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Thames Estuary Airport: A Vision For the Last Century

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There are 300,000 annual migrating birds currently using the area where the Mayor wants a new airport. They won't have a voice during the government consultation, but the RSPB will. It is a million strong membership organisation which regards the proposal as straight forward 'vandalism'. The Thames Estuary is ecologically sensitive, containing protected wildlife habitats which lots of people care about.

The airport proposal comes on the back of the Telegraph and the National Trust running a massive campaign against the government's attempts to tilt the planning system in favour of developers. Both the government and the Mayor of London have pushed the idea that it is jobs vs environmental protection. Put simply, a few hundred thousand birds shouldn't stop the tarmac being laid. The problem is that the birds can't simply be offered compensation and told to move somewhere else. The number of birds is twelve times higher than any other major UK airport and birds and planes don't mix.

In 2008, the current Mayor was cheered and clapped at election hustings for his promise to keep the previous Mayor's targets on reducing greenhouse gases. In fact, in the early days he probably had some genuine enthusiasm about trying to keep his promise .

Since then, environmental budgets have been underspent, the home insulation programme has fallen short of an unambitious target and the dreams of a 100,000 electric vehicles on the streets of London "as soon as possible" won't actually happen for another 490 years at the current rate of progress. The government backed the Mayor's plans to build a £700m new road tunnel across the Thames, but not the Mayor's climate change programmes. Job creation is to be based on the old fashioned recipe of roads and airports. Climate change isn't seen as a major problem any more.

Leaving aside the environmental concerns, is this giant airport really a good way of meeting the 'predict and provide' arguments put forward by the Mayor and others, for aviation growth? Many say that we already have sufficient available capacity across London's six airports and seven runways to meet demand to 2050 without having to build a further airport, especially given the trend towards larger planes and higher passenger loading.

The Mayor has focused attention on the lack of connections with the emerging economies, but Heathrow already offers far more flights to 20 of the world's 27 top business destinations and more business routes than Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt combined. It won't take a £50b new airport completed in the distant future to improve our connectivity.

By 2050, we will living with the reality of peak oil and flying may be seen as less economic when measured against video conferencing and more advanced forms of communication technology. Add to this a decline in domestic flights, plus a growth in train travel and a lot of the existing capacity could be freed up for any necessary, long haul flights. We could even encourage these natural trends with higher aviation taxes, which took into account the real environmental costs of flying. The world is changing so fast that the Estuary Airport could be redundant before it is even finished.

The Mayor has sold his Estuary Airport plans as visionary, but it is a vision which is already 50 years out of date.

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