Fight against Thames Estuary airport plans

Yachtsmen from Essex and Kent joined politicians, environmentalists, and bird-watchers this weekend to set up a campaign to fight plans for an airport in the Thames Estuary.

More than 80 people turned out on 10 February, the coldest night of the year so far, at Leigh Community Centre in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex to hear six speakers including David Amess MP.

The meeting was chaired by Jon Fuller, a Friends of the Earth environmental campaigner.The gathering was confronted by a screen depicting the Thames Estuary with red aircraft motifs circled over the locations which could be considered likely sites for an airport: two off the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, one over the Maplin Sands near Shoeburyness and two more on the North Kent coast at Grain and Cliffe.

‘They remind me of swastikas,’ one elderly gentleman muttered.
First to speak was George Crozer, a parish councillor from the Isle of Grain in Kent, whose ‘No Airport at Cliffe’ campaign was successful, but who now faces a second battle to prevent architect Norman Foster’s proposal for an airport on the Isle of Grain.

He explained the wrangling over the estuary, as the site for the UK’s premier airport, has a long history. It started in 1947 when both the estuary and Heathrow were considered as suitable locations. Next the estuary was considered as an alternative to Gatwick, then Stanstead, then against an extension to Heathrow and finally, today, as a replacement for Heathrow.

He told the meeting more than 200,000 birds covering seven major migratory routes from the Arctic to North Africa, drop into the North Kent marshes for a stopover making a ‘bird strike’ – an aircraft brought down by ingesting avian flocks in its jet engines – 12 times more likely in the estuary than at any other airport in the UK. He also told the meeting that of the 84 EU designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest for the UK, five are in the Thames Estuary.

Next to speak was Keith Taylor, Green Party MEP for the South-East of England who said Heathrow and its satellites already handle double the flights of Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam and that an estuary airport would affect a 25 mile radius with noise and pollution.

Peter Wexham of the Lib Dems explained that the millions of tons of incoming tide from the North Sea twice every 24 hours which would be diverted by an estuary airport would, over the years, erode the mudflats on the south Essex side of the river ‘and imperil our own safety’ from flooding. He said that if airline operators – who, he said, do not pay duty on aviation fuel – had to compete fairly with other transportation systems the whole idea of an estuary airport would go away.

Next local fisherman, Paul Gilson, estimated construction of an estuary airport would necessitate the dredging of 100 million tons of the sea-bed, for landfill, wrecking the Dover sole nursery in the estuary as well as innumerable sea life habitats.

Mr Gilson also cited some of the costings for the airport: £20 billion for the airport itself, a further £20 billion for an orbital rail link, £6 billion for a new Thames Barrier which would include raising sea walls to even higher levels making Leigh residents live in the shadows of the dike like the polders of Holland.

He also mentioned the elephant in the room – the SS Richard Montgomery – the wartime wreck which lies within five miles of Southend Pier, which is loaded with 1,700 tons of High Explosive. No authority has dared tamper with it since it sank in 1944, for fear of causing a local catastrophe.
David Amess then told the meeting that; ‘It is absolutely barking mad the suggestion that we need an airport in the Thames Estuary.’ He said the money was not available to construct it, that airline carbon dioxide was a ‘massive pollutant’ and that in any case flight paths in the estuary might interfere with Dutch airspace. ‘Every single Essex MP, bar one, is opposed to it and every Kent MP is, too.’

David Hedges for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds ended the meeting announcing the RSPB website already has an online petition in place for anyone who wants to join the fight.