Keeping our capital working for the UK

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Better air links are vital – Opinion piece by Baroness Jo Valentine, as appeared in Transport Times

A public debate is reviving. New thought is being applied to the future of London’s international links. The Government will begin a review of national aviation policy within months – the first such review since 2003. London Mayor Boris has very publicly stated his belief that London requires a brand new four-runway hub airport to meet growing long term demand.

Both the Government and the Mayor say they will refine their policies this year. Neither begins with an open mind. The Government has ruled out additional runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. Boris similarly opposes Heathrow’s incremental growth, and is silent on new runways elsewhere in London. The danger must be that a strategy for London’s international links will run aground on the sandbanks of Boris island – a distant and laudable long-term vision that allows the most difficult medium term decisions to be passed down to the next generation of politicians.

So let me be clear on the views of business. It is not wedded to any solution. But it needs direct flights to a growing range of destinations. If London is to remain globally competitive, its international air links will need to grow in the next ten years. The sustainability of London as a fulcrum of the global economy is not a given. If London is the engine of the national economy, its high octane fuel is international trade. And international competition is increasing. The ascendance of the big cities in emerging economies – Shanghai, Mumbai, Beijing, Cairo, Delhi, Istanbul, Guangzhou, Rio de Janiero – is testament to this. They will be the fastest risers in global city GDP rankings in the next decade or so. By one analysis, the projected rise in Shanghai’s GDP in, actual dollar terms, in the next 15 years is greater than London and Paris’s GDP growth combined.

London must continually sharpen its act if it wants to compete, must attract new investment, must draw in the most talented, must pursue new markets and sell its wares to the world. Success relies on accelerating investment in people and in infrastructure. And London business leaders point to investment in the capital’s creaking, congested transport infrastructure as a top priority.

The Government recognises this. October’s spending settlement for transport made real the Coalition’s pledge to prioritise those projects that will support economic growth and job creation. The Tube’s modernisation, Crossrail and Thameslink will provide precious capacity and permit another 20 years of growth in London. But there has been no comparable commitment to London’s airports, despite the readiness of the private sector to invest. In an otherwise coherent and credible approach to critical transport infrastructure in difficult fiscal circumstances, this is a worrying blind spot.

London’s links to the world are one of its greatest assets, and critical to business. Business believes that over the next decade, demand in London for flights will continue to grow, at or near historic rates. And let’s be clear about those rates of growth: The number of passengers at UK airports more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2008, from 50 million a year to 213 million a year. Demand in London alone is forecast to rise to 250 million passengers a year by 2030. Current airport capacity limits trips to around 140 million passengers a year.

There will be difficult balances to strike. Government should consider all options for London’s air transport infrastructure based on their merits and the UK’s long-term prosperity. But ruling out solutions on the grounds of politics can only undermine the credibility of its proposed review.

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