Birmingham Airport is already a landing pad for international investors and a leading catalyst for West Midlands employment. But we could contribute more. We have spare capacity. Once our runway extension is operational in 2014, we will also have the transcontinental capability to reach faraway economies.
With these attributes, Birmingham Airport can help to fill Britain’s growing aviation gap and deliver more global connectivity to the West Midlands region and the wider UK.
But we face a challenge. Aviation traffic is being taken from the regions to sustain a bloated hub in London.
It is entirely right for London’s business community to argue for better aviation links. This is particularly important for the financial services community, which accounts for 10% of UK GDP and employs more than a million workers.
The challenge facing Londoners is that Heathrow is operating at 99% capacity. And Gatwick and Luton are nearing capacity during periods of peak demand. This congestion is damaging the UK’s international reputation and undermining the productive efficiency of the industry. The British Chambers of Commerce estimates that our crowded airports are costing the South East economy £1 billion a year.
But the answer is not to wring out every last piece of capacity at Heathrow. This would have unintended consequences. The dominance of London airports already means that most of Britain is missing the opportunity to build strong, direct links with emerging economies.
London may be the centre for financial services, but the heart of engineering and manufacturing is in the Midlands and further north. For instance, 25% of UK manufacturing workers are based in the Midlands. The sector is larger than London’s financial services community as it contributes 11% of GDP and employs more than 2.5 million workers, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Yet it has not received the attention that it deserves.
Birmingham Airport is investing millions in a runway extension. When complete, it will allow the airport to handle up to 36 million passengers a year, doubling our existing capacity and enabling passengers to access new markets. Other airports also have spare capacity. Connecting Britain’s largest export industry to emerging markets is the golden ticket.
Take the Chinese market. Since 2003, Birmingham has attracted more Chinese investment than any part of the UK bar London, and there is great potential to increase this figure. For example, William Wang, managing director of MG Motor UK, recently told Birmingham Airport managers that there was a serious need for a direct Birmingham-Shanghai flight for business passengers, the local Chinese community and the thousands of students entering Britain each year.
It is the support of global business leaders like Wang that helps explain why Birmingham City Council predicts that our runway extension will create more than 10,000 jobs in construction, aviation and industry for the local economy by 2020 and generate £1.88 billion by 2030.
If Heathrow was to become a Schipol and cram a third runway into the west London suburbs, the results would be a disaster for regions outside the South East which produce 64% of UK goods and services by value.
A more balanced approach would recognise that regional passengers and businesses travelling from airports other than Heathrow is not a policy failure. It represents a bright future.