Stuart Andrew: Connected to the world but stuck in the slow lane

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WHEN I was first elected to Leeds City Council back in 2003, it coincided with the publication of the then Government’s White Paper, The Future of Air Transport, which said that the growth in air travel would continue, and that airports such as Leeds Bradford International Airport would need access improvements to accommodate that growth.

More than a decade after the first report, when it comes to getting to and from the airport, all we have seen are some improvements to signalling and traffic lights at the most congested local junctions, and some increase in bus services. That is hardly adequate if we are serious about finding ways to cope with increased numbers of passengers.

The airport is primarily accessed via single-carriageway roads, some of which are densely residential and some of which are merely country lanes.

Given that the number of passengers has increased by more than a third, from some two million a year in 2003 to more than 3.3 million this year, the current standard of access is totally inadequate, not only for the passengers but for my constituents who live in Horsforth, Rawdon, Guiseley and Yeadon.

Let me say how pleased I am that, at long last, the Department for Transport has commissioned a study on connectivity to Leeds Bradford Airport. The vast majority of passengers arrive by car on local roads, such as the horrendously congested A65 and A658. Local residents are frustrated by the amount of traffic on those roads.

The answer has to be a new rail link to serve the airport. As I mentioned, passenger numbers have grown significantly at the airport, and all commentators expect that growth to continue. The types of passengers using the airport are likely to add to the problem, with more business passengers than ever before.

Leeds Bradford Airport is already one of the UK’s fastest growing airports, and it already supports more than 2,600 local jobs. All those people have to travel, of course, so they would need to use the rail link. The airport contributes more than £118m to the city region economy. The Department for Transport has forecast that there is potential for the 3.3m passengers to increase to 7.3m by 2030, and to more than 9m by 2050.

It is therefore imperative that instead of talking about the need to improve surface access, we start to do something about it and plan ahead. In my constituency, many of the old mills and factories have been replaced by new residential estates. Thousands of new houses are being built with barely any improvements to infrastructure. What is the result? We have caused real problems for my constituents. In a sense, we put the cart before the horse. We built the houses and caused a lack of school places and GP surgeries, and our road networks have become increasingly congested. I do not want us to make the same mistake with the airport.

As we have heard, passenger numbers are already increasing. The airport is working to increase the number of services. In the past two years, British Airways has introduced domestic flights to and from London. Aer Lingus is about to introduce flights to Dublin and on to the United States. The airport is encouraging business travel, with flights to cities such as Frankfurt, Brussels and Madrid. That, coupled with the huge success of the Tour de France, has seen Yorkshire take its rightful place as a wonderful tourist destination.

We know our local areas and the benefits a rail link would bring. I hope this is the start of a joint mission to give a loud Yorkshire clout to securing the investment that we need. The airport could become one of the largest airports on the east side of England, and it could be bigger than the airports in Liverpool, Newcastle, Doncaster and the East Midlands.

I am aware that the current study considers a range of options, one of which is a new link road from the ring road at Horsforth through the fields between Horsforth and Rawdon, past the airport and joining the A658. The West Yorkshire transport fund is carrying out further studies into that solution, but it will not solve the problem. In fact, it could make the situation a lot worse, because passengers arriving at the airport by car will still have to use the roads through Apperley Bridge, Rawdon and Horsforth to get to the link road.

If we were to have a rail spur, we could connect Harrogate, York and places much further afield, so that people had a decent transport system that offered a real alternative to the car.

I had a meeting with the airport last week; the Horsforth spur that I suggested would cost some £50m, and the Harrogate spur would cost an extra £25m to £30m. With all the other costs that would be added, the total is some £98m. I know others have suggested that it would be much more expensive, and I realise that it is a considerable amount of money, but if we are serious about connecting the North, we need to invest and take a long-term approach.

Stuart Andrew is the Conservative MP for Pudsey who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on Leeds Bradford Airport. This is an edited version.