Proponents of Thames Estuary airport welcome extra scrutiny

2 min read

One of the firms proposing a Thames Estuary airport has welcomed the Airports Commission’s decision to further study the idea before finalising its shortlist of recommendations next year.

The government-appointed body last month announced that expanding Heathrow and Gatwick were the only options that have so far made the shortlist and that all other proposals have been ruled out, except those for an airport on the estuary’s Isle of Grain.

Mark Willingale, director of Metrotidal, said he was delighted to have the opportunity to explain his company’s plans in more detail as he felt the Commission hadn’t really understood the full proposal, which involves building flood defences and a road and rail tunnel under the estuary, as well as an airport on an artificial island.

‘It is an adventurous, complex and bold proposition,’ he said. ‘It needs a lot of analysis. They’re going to be a bit wary about what we’re saying and that’s quite right.’

A new or extended runway at Heathrow or a new runway at Gatwick are the options currently on the Commission’s list, and ideas proposing new airports in other sites, an expanded Stansted or Birmingham airport, or new transport links between London’s existing airports have been ruled out.

The Commission, led by economist Sir Howard Davies, isn’t due to make its final recommendations until after the election in 2015.

But the interim report also put forward suggestions of how existing infrastructure can be used more effectively in the short-term including greater cooperation between airports, improved air traffic management and better surface transport links.

The report said: ‘While the potential [Thames Estuary airport options] offered to reduce aviation noise impacts in the South East of England and to support economic development on the eastern side of London was attractive, they presented many challenges and uncertainties.

‘They would be extremely expensive, with the cost of an Isle of Grain airport (the most viable of those presented) around five times that of the three short-listed options at up to £112bn.

‘They would present major environmental issues, especially around impacts on protected sites. The new surface access infrastructure required would be very substantial, with potential cost, deliverability and environmental challenges of its own.

‘And the overall balance of economic impacts would be uncertain – particularly as an Estuary airport would require the closure of Heathrow for commercial reasons and London City for airspace reasons.’

However, Willingale said the Metrotidal proposal would only cost £24bn, half of which would be spent on the ground transport infrastructure and environmental protection, and that Heathrow could be closed gradually.

‘If you let it last for two or even 10 years, yes you’re harming your hub function – it’s not as ideal – but you’re getting 10 years’ extra squeeze out of Terminal 5 and other infrastructure,’ he said.

He also pointed out that expanding Heathrow would impact its current operations as the airport is at 98 per cent capacity, but that building work on a Thames Estuary hub could progress 24 hours a day because it was in an unpopulated area.

The Commission ruled out increasing capacity at multiple airports as inefficient and that building an entirely new hub wouldn’t be cost-effective because of the extra infrastructure needed and may ultimately reduce capacity by forcing the closure of other London airports.

The Thames Estuary idea, however, has been left on the table because its benefits have been deemed so great that they may outweigh the costs.