Britain led the world in construction. Now we’re too timid to build a great airport

An artists impression of a design by Rick Mather Architects of Heathrow City, a 190,000-home town that would spring up if the west London airport closed and was replaced with an airport in the Thames Estuary. Photo: GLA/PA Wire
An artists impression of a design by Rick Mather Architects of Heathrow City, a 190,000-home town that would spring up if the west London airport closed and was replaced with an airport in the Thames Estuary. Photo: GLA/PA Wire
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The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow airport does not yet mean that it will ever actually happen, some observers are saying, writes Ben Lowry

Supporters of the scheme, however, have been talking up last week’s approval and say it shows Britain is open for business.

My fear is that it shows that the UK has largely lost the Victorian spirit that made it a global pioneer in infrastructure, with its early railways and complex bridgers and tunnels.

Whatever happens at Heathrow, it is almost certain the airport will not now be closed and replaced by one in the Thames Estuary.

It would not, however, surprise me if an airport does get built to the east of London over the next century. But if it does, it will be as an addition to Heathrow, rather than a replacement.

This is madness. London’s airport provision is already split between Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and – to a lesser extent – Luton and the City of London airport.

It is a slow, tortuous and expensive journey between any two of those five airports.

The southeast of England has blown the opportunity to close the biggest of them, Heathrow, that is located close to some of the most desirable housing areas in greater London, and build the best airport in the world.

London is one of the most powerful economic magnets on Earth. The people who are camping out at Calais or trying to walk through the Channel Tunnel by foot or to stow on to a lorry or to cross the English Channel hidden in a fishing boat are not dreaming of Birmingham or Manchester or Glasgow or Cardiff or Belfast. They are dreaming of London.

This has helped make the UK’s capital one of the most thrilling cities in history but has brought with it huge infrastructure problems, leading to the disastrous ballooning of house prices.

A visionary plan has been drawn up by various people, and championed by Boris Johnson and others, to close Heathrow, turn it into housing and build a mega airport in the Thames Estuary.

There are problems with the estuary idea, one of which is that it is to the east of London, and inaccessible to people who live north, west and south of the capital.

Another is that bird migration in the estuary would be affected.

The first problem is heavily mitigated by Crossrail, the new east-west railway route across London, by the widening (much of it complete) of London’s orbital M25 motorway, and by the proximity of an estuary airport to HS1 (the existing high speed line to the Chunnel).

Ideally HS1 would be connected on to the proposed HS2 line, to the north of England. But that high speed plan is also in peril, such is British reticence about vast infrastructure projects.

Trying to find an environmental solution to the disruption to bird migration would have to become a leading priority for the designers of a Thames airport.

I am a passionate conservationist, with regard to wildlife and countryside (where I support English-style tight planning rules) and architecture, but I admire the French model (of maintaining fine old buildings and protecting pristine countryside but building world-class road and rail infrastructure and ensuring that they are almost the only intrusions into the countryside).

A new hub airport for the UK is one of the few times when human development must take overwhelming precedence over other environmental obstacles.

A £50 billion airport in a location such as the Isle of Sheppey (which was one of the mooted Thames Estuary proposals, as a six-runway facility) would be good for Northern Ireland too.

There would be countless slots for Ulster flights and easy connections to every big destination in the world.

The Thames Estuary is further away from the Province than Heathrow but the airport would not be so in flying miles, because many planes that fly to Heathrow from north of London head first to the east, then turn round over the City and descend over the West End.

This summer I stayed in central London where, with a bedroom window open, you begin to hear the Heathrow planes clearly at around 5.30am, despite the airport being almost 20 miles away.

A Thames Estuary airport would be further out from the centre, and planes flying from destinations such as Belfast or Paris could avoid flying over central London. The site could operate as a 24-hour airport, which Heathrow cannot do.

Meanwhile, almost 200,000 new homes could be built at Heathrow, a sought-after part of London that would become more so minus noise and air pollution. This would alleviate house prices by greatly increasing London housing supply without building homes on English countryside.

My hope is that Heathrow expansion can yet be averted and the Estuary plan revived.

But I doubt it very much.

Politicians seem no longer allowed to take big decisions, or bold enough to do so (with the exception of Boris Johnson who, whatever his flaws, thought big on this issue).

The main decision-making on London airport provision was farmed out to the Airports Commission, which backed the Heathrow fudge.

What a sad indication of both our political times and of diminished British confidence.

• Dublin beats Belfast

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s failure (parallel with London’s) to develop a single hub stands in ever greater contrast to the success of Dublin Airport.

This week it emerged that a prime site beside Dublin’s gleaming Terminal Two will be developed into one of Ireland’s biggest hotels with direct access to the terminal.

It will make Dublin yet more attractive to northern travellers, who can drive there by motorway from Belfast in 90 minutes. Have you noticed the ads Dublin Airport is placing in NI to entice us? Now 26 million passengers use Dublin annually, almost four times the combined number for the Ulster airports.

Yet when City of Derry, with 300,000 users, got into recent difficulty a subsidy was swiftly agreed.

Not even a pause to debate whether NI might be better with a single hub airport that is big enough to justify costly road and rail links.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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