Having raked over the dead past a bit, let’s see how Lord Foster’s fresh ideas pan out against the usual checklist of Thames Estuary Airport talking points:

  1. Birdstrikes – since ‘seabirds’ are actually shorebirds the further out the better. Foster’s site is right on the shoreline and explicitly goes out of its way to preserve the seabird habitats, right along the western approaches to the runways where planes will usually be taking off.  Captain Sullenberger, possibly the only man who can be relied on to cope with this sort of thing, has unfortunately retired.
  2. Access – the requirement is usually expressed as four-track railway, preferably two of them high speed, plus two motorways as Heathrow currently has.  Foster apparently really likes drawing lines on maps and there’s a bold slashing of high speed rail all over the place including a Home Counties high speed bypass of London neatly avoiding, er, London.  It’s not entirely clear what the point of this is, other than to allow a lot of guff about ‘Spines’ – the ostensible reason that the best way from the Midlands to Europe is via Epping and Sheerness rather than London doesn’t really strike me as particularly well thought out.  Furthermore it’s more than a bit slapdash to assume that the ‘regional and local’ rail line doesn’t need to go to the nearest major town of Gillingham, instead following the existing freight branch which meanders off westwards towards Gravesend.
  3. New town – required to house 70,000 airport workers and their families with adequate transport, amenities, public services.  Not really addressed here.  Also not really addressed here is that the site of the airport is mostly not the estuary or even the mudflats but the Hoo Peninsula, which has a number of villages on it including All-Hallows, population 1649, with the eastern end occupying much of the Isle of Grain, which currently has a massive gas import facility which one presumes would have to be moved somewhere.  So that’s an order for enough land for 70,000 workers, their families, schools and hospitals, a few thousand displaced locals, a couple of power stations and a gas import facility.  Any offers from Kent residents to have that lot put down next to you?
  4. SS Richard Montgomery explosive shipwreck – conventional wisdom is that you either pick a site miles away or budget in removing the thing.  Foster contents himself with planting his airport runways 4km west of the wreck, directly between the final approach paths to the four runways.  Bold, outside-the-box thinking there.  It’s all a good laugh until someone hits a flock of gulls on takeoff and parks his Airbus on top of the wreck.
  5. Environment – Boris was sold the idea on the basis that the airport site would allow ‘a 24-hour operation, with no disturbance’.  Lord Foster’s site, 2.5km west of Sheerness, 5km south-east of Canvey Island, east of Gravesend and Tilbury would put 24 hour operations near some quite large populated areas.  It’s also 4km across water from the end of Southend Pier, sound carries and airports make lousy neighbours for other reasons too, such as air and light pollution.  Note: the CGI image of the airport from the east drastically shortens the Pier.
  6. Flightpaths – with the prevailing winds the widebodies heading east to the ‘Asian economies’ beloved of airport pushers are going to have to turn 180 degrees and climb, slowly, right along the north bank of the river and over the well populated bits of Essex around Basildon.  Anything heading to Europe goes the other way, over Gillingham.  Anything heading across the Atlantic now has to cross the London area, possibly via some kind of aerial M25
  7. Support – other than the starchitects, wannabees and construction industry mouthpieces there’s really very little support for the idea (I haven’t seen the airlines exactly queuing up and BAA are still pushing Heathrow expansion), and the local politicians of both main parties remain uniformly negative.

Indeed, what stands out of the Foster plan isn’t so much a bright future for London as a distaste for the place – the emphasis is essentially on avoiding the city the airport is supposed to serve.  Naturally the Mayor is delighted:

Mr Johnson, who believes a new Thames airport would solve the South-East’s growing aviation crisis, told the Standard: “I am delighted that a distinguished figure like Lord Foster agrees that the answer to Britain’s aviation needs lies in the estuary.”

Well, somewhere in the estuary, at least.  The site of Foster’s airport is about 20km from the site of Boris’s famous dredger jaunt.  At this rate the next site Boris will be hailing will be on Potters Fields, and he still won’t be getting the message.

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