The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NZ, T +44 (0)1227 764000
In (partial) defence of 'Boris Island'
Professor Roger Vickerman, a University of Kent transport economics expert, responds to Kent County Council's recent aviation strategy paper by suggesting there is likely to be a 'strong case' for a new Thames estuary airport.
He comments: 'The case for expansion of capacity depends on the growth of air traffic and the fact that Heathrow operates at almost full capacity almost all of the time. Heathrow is a hub airport. That means that a significant proportion of passengers are changing planes, typically between long-haul and short-haul flights. A simple view would be that these passengers are of no value to the regional economy but the total volume of passengers passing through London determines how many planes go to how many destinations and hence how well connected London is to the rest of the world.
'The constraints at London means that although the number of passengers has continued to grow the number of destinations served has not and has now fallen well behind those at rival hub airports such as Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. This is particularly true of destinations in the most rapidly developing parts of the world. There is therefore a potential constraint on the wider economy of the South East which might provide a block to growth.
'Does this expansion need all to be at Heathrow? The simple answer is no it doesn't, secondary airports have an important role in the point to point business - and London Gatwick with 34 million passengers in the last year, the world's largest with a single runway, is hardly a secondary airport - but there are strong arguments for hub expansion. So that leaves three basic options: expand Heathrow, build a new airport to modern hub standards with 4 runways, or (as KCC have suggested) develop a network of regional airports.
'Proposals for an airport in the Thames Estuary have been around since 1945 and various sites were closely examined during the Roskill Commission Inquiry into a Third London Airport more than 40 years ago. The various objections to this, but perhaps the biggest hurdle has been that planning in the UK has always been incremental, taking a major step such as relocating the country's main airport has been seen as a step too far, too expensive, too long-term. But suppose that such an airport had been developed even 40 years ago would we not now take it for granted? Remember, it took 186 years to complete the Channel Tunnel and that is now very clearly just part of the furniture.
'So let us have a serious debate about the long-term, and that has to be a national debate and not just one of local point scoring or vote catching. The key questions are: what is the relationship between airport capacity and local and national economic growth; does a modern airport with good public transport links have to be as environmentally damaging as claimed (there is evidence that it is access to airports which causes more total damage than the airport or air traffic movements themselves); an above all how will air traffic grow (and to where) over the next 50 years.
'We need more research on all of these aspects before we can have a serious debate and not one fuelled by prejudice or narrow local concerns. On balance and over the long term I think we are likely to find that there is a strong case for a very serious look at an airport somewhere in, or off the coast of, North Kent.'
Professor Vickerman is Professor of European Economics at the University of Kent's School of Economics and Director of its Centre for European, Regional and Transport Economics. He is also Dean of the University's Brussels School of International Studies.
Story published at 10:37am 24 May 2012
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