Thames Estuary

Tagged with: Casework status: Open Casework type: Aviation Site designations: Ramsar site Site designations: SAC Site designations: SPA Site designations: SSSI
Landscapes in the Thames Estuary near the site on reclaimed marshland on the Isle of Grain


We are opposed to the construction of an airport in the Thames Estuary, including the latest proposals put forward as part of the government-commissioned review.

We are vehemently opposed to the construction of an airport in the Thames Estuary and this includes any and all of the latest proposals which have come forward as part of the government-commissioned review into the UK's aviation capacity.

This world-class coastal wetland has been threatened by a series of ill thought-out airport proposals over the past several decades. By campaigning alongside local communities and many others we have ensured none of them have come close to getting off the ground.

Since Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, catapulted the concept of an airport in the Thames Estuary back to prominence, all sorts of ideas have been put forward. These include one by Lord Foster on the Hoo Peninsula, the resurrection of a formerly proposed airport at Cliffe, a floating airport and a new island in the estuary just off the Whitstable coast.

The Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, has been set up to examine current aviation capacity and consider the need for expansion. The commission will produce final recommendations in a report to be published in 2015, after the next election.

In December 2013, the commission published an interim report highlighting locations they believe are suitable for a new hub airport. Although a Thames Estuary location was not formally included on the shortlist, the commission did not discard it, instead keeping it as an option for further scrutiny, despite the damage to wildlife and the risk of bird strike.

The construction of a Thames Estuary airport would result in an unprecedented level of damage and destruction to a highly protected and internationally recognised coastal wetland. In addition, we have serious concerns about the wider impacts of aviation expansion on people and wildlife as a result of the increased carbon emissions and their contribution to climate change.

We will continue to actively campaign to ensure that any such plans are rejected and aviation expansion only goes ahead when the threats to our environment and climate are fully and properly taken into account.


Why is it worth fighting for?

The Thames Estuary is a large coastal wetland and a vital migration hub for hundreds of thousands of wildfowl and wading birds. Some spend the winter in the Thames, feeding on its mud flats and salt-marshes, others are in transit between their Arctic breeding grounds and winter homes further south.

The global significance of the Thames for its birdlife is recognised by a series of Special Protection Areas which all but cover the entire estuary. There are also two Special Areas for Conservation. The Estuary's wildlife importance has more recently been recognised by the Government when it was awarded Nature Improvement Area (NIA) status. There are only 12 NIAs in the country and they have been set up to enhance some of our most important places for wildlife.

Proposals to build airports in the Thames estuary are nothing new – dating back to shortly after the Second World War – their regular rejection on business, aviation, safety and environmental grounds is a signal from history that this is a bad location for aviation.

Time has moved on and our understanding of how climate change affects the environment has increased massively. So today, as well as the direct damage to wildlife, we can also add the threat of climate change to the dangers presented by airport expansion in the Thames estuary (or indeed anywhere else). Airport expansion on this scale would make it incredibly challenging to meet the UK's legally binding carbon emissions targets. Climate change is one of the greatest to threats facing wildlife and people in the long term. Failure to address it effectively will be catastrophic.

We are in no doubt that the proponents of the latest airport proposals are serious, but to some extent that jumps the gun. The airport proposal was catapulted to prominence deliberately ahead of a crucial aviation review and the independent commission which has subsequently been set up to look at the issue in detail. We welcomed the establishment of the Airports Commission as it should allow an objective review of the facts, away from the hype and simplistic claims of some supporters of a Thames Estuary airport.

It is this political and economic context which makes the Thames Estuary airport proposal even more significant. Were it to go ahead it would almost certainly be the largest single deliberate act of protected wildlife habitat destruction ever perpetrated in the UK and it would raise serious questions about the government's commitment to being the greenest government ever.

How you can help

With 300,000 birds visiting every year we know the Thames is amazing, but we are concerned that the Airports Commission haven’t yet had the chance to really understand how special it is. With all this focus on the Estuary as an airport location, it would be easy to lose sight of the Greater Thames as a place which is home to six million people. A place which has been at the heart of our country’s economy for centuries, as a base for commercial shipping, intensive farming, heavy industry, power generation but yet is still one of the most important places for nature in the UK.

A place which we want future generations to be able to enjoy too.

The commission is currently examining all the technical evidence for and against an airport in the Estuary and they will be consulting on their conclusions later in the summer. But until then, please help us remind them of what’s at stake.

If you only have a minute:

Do you have a favourite picture or story of nature in the Greater Thames or you out enjoying it? Tweet it (and why it’s your favourite) to @UKairportscomm – we’re using #JeThames and #NoEstuaryAirport.

If you have another nine minutes:

Why not write a letter to the commission to tell them how wonderful the estuary is and what makes it special to you? 

See our letter-writing briefing for help with your letter.

Do keep an eye on this page as we will keep it updated with further actions when the opportunity arises. If you are on Twitter you can also follow @Natures_Voice and @RSPBNews to receive all the latest news and campaign actions.

Landscapes in the Thames Estuary near the site on reclaimed marshland on the Isle of Grain

Our position

We are completely against the location of an airport in the Thames Estuary.

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. You can find several RSPB nature reserves (covering a total of more than 50 square kilometres) right across the Greater Thames, an indication of how important we believe the area is for wildlife – and they give people great opportunities to see that wildlife for themselves.

