Build the Thames Hub or continue losing £1 billion a year

Friday 11 November 2011

The cost to the UK of doing nothing about our ‘creaking, leaking’ transport infrastructure amounts to some £1 billion a year, said Halcrow’s Europe director Ben Halmer. Halmer was talking alongside Foster + Partners partner Huw Thomas at a special NLA breakfast briefing this morning, detailing the two firms’ £50 billion plans for a new Thames Hub.

The plan, at this stage a self-funded £100,000 study, proposes a ‘spine’ of high speed rail connections for the UK linking north with south and on to Europe; rail freight connections between the UK’s redeveloped main sea ports; the creation of a 150 million passenger airport to replace Heathrow and a tidal energy barrage and a new flood protection barrier. 

The electricity generated by the barrage could power the airport or 250,000 homes, while the rail links could be submerged and hidden by ramped landscaping using the dug soil, said Lord Foster in a video played to the audience. ‘It could be an incredible initiative’, he said. ‘It is a true investment for the future.’ 

The ‘integrated vision for Britain’ – opposed by Medway Council and Friends of the Earth – envisages a four runway airport built partly on reclaimed land on the Isle of Grain which could handle 150 million passengers per year.  This is considered crucial to prevent Europe gaining competitive advantage, faced with Heathrow’s 98 per cent capacity, and in order to serve new trading markets further afield. The long-term vision, which spans the next 50 years into 2060, is designed to reinforce the United Kingdom’s position as the world’s leading commercial, tourist and financial centre. 

Halmer said that what he feared was a ‘drift’ into further uncompetitiveness in terms of trade – decisions had to be made now. An example was the six years it took for Foster’s Chek Lap Kok airport to be built in Hong Kong, or the lead Beijing has stolen on the UK with its new terminal. ‘This isn’t just a fluffy vision dreamt up over a cup of tea’ said Halmer – discussions have been held inside government and with potential investors, the entire project likely to be funded by the private sector.  ‘There’s a wall of funding out there for good business cases’, he said. ‘This can be delivered by 2020, and it has to be because we’re coming to the end of capacity’. The airport element of the scheme will face environmental challenges, but was an ideal counter to the political issues faced by the five million people affected by Heathrow’s flight path. Halmer added that a new ‘bird island’ could be created to offset some of these concerns. 

‘London is a suppressor on our ability to trade’, said Halmer. ‘A bottleneck.’ 

Thomas said the scheme would be complementary to High Speed 2, but that political will is crucial. ‘Politicians need to do what politicians should be doing, which is making big decisions.’  

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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