Delay in releasing Government airports policy risks aero-shambles, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 16 May 2012 | 9:39 am | 3 min. read

OPINION: Airports are vital to the UK economy at a time when business needs all the help it can get. But the continued delay for Government's long-awaited aviation framework is damaging to our international connectivity. 

A third runway at Heathrow would be one way to help, but there is much more that Government could and should do, and quickly.

Airports earn our economy money when they bring business and leisure tourists to a country that much of the world wants to visit, and by exporting goods and services from the UK for sale abroad.

But airports policy is a shambles and threatens to choke both of those income streams for the UK. The Government refuses to consider deliverable proposals to solve the problem, while at the same time delaying publication of its own view of what should happen.

The private sector has persuaded the politicians that more airport capacity is needed in the south east of the country, and urgently. There are several proposals out there – including a new Thames Estuary airport, either the London Mayor's 'Boris Island' or a Norman Foster-designed rival proposal; and new runways, either at Gatwick or Heathrow.

Two years into Government the Coalition still has not given industry any idea which solution it prefers. Why does this matter? Because our economic recovery depends on it.

The British Chambers of Commerce recently found that one UK company in five sees transport as a barrier to exporting. Exports are the lifeblood of a country operating in a global economy – if we can't sell our goods abroad we will have little chance of building long term economic health.

This is just the latest in a long line of calls from the representatives of British business for a credible aviation strategy from Government, which mustn't be delayed any longer. Businesses are queuing up to export, and Government is blocking the gate.

With London's mayoral election out of the way, Government needs to crack on with creating the conditions for export growth - increasing airport capacity in the south east, and improving hub connectivity for flights from the regions.

However Government has not even begun the consultation process, and has only expressed one view - that a third Heathrow runway should not be built. Nobody should pretend that a third runway is the solution to every problem, but it is a fully worked-up scheme to add precious hub capacity. And it would be funded by the private sector. Omitting it from the forthcoming policy consultation would be irrational, but that is exactly what the Government plans to do.

It would give the UK a step-change in capacity to reach the world's fastest growing economies, those of the 'BRIC' nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Those countries will not wait for a new Thames Estuary airport, they will simply source their imports and take their holidays elsewhere.

Regional airports such as Birmingham, Leeds Bradford and Manchester are also poised for growth: they too need the backing of a clear national policy to allow them to deliver for their regional economies. And the same goes for the airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland. All have a vital role to play in delivering growth. This must not become a debate about London and its airports alone.

A lack of capacity also harms domestic businesses by limiting the number of people coming to visit the UK and spending money here. No-one trying to enter the south east in recent weeks will be surprised by that - the queues at immigration control points in airports have made national and international headlines. Blaming the wrong kind of wind, as Immigration Minister Damian Green did, is not acceptable. Border control is part of the UK's shop window - it demands investment, not cost-cutting.

Recent reports suggest that the UK's immigration processes are the worst in Europe, and that one in three Chinese potential visitors gives up on applying for a visa and goes elsewhere instead.

People coming to the UK are either high-spending tourists or people seeking to create a life and  business here, helping to make the UK's a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy. Yet because of the reported problems they are being turned away, or are themselves turning away in frustration.

The Coalition's approach to aviation is at least partly to blame. The Government simply can't get people in, or exports out, fast enough. Kicking off the consultation of the aviation framework will not provide an immediate solution to the problems but it would show the world that the UK has a plan for improving connectivity - a plan for new routes to growth. Delaying further is a political failing with dire economic consequences.

Jonathan Riley is an aviation and planning specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind