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26 February 2015updated 27 Feb 2015 2:20pm

Bridging the north-south divide

Five UK airports are backing Heathrow expansion as the best means to support businesses in their areas.

By New Statesman

On 28 May 2010, David Cameron made his first major speech as Prime Minister. In it he promised to “rebalance” the UK economy so that “success and prosperity are spread more evenly across regions and industries”.

Yet despite initiatives such as the £1.4bn Regional Growth Fund, much remains to be done. Last month, research by the Centre for Cities found that while the number of jobs in the south rose by 12.4 per cent between 2004 and 2013, the figure was just 0.9 per cent across the rest of the UK. While the likes of London, Cambridge and Brighton saw job numbers grow by 10-20 per cent, northern cities such as Liverpool, Leeds and Glasgow achieved just 0-2 per cent.

Against this backdrop, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest investing in London transport infrastructure. Yet this is exactly what airports in these and other cities are calling for, having given their support to the  expansion of Heathrow. In an open letter late last year, managers at Liverpool John Lennon, Leeds Bradford, Aberdeen International, Newcastle and Glasgow airports said they were backing Heathrow as it is “the right choice for the whole of the UK”.

They prefer the expansion of Heathrow due to its status as a hub airport, one of only six worldwide with more than 50 long haul routes. Each of the five regional airports want to offer their passengers connections to as many destinations as possible, which only Heathrow can provide.

At present the regional airports are severely limited in how many passengers they can send to Heathrow. Liverpool John Lennon has been unable to secure any connections since 1992, severely inhibiting the area’s businesspeople from accessing global markets, and impeding overseas investors from visiting the region.

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In contrast, Leeds Bradford secured four British Airways flights to Heathrow per day in 2012, and within six months half of this route’s passengers were using it for onward, worldwide connections. However, none of its flights reach London any earlier than 10:25am, restricting the options for connections and meaning that those working in and around London are unable to arrive for a full day’s work.

All the five airports understand that increased air capacity would bring jobs and economic growth to their regions, and they have the backing of business leaders. The Liverpool Chamber of Commerce has said that forcing businesspeople to travel to European hub airports is less efficient in terms of “time, cost, convenience and carbon emissions”. Meanwhile, the North East of England’s status as the UK’s last remaining net exporter as contributed to the North East Chamber of Commerce being vocal in its support of Heathrow expansion.

Scotland, too, has seen a groundswell of opinion in favour of Heathrow. The Scottish Council for Development and Industry has said that “on balance” Heathrow offers “the optimum option” for expanding capacity. The Glasgow Chamber of Commerce has also given its backing, while VisitScotland’s chairman Mike Cantlay told the BBC in November that Scotland’s tourism industry has become too reliant on British Airways and needs more connections to Heathrow. In Aberdeen specifically, the need for increased cargo capacity has been central to discussion, with 6,166 tonnes of freight handled through the city’s airport in 2012 and this amount increasing for three years running.

It remains to be seen whether the major parties will support the Airports Commission’s judgement on South East runway expansion when its final report is released this summer. However, business leaders across the UK are in no doubt that Heathrow expansion is the best means for bringing air capacity benefits to their economies. Improved air capacity and connectivity may not bridge the north-south divide on its own, but we can’t afford to ignore its potential.