Rehman Chishti is the MP for Gillingham and Rainham. Cllr Rodney Chambers OBE is the Leader of Medway Council.
The news this week that the Coalition government is preparing to consult on a Thames Estuary airport has a deep sense of déjà vu about it. For they are another in a long line of governments, spanning some forty years, who have looked east to the Estuary to solve their aviation issues. Yet they have all discovered that there are overwhelming economic, environmental and safety issues that stand up against such a scheme.
It is an area where an aircraft would be 12 times more at risk of bird strike than at any other major UK airport. It would be close to Thamesport – where huge container ships unload one fifth of the UK’s Liquid Natural Gas supplies – and the proposed London Array wind farm. Then there is, of course, the SS Richard Montgomery ship, packed full of explosives.
Proponents often dismiss these issues saying we can just move these things elsewhere – such as setting up a new reserve for the 300,000 migrating birds who flock to the estuary’s environmentally and scientifically significant sites each year. The inconvenient truth is, as the RSPB has pointed out, you have to take drastic action to stop birds returning.
Some have pointed to the great economic benefits to North Kent of building an airport. What area wouldn’t want thousands of new jobs and businesses? Whilst it would create jobs, such an airport would be decades away. We need sustainable jobs now not in 10 or 20 years time. It would come at great cost to Kent – the garden of England would become the capital’s concrete car park– with great swathes of the countryside making way for new roads, rail links and industrial estates.
An airport of that size would require at least 70,000 employees – that’s much more than all the unemployed in Kent. It would require a mass influx of people and new houses, which is completely unsustainable. And what about the effect such a new airport would have on the UK’s existing airports?
The experience of other countries shows that it is extremely difficult to maintain two competing hub airports. Research by Medway Council has shown that nine out of ten international airlines at Heathrow are against an estuary airport. The implications are clear – which Boris Johnson has admitted to MPs – the government would have to legislate to force airlines to move from Heathrow, which could lead to its closure.
Evidence also shows that an airport in the Thames estuary would be in the wrong place. As the Mayor of London’s adviser Doug Oakervee has highlighted – Upper Heyford, in Oxfordshire, is the centre of passenger demand for the whole of the UK, he seems to suggests that if a new airport facility is needed it should be to the west of London rather than the east. Of course we need to maintain the UK’s competiveness and aviation needs, so what are the alternatives?
London is currently served by five airports, which is two more than New York, and these between them have direct flights to more places and more often than any city on the continent, with almost as many international passengers as Paris and Frankfurt put together. And whilst Heathrow may be almost full, there is spare capacity available at
Stansted and Luton airports. Gatwick has also announced plans to increase flights by 44,000 a year. Capacity could be further improved as larger aircraft are used. And there are proposals to improve the interconnectivity between London’s airports. The so-called ‘Heathwick’ plan, could link London airports with high-speed rail. Regional airports can also assist in meeting our future demand for aviation. Recently, EasyJet began flying from Southend. Birmingham airport has suggested that it could double its passengers and Manston in Kent could also expand. We must put this into context. Birmingham will be connected to London via Highspeed two, while Manston is close to the first high-speed rail link to the capital – one that is already in place. If a new airport is still found to be needed then why not look to use abandoned RAF airfields which could be brought into service at a fraction of the £70 billion an estuary airport could cost.
We believe that there are better alternatives and solutions to the UK’s aviation needs than the Thames Estuary airport. Let’s make sure that the government finally dismiss it for good in their consultation this year.