Problem: Heathrow’s in the wrong place

Other countries can move their airports. It would take vision and commitment, but we can too

In politics, as in life, you have to know when to stop digging. Once a fundamental mistake has been made, no amount of cosmetics, new initiatives or improvements can overcome the basic tragic error. This is nowhere more true than on the issue of Heathrow.

Terminal 5, the third runway, Crossrail, the OFT inquiry into BAA’s monopoly — all of them are misguided political attempts to gloss over the massive, catastrophic flaw that dogs Heathrow and means it will never, ever be what Britain wants and needs it to be.

After decades of aviation misery, campaigning and protest, it is time to face the truth and admit the problem: Heathrow is in the wrong place.

You need two vital ingredients for a successful international airport: the right wind and loads of space. Heathrow has neither. The prevailing wind in London is westerly. Aircraft have to land into wind; so all those massive beasts (and they are getting bigger every year) have to turn in right over Central London. The noise they cause means only a limited number of flights can land before 6am or after 11.30pm. But as the residents of Wandsworth or Ealing will tell you, it only takes one plane coming over at 4am to wake you up and ruin your day.

Heathrow is also trapped. Hemmed in by the M4, M25 and the A30, surrounded by thousands of residents, our premier airport has nowhere to go and can only cram more and more into what little space is available.

Add to this some truly idiotic planning decisions from the 1950s (Who decided to put the terminals in the middle of the airfield, so the main access had to be through a tiny tunnel?) and you have what is commonly regarded as one of Britain’s greatest planning disasters.

Adding Terminal 5 and also a third runway and a sixth terminal, as the Government wants in its proposals published yesterday, will only make the airport even more of a mess and nuisance. So let’s move it.

This is the point in the argument that people burst out laughing. “Ludicrous!” they cry. “Impossible!” Having taken a breath, they then start laughing harder when they think about the cost.

But is it so ludicrous? The Parisians moved their main airport twice between 1960 and 1980 and are now looking to build a bigger replacement elsewhere for Charles de Gaulle. New York, Washington DC, Houston and Denver have all moved theirs. Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur both moved their airports in 1998 and the Athenians moved theirs in 2001. Across the globe, cities are moving their airports to sites that optimise their location and scope for expansion. It seems to be a uniquely British habit to keep digging in the wrong spot.

The solution to the Heathrow issue is remarkably simple and it lies in Hong Kong. Our former colony had a similar problem: a tiny international airport sandwiched among crowded residents with no room for expansion. But land is precious in Hong Kong so, without messing around, they simply built an artificial island in the right spot and put a spanking new, efficient, prize-winning airport on it. It took six years and $20 billion including a bullet train into town that gets you there in 20 minutes.

Are you gasping at the cost? Not once you remember that Crossrail is costing $32 billion and the Olympics getting on for $20 billion. In those terms it’s a bargain.

We could easily do the same. The Thames estuary is only four metres deep in parts and it would be relatively simple and cheap to construct an artificial island with a beautiful modern airport on it. All the planes would come in to land over the North Sea, which would mean a 24-hour operation, with no disturbance while expanding capacity, at a stroke. In fact, the airport could easily accommodate all the flights from Gatwick as well, meaning we could probably close it too.

A bullet train on stilts or in a tunnel could link the airport to Central London in 20 minutes or so, and a branch line from the new high-speed Eurostar link nearby could connect the airport with the Continent.

But the benefits don’t stop there. What about all the freight that gets to the airport by road now? Well, the articulated lorries would all be gone in favour of greener, uncongested ships. And how about that Thames Gateway regeneration? A new eastern airport would be a huge boost, creating jobs for decades to come.

But how would we pay for it? You may have overlooked one final benefit: Heathrow would be shut, which means the site would be open for development. More than 2,500 acres of prime land, close to the M4 with great rail links into town: perfect for housing the capital’s fast-growing population. Developers would be fighting to pay top dollar for the site. We might even make a profit on the deal.

But one more thing is needed to make a new Heathrow happen. When Joseph Bazalgette built the sewers of London in the 1860s, he calculated the pipes to be as big as the existing population would need, but then he sharpened his pencil and doubled the size to provide for future growth. We still use his sewers today.

When Brunel planned the Great Western Railway in the 1830s, he laid the track in great sweeping arcs across the countryside because he guessed that, in centuries to come, the line would need to take trains at speeds beyond comprehension in Victorian times. And he was right: trains can run at well over 150 mph today.

The elusive quality we need to make a new Heathrow happen is vision. If we have the courage to replace Heathrow, in 2100 our grandchildren will look back and compare us to Brunel and Bazalgette, as a generation of Britons who cared about the people coming after us and had the vision to plan for them.

If we don’t, they will only have one word for us: fools.