A tale of two estuaries

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

A tale of two estuaries

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So, it's a battle between Heathrow and Gatwick.   But Sir Howard Davies, in his interim report on aviation capacity, has also said that he wants to spend more time looking at the option of building a new airport in the Thames Estuary.  See the immediate reaction from my colleague, Andre Farrar here.

Our position has been simple - the environmental damage (on special places and the climate) posed by new aviation capacity is not justified (see here).  

But, at the end of a day when the airwaves have been dominated by talk of bigger airports, I cannot help but draw comparisons with a debate that raged on the other side of the country in the Severn Estuary.

The prospect of major infrastructure projects have overshadowed two of our great estuaries and have created an uncertain future of the people and wildlife of both the Severn and the Thames.

A barrage has been debated and discarded on a number of occasions over the past forty years - most recently in June when a House of Commons Select Committee kicked the latest proposal into touch (see here).   And the debate over new airports in the south-east of England since the 1970s has had more turnarounds than a security guard in a revolving door. 

Two big projects whose proponents over-emphasise the need, promise the world at a price that everyone can afford and with environmental damage easily compensated.

But, as with a barrage, on closer scrutiny, it appears that the economics of a Thames estuary just don't stack up.  I am not surprised that the costs are spiralling - the airport now being estimated to cost up to £112 billion - more than double what the proponents originally claimed.  Those that proposed the Cardiff-Western barrage saw their costs increase on close scrutiny - up to £30 billion the last time the Government looked at a serious scheme.  I tend to think that the worst people to cost a proposal for a major infrastructure project are the champions of such scheme.

And, the instinct of proponents of these big schemes is to either downplay the environmental consequences or worse wildly claim that there will be environmental benefits.  The backers of a Severn barrage had the chutzpah to claim that the wildlife of the Severn would benefit from construction of a barrage (despite the loss of 14,000 hectares of intertidal habitat and local extinction of fish populations).  Fans of a Thames airport planned to compensate for the damage to the wildlife of the Thames by creating massive new area of mudflats.

But, within any of the serious reviews, of which Sir Howard Davies' is the latest, there are also some statements which get ignored when politics and propaganda intensify.  The Govenrment's 2010 review of Severn Tidal Power said that...

"The Government does not see a strategic case for bringing forward a Severn tidal power scheme in the immediate term.  The costs and risks to the taxpayer and energy sonsumer would be excessive compared to other low carbon options".  

And here is what Sir Howard's impressive report says about the UK's current aviation capacity...

"The UK remains one of the best connected countries in the world.  Available seat capacity and the number of destinations served by UK airports are higher than any comparable European countries.  Heathrow still serves the largest number of international passengers than any airport in the world".

So - is there really a need for new capacity?

And when suggesting that building a new hub would mean the closure of Heathrow, he says...

"The closure of Heathrow has potential for immediate adverse effects on employment in the area, though this may subsequently be offset by any longer term positive impact from the redevelopment of the site and the provision of new housing opportunities. The overall balance, nature and extent of economic impacts are highly uncertain and the process would add significant risk to the project.

Yet, the Thames Estuary airport, which would lead to the closure of Heathrow, stays on the table at least for now.

So, more scrutiny and more debate.  But, one thing to learn from the infrastructure debates that have dogged our two estuaries, the more you look at a white elephant, the more it stays a white elephant.  For that reason, I expect Sir Howard Davies will, next year, finally reject a proposal for an airport in the Thames Estuary. 

  • Excellent blog as usual Martin. Hopefully this Interim Report goes a fair way towards pushing the Thames Estuary option "well into touch". However we should not "count the chickens", these things are never over until "the final whistle".

    One further point about the Thames Estuary option quite apart from cost and schedule and the fact that it would cause huge environmental damage over a very large area, is that it would also generate an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, directly and indirectly  during its actual construction. The options now short listed,while not defending them, would all generate a lot less CO2 during their construction.