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Boris Island: the answer to London’s economic woes?


Stephanie Gale

By

May 15th, 2014


Stephanie Gale assesses London Mayor Boris Johnson’s wild plans to shut down Heathrow Airport, in favour of a new transport ‘super island’ to solve the city’s employment crisis.


In what has been termed the global infrastructure age, governments around the world appear to be scrambling to pull their nations out of economic doom and gloom through the development of major projects in a bout of supply stimulation.

Not least of these is the proposal from the (somewhat eccentric) Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. When this man isn’t awkwardly riding bicycles or dangling helplessly from flying foxes—Google the London Olympics opening ceremony for some hilarious shots—he does actually try and run one of the world’s major metropolises.

This, of course, includes Heathrow, one of the largest and most confusing airport hubs worldwide—at least for now. Johnson had the bright idea of replacing Heathrow to help the United Kingdom create jobs in the wake of the global financial crisis back in 2012. Since then, he has been attempting to develop novel projects that will satisfy both the nation’s search for economic prosperity and international competitiveness, whilst not being too ridiculous to implement on a serious level.

Through this article, I hope to tell you a little bit more about the options currently on the table, and consider economically what they could mean for the motherland.

Option one: creating an artificial airport island

This plan involves the creation of a four-runway (that’s big) facility on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary—now known to the British public as Boris Island. Whilst Johnson argues that this will reduce the pollution impact of the airport (through the implementation of new technology), local groups such as Friends of the Earth have argued that the sheer cost scale of developing the island—alongside all supporting roads and rail lines which must be built to access the island—would cost tens of billions of pounds. This argument seems to skew the cost-benefit analysis in a particular direction.

Option two: developing a new airport on the Isle of Grain in Kent

This suggestion is very similar to Boris Island above. It, however, would be constructed on the existing Isle of Grain in Kent, located in England’s south-eastern region. This option would appear to have a lower cost impact (as the area is already largely accessible by public transport), whilst its close proximity to water would prevent a large section of the population being impacted by the noise and pollution of takeoff and landing over cities (one of the public’s major gripes about Heathrow).

Option three: expanding the existing Stansted Airport

This proposal, potentially the least expensive of all three, would build on existing infrastructure in place at Stansted Airport, avoiding the environmental and wildlife costs touted as being Boris Island’s biggest downfall.

But what of Heathrow, you ask? Johnson’s plan is to turn the bulging area into a new town on London’s outskirts, housing as many as 250,000 people. This is not a bad idea given London’s continual population growth (due in part to its large immigration numbers from struggling EU nations). It is, however, questionable whether the local economy will be strong enough to support those living in the area, particularly following the removal of its greatest industrial drawcard. It is widely speculated by locals in the area that the shifting of Heathrow to another destination will only lead to an exodus of other companies, as well as an explosion in local unemployment.

The situation is currently being considered by the Davies Commission, whose final report is due by the middle of next year. Its terms of reference are focused on Britain’s position as lagging behind other EU nations such as Germany, France and the Netherlands in terms of connectivity and transport capacity, whilst other supporting airports (Gatwick and Stansted) are also reaching the end of their tether.

The ultimate question however remains: whilst saving those living around Heathrow the inconvenience of pollution (or being moved out of their homes to facilitate an expansion, à la The Castle), is the impact on the local livelihood and loss of jobs too much of a burden to justify such a shift? Is the development of Boris’ big new idea requiring too much in the way of sunk costs to make it an economically viable response to the need for supply-side stimulation? Or, is this just what the city needs to allow it to remain competitive well into the 21st century?

Note: this is all in the context of Australia’s own decision to develop Badgery’s Creek as the site of a new Sydney Airport in the city’s south-west; it will be interesting to see over coming months whether Johnson takes any notice of the Australian development plan to tout his solution to London’s transport and economic woes.

Image: ‘Boris Johnson’ by EU2017EE Estonian Presidency, https://flic.kr/p/YeVUZN. Licence at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. by

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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