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Is a New London Airport the Right Answer?

The debates around London’s airports have hit an all-time high just recently. Talk of new runways, new terminals and a a completely new London airport have been bombarding the airwaves and clogging up our news press for recent months now. You can see why when you realise that Heathrow is already at 99% capacity.

Whilst visiting London recently I happened to pick up a copy of the London Evening Standard which was proclaiming that “only a brand new London Airport” is capable of reviving the UK’s economy for future generations. This whole debate is so important – we need to take a long hard look at the current provision of airports in the South east and ensure that we maximise the utility from each one.

A new, but famous and influential entrant into this debate is Norman Foster, Chairman and Founder of Foster + Partners, the architectural consultancy responsible for designing some of the world’s best designed airports including London Stansted, Hong Kong and Beijing. Foster believes that the time has come for London to have a new airport – I disagree – but i intend to highlight some key facets of his argument here and add my own responses to ensure that this article is a balanced debate about something that does have the potential for being one of the most influential economic projects in the South of
England for over a generation.

Norman Foster states that Heathrow Airport has “grown from a series of compromises”. This is a fact I cannot disagree with. Heathrow, with its five terminals huddled around its two runways, has simply run out of space, a bi-product of evolutionary growth over the past 50 years. With the demand for more air passenger traffic to rise significantly between now and 2030 [an estimated 260 million passengers per annum], Foster perhaps rightly believes that even a third runway will only enable Heathrow to retain its hub status for a further 15 years and service only an additional 15 million passengers per year. Add to this the fact that growing and emerging economies in the East and Latin America will see a rise in the demand for the larger Boeing 747s and A380s, the third runway couldn’t even handle these aircraft! Foster therefore believes that any talk of a third runway at Heathrow “would be a temporary fix”.

One of the recent options other than a third runway at Heathrow has been the idea of a new London Airport in the Thames estruary. The chance to build a purpose built, almost “future proof” airport hub away from London does offer some obvious benefits and according to Foster it would “address many of the issues associated with capacity, boost trade, and reassert Britain’s role as an international destination.” None of this can be denied; however the notion that a new airport with all of the necessary infrastructure needs can be built within a reasonable time frame seems almost fantasy to me – Heathrow has taken 50 years to get to where it is now – a new London hub airport with an injection of billions would take at least 10-15 years. How does this combat the problem of the UK economy losing £1.2bn per annum to our european competitiors? Foster thinks that a new hub would reverse this trend, by enabling us to build a new airport in the Thames estruary that would be able to open the doors to more aircraft movements to new and emerging markets. He also states that in addition to space, the new airport location would be many miles away from London, reduce pollution, see a reduction in noise, and result in aircraft movements occuring over the sea as opposed to over our capital city. The new location being proposed is the Isle of Grain, one of the least populated areas in the South East. Foster states that over 5000 people would be displaced with the third Heathrow runway, no such worries would exist on the Isle of Grain.

When you discount the conservation arguments for the new hub in the Thames Estruary, Foster believes that the onset of climate change has already damaged the ecology in the area and in any case, private finance could be used to repair much of this damage in a way far more proactive than the public purse ever could. So the argument for a new hub airport looks pretty strong, or does it?

I live near Stansted Airport, London’s third airport and the UK’s fourth busiest. Stansted has seen its passengers numbers peak in 2007 with flows of 24 million per annum. The airport has capacity for 30 million yet in 2011 the total flows of passengers to the airport has dropped to 18 million.

There are a multitude of reasons for this decline, but the fact that the airport, currently owned by BAA, owes its function to the leisure market is key in understanding that Stansted will inevitably be more sensitive to the economic downturn of recent years than its two bigger sisters at Gatwick and Heathrow, where the lion share of business travel occurs. Stansted is however an airport with great ambition. Back in 2007 it looked as if the airport was being aligned to become the London’s new hub for the 21st century and I still believe it can be. When Norman Foster talks of an airport that is built well away from densely populated areas and has the capacity to expand aggressively to cater for the new emerging markets across the globe I wlways think that Stansted is the answer and yet many commentators on this issue just ignore it. I therefore ask Why? Let’s briefly look at reasons why in my opinion Stansted could offer so much more than it already does:

1. Established airport but with significant capacity available in the short term [12 million at least]
2. Good transport links already in place, including rail and road
3. Surrounded by green belt
4. Located 35 minutes North of London, able to cater for other areas of the country too – not just London centric
5. Cost to improve and enlarge surely less than a new airport in the Thames estruary

Foster argues that it would only take 14 years to build a new hub airport in the Thames estruary with four runways. I consider this to be wholly optimistic when you already have airports within the South East that have spare capacity that could be extended in less time.

The case for Stansted expansion is sure to rear its head again – it has so much going for it and yet the current Coalition Govt seem intent on “distracting” the electorate with this Thames estruary idea that is a non-starter before you lay any concrete.

Stansted has capacity, is well linked, and just needs the right level of investment to make it attractive to the bigger carriers [business] to make it a great success story.

The one aspect of Fosters’ argument that I totally agree with relates to his comments about the need for the UK to establish a transport infrastructure that is fit for purpose for the 21st century. Using his words, “for the first time the UK could position itself as a true hub for connecting global trade. In an expanding world economy, Britain could leapfrog the competition.”

To conclude therefore, the case for more capacity in the South East has been made and is accepted. What is not clear is a strategy for managing how that additional capacity is going to be met. Heathrow is full and I would agree with Foster that expanding Heathrow would only fulfill a short term strategy. Longer term though I cannot see why the Governemnt would invest billions in a new airport when there is Stansted, only 75% full today and 35 minutes North of London, that could be sympathetically expanded to meet the needs of the UK economy for many years to come.

When you next travel to Stansted Airport you look at the potential there – you might just surprise yourself!

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