Britain does twenty times more trade with countries with which it has a direct air link. 40% of Britain’s exports by value travel by air, and an increase of just 1,000 passengers a year between two countries sees trade increase by up to £1m. Yet due to years of political dithering, the 3.5km of tarmac required to maintain and strengthen Britain’s international competitiveness has remained out of reach.
Having first-class airports infrastructure is fundamental to attracting new business to Britain and for the success of the wider economy. As an island nation that’s been home to the world’s busiest port or airport for over three centuries, our international connectivity has long been a vital component of our economic competitiveness. Yet unless politicians take action soon after the next election to build new runways our capital city could face an air capacity crunch.
Last week we celebrated the operational opening of the shiny new terminal 2 at Heathrow: ‘The Queens’ Terminal’. It was great to see this major infrastructure investment get off to a flying start, yet it’s worth noting that Heathrow, Britain’s only international hub airport, has already been full for a decade. Last week also saw the announcement of the transformation of the Gatwick Express – another welcome boost to consumers’ airport experience – yet Gatwick will also be full by 2020.
Both improvements are positive steps forwards that represent multi-billion pound investments in the modernisation of our airports infrastructure, yet fundamentally neither will do anything to address the real issue facing London and the South East’s airports – a critical lack of runway capacity. All of London’s airports will be full by the mid-2020s unless we have a decision to build new runways within the next two years.
What’s more, our European competitors are already racing ahead of us in terms of international connectivity: London has fewer weekly flights than its rival European hubs to seven of the eight growth economies identified by the IMF, whilst over 20 emerging market destinations are served by daily flights from other cities in Europe but not from London. This is hardly surprising with Paris and Frankfurt’s four runways, Amsterdam’s six and Heathrow left to manage with just two.
So we can build as many gleaming new terminals, trains and railway stations as we like, but unless we get new runways urgently, Britain’s economic competitiveness will go into terminal decline and hit the buffers regardless.
The key to getting any new runways built will of course require securing Ministerial and wider Government support. Yet that on its own will not be enough to guarantee any runway actually gets built. The decision will require cross-party support. It is worth remembering that the Labour Government gave the go ahead for a third runway at Heathrow back in 2009, only for it to be cancelled by the incoming Coalition Government in 2010. Cross-party political support is therefore crucial for any major decision on infrastructure investment.
That is why Let Britain Fly is calling on all the main parties in advance of the next general election to make a public statement to build more runway capacity, commit in their manifestos to this pledge and agree to have a decision-making vote in Parliament in 2016 at the latest (or within about a year of the general election).
Withstanding the immense political challenge, the upside to the politics of airports expansion is that we’re about to go into a general election which will no doubt be won by which party voters think is best equipped to secure our country’s economic future – which party’s policies are best designed to secure future jobs, growth and prosperity.
This is why we must ensure that the issue of airports expansion and Britain’s need to connect with all parts of the globe in order to protect and enhance our economic competitiveness is front and centre of that debate.
So the message from Let Britain Fly is simple – it’s not about planes and airports stupid, it’s about maintaining the British economy’s competitive edge both now and in the future.
Written by: Gavin Hayes, Director of Let Britain Fly