Boris airport plan will not get off the ground

They were talking about Boris Island on Radio 5 the other day. We’ve already got Boris bikes, the tortuously alliterative alternative to Barclays Bikes, which presumably the sponsor had hoped would be common parlance, and even Boris buses, the replacement for Routemasters that will supposedly bring back conductors, but Boris Island? That really does seem a little over the top. After all, it is, in fact a plan for an airport, a whopping great big airport in fact, stuck out somewhere on the Thames Estuary, way beyond the area under the control of the mayor of London. It’s hardly going to be called Boris Johnson international – John Lennon will spin in his grave.

It was in the news because apparently David Cameron thought the idea was worthy of consideration, but hold on a sec, is this really right. Well Boris said so, the Daily Telegraph intimated that Cameron was on side and that was picked up by the other papers, but this is a long way from any government endorsement of the scheme.

Yes, the Department for Transport is starting a consultation process on the future of aviation, and particularly of airport capacity in the Southeast, in the spring but the London mayor’s vision of a new airport on the Isle of Grain is fraught with more obstacles than Aintree racecourse.

Boris has form on grands projets He likes to espouse them without much previous thought, to grab the headlines and suggest that he is dynamic but often then gets into trouble over the details. He has, for example, endorsed the idea of a branch off the Northern Line costing around £600m to serve the proposed development at Battersea Power Station. He even persuaded George Osborne to give the scheme a boost by mentioning it prominently in the Autumn Statement, only for, two days later, the developers to collapse putting in doubt the whole project. As, too, with other ideas emanating from Boris Office, the plan had never been properly funded as it was supposed to be private sector financed but only about a third of the cost had been promised.

With Boris Island, though, any rational analysis would soon knock the idea on the head. London, according to the Department’s own previous Aviation White Paper, does not need two hub airports. Therefore, Heathrow would have to be closed down, or reduced to catering to low cost and charter airlines. That is not going to happen.

Therefore, even to the most ambitious and creative imagination, Boris Island is not set to join Boris bikes and buses as a memorial to the tousle-haired mayor. Like many of these ideas, such as the cable car over the Thames which goes from nowhere much to nowhere much, the idea of a new airport out in the shifting Kent sands has not been set in the wider context of transport or planning policy. On the face of it, the idea that it would link easily with HS1 and that access would principally be by rail is appealing. So is the fact that, as we all know, Heathrow is in the wrong place, as having planes fly constantly over the capital – I can hear one now, and I live in North London 15 miles away – is both a risk and a nuisance.

However, it is too late to move it. The whole orientation of the capital would have to change. The implications of Boris Island – or rather the Thames Estuary airport to give its proper name – for the capital are so huge that it is difficult to know where to begin. Heathrow employs 76,000 people directly and perhaps three or four times that indirectly? An airport is not just a couple of runways plonked out on empty land but a major industry requiring vast support structures. Thousands of companies, ranging from aviation engineers to US pharmaceutical firms have located near the airport. Where would they relocate?  Do not be beguiled by the idea of rail access. An estuary airport would require massive new road infrastructure to support it, just as in Hong Kong, which though linked by an underground line, required a major new bridge..

Then there’s the birds – but far too much attention is focussed on them. It is the sheer practicalities and cost that ensure this will never happen. So Cameron’s supposed interest is merely a bit of spin. Not only does it offer the opportunity to help the mayor in his electoral campaign, it has the advantage, too, of annoying his deputy prime minister Nick Clegg since the Libdems are opposed to the idea.  Cameron’s stated interest therefore is merely a bit of political spin. It costs nothing, except creating a bit of uncertainty among many businesses, to say they are looking at the idea but like Foulness, Maplin Sands and all the other airport ideas,

Talking with a senior railway executive the other day, I was struck by his emphasis on this country’s disastrous absence of any overall planning framework, and he contrasted this with his experience of the Netherlands where everything fits into an overall scheme. In a society that was more confident of its direction and aims, a crazy idea like a Thames Estuary airport would simply be immediately laughed out of court. That is precisely what will happen with Boris Island, but not before it has been used to gain some political capital for its main promoter.

  • Bob Gibson

    Your reasoning regarding the proposed Thames Airport has a strong rationality. However, it does not solve the problem of London’s struggle for survival as a major intercontinental aviation hub. Heathrow is not only at capacity and unable to cope with unforeseen events, but also draining traffic to the new state of the art facilities being built on a colossal scale in the Middle East. Even Amsterdam and Frankfurt are going to struggle to match this competition.

    In the not too distant future Heathrow will not be the magnet for global organisation it is now. The result will be loss of jobs both at the airport itself and in the immediate catchment area it supports.

    Thus far, no worthy or practical solution to this problem has been put forward, other than ‘Boris Island’. Time is fast running out as airport infrastructure is not something that can be thrown up overnight, even if the funding becomes available.

  • Paul Holt

    “…cope with unforeseen events…” like last Saturday’s dollop of snow.

  • Paul Holt

    The Thames Estuary Airport already exists: it’s called Southend Airport, with existing rail links to London.

    (And as back-up, there’s Manston Airport in Kent.)

