Boring History: Return to Boris Island

In which Chris Sams looks to the slightly more recent past, to a time when our current Prime Minister threatened our towns with an aeroplane station..

As we start a new year and a new government, it is time to look at what we can expect and what a Johnson-led government will mean for the people of Medway.

Obviously this is out of my area as a historian and I’ll leave a lot of the suggestions and speculation to political commentators – something I gave up a long time ago!

History often repeats itself and as a student of the subject you can see things repeating themselves time and time again through the centuries and even decades. World War follows World War (Austrian war of succession to War of Independence to Napoleonic, to World War One to World War Two..), pandemic diseases, economic recession and growth.. I’m often looking at what’s going on and drawing parallels with what has happened before.

Now, with Boris Johnson firmly in power with a good majority, he’ll looking to increase business for Britain in a post-Brexit society. How long will it be before we see the reappearance of his big projects such as the bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland, or more pointedly for the Medway towns – Boris Island?

Now, I’m going to say this before I go any further – I am not making any predictions or levelling any accusations. I have no idea what the current Tory administration will try and do or the impact of Brexit on the British Isles or indeed, Medway. I am merely cataloguing what has happened before.

Roll back a decade and the Medway towns were embroiled in a deep debate between political parties as to whether or not the then Mayor of London’s scheme to bring greater business into London and sort out the Gatwick/Heathrow expansion row could be solved easily. Boris Johnson stated at the time that: You can’t go on expecting Britain to compete with France and Germany and other European countries when we simply can’t supply the flights to these growth destinations – China, Latin America. We are now being left behind.

The idea of expanding Heathrow or Gatwick was never popular with environmentalists and more importantly local residents who didn’t want to lose their homes or have more aircraft flying over them. It was also problematic for the local Conservative MPs such as Zack Goldsmith who was caught between the local campaign and national policies.

What was put forward was the Thames Estuary airport or as it came to be known “Boris Island”. This was not the first airport suggested for the region with an original plan for an airport at Cliffe being fought locally around 2004 (I was writing my post-grad dissertation on it). The Thames estuary suggestion was preferred as, unlike Cliffe, there were no building restrictions due to natural habitats and areas of natural beauty. A whole island would be built in the estuary with transport links to the mainland, creating many jobs for both those in Kent and Essex. The whole structure was designed by Lord Foster who suggested building it on the Isle of Grain as a hub. 

There were powerful arguments locally, especially from DRINK (Demand Regeneration in North Kent) who were trying to look for ways for the Medway towns to regenerate and bring new business to the area. It is true that since the closure of the dockyards in the 1980s, the towns have been looking for a purpose and a large employer at would attract wealth and trade, alongside local transport improvements.

Neville Gaunt, the chairman of DRINK, said: We have been inundated by business owners who are angry that the politicians are passing up what could be the best thing to happen to North Kent in years – something that could create jobs and bring hope to the unemployed and poorly paid as well as reduce the real poverty we have in parts of the area.

Similar support came from Gillingham FC Chair Paul Scally in March 2012: Anything that creates tens of thousands of jobs has to be looked at, and we would be failing ourselves and our children if we didn’t.
I don’t know where the best place for it is. If it can be in Medway and benefit Medway, then all the better for Medway.

Though as my grandfather said at the time: “Why trust businessmen’s advice? At the end of the day they want to line their own pockets rather than what’s best for the people.”

The downside was the environmental impact to the area including greater pollution, waves of aircraft over the towns and the subsequent noise. On top of this was the effect on the local bird populations including the important wading bird habitats as well as flocks of seabirds that over flew the estuary which could cause issues for landing aircraft.

There was also the possibility of disturbing the wreck of the SS Robert Montgomery, a liberty ship that sank off Sheerness filled with explosives in 1944. Over the last 70 years she has become more and more unstable and should she explode it will cause a lot of damage to Medway and Sheppey, especially if it sets off the wrecks of the Bulwark and Princess Irene, which are nearby.

Needless to say the political debate locally was messy, with Labour trying to get the higher ground and attack the coalition over it whilst the Lib Dems tried to separate themselves from the Conservative led coalition’s response. A spokesperson for Nick Clegg said at the time: Nick does not favour the building of an estuary airport. He believes that the environmental and cost implications in any case mean it is unlikely to be viable. He has said that he is prepared for the issue to be considered as part of a wider consultation on aviation policy that had to be discussed through the proper channels of government. But the consultation must take the views of stakeholders, including local communities and environmental groups into account.

The Conservatives were deeply divided with the local MPs and councillors against their national party policies. Letters were sent, debates were had, Justine Greening (then in the Department for Transport) wrote to Cllr Chambers (leader of the Council) to tell him that she: would like to reassure you that the Government has not made any decisions on the need for major new airport capacity in the South East, and would only make such decisions on the basis of robust evidence and following consultation. As you know, the Government is developing a long-term strategy for a sustainable future for aviation. We need to provide a framework which supports economic growth and addresses aviation’s environmental impacts. We issued an aviation policy s coping document last year calling for evidence on a range of strategic issues and received approximately 600 responses; and some parties have put forward proposals for a new airport in the Thames Estuary.

In February 2012 Tracey Crouch (MP for Chatham and Aylesford) stated that Greening was: listening to all sides of the discussion and we had the opportunity to make it very clear what we thought. We still want to speak to the Prime Minister, we intend to press for that. It isn’t either or as far as we’re concerned.

The local media published story after story about the proposal and the local politicos and politicians had a field day with it, using it as a constant stick to beat the others with. Cllr Irvine (Con) tweeted that:

Lib Dems throw support behind Thames Estuary airport. You really can’t trust them #NoEstuaryAirport
— Chris Irvine (@cgi247) April 17, 2014

Locally the party hadn’t, and nationally were not convinced of it, but the national Conservative party were showing signs of being for it against the local party line.

Labour proposed a referendum for the local people to vote and send a message to Westminster that the people of Medway do not want it. Whether they feared that the people might vote for it or probably because of the cost the local Conservatives, Lib Dems and Andy Stamp’s independent group all voted down the motion for the referendum.

It was all very divisive for everyone and thankfully it all died a death with such united opposition, and with the proposals for Heathrow’s expansion given preference.

With the return of Boris as Prime Minister and his suggestions for more great engineering projects in a post-Brexit world, could this phoenix rise from the ashes?

Chris Sams is history writer published by @fonthillmedia. He is a @_uow graduate studying War at Sea 1914-18. Read more at

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