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BBT March/April 2019 cover
March/April 2019

Boris Johnson resurrects Thames Estuary airport plan

Boris Johnson is refloating plans for a four runway hub airport at the Thames Estuary in East London.

The plan dubbed ‘Boris Island’ was last year rejected by the Airports Commission as a credible option for airport expansion in the south east, due to cost and environmental issues.

In a report 'Landing the right airport', the Mayor's team sets out the case against the expansion of Heathrow - and the logic behind building a four-runway hub to the east of London.

Johnson said that there was no silver bullet for Heathrow's “noise nightmare” and the only solution to Britain's “aviation dilemma” was to pursue plans for a new hub airport to the east of the capital, away from populated areas.

“Its cramped urban location simply cannot accommodate the kind of airport this country requires to compete on the global stage and the cost to the taxpayer of necessary road and rail connections would be huge, however well disguised,” said Johnson.

“That means the Government has a bold decision to make - but not a difficult one. They must surely finally recognise that the only long term vision that sustains our economy and safeguards our health is to build a four runway hub airport at the Thames Estuary or Stansted,” he said.

Boris Island plan criticised for cost and environmental issues

Daniel Moylan, aviation adviser to Mr Johnson, said a hub airport to the east of London would cost £20bn to £25bn - with an extra £25bn required to building road and rail connections.

He added the cost of building Heathrow would be four-times the estimated £20 billion due to schemes such as a direct rail link between the west London airport and Waterloo station or the cost of maintaining new roads and tunnels up to 2050.

In July, the commission recommended building a new runway at Heathrow rather than providing a second runway at Gatwick. The government delayed making a decision on which plan to approve until at least the end of this summer.

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I'm happy to see that Boris Johnson raises the noise issue, which I believe is the biggest reason why expanding Heathrow would be a mistake. The Airport Commission's report concluded that the benefits to the economy would be greater if the runway is built as Heathrow, but also that the problems with noise would be far bigger, compared to an expansion of Gatwick. I'm therefore not sure how the commission could conclude with such confidence that Heathrow would be the best option. After all, how one weighs the economic advantages against the noise issues must be a subjective matter. I presume this explains why the Government was unable to make a decision in December last year as otherwise promised, even though the Airport Commission's report had been available to them for half a year.

The number of people affected by an "annoying" level of noise from Heathrow (766,000) is extreme compared to any other European airports. Frankfurt, Paris CDG, and Amsterdam have the same number of movements as Heathrow, yet the number of people affected is just 239k, 170k, and 44k respectively, according to a 2006 study (in which Heathrow was at 726k).

Looking at other UK airports, Gatwick handles 9,233 passengers for each person affected by noise, while Stansted is even higher at 12,467. The number for Heathrow is just 261, i.e. Heathrow affects 35 times as many people as Gatwick.

The definition of "annoying" levels of noise is rather theoretical and there will surely be many people outside this zone that are affected as well. Noise from Heathrow probably affects millions of people.

Heathrow claims that a third runway will not result in an increase in the number of people affected by noise compared to today. This is about as useful a statement as a government raising the taxes and then announcing that the number of people paying tax is unchanged. It's more interesting to look at the total amount of noise generated and I find it hard to believe that quieter planes and other technological improvements would be enough to cancel out the noise effect of a 50% increase in the number of flights. It's also very reasonable to expect that new technology should lead to improved life quality, such as a reduction in airport noise, rather than just maintenance of status quo.

I don't live in an area affected by airport noise, but have recently postponed the purchase of a house in area about 6 miles away from Heathrow, as I am waiting to see whether a third runway will be built. There is a wide range of areas outside the noise zone that could be affected and it's nearly impossible to predict which, due to the several new proposed flight paths. Even if a third runway isn't built, the government is likely to make changes to flight paths in the coming 5-10 years, such as curved approaches, which would mean that incoming planes would be spread over potentially 12 different areas, instead of just flying on two straight lines as they currently do. While this would reduce noise considerably in the areas lying under the existing arrivals paths, it would mean that a very high number of people previously not affected by noise would have approaching planes flying over them at a low altitude. The idea of sharing the burden between all the surrounding areas might seem fair, but it creates a lot of uncertainty amongst people looking to buy or sell property there.

I agree with Boris - the biggest airport in Europe shouldn't be located in a densely populated area. Expanding Heathrow is a short-term solution, which will lead to massive discontent and health problems amongst millions of people living nearby, and which will not give the options for further expansions in the future (after all, the Airport Commission has clearly ruled out a fourth runway), or 24/7 operating hours.

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Chris R (not verified)

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