Graham Brady is Chairman of the 1922 Committee and MP for Altrincham and Sale West.
Expanding London’s airports is critical to Britain’s future economic well-being. And, while this is something which politicians have been getting wrong for the last half-century, the tide is finally now starting to turn.
Everyone agrees that the UK needs to seize every available opportunity to foster economic growth. For a trading nation like Britain, exploiting overseas markets is pivotal. Air links can and must play a crucial role – the UK does 20 times more trade with countries with which we have direct air links than with those without such links.
The problem is that, where once we had outstanding air links with all of the world’s key markets, nowadays our network is withering. London has fewer weekly flights than its European rivals to seven of the eight growth economies identified by the IMF. Over 20 emerging market destinations are served by daily flights from other European cities, but not from London.
Worse still, things are set to deteriorate. Heathrow had two runways at the end of the Second World War, and still does. Our main economic rivals, on the other hand, have recognised the importance of air links for economic growth, and they have pressed ahead with building new runways. Frankfurt and Paris have four each, and Amsterdam has six.
There’s a simple reason why we find ourselves in this mess. For 50 years, policy-makers (of all political colours) have stood idly by while the UK’s network of air links has been first caught and now overtaken by our main economic rivals. Instead of showing the sort of enterprise, vision and commitment which enabled British aviation pioneers to set the benchmark for so much of 21st century air travel, successive generations of politicians simply found excuses for doing nothing.
It beggars belief that we find ourselves here. Britain’s enviable track-record of economic dynamism built on extensive foreign trade surpasses that of any other country on the planet. Quite simply, understanding the importance of strong transport links with all of the World’s key markets is in our national DNA.
The time has come to put things right. This generation of politicians must take decisive and urgent action on airport expansion. The alternatives – economic stagnation and loss of the UK’s status as a global aviation hub – are simply unacceptable.
Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Chancellor’s comments on the subject of airport expansion earlier this month were encouraging. George Osborne rightly asked how history would have judged the Victorians if they had simply stopped building ports. He continued “Britain needs more airport capacity…. We’re a trading nation”. I couldn’t agree with him more. In fairness, that’s perhaps not so surprising – as fellow neighbours of Manchester Airport, George and I both know what a huge contribution a thriving international airport makes to the local and regional economy. We know that the whole country depends on having the best aviation links in just the same way.
The work of the Airports Commission under Sir Howard Davies is critically important. The Commission’s mandate is to come up with ways of maintaining the UK’s status as an international hub for aviation – in layman’s terms, deciding whether extra runways are needed, and if so where. Although Sir Howard won’t present his formal conclusions until the summer of 2015, he’s already said that there will have to be more runways built.
With things clearly moving in the right direction, it’s down to the politicians to seize this opportunity with both hands. There is finally a way to channel in one direction the efforts of those who believe that we cannot wait any longer before starting work on new runways.
Last week, I was delighted to help launch “Let Britain Fly”. The Campaign is the biggest and most influential business-led campaign ever created to address the issue of airport expansion. Leaders from more than 100 of Britain’s top firms used the launch to warn politicians that failure to commit to airport expansion risks condemning the UK to being a second-rate economy until at least 2040.
Nobody should be under any illusions. When Davies reports, the Government of the day must decide right away where to build new runway capacity. This may simply mean accepting the recommendation of the Davies Commission: if not, then another option must be pursued. What would be unacceptable would be yet another review.
Let Britain Fly calls on all major parties to include a commitment to tackle the problem of where to put extra runways in their manifestos for the 2015 General Election. No one can promise to implement Davies regardless of what it recommends, but all parties should undertake to be guided by the Commission and to act quickly following its report.
We should promise this without delay.