice between a third runway at Heathrow and Boris Island towards the integrated infrastructure benefits that are potentially on offer to the UK.

Vital integration

As Rosewell, chair of economic consultant Volterra who also contributed to the proposal, points out, such an integrated approach to major transport networks is vital for commuting, for inter-city linkages, for connections to other countries and for the movement of goods.

“That embraces everything: rail, freight, access to airports and aviation,” she says in the report. “Getting the jigsaw to come together is what matters.”

Hence the focus in the Hub plan on the new orbital high speed rail line, a four-track scheme following the line of the M25 north of London.

This will form a link between London’s radial lines, the proposed High Speed 2 to the Midlands and the North, the Thames Estuary ports, High Speed 1 to the Channel Tunnel and European networks.

The expectation is that this will enable passengers to travel the 55km from London to the airport in just 30 minutes but also from Manchester in just 1 hour and 50 minutes. With 60% of passengers arriving by train, the new airport station will be capable of handling 300M passengers a year - the busiest in the UK.

Yet important though it is to whisk passengers in and out of the airport, it is the freight enhancements that the report predicts will generate the bulk of the predicted £35bn transport returns.

Rail connections

By linking the UK ports at Felixstowe, Tilbury, London Gateway, Southampton and further north at Manchester and Liverpool by rail connections, the bottleneck caused by London is removed. As a result we will, says the report, see the current 80% of freight travelling by road fall to 50%.

Integration of infrastructure also extends in the plan to using the new rail corridors as so-called “technical spines”. Purpose built conduits for power, data and water, the report estimates, would enable 45% of England’s population to be within 30km of a spine, boosting efficiency and bringing updated utility and data infrastructure to the masses at low cost.

A new estuary crossing is also at the heart of the plan providing not only a transport link but also the critical new flood defence demanded by London against sea level rise predicted up to 2100 and beyond.

Naturally such a barrier would present the logical place to site a hydropower electricity generation scheme and, coupled with a dedicated tidal power array proposed alongside the airport, is predicted to produce up to 1,600GWhrs per year of zero-carbon clean energy to power the airport and 250,000 homes across the region.

The final piece in the jigsaw is the need to safeguard the delicate environment of the estuary and to this end the report proposes a comprehensive environmental mitigation strategy.

Funding options

Of course the key to this ambitious vision becoming a reality is funding. Various options are put forward by the report as alternatives to public funding including investment from overseas, such as sovereign wealth funds.

However, the report points out that to enable such private or overseas investment “significant changes will likely be needed to the existing UK delivery and approvals systems” such as speeding up planning, improving coordination between agencies and establishing longer-term strategic planning so as to reduce political risk.

“Further studies will enable the project to be developed in more detail,” it adds. “It is hoped that the Thames Hub proposal will stimulate interest in how the UK should plan major infrastructure improvements. The team welcomes a debate about how this challenge can be met.”

Readers' comments (2)


    Anthony Oliver, Doug Oakervee and Lord Foster. Shame on you! Get off your metropolitan backsides and visit the rest of the United Kingdom outside the comfort of London and see the real world.

    The Port of Manchester - slated to benefit from the infrastructure links to the airport proposed - closed in the early 1990s and is now called Salford Quays! The Manchester Ship Canal is now a drainage channel!

    I hope the rest of the report is better researched than this.

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  • I fear that this is another architect's 'look at me' concept proposal. I wonder why anyone would want to connect all of our ports together? Is it to promote the UK as a trans-shipment centre, in at one port and out at the other? The only benefit I see from that idea is that continental European exporters may see a short time saving gained by using the Channel Tunnel and the orbital line to shift containers for loading at say Southampton or Liverpool. What the authors have missed about high-speed passenger lines is that they can penetrate right to the hearts of cities, just as HS1 does. It's more important to ensure HS1 & HS2 are properly connected through central London than it is to provide a bypass. They are confusing high-speed rail with road transport. Finally, I fear the reason that Paris and Frankfurt have more direct connections to China etc is due to geography. They are both more centrally located in Europe, and are nearer to those destinations than is the UK. Who is going to fly west to Estuary Hub, then fly east over their home airports to get to China?

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