Runway hunger leads to fifth airport plan

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The Independent Online
AT LEAST three plans for a fifth London airport are being put forward by developers as the search for runway capacity intensifies.

The proposals, all of which will cause enormous local controversy, have been drawn up despite government reluctance to sanction any new runways. This is thanks to an advisory committee report claiming that no extra capacity is needed in the South-east until at least 2015. There is also a plan for a new Bristol airport which would replace the existing Lulsgate when its capacity runs out next decade.

Although in the late Eighties Paul Channon, the then transport secretary, appeared to rule out the use of greenfield sites for a new airport in addition to Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton, developers say he left the door open by saying that "well-researched proposals" would still be considered.

The latest project to emerge is a plan for a £4.5bn twin-runway airport near Abingdon in Oxfordshire, provisionally called Lox. The others are a £100m plan for a 1,600-metre runway at Redhill, which would act as a reliever for nearby Gatwick, and the long-standing £5bn proposal for a massive twin-runway airport in the Thames estuary.

The issue of airport capacity in the South-east is set to come to the fore when Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, issues his response to the Department of Transport's advisory committee on runway capacity, RUCTSE. Its report was published in July 1993, but the Government has delayed issuing its response for fear of antagonising the aviation industry, which disagrees with the finding that there is sufficient runway space for at least 20 years. The number using London airports is expectedto rise from 70 million to 170 million by 2015.

Dr Mawhinney is expected to endorse the report, neatly avoiding the inevitable controversies. The airport schemes in the Sixties and Seventies over London's fourth airport managed to dog successive governments.

The inquiry into the proposal for a fifth terminal at Heathrow which opens in May will also fuel further controversy over the issue of coping with the increasing demands of air travel. If the application is turned down by the planning inspector, the pressure to build an alternative airport will increase considerably.

Figures for 1994 show that the number of passengers using Britain's airports increased to over 120 million, a rise of more than 7 per cent over 1993, much higher than the average growth of 4 per cent over the previous five years. Aviation experts doubt, however, whether such high growth rates can be sustained.

The Lox proposal has been drawn up by a consortium which includes Ove Arup, the consulting engineering company. The proposal envisages that 3,400 houses would be affected by noise and that 87 would have to be demolished to make way for the two 4,000-metre runways.

The Redhill plan, which would cost under £100m, is to use the current site of the airport, which now has only a grass runway, to accommodate the smaller jets with up to 100 seats that currently use Gatwick. Laurie Price of SH&E, the aviation consultants drawing up the project, said: "The key issue is that London is short of runway slots at Heathrow and Gatwick. Although Redhill would not be able to take larger jets, about a quarter of flights in and out of Gatwick are made by smaller jets. Ours is also the only scheme that would increase runway capacity in the South-east before the turn of the century."

Mr Price said passengers using the airport would be able to transfer to Gatwick in under 10 minutes and the airport would be able to handle 2.5 million passengers a year.

The Marinair project, first put forward in the Eighties, has always appeared grandiose and unviable, but recently the company behind it has been relaunched under the name of Thames Estuary Airport Company Limited, headed by Lord Mowbray, a former Tory whip in the Lords. A company spokesman was unwilling to discuss details of the scheme but published plans suggest that the airport could handle up to 120 million passengers per year, more than the current total capacity of London's airports.

The European Airports Consortium Ltd's plans for a £400m Bristol regional airport near the Severn Bridge would handle 3-4 million passengers a year by the year 2005. The company's managing director, Bob Gillett, said: "This airport would replace both theexisting Lulsgate and Filton."

Neither of these schemes has planning permission, or financial backing. Only Redhill has reached the public-inquiry stage and the result is expected in April.

There is also widespread scepticism within the industry. David Hopkins, chairman of the British Air Transport Association, said: "It's at the existing airports, especially Heathrow and Gatwick, that we need more runway space. It's no good building in theThames estuary or Oxfordshire because people won't go there."