Has the Airports Commission missed the point with its recommendations to the government?
Last month, the Airports Commission revealed the options it had short-listed for expanding the UK’s airport capacity. These included new runways at Gatwick and Heathrow, and an extended runway at Heathrow. This provoked anger from those who had so vehemently campaigned against an expansion of Heathrow for as long as one can remember. The government had, after all, cancelled Labour’s plans for a third runway upon coming to power. But, by asking Sir Howard Davies to come up with an action plan for the UK’s airports, it had seemingly raised the possibility of a third runway being reconsidered. And the publication of the Commission’s report put it firmly back on the table.
Among the opposition to the Commission’s recommendations was business secretary Vince Cable. In an interview with the BBC, he said that London “is becoming a giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country”, adding that air capacity would be better served by giving more attention to the UK’s provincial airports. His words were met with outrage by, among others, Boris Johnson who branded Cable ‘stupefying and ridiculous’, whilst continuing to push the cause for a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary.
Clearly, there are arguments on both sides of the coin. Equally, the outcome will be of much importance to the UK’s SMEs, whose global ambition cannot be overlooked. How, then, does the business community feel about the proposals?
'Adopt the German model', says Matthew Marriott, commercial director of Hellmann Worldwide Logistics UK
I don’t always agree with Vince Cable but on this particular issue I think he makes a crucial and, to my mind, strangely overlooked point in the current debate about how the UK’s airports are improved.
The UK is already horribly reliant on London economics and surely the issue of our airports is an opportunity to address rather than indulge that disparity. It is airports like Manchester and Birmingham that really require further investment and expansion, particularly in light of the nationwide links that HS2 rail will eventually provide. It is here that manufacturing, which remains the key driver of the country’s economic health, is primarily based and where global infrastructure is most needed.
If you want an example of a country that has got this right, simply look to Germany. It uses Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich as major airport hubs with near-enough equal capacity. Is it a coincidence that its economy has been one of the most resilient in Europe over the last five years? The German model is one of enviable stability, and with the UK only just beginning to emerge from a serious recession, I think it’s incredibly important to put the issue of our airports within the context of long-term economic planning – not just for London, but for the whole of the country.
'London is the engine of growth for UK', says Michael Luger, infrastructure expert at Manchester Business School
Adding capacity to the London-area airports will not drain the life out of the rest of the country, as Vince Cable commented, any more than have the completion of the M1, A1(M) or A40, or the investment in science and technology resources in the Golden Triangle. London is the engine of growth for the UK and needs to be well served by infrastructure.
The vast majority of leisure and business travellers from overseas seek to fly into London, and the growth and development of cities in emerging economies is adding to the demand for a London connection. When, or if, HS2 is completed, we can start to convince travellers to select Manchester and Birmingham as their originating and destination airports, which will be less than 90 minutes by train to central London – but that is 20 years away, and we can’t wait that long to get more capacity.
But this is not an ‘either or’ issue; it is ‘both and’. As important as it is to ensure adequate capacity in the South-East, it is critical to shore up the infrastructure in the Midlands and the North and to work hard to get more businesses to locate there.