Recent years have seen increased demands for increased airport capacity around London. Various ideas have emerged as to how this could be met. There have been proposals to expand existing airports such as Heathrow, Birmingham or Manston, as well as a number of proposals for new airports on the Themes Estuary.
There has been much debate this summer on the possibility of a new airport being constructed on a specially built island in the Themes Estuary, an idea favored by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, though this idea has now been rejected by the UK government.
There has also been a revival of a plan to build an airport at Cliffe on the Hoo Peninsula by John Olsen, the former head of the airline Cathay Pacific. This idea was rejected by the previous (Labour) government in 2003 as unworkable for a number of reasons, but it is possible that the new government will reconsider this. It has been rumored that Transport for London favor this proposal, though there has been no official conformation of this. There has been strong opposition from North Kent MP's and Medway Council, a unitary authority with remit for the Hoo Peninsula.
This week (the first week in November 2011) saw the unveiling of a new proposal for an airport on the Isle of Grain, also part of the Hoo Peninsula, by architect Lord Norman Foster and consultants Halcrow. This proposal includes not just the airport, but a substantial reworking of the regional transport network, including a new high-speed London-orbital train network, as well as the reclamation of a substantial area of land around the Themes and Medway estuaries upon which new housing and businesses could be located, a major new shipping terminal on the Medway and improved flood defenses for the Themes Estuary. This has also attracted strong opposition from Medway Council, as well as environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth.
The Isle of Grain.
There are arguments both for-and-against the building of a new airport on the Hoo Peninsula, which I shall try to examine in detail, though many of them are far from new, in order to reach a reasoned conclusion of the viability of these projects.
The arguments for a new airport.
- The UK is falling behind emerging economies such as Russia, China, Brazil and India (Lord Foster's list, not mine) and needs major new infrastructure projects to compete. The UK is certainly falling behind many other economies, both developing and developed, largely due to the decline of its manufacturing base since the 1980s, and improvements in infrastructure will certainly be necessary in order to recover some of this loss. However this does not mean that every proposed infrastructure scheme is a good thing; such projects are extremely expensive (the figure £50 billion has been floated for the Grain Airport and related projects), and before investing governments should make sure the projects will be genuinely beneficial. The economist John Maynard Keynes once observed that in times of economic downturn governments should pay people to dig holes and fill them in again if they can't think of anything more sensible for them to do, which is broadly true, but it does not follow that all big projects are more sensible than digging and filling in holes for the sake of it. Post-war Britain has an unenviable record of white elephant infrastructure projects, so simply appealing for support for a project because we need big projects is not enough. In the case of the developing economies listed by Lord Foster all four have expanding economies based upon low costs for energy, low rents, cheap (or free) education, low costs of living and (therefore) low labour costs. Without addressing these the UK is unlikely to recover its manufacturing base; in particular UK politicians and business leaders often seem to be looking for ways to reduce labour costs without reducing the cost of living, and without recognizing that these costs (high energy bills, rents, transport costs etc.) often also directly impact businesses.
- We particularly need increased air passenger capacity to boost our economy. Frankfurt is building a new hub airport, and we may be unable to compete. Heathrow is already the busiest airport in Europe, and the third busiest in the world. Gatwick is the ninth busiest in Europe, Stansted the twenty-second and Luton the forty-second. Nine more UK airports fall within the top one-hundred busiest in Europe. Only one other city (Moscow) has three airports in the European top one-hundred. Compared to the UK only Italy has more airports in the European hundred busiest, fourteen compared to our thirteen, but of these only three are in the top fifty; less than London alone. These statistics would be less impressive if the majority of UK airports were running at the limit of their capacity, but many are in fact somewhat underused. For example Birmingham, already the forty-fifth busiest in Europe, is hoping the new High Speed Rail Link will enable it to expand towards its full capacity.
