diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stuff climate change. What London needs, obviously, is a new carbon-guzzling airport. Otherwise international air travellers will go somewhere else and the UK will become less important and that would never do. If you accept this argument, then a new runway or two in the southeast appears inevitable. Heathrow wouldn't be popular, because that would involve bulldozing communities and blighting the lives of vociferous constituents. So Boris is looking east to somewhere where nobody lives and no Londoner votes. To an artificial island in the middle of the Thames Estuary. Yeah right.

Shivering SandsUnlike the great majority of Londoners I've actually been to Boris Airport. Or at least I've taken a boat to the watery spot where it's most likely to possibly end up, five or so miles off the North Kent coast. The site's a long way out, nearly halfway to Essex in the middle of the major Thames-bound shipping lanes. I must say I wasn't thinking "airport" when I visited, I was thinking "oh my word blimey, look at these magnificent wartime Maunsell forts, aren't they bloody wonderful (if a bit rusty)". But if the Mayor gets his way then, sorry folks, the atmospheric wartime survivors at Shivering Sands will all have to be demolished. Typical - these iconic anti-aircraft platforms spent most of World War Two trying to shoot down swarms of German bombers, and now in the 21st century some foreigner called "Boris" wants to drop an entire bloody airport on top of them.

And then there's the adjacent wind farm. 30 massive turbines whirring in mid-channel, each towering more than 100 metres above the water, transmitting umpteen megawatts of eco-clean energy via a long cable to the coast. They're an important part of SE England's contribution to sustainable energy, but they'll have to be demolished too. That's according to a feasibility report published this week, which points out numerous impracticalities related to a proposed estuary airport but suggests that none are insurmountable. If politicians really want to plonk an airport at the mouth of the Thames, only insufficient money will stop them. And if they start planning soon, you might all be out here catching flights by 2029.

Kentish Flats wind farm

Obviously airport users wouldn't be catching an inflatable boat out from Herne Bay, they'd be arriving by train. Access would be via a five mile tunnel beneath the estuarine sands - a bit like the Channel Tunnel Rail link only not quite so deep. There'd actually be two tunnels, one per floating runway. Trains would whizz in underground from London, either north via Shoeburyness(ish), or south via Sheppey. The airport terminals would be a long way from the centre of town (the report says 96km), which would be quite a trek even on the high speed trains of the future. They're bound to be expensive trains too, adding a premium to any BorisDrome flight, and rather more costly than the Gatwick or Stansted Express or the Piccadilly line to Zone 6. If the airport ever happens, that is.

The latest feasibility report has been produced by "The Thames Estuary Research and Development Company", a company now well positioned to build on Boris's interest in this airport scheme. One of its founding members is a floating runway engineer who's the former Chairman of Crossrail... and he's come up with a scheme which relies on Crossrail-like railway connections to a floating runway. Funny that. The report also attempts to add credibility to Johnson's pipedream by suggesting how positive the entire project might be. An estuary barrage could help to protect London's World Heritage sites (and 16 hospitals) from North Sea flooding. Tidal lagoons could help to boost renewable energy targets in a post-peak-oil world. The economic centre of London could shift east, bringing prosperity to the Thames Gateway (and jobs, houses and industry to the marshes of Foulness and Sheppey). The airport could run 24 hours a day, because there'd be nobody local to complain about the noise. And if an evil terrorist decided to blow up a plane on takeoff, nobody in London would get killed. So that's alright then.

Whitstable Street, from Tankerton HillExcept, even if it is technically feasible, does anybody really want to build an airport in the middle of the sea? It'd be inconveniently located, and prone to closure when the weather's bad, and at risk from birds flying into jet engines, and a pain for shipping. Rather than being able to change flights at Heathrow, long-haul passengers would find themselves having to travel umpteen miles across the southeast for their onward connection. The people of north Kent and southeast Essex would have to sacrifice their Thames-edge landscape so that Londoners could breathe in a bit less pollution and sleep with their windows open. And the view from Southend or Whitstable would be permanently tarnished by offshore swooping jumbos and a giant duty-free shed on the horizon. Thank goodness this flight of fancy will surely never be built - and I'll only ever visit once, to some rusting forts, on an insignificant bobbing boat.

If you can't be bothered to read the official report, read the London Reconnections summary.
Media reaction: Sunday Times; BBC; Evening Standard; Guardian; Kent Online
Blogger reaction: Sheppey's MP; Tory Troll; Boris Watch; Musings from Medway
Campaign to stop the Estuary Airport
Map showing where the airport (and associated infrastructure) probably might be
Trips to the sea forts: mine; Hywel's; Sub-Ex

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