The Guardian – 26 August 2003 – Page 5

The prospect of a new airport on a greenfield site in the south of England is under fresh consideration by the government, which has asked for more details of proposals for international terminals in north Kent and the Severn estuary.

Two months after the end of a public consultation on airport expansion, the Department for Transport has written to the backers of projects widely considered “long shots”, asking them for a deeper analysis by September of the cost of road and rail links, passenger numbers and the cost of infrastructure.

Among those included are a proposed site on the Hoo peninsula in the Thames estuary, known as Thames Reach airport.

Officials also want a closer look at a plan for an airport on the Isle of Sheppey, a proposal for expansion of Redhill aerodrome in Surrey and a new terminal on an artificial island in the Severn estuary.

Whitehall sources say although the ideas were originally excluded from consultation documents, the transport secretary, Alistair Darling, wants to examine them on the same basis as options for new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

The development confounds reports that Mr Darling has already made up his mind in favour of a third runway at Heathrow, although some in the aviation industry still believe he is merely “going through the motions”.

A spokesman for the department confirmed that requests had been sent out: “We’re helping them to develop their proposals so we can compare them on a consistent basis with the options we’ve put forward.”

The proposed Thames Reach airport would include a £1.5bn road and rail tunnel under the Thames estuary, providing access to Essex.

The runways would extend into the estuary, avoiding problems with nearby birdlife which dogged the government’s proposed Cliffe airport nearby.

The development of Redhill aerodrome in Surrey could turn it into a satellite terminal for Gatwick. And an airport on an artificial island in the Severn estuary, known as Severnside, would provide thousands of jobs for unemployed miners from the Welsh valleys.

An insider at one airport consortium said that at a late stage, the department had radically altered the way it was conducting the consultation.

Officials are said to be worried about a repetition of last year’s high court challenge, in which a judge ruled that the government had acted improperly in excluding the possibility of expansion at Gatwick.

One source said: “The court case where they had to include Gatwick totally shocked them, and now they are clearly trying to avoid further challenges.”

Mr Darling is to rule by the end of this year on where the extra aviation capacity should be provided. The Treasury is thought to favour Heathrow airport on economic grounds, after intensive lobbying by airlines led by British Airways.

The government could give the green light for longer term expansion of Stansted and for a second runway at Gatwick after the expiry of a legal commitment against expansion in 2019.

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