What can we learn from Denver?

Denver moved its airport in the 1990s. This is being used as an example for why the Estuary Airport idea makes sense. Is it a good example, and what can we learn?

At a recent event, Stewart Murray, Assistant Director – Planning, at the Greater London Authority introduced the team from Denver International Airport by naming three cities which had moved airports successfully – Dubai, Hong Kong, and Denver.

If we note that the first two are command and control economies, we’re left with Denver as a successful example of such a move in a market economy, something which the GLA are keen to point at when promoting their vision of the Thames Estuary Airport.

There is a good story here. Denver was in a pickle in 1983. The economy was severely constrained by the capacity of its airport, and weakening. A plan to expand Stapleton International Airport was hatched which would add a runway on a site to the north, a former chemical facility. However, public support for the expansion was weak – noise was a big issue for the neighbourhoods around the airport.

Also, the City administration determined that a single runway expansion would not be enough – it would only be an interim measure, a sticking plaster, and that a more radical change was needed.

They decided on a new airport. Public support was strong, the citizens liked the airport, but wanted it moved further away from their houses. Land was procured with the proceeds of a public bond issue. The county whose planning jurisdiction that land was under agreed a deal to cede that jurisdiction to Denver in an annexation.

The new airport was planned, and while there was opposition from airlines, and some legal action by them to obstruct progress, the plan proceeded serenely to 1995 when Stapleton closed and, almost overnight, operations moved to Denver International Airport, 20 miles further from the city along the same freeway. This makes it sound easy – it wasn’t. The team benefited from political leadership and risk taking, business and community support, and strong economic and infrastructural planning.

The success is easy to see. Passenger numbers have doubled. The economic impact of the new airport is now £15.8bn pa. This is eight times that of Stapleton when closed. Airport jobs have increased – from 140,000 to 270,000. If the roll-out development plans around the airport succeed, this will be a true aerotropolis.

The former airport site is now being developed out as a series of new neighbourhoods, and is now home to 17,000 people in 5,500 homes with ten years to go on that development plan. The Stapleton site is now worth £4.2bn and promises significant future tax dollars for the city of Denver.

The parallels with London are also plain – economic growth resulting from public leaders seeing the opportunity to invest in a risky move of a key infrastructure asset producing a better world for all.

However, there are some wrinkles. The move was a small one – 20 miles, and on the same side of the city. Airport workers did not need to move to be able to commute to the new site, and they were still the nearest employment pool.

Stapleton Airport was publicly owned. The choice to relocate was in the cities hands, and the financial benefits from the redevelopment of the site are being felt now directly by the city.

Neither of these things are true about the Mayor of London’s plan to build a new hub airport in the Thames estuary.

Also, it is possible that one extra runway might be enough for London. Allied to the excess capacity still available at Stansted, and with investment in rail infrastructure to connect better the runways we already have.

There is still some way to go in the debate around aviation capacity, but these issues need discussion now, to allow the Davies Commission to make a proper informed recommendation which produces the best possible result for the whole of the UK.