“Thames Hub” proposals being unveiled on Wednesday could lead to the most radical overhaul of Britain’s transport, logistics and communication network since the building of the railways.
The ideas being presented by the architects Foster & Partners and engineers Halcrow, on their own initiative, would see a new London orbital railway linking in to fast lines to the north and Europe, and a new airport on the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary.
Also included are a new flood defence barrier and Thames crossing, a freight port and logistical hub and the laying of extensive cabling, utilities and communications infrastructure in what the report refers to as “The Spine”.
Lord Foster says: “We need to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th century forebears to establish a modern transport and energy infrastructure in Britain for this century and beyond.”
Lord Foster could be seen as a successor to the great Victorian engineers and architects – the creators of the country’s grand stations, bridges, embankments and virtually its entire urban infrastructure.
His airports, from Stansted to Beijing, are among the most efficient, admired and beautiful built, and with extraordinarily ambitious projects such as the zero-carbon city-in-the-desert, Masdar in Abu Dhabi, he has proved a tenacious and consistent innovator.
But this proposal, with Halcrow, is on another level altogether. It proposes a complete re-imagining of the UK’s transport, energy and communication infrastructure, a vision of the kind of integration in transport and utilities that has not been considered since the great age of canals and then of railways, and probably even surpassing that.
The document points out that Britain’s architects and specialist engineers have built – and are building – some of the most ambitious international infrastructure projects ever conceived, yet the UK has missed out on its own expertise.
The refusal to expand Heathrow has been an act of pure political expediency. The recently proposed alternative of a railway link between Heathrow and Gatwick is a laughably underpowered idea.
The Thames Hub plan, with its airport in the Thames estuary and its links to a Thames port and orbital railway, is a genuinely innovative and radical plan.
This proposal is short on architectural aesthetics – partly deliberately as so much of it is intended to be subterranean – and its scale means this is something that needs to be considered on a level that transcends appearance.
But anyone who has seen Lord Foster’s transport buildings, whether Canary Wharf’s Underground station or France’s Millau Viaduct, can see that the office has produced some of the most sublime megastructures of the modern era.
Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer who transformed London from a stinking cesspit to a Victorian world city, through his construction of the sewerage system that still serves the city (and the elegant embankment that sits above it), is now remembered as a metropolitan hero.
Perhaps Lord Foster, whose office is on the Thames in Battersea (though he now lives as a tax exile in San Moritz) would like to be remembered in a similar way.
What a perfect crowning end it would be for Lord Foster of Thamesbank to become Lord Foster of Thames Hub.