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Estuary airport would be an environmental disaster

18th January, 2012

The Government’s draft policy for UK aviation in March will include a proposal for a Thames Estuary airport, according to press reports today. But for the Government to refuse a third runway at Heathrow for environmental reasons and then to support the building of a new airport in the Thames Estuary would defy all logic. It would increase CO2, generate new noise problems, and have significant impacts on the local ecology, not least as a result of providing surface access by road and rail.

In relation to CO2 in particular, the Committee on Climate Change has made clear that for the UK to be able to meet our climate objectives, aviation emissions need at least to stabilise (if not to reduce). Some growth would be possible under this scenario – possibly as much as a 60% increase in passenger numbers by 2050 – but research conducted by AEF for WWF concludes that current airport infrastructure is sufficient to accommodate all of this growth. In other words, new airports in the UK are not needed.

Aside from environmental considerations, many in the industry doubt that a new airport could attract sufficient traffic to be economically viable. As noted in the DfT’s conclusions last time it looked at the possibility of an estuary airport ten years ago, although offshore airports have been built in other parts of the world, none of them have been part of a multi-airport system as would be the case in the South East. The financial viability of a new estuary airport would therefore be likely to depend on Government intervention to try to ensure early take up of new capacity by passengers and airlines which would almost certainly entail costs to the public purse. As Colin Matthews, chief executive of BAA which owns Heathrow told the BBC today: ‘London “can’t have two hubs”.

For a historical review of failed proposals for airports in the Thames Estuary over recent decades, see AEF’s position paper from 2009.