Flights of fancy

It’s time to be ambitious about London’s main airport

I have been to the marshes of the Hoo Peninsula, a beautiful if at times bleak place on the Kentish side of the Thames Estuary. A landscape of muddy creeks and pastures, the occasional concrete and brick remains of wartime defences, and a fair bit of shoreline flotsam. But marvellous overall, especially for lovers of Dutch-landscape skies and a sense of vastness rare in England. The flatness is relieved by wold-like hills that overlook it to the south; with few people, the gurgling song of larks fills the air. 

Further east, it gets industrial. The tip of the peninsula, where Thames and Medway meet, becomes the Isle of Grain, home of a long-defunct oil refinery with mothballed oil-fired power station, plus a brand new gas-fired version and a liquefied natural gas plant. Waste heat from the power station re-vaporises the liquid gas for customer use – one of which is the station itself. If you must burn fossil fuel, this is a pretty efficient way to do so. Barn owls and bats share this industrial habitat – as once did malarial mosquitoes.

Rumour has it that after pressure from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, the Commission reluctantly agreed to ‘further study’ on the estuary option

Why am I telling you all this? Because the Isle of Grain and a large chunk of the rest of the Hoo Peninsula – plus a lot of land ­reclaimed from the estuary – is the site of the proposed new ‘Thames Hub’ airport conceived by Foster and Partners and supported by the London mayor, Boris Johnson. The Government’s Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies and with ­urban consultant Ricky Burdett of the LSE on his team, was last December on the point of ­ignoring this proposal for extra airport capacity in the south-east. The Commission thinks one extra runway is all we need by 2030, and that Heathrow or Gatwick can best provide it, with another needed by 2050. Rumour has it that after pressure from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George ­Osborne, the Commission reluctantly agreed to ‘further study’ on the estuary option, which is ongoing. You sense their hearts are not in it.

So, I love places like the marshlands of the Hoo Peninsula, where even the parts not engulfed by the new airport would be sliced through by roaring high-speed road and rail links to the capital. I should be signing petitions against the very idea of a new airport there. But I’m not so sure. Maybe this is exactly where a new London hub airport should be.

I’m familiar with the arguments against, especially those that point out it’s not ideally placed for the rest of the country. As well as the wildlife, there’s a sunken ship full of WW2 bombs nearby, plus all that flammable industry. Then I hear planes whining overhead, one after the other, on the way to Heathrow and I imagine more of them. And I think: Gatwick, maybe. Heathrow – don’t be daft, please not. But if we took a really strategic, long-term view of what London needs, we should be courageous. The greatest good for the greatest number means transferring the airport hub from Heathrow to the Thames Estuary. I’m looking forward to the concept plans from Maccreanor Lavington, Hawkins Brown and Rick Mather Architects for a future Heathrow as a new urban district of London. As for the Hoo Peninsula, I’m prepared to get my remoteness fix elsewhere.