The Airports Commission sinks Boris Island

By September 2, 2014EU insight

by Craig Melson, Consultant, London

The writing was on the wall for the Thames estuary airport, ever since the Airports Commission decided to further study the idea when it first shortlisted proposals for airport expansion in December.  Ten months on, the island idea has been sunk after the Airports Commission looked at the feasibility of the proposals. The Mayor and TFL tried to put together (at a cost of £5m) a convincing case and hoped that this combined with some Boris magic would be sufficient to convince Sir Howard Davies and his Commission. So where did it go wrong for ‘Boris Island’?

It’s the economy stupid!

The principle reason for the decision is the failure to convince the Commission that the plans would have been financially deliverable. Announcing the decision to not shortlist the airport, Davies said the least ambitious plans would cost £70-£90bn, with £30-£60bn coming from the taxpayer, and was therefore too risky. He rejected criticism that the Commission was not being ambitious enough and stressed that “to roll the dice on a very risky project, where delays and overruns are highly likely, would be reckless.”

Eco, eco, eco

The second major reason for the project losing support was the environmental impact.  The Thames estuary has a variety of habitats for flora and fauna that would need to be relocated, at an estimated £2bn cost. As well as requiring the largest rezoning of habitats in Europe, rail and road links would need to be built causing further damage.

Wrong place

Aside from uncertainties about a large LNG plant in the Estuary, the Commission notes that the implications for passengers would be unfavourable with average rail journey times to the airport being 20-25 per cent longer than is the case today.

What next for Boris?

The Mayor has invested so much time personally into the project that it is a major blow for him as he seeks a parliamentary return. However, with the categorical exclusion of the idea by the Commission it is safe to say that supporters of Boris Island will also need to support Boris as the next PM. This won’t stop the Mayor from putting up a tough fight and he hit back early today by slating the Commission and prophesying that  the Commission’s final report can be added to a list of failed reports ‘sitting on Whitehall shelves’.

What next for the Commission?

Today’s announcement means there are three options left.  Either a new runway will be built at Heathrow or Gatwick, or Heathrow will have one of its runways extended to accommodate take offs and landings. The Commission will report after the General Election thereby saving the current Government from having to make a decision. While Heathrow seems for some to be the most viable option, it would be a political headache as all parties have expressed some form of opposition to expansion in the past. In political terms Gatwick has potentially the least obstacles facing a future Government, however the question is whether it will be regarded as sufficiently visionary and effective in securing the UK’s position as a global aviation hub.