Now 60 years old, Heathrow airport should retire and be replaced by a new national long-haul hub serving London, argues a controversial new discussion paper published by the Town and Country Planning Association.The new TCPA Tomorrow Series paper, ‘Heathrow: A Retirement Plan’ co-authored by Tony Hall and Sir Peter Hall, condemns Heathrow’s history as ‘a series of minor planning disasters that together make up one of the country’s truly great planning catastrophes’.
Aiming to replace the bulk of environmentally damaging short-haul flights through the development of a new high-speed rail network linked to the new airport, the paper makes a persuasive case for relocating Heathrow. The move would reduce delays and help to secure Britain’s future as a world economic centre.
Relocating Heathrow could free up more than 1,000 hectares of land for redevelopment potentially worth more than £6.8 billion, with the potential for the creation of a new sustainable community of more than 30,000 homes in one of the country’s worst housing hotspots.
A number of potential sites for the new airport are examined, but the case for creating a new island in the Thames Estuary is found to be overwhelmingly strong. This would ensure no aircraft noise over London or the Southeast, no displacement for people currently facing upheaval around London’s expanding airports, and direct rail links to mainland Europe, as well as to London and the rest of the UK.
The key argument for relocation is that there is no longer room to expand to accommodate increasing volumes of long haul flights. For years, the policy has been to build relief airports to take the pressure of Heathrow, but this has not worked. The authors convincingly demonstrate how other major world cities including New York, Paris, Berlin and Hong Kong have responded to pressure to take increasingly large volumes of long haul traffic by relocating their principal airports, frequently to off-shore locations.
Pressing environmental problems from Heathrow airport arise from its location within the built-up area of Greater London. Massive noise corridors splay out across London, affecting millions of people with constant noise.
The pattern of ad hoc expansion, since it opened for business on 31 May 1946, somewhat inauspiciously in an army surplus tent, has also resulted in poor operational efficiency. Runways and buildings were designed for a very different age, while there has never been an opportunity to build a completely new airport purpose-designed for the needs of the 21st century.
Tony Hall and Peter Hall remark in the report:
“Passengers who fume at the long taxiing operations culminating in a take-off queue, or at long periods spent in the four holding areas at the four corners of the metropolis, might well echo Dr Johnson’s famous remark about a dog walking on its hind legs; it’s not that it is done well, but you are surprised to find it is done at all.”
The authors stress that the paper is not a plea for the immediate closure of Heathrow - or even for phasing it out in five or ten years’ time.
“That would be logistically impossible and economically ruinous. It is a plea for long-term planning that would result in Heathrow’s replacement, and eventual closure, over a long period of time: between now and the next century.”
Calling on the spirit of Brunel, the authors call for long-term visionary thinking:
“Such an approach may seem extraordinarily blue-sky and unworldly. If so, it only demonstrates the degree to which, in the UK, we are wedded to a style of planning that is short-term, incremental and fundamentally sub-optimal in its outcomes. But is does not have to be that way. It merely requires that we think long and think big.”