The only thing that seems certain is that London and the South East needs more airport capacity. With a range of proposals put forward, the Airports Commission is due to get down to the nitty-gritty of where and how it is to be supplied
Words Pamela Buxton
Should it be a four-runway mega-hub in the Thames Estuary? Or maybe super-long runways at Heathrow? How about an incremental approach expanding Gatwick now, and Stansted later? Should Heathrow really be closed? These are the issues that will occupy Howard Davies' Airports Commission this year as it gets right down to the bare bones of how to expand airport provision in London and the South East.
This is one big hot potato, one of those eternal, unsolved issues that has always proved just too strategically - and politically - hot to handle. Expansion first came up for discussion nearly 50 years ago, and since then there has simply been too much riding on it for anyone to agree and implement a strategy. What's at stake is not only the homes and well-being of those unlucky enough to be near any new runways but - we're told - the very future of the UK's airline industry, with huge knock-on effects for the UK economy as a whole.
So it's not really surprising it is taking so long to solve. This is a huge strategic question about so much more than airports and runways, involving everything from roads, rail and port infrastructure, flood barriers, economic regeneration and the north-south balance of England. How to actually design the airport terminal will be the easy bit - the cherry on the icing on the cake, the final topping on the baked potato.
There has been no less than 52 submissions to the Commission of which just three have been shortlisted in its Interim Report (see box below). Two are for expansion at Heathrow (despite this being ruled out in 2010 by the Coalition Government) and one at Gatwick, with further consideration of an inner Thames estuary-based hub. The latter location is backed by London mayor Boris Johnson and may yet be promoted to the shortlist over the next few months. Meanwhile, the shortlisted schemes have until May to develop their proposals further in response to set-assessment criteria.
The aviation industry argues that something needs to happen if London airports are to maintain their global position in the face of competition from growing hubs such as Dubai, Istanbul and Amsterdam (Schiphol). Heathrow serves the largest number of international passengers in the world but is now effectively full, and Gatwick, London City and Luton will be at capacity by 2030.
The Commission cites the cost to the wider economy of doing nothing as £30bn-45bn. The question is, should the new capacity be a hub transfer airport or a more incremental solution, and whether hub expansion should be at an existing or new site. Expansion is understandably opposed by those who would potentially be directly adversely affected by it, and also by environmental lobbyists and activists Plane Stupid and Greenpeace, which cite noise, pollution, community destruction and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Comparing the options is a tough - some would say impossible - task, as they are all answering different questions in the absence of an overall strategic vision, aside from the vested interests of airports, airlines and London's mayor, says Chris Williamson of Weston Williamson, one of several architects who have admirably got stuck into the airport provision debate off their own bats, in its case proposing Luton. Foster's has been working on its Isle of Grain vision for four years, while Farrells was exploring the airport provision strategies before Gatwick asked the practice to advise it on runway expansion. At the same time, Gensler has been working on a hub for the outer estuary, Make at Stansted, and Grimshaw has been putting together a London hub City proposal. All present compelling cases.
'The estuary airports would be a fantastic location for London, and if London is to grow by two million people in the next 20 years, it makes sense to grow eastwards. But it's a terrible location for the rest of England,' says Williamson, describing the Commission process as 'a bit of a beauty parade'.
What's really needed is a strategic planning framework, according to Zoë Metcalfe, aviation director at Buro Happold. 'Lots of people think that the biggest thing we're missing is a UK planning framework to know how this fits in.' Buro Happold's independent view is that a four-runway hub airport would be best for a viable and profitable aviation business by delivering the right combination for long-haul, short-haul and point-to-point flights. Metcalfe is personally unconvinced by an estuary location, which she feels is overly driven by the need to regenerate the east of London rather than by what is right strategically for the whole country, and may result in a costly white elephant.
So will this Commission be the one to crack it? The timing of the next general election does not bode well in that a new government could simply duck the issue. What's essential, says Metcalfe, is that the business community presses for the outcome of the Commission to be acted on to ensure the UK doesn't lose out by doing nothing (see Listen, page 23).
The outcome of one of the previous commissions - Roskill 1968-1970 - is a salutary tale and perhaps gives hope to the options not chosen, or even shortlisted. Back then, the chosen option of Cublington in Buckinghamshire was swiftly abandoned and another location - Foulness in the Thames Estuary - chosen, only for this too to be shelved in 1974 amid the oil crisis. Forty years on, when the current commission finally delivers its verdict next summer, it will be anything but the final word in this debate. This one will run and run and maybe one day fly.
