Airports Commission needs to look beyond London

Geraint Talfan Davies takes a long term look at our air connectivity

The Airports Commission was designed largely to get the UK Government off the hook of deciding on airport capacity in London before the next election. By last week’s closing date for submissions, it will have received voluminous evidence, much of it, inevitably, from vested interests: particularly airlines and existing airport owners.

The case for extending and improving the air connectivity of Wales has been made in at least three submissions: from the Western Gateway Group proposing that Cardiff and Bristol airports become a western hub of Heathrow; from MSP Solutions, a private consultancy that is advocating a new Severnside Airport, and which prepared a preliminary paper for the IWA a few months ago; and, apparently, from the Welsh Government, although its submission has yet to be published.

Whatever the merits and demerits of the these submissions, it is important that they have been made, for although the Commission’s remit asks it to take into account wider geographic considerations, its published discussion papers do not give an impression that this part of the remit is deeply ingrained in its work. It will need a hefty nudge from everyone outside the south east of England.

One of the obstacles to a better spread of air connectivity within the UK will be the primary objective set for the Commission by the UK Government. This is to identify any new capacity needed “to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub”. Everything else will be subservient to that aim. It is only then that the Commission is enjoined to look at the “national, regional and local implications” of any proposal.  Much may depend on the impact of one member of the Commission, Geoff Muirhead, who is both chief executive of the Manchester Airports Group and chairman of the Northern Economic Futures Commission.

To be fair to the Commission its published ‘sift criteria” long term options, in assessing strategic fit, does ask this question: “Does the proposal support the Government’s wider objectives and legal requirements (for example, support of national and regional economic growth, re-balancing of the economy or alignment with national climate change commitments and global targets?). However, in its discussion paper on air connectivity and the economy, published earlier this year, this regional economic aspect is notable by its complete absence.

It is not unreasonable that such a paper should major on the international dimension, but there is no reason why a consideration of the contribution of aviation connectivity to the “more efficient global allocation of investment, by increasing its mobility”, should have to crowd out specific consideration of the spatial distribution of air connectivity across the UK.

After all, its does cite a 2007 European Cities Monitor survey that showed that 52 per cent of companies consider international transport links to be an essential factor when locating business in Europe. Although aviation connectivity was not the most important factor – it was fourth behind skills, access to customers and clients and telecommunications. It must, too, be an ingredient in the second of these.

It also states that “business travellers account for a higher proportion of passenger numbers at regional airports than at any London airport other than Heathrow and London City, which may indicate the importance of these links for local and regional business sectors.” It has to be said, though, that this is not true of Cardiff Airport currently.

That is why it has been no bad thing that there are two proposals for improving air connectivity, mainly for south Wales. (This is one instance in which north Wales is significantly better served – through Manchester Airport – than is the south.) But so far, in the limited debate there has been in Wales, not enough has been done to distinguish between two parts of the Commission’s remit: first, to look at the short and medium term and ways of making best use of existing capacity, and second, to look at the long term options.

All Governments tend to be overwhelmed by short term considerations – one of the reasons for the Airport Commission’s existence – so it is not surprising that the Welsh Government should be focused, primarily, on making the best of its recent purchase of Cardiff Airport. But that should not prevent it from making its own assessment of the best options for Wales in the long term. It must not confuse the two issues.

The development of new strategic airport capacity – if the UK’s record on major infrastructure is any indication – may be 10-15 years away. That is a period in which Cardiff Airport should be able to rebuild its markets, or if not, then to prove how difficult a task that is. It now has the right, stable ownership it desperately needs, as anyone familiar with Welsh Water’s history will attest. Despite several ‘Job’s comforters’ my guess is that it will prove to be £52million well spent.

But it is when you go beyond the short and medium term that some of the harder decisions emerge. Both the Western Gateway and MSP proposals have ambitions to improve sharply the air connectivity of both sides of the Severn, particularly for business travellers. That may prove to be especially necessary if the centre of gravity of air travel in the London area moves east, either to Gatwick, Stansted or the Thames Estuary.

What is not yet clear is whether the Welsh Government buys into that ambition. It is not an issue that its various task forces have considered. For the big question, for the long term, is whether that ambition can be fulfilled by the existing Cardiff and Bristol Airports, or whether, if that is the objective, they will need to pool their resources to create one joint airport for both sides of the Severn.

The incontrovertible fact is that both airports are badly connected to the road and rail systems, in ways that cannot be improved without massive investment. Indeed, the Western Gateway proposals assume not only the abolition of Air Passenger Duty on long haul travel, but also a massive investment in a new HS3 rail link not just between London and Cardiff but all the way to Cardiff Airport. Those are pretty big assumptions, particularly given the current travails of the HS2 plan.

From a reading of the Commission’s discussion papers, Western Gateway will also run into some fundamental objections to split hubs. The Commission’s own discussion paper on airport operations says that “such attempts at ‘unbundling’, whilst attractive in theory are difficult to achieve in practice.” It adds that “it would be very difficult for a single airline to spread hub operations over multiple airports.”

The MSP Solutions proposal for a single Severnside airport serving Wales and the West seems operationally simpler and more clear cut, with a better fit with the road and rail system (especially if a relief motorway is built from the Severn Bridge south of Newport), more likely to be able to operate on a 24-hour basis and, crucially, affordable – if, and it is big if, Cardiff and Bristol buy into the long term solution. MSP argue that it would provide a scale of operation that neither airport could mount separately.

It would, however, have to surmount considerable environmental opposition. It also pre-supposes the establishment of a degree of consensus in Cardiff and Bristol, as happened over rail electrification which, realistically, may not emerge until after the Airports Commission reports in the summer of 2015.

Both MSP and Western Gateway have given the Airports Commission plenty to bite on. Proper examination will pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses. While waiting for that report, we should not also have to wait to know whether the Welsh Government has a view, on the longer term.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

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