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Westminster Watch: A tale of two regional hubs

Intra-regional transport links will grow only if the regions can make their voices heard at national level, says Gareth Morgan

Following the EU Referendum there is an appetite for rebalancing the economy and ensuring that the UK’s regions are growing. There is a compelling case for doing so. Look at US states or German cities and you’ll see thriving regional economies with specialist clusters that anchor them. The London-centric UK doesn’t compare well.

There is a political focus on this with a number of plans and investments meant to address it. Intra-regional links and the ability to connect to the global economy are key, but how well a region can make its voice heard is fast becoming a factor in whether ideas make it off the drawing board.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at two transport hubs: Manchester and East Midlands airports. Both are part of Manchester Airports Group and real success stories. Last year Manchester airport grew by 6.7 per cent. East Midlands is the UK’s second biggest air freight gateway.

But if we look at some of the investments around them a different picture emerges. Manchester has its own rail station, a recent tram extension to the airport and there will be a high-speed rail stop at the airport itself. It is hoped these travel links will be connected to Northern Powerhouse Rail (formerly HS3) that will link the North’s six main cities and the airport.

East Midlands Airport has a “Parkway” station named after it around five miles away. There is a minibus that runs from the station to the airport, but it’s an hourly service that’s not tied in with train arrivals. An HS2 station is proposed in Toton, less than ten miles away, but no connection to the airport is planned.

Both airports are pushing to be included in emerging plans and investment, but who do they have on their side?

Manchester has the council leaders that own it, bodies including Transport for the North and think-tanks, such as IPPR North, feeding ideas into political parties, a narrative of the “Northern Powerhouse” and, crucially, several MPs and a mayor of Greater Manchester with a national profile banging the drum for the region.

East Midlands sits between two big cities, has fewer MPs within reach, has a less established regional transport body (Midlands Connect), a limited narrative around the importance of the region and, most glaringly, has no regional mayor.

Who is going to stick up for East Midlands (or for that matter East Anglia or Yorkshire) and the untapped potential of their airports?

Perhaps it can be business travel. Those firms that want to see better connections to their regional airport need to get their voices heard, either through trade bodies or by liaising with regional business bodies. These groups are making the argument to policymakers but are reliant on their members to provide information. If they are given the data on how corporate travellers engage with infrastructure, the power of their arguments would be increased exponentially.

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