Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island)

John Stewart of AirportWatch argues that the announcement of Cameron's support for an island estuary airport owes nothing to its efficacy and everything to political gamesmanship


John Stewart is the chair of AirportWatch

The high-profile way David Cameron chose to make the announcement that the government will look at the merits of a new airport in the Thames Estuary suggests that it has as much to do with political calculation as aviation policy. He will be hoping that the London mayor’s persistent championing of the proposal will garner him votes from West London in the forthcoming mayoral elections.

Only last week Boris Johnson announced that he would build new river crossings in East London. Cameron’s announcement has been calculated to boost the image of Johnson as a ‘can-do’ mayor who is able to deliver big infrastructure projects for London despite the financial crisis.

His announcement also serves the political purpose of reassuring business, which for years has been calling for new infrastructure, that the government is prepared to invest in major projects despite the cuts it is making.

According to today’s Daily Telegraph, the announcement had been intended to be made at the same time as the high-speed rail link to Birmingham was given approval but was only held back because of Liberal Democrat doubts about the estuary airport.

The prime minister is aware he is creating a mirage of economic activity. He knows that construction work on high-speed rail is years away. He also knows that the estuary airport may never happen. He staged a drama for political effect.

It has been likely for some time now that the estuary airport would be considered as an option in the government draft aviation policy, which for over a year had been scheduled for publication in March.

The first indications that the government was prepared to row back on its policy of no new runways in the South East came in George Osborne’s autumn statement in November when he indicated that, apart from expansion at Heathrow, all other options for airport growth would be considered.

It has become clear that the new transport secretary Justine Greening was not opposed to examining the merits of an Estuary Airport.

The government is fully aware of the obstacles if they were to push ahead with an Estuary Airport.

First, what would it do about Heathrow? There is not the market for two international hub airports in the South East, according to the last study into the subject, carried out by the Department for Transport (DfT) in preparation for Labour’s 2003 aviation white paper.

The DfT assumed Heathrow would need to close down. It directly employs 76,000 people, with well over another 100,000 jobs indirectly depend on it. Would any government be prepared to face the political and economic consequences of shutting down Heathrow? West London’s economy has almost certainly become too dependent on Heathrow but the reality is that it is too big to fail.

Secondly, a new four-runway airport would almost certainly rule out any chance of the government meeting its climate change targets.  It would only consider four-runway estuary airport, operating 24 hours a day since its only attraction is that is would provide at least double the capacity of Heathrow.

Even if future generations of aircraft are cleaner, the implications of this for climate change are huge. If a third runway had been built, Heathrow would have become the biggest single emitter of CO2 in the country. The proposed estuary airport would send CO2 emissions soaring at a time when aviation is already the fastest-growing source of emissions in the UK.

Thirdly the local impacts of an estuary airport would be significant. The area is a bird sanctuary of international renown, a designated area, a place protected by European statutes.

Noise would also impact on a wide area. The noise footprint of a four runway airport would be considerable. Even allowing for the fact that a lot of flying would be over the sea, it is evitable that communities as far as 30 miles from the airport will be disturbed. It is significant that nobody has dared tell local communities how far the noise footprint from the airport would extend. It is a toxic issue.

The cost of the new airport is put at £40-£50 billion. I expect that money could be found if business got behind it in a big way. However, given the opposition it would generate, it would be surprising if the proposal ever got that far.

It would unite local communities, environmentalists (including some of the wealthiest NGOs in the country like the RSPB), workers in West London and direct action activists. I’m sure Plane Stupid are already taking swimming lessons!

Moreover, it might well divide the business community with firms in West London and Berkshire, not to mention BAA, the owners of Heathrow, likely to be unhappy with any thought of Heathrow losing its international hub status.

When David Cameron gave his support for the case for an estuary airport to be examined, he would have been well-aware that the obstacles to it ever becoming a reality are so overwhelming that it is likely to remain just a gleam in Boris Johnson’s eye. But he hopes that backing Boris Island might just help get Johnson re-elected.

See also:

Expensive and ineffective: Boris Johnson’s island airport (even Tories think so)John Stewart, November 21st 2011

£200m of aid budget to be spent on St Helena airport – after lobbying from Lord AshcroftDavid Taylor, November 4th 2011

Aviation industry turn on Greening over her opposition to third runwayJohn Stewart, October 17th 2011

Coalition aviation policy is still green… for nowNatan Doron, March 29th 2011

Boris’s airport arguments don’t stand up to scrutinyJohn Stewart, March 18th 2011

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25 Responses to “Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island)”

  1. Joss Garman

    Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island): from @airportwatch's John Stewart

  2. Pulp Ark

    Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island) #Left_Foot_Forward #airport #aviation #Boris #muslim #tcot #sioa

  3. Anonymous

    Far better than creating a massive debt that will never be paid.

