When I started at London First in February 2015, aviation was consumed with which of Gatwick or Heathrow would be granted an extra runway by Government and the Airports Commission. We’ve now moved on from that into a much broader landscape — where growth is on the agenda across our airports.
Happily, Heathrow expansion is on-track, Gatwick has come forward with its masterplan, including bringing its standby runway into regular use and Luton is building its light rail link and new facilities.
Some of the strongest growth has been and will be at Stansted. Partly because it has much more spare capacity than any other London or south east airport, but also because its local planning authority this week approved a proposal to increase passenger numbers from 35 million per year to 43 million.
More jobs and better connections
This is a crucial move for the economy of London and the south east. How so? Because aviation is a big part of our island economy: London has more air passengers than any other city in the world; aviation supports nearly 1 million UK jobs; it accounts for around 3.5% of GDP. If we don’t seize on spare capacity to grow that connectivity, we directly hamper our economy’s growth.
Aviation also plays a particular catalytic role in that economy. At Stansted it is not just the amount but the type of connectivity that can grow, as this decision will send exactly the right signal as the airport seeks to attract more long-haul links. I think it’s interesting to look at what has happened at Manchester (owned, like Stansted, by Manchester Airports Group).
In 2016 a direct link with Beijing opened. Since then the number of Chinese visitors to the North is up by 8% above national average; the number of Chinese students in Greater Manchester is up by 5% above national average; and the average spend per visit in the North West increased to 5% above national average. All that means more exports, more tourism trade for the Lake District, local businesses opening up shop in China and even York seeing China move from being their 11th largest overseas market to being 2nd after the US.
A prime location for growth
Stansted is strategically placed at the heart of the economic corridor between London and Cambridge, with hubs in life sciences, tech and pharma to name but a few. The east of England remains one of only three government regions (the others are London and the South East) to return more in tax to the Treasury than it receives. There are clearly further opportunities for closer aviation links into and from this thriving regional economy and the expansion decision will help deliver on those.
Our 2017 report No Time to Waste laid out the case for government taking an approach that supported growth and enabled expansion proposals to come forward in a market-led way. This method of making the most of the runways we already have and planning in due course for new runways should help avoid the decades of agonising we have been through to date.
We were therefore encouraged by the Government’s statement of support in the summer for growth at airports besides Heathrow.
Making it sustainable
Most importantly, none of this means an aviation free-for-all. It is universally recognised that aviation can only grow sustainably, and the government’s aviation strategy green paper (expected mid-December) will undoubtedly and quite rightly have plenty to say on noise, emissions, carbon and other environmental impacts – not least the independent noise body London First has called for.
It would be stretching it to describe the green paper as an early Christmas present. Yet with quieter and leaner aircraft rapidly improving noise and efficiency and sensible infrastructure moves afoot such as at Stansted, there are reasons to be hopeful for the New Year and beyond.
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