Tuesday, January 27, 2009

the latent content of this airport, however...

This really is getting strange. The Tories look worryingly convinced of the wisdom of a plan to build a gigantic airport in the North Sea, split between two separate islands, because you never need to change the runway a plane is going to depart from...right? At the same time, the Government is considering a gigantic tidal power scheme in the Bristol Channel. It's like French engineering civil servants seized control in a bloodless coup.

In fact it's not; they would at least think they were being rational, but surely not even the promoters of this weird rush to create Big Dumb Objects all over the shop can believe this.

On the one hand, you've got the Tories, who are trying to convince themselves that they can find £40 billion, before inevitable cost overruns, to create a operationally crippled airport 53 miles from central London and only 101 miles from the nearest point of Dutch territory, dependent for land transport on spare capacity on the CTRL and on the 6 (I think) Crossrail and 2 LTS train paths an hour slated for the Southend/Shoeburyness route, and for road access on pure handwaving.

BorisWatch deserves some kind of medal for their reporting here; they successfully derived the actual location of the project by following Boris's boat trip in real time on ShipAIS, a ship-tracking ham radio site, and then prepared a handy Google Map, which is where I got the measurements from.


View Larger Map

How often, I wonder, would Borisport be fogged in? Even with CATIIIA/B autoland it's a serious constraint, and enough of it will stop ground operations even if you can still get in. And then there's all those heat-seeking gulls to worry about; they hunt in packs! The air traffic control issues are pretty gnarly, too - departures conflicting with arrivals into LHR, LCY and LGW.

Further, they want to be seen as "green" whilst also creating another Heathrow-and-a-half. But why? What is it with this obsession with airports in the Thames estuary? As always, the key to the present lies in the past. Here's the Hansard transcript of the debate on the Maplin Development Bill back in 1973. Three things come to mind - first of all, weren't MPs great back then? Of course, there is the usual parish pumpery, Bufton Tuftonism and tiresome faff, but there's also a lot of well-informed intelligent debate, and in the end the government lost!

Second, all the problems are still the same. This is because they are mostly what the Soviet general staff called the permanently-operating factors - terrain, human terrain, infrastructure. Third, there's a fascinating bit of the social history of ideas here. We join the debate with Douglas Jay MP on his feet, following up an excellent showing (or shoeing) from Tony Crosland...
Mr. Jay: What was the pressure exerted on the Roskill Commission to omit Stansted from its short list? The Times told us on 4th March 1969 that its inclusion would have been "emotive". At the same date the Financial Times said that its omission was "diplomatic". The British Airports Authority and the Board of Trade assumed that it was bound to be on the short list. The British Airports Authority was even told that it need not ask the commission to put it on because it was certain to be included. Yet it was omitted, and the commission's work was handicapped from the start. 700 Thus handicapped, in my opinion the Roskill Commission did its very best. Faced with the resulting choice between Foulness and a South Midlands site for which there is a good deal to be said, it came down decisively against Foulness and in favour of Cublington.

Then we had another curious alliance between landed interests in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire opposed to Cublington and commercial interests anxious to develop Foulness—

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Epping): Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the point about Stansted, in fairness to my predecessor in this House I ought to say that he was one of those opposed to the Stansted project. I would never think of him as being in the pockets of wealthy landowners or any set of that kind. It happens that I disagree with him on this issue as on many others, but it is right to be fair to him. Incidentally, I have a house on the approach to Stansted too.

Mr. Jay: I never suggested that. I was recalling what happened. According to The Times of 5th April 1971, the group resisting Cublington spent £50,000 "to persuade the Roskill Commission that the airport should be built at Foulness and not at Cublington"—" not just that it should not be built at Cublington but that it should be built at Foulness.

After the Roskill Commission's report, this group spent a great deal more, and the same article in The Times said that the pro-Foulness propaganda groups together spent "at least £700,000" to convince the public and Parliament that Foulness was the right solution.