- The airports will bring much needed jobs to the area. There are two potential phases to any employment created by new airports; the construction of the airport, and the staffing of the completed airport. Of these two phases the construction is likely to be the more labour intensive, although there is no guarantee that these jobs will go to local people. Major construction projects in the UK often rely largely on migrant labour brought in specifically for the project, and it is unlikely that this one would be any different. Jobs at the completed airport would be more likely to be filled by local staff, but unless the airport was an outstanding success would not necessarily outstrip the jobs lost to the project. The new airport would be close to the current site of the Grain Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) Terminal, one of the busiest LNG importation facilities in the world, which currently has plans to nearly treble its capacity over the next twenty years. It is difficult to see how such a site could co-exist with a major airport, so presumably if an airport were to be built then the LGN Terminal would have to be re-located away from the area, with a subsequent loss of jobs. Also on the Hoo Peninsula is the Kingsnorth Power Station, a dual-fired plant capable of burning coal, oil or biomass to generate electricity. Whilst not as obvious a hazard as the LNG Terminal, it would be highly unusual to locate an airport close to a power station of this sort, so it seems likely that jobs here may also be at risk
- The Isle of Grain project will also involve building new homes, something the area is short on. There is certainly a shortage of housing around the Medway Estuary, as in much of Southeast England, which is often quoted as a reason for projects which involve some housing. But what the Southeast, and Kent in particular, is really short on is fresh water to supply any new housing. Kent has been suffering summer droughts regularly since the 1970s, due to a combination of low rainfall and a shortage of reservoirs. Without measures to improve this any new housing projects are likely to place further strain on the counties water supplies. A more practical approach to solving the counties housing problems might therefore be a combination of reducing the amount of rented accommodation in the county (people living in rented housing often show up on statistics as looking for housing to buy; this does not mean they do not have a home, just that they do not own it), and investment in infrastructure in other parts of the country, to slow the continual draw of people to the Southeast.
Kingsnorth Power Station.
The arguments against a new airport.
- The salt marshes around the Hoo Peninsula form part of the Themes Estuary and Marshes Special Protection Area, an important wilderness area close to London and the Medway Towns, and an internationally important overwintering site for water-fowl, as well as a summer breeding site for many rare species. In recent years conservation has become a politically polarized issue in the UK, and many other countries. Politicians on the left tend to at least pay lip-service to conservation as an ideal, whereas those on the right tend to object that it often gets in the way of economic development. This automatic adoption of stances is not helpful, if only because it often leads to debates between two sides that have not fully thought their own arguments through. Historically many people we would now consider great thinkers did not follow this pattern, conservatives have indeed sought to conserve nature whereas liberals and socialists have favored economic development. Certainly the area is of importance to many species of water birds, though improved environmental controls in rivers and wetlands across Northern Europe means that there are more sites available than was previously the case. Where these marshes are really important is that they are one of the few wilderness areas available close to London, Europe's largest city. This is largely an aesthetic argument, that people need access to genuine wild places rather than just parkland (with which London is amply supplied), and one that has become slightly unfashionable in recent years, but to remove such a resource from so large a population simply because one does not believe they are entitled to it is remarkably arrogant. Such sights do attract visitors, and in doing so they bring investment and create jobs. (Disclaimer: I have previously worked for the RSPB and a close relative has worked in wetlands conservation on the Medway Estuary. I would happily take such a job above one at an airport).
- An airport on the Hoo Peninsula would lead to excessive aircraft noise in the densely populated Medway Towns. Certainly being under the flight path of aircraft arriving at or leaving an airport is highly disruptive, but the planners do seem to have thought this one through, with the proposed flight paths over the Themes Estuary rather than over populated areas, as is the case with airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick. Weather this would apply in all weather conditions is unclear.
- The proposed plans would lead to the destruction of several villages on the Hoo Peninsula, communities that have existed for a long time and should not be asked to pay the price for economic benefits for others. Ultimately this is a value judgement. Many projects in the past have had similar impacts, and many more in the future will no doubt do so. It is also clear that many people feel that this is deeply morally wrong, as can be seen by the regular protests that pop-up where communities are threatened by development projects, often attracting protesters from far away.
