A New Estuary Airport for London?

Back in 2007, Mark tabled a Westminster Hall debate calling upon the last government to give serious consideration to the idea of a new airport for London in the Thames Estuary. Today, it has been revealed that the coalition government is likely soon to launch a formal consultation on such an option. Mark’s 2007 speech is therefore copied below as a reminder of the arguments in favour of this airport being built:

Since the beginning of the millennium the government has been dithering over the pressing need for expanding airport capacity in Britain. We have seen White Papers, judicial reviews, announcements, retractions, consultations…And the conclusion? With tired predictability, the Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has signalled that the government might tack another runway and terminal onto Heathrow. Perhaps by 2020, perhaps not – after all, the 2003 White Paper said we should be expecting a new runway at Stansted by 2011.

Grappling with the issue of aviation, a must for business, leisure and personal fliers, the government has come up with another conventional yet inadequate solution. By papering over Heathrow’s cracks, we get a cut price remedy for our overburdened airports. But for how long and at what cost to the long term health of our economy and transport system, the character of west London, and the quality of life for local residents?

I believe we now… desperately…need a visionary outlook to improving transport and political leadership which has a firm eye on the future and the courage to take brave, innovative decisions. Too often the UK’s transport decision-making has lain in the hands of corporate interests and environmental pressure groups.

Unfortunately this is what has happened with this Labour government. After a decade in office, we have seen no such strategic thinking from successive transport ministers and our transport system has ground to a halt as a result. Not even Crossrail can be credited to Labour until we can be sure that the financial arrangements are robust. We need more airport capacity and I am all in favour of people’s horizons being extended by international travel. Much of this inevitably will be by jet plane. I should be in favour of the third runway and this government’s additions to Heathrow’s infrastructure if I believed it was a long term solution. But I fear it is not.

What both London and the UK now need is a new state-of-the-art hub airport located to the east of our capital. By building from scratch, such an airport would be planned according to the needs of a modern, global economy and could utilise advances in environmentally-sound construction and high speed rail links into central London, Docklands and beyond. Flying in over the North Sea, planes would not disturb a large residential population, allowing a truly modern airport to operate 24 hours a day. Business folk would be able to depart to and arrive from India, China and the rapidly developing economies of South East Asia at convenient times. Construction could take place with minimal disruption and the airport would be located in a place which would allow for future expansion.

I have taken the opportunity to raise this important issue because if the consequences of our current aviation difficulties are to be seen anywhere it will be in my constituency. In the City of London we have a large international business community that needs proper transport facilities to function and in Westminster we have cultural and historical wonders which draw visitors from across the globe. I have no particular affiliation to airline companies, environmental groups or those living near Heathrow.

That said I have on several occasions in recent years walked through – and I do mean walked rather than driven through – Harmondsworth and Sipson, the two villages that would be wrecked by a third runway. Even today they retain some charm from their centuries old roots. The same can be said, just about, for places like Stanwell Moor, right under the flight path where some historic 18th century buildings still stand amongst the noise and pollution. The residents of these villages have been misled by promises from all and sundry over the curbs on Heathrow’s long term expansion. This latest government announcement is just a further stab in the back for all those who have held on in that little quarter of Middlesex.

It is clear to me as an MP who represents Britain’s financial heart, that there is a strong economic case for a comprehensive overhaul of our thinking towards aviation. And I speak as someone who rejoices in the availability of airline travel for all and sundry. The people who wish to encourage British people to stay in the UK for their holidays presumably have no interest in the earnings we gain from overseas tourists. We live in a global marketplace. Agricultural produce, for example, comes to us from all parts of the world and we should wholeheartedly support free trade with the developing world as the best way for such nations to rise out of poverty. Flying is part of our commercial life and Heathrow has been the mainstay of our international connectivity for more than 50 years. But now is the time to move on.

Heathrow is currently operating at full capacity and every year 68 million passengers cram into facilities designed to take 45 million. With its two runways, Heathrow is the world’s busiest international airport and the resultant chaos is clear for all to see. Flying into Britain, often for the first time, travellers from across the globe can currently expect to be greeted by a shabby, overcrowded, understaffed and poorly planned mess of an airport. Britons getting away for their holidays, on the other hand, are faced with the frustrating prospect of long security queues and mind numbing delays as the prologue to their hard-earned breaks. None of this takes into account the problems they might experience on arriving at their destination – some 22,000 items of luggage are lost in transit from Heathrow each month by airline staff.

