Hoo peninsula

Pie in the sky and plane crazy - but the airport plan won't go away

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, November 2 2011

Council chiefs and other politicians in Kent and Medway have been swift to condemn the latest proposal for an airport in the Thames Estuary.

Hardly a surprise. Lord Foster's grand scheme is nothing if not ambitious - it brings together not just an airport but a new river barrier and crossing, and a shipping and orbital rail complex. It makes Boris Island look rather modest.

Given the scale and huge impact it would have, the reaction on both sides has been passionate.

Lord Foster's Thames Hub vision>>

It is a classic situation in which local and national interests collide - a bit like the arguments that raged in Kent over the Channel Tunnel, when there were similar clashes over the blight afflicting the green fields of the Garden of England against those arguing the case for the economic dividend for UK Plc, particularly on the jobs front.

(Remember the scorn heaped on the country when it dragged its feet over the construction of the second stage of the High Speed Link? We were derided by our European counterparts for taking so long and for building a link which, at the time, only went some of the way to London.)

So why won't this idea - dubbed pie-in-the-sky, plane-crazy - go away?

If those advocating different proposals took on board the views of many in Kent, they would run away and hide in a dark room, not spend £100,000 on a report, that for all the criticism that might be heaped on it, at least strives to come up with a credible case that integrates different energy and transport strands and doesn't completely overlook the environmental issues.

One reason is that there is something of a policy vacuum in government - which, according to new transport secretary Justine Greening hasn't completely closed the door on the notion of a Thames Estuary airport - and has only recently finished a consultation on its scoping document setting out its plans for a sustainable framework for UK aviation.

Meanwhile, it has cancelled a third runway at Heathrow and ruled out expansion at Gatwick and Stansted. Triggering the inevitable questions about how it intends to increase capacity and compete in the global economy with those countries who appear to be stealing a march on the UK.

As ever, the government is struggling with the competing interests of those who wish to safeguard the environment and those that argue aviation is a vital to our national economic interests. 

And as always, thrown into the mix is the pressure ministers will come under from MPs with marginal seats who will want to side with their constituents. (A taste of this has come the way of ministers trying to sell the idea of High Speed Two, which would also carve through some of the country's rural hinterland. There is open revolt in some Cnservative constituencies).

So, will the government opt for what Foster calls "the short term patching up our ageing infrastructure" or be more bold when it does eventually flesh out its policies?

Somehow, I suspect that even when it does, the arguments will continue to rage.


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Categories: Hoo peninsula | National Politics

Kent takes kicking on transport - but at least the PM grounds airport plan

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, October 27 2010

The more you unpick the government's spending review, the more apparent it becomes that Kent has come off particularly badly on the transport front.

Strange, given that we all know that the forecasts for traffic growth are all pointing to a continuing upward trend and that the county, as a major gateway to Europe, has the additional burden of its roads coping with an extra 8million vehicles a day.

But there has been a steady trickle of bad news for motorists and others since George Osborne delivered his spending review. First, there was the news that Dartford tolls were to increase to £2.50 each way by 2012 - causing a few jitters for Kent Conservative MPs who had made great play of pledging to get rid of the toll charges before the election.

Then there was the news of a hike in rail fares for hard-pressed commuters, which have been widely condemned. And in the last 48 hours, the confirmation that planned improvements to the A21 are on hold til 2015 and that a scheme to improve Junction 10 of the M20 near Ashford is also under review.

This catalogue of delays and the prospect of paying more for travelling by train or crossing the Thames in a car makes up for a pretty dismal outlook - not even taking into account the fact that petrol duty is to go up in the New Year.

According to KCC data, nearly 80 per cent of households have one or more cars and six in ten drive to work. A further 74,000 people commute into Kent on a daily basis.

I don't know why Kent has fared so badly. I suspect that in addition to all the cost-benefit analyses, ministers took a cold look at the political conseqeuences of their decisions and came to the conclusion that however unpalatable they might be, they would be unlikely to have serious electoral ramifications come the next election. (That's sometimes a price you pay for having thumping great majorities - whatever the party.)

And I don't doubt that in a few years time - just before the end of Parliament -ministers will be making rather more optimistic noises about some of these schemes that have been kicked into the long grass.

Still, if the government was hoping to get onside with motorists and rail commuters in the county, it needs to do a bit more than simply postponing much-needed road schemes and hitting them where it hurts most - namely their pockets.

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Still, at least David Cameron appears to have grounded Boris Johnson's latest wheeze to re-examine options for an airport on the Hoo Peninsular. He stepped in today to declare at PMQs that the government has no plans for an airport anywhere in the county.

The question is whether BoJo is listening.There's a growing sense of exasperation among MPs and council chiefs in Kent that the Mayor being so persistent in pursuing his much-criticised airport plans, seemingly determined to do whatever he can to get them off the ground.

This exasperation is felt particularly by MPs in the county - it's not even as if the Mayor has any jurisdiction or powers in the area he feels would be so well-suited to a new airport. Perhaps our MPs should turn the tables and start talking up the idea of a new airport around the vicinity of City Hall.

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Categories: Commuting | Hoo peninsula | KCC | Local Politics | Politics | Transport

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