What can we expect from the Thames Estuary airport? A resilient capital or lethal threats to our health and wildlife?

Written by Elena Collins on 13 February 2013

Earlier this week, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, appointed Atkins, one of the world's leading design, engineering and project management consultancies, to play a leading role in helping develop plans for a multi runway hub airport in the South East of England. Commenting on the appointment, Mike Pearson, UK director of airports, Atkins said: “This project is not purely about the creation of a new hub airport, it’s about forming the foundations for London’s future development and reaffirming the UK’s position as a key international centre.’’

Gensler's concept for a floating aviation hub on The Thames.© Vyonyx

Daniel Moylan, aviation advisor to Boris Johnson, reaffirmed this message at the London Aviation Debate, hosted by World Cities Network and World Architecture News, on the 5th February, stating a new airport would boost the economy and create jobs. But would the Thames Estuary airport make London a resilient capital? What are the real risks to our health and wildlife? And who is paying for the airport?

In the European Union, greenhouse missions from aviation increased by 87% between 1990 and 2006. Currently about 110 people in the UK die early every year due to airport emissions. Of these deaths, about 50 are directly due to emissions from Heathrow, according to research, funded by US university MIT.

That figure may climb to 150 if a third runway is built, the study claims. The research argues that the Thames Estuary would be a healthier option. Steve Barrett from MIT told the BBC ‘"Because of the location of the Thames Estuary airport, such an airport would be further away from major population centres so fewer people would be exposed to pollution from that airport.’’

However, aviation experts say the study is unfair as it does not take into account the number of passengers who would need to travel to the remote airport, the amount infrastructure that would need to built to connect the airport to London and the airport itself would cause pollution on a huge scale. Heathrow alone generated a carbon footprint of 2.32 million tonnes of CO2 in 2011. A study done for the Greater London Authority showed 4,000 people per year dying from illnesses linked to air pollution in London.  This figure would only increase if airports around the capital were to expand.

Foster + Partners Thames Hub Design © Foster + Partners

It is not only ourselves who would be put at risk by the Thames Estuary expansion. At the London Aviation debate, Paul Outhwaite from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds explained: “We’re not worried about birds hitting planes, we’re worried about planes hitting birds.” Referring to the Thames Estuary as ‘one of the Canterbury Cathedrals of ecology’. Outhwaite explained it would be impossible to relocate the 300,000 birds that currently live in the Thames Estuary and the inability to compensate for the ecology that would be lost should a transport hub be constructed at this location.

The Thames Estuary airport land, surrounding areas and waters include five separate Special Protection Areas and a Special Area of Conservation preserved for its species-rich estuaries, mudlflats and salt meadows. Much of the area is also covered by the Ramsar international convention on wetlands. The areas would be unable to survive under the huge infrastructure project and if Heathrow were to close the offset would be too small. An article in the Sunday Times revealed that offsetting schemes involving tree planting can take a century to remove the CO2 from the atmosphere.

The third obstacle for the South East airport, which was not mentioned at the Avitation Debate, lies beneath the surface. The SS Richard Montgomery, an American cargo ship during the Second World War, is wrecked off the Essex coast near Sheerness on Sea has around 1,400 tons of explosives onboard. The ship contains 2,000 cases of cluster bombs, nearly 600 500lb bombs and more than 1,000lb bombs. Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert said without a "plan to deal with this mess there's no way the plans will get off the ground." If these bombs were disturbed and explored during construction they would create a tidal wave upto 16ft high, engulfing the newly erected transport hub.

Interestingly at the Aviation Debate last week, the panel in favour of expansion in the South East never mentioned how the airport would be funded. A report by the economic consultants, Oxera, commissioned by the Commons Transport Committee has shown that a massive hub airport in the Thames Estuary would only be viable if it had a subsidy, from UK taxpayers, of £10 – 30 billion. Oxera looked at various scenarios, and found that otherwise such an airport would not be viable or provide the sorts of returns that a private investor would require.  

So, what is a logical step for London? On the one hand Heathrow could expand. “A third runway is a ready-to-go solution and offers the path of least resistance'' explained Richard Gammon, Senior Vice President, Director of Aviation and Transportantion at HOK. One the other, we can expand what we already have. Luton put through a planning application last November and is awaiting approval. An expansion in the North of London would be the more logical solution as it would be easier for the rest of the UK to access, bridging the north-south divide. Plus, the infrastructure is already in place.

It is time to face the fact that our carbon footprint is out of control. The UK produced 649 million tonnes CO2 in 2010 and if we are to meet the government's target for 2050 by limiting greenhouse gases to 2005 levels or below, our airports can only support 138 million more passengers a year. The new Thames Hub would increase capacity beyond what is recommended which could have potential detrimental effects on our health and wildlife. If airport expansion is vital, a rational step is to use what we already have. By expanding airports north of London the rest of UK can benefit from it, not only those in the South East. The government has already appointed Sir Howard Davies to lead an independent inquiry into UK airport capacity. The findings are due in 2015, it will not be until after the next general election, that we will know the governments final decision.

Categories: Transport, Design, Economy, Environment, Governance, London