'Boris Island' airport could become reality

Louise Stewart
Political editor, South East

image copyrightbbc
image captionThe government is to hold a formal consultation on UK aviation

It's a new year but a familiar story. Once again the prospect of building a hub airport in the Thames Estuary has been raised.

The government has said it is to hold a formal consultation on UK aviation - including controversial plans for a new airport in the Thames Estuary.

The study, to be carried out in March, will look at options for "maintaining the UK's aviation hub status".

We already knew there was to be an aviation review - the Chancellor George Osborne said in his Autumn Statement in November that the government would look at all options.

Downing Street said no decisions had been made.

Conflicting views

We know that the London Mayor Boris Johnson backs the Thames airport idea.

Sources close to the government say that the Prime Minister and George Osborne have apparently been won over by the argument that a new airport would offer potential growth for the economy and regeneration as well as increasing aviation capacity.

Of course neither will go on the record at the moment to say whether they actually back it or not - given there is to be a consultation.

image copyrightPA
image captionPrime Minister David Cameron has previously ruled out expanding Heathrow

What we do know is that David Cameron has previously ruled out expanding Heathrow.

His deputy, however, the Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg is absolutely opposed to the estuary idea.

The Transport Minister and Lewes MP Norman Baker said the Liberal Democrats made it clear in their manifesto they would not back a new airport in the South East, and the party has pledged to fight it every step of the way.

Strong words and if the residents of No 10 and 11 Downing Street do back plans for a new airport, it puts the Lib Dems directly at odds with its coalition partners.

Of course, depending on how you look at it, that may be no bad thing ahead of the mayoral elections in London in May.

Political game?

It means the Prime Minister and Chancellor are seen to be supporting the Tory mayor who will be fighting for re-election, Boris Johnson.

And it puts clear blue water (excuse the pun) between Conservative policy and the Lib Dems whose candidate Brian Paddick is fighting Boris Johnson to be the next mayor.

Mr Paddick has dismissed today's story as a cynical attempt by Boris to boost his election campaign. He says it's a ridiculous idea which is never going to happen.

image copyrightPA
image captionSome cynics wonder whether the government may be less supportive of Boris's idea once the mayoral election is over

Many will be watching this consultation closely.

Some cynics in Westminster wonder whether the government may be rather less supportive of Boris's idea once the mayoral election is over and the idea will be quietly dropped on the grounds it is too expensive and too damaging for the environment.

And it wouldn't be the first time a similar scheme had been seriously considered.

Back in 1973, an act of parliament was passed to allow the building of a Thames Estuary airport to relieve pressure on Heathrow and Gatwick.

The airport - to be based at Maplin Sands on the Essex coast - was going to be connected to London by "high speed rail".

It was abandoned the following year when the government realised the project was too expensive.

Will this be another example of history repeating itself?