- The Themes Estuary is home to many thousands of geese. Aircraft are a threat to geese, but equally geese are a threat to aircraft. Birdstrike (where a large bird such as a goose enters a jet engine with devastating consequences) is a major cause of civil aviation disasters. One of the reasons that the Cliffe Airport proposal was dropped in 2003 was a study that suggested an airport on the Themes Estuary would have at least as high a risk of birdstrike as any current UK airport, and possibly as much as twelve times the level of risk. Surprisingly where aircraft come into conflict with geese the geese tend to win out in the long run, since collisions tend to result in the loss of as many aircraft as geese, and geese are rather easier to replace.
- The Hoo Peninsula is low-lying, and would be at risk from rising sea-levels due to global warming. This is true, although the Grain Airport proposals do include improved sea defenses for the Themes Estuary. Ultimately this depends on how bad sea level rise gets. The worst case scenarios put most of London underwater, which would rather reduce the need for an extra airport to serve it. Also improved sea defenses for London and Medway shift the danger of flooding from a tsunami-type event further out on the estuary, increasing the risk of flooding in East Kent and Essex.
- Aircraft contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore global warming. We should be looking at ways to reduce air-travel, not increase it. Again this is true, though unclear if this is a persuasive argument. This is another area where debate has become politically polarized, with many politicians on the right, including a majority of current Conservative MPs in the UK, simply refusing to believe in climate change. This is a fairly new development; Margaret Thatcher (who studied Chemistry at Oxford University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society) was one of the first world leaders to recognize the threat presented by global warming. As such it is possible that this trend may be reversed and politicians will start to look at this subject without partizan pre-judgement, particularly if the effects of climate change start to become more pronounced, but at the moment this can tend to stall debate.
- Aircraft produce dangerous levels of nitrous oxides (NOx) which are harmful to health, so building major new airports near to population centers such as the Medway Towns should be avoided. Again this is somewhat of a political value judgement. Repeated studies have shown this to be a threat, but we continue to build airports close to towns as many politicians believe the economic benefits outweigh the costs.
- Building an airport near to the Grain LNG Terminal would be extremely dangerous. It would; as noted above, these projects must involve moving the terminal, even if this isn't being spelt out.
- The site is close to the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery, which is full of explosives and may explode at any time. The SS Richard Montgomery sank in 1944 off the coast of Sheerness (where it can still clearly be seen), and was indeed packed with explosives. Nobody really knows how dangerous this is, though the wreck has been there for 65 years without exploding, so it is likely that the seawater has had some chemical effect on the contents of the hold. In any case a ship-load of explosives near an airport does not seem notably more dangerous than a ship-load of explosives near an LNG Terminal.
- There are extensive wind-farms on the Themes Estuary, and increased air-traffic may interfere with these. There is no evidence that this is the case, and in any case the Grain Airport does include a tidal barrage which would also generate green energy. However there is considerable evidence that wind-turbines can interfere with radar on aircraft, which makes it hard to obtain permission to build wind farms near airports or flight paths. If this is the case then it is likely that the building of a major airport on the Themes Estuary would require the removal of many turbines from the area.
- We are running low on oil reserves, and it is unlikely that we will have enough aviation fuel in future to permit cheap, mass air travel. This is a very real threat to the aviation industry. We know we are close too, or may even have passed, Peak Oil (the point at which we have taken more oil out of the ground than there is left in it) and that our oil consumption continues to grow. While there are plans of sorts to switch electricity production, and fuel for cars, to other sources, the aviation industry remains heavily dependent on petrochemicals. Solar powered aircraft have been successfully demonstrated, but with nothing like the capacity to lift a commercial airliner. This makes bio-fuels (oil products derived from crops) the most likely future fuel for aircraft. But such fuels would almost certainly be far more expensive than fossil fuels, since the crops from which they are derived would have to compete for agricultural land against food crops in a world with a rising population. Since Lord Foster admits his airport would take between fifteen and twenty-five years to bring to completion it is likely that this problem will rear its head long before the airport is complete.
The SS Richard Montgomery.
In conclusion then, it would seem likely that a new airport on the Hoo Peninsula would be highly disruptive to the local environment, population and existing businesses in the area, and that it would have, at best, doubtful economic benefits. Having said that many of the peripheral projects associated with the Grain Airport plan could potentially be beneficial to the local economy, and might therefore be worth pursuing in their own right.
See also Rethinking Energy.