  • Anonymous

    At the time of the 2003 Consultation into the Future development of Air Transport (in the south east), one of the options was Cliff in Kent. So I drove over and had lunch in the village pub/chinese diner and spoke to the landlord; had many people from the DfT surveyed the area for the new airport I asked? No-ones been here for years he replied adding that all the Thames Estuary sites had been surveyed in the 60s and every so often they dust off the plans, give one an airing, before putting them back on the shelf again!

    After lunch I walked down the chalk escarpment on to the marches to get a feel of the site; windswept and fairly desolate was my opinion and not much changed since Dickens’ day.  But one question does intrigue me is the statement that BAA will be sold to fund a Thames Estuary airport; says who I wonder as BAA Ltd is privately owned by a group of investors including Ferrovial who reduced their holding in October 2011 to below 50%.

  • SteveB

    I remember flying as an observer on BOAC training flights to Wing and seeing the slogan “London Airport No.3, go and stick it in the sea” written on the roof of a building. Far too much has been invested in Heathrow – and far too much of the local economy revolves around Heathrow – for the airport to be closed down in favour of a replacement in the Thames Estuary. The M4 corridor is home to many high-tech firms precisely because Heathrow is so convenient for these multi-national companies.

    Is it possible to make the best use of Heathrow without destroying communities to build a third runway? I believe so.

    If Northolt were to be developed as a short-haul airport in conjunction with Heathrow, and if a rail link were to be provided between the two, then the third-runway issue would go away. Northolt already has a runway capable of taking short-haul jets and if the A40 were to be placed into a tunnel, then the runway could be extended westwards at relatively low cost (well, low cost in relation to demolishing Sipson). 
    Bearing in mind that Northolt is conveniently placed alongside HS2, a Northolt-Heathrow rail link would serve a dual purpose, by providing a means of taking passengers from HS2 to Heathrow.

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  • Martyn

    I think one of the problems that nobody ever mentions is proximity to Dutch airspace, already the most overcrowded in Europe. This effectively rules out any development at Manston, and restricts any new airport capacity east of City Airport.

  • Vulcan’s Finest

    There is certainly scope for Northolt to serve as effectively Heathrow’s third runway and Terminal 6. A 2000 metre realigned East – West runway is easily possible with only a small incursion into green belt land, allowing I would imagine a similar number of air movements as Gatwick for small and medium sized jets (up to 200 seats). No residential properties would need to be demolished although existing residents in South Ruislip and Ickenham will suffer more noise. This however would be true of any airport built near London, however RAF Northolt already exists – the previous third runway was effectively a new single runway airport requiring 700 homes to be demolished.

    A spur from the Central Line would provide rail access to Central London with the A40/M40 providing fast road links. A rail link from Heathrow to HS2 via Northolt is suprisingly short and simple, although it would pretty much all have to be tunnelled. Less than half the 21,000 ft long tunnel heading north from the existing line at Stockley need be under built up land and less than 4,000 ft of the alignment need pass under residential areas. No doubt refurbished Crossrail TBMs could be utilised. Terminal 6 could be situated next to the A40 with the rail station underneath. The rail line would then curve under the airfield and the LT depot to join the recently announced HS2 tunnel under West Ruislip.

    This would be a very cheap option for HS2 access. There will still be some capacity on the existing twin HEX rail lines under the airport, 12 TPH is easily possible. Airport shuttle and HS2 Trains would start from the extra platforms under T5, call at the CTA (4 minutes) and Northolt (11 minutes) before joining the HS2 route. Thankfully the planned 200 metre long ‘classic’ HS2 AGV style units would fit easily on the existing HEX infrastructure under Heathrow. Two paths an hour would potentially offer 1000-1100 seats every hour from Heathrow to the Midlands and the North. Although not serving Terminal 4 directly, this would be far better than having a new station near Iver with rapid transit pods.

  • Christian Wolmar

    This does sound sensible – but why has it never been put forward seriously? Has the RAF blocked it, or is it seen as too difficult?

  • Windsorian

    There was an interesting article in the FT on Saturday 18.2.12 giving an overview of how Heathrow may develop; uncharctistically the article is open source :-

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7af0a4d8-58cc-11e1-b9c6-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1n10wC01c

    If you are near a libriary that keeps papers for a week and want to see the schematics, they are worth looking at.

  • Fandroid

    It’s interesting that you say that Schiphol and Frankfurt will struggle as hubs against middle-eastern competition. My own view about London’s future as a hub is that it will continue to function as one for transatlantic flights from Europe and other nearish eastern starting points, but that it is bonkers to imagine that anyone is going to fly west from other European countries before going back eastwards to China/India etc. Heathrow will serve its local (UK & Ireland) catchment for flights to the main centres in the far east, and I guess that even BA will use its AIG partner’s hub at Madrid for the more exotic South American destinations. Then those wanting to go to the rarer far eastern destinations can fly from London to some suitably located hub which can draw on enough customers to make the connections worthwhile.

    Heathrow itself, is steadily rebuilding its terminals to vastly improve the passenger experience. Beyond that it needs proper connections to the main rail network to maintain its status, and shouldn’t be waiting on an HS2 link sometime in the nebulous future. As for an Estuary Airport! Good for Richard Rogers’ concept portfolio, but that’s about all.   

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