There’s a glorious, time honoured proverb “there’s nothing new under the sun,” which has a particular resonance as far as the west country and south Wales are concerned. 

If recent talk of a new Thames estuary airport sounds like the stuff of dreams to escape the crowded south east – or alternatively, depending on your point of view, something close to an unmitigated environmental disaster – then spare a thought for those of us in Wales and the west.

Undated computer generated image from Severnside Airport of the proposed international airport which will serve Wales and the West of England. First announced last summer, the Severnside airport plan envisages an airport whose runways would be on a manmade island in the Severn Estuary, near Newport in South Wales. The airport could be open by 2012 and could handle 30 million passengers a year by 2030 and help create 13,000 jobs. See PA Story TRAVEL Airport. PA Photo: Sevenside Airport/Handout

For, even before the debacle of Maplin sands, we’d been there, got the T shirt, and, frankly, heard it all before. Incredibly, the Severn Estuary airport project has been becalmed and scraping along the bottom since 1968, when the whole region was identified as an economic growth area… which might benefit from a new airport. 

Since then its turned into a major infrastructure project that just won’t lay down and die. Or maybe that should be lay down and drown. By 1973 Severnside airport was the subject of questions in the House of Commons… where it was noted this will be a “very long term project…”

The now defunct Gwent County Council first threw its weight behind such a project in 1983, when estimated costs were around £800m. Politics being politics, not much happened – though in 1991 reports suggested plans for a £1bn airport were being hatched by the council in coordination with the Wales Holford Trust, owned by an American Investment bank.

It would be known as Severnside International, and built by reclaiming almost 12 sq km of land from the Severn estuary near Newport – billed as one of the UK’s biggest civil engineering projects. Ahem: not a lot happened.

By 2000 Severnside Airport was back on the local agenda, and rumblings from the depths suggested two new proposals might ultimately emerge – which they duly did; one on land, near Llanwern steelworks, the other involving a Welsh mainland terminal, with runways on a man-made island stretching into the Severn estuary.

At this point one Regional Development agency consultation, studying land-based greenfield airport possibilities near the second Severn Road Bridge, suggested a ‘best case’ scenario of 30m passengers annually by 2030 – optimistic, perhaps in today’s muted economic climate. By 2002, with a government white paper shortly due to define policy on the future of Air travel for the next 30 years, interest in Severnside rapidly returned.

Major reports were produced, and possibilities explored and discussed at length in the media: estimated costs rose to £2bn, and… early in 2003 a new submission was entered for consideration.  

Declared advantages of an estuary site have been oft-repeated, and range from good motorway access to plans for electrified high speed rail, a vast catchment area, and important potential for a 24 hour freight hub with deep sea port access, unique in Europe…

The most obvious disadvantage is the effect of a major new airport on a vast, sensitive and protected environment. The estuary is a European designated site, a Special Protection Area for birds under the European Habitats Directive, a candidate for Special Area of Conservation status, a wetland of International Importance – and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Another consideration entirely is that to achieve adequate passenger volumes, any workable Severn Estuary airport plan implies the near-certain closure of established airports at Cardiff and Bristol.  

The White paper was published on 16th December 2003, and the summary document declared unequivocally, “We have examined two proposals for a new airport in or around the Severn Estuary east of Newport, but we believe that such an airport would struggle to attract traffic. We do not think it is worth taking forward…”

Expansion was however allowed at Cardiff and Bristol, both airports then – and now – suffering acutely from poor road access, and limitations on potential growth in passenger numbers.

So that’s it then… or is it?  The topic resurfaced in the press during 2009, and in March this year a new estuary airport strategy was unveiled in a specially commissioned report presented to the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ National Economy Conference in Cardiff. Prepared by aviation consultants MSP Solutions after detailed research, its being submitted to the Government review of airport hub capacity now under way.

There’s a certain familiarity about some content: closure of  Bristol and Cardiff airports is suggested – as is the need for a four-way cargo hub. This time there’s also a warning: that upcoming London airport development decisions could lead to decline in the economic competitiveness of south Wales and the west – unless the region sees improved levels of air service provision… like Severnside.

The review findings are due to be published in 2015, and the report anticipates a ten year build programme. But…even with cash and a green light, at least two governments – on both sides of the Severn estuary – will have been and gone in ten years, and after almost fifty years without progress, the current track record suggests the chances of consensus – or anything actually being operational by, say, 2030, appear somewhat limited.

Of course, another inconvenient spanner has recently entered the works: the Welsh Assembly Government now owns Cardiff Airport.

But… it all provides an opportunity to wheel out plenty more well-worn proverbs – like “what goes around comes around,” or, perhaps better still, “all things in time…”  Don’t hold your breath.

If you’d like to know more about the story behind the Severn Estuary airport, have a look at these:

Dave Moss
Dave Moss

Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.

Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…

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