Architects on Aviation

Wednesday 19 December 2012

London and the UK must embrace either a Chinese way of dealing with its pressing aviation problems or a more ‘British’, incremental approach.

Those were the key choices facing the capital, according to proponents of airport schemes at a breakfast talk held by NLA last Friday. The event was organised to examine proposals aimed at coping with the UK’s growth in both flights and population, and at staying competitive on the world stage.

Foster + Partners partner Huw Thomas said his team had taken an ‘integrated infrastructure’ approach in its £20 billion Thames Estuary airport bid, to keep London competitive and connected to world markets. ‘We’ve been arguably at the forefront of creating new industries through the whole of the life of this country and we need to remain there’, he said. ‘We need to remain to be competitive.’  Other cities around the world are doing it more decisively, and quicker, with Beijing’s Terminal Three an example, which was completed four and a half years after architects submitted their drawings. Cities in India and China were understanding that airports are ‘tools of trade’ and it was important for the UK to avoid thinking in silos, but to connect with other infrastructure projects. ‘This shouldn’t be about catching up but putting in place next-generation capacity’, Thomas added, with any visions taking on board future projections and even ‘the kinds of planes we have not seen yet’.

Hong Kong provided another example, moving its old airport ‘overnight’ to Chek Lap Kok. People say you need an authoritarian regime, Thomas added, often assuming it was China that pushed things through there with speed, but it was in fact Margaret Thatcher, aiming to secure a lasting legacy after handover. As part of the Foster vision for a Thames Estuary airport, Heathrow would close and would require a national policy statement, £20 billion and further investment in orbital rail, new Thames Crossing and the Thames Barrier. ‘It’s absolutely critical for future trade to have aviation capacity and hub capacity to get to all those nations we will have to get to in future.’

Gensler managing director Ian Mulcahey said it was incredibly difficult to solve the aviation problem around existing airports – the only place for a new facility was the Thames Estuary, with land at Heathrow, currently ‘blighted’ by outmoded infrastructure, released. The estuary offers the potential as a European hub, and its location means that it can avoid Heathrow’s being ‘totally compromised’ by its ban on night flights, having up to six runways and flights 24 hours a day. Heathrow, meanwhile, currently an ‘infrastructure mess’, could become a borough the size of Kensington and Chelsea, with land released to cater for up to 300,000 people. ‘The opportunity is huge; we move disruptive runways to a better functioning location for our city in the long term’, said Mulcahey.

For Weston Williamson director Chris Williamson, a more pragmatic approach would be to look where the infrastructure is at the moment and come up with a best-value solution which optimally utilises existing transport links. In terms of catchment, the Thames Estuary solutions have half their reach over the Atlantic, said Williamson. Luton is far better placed to reach the maximum amount of people. ‘Let’s put the airport where the people are’, he said, ‘which is somewhere between Birmingham and London’. People tend to use the airport closest to them, but Luton provided the best solution, supported by investment and links in rail such as HS2 and Crossrail 1 and 2. ‘There’s probably a more English way of doing things incrementally’, said Williamson. ‘Luton would stimulate London but also the whole of the UK by connecting with the rest of the world.’

And finally, Farrells partner Neil Barrett touched on similar themes, arguing that we shouldn’t yet go for one solution, especially as we don’t as a nation yet know the question we are posing ourselves. ‘We don’t have a blank piece of paper in Britain. We have to build on what we’ve got already’, he said. Such ‘incremental, layered thinking’ extends to linking up transport investments to make our airports work, with items such as a high speed link to Birmingham with the potential to bring Warwickshire ‘closer’ to central London than Walthamstow; links from Gatwick to Heathrow, or at the very least a debate about some of the key factors affecting air travel now and in the future. ‘We do wonder whether there’s an incremental approach which could follow demand and have a much smoother, and more British approach to how we provide these things’, said Barrett.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

The NLA breakfast talk was sponsored by Bircham Dyson Bell

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