In my article in the Guardian on Friday I argued that this Government should tirelessly pursue ways to decouple economic growth from environmental harm. I suggested that this would help show the rest of the world that it is possible to maintain current standards of living without destroying the things many of us hold so dear.

The forthcoming consultation on ways to maintain the UK's status as an international hub for aviation is a major test of the Government's ambition in this area.  The motivation is clear - to kick start a faltering economy and boost UK competitiveness. Laudable ambitions, but I remain unconvinced that aviation expansion is a justified response to this challenge. 

For the consultation to include the option of major airport expansion  and specifically a proposal for a new airport in the Thames, the Department of Transport must convincingly address a number of questions.  Here are just a few that have been buzzing around my brain over the past few days:

1. Is aviation expansion compatible with targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions? While trying to defend a third runway at Heathrow, the previous Government commissioned the Committee on Climate Change to assess the options for increasing aviation whilst meeting targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  The august Committee concluded that "there is potential for aviation demand to increase while still meeting the Government’s target – in the most likely scenario, a 60% increase in demand is allowed. Higher increases might be possible if technological progress and the development of sustainable biofuels were more rapid than currently envisaged, but it is not prudent to base current policy on the assumption that speculative future technological breakthroughs are achieved."  It went on to say that policies to limit demand for aviation were still "essential" as without it, demand would increase by 200%.  The report is robust, as one would expect, but the Committee was only allowed to look at existing Government targets.  It was not able to look at consequences for aviation expansion if, as our current Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne is seeking, we agree tougher emissions cuts.  The latest climate science suggests that developed nations should be planning c40% cuts from 1990 levels rather than our current plans for c30%. 

2. Is it safe to build an airport in the Thames Estuary?  Work done for the previous government as part of the 2003 Aviation Review concluded that the Thames Estuary was one of the most hazardous locations in the UK to build an airport - thousands of birds and planes don't always mix.  At best the level of risk was found to be equal to the most dangerous of any of the present top 10 UK civil airports and, at worst the level of risk was up to 12 times higher.

3. What are the risks associated with the SS Richard Montgomerie sunk at the entrance of the Swale?  I was reminded of this quandry in a comment on my blog from my Merlin last week who said that "in the middle of the Thames Estuary, and might I add, directly under the flight path of the proposed new airport, lies the wreck of the S.S. Richard Montgomery, sunk there in WWII. It has on board 1400 tons of High Explosive in the shape of munitions.  There have been many attempts in the past to clear, and defuse, the ticking "Time-Bomb", all have failed due to the unstable nature of the cargo. The best advice was to stay clear, until it blew up! The resultant detonation, according to an expert, would see wreckage falling as far away as Canterbury, in Kent, and Billericay in Essex."  I trust the Government has a good answer to this question.

4. Which major airlines actually want to move away from Heathrow?  Judging by comments from Willie Walsh last week, I don't reckon that there are many clamouring to move to the Thames.

5. If the Government concludes that it wants to build more capacity, how will it be able to show that there are no benign alternatives to building on an internationally important wetland? Under the terms of those excellent Birds and Habitats Directives, any proposal for increased aviation through a new airport on an internationally important wetland will need to demonstrate that there are no alternative more environmentally benign options.  What a sensible test of sustainable development.

6. Who actually wants more airports? Despite relatively warm responses from some parts of the press, I do struggle to see who actually wants a new airport.  Certainly no one living in the Thames, nor the audience of Any Questions or indeed Germaine Greer - did you see her excellent performance on Question Time last week?

7. If the London mayoral elections were not imminent, would the option for a Thames airport be included in the consultation?  Sorry, I just couldn't help myself.

I am all for the grown-up debate that politicians appear to be seeking about how to kick-start the economy.  But surely not all grown-ups have to discuss daft ideas.

What questions do you think Transport Secretary Justine Greening should be wrestling with before she finalises the draft aviation white paper?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Thanks both.  Redkite - I think you are right that there is a question abour relative return on taxpayers money which will have to be addressed.

  • I can not see this "airport" happening myself; its simply Boris trying to win votes in West London. The key vote will probably be the airlines who surely do not want many of their passengers in the West and North to have to travel further; it will add an hour to journey times into the congested M2/Chatham area . It would be simpler to develop Filton in Bristol adjacent to Rolls/Concorde manufacturing tradition and existing transport link; taking development out of the South East; and protecting SAC and very badly connected Lulsgate to south of Bristol. This is by the by as we should be focusing on energy efficiency and de-carbonising.

    Also I simply do not believe projected increases in air travel passenger numbers. These have stabilised out already; never mind the disincentive of  future increases in oil price.

    With regard to SS Richard Montgomery which I have sailed past many times ( a little unnerving); according to Wikipedia it has the capacity of a 4.5 Richter earthquake and a 15 metre tsunami will be unleashed in the event of its 1500 tons of ordnance exploding.

    A new barrages on the other hand will be inevitable to protect London. This should be started soon in my view and generate electricity also; CO2 write off is 9 months I believe with collosal quantities of electricity.

  • These are all good questions Martin. "I think a further one could be, what is the financial cost for various airport options". Why would this country want to spend huge sums of money on a new airport in the Thamee Estuary when cheaper and more cost effective solutions must clearly be available. (I have worked with American companies as well as UK organisations and one thing the Amreicans are generally much better at than ourseleves is good quality cost estimating of projects). Why not spend the money not used on a daft airport in the Thames Estuary and all its necessary infrastructure and transportation, on green solutions for improving the environment. It is after all still supposed to be the "Greenest Government Ever",.... as far as I know.