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Lord Norman Foster: We need Victorian spirit to build Thames airport

Norman Foster says we need to think big again, and the big thing he wants to do is build a mega-airport in the Thames Estuary. To do this, we must rediscover the spirit of the Victorians.

Description: Options for airport expansion

An artist’s impression of the Thames Estuary airport Photo: PA

By Neil Tweedie

8:30AM GMT 21 Jan 2012

“The railways you ride on, the sewage system you depend on, were the result of someone a long time ago deciding that it was important to invest in the future,” he says. “We in Britain invented the concept of infrastructure.”

The master architect believes we have lost our mojo. He wants to give us a grand projet: the Thames Hub, a vast airport at the mouth of the river built partly on reclaimed land and forming the centre of a high-speed rail network bypassing London and linking the rest of the country with Europe.

Cost? He estimates £50 billion including a new Thames Barrier to provide tidal power for the airport, equipped with four runways and able to operate 24 hours a day, well away from London. But detractors think it could be nearer £70 billion.

“Can we afford not to afford it?” asks Lord Foster. “If we do not modernise our transport infrastructure we will slide down the international scale.”

Foster has a big ally in Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who this week claimed No 10 backing for an estuary airport. Mr Johnson floated the idea of a man-made island airport, christened Boris Island. Lord Foster’s proposal uses Kent’s Isle of Grain and reclaimed land.

Britain, says the architect, risks losing its status as an aviation hub. Heathrow, approached over London, is at 95 per cent capacity, handling 68  million passengers a year. Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam have more runways and serve more destinations such as China and Brazil. A third runway for Heathrow and second runway for Gatwick have been ruled out.

Better to build a new airport for 150 million passengers a year, says Lord Foster. Planes will take off over the sea, reducing noise pollution. The only creatures affected will be birds, for which the RSPB will mount a fierce defence. The architect promises to build an eco-island off Essex. The £20 billion cost of the airport itself would be mitigated by selling Heathrow for £12 billion. The North will be connected by a “spine” incorporating high-speed rail and broadband.

But what of the glacial planning system? “Even if you take out five years for planning we still take three times to complete a major infrastructure initiative than they do in Asia,” he says, citing the rapid construction of his Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong on reclaimed land.

And the money? “It is difficult in these times to find a good return on investment. This would be incredibly attractive to pension and sovereign wealth funds.”

But opponents argue that closing Heathrow would result in major economic disruption, with 76,000 people working at the airport and hundreds of businesses sited to take advantage of it. Mr Johnson’s backing appears to have backfired. He was accused of crude electioneering — many living under Heathrow’s flightpath vote in the mayoral election — and angered the Liberal Democrats.

Will this hub be built? Parliament has already passed an Act allowing the building of a Thames Estuary airport. That was in 1973 and we are still waiting.

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