At this point Sir John Howard enters the argument. According to the article in The Times that I have quoted, he was head of a civil engineering firm and, incidentally, a former chairman of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, though no doubt that is irrelevant. He happened to live near Thurleigh in Bedfordshire and he founded the Thames Estuary Development Company to promote the Maplin project. The Times says that Sir John "first lighted on Foulness during the fight against Stansted, in which he was closely involved."

He "lighted" on Foulness as it were by chance. His consortium, backed also by RTZ, John Mowlem and Shell, spent more than £500,000 in supporting the Foulness case. Much of the driving force in all this thus came not from people impressed with the merits of Foulness but from those who wanted to keep the airport away from other sites.

Here I return to the speech of the hon. Member for Southend, East. What was the opinion of more than 150,000 people living in the Southend area about this? That is for them and their representatives to say, and I am sure that we shall hear the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine)—

Sir Bernard Braine: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be accurate. There are 310,000 people living in the three constituencies bounded by the Thames and the Crouch who are affected by this proposal.

Mr. Jay: I always believe in understatements because they strengthen one's case. The hon. Gentleman has strengthened my case further. What were the opinions of those 300,000 persons—far more than live within 20 miles round Stansted, perhaps three times as many? I am sure that the hon. Member for Southend, East will not question this as a fact. But I understand that with the support of the leader of the Southend Corporation the corporation took a share in Sir John Howard's consortium, and the town clerk of Southend, according to The Times, became a director of it. Whether that was the best way of handling these matters, I have no doubt that all those concerned thought that they were acting in the best interests of Southend.

Sir S. McAdden: The right hon. Gentleman asked what were the opinions of the people of Southend. They were never consulted. This was a decision of the council to invest £100,000 of the ratepayers' money in Tedco. The council thought that it would make £6 million. Instead, it has lost the lot.

Mr. Jay: It is what I have always suspected to be the truth. I stated it rather diffidently, but the hon Member for Southend, East has confirmed it. From the point of view of this House, the opinion of the Roskill Commission on Maplin is worth a good deal more than 702 that of this consortium formed in the way that I have described.

I am afraid that what emerges from the story is that both the selection of Maplin and the omission of Stansted have been influenced far too much by the money spent on the commercial publicity and far too little by serious consideration of the public interest.
I see Tebbit was already as much of an arse as he later became, too. Permanently operating factors in the human terrain.

More seriously, I'm fascinated by the fact that the whole idea of Maplin/Foulness/Sheppey/Marinair/Borisport pushed by three different Conservative administrations originates with a gaggle of Tory squires trying to win a planning row in some completely different bit of the country. I wonder if Sir John Howard ever seriously meant it? Or did it just get out of hand? The Tories always will be the party of the Landed Interest, just as when their first response to the great crash of 2008 was to look for handouts to their property-shark contingent; another permanently operating factor.

Meanwhile, over the wall, the Government has aimed squarely for a soggy compromise. My own views on Heathrow expansion are heterodox and unpopular. Here goes: I don't particularly mind if aviation makes up 29% of the 2050 CO2 target, so long as we get there. Nobody sets out to emit CO2 - it's waste, and when did you last hear of someone saying "Thank God our widget production line produces so many widget flakes we have to dispose of"? Converting stuff into more valuable stuff is what it's all about, and any production of valueless stuff makes us poorer.

I'm with James Hansen on this one - it's the coal-fired power stations, stupid, and the buildings. If we can't fix the cars and buildings and power generation, it doesn't matter a fucking jot what we do about aviation. Because, after all, buildings are easy, power and cars are getting easier, aeroplanes are hard. We're not far now; look at this hub-drive electric motor project at Michelin. Solar and wind are now the leading sources of new electrical power.

And, if there must be expansion, it ought to be at an existing airport because of the ATC issues. And if we're going to be expanding an existing airport, well, it may as well be the one the airlines want to use. Further, it's good to maintain the various conventions that limit activity at Heathrow - I was surprised to see that mixed-mode operation accounted for almost a third of the expected capacity increase. And yes, I did hold this view when I lived there.