A little history

Proposals to construct an airport in the Thames go back to just after the Second World War. Indeed the challenge of plans to build on Maplin Sands off the Essex coast more than 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 which underpins so much of our knowledge about the importance of our coastal wetlands for bird conservation.

A proposal to construct a four-runway airport in the same area, similar to those we’re seeing now, 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 anything concrete. 

Where we are today

Now, with the review of airport capacity in full swing, there are no less the six separate proposals for 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 the option of an estuary airport should be rejected outright. After several months of prevarication, the government set up the Independent Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, in late 2012 to assess airport capacity and the need for aviation expansion. We have submitted evidence on a variety of topics and will continue to do so as appropriate, and have also provided comments on the commission’s approach and decision-making tools at every stage.

The commission published an interim report at the end of 2013. This short listed options at Gatwick and Heathrow and committed to a further six-month feasibility study on an Inner Thames Estuary airport option centred on Isle of Grain. They will consult on this more detailed work on the Thames proposals in July 2014 and their final recommendations will appear in 2015, after the next General Election.

We believe 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 are opposed to these new proposals for an airport in the Thames Estuary because:

  • The massive environmental impact is unjustified. It would cause an unprecedented level of damage and destruction to internationally important and legally protected wildlife habitat, which we do not believe can be adequately compensated for.
  • To land planes in a foggy, bird-rich estuary makes it the most unsafe locations for an airport in the UK. Birdstrike would be up to 12 times more likely here unless draconian clearance of the flocks which make the Thames their home is undertaken, year after year.
  • 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.

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 which 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.



  • 2015
    Davies Commission to publish final recommendations in the summer, after any general election.
  • Autumn 2014
    Davies Commission to publish interim report recommending options for a new airport
  • Autumn 2014
    Davies Commission to announce its decision on whether to shortlist Inner Thames Estuary airport option alongside Gatwick and Heathrow options.
  • May 2014
    RSPB submits evidence to Inner Thames Estuary airport feasibility study.
  • April 2014
    Davies Commission publishes appraisal framework for how shortlisted options for additional airport capacity are to be developed.
  • January 2014
    Davies Commission calls for evidence to be submitted to its Inner Thames Estuary Airport feasibility study. Deadline May 2013.
  • December 2013
    Davies Commission publishes Interim Report - short lists options at Gatwick and Heathrow. Commits to further six-month feasibility study on Inner Thames Estuary airport option centred on Isle of Grain, to reach a view later in 2014.
  • March 2013
    Government publishes Aviation Policy Framework
  • November 2012
    Davies Commission established to examine options for airport expansion
  • July 2012
    The government announces delay in consultation on the economic arguments for a hub airport until later this year
  • 2009
    The 'miracle on the Hudson' plane crash caused by bird strike raised the issue of safety in connection with estuary airports in public consciousness.
  • 2009
    Douglas Oakavee issues a preliminary assessment of 'Boris Island' and recommends further studies.
  • 2008
    London Mayor Boris Johnson begins serious promotion of an estuary airport as an alternative to a third runway at Heathrow – this continues a series of such proposals dating back to the 1980s.
  • 2003
    Aviation White Paper rules out the Estuary airport at Cliffe on the grounds of cost, environment damage and a greater risk of birdstrike. Thames Reach proposal also rejected.
  • 2002
    South East and East of England Regional Air Services consultation once again brought Cliffe into consideration prompting the RSPB to launch No Airport at Cliffe. A second proposal on the Hoo Peninsula (Thames Reach).
  • 1979
    Further promotion and consideration of the Maplin option (at a smaller scale) was rejected by the Government.
  • 1974
    Plans to build an airport on Maplin Sands off Foulness, Essex were scrapped.
  • 1968–1971
    Roskill Commission finally selects Foulness (Maplin Sands) as option for an airport. The risk to the nature conservation importance of the estuary was apparent but un-quantifiable – leading to the establishment of the Birds of Estuaries Inquiry (run by the BTO) the forerunner of the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBs) which continues to provide vital information to support wise decision-making to this day. Foulness kick-started the modern objective approach to site-safeguard.
  • 1967
    Cliffe rejected as an airport option again.
  • 1966
    Recommendation that Cliffe option be further considered at Stansted public inquiry.
  • 1963
    Cliffe rejected in favour of Stansted, Foulness identified as a potential third London airport option.
  • 1954
    Cliffe rejected in favour of Gatwick.
  • 1948
    Flying boat plans dropped.
  • 1946
    Cliffe rejected as an airport location in favour of Heathrow, flying boat operation suggested instead.
  • 1944
    Wreck of the Liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery off Sheerness – packed with explosives the wreck is still a major hazard in the area.


On the doorstep of one of the world's foremost waterways lies over a thousand square kilometres of mudflats and marshland, home to some of Britain's rarest species such as the water vole and the marsh harrier. PDF,80Kb

Letter writing briefing - Help keep the Thames Estuary a critical flight path

Consultation response from May 2013. PDF, 663Kb

RSPB response - Aviation and climate change

Response to the Airports Commission request for sifting criteria, for use on airport proposals. PDF, 145Kb

Airports Commission criteria

The RSPB, WWF-UK and HACAN look at the social costs and benefits of airport expansion. PDF, 2.0Mb

The Economics of Airport Expansion