Boris Johnson is the latest visionary to wade into the soggy morass of the Thames estuary and propose that an airport be sited there. The Tory mayoral candidate describes Heathrow as a “planning error” and proposes that it be shut down and a new London airport built to the east of the city.
I well remember my late father, Professor Peter Self, sitting on the Roskill Commission in the 1960s, although mostly because of his vivid description of going on an amphibious vehicle out to visit Foulness Island. The Commission was considering sites for a third London airport, and the Thames Estuary was on their list – only to be abandoned for Stansted because of cost considerations.
Now his old colleague on the Town and Country Planning Association is also promoting an estuarine airport, although this one might be on floating islands, rather than real ones. As for costs, at £13 billion they seem comparable to Heathrow expansion.
I suppose if these people must have a huge London airport then east is a good way to go: Heathrow is a nightmare, in terms of its banjaxed ground transport infrastructure and the daily disruption of Londoners’ lives by half a million flights a year booming over our heads and dropping tons of nitrous oxide on them. As for the likelihood of a plane coming down on the city, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
But an eastern airport won’t happen. Instead, successive governments in thrall to the aviation lobby have simply allowed Heathrow to get bigger and badder. Why? It can’t be because of the 72,000 jobs it’s estimated the airport provides. Frankly, the kind of employment offered by the likes of Gate Gourmet and Sock Shop isn’t that great, and doesn’t necessarily represent a sustainable contribution to London’s economy. Nor can it be because the additional 250,000 flights per year once the third runway is in operation will be such an earner, except for Heathrow’s retail operations and car parks.
It’s a little understood fact that the main revenue for BAA comes from these, not landing fees. Think of Heathrow as an enormous Bluewater, with customers arriving by plane, rather than as some key engine of London’s prosperity, and you’re closer to the truth. No, I think the mythology of airport expansion – and air travel itself – only has such potency as part of the worship of the market, and the ceaseless growth we devoutly believe it will bring.
Why not consider the possibility of investing that £13 billion (which will really be double that) in more sustainable forms of ground transportation such as high-speed rail to cut down on domestic flights? And why not entertain the notion – heretical, I realise – that being able to go and buy a pair of pants in Prague isn’t the only possible indication of socio-economic wellbeing?