Decline and Fall…

A perfect storm looms for the UK’s ailing infrastructure

by Sian 19 November 2012

It’s been a good year for London. The successful delivery of two world class events, the Royal Jubilee and the 2012 Olympics, was no mean feat, but even during the pomp and razzmatazz of the summer, storm clouds were brewing over the UK’s skies.

A burning issue has been smouldering in the shadows for some years now and inevitably at some point it was bound to ignite. In the past few weeks the future of London’s vital air link to the rest of the world has exploded into the media.

The gateway into London and the UK for millions of international visitors, and crucial link outbound to the emerging markets, Heathrow Airport is at capacity.

A host of reports from all sorts of expert bodies are landing on desks around the capital. They all point to one thing: that the UK’s financial growth is inextricably linked to air traffic capacity and that serious decline is inevitable unless something drastic is done.

It’s very rare that one decision will have such a pivotal role in defining a country and its capital. At a recent event in London, Peter Rees, City Planning Officer, City of London stated: “’If London makes the wrong airport decision it’s signing its own death certificate!”

When Hounslow Heath, an old wartime airfield in west London evolved into an international airport in 1946, no one could possibly have realised how important air travel would become to the nation. No strategic decision ever was made as to where it should be located; it just grew from the original tents through its first terminal in 1955, going on to add a new terminal every decade since.

However Heathrow is now at capacity and the easy option of adding a third runway (and sixth terminal) is for the moment is stymied due to a disastrous political promise made pre-election by the current administration.

Space is severely limited and already some continental Europe air hubs have four runways. Amsterdam’s Schiphol is already claiming to be Heathrow’s third runway launching an aggressive advertising campaign capitalising on what critics say is a shortage of runways in London and the South East. The Dutch airport says it offers more than 100 daily flights to the UK, enabling Britons to connect to 275 destinations across the world. It now serves 23 UK airports in Britain, compared with 12 offered by Gatwick and only seven by Heathrow. Schiphol has five runways compared with Heathrow’s two.

The lack of capacity is already hurting the economy; a report out by the BAAlast week cites the cost to British business at £14bn this year alone.

Heathrow currently ranks third in the world with some 69 million passengers per year and operates the UK’s only direct air links to world cities such as Mumbai, Shanghai, Beijing and Sao Paulo. Seven out of the top ten business routes in the world have Heathrow at one end.

And procrastination will only accelerate the decline. Unfortunately the UK is not good at making infrastructure decisions. The high speed channel tunnel rail link HS1 was completed some 10 years after the French side. Richard Rogers’ T5 at Heathrow took 19 years to realise.

A few years back the idea of building a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary surfaced. Crazy of course, but it did have appeal in some quarters. You only had to look at Hong Kong’s Chap Lek Kok for inspiration. Over time, the idea has been gathering followers and then everything changed when charismatic London Mayor Boris Johnson came out in favour and ordered a feasibility report from Engineer Douglas Oakervee in November 2008. The idea now had a leader.

More recently in November 2011, Foster and Partners produced a scheme for a Thames transport hub, incorporating a floating airport and in September 2012 Gensler launched its Britannia Airport scheme, also in the Thames Estuary.

Interestingly, financing for the East may in part come from redeveloping the vast 3,000-acre Heathrow site in the West. To give this project some context, London’s biggest development site currently is Kings Cross at 67 acres.

For a while a host of alternative ideas did the circuit, including spreading the load to an outer ring of orbital airports; Luton and Stansted to the North and North East, and Gatwick to the South. But the notion of one hub airport, bringing the country’s transport network together in one location remains compelling.

The implications of the decision are mind boggling. The first phase of the planned high speed north-south rail line, linking London to the country’s second city, Birmingham, HS2 doesn’t connect with either Heathrow or The Thames Estuary, terminating at Euston. Then there is the noise pollution issue. Increased air traffic will cause an uproar in West London. Air pollution is also in the mix.

Historically, cities in Western Europe have located their industry in the East allowing prevailing west winds to take pollution away from the city centres. Now of course, London’s biggest polluter, Heathrow is located in the West. Claims are being made that this causes a number of deaths each year in London. However the Thames Estuary is also a wildlife haven, playing host to millions of migrating birds each year causing two problems: objections from the wildlife lobby and an increased risk of bird strikes. London architect Terry Farrell has been pursuing a vision for a Thames Estuary park for some time now. Then there is the 76,000 jobs dependant on Heathrow.

Now the whole country is polarizing. East or West? The big guns are being readied for a massive battle, the outcome of which will literally re-shape the UK. Lord Foster set his stall out stating: “If we are to establish a modern transport and energy infrastructure in Britain for this century and beyond, we need to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th century forebears and draw on our traditions of engineering, design and landscape. If we don’t then we are denying future generations to come. We are rolling over and saying we are no longer competitive - and this is a competitive world. So I do not believe we have a choice.”

Even communities are split by the battle line. Frank Wingate of London Business West spoke to WAN last week: “It’s a nightmare for the boroughs, half the population wants the airport to go to get rid of the noise pollution. The other half work at Heathrow and want it to stay.”

The stakes are rising. Only on 1 November 2012, China Investment Corporation (CIC), the country’s sovereign wealth fund, bought a 10% stake in the firm that owns London’s Heathrow airport.

But for now we must wait. The Howard Davies report, commissioned by the UK Government is due to publish an interim report next year but no decision is expected until after the next election, due in 2015.

The complexity and implications of a move to the East are almost unimaginable but so are the consequences of not gearing up the UK’s air capacity…

Michael Hammond
Editor in Chief at WAN

World Architecture News and World Cities Network will be hosting a debate at the Royal Geographical Society on 5 February 2013 to discuss the future of the UK’s transport network. Click here to join the debate.

Associated links

London Britannia Airport - Gensler
Thames Hub - Foster + Partners
Royal Park City, high speed rail network - Terry Farrell and Partners
Luton Airport - Weston Williamson
Hub Airport Report
HOK London lands £1bn investment project at Gatwick Airport
UK suffering £14bn each year in lost trade says report from Heathrow

Sector Transport

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