An airport vision that makes sense, by Graeme Bell

Picture the scene. The Prime Minister has announced that a new flagship hub airport is to be built in north Kent. Flanked by transport secretary Chris Grayling, she walked across derelict land on the Isle of Grain in a scene reminiscent of the Thatcher 'walk in the wilderness' on Teesside some 30 years ago.

She said the decision would end years of delays and disputes over whether to expand Heathrow, Gatwick or other airports in the South East to meet demand for air travel.

Asked why the Davies Commission recommendation to expand Heathrow was not to be taken forward, Grayling said his view was that Davies had given insufficient weight to off-airport environmental concerns and the costs associated with mitigation. He also suggested that Sir Howard had not been asked to look far enough ahead, that further expansion would probably be necessary in the "not too distant future" and that future administrations would be saddled with even more difficult expansion decisions.

Asked about the drawbacks of the chosen site, Grayling insisted he felt certain that concerns about wildlife, air traffic control and explosives (there is an old ammunition shipwreck offshore) could be mitigated. 'All the possible sites have problems; it's a case of concentrating on the overall opportunities that each offers for the long term'. No doubt the prospect of high-profile disruptions and a succession of legal challenges rumbling through the current Parliament also influenced the decision.

Theresa May described the hub as a "keystone in the regeneration of the East Thames corridor". With a nod to significant others she quipped "this airport is not being built on a new island", adding that the Isle of Grain and adjoining land in Kent and east London boroughs provided the largest land reserves suitable for businesses and homes close to the capital. Announcing backing for a new Lower Thames Crossing and new rail spurs, including a link to HS1 at Ebbsfleet, she said the new airport would have excellent infrastructure. The corridor would become a byword for "smart growth".

Asked about Heathrow, May revealed she is to set up a task force to examine the site's potential. "We have a site of nearly five square miles within the M25 with the potential for tens of thousands of much-needed new homes and the creation of many more jobs than Heathrow supports, without the pollution and noise.

"This is about signalling post-Brexit Britain is open for business and UK businesses will be at the forefront of designing and constructing this exciting development, catalysing the regeneration of this important area."

All a pipe dream? Let's hope not and that on such a vital decision for UK plc, this government shows courage, leadership and vision. If the Prime Minister is primarily seeking a fudge to maintain party unity she should ring David Cameron for advice.

Graeme Bell OBE is a vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association and author of Heathrow Garden City, published by the TCPA.


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