Once again the media has become excited about proposals for a new London airport following reports that ministers are warming to the idea.
To be clear, there has been no new announcement, just lots of over-enthusiastic spinning by those who support a new airport in the Thames Estuary. The government is committed to reviewing aviation policy and capacity in the south east and a consultation paper is due in March.
But there is a growing recognition that London needs easy access to a major hub airport to protect its competitiveness. That recognition is welcome. The coalition has set its stall against expansion at Heathrow so other options need to be considered.
I would warn against the creation of a brand new hub. Even if you believe that Heathrow was built in the wrong place, the fact is it a successful hub airport, it does strengthen London's position as a major commercial centre and it is a major source of employment for the whole of west London.
If one drives from Heathrow into Central London you pass building after building all hosting major global names - they have located there because of the ease with which they can get from London to the rest of the world. Advocates of a brand new airport talk up the benefits in terms of jobs, but in fact all this will do will displace existing jobs away from West London.
It might also encourage some of these firms to look at putting their European HQs elsewhere - Madrid, Frankfurt, Paris will no doubt be rubbing their hands at the opportunities to seduce global companies away from London. BAA estimate the comepensation costs of closing Heathrow as being up to £12bn. My solution is better connectivity to existing airports and explore possiiblities afforded by expansion at Gatwick.
And just to be clear, my opposition to this proposal is not about nimbyism. The proposed locations for this new airport (and there are a number) are further away from my constituency than City Airport is. But it is important that advocates make the effort to understand the economics of the area they wish to put it in. West London commentators seem to think that north Kent and south Essex are no more than an industrial wasteland. Take this from Simon Jenkins, a passionate opponent of Heathrow expansion, who had this to say in the Evening Standard -
"Like most Londoners, I regard the Thames estuary and the settlements along its shore as unknown territory probably full of dragons. north Kent and south-east Essex are little visited, and much of them are little occupied. Marshes, flat farmland, islands and inlets merge into wide, hazy horizons. It was country beloved of Dickens and Conrad, perhaps because of its distance from the big smoke, its flat nothingness. There are pockets of charm, Hadleigh castle, a few fishing villages, the Medway estuary, the Sheppey coast, an old church here and there, but mostly it is a wilderness of marginal farms, oil terminals, squatter settlements and acres of mud and marsh. Is it not the best place for a vast fourth London international airport?"
I am well used to Londoners thinking that civilisation finishes at the boundary of the M25, but I have a message for Mr Jenkins. I am very proud to represent an area which hosts major business, is a major retail centre and is the port of London. Our port facilities are crucial to the British economy and the new development by DP World will establish Thurrock as the leading port hub in the country.
Far from the industrial wasteland he describes, Thurrock makes a substantial contribution to the British economy and punches well above its weight in what it contributes to the Exchequer. It is an area whose population is growing. There is an ambitious agenda for economic development in south Essex and the interests of our residents are every bit as important as the glitterati of west London.
And at a time when the government has committed billions for investment in HS2, there simply will not be the available funding for the new infrastructure needed to support a new airport in the Estuary. And on the subject of HS2, one of the reasons for linking that to Heathrow and CrossRail is to make the most of that connectivity. If we are saying that long term Heathrow will not be our hub, we are really undermining the case for the current HS2 route.
But that is just my view. The important thing is that we have a debate and come up with the best solution to the need for more airport capacity. The consultation paper due in March will give us the opportunity to have a full debate on all the issues surrounding airport capacity.
Any decision about future capacity must be rooted in what is best for our country and our economy. It will also force the advocates of the Thames Estuary airport to provide answers to questions - where are the employees going to live, what about the increased risk of birdstrikes, what do they think will happen to Heathrow and the people who work there, and, most importantly, where exactly will the private capital come from to build it. Until these questions are answered, the idea is no more than pie in the sky.
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