The FT splashed back on November 18 about the government’s new enthusiasm for a Thames estuary airport with ministers such as George Osborne taking the plans seriously for the first time.
We revealed that the proposal would be part of an interim report on aviation published this March*:
Submissions have already been made to the transport department for an aviation review, which should produce an interim report in March next year and a final report in the spring of 2013. “The concept of a Thames estuary airport forms a useful contribution to the debate and will be considered alongside all other responses,” the Department for Transport said.
The BBC is now all over the story, which has resurfaced on the front of the Daily Telegraph.
Key to the project is Steve Hilton, who shares Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for the visionary plan to build a new airport hub in the estuary; it could either be at”Boris Island” or on the nearby Isle of Grain as suggested by Lord Foster, the architect.
We also wrote this analysis, which laid out some of the technical issues surrounding the plan. In theory the new hub would be applauded by business leaders, who are worried that Britain will run out of aviation capacity within the next two decades; Heathrow is almost full already. The coalition’s promise not to build a third runway at Heathrow is the reason why ministers are now casting around for more radical ideas.
The potential obstacles to an estuary airport include:
1] The cost: At around £50bn this is an awesome sum to be considering at a time of fiscal austerity – although it would be spread over many years.
2] Environmental issues. Would the new airport breach Britain’s future carbon pledges? Would geese pose a danger to jets by flying into engines?
3] What do you do with Heathrow? If it’s closed down BAA would require compensation estimated at £12bn. If it’s kept open then traffic to the new estuary hub could be slow at first. (This is what happened when a new Malpensa airport was built at Milan).
4] There are suggestions that Dutch or Belgian air authorities would not accept planes flying through their airspace en route to the hub.
One entirely separate obstacle which has emerged in today’s Telegraph is the hostility of the Lib Dems towards the estuary project. It’s easy to forget but the party entered the general election with a commitment to no airport expansion at all in the south-east. And that remains their point of view. The Libs hope that HS2 could reduce future aviation demand – a theory which doesn’t really fit with the DfT’s predictions for where high-speed passengers will come from.
“The environmental and cost implications mean we don’t the estuary project is viable even in the long-term,” a senior Clegg aide tells me today. That sets up the coalition for a battle when this comes to a head; not necessarily this March but definitely in March 2013 when the final aviation report is published.
* If you’re interested in the technicalities: There was a scoping document last Read more