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A New London Hub Airport

Second on our list of policy priorities is the opportunity opening up for a new London Hub Airport located in the Thames Estuary area. To fully understand why we give the airport such a high priority it is necessary to read not only what follows but also the final section of our conclusions.

Several sites for a large new hub airport have been suggested and put aside. Two remote sites to be reclaimed from wild water, swirling tides and constantly shifting sands were beyond Foulness Island on the Essex side and off the Isle of Sheppey. Both would have required immense dredging and earth-moving with long coffer-dams, high sea-walls and vulnerable connections with the mainland. Both were much further from London and exposed to icy, bleak winds and gales from the north through east. As a small-boat sailor for fifty years using these desolate and dangerous swatchways, I would not want to be out there arriving from the ends of the earth in extreme weather conditions or in the dense mist or fog that so frequently blankets that area and wondering whether we might over-or under-shoot the runway. I once spent a cold night of driving rain and snow in November out there hard aground on the Barrow Sand laying out anchors and warps to pull us free when the tide returned eight hours later. That was enough. Equally beating up the Spaniard Channels across the Kentish flats off Sheppey every year over a very uneven sea-bottom en route from Ramsgate to the Medway and on several occasions with a freshening south-westerly gale kicking up a very confused sea convinces me that this would be a very odd place indeed to locate a major international airport.

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Within the last year, a much sounder alternative has come to the fore. Lord Foster of Foster and Partners who designed the new Chek Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong proposes siting the new airport on the Isle of Grain on firm, dry, flat land just upriver to the west from the entrance to the River Medway. In terms of cost and connections, this makes a lot of sense with only short rail and road links to the M2, M20 and M25 motorways, to the Eurostar high-speed rail route and proposed new bridges and tunnels across the Estuary. Other fast links to Central London include the existing helicopter route up the River, dedicated fast catamarans, and feeder air services could assist with rapid transfers to and from Stansted, Southend, Manston (now Kent International), Gatwick and City airports. With the majority of flights landing most of the time across open sea from the East, there would be no bans on night-flights and only a very small fraction of the quarter of a million residents close to the Heathrow flight-paths currently complaining of significant noise intrusion would be affected. Indeed there would be strong commercial and economic interest in keeping the runways open round the clock.

The argument for a single new London international airport is that Heathrow is rapidly losing its premier hub status. It can handle 87 flights per hour from its two runways and its capacity use is said to be approaching 98%. By contrast, Paris Charles de Gaulle can handle 114 flights per hour from four runways; Amsterdam Schipol has six runways; Madrid four; Frankfurt four – all are aiming for close to 120 flights per hour by 2015. Already Heathrow is falling behind: it has direct flights to 157 destinations compared to 224 from Charles de Gaulle and 235 from Frankfurt. Even if Heathrow twins with Gatwick and is linked by a proposed 175 mph dedicated rail tunnel, the system will take at least five years for such a complicated project to be given the go-ahead and a further five to ten years to build. Even then the two airports need permission (so far withheld) to add new runways.

The new Isle of Grain London Airport would have a capacity of 150 million passengers per year, more than double Heathrow’s present capacity, making it certainly the largest international airport in the world. Foster and Partners in association with Halcrow engineering consultants believe they could have the airport up and running by 2030 given prompt and strong support from the government.

Fig 1 : the blue shading and hatching on this map, drawn in November 2011, show the danger areas in the event of a tidal surge.

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