Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Catching up with the World - a Hub for the UK


The defining airport for the last few decades has to be sent into retirement. Heathrow is at its capacity limit and with a growth expectations of only 1.5% also at its expansion limits. It has however, influenced largely airports around the world and was for many years the airport number one, both in terms of handling and standards.

Established in 1944 as a very big airfield and subsequently developed into the patchwork of extensions we see today. Terminal 5 being the latest completed addon, opened in 2008 and terminal 2 currently being under redevelopment. It serves as the Hub for the UK with 75 airlines flying to 170 destinations, Wikipedia. Interesting are the statistics, only about 11% are UK bound passengers, 43% are short-haul international passengers and 46% are long-haul international passengers.

Thames Hub airport proposal
Image by Foster + Partner taken from Dezeen / The new Thames Hub international airport proposal in the Thames Estuary to replace Heathrow by Foster + Partner and Halcrow.

It serves as a connection point between America and Asia as a stop over airport. With such a strategic location it is very valuable for business and trade and through passenger, business and fright it is the UK's connection to the world.

New and alternatives have been proposed over the last two decades. The problem really is not new. Officials and operatios have known about it for years. Options are to extend either Heathrow, the project is on the table for a third runway, or any of the other airports, second runways in Gatwick or Stansted as well as extending some of the smaller airfields around the capital. The other option is to build a new airport from scratch on the green field.

Thames Hub airport proposal
Image by Foster + Partner taken from telegraph.co.uk / The new Thames Hub international airport proposal in the Thames Estuary to replace Heathrow by Foster + Partner and Halcrow. The new Thames flood barrier is located strategically to the west of the airport proposal as an will regulate the water flow in and out of the Thames maximising the protected areas further up the river and at the same time serving as a tunnel for infrastructure to and from the airport but as a Thames crossing in general.

The green field option is the favourite currently since the private sector prefers the promis such a project bares that it has not the strings attached an extension might have in terms of legacy. The location currently in the spot light is the Thames Estuary,, being the least populated area in the South West potentially offering the opportunity for 24 hours operation whilst minimising the noise pollution over inhabited areas.

Several proposals have been put forwards including two floating airports. The latest proposal Thames Hub is put together as a private initiative by Fosters + Partners and economics consultants Halcrow. The proposal is nice and tidy, plausible and put forwards in a very rational manner. Fosters know how to do that sort of thing. THe firm has a lot of experience in delivering large international airport projects. They delivered Hong-Kong, Beijing and Terminal 5. Details on Wikipedia or a collection of images on Dezeen

The real interesting part of the project is not the airport but how they manage to tie it in with every other major infrastructure problem the UK currently faces. They claim to solve the problem for ports, rail water, flood defence, CO2 emissions, broadband and the imbalance between the north and south regions in the UK. If thats not an agenda!

Thames Hub airport proposal links across the UK and Europe
Thames Hub airport proposal links across the UK and Europe
Thames Hub airport proposal links across the UK and Europe
Image by Foster + Partner taken from the Atlantic Cities / The infrastructure side of the proposal extends right across the UK including links to main land Europe. From new high speed rail links (including visibility shields and integrated infrastructure media, water broadband and so on) and the proposed link across the Thames serving for flood defence, infrastructure and transport tunnel.

The project was presented at lecture evening at UCL by Sir Peter Hall, Huw Thomas from Foster + Partner and Andrew Price from Halcrow.

But its true, the UK actually faces a massively overaged infrastructure system that is constantly patched together poring in emergency funding to actually keep it going, but in no way to renew it. The country is in desperate need to renew these structures, but the real goal of course it to make the airport the essential piece of this task in order to build up enough pressure to get a tiny piece of the necessary changes actually built. This of course would be the airport.

cAKA_clockbank_2006-08-08.ai
Image by jafud / Proposal for a floating city in the Thames Estuary, including an international airport and a deep water access port for London. Developed by jafud 2006, the Bartlett. Part of this proposal was published in the book Cycles in Urban Environments: Investigating Temporal Rhythms
, by Fabian Neuhaus, 2010
.


Such an argumentation of course it no new strategy. Previous projects have tried to integrate new flood defence flood barriers for the Thames Gateway and ultimately London as part of a new International Airport in the Estuary. So for example Thames Reach Airport put forward in 2002, actually proposed more or less on the same location as the new Thames Hub by Foster + Partners. There was also the Thames Reach Airport project put forward in 2009. THere were however much older proposals for example the Maplin project proposed in the early 70s under the then prime minister Edward Heath. There are som many more including the ArKwAy project developed at the Bartlett's MSc Urban Design of a floating city in the Thames Estuary that would include a major new airport as well as a port. A very comprehensive summary is the parliament report Aviation:proposals for an airport in the Thames estuary, 1945-2012 - Commons Library Standard Note summarising the last 67 years of airport planning in the Thames Estuary.

Thames airport proposal 1934 outside parliament
Image taken from Skyscrapercity / Proposal for an airport above the Thames in the center of London just outside Parliement as published in Popular Science Monthly, March, 1934, p28.

The main problem is how the planning is done in the UK. As it is with pretty much all the large scale projects, the Government is doing nothing, it is the privat sector that is pushing it and finally delivering. The politicians have missed the opportunity 2003, ten years ago, because they could not decide. Now the new Government is also against everything and all options, but unable to come up with proposals for solutions.

This practice leaves the essentials and crucial UK infrastructure to be proposed, planned and delivered by the private sector. The result will be once more a cost effective business hybride that works, but is not at all innovative, nor is it ground braking or future proof. It will be just another quick fix, badly stitched together from pieces copied from examples from around the world (maybe UK companies have delivered them, but abroad they all work much better) and crucially it will be too late.

The private sector and comercial businesses can't be blamed. At least they deliver. It is not in their interest to look ahead when they are still busy maximising the profit they can squeeze out fo horribly run down but still profitable, with public money supported infrastructure pieces. To plan and organize a countries infrastructure, serving primarily its people should definitely be the governments business. They should be in charge of developing the strategies for the future, covering energy network and grid, transport infrastructure and communication networks as well as environment including disaster management and water security. Its a public job for the community to secure the essentials in a sustainable and future proof way definitely not a private sector job.

This does not mean the private sector can not deliver, nor pay for it. But the strategy has to be thought out an prepared by the politicians as a matter of national interest. However, this government is not gona do it, they privatise schools and the police force, why should they develop the national grid of infrastructure? Further more there is nothing that points towards the planning system being overhauled into this direction. The government will unveil plans to change the planning system very soon, according to an article on the BBC Planning system awaits overhaul in England, but its going exactly the other way. It will open the doors to planning free for all strengthening such private sector proposals and takeovers on a whole range of scales whilst at the same time again weakening any public authority's position. They are actively taking themselves out of the responsibility.

It is again in fact not far of the earlier example of crowd funding of projects on web platforms such as Spacehive as discussed earlier HERE. The new Hub for the UK will be built in a similar way. The first group that comes along saying the have the money to deliver it, will get the job, no matter what the project, nor which option they are proposing.

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