Heathrow Airport commences the consultation on its third runway plans today with a very big problem on its hands: a man who has threatened to lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop the runway seems very likely to be Prime Minister by the time the consultation has concluded.
In theory, the project ought to be dead in the water – although, as Lord Adonis pointed out on the Today programme this morning, that would be to underestimate Boris’ capacity for u-turns. According to some reports, Boris has already assured fans of Heathrow expansion that he will respect the decision of Parliament to go ahead with the project. But to take that at face value, too, underestimates Boris’ ability to make simultaneous, mutually-exclusive promises to different audiences.
A brave Boris, however, would not hesitate. He would announce during his first few days in office that he was suspending all work on Heathrow and instead working on plans for his favoured solution all along – a new airport in the Thames Estuary. Why not? What is the point in achieving power if you are not prepared to use it?
Boris’ backing for the Thames Estuary has always shown his strengths – he is a big thinker, able to look beyond the short-sighted proposals which lobbyists are trying to force upon all governments. His argument that we should not reinforce the errors of 1940s planners by expanding an airport which requires planes to fly over West and Central London, stands as firmly now as it did when Boris was Mayor of London. Heathrow is a sticking plaster solution which will soon prove inadequate. You can bet that no sooner has the third runway been opened, the airport will be lobbying for its fourth runway – claiming that this really will be the last one, and that it is absolutely essential if Britain is to remain competitive.
There is extra justification for favouring a Thames Estuary airport now, following Theresa May’s decision to commit UK governments to eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The beauty of a Thames Estuary airport is that it could be combined with a barrage across the Thames, enabling London to upgrade its tidal defences as well as producing copious quantities of green electricity through hydro-electric power. The Thames Estuary could be marketed as a green solution.
A Thames Estuary airport does not come cheap – in 2014, the Davies Commission said that even the least ambitious version would cost £70-£90 billion, while Heathrow estimates that its own expansion will only cost £14 billion. But you can’t compare the two things. The Heathrow project gets you one extra runway, which is already compromised thanks to restrictions on pollution and noise. A Thames Estuary airport would buy you a new, four runway airport with fewer restrictions on its use, and could include a tidal barrage that London will need at some point in the next century, and a renewable power station to boot. It would also free up a large amount of land in west London for development. Where else in the South East could you fit a Heathrow-sized new town while simultaneously pleasing, rather than upsetting, nearby residents?
For Boris, there is an extra, political incentive to go for the Thames Estuary. Cancelling Heathrow would spare him from the charges of hypocrisy and flip-flopping that will inevitably follow if he gives the go-ahead to a project which he promised to lie down in front of the bulldozers in order to prevent. The Heathrow decision will set the tone for his entire premiership.