Thames Reach - AirRailHub
Norman Foster's vision wasn't the only inner estuary proposal. The less high-profile Thames Reach AirRailHub concept is for a 25 sq km platform 8m above sea-level projecting into the estuary from the Hoo Peninsula (Kent) and providing three 24-hour-a-day operable runways supported by two terminals with 12 satellites and two 10-track railway stations with direct access to Crossrail and HS1. It also involves a road/rail tunnel to Canvey Island (Essex) and a tidal pool.
Thames Reach Airport director Matthias Hamm argues that such a hub would future-proof the UK's position in global aviation and would be far less expensive, safer and less noise-polluting than expanding Heathrow. Central to the proposal is an integrated rail strategy incorporating Crossrail High Speed, regional and commuter services. Three runways could be completed by 2032 with potential for a further fourth.
'It's definitely a once-in-a-lifetime chance to really plan something with synergy, where one can produce an outcome that can be truly integrated,' he says, welcoming the Commission's decision to give further consideration to an estuary location.
This hub option, an independent proposal, expands and divides Heathrow's two runways to effectively create four, and was considered the wild card on the shortlist when it was announced. The first phase could be completed in just five years.
Heathrow Hub director Captain William 'Jock' Lowe argues that the Heathrow Hub is the most sensible, safe and cost-effective option and avoids the commercial risks of relocating to a new airport. It would, he says, disturb fewer people by extending what is there already, and by using the extra runway length to land early morning flights on the further parts 3km further west. He maintains that it is the simplest option, despite the need to either tunnel, bridge or divert the M25 to accommodate the longer runway/s. This, he says, is an opportunity to sort out the road bottleneck.
Lowe envisages the Heathrow Hub would reduce road congestion by connecting to existing mainline Great Western Rail services plus HS2 Crossrail services to the north. This new transport interchange would be 3.5km north of Terminal 5.
The plan was drawn up with engineering, construction and technical services group URS.
HeatHrow - New North-West Runway
Heathrow Airport proposes a third runway to the north-west, which it says will offer periods of noise respite and affect 15 per cent fewer households than today due to steeper landing approaches, quieter aircraft and the more westerly location.
The airport considers there should only be one new runway in the South East, and that this should be at Heathrow, where expansion is necessary to enable Heathrow to maintain its hub status and compete with Frankfurt and Amsterdam (Schiphol). This could be built, it says, faster and more cheaply than a new airport and operate 24 hours a day handling 110 million rising to 150 million passengers a year.
The extra runway would be 3,500m long - 1,500m longer than the previous expansion proposal in 2003. Passengers would travel through a new Terminal 6 and expanded Terminal 2 with satellite piers serving the new runway. It would cost an estimated £17bn and could be built in six years to be operational by 2026. The airport argues that this scheme would provide £100bn in economic benefits.
Farrells has been working independently on aviation provision in the South East and is currently advising Gatwick on its expansion plans. Rather than a single location mega-hub, Farrells proposes an incremental, constellation-hub approach forming what it terms a 'superaerotropolis'.
The first stage is another Gatwick runway and associated surface transport improvements; the second, another runway at Stansted when needed, thus avoiding the creation of one dominant airport while maintaining competition. The new Gatwick runway could be added after 2019, when a legal agreement with local residents not to expand expires. It could be delivered by 2025 at a cost of £5bn-£9bn. Farrells partner Neil Bennett says this approach has the least carbon costs and environmental damage, would cause the least noise disturbance, and has political support in the region. It is also far more achievable and less risky than an all-eggs-in-one-basket estuary solution. 'With the continued changes in aviation, we don't favour one big solution,' he says, pointing to future changes in plane types, airlines and travel patterns that are currently hard to predict. 'We suspect the time to be a hub airport has passed'.
Farrells has drawn up three options for the new runway location to the south offering different capacities up to 87 million people by 2050 ahead of a public consultation in April.
Foster + Partners has been proactively proposing a new hub airport on the Isle of Grain in the inner Thames Estuary since before the commission was established. It is an exciting, compelling vision for an integrated transport and economic strategy encompassing a new orbital rail system, and a new flood barrier. 'Transformative' benefits of an estimated £75bn would include 100,000 new jobs and regenerating the Thames Gateway.