    However this is how it will work.

    Lots of consultants get employed to do feasability studies, all at the public expense.

    Look at Crossrail. 1 billion spent before they even got a spade out of the cupboard.

  4. Patron Press - #P2

    #UK : Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island)

  5. Political Planet

    Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island): John Stewart of AirportWatch argues that the announcement of Cameron's supp…

  6. Plane Stupid

    Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island): from @airportwatch's John Stewart

  7. enviro gist ♻ @leftfootfwd Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island): from @airportwatch's John Stewart

  8. Alex Hern

    @christianwolmar @BorisWatch <plug>As Left Foot Forward wrote this morning: </plug>

  9. John Stewart

    Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island): from @airportwatch's John Stewart

  10. Sam

    I live in the North and find Manchester or Liverpool satisfactory for my limited need to fly. Consequently I pass no comment on the merits or otherwise of this proposal, but the article does raise a general point. What are we to do about renewing, modernising or generally improving our large infrastrucure? As this article makes clear, as soon as any large project is suggested there are a huge number of interests that will find reasons to oppose it. The proponents tend to be diffuse and argue from general principles of public good, the opponents tend to be concentrated and argue from specific and demonstrable detriment to them or their specific interests. My instinct tells me that as a nation we must be constantly updating our infrastructure for the sake of future generations, my heart is very often with the objectors. How on earth are we going to square this circle?

  11. Anthony Rae

    Aviation: AirportWatch’s John Stewart responds to Thames Estuary airport story

  12. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island)

  13. AirportWatch

    Aviation: AirportWatch’s John Stewart responds to Thames Estuary airport story

  14. James

    It was the environmental concerns that shafted a Thames Estuary airport last time, so I suppose it’s just a coincidence that the Habitat Regulations were shafted back in autumn at a time when we’re looking into huge environmentally damaging mega-projects like this…

  15. Ruth Nia

    Cameron backing Boris Island – huff @fonkm #birds #wildlife

  16. Birmingham FOE

    Excellent article by John Stewart on Cameron's support for Boris Island Airport: #notoaviationexpansion

  17. Keith Parkins

    Aviation: AirportWatch’s John Stewart responds to Thames Estuary airport story

  18. North Kent Marshes

    "The government is fully aware of the obstacles if they were to push ahead with an Estuary Airport"

  19. North Kent Marshes

    RT @ruthnia: Cameron backing Boris Island – huff’m-backing-boris-island/ @fonkm…

  20. Mr. Sensible

    It’s a ridiculous idea.

  21. David Gillon

    Let’s see, I’m an unemployed aviation professional living just a few miles from the proposed site, and there are no jobs for me in the local area. I also believe the UK desperately needs additional airport capacity. So I’m in favour, right?

    Wrong. The article touched on the reason with “The area is a bird sanctuary of international renown”, but didn’t follow that through to its logical conclusion. Aircraft+Birds=Aircraft without engines – not something you really want to contemplate when a few hundred feet in the air. The Isle of Grain is a major migratory bird site, there is no way to keep birds from the proximity of the runways, and the consequence of an airliner sucking in a flock of geese seconds after takeoff or before touchdown doesn’t bear thinking about. We were desperately lucky that when this happened in New York to US Airlines flight 1549 Chesley Sullenberger had the skill to successfully ditch his A320 in the East River, simulations of ditchings tell us that most will end in disaster.

    I think additional runways are necessary, but at Heathrow and Gatwick, or anywhere else, anywhere but a site as unsafe as the Isle of Grain.

  22. Gill

    Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island): from @airportwatch's John Stewart

  23. All on 4

    Well, I think during the economy crisis like this and when the unemployment rate is high this will be a bad idea. I think the leader should think of a way to bring business to the country which will create job opportunity to the unemployed people. I think the leader should really think twice before they invest the money on some project.

  24. Leysiner

    Why isn’t the government addressing the Peak Oil issue here? There really is no viable alternative to kerosene for aircraft so civilian air travel is doomed anyway. How many years does it realistically have left? Five years of cheap flights, ten more of business flights, then a general juddering to a halt apart from a few military aircraft? There’s no point in thinking some new generation of miraculously-powered aircraft are going to appear – they’re not! Almost all transport in the future will be rail based, and NOT High Speed! The £50 billion for this project should be added to the £32 billion for HS2 and the lot spent on reversing the idiotic Beeching cuts, bringing rail transport back to millions and easing capacity on the existing network.

  25. Even if people prefer a 3rd runway to Boris Island, doesn't mean they like either | Left Foot Forward

    […] also: • Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island) – John Stewart, January 18th […]

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