LONDON // Backers from the UAE are ready to pour billions into a project to build a new London airport on an artificial island in the estuary of the River Thames, according to the city's mayor. The mayor Boris Johnson's plan to build the four-runway airport has attracted "incredible interest" from financiers in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, Kit Malthouse, his deputy, has revealed. The first "surface level" report on construction feasibility of the airport - nicknamed "Boris Island" after the flamboyant mayor - is due to be published this week.
Although initially dismissed as "fantasy island" when Mr Johnson proposed it last year, the project now seems to be winning over sceptics. Labour ministers in the government have flatly rejected the Conservative mayor's scheme, announcing in January that a third runway would be built at Heathrow. That, though, has brought threats of lawsuits that could last a decade. There are also increasing doubts that Britain could meet environmental obligations on emissions and noise if the Heathrow expansion were to go ahead.
Mr Malthouse said Mr Johnson has succeeded in creating interest among backers from the Gulf, as well as the Chinese, for the project, expected to cost £40 billion (Dh234bn). "We have had an incredible amount of interest from countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which have signalled they would like to fund the airport. It is possible we could build it without taxpayers' money," the deputy mayor said. "Who wouldn't want to own an immovable fixed asset just off the coast? It's extremely valuable and the owners of sovereign wealth funds know they could bequeath it to their children."
However, the plan to build the airport on a man-made island in about four metres of water, almost 3km off the island of Sheerness in Kent, has appalled conservationists who say it could wipe out the area's bird population. Although the plan would be for aircraft to take off and land over water, residents in Kent look bound to mount their own legal challenge. Mr Johnson's own Conservative Party has not shown any enthusiasm for Boris Island, although members reiterated that if, as expected, they win next year's general election, they will scrap Labour's plan to build a third runway at Heathrow.
Current thinking among the party leadership is that, instead of providing more airport space, they will build a new, high-speed rail link to the north of the country, which, they reason, will reduce internal flights. A central reason for Tory opposition to their own man's idea is that it might affect electoral support for the party in Kent, a Tory heartland. Slowly, though, voices are being heard in support of the scheme. The Engineer magazine commented last week: "Forget the concept's arguably damaging association with Johnson, put to one side concerns over its environmental impact and cost, and there is some logic to the idea.
"With aircraft descending from the North Sea, rather than over residential areas, it would, claim its advocates, provide a neat solution to the problems that have bedevilled plans to expand Heathrow." Although the authoritative magazine predicts that Boris Island is unlikely to make it off the drawing board in the near term, "as changing climate puts growing pressure on land use and humans look to the sea as a source of both problems and solutions, it could still indicate a watery future to come".
The feasibility study due to be published this week has been compiled by Douglas Oakervee, the lead engineer behind the construction of Hong Kong International Airport. Mr Malthouse said the report will show that it would be technically possible to build Boris Island, which, in fact, would be two artificial islands joined together and capable of holding between four and six runways. The islands would be linked by tunnels or bridges to terminals on the mainland, which would offer rail links into London or to continental Europe. Power for the new airport would by supplied by turbines using Thames tidal power.
Mr Johnson is enthusiastic to see the project through. He told the London Assembly this year: "It is our duty, when you look at the environmental catastrophe that would be occasioned by constructing a new runway at Heathrow, to look at all available alternatives. "The environmental implications of a new airport in the Thames estuary depend entirely on where that airport were to be situated and the scale of that airport."