Plans for a major new airport in the Thames Estuary backed by Mayor of London Boris Johnson have been rejected by a government-appointed commission.
The independent Airports Commission has dropped the four-runway solution, nicknamed Boris Island, citing its £112bn price tag – roughly five times as much as the other three short-listed options for extra runway capacity – and complicated design.
Prime Minister David Cameron appointed the commission in 2012 to find a solution to the capital’s growing air traffic demands and the body will now consider three remaining shortlisted schemes – two involving expansion at Heathrow Airport west London and the other for a new runway at Gatwick in West Sussex – before making its final report to ministers next summer.
"There are serious doubts about the delivery and operation of a very large hub airport in the estuary. The economic disruption would be huge and there are environmental hurdles which it may prove impossible or very time-consuming to surmount," said Sir Howard Davies, chair of the commission.
"Even the least ambitious version of the scheme would cost £70 to £90bn with much greater public expenditure involved than in other options – probably some £30 to £60bn in total.
The Heathrow and Gatwick options had been shortlisted by the commission last December, with Sir Howard announcing that further studies would be made on the estuary plan with a decision towards the end of 2014, but the commission has decided to act ahead of time to rule the option out.
Howard added: "We are not persuaded that a very large airport in the Thames Estuary is the right answer to London's and the UK's connectivity needs. While we recognise the need for a hub airport, we believe this should be a part of an effective system of competing airports to meet the needs of a widely spread and diverse market like London's."
A decision on where to locate new runways has already been delayed for years because of u-turns by successive governments, with Heathrow – Europe's busiest airport – already running at 98 per cent full.
But Johnson, who is seen as a potential successor to Prime Minister David Cameron after announcing he will stand as an MP in next year’s election, has signalled his intention to continue to fight for the project, potentially prolonging the uncertainty over airport strategy.
"In one myopic stroke the commission has set the debate back by half a century and consigned their work to the long list of vertically-filed reports on aviation expansion that are gathering dust on a shelf in Whitehall,” he said.
"Gatwick is not a long-term solution and Howard Davies must explain to the people of London how he can possibly envisage that an expansion of Heathrow, which would create unbelievable levels of noise, blight and pollution, is a better idea than a new airport to the east of London that he himself admits is visionary, and which would create the jobs and growth this country needs to remain competitive.
"It remains the only credible solution, any process that fails to include it renders itself pretty much irrelevant, and I'm absolutely certain that it is the option that will eventually be chosen."
Manufacturing lobby group the EEF backed the decision not to shortlist the island project and said it was important that the decision-making process was transparent and not derailed by any change in government after the election.
"By excluding the Thames Estuary airport option, the Airports Commission has made the right choice on the basis of robust evidence. EEF has consistently argued that there is no support from industry for a Thames Estuary airport,” said business environment policy adviser Chris Richards.
The airline industry also supported the commission's move.
"Britain needs additional runway capacity in the South East of England, but not at any price," said Nathan Stower, chief executive of the British Air Transport Association. "The proposals must be cost effective and offer value for money."
The three options still being considered by the commission include a new runway at Gatwick more than 3,000m in length and spaced sufficiently south of the existing runway to permit fully independent operation.
At Heathrow the two options are for a new 3,500m runway constructed to the north west of the existing airport that has been proposed by Heathrow Airport and an extension of the existing northern runway to the west of Heathrow proposed by Heathrow Hub, a consortium including former Concorde pilot Jock Lowe.
The second scheme would see the runway lengthened to at least 6,000m, enabling it to be operated as two separate runways one for departures and one for arrivals.