That so much of our natural coastal environment has survived in the Thames Estuary into the 21st century is something we should celebrate. At the RSPB, we are proud of the role we have played in protecting, nurturing and sharing the wild landscapes of the Thames in Kent, Essex and Greater London.
Proposals to construct an airport in the Thames go back to just after World War II when Cliffe was rejected as the site for a new airport in favour of a small village to the west of London called Heathrow. Indeed the challenge of plans to build on Maplin Sands off the Essex coast over 40 years ago was the stimulus to developing an objective approach to conservation planning. It led directly to the establishment of the Birds of Estuaries enquiry, a forerunner of the modern Wetland Bird survey that underpins so much of our knowledge about the importance of our coastal wetlands for bird conservation.
The Thames Estuary is one of the most important wetlands in Europe and is protected by an array of designations. Perhaps the most significant of these are the Special Protection Areas, which are there to protect the internationally important flocks of migrating birds – over 300,000 of them spend each winter throughout the estuary before they head back to the arctic to nest. There are also Ramsar sites (a global marque applied to the planet's most important wetlands), Special Areas for Conservation, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National and Local Nature Reserves. You can also find several RSPB nature reserves (covering a total of over 50 square kilometres) right across the Greater Thames. Although being an RSPB nature reserve doesn’t convey any legal protection on the site, it is an indication of how important we believe the area is for wildlife – and, of course, gives people great opportunities to see that wildlife for themselves.
A similar proposal to construct a four-runway airport in the same area was rejected nearly a decade ago following our No Airport at Cliffe campaign. Since then various flights of fancy have emerged proposing estuary airports, but none of them have progressed into a real proposal. Now, with the review of airport capacity in full swing, there are no less the 6 separate proposals for airports, big airports, in the Thames Estuary.
Perhaps the most widely promoted option (from Lord Foster) – four runways on the Isle of Grain with linking infrastructure – has been propelled into the eye of a media storm but still exists only as architects drawings and plans.
We believe that the option of an estuary airport should be rejected outright. After several months of prevarication, the Government announced that they would set up an independent commission to assess airport capacity and the need for aviation expansion. The Davies Commission was set up in late 2012 and is currently taking evidence on a range of issues relating to aviation expansion. We have submitted evidence on a variety of topics and will continue to do so as appropriate. Those submissions include an independent report by CE Delft, which we commissioned WWF and HACAN (the group opposing Heathrow expansion), that questions the economic justification for aviation expansion. You can download those submissions by clicking on the links in Downloads on the right of the screen.
The Commission will publish an interim report at the end of 2013 and their final recommendations will appear in 2015, after the next General Election. We believe that a Thames Estuary airport should not be included as a viable option in any new Government strategy and we will be working hard to ensure that this is the case.
We oppose this airport proposal because the massive environmental impact is unjustified. It would cause and unprecedented level of damage and destruction to internationally important and legally protected wildlife habitat, which we do not believe can be adequately compensated for.
We oppose the airport because to land planes in a foggy, bird-rich estuary makes it the most unsafe locations in the UK. Birdstrike would be up to 12 times more likely here unless draconian clearance of the flocks that make the Thames their home is undertaken, year after year.
We also oppose this airport proposal because it would be the world's largest airport and would lead to the generation of massive carbon emissions at a time when we urgently need to reduce emissions from all sectors in order to meet the UK's short and long term climate targets.
Finally, we oppose this airport proposal because of the so far un-quantified impacts on the important fish spawning and nursery grounds in the estuary and the subsequent effect on established fishing operations. Development of the scale proposed would alter tidal flows, changing erosion patterns with potential negative outcomes for the estuary's busy shipping lanes.
The myth that North Kent is an unoccupied wasteland awaiting development is not reality. There are strong local communities who have banded together in the past to oppose similar schemes that threatened their homes, ways of life and precious local environment. Their deep commitment to protect this historically and environmentally important landscape for future generations to enjoy is as strong as ever.