Foster + Partners argues that, rather than the 'sticking plaster' incremental approach of expanding existing airports, this bold proposal meets urgent extra capacity need and offers a long-term strategy for future growth.
'If you're creating a global hub you need four runways,' says Foster + Partners' partner Huw Thomas. The airport would drastically reduce the number of households affected by aircraft noise and demolish fewer homes than expanding elsewhere. There are however major issues with bird feeding grounds. The airport would be built on a rectangular-shaped platform, 5.2km long, 4.5km wide and 7m above sea level, on a 20 sq km total site. It would be 26 minutes from central London via multiple rail routes.
While the Airports Commission thought the Isle of Grain scheme had the most merit of the estuary proposals, it called it extremely costly at around £112bn. Foster's doesn't recognise that figure, instead estimating £24bn.
Gensler is surprised and disappointed that its outer estuary vision isn't being considered further by the Commission.
As well as its noise pollution advantages, an outer estuary location east of Sheerness offers more freedom than an inner estuary site on the Isle of Grain, where there are shipping lane, bird feeding and gas issues, says managing director Ian Mulcahey.
Instead, the 15km-long outer site offers an unencumbered 'blue Greenfield site'. This would allow for the design of the optimum airport layout, bringing passengers out to the planes - which are situated in the middle to give access to all runways without crossovers, rather than bringing the planes to the passenger terminal.
London Britannia has potential for six runways providing 160 million passengers per year and, with the advantage of no land assembly or planning delay, could be built in seven years for £47bn. It would have an international ferry terminal plus high-speed rail connections to London, Gatwick, Stansted, the regions and Europe and would both revitalise the Thames Gateway and free up Heathrow for 'recycling' as homes and a tech enterprise zone (right).
Architecture practice Make felt Stansted was being overlooked in the airport debate and independently researched it as a potential site for expansion. Its proposal is for a hub with four parallel runways, two on either side of expanded terminal provision, ultimately handling around 120 million passengers each year.
'We thought we'd like to look at it with a clean slate as architects and think of what strategically is best for the country,' says partner Cara Bamford, adding that it then found Stansted to be extremely well placed for a gradual, phased expansion that utilised existing facilities and infrastructure.
The proposal, provisionally costed at £18bn for the airport campus, would utilise surrounding farmland and provide fast rail links into London and elsewhere via links to Crossrail 1 & 2. Other rail infrastructure options include linking into existing East Coast mainline and routes to London Stratford and Cambridge.
In its favour, it avoids flights over London and associated noise pollution, and would directly affect far fewer locals than a Gatwick or Heathrow option without the logistic complexities of proximity to the M25/M23. It would encourage economic regeneration to the east by boosting the growth of a development corridor from Tech City in east London out towards Cambridge.
Stansted Airport also made its own submission to the Commission, but neither was shortlisted, although the airport was mentioned as a potential option for a fourth runway in the 2040s.
If not at Stansted, it's essential that runway expansion does happen somewhere, rather than being lost in the post-election fallout, says Bamford. 'The thing we all agree on is that whatever's chosen, something needs to be done, because economically it is the best opportunity for the country,' she says.
Following its involvement in Crossrail and Old Oak Common (HS2), architecture and design practice Weston Williamson independently proposed a hub airport at Luton with potential for four runways. According to Chris Williamson, it makes sense to locate a hub where the infrastucture is already good, and Luton is well placed for the whole country not just London.
As well as the A1 and M1, the Luton hub would link directly to Thameslink and to both East (seven minutes) and West Coast (10 minutes) mainlines with new light-rail spurs to the terminal, the latter line freed up by HS2.
Luton's growth could be phased and wouldn't preclude further expansion at Heathrow, but would have scope to grow to four runways if needed. Expansion would be on land currently used for farming without the complications of birdlife and shipping lanes presented by some estuary options. It would expose drastically fewer people to noise pollution and congestion than Heathrow or Gatwick options and would be a stimulus for the whole of the UK. Inside, the terminal would be a departure from the usual sterile airport environments with natural ventilation, indoor-outdoor spaces, and leisure facilities.
'We think that if you're going to do something at Luton, it ought to have potential to be a hub,' says Williamson, although Luton Airport itself is proposing rather less ambitious expansion.