The UK needs another airport, London doesn’t

Andrew Calderwood

Image © Curt Smith

The 3rd of May 2012 marks the culmination of the London mayoral elections. Amid the announcement that seven candidates have joined the fight to become the next mayor, campaigning for the position is building up a head of steam.[1] Each contender is currently being put to the test and their aims for the next four years are being scrutinised as their suitability for the role is examined. The current incumbent, Boris Johnson, is aiming to secure re-election, arguably with the aspiration of securing a legacy. In an effort to advance his reputation and to gain the support of his peers, it looks as if he is maintaining his ambition to eventually succeed David Cameron as the leader of the Conservative party.

Although Boris Johnson may currently be concerned with more pressing matters such as issues with the economy, policing and transport within London, an issue that has not gone unnoticed is that of the proposed construction of a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. Boris Johnson has made it clear that while he is the Mayor of London, he will not sanction the construction of a third runway at Heathrow. A host of negative implications that it would mean for much of West London has seen him confirm that a new hub airport situated on the Thames Estuary is his preferred choice. In contrast, the Labour mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone, arguably the strongest rival to Boris Johnson in his quest for re-election, has aligned his support to the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport and the formation of a third runway.[2]

Each of the aforementioned options are deemed, by virtue of various supporters, to be effective ways of dealing with the increasing capacity demands currently afflicting UK aviation. David Cameron has stated that the UK must ‘retain its status as a key global hub for air travel.’[3] In recognition of the need to increase airport size in the Southeast, further expansion in the region would allow the UK to remain competitive against its European rivals within the business and tourism sectors, while creating a boost to the economy.

In light of this judgement, there are perceived positive and negative aspects surrounding the implementation of either a new hub airport or expansion at Heathrow. While individually, both options could help to resolve the projected shortfall in overall passenger capacity that is set to affect UK airports in the coming decades, issues revolving around environmental sensitivities at both locations have created opposition to the plans being put into action. It has also been argued by a number of sources that despite the benefits a new hub airport would have on the local job market in the Southeast of England, including the positive boost it would provide to the local and UK economy as a whole, its implementation would lead to the diminishing importance of Heathrow. Downgrading the significance of Heathrow would in all likelihood lead to major job losses at the airport, therefore reducing the worth of the benefits that building a new hub airport in the Thames estuary would establish.[4)

Although alternative ideas have been considered in the attempt to cope with increasing passenger numbers in the UK, as a result of local opposition, implementing proposals in favour of major expansion at any of London’s current airports in the near future, will in all probability remain problematic.[5] This therefore raises the question as to why there has not been more significant nationwide support into investigating the possibilities, practicalities and positive connotations that could result from the expansion of airports outside of the Southeast.

The UK government should be looking to further justify projects such as the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail link, which has encountered a great deal of criticism. The proposed new link between London and Birmingham, with further plans to extend the line into northern England,[6] creates the prospect of interlinking the project with the expansion of Birmingham International airport. The extension of the existing runway at Birmingham will enable the operation of long haul flights[7] and plans for an interchange train station linking the airport with HS2, will allow passengers to take advantage of the planned 38 minute journey time from Birmingham to Euston station in London.[8] Concerns over the length of the commute from the Midlands to London may generate fears that the use of Birmingham International airport, as an alternative to the Southeast, will be seen as an unattractive proposition for many potential travellers and business operations. However, the Gatwick express currently operates a similar commuting time to central London over a far shorter distance and other major cities such as Beijing also operate an airport express that has proven successful operating along similar transport times.[9]

By advocating the viability of major airport expansion outside of London and promoting the increasingly important role that Northern airports could play as major travel hubs within UK aviation, the HS2 link would arguably gain greater importance due to the heightened significance of its short travel times linking the North and South of England. The successful delivery of the venture would therefore provide a fantastic opportunity for politicians to quell the concerns of those who have questioned its necessity. It would also provide the government with grounds for arguing against the defiant members of the public that have opposed the scheme and labelled it as a waste of money, waste of time and an unnecessary blight on the countryside.

By virtue of the Southeast of England, according to the office for national statistics, having the largest population of any region within the country and the third highest population density, it would seemingly make sense to adopt an approach whereby expansion in the aviation sector is developed at alternative locations to those currently being proposed. In doing so it would take some pressure off of an ostensibly overburdened region.[10] Although the same can also be said of other areas, from personal experience, even a conceivably minor accident on one of the major routes in the Southeast can cause gridlock on the roads. Rather than channelling further traffic into an already overpopulated area, as a result of expansion in the South-East, it would perhaps make sense to adopt a less London centric attitude within Westminster, instead making an effort to proliferate opportunities for economic growth to other major cities within the UK. The expansion of airports in cities such as Birmingham and Manchester would not only help to stimulate the job market and economy in each region, but it could be used as an instrument to promote the history, culture and natural beauty in lesser celebrated towns and cities. Encouraging tourism not just focused on London and the South-East of England may perhaps lead to greater benefits for the United Kingdom in its entirety.

Politicians such as the Mayor of London have important jobs to do, remaining accountable for their actions so that they operate in the best interests of the citizens within their jurisdiction. There is often the feeling, however, that many politicians carry out their actions as a medium for self-aggrandizement and personal gain. Frustratingly, what may often seem obvious to others can be overlooked by those who make the ultimate decisions in respect of major projects. Whether a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary is genuinely considered a necessity and given the green light, or expansion at Heathrow is eventually considered to be a favourable option, evidence must be presented to show that politicians have embraced the bigger picture, acting in the best interests of the United Kingdom as a whole throughout their decision making process. They must ensure that an even level of development across the country is generated in an effort to close current gaps in parity in respect of standards of living and potential for economic growth. Through advocating greater collaboration between all regions within the UK and focusing slightly less on the importance apportioned to London, conceivably the economic divide that troubles the nation could be resolved.


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