Boris Island - so what is in it for Suffolk, then?

Wednesday, 29 February, 2012

Boris Island? What is in it for Suffolk, then?

When I was talking to Boris Johnson last week, I asked him about “Boris Island.”  He told me that his scheme for a new airport hub in the Thames Estuary can go ahead only with the political courage and will of the government.

The hub would be based on the edge of the Isle of Grain, in Kent. It would comprise four runways, each 2.5 miles long, a new Thames flood barrier and a new four-track high speed rail link around London. There would be links to key shipping ports including Felixstowe in Suffolk. The Government is being pressed by MPs like me to carry out a consultation on a Thames Estuary airport as part of a wider discussion on airport policy, due to be launched this March.

With the London Olympics in sight, we are hoping to avoid embarrassment over the state of Britain’s airports.  Heathrow is already at 99 per cent capacity and is expected to have 45 per cent more passengers on the day of the closing ceremony. What is more, passenger demand for London’s airports is forecast to increase from 140 million passengers a year in 2010 to 400 million passengers a year by 2050. Failure to increase aviation capacity quickly will leave Britain lagging behind other European countries in terms of flights to growth destinations such as Latin America, India and the Far East. Paris and Frankfurt enjoy 1,000 more flights per year to the three largest cities in China than Heathrow does.

This problem has come about because David Cameron ruled out a third runway at Heathrow when he was Leader of the Opposition. This is a decision many in Westminster think he is now ruing. And business leaders are genuinely worried about its effect on Britain’s ability to compete commercially with our rival economies in the years ahead. So it is good that the Prime Minister is at least doing the right thing by taking Boris Island seriously.

There are benefits to a new airport in the Thames Estuary. It would be a huge opportunity to grow the economy and create jobs. It is a much better place for an airport than Heathrow. Almost every small glitch at Heathrow leads to prolonged delays and cancellations. Planes are noisily taking off and landing into the oncoming wind over central London for 19 hours per day. Boris Island would relieve the current danger and nuisance to residents living under the flight paths of existing London airports. It would limit noise pollution because planes would fly over the river rather than heavily populated parts of the capital. This means that flights can take off and land around the clock with little disruption to residents.

Some environmental critics have raised the issue of bird strikes- this is no more of a problem than at many other international airports and new technologies are helping reduce the risk to wildlife.

The airport on the Thames Estuary would be convenient for the people of Suffolk to reach, with planned extensions to the A13, and a high speed train link. It would provide a great boost to the deprived areas in North Kent and East London where property prices are low and competition for land is minimal. Most importantly, it would ensure that the Eastern side of London- and so East Anglia- is entrenched as an economic force for the next 50 years. And Suffolk would benefit greatly with the jobs, growth and wealth the airport would bring.

Some people say that there should not be a new Thames Estuary airport. Instead they argue we should build an extra runway at Stansted or Gatwick.

I have campaigned vigorously against more air stacking for Stansted and against the unnecessary nuisance it would bring to local residents. Tim Yeo and I won that argument.

As to Gatwick, it is bang in the middle of the Home Counties commuter land- the resident objections would be phenomenal, and this pretty much makes Gatwick as a hub airport a non-starter.   

Europe is in a deep economic hole. The debt crisis and a lack of competitiveness have led to countries across Europe having their credit ratings downgraded. There are warnings that Britain could potentially lose billions a year because of poor flight connections with emerging economies. Instead of digging deeper, we must try to climb out of the hole as soon as possible. With Heathrow heading for paralysis, we cannot afford not to build Boris Island.

Heathrow currently cannot serve the UK’s hub airport needs. I urge David Cameron and George Osborne to resist hostile opposition from their Coalition partners, reverse the mistakes of the past and say yes to Boris Island. There’s a lot in it for Suffolk and the rest of East Anglia.