And if we're doing this, we ought also to do other things, like building a north-south high-speed rail route and better public transport in general - saving oil and CO2 emissions for things that we can't yet substitute. Like insisting on change to the European ATC system, which could save 10% or more of the air fuel requirement without pouring concrete or sacrificing anything at all. Like air-source heat pumps and insulation, or...well, enter your favourite project here.

Unfortunately, the government has no credibility on this. Neither does it have any credibility on the eventual target for movements at LHR anyway - they always burst the target, which isn't included in an act of parliament and therefore is pretty meaningless. And their efforts to balance the Heathrow decisions are crap - a high speed rail "hub" at LHR? On a line from where to where? Great Western electrification is good, but this sounds like a piece of recreational investment that might seriously harm the prospects of building a proper LGV network.

And the responsible minister is Geoff. Fucking. Hoon. Of all people. Aren't you in jail? Aren't you dead yet? (I suppose that does not die which can eternal lie.) And so, I conclude, I'd better oppose it anyway. It's the only way to be safe.

Meanwhile, across the way, the Tories want to "examine" high speed rail. Woo. More talk. And, ah, build a forty billion quid airport in the sea, whilst keeping Heathrow open as well (good luck with the 70-odd mile transfer!). As someone said:
Our government is pitiful, whoever you vote for.
They surely can't mean this; back in 1969, the Foulness scheme was a political manoeuvre, a Straussian statement. I suspect its resurrection is something similar.

What are they trying to hide? Is this an effort to kibosh offshore wind development? Are Dave from PR, Gideon and Boris climate change deniers? Or what?

6 comments:

ajay said...

Not to mention Boris' plan to build an enormous desalination plant rather than root up London's streets to fix leaky water mains.
Two possible explanations:
1) He wants to get his name on something. Here I am reminded of the newly elected Mayor Tommy Carcetti, frantically looking for something to build - "a stadium? A conference center? Well, can we expand it? How about an expressway?"
2) He has a fascination for large bits of 1960s-futuristic engineering, probably stemming from too much of the Eagle as a child. Watch out for a Space Elevator to become a policy plank.

Alex said...

Space elevators. Where do they usually think of building it? In the sea. You're on to something there.

Perhaps Boris will be tapped to head the Ministry of Space in a future Conservative government? (Providing they find a handy heap of Nazi gold or Iraqi oil or Afghan smack profits or something.)

Anonymous said...

Too much _Eagle_? Impossible. Nuclear-powered trains, liberal morality, lovable East End tearaways - what's not to like?

Were I a cynic, I would look for this not in the context of the white heat of the technological revolution, but in the fact that BJ International is going to need a lot of concrete. Luckily I am not a cynic: and to be fair, some of the big building names of yore are absent from the party donations list.

Chris Williams

guthrie said...

They're trying to beat New Labour in wasting public money so there is none left, thus causing gvt to be small enough to drown in a bath tub.
Or maybe not.

The important thing about Stansted is that it was judged the worst place to put an airport, in part due to teh fog. 40 years later, we have an airport in Stanstead that gets fogged up regularly. Although I don't see why fog should be an issue given the equipment we have these days.

Graydon said...

Fog is water. Water gets into things, often things you don't want it to get into. Or it freezes on things, like cold aircraft that have just descended from the stratosphere.

So even if your radar autolanding system is perfect, and never, for example, dies during landing, lots of fog makes things complicated.

Looking at that transit tunnel curve, that's not too far off where you'd want to put the King Canute Memorial, the 25m above current mean sea level or so dike-and-lock system to keep the Thames Valley from flooding salt up to the Pool of London.

Maybe he figures that if they're going to pour all that concrete and build all that infrastructure to enable all that concrete pouring, you might as well put an airport there? (Of course, this requires some rather tall runway islands, so it would show in the plans.)

ajay said...

Looking at that transit tunnel curve, that's not too far off where you'd want to put the King Canute Memorial

Nice to see a fellow Naismith fan in the house...

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