Kit Malthouse: The Future of Heathrow

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In politics, you have to know when to stop digging. Once a fundamental mistake has been made, no amount of cosmetics, new initiatives or improvements can overcome the basic tragic error. This is nowhere more true than on the issue of Heathrow.

Terminal 5, the third runway, Crossrail, the OFT inquiry into BAA’s monopoly — all of them are misguided political attempts to gloss over the massive, catastrophic flaw that dogs Heathrow and means it will never, ever be what Britain wants and needs it to be.

It is time to face the truth and admit the problem: Heathrow is in the wrong place.

You need two vital ingredients for a successful international airport: the right wind and loads of space. Heathrow has neither. The prevailing wind in London is westerly. Aircraft have to land into wind; so all those massive beasts have to turn in right over Central London. The noise they cause means only a limited number of flights can land before 6am or after 11.30pm. But as the residents in West London will tell you, it only takes one plane coming over at 4am to wake you up and ruin your day.

Heathrow is also trapped. Hemmed in by the M4, M25 and the A30, surrounded by thousands of residents, our premier airport has nowhere to go and can only cram more and more into what little space is available. Add to this some truly idiotic planning decisions from the 1950s and you have what is commonly regarded as one of Britain’s greatest planning disasters.

Adding a third runway and a sixth terminal will only make the airport even more of a mess. So let’s move it.

The Parisians moved their main airport twice between 1960 and 1980. New York, Washington DC, Houston and Denver have all moved theirs. Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur both moved their airports in 1998 and the Athenians in 2001. Across the globe, cities are moving their airports to sites that optimise their location and scope for expansion.

The solution to the Heathrow issue lies in Hong Kong. Our former colony had a similar problem: a tiny international airport sandwiched among crowded residents with no room for expansion. But land is precious in Hong Kong so, without messing around, they simply built an artificial island in the right spot and put a spanking new, efficient, prize-winning airport on it. It took six years and $20 billion including a bullet train into town that gets you there in 20 minutes. When you remember that Crossrail is costing $32 billion and the Olympics almost $20 billion, it seems a bit of a bargain.

We could easily do the same. The Thames estuary is only four metres deep in parts and it would be relatively simple and cheap to construct an artificial island with a beautiful modern airport on it. All the planes would come in to land over the North Sea, which would mean a 24-hour operation with no disturbance, and also with expanding capacity. In fact, the airport could easily accommodate all the flights from Gatwick as well.

A bullet train on stilts or in a tunnel could link the airport to Central London in 20 minutes or so, and a branch line from the new high-speed Eurostar link nearby could connect the airport with the Continent.

But the benefits don’t stop there. Freight lorries that reach the airport by road would all be gone in favour of greener, uncongested ships. Also, a new eastern airport would be a huge boost for the Thames Gateway regeneration, creating jobs for decades to come.

But how would we pay for it? Well, Heathrow would be shut, meaning the site would be open for development. More than 2,500 acres of prime land, close to the M4 with great rail links into town: perfect for housing the capital’s fast-growing population.

But one more thing is needed to make a new Heathrow happen. In the same way Joseph Bazalgette built the London sewers in the 1860s to provide for future population growth, and Brunel in the 1830’s built the Great Western Railway in anticipation of much faster trains, the elusive quality we need to make a new Heathrow happen is vision. If we have the courage to replace Heathrow, in 2100 our grandchildren will look back and compare us to Brunel and Bazalgette, as a generation of Britons who cared about the people coming after us and had the vision to plan for them.

If we don’t, they will only have one word for us: fools.

Kit Malthouse is a Conservative London Assembly Member, and Deputy Mayor for Policing