Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Don’t shoot the visionaries!

On Wednesday, Lord Foster launched his plan for ‘The Thames Hub’. This £50 billion plan is a vast infrastructure and regeneration project on a scale many perhaps cannot fully comprehend.  However, as with all huge infrastructure projects (and my personal experience with HS2 currently is a reference) the naysayers have come out in force, egged on by the media, with the usual rhetoric of too much money, planet-trashing, ‘pie in the sky’, it can never happen et cetera et cetera.

To be fair, Britain has a strong and proud record of producing people who always say it will never happen, and, to be fair, they have successfully proved themselves right by preventing it!  Saying no is the easy option. Is it affordable?  Usually it is as it will generate revenue plus additional economic growth and wider benefits that are almost impossible to quantify until the project is real and can be tangibly felt. Think of the Channel Tunnel as an example. Could we ever imagine being without it now?

Are projects like this luxuries rather than essentials?  Lord Foster sets out a global transport hub that is a marker, a reference for what every country in the 21st century will need – and the first one or two will reap the maximum benefit in terms of world player status and the exponential growth sought.

The proposal is for a global transport hub (equivalent to a world city’s transport links) with an international airport, an international port, an intermodal freight terminal (sea, air and land by road and rail), national and international high speed rail connections, plus massive national rail connectivity and upgrades along with links into the road network.

But then Lord Foster goes further with an idea that I discussed at conference with the UK president of Alstom, Steve Burgin. If you are building infrastructure, then build real full capability, futureproofed infrastructure. New railway lines should have fibreoptics, water mains, sewage, electricity all using the same alignment and land. They are all critical infrastructure of strategic national importance to UK plc. A new Thames barrier (which is also needed now) is also part of the Thames Hub proposal with the same thinking – that big works, projects of such strategic importance must be supported and also scoped to maximise benefit and utility, which will ultimately prove their worth.

The proposal for a new international airport in the Thames estuary is a bold vision. But Lord Foster’s point is to make us consider how do we best design and create well-connected international gateways that can do the best job for UK plc now and in 50 years’ time?  My view is that we should look afresh at Heathrow rather than the Thames estuary and consider what our vision should look like for connecting people with places, jobs and the future growth creation we need to see.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about the here and now when there are currently a lot of difficult issues to grapple with. But pretending that we are too busy to look into the future and plot our vision of where we need to be is not to our advantage. Lord Foster’s vision is to be admired. The Thames Hub is epic and hugely impressive: it makes us think about the questions we will need to answer, it inspires us to think big and be creative. By sniping at the visionaries we will all lose out because we end up with short-term solutions that are not even good enough to be second best.


Alex Burrows is head of strategy at Centro and is a member of Sutton Coldfield CLP. This article represents his personal opinion.



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Alex Burrows

is a transport professional, currently working at the Transport Systems Catapult. He writes in a personal capacity


  • oh fer gawdsake ,can’t we just have the third runway at Heathrow. Its been overcrowded for far too long ,I wrote here before about two messy landings I had there. (too close to plane infront both times,last time had to lift up quick at real steep angle like in movie Airplane (but not so funny) then circle for 45 mins.

  • Heathrow’s location means most planes land over London, affecting millions – its one of the worst airports in the world, and a significant negative point for investing in the UK. The best option would be to close Heathrow entirely. Luton, Stansted and Gatwick all could be expanded to 3 or 4 runways, but each would affect more people than a Thames Hub plan would. From a population distribution perspective, Luton would be the best choice for the UK, being between London and the Northern cities, but Thames Hub is an easier prospect in terms of people affected (its the only choice where flights land over water). Politicians need to grasp the nettle on infrastructure and realise the damage caused by our lack of investment in infrastructure – 1.5% GDP compared to France 3% and Japan 6%. It is also essential that a decision is taken on airport strategy before that on HS2, see for the rationale.

  • No problem with visions but one read of the paper from Foster and you can see it was put together on a shoe-string budget.

    There are several reasons why this proposal is a bad idea:

    i) Cost – It is still debatable whether the private sector will fund £50bn for another airport in the UK and suggestions are they will only do so if Heathrow closed – with the resultant loss of huge supply chains in the Heathrow area. Economic impacts work both ways… A smaller airport in North Kent and the cost-benefit of any joint engineering scheme with roads, barrages etc… is ameliorated.
    ii) Logistics – Take away the fact you have thousands of migratory bird species which increase the risk of bird strike, £1bn LNG facility on Grain and the SS Montgomery. Also the fact this area sits on top of a flood plain which is at major risk of flooding. Of course not insurmountable problems but given the option of expanding Gatwick & Stansted these add up
    iii) Flight noise – Medway is the largest conurbation outside of London in the South East and in case people have forgotten the North Kent gateway is designated area for massive household expansion over the next decade. It will impact communities on both sides of the Thames Estuary.
    iii) Location – The argument used by Foster to suggest an airport in Kent will open up air travel to the North is laughable. Kent is perhaps the worst situated county for business in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Access via HS1 via Kings Cross St Pancras is of course an option and roads may indeed improve but accessibility is not really an argument. Plenty of existing airports can be more readily accessed, have infrastructure upgraded and at cheaper cost in the current climate.
    iv) Politics – Labour need to win the marginal seats in North Kent and South Essex. If you want to kill us off for a generation in an area we need to win go ahead and propose it. Alternatively let the Tories do the heavy lifting; but be very careful, accepting the national argument is all well and good but feels crap when you do it from the opposition benches. The Tories have a larger block vote in the South and greater resources; we have absolutely no need to do the heavy lifting until we see government.
    v) A proposal was at Cliffe (nearby to this proposal) was rejected in 2002/2003 by the Blair Government. The arguments they concluded still stand. We have been here before, so read up…

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