Opinion Former

The West Midlands needs to get behind Heathrow

By Sir Peter Luff

Exporters in the West Midlands are powering not just our local economy but the national economy as well. That’s why the expansion and success of Heathrow, the UK’s largest port, is so important for West Midlands businesses and jobs.

In February, the Prime Minister announced figures showing exports from the West Midlands were worth nearly £30 billion last year. Against the background of a UK-wide fall, the West Midlands delivered an eleven per cent increase in exports, even overtaking London.

It was our sixth consecutive year of export growth and we now export more than all UK regions outside the capital and the South East combined. For that success to continue, our businesses need access to reliable air and sea freight and excellent connectivity with their markets around the globe.

That is why the West Midlands has a real stake in the clear and unanimous recommendation by the Airports Commission to expand Heathrow.

Already sixty-five per cent of the nation’s airfreight travels through Heathrow. If Heathrow expands, freight capacity will be doubled. No other airport in the UK can match that. Heathrow takes so much freight because high value low weight goods need to travel in the hold of passenger planes to Chennai, Hanoi and Shanghai. And those flights go from the nation’s hub.

There is a warm and cosy idea floating around that we can have three hubs – an unchanged Heathrow, an expanded Gatwick and the new kid on the block, Birmingham. We can’t. In that scenario all three fail.

Like many of my friends and colleagues in the region, I fly by choice from Birmingham. It’s a great airport and had its busiest year last year. Its recent runway extension means it now offers twice-weekly flights to New York and Dhaka, adding to regular flights to Dubai, Islamabad, Mexico and Toronto.

Good. But Birmingham, like all the other important regional airports, can’t become a hub because it doesn’t have the passenger demand to create the network needed. That demand is at Heathrow.

Birmingham has not prospered while Heathrow has been full for the last decade – Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam have. The thirty airlines trying to get into Heathrow are not trying Birmingham. Instead, they are going to hubs on the continent, despite a pair of Heathrow slots exchanging hands for over £20m and Birmingham slots being available for free.

Birmingham Airport is in direct competition with other UK point-to-point airports like Gatwick. Indeed, there is an 85% overlap in routes serviced between the two airports. The roles of Heathrow and Birmingham Airports absolutely complement each other in serving the nation.

Heathrow can take West Midlands airfreight to eighty-two long-haul destinations precisely because it brings together passengers from all around the world with a large catchment of domestic travellers. That is the recipe that makes long-haul travel to so many destinations viable. And with HS2 it will be only 53 minutes away from the centre of Birmingham.

But with Heathrow full, the West Midlands is being cut off from the world. There are new economic powerhouses that we need to get to, places like Chongqing, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Manila and Bogota. These are the places to which the next generation of West Midlands exporters will need direct access.

All those who represent the West Midlands, who care about its economic success and are serious about attracting investment from the four corners of the globe and exporting our goods to the emerging markets of the world we should be fighting for expansion at both Birmingham and Heathrow.

Instead some sirens voices are in the midlands are calling for expansion at Gatwick, on the wrong side of London and hard to reach from north of London. The market has spoken - Gatwick has fewer long haul flights today than 10 years ago.

The risk is that reducing the transfer passengers at Heathrow would just help its European competitors. Only Heathrow has the global scale and experience to compete with the likes of Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Frankfurt and even Dubai.

There is too much riding on this aviation debate to be playing politics with castles in the air. Neither Birmingham nor Gatwick can become effective hubs. West Midlands manufacturers, business and exporters can have the best of both worlds; a strong, growing and ambitious local gateway through Birmingham Airport and access to an expanded Heathrow hub connected together by high-speed rail.

If the West Midlands wants to continue to buck the national trend and outperform the rest of the country, we need to be realistic about the future needs of our region. Expansion at Heathrow will help us ensure the West Midlands economy continues to be the flag-bearer for the country, driving growth, reversing the trade-deficit, attracting tourists and creating jobs.

It’s time the West Midlands got behind the best choice for our region and defended what is in our best interests.

 

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