I GENUINELY believe that 2017 could mark a change of fortune for South Yorkshire and for England’s regions.Strangely the catalyst for this was the announcement in October that Heathrow airport will get a new runway.
The further you go from London, the more support there is for growth at Heathrow. The reason is that this will guarantee new slots for regional airports to fly into Heathrow, so passengers can pick up the connections to hundreds of cities across the globe.
But while the Heathrow plans will take a decade or more to fulfil, it triggered a debate on how UK plc can make the most of its airports in the regions.
The UK succeeds when every region is growing, creating jobs, attracting investment. Yorkshire is no exception.
That’s why before Parliament closed for the Christmas break, I and other MPs were meeting the Secretary of State for Transport to advance the case for improved access to our regional airports.
Take Doncaster’s own airport, Robin Hood; an airport I championed for eight years before it opened.
When I first became an MP, South Yorkshire was the largest population not served by a full-size airport. A few months before I was elected, the Government of the day was proposing that the former RAF Finningley airbase, became another prison. Doncaster had four at the time, and still does.
Thankfully, the incoming Labour government squashed that plan within days; and sold the Finningley site with the runway protected.
Today, this airport, with a runway capable of transAtlantic flights, has already proved its worth. It has seen US presidents fly in for summits; and polar bears brought in for the Yorkshire Wildlife Park. But when it’s not flying presidents or polar bears, it is running daily services to Paris, three times weekly to Berlin and to 40 other destinations.
Much of this has been achieved without a real policy by Government. Aviation is a growth industry. Few would challenge that it will continue to grow in the UK and worldwide. The British appetite for travel shows no sign of diminishing. For every family that enjoys a few weeks in the sun each year, there are many who take several short breaks to different destinations. But apart from passengers and freight, airports act as magnets for investment. Robin Hood Airport has 100 firms on its business park; including the Cessna’s aircraft maintenance centre and a world-beating aviation security firm, Redline. The airport’s next development will be an innovation park, Aero Centre Yorkshire.
What the regions need is for Government to have a real strategy for growing regional airports. It could start by making access to airports an infrastructure priority. Twenty years ago, 80 per cent of Yorkshire’s five million residents had to travel out of their region to fly abroad. That’s not sustainable for the next 20 years.
The key is to cut the journey times to airports. Most passengers won’t worry about travelling for an hour to get to an airport, but beyond that they rapidly lose the will. Robin Hood Airport is lucky. Six million people live within an hour of the airport, because of its proximity to the motorway network; and Doncaster’s location on the East Coast main line and Lincoln line.
The next big improvement in access would be to run the East Coast main line straight into the airport. A diversion of four miles of track would expand the numbers within easy reach of the airport to nearly 12 million. Integrated transport was a buzz word 20 years ago. In the future we could have passengers checking luggage onto a train at King’s Cross and two hours later boarding a flight to Paris, collecting their luggage at the other end.
A Robin Hood airport rail station would aid seamless travel to the airport; provide a new option for commuters; reducing at a stroke Doncaster’s congestion and pollution, around its town centre railway station. And it would boost jobs. Imagine what this would mean if the Government could improve journey times to all regional airports? Just a five per cent improvement in average journey times would boost passenger numbers by three per cent and generate £1.9bn to the UK economy.
Improving access boosts the catchment area each airport serves; which attracts more airlines; which improves consumer choice; which encourages lower fares. Airport growth in every region and improving surfaces access go hand in hand.
In 2017, the Government will publish an Access to Aviation Strategy. I want surface access, gaps in transport infrastructure, and the quality of rail services to airports included. I would love the Highways Agency and Network Rail to be thinking “trains to planes”.
It’s been a busy time for Chris Grayling with the Southern Rail dispute; BA and Virgin cabin crew goings on strike; and problems opening his car door safely. I hope he’ll give some thought to our regional airports.
If that happens, 2017 could be a big year for aviation in Yorkshire.
Caroline Flint is the Labour MP for Don Valley.