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Lord Foster to unveil ambitious airport plans

A section of the Thames Estuary airport. Designed by Lord Foster.

A section of the Thames Estuary airport, as designed by Lord Foster. Picture: Foster and Partners

Ambitious plans for a multi-billion pounds transport hub connecting the UK's main sea ports and creating a huge new airport in Kent are to be revealed today.

Renowned architect Lord Foster - famed for designing the Stansted Airport terminal building and London's 'Gherkin' - is unveiling the plans in London.

He will outline the scheme for a Thames Hub, which brings together a new river barrier and crossing, an international airport on the Hoo Peninsula, and a shipping and rail complex.

Read our exclusive interview with Lord Foster - why my vision isn't pie in the sky!

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The introduction to the development - dubbed 'an integrated vision for Britain' - says the project will "lay the foundations for the future prosperity of Britain.

"It will create jobs across the UK and boost the economies of the Midlands and the North by providing them with direct connections to the cities and markets of Europe.

"In order to realise it, Britain needs to rekindle the foresight and courage of its 19th centure forebears and our traditions of engineering, design and landscape."

But at the heart of the so-called Spine project is the controversial Estuary airport on the Isle of Grain.

A section of high speed rail to feed the Thames Hub airport. Picture: Foster and Partners

A section of high speed rail to feed the Thames Hub airport. Picture: Foster and Partners

The report claims this will be energy self-sufficient, using tidal power generators.

But it would more than double the capacity of Heathrow, handling up to 150 million passengers each year, 24 hours every day.

If built, it would have four runways, each 4km long.

An integrated rail station beneath the passenger terminal will be the UK's busiest - with 300,000 arrivals and departures every day.

The report adds: "Significantly, it will greatly improve the lives of the five million people who currently live under the flight paths in and out of Heathrow."

Around half of the airport platform will be on reclaimed land extending into the Estuary 7m above sea level.

It's claimed it would reduce noise and pollution for millions of people and improve flood protection - creating thousands of jobs in the process.

The integrated Thames barrier, part of the Thames Hub plans.

The integrated Thames barrier, part of the Thames Hub plans. Image: Foster and Partners

Other parts of the project include:

  • A four-track, high-speed passenger and freight Orbital rail route around London, which links London's existing lines, a future high speed line to the Midlands and the North, the Thames Estuary ports, High Speed 1 through Kent and Europe.
  • A new barrier crossing that harnesses tidal power to generate carbon-free energy
  • An environmental strategy that "minimises the impact of development and provides opposrtunities to create significant new wildlife habitats to more than offset losses elsewhere."

An aerial image of the Thames Hub airport, designed by Lord Foster.

An aerial image of the Thames Hub airport, designed by Lord Foster. Image: Foster and Partners

The high-speed Orbital Rail route would also have a huge impact on Kent.

Incorporating two high-speed lines and two conventional lines, it is said it will "improve transport connections dramatically for industry and greatly reduce travel times for passengers."

It approximately traces the existing line of the M25. For about a third of its length, the network would pass through tunnels.

Audio: Richard Lavender, director of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce

But it would have a huge station at the Thames Hub, and a further one in Kent, at a town not specified.

The new barrier upstream of the London Gateway port is said to provide flood protection for the capital to 2100 and beyond.

It's claimed it could also provide residential development on 'newly-protected land' east of Gravesend for Thames Hub staff.


An aerial view of flights over the UK if the Thames Hub is built.

But the project has been met with outrage from local political leaders.

A statement from Medway council dubbed it "one of the worst places for anyone to build a new airport."

It said: "Not only is it on the wrong side of London, with the capital in the way for most UK air travellers, but also plans released by the architect appear to place it on top of Europe’s largest Liquefied Natural Gas containers, where 20% of Britain’s gas supplies are delivered by super tanker annually.

"In addition, the site would also be where a major UK power station is based."

Leader of Medway Council, in Kent, Cllr Rodney Chambers, said: "The plan to build an airport on the Isle of Grain is, quite possibly, the daftest in a long list of pie in the sky schemes that have been put forward for an airport.

"The Isle of Grain is home to one of the world’s largest Liquefied Natural Gas terminals, with a fifth of the UK’s gas supply offloaded by container ships and stored there. It is plainly obvious that aircraft and huge gas containers are a potentially lethal mix.

"the plan to build an airport on the isle of grain is, quite possibly, the daftest in a long list of pie in the sky schemes that have been put forward for an airport." – medway council leader, cllr rodney chambers

"In addition to this, the sunken American warship the SS Richard Montgomery is submerged just a few miles from the location and laden with high explosives, the London Array wind farm is being built nearby and the airport cuts through an area that is home to hundreds of thousands of migrating birds."

He said Lord Foster's plans beggared belief.

He added: "I can only assume he has not actually left his offices and travelled from London to Medway to have a look before releasing this."

He said a huge airport off the Thames Estuary was not only unaffordable, but unnecessary.

He added: "An airport on or near the Thames Estuary would cause a devastating impact on the hundreds of thousands of migrating birds there as well as the local environment."

"Instead, we should look to using up capacity at existing airports, which is already government policy.

Lord Foster's plans for a new rail network around London.

"For instance, Manston, in Kent, already has one of the longest runways in Europe and is close to the high speed rail link to London while Birmingham is near the proposed site for a second high speed train and says it aims to double capacity." 

But Mayor of London Boris Johnson has welcomed the proposals, with reports saying he is thrilled that the architect has taken on the idea.

In a statement, the Mayor said: "I am grateful to Lord Foster for spelling out the potential for a new airport, properly rooted in a broader vision for the Thames estuary, where it would make a vital contribution to economic growth.

"I believe this is vital not only so London remains in the premier league of aviation, but also to generate jobs and opportunities for decades."


Audio: Reporter Nisha Chopra speaks to Isle of Grain locals

The Mayor has previously said that a new airport in the Thames Estuary would be "the most powerful single statement we could make about the ambition of this country".

But he has always said he is open to other suggestions for a location and sources close to the Mayor today said he is "thrilled" with the Foster plan.

What do you think? Join the debate by adding your comments belowThe team behind the scheme say the long-term vision, which spans the next 50 years into 2060, "is designed to reinforce the United Kingdom’s position as the world’s leading commercial, tourist and financial centres, ensuring that the country remains globally competitive in the late 21st century and beyond."

The independent report claimed the UK needed to connect with new markets, and warned it could be left behind other European countries if it didn't have spare capacity.

The announcement comes in the week new research published by economists FTI Consulting claimed a "do nothing" approach to runway expansion in the South East would "stifle UK growth" and could result in lost benefits of up to £47 billion over the next 30 to 50 years.


Reporter Alan McGuinness will be at the Foster launch. Follow his tweets at @Alan_McGuinness


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