Heathrow has low landing charges through an outdated regulation system. This leaves the busiest international airport in the world with landing charges that stand 17th in the world league. It makes no economic sense. It is not so surprising then that important profitable revenue is sought from retail outlets. BAA bosses have done their sums and found that necessary profits come not from passenger satisfaction but from selling alcohol, perfume and Toblerone to a captive – and delayed – audience. On top of this, operating at full capacity means that the airport is inflexible and unable to respond quickly to changes in security procedures or minor changes to the landing schedule. We all use Heathrow because there is no alternative.

The airport remains our gateway to the global economy but city bosses are beginning to complain that the ‘Heathrow hassle factor’ is dissuading many business executives from travelling to the capital. No one can blame them – especially in view of the delays at immigration for senior business folk. It is very expensive for companies to have staff unable to work because of costly delays in the travel system. Research undertaken by the City of London in 2002 revealed that 70% of firms consider air services to be critical for business travel by their staff whilst 50% of respondents considered air travel critical for meeting with clients. The Square Mile is the world’s foremost financial and business centre and has a high concentration of international firms that can choose any one of the world’s major cities in which to locate. The City has made it clear that good aviation services and efficient, welcoming airports are a critical contributory factor to the continued competitiveness and ongoing success of the UK economy.

I do not believe that a new runway at Heathrow will solve the UK’s aviation capacity difficulties and help maintain economic competitiveness long into the future. The supporting infrastructure is likely to remain inadequate even with Crossrail and the limited supply of land around Heathrow suggests that the area will not be able to cope with a significant increase in airport activity.

Talk of airport expansion will inevitably be dogged by environmental concerns about aircraft emissions but we need to accept that unilateral action by Britain to cut carbon emissions will solve very little globally but seriously disadvantage our economy. To put our interminable navel-gazing over Heathrow into perspective, China hopes to have completed 49 new airports by 2012.

I reckon we need to completely rethink the entire issue of aviation and airports in Britain and resurrect the idea of a brand new hub airport to the east of London operated by someone other than BAA to provide competition. This idea has been considered and rejected before, mainly on the grounds of finance. Whilst Heathrow remains open, most major airlines will not consider relocating and the private sector will not consider stumping up the finance. In essence, we need to take a brave step and accept that Heathrow will never be what Britain wants and needs it to be.

Many other cities have come to this realisation with their own outdated airports and have had the vision to relocate – Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Paris are just three examples over the past decade alone. In time, I believe we must look towards reducing Heathrow’s capacity rather than expanding it piecemeal today. There are currently – and rightly – strict flight controls for aircraft operating at Heathrow to reduce noise for the large nearby residential population. This essentially means that very few planes can fly between 11.30pm and 6am. Furthermore, the airport is hemmed in by houses and roads severely restricting future capacity.

At a new airport in the Thames Estuary, aircraft could fly in over the North Sea. With no residential noise and little disruption during construction, it would become a 24 hour hub with the potential to enlarge should it be necessary. The stacking of planes, which currently is such a problem at Heathrow both in terms of noise and environmental impact, would be a thing of the past. High speed bullet trains could take passengers directly to the city and jobs would be created for those living in a regenerated Thames Gateway. Meanwhile, reducing Heathrow’s use would leave the potential for 2500 acres of prime land for community development in a location near to London with excellent city transport links, the sale of which could help fund the cost of the new state-of-the-art airport.

It must be recognised that our economy and quality of life will continue to suffer in an increasingly competitive world if we fail to invest in our infrastructure and think strategically for the future. Do we really believe that a sixth terminal and third runway at Heathrow will put to rest the issue of airport expansion for many decades?

We need an adaptable solution which allows us room to manoeuvre according to demand and future economic requirements. Above all the government should regard this as an opportunity to equip our nation as an internationally formidable partner and competitor for decades to come.