Analysis

Political fudge or credible contender? Boris Island seems destined for Howard Davies' shortlist

Thames Hub - a brand new four runways airport for the London

London Mayor Boris Johnson’s dream to create a new four runway airport in the Thames Estuary failed to make it onto the government Airport Commission’s shortlist of schemes for development last December. But it is clearly very far from being dead in the water. 

The Mayor’s official aviation champion Daniel Moylan has made it pretty clear that failure by the Commission to take forward a Thames Estuary option would be vigorously opposed - perhaps even using legal channels. 

And while pleased that estuary options would now be put through a nine month examination and evaluation process by Sir Howard Davies’ Commission, Moylan was unequivocal that, given the Mayor’s legal duty to uphold the social, environmental and business interests of the capital, this proposal could not be ignored.

“The Commission has treated the Mayor at arms’ length as if it was on a par with other private companies,” he said pointing out that the Commission had so far failed to engage with the Mayor’s office and had indicated that it was unlikely to do so in forthcoming work to examine the estuary options more closely. 

Danial Moylan“The decision making has had a touch of Simon Cowell. It is time for the Commission to engage with the Mayor” Danial Moylan

“Where is the voice of public interest. The Mayor does have a lot more information to give,” he said. “The decision making has had a touch of Simon Cowell. It is time for the Commission to engage with the Mayor.”

Speaking at the recent RunwaysUK event in London, Moylan pulled no punches when it came to his views of the Commission’s conclusions and its favouring of schemes at Heathrow and Gatwick.

“The Mayor has been unsettle by the Commission’s report. The Mayor supports expansion but not at the expense of harm,” he said. “The worst possible outcome for London is a third runway at Heathrow – and inevitably a fourth to follow.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson remains opposed to Heathrow expansion

“The creation of a monstrous Heathrow on a constrained site won’t solve our capacity crisis and would inflict untold misery on hundreds of thousands more Londoners through the din of many more jet engines in parts of the Capital and home counties that have not so far experienced it” Boris Johnson

Moylan’s view, of course, underlined Mayor’s continued opposition to development at Heathrow, which Johnson spells out on Transport for London’s website: 

“The creation of a monstrous Heathrow on a constrained site won’t solve our capacity crisis and would inflict untold misery on hundreds of thousands more Londoners through the din of many more jet engines in parts of the Capital and home counties that have not so far experienced it,” says Johnson. “A new hub in the inner estuary can be built for the same cost as a four runway Heathrow, and would bring new jobs, homes, and long term competitiveness.”

Work to examine the estuary options was announced by Davies’ in December as his interim report confirmed three shortlisted proposals – the north west development at Heathrow, the Heathrow Hub and expansion at Gatwick – would be taken forward for closer scrutiny.

This work will be led by the Commission itself and a decision on whether or not to include the estuary scheme in the shortlist will be taken by around September this year.

“We want to ensure that we have carefully considered the options,” Davies explained emphasising that the process was not simply a fudge to avoid a political row. “Could we sensibly rule it in or out? We decided that we could do neither and that is why we are now doing this work.”

Once in a century opportunity

Davies accepted that building a new airport in the estuary was a “once in a century” opportunity to shift of economic activity eastwards and so highly compelling and so “bound to capture imaginations”.

Four areas to be examined are:

  1. Environmental implications – is compensation for loss of habitat practical?
  2. Aviation industry response – what would influence airlines to go there?
  3. Socio-economic impacts of the scheme
  4. Surface transport – the new rail and road routes to London

Cost row - battle lines drawn

Under particular scrutiny will be the £80-100bn price tag that the Commission estimates will need to be spent to enable a new airport to be constructed. Not least given that TfL and the scheme’s designer architect Foster and Partners put the price at nearer £24bn and complains that, by contrast, estimates for expansion at Heathrow have been grossly underplayed

“Our cost estimates are £20bn for a four runway airport compared to £18bn for a third runway at Heathrow”
Huw Thomas, Foster and Partners

“Our cost estimates are £20bn for a four runway airport compared to £18bn for a third runway at Heathrow,” says Fosters partner Huw Thomas. “Four runways gives you the resilience you need. Carbon savings come from less time spent on the ground and in stack and being adjacent to HS2 gives you the access to the rest of the UK.”

Thomas also disputed the Commission’s figures that £28bn would be needed to upgrade surface access to an estuary airport. Existing capacity from HS1 and extensions to Crossrail plus £4bn for a new rail link would, he said, cover the access needs to 100M pass/yr. 

Should the estuary option make it to the shortlist it will join the process launched in January for a detailed appraisal of each of the proposals. 

The framework for this work was put out for consultation until 28 February after which each shortlisted scheme promoter will have six weeks to submit their revised bids.

“Could we sensibly rule it in or out? We decided that we could do neither and that is why we are now doing this work”
Sir Howard Davies

Davies was clear that the surface access strategies of all options would be handled directly by the Commission – working independently but engaging all the appropriate public agencies and private sector firms to enable an independent business case to be assembled for each proposal.

“Clearly a lot of work will be required by the promoters to ensure that we use the time well and to enable the new government to hit the ground running.”

Programme

Consultation on appraisal framework for shortlisted schemes – 16 January to 28 February

Consultation on term of reference for appraisal of estuary options – 16 January to 14 February

Call for evidence of estuary options – 16 January 2014 - 23 May 2014

Revised submissions by shortlisted proposers – mid April 2014

Estuary airport study output published for consultation - July 2014 

Estuary airport evaluation – complete September 2014

Final recommendation by Commission – summer 2015