A panoramic photograph of Malham Cove in North Yorkshire.

Schiphol is still the UK’s hub airport. Brexit protectionism may change that.

Tom Forth,

Years ago I explained why Schiphol is the UK’s hub airport. It’s one of the most popular pieces ever on CityMetric. I was thrilled when it was recently referred to in a talk by Dutch researcher Frank van Oort about Brexit.

Since writing my piece, a lot of people assume that I oppose Heathrow expansion. I don’t. If I were Mayor of London I’d give permission to expand Heathrow tomorrow. With Crossrail about to open, it is fantastically connected to the city. It would generate jobs and prosperity. The current airport is at capacity and limits London’s global importance.

But we live in a democracy and if I supported Heathrow expansion, I wouldn’t get elected. London has consistently voted against expansion. Boris Johnson opposed it and Sadiq Khan opposed it. Bye-elections have been fought on it and opponents of expansion won.

Attitudes to growth.

I see a real difference in attitudes to growth between London and many cities in North England. In Manchester, Richard Leese and others supported their airport expansion. Andy Burnham remains committed to building on the greenbelt even as he demands improvements to the city’s spatial framework. In Liverpool huge expansions to the docks were warmly welcomed by local politicians. Across the North the desire for better transpennine infrastructure drowns out the voices in favour of protecting the environment at all costs and in many local plans expansion onto the greenbelt is treated pragmatically.

As a county we need to let grow the places that want to grow. We need to let stagnate the places that don’t want to grow. The UK state keeps doing the opposite.

UK government picks Oxford, Cambridge, and London as winners and invests enormously, even though they aren’t keen on growing. Meanwhile it overrules ambitions for growth in places like Bradford, Doncaster, and Birmingham and restricts funding for growth in places that need investment to grow even more quickly, like Manchester and Leeds.

I’ve written about this before. I’m increasingly worried that the UK government is going to do this again with Heathrow. I wasn’t too worried about this when I wrote my first article, because we were in the EU. Soon we will not be.

Brexit and Heathrow.

Brexit complicates everything. It has shifted the outlook of Britain towards national protectionism. A world-leading hub would prove in the minds of some that we are the “Global Britain” they proclaim. At the same time, Brexit negotiations are not going well and the UK may end up with limits on their option of flying to the world via Amsterdam or Paris.

I can already imagine Boris Johnson giving a moronic speech about “why fly via underwater Amsterdam to the world, when you could go via Great British London”. Jeremy Corbyn’s team would certainly prefer that British flights were served by British workers, even if it increased costs, reduced options, and entrenched London’s dominance of the UK.

This would be a disaster for the North of England.

To prosper, Manchester must be its own world city, like Dublin is, and not an outpost of London. The great cities and towns within an hour of Manchester, with a total population of nearly 10 million people, rely on it to play that role. Connecting to the world via our choice of hub airport is part of that.

Gateway to the world.

The UK has long had a deeply damaging obsession with making London the single national gateway to the world. Organisations being moved out of London refuse to leave. New institutions that grow to threaten London’s dominance are constrained, or acquired and shut down. Events that are not in London are ignored, or copied for free in state-owned venues with state money to undermine them. People outside of London are ignored by the media, think-tanks and politicians.

This attitude boosts London at the expense of the rest of the UK. It is part of why the UK’s economy excluding London is so much weaker than the rest of Europe. It must stop.

I worry that Heathrow will become another expression of this pattern. I worry that government will force through permission for its expansion against local wishes, then spend tens of billions of pounds more than it already has on enabling that expansion, before finally insisting or incentivising that the whole of the UK connects to the world via our glorious capital, instead of via places like Amsterdam and Paris.

Brexit makes this more likely. Unless we can secure full access to European airspace, the UK government could load the dice in Heathrow’s favour. Free of state aid restrictions, it could be even more blatant in its protectionism. Desperate to prove our global credentials it has an extra incentive to even more aggressively boost our only truly global city at the expense of the rest of the nation.

The North should be worried.


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