Massive Infrastructure Alarum

A very brief reaction to this piece of news (well, PR really…)

First up, in spite of two big obstacles – my dislike of Norman Foster and almost everything he stands for, and my love of the winged wildlife of our country – I find a great deal to like in this proposed scheme. The first obstacle is somewhat irrelevant – if it’s a good scheme, it’s a good scheme (and we’ll come to that shortly). The second is more important, but not insurmountable. If the scheme could guarantee alternative habitats nearby – i.e. man-made marshland (which is, I gather, quite feasible) further out into the Thames estuary – places like east Sheppey, further south between Sittingbourne and Medway, Graveney, the Foulness coast in Essex etc – then it could be done with lessened (though clearly not zero) impact on the marsh and estuary birds of North Kent.

So, to the project itself, and first the airport element. It is being sold as a replacement to Heathrow. That’s great. I’m strongly in favour of closing Heathrow and using the (extremely well-connected and well-served) land to create a model eco-city. Let’s go. Get Owen Hatherley on the case.* However, if you’re going to build a humungous airport (when the lifespan of air travel in these peak oil times is actually pretty unclear – after all, you’re never going to be able to have an electric plane), why not supersede Gatwick and City airports too? This airport could be big enough (and close enough, by high speed rail) to serve all of London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, with Luton and Stansted retaining their own north-of-the-M25 fiefs. There are two arguments for this: first, the environmental benefit of concentrating the air traffic at one location (and one which is barely on land) are huge – emissions, noise, light pollution all minimised as far as possible. Second, that it opens up not only Heathrow but also City and Gatwick land to create (largely from scratch) carefully-planned, sustainable cities.

Incidentally, I think this should happen in Scotland too – the replacement of Glasgow, Prestwick and Edinburgh airports with one big one (though certainly not increasing overall capacity, since I feel we ought to be reducing air traffic pretty rapidly) somewhere like Bathgate, with a high-speed Glasgow-Edinburgh rail link running through it. But that’s straying into other matters…

Not completely though, because the rail elements of this proposal are fascinating too. It would tie in to the creation of the larger high-speed network for the UK (and those red lines go in sensible directions, unlike the government’s current plan) The instinct to lay down four tracks everywhere is always to be applauded (as someone who has sat for many, many hours on American railways waiting for freight to pass I really appreciate the idea of fast and slow lanes on railroads). I love the stacked station idea too. That’s basically how I envisage a future Euston, with a high speed station underneath the regular one.

The integration of the freight rail system (appallingly under-utilised) and the shipping ports is another impressive feature. It implies a transfer away from air and road freight which is both a) desirable to a quite urgent extent and b) inevitable anyway. By creating orbital capacity around London for freight coming in any direction, night traffic volume can be increased dramatically. As an aside I think serious incentives should be given to rail freight in order to (basically) get lorries off the road and (see below) this would be a lot easier if this whole enterprise were state-operated.

It needs to be intimately tied in with several other projects, however – the introduction of direct sleeper trains and freight to Europe-wide destinations via the Channel Tunnel being the most obvious. One of the great things about the ‘outer orbital’ would be the ability to take a direct train from Scotland, the northeast or northwest without needing to come close in to London, let alone change there. Direct trains between the far north and the south and southwest would also be easier to run. This, I think, would lessen the blow of another of my suggestions: the near-immediate cessation of domestic flights within the mainland (at least between destinations with direct train travel between them). The price-control mechanisms this would necessitate on rail travel counts towards the argument for renationalization in my view.

The icing on the cake is the inclusion of a new Thames Barrier (after all, the old one was not designed to cope with climate change-induced sea rises on the scale we are likely to see) and tidal energy generation further out into the estuary. It could, essentially, be a self-powering project which at the same time protects London from rising sea levels in the medium term. The road tunnels would presumably alleviate all northbound traffic on the M25 which originated east of Gravesend too.

To the negatives, then. Aside from the serious wildlife worries, another objection I have to this, however, is financial. It is being suggested that it should be funded to a greater or lesser degree by sovereign wealth funds outside the UK. This is pretty daft. We have so little under our own control, economically-speaking. This project could be the flagship for the return of common goods, a beacon for renationalization with the outlay, but more importantly the long term financial benefit, borne by the nation. We could fold in a very popular renationalization of the railways at the same time, including Eurostar, and inaugurate a genuinely world-class twin-speed passenger AND freight network with this hub at its centre. Foster could be seen as the engineer in chief, a la Brunel, if he wants, but the project should be for the people of the UK (and it could have benefits for much of mainland Great Britain).

A final question is to do with the people affected. Money should, to put it bluntly, be thrown at them. This is a part of civil engineering projects which is often done very badly, leading to years in courts and despair (often fully justified) from the affected parties. Instead, up front, the government should offer double or triple market rate and a completely hassle-free move (i.e. all expenses paid, all forms helped filled) for anyone whose properties are on the site, and plenty of time to think about and organize moving. Moreover, significant sweeteners for people whose lives will be otherwise affected (including many people in Southend and Leigh-on-Sea). That is, instead of saying ‘stay or go, your decision’ to people who would now have many, many planes passing their windows each day, offer a sizeable relocation package, and if they find their houses difficult to sell at what they thought was market rate, hey, let’s increase the social housing stock. (N.B. Some of this should be funded directly from stamp duty and inheritance tax, as property values under the former Heathrow and other flight paths would no doubt increase significantly)

Some might suggest that this is social engineering, but we’ve got into the current disastrous infrastructure and environmental morass precisely by *not* engineering aspects of society such as planning and sensible population dispersal. The opportunity could even be taken to incentivise a move north as part of a more general rebalancing of the population, made easier by the introduction of, you’ve guessed it, the high speed train network.

So, with the environmental and financial reservations outlined above, I could really get behind this. But those caveats are pretty big. Essentially I believe this kind of project could be radicalised and made into a model for a better mode of development. Or it could be another neoliberal disaster. So why not engage with it with the aim of public ownership?

*I’ve even got some sketches somewhere for a post-Heathrow city. I think the suburbs were called North and South Orwellham, Pankhurst and Shakespeare Cross…

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Published in: on November 3, 2011 at 10:54 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Lest anyone think I am a Londoner in an ivory tower disregarding the impact this will have on Kent and Essex, I am of course a Whitstable boy at heart, and we would be able to see the planes coming and going over Sheppey and landing thirty miles up the coast or so. But are we not at the stage of discussing the survival of many aspects of our way of life? Will we not need to make huge changes to some, transient, learned behaviours (transport being the most obvious) in order to preserve others (food and drink, education, health, environment in toto)?


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