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Westminster Watch: National assets

The UK’s airports and supporting infrastructure are vital to ensuring countrywide growth, says lobbyist Gareth Morgan

I am going to do something radical for someone who pens a political column... I’m not going to write about General Elections or Brexit. Shock horror.

That’s not just me being awkward; it’s just that the interesting stuff for business travel is unrelated (OK, partly unrelated) to both. This is because the government in the months following the election is likely to produce a Draft Aviation Strategy that will set out the policy framework for the growth of UK airports.

That sounds a bit dry – it may be better to think of this forthcoming publication as the strategy that covers “airports other than Heathrow”.

As we all know, Heathrow will have its own path to growth that will see the first phase culminate in a parliamentary vote in the autumn of 2017. But regional airports are about to get their moment in the sun.

A word of warning though: don’t call them regional airports. That may sound glib but it also goes to the heart of what this strategy could and should be about.

‘Regional airports’ sounds parochial, like they serve only their locality, but these are strategic assets for the UK. The lobbying from these airports is likely to focus on getting government to treat them as such.

I have heard suggestions that government may start off from the point of view that nothing much is wrong. It looks at airports around the UK that are generally doing well. They are growing their passenger numbers and so maybe government’s focus should be a bit of tinkering but nothing more than that. If it ain’t broke, etc ...

But that would miss the point. These airports have the potential to be so much more, if they were just backed in the right way.

The UK government is talking a good game: “We want to encourage and facilitate trade, we have a draft Industrial Strategy that is explicit about intervening in regional economies to back the technologies of the future and rebalance the economy away from the hothouse of London”. It needs to back that up with its aviation strategy.

Speak to most non-Heathrow airport operators in the UK about their priority and it won’t be adding another runway; it’ll be investing in surface transport infrastructure. Consider Manchester airport, a genuine national strategic asset. Imagine how it could become a true gateway to the North if you could get from Hull to Manchester Airport on a 125mph train?

What would the economies of Sheffield or Liverpool be like if companies could locate there knowing they could as easily access the international connections and trade opportunities as they could in central Manchester? How far could the benefits of connectivity be spread in a region?

This is how the aviation strategy should be viewed by government. In the coming months the business travel lobby will be lending its weight to calls from airports that an unambitious strategy, drafted by the air division of DfT is not fit for purpose.

We will be ensuring that the new MPs and City Mayors are putting pressure on government to accept that this is not the time for an “if it ain’t broke” approach.

Gareth Morgan is a political lobbyist and director with Cavendish Communications. He is an advisor to the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC).

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