19 November 2002

Stansted would be better national hub, says regional assembly

By Paul Marston, Transport Correspondent

Plans for a new four-runway airport in north Kent should be abandoned in favour of development of Stansted, the South East England Regional Assembly is expected to recommend tomorrow.

Despite a call from another local authority group for the £13 billion plans to go ahead, assembly leaders, who represent nine of the region's county councils, say it would cause unacceptable ground transport and environmental problems and could not be justified commercially.

A report prepared for the assembly accepts that new runways must be built to accommodate what it forecasts will be a doubling in demand for air travel by 2030.

It opposes expansion at Heathrow because of noise and pollution and the economic
imbalance that would result from further growth in an already "overheated" area of Greater London. It suggests that growth east of the capital would bring greater economic benefits.

The report acknowledges that the Kent site, at Cliffe, near the Thames estuary, would have big "regenerational" effects.

However, it lists three "major disadvantages": the need for huge investment in road and rail links to London; the project's questionable financial viability; and the destruction of habitat for tens of thousands of wading birds and wildfowl.

A pro-Cliffe study published yesterday by the Strategic Aviation Special Interest Group, which represents more than 70 councils nationally, argued that airport trains could join the high-speed Channel Tunnel rail link.

But assembly planning officials are concerned that such usage could be achieved only at the expense of fast commuter services, which Kent has been promised for more than a decade.

They also cast doubt on the plan's assumed construction of a Lower Thames crossing to provide a London road link via the A13 at Thurrock and the suggestion of a further river crossing at Benfleet to improve access from East Anglia and the Midlands.

The report says that such projects, even if the money was forthcoming, would only soak up road capacity the region already needed for growth unrelated to air travel.

A survey of 35 of the largest airlines serving London found only Air Austria interested in switching to Cliffe. The rest said they would prefer to remain at their existing airport even if they had to pay premium rates to do so.

Rather than support the high-risk creation of a new hub, the assembly report advocates incremental expansion of Stansted, which ministers say could be given up to three additional runways.

It concludes: "Stansted has the capacity to be developed as a major hub, but on a step-by-step basis as demand justifies. This approach allows for prudent long-term planning and investment in the context of a coherent and sustainable national airports policy."

The location of the Essex airport to the north of London is also seen as superior for what could become the country's premier hub.

Public consultation on airport options ends on Nov 30. The Government plans to publish firm proposals for future development in the spring.