Tough Decisions Are Needed to Break London’s Transport Monopoly

Orginally posted on

Let’s just imagine for a second that Birmingham Airport has been chosen as the UK’s new hub airport. Businesses in and around the second city would expand, new enterprises, hotels and luxury businesses would pop up: in summary, the sort of growth and investment north of Watford the UK badly needs.

Whatever your viewpoint, Heathrow is divisive and expensive. A new runway at Heathrow would cost £6bn. A new runway at Birmingham could take two thirds of those passengers at just two per cent of the cost. Birmingham should remain a viable solution, despite the Davies Commission Report – which is looking into the future aviation strategy of the UK and effectively ruling expansion out – saying “There was not a strong case for expansion at Birmingham Airport.”

Whilst we must accept the final outcome of the London-centric review, the decision on the future of Birmingham Airport is unfortunately symptomatic of how the country north of Watford is missing out on infrastructure investment. London currently receives 32 per cent of transport spending. This means £545 is spent on transport for every Londoner: more than twice the level spent on people in the northern regions and West Midlands.

The problem with so many efforts to invest in the Midlands and the North is that because of London’s extreme dominance, any decision taken to re-balance the economy will always ultimately be looked on unfavourably; London’s sheer financial weight and population size usually means it makes more financial sense to invest in London. This problem is exacerbating the “London black hole” into which, as the city has become more prosperous, it has sucked in more investment and human talent from the rest of the country. In doing so, the gap between London and the rest of the country has been further widened.

Take Policy Exchange’s “Bigger and Quieter” report on its proposals for the future of UK aviation. It completely dismisses the idea of Birmingham becoming the next hub airport on the basis that:

“Birmingham International Airport and London Euston are only one hour and ten minutes apart, and that this will fall to as little as 38 minutes if the proposed high-speed train line is built. This, however, misses the point: Luton is already only 20 minutes away, and Stansted 38 minutes away yet both have spare capacity.”

I’m not sure who is “missing the point” here.  Yes, it would of course take longer for passengers in London to travel to Birmingham than it would Luton, and almost certainly a new hub airport would not be as beneficial for our capital city as a new runway at Heathrow or extended Gatwick would be. However, Birmingham is in the Midlands, it is more accessible for people in the North than Luton is, and – crucially – it would promote badly needed investment and regeneration throughout the Midlands.

London passengers would have to travel further, but if we are serious about rebalancing the economy then we should not continue to completely discard potential new infrastructure investment in the Midlands and the North on the simple basis it is ‘not London’.  Birmingham is our second city and in 2014 it sits an extremely long way behind London. Re-balancing our economy will need radical decisions to be made. We have two choices:  firstly, to continue to accept London’s dominance and carry on building the country’s infrastructure around it; or secondly, give other cities north of London more of a chance, even if it does mean our capital city loses out slightly.