Intelligence: 20 March 2019Regional Airports - from Ambition to Action

Our airports want to grow. Our businesses, visitors and those who work at airports want them to grow. Yet others are opposed to that growth, whether on local impact grounds or climate change grounds.

UK regional airports have been active in pursuing growth ambitions, preparing masterplans backed by passenger forecasts for year on year increases, a trend recognised in the Government’s existing Aviation Policy Framework (2013), its Airports National Policy Statement (2018) and its position on making best use of existing runways (2018).

Our own research into local industrial strategies and development plans indicates that regions are championing regional airports as crucial to regional economic growth for reasons such as, access to international destinations and markets, local job growth and economic growth brought by the global juggernaut (or should that be jumbo) that is tourism. Airports themselves have diverse revenue streams, often from aviation related businesses, and have a more intrinsic connection to the regional economy than at first glance.

So, you might expect government support for growth to be full-throttle. However, the publication of the Aviation Green Paper just before Christmas appears to have applied the over-sized handbrake just before take-off (no more puns I promise). The Green Paper recognises the inherent tension that growth in aviation brings through impacts on the environment, whether local or global, but crucially it errs on the side of constraint and caution with reliance on local planning decision makers to take a view and make reasoned decisions.

The complexities involved with regional airport growth require an ambitious and thoughtful national policy in response. Unfortunately, the Green Paper neither facilitates or presents a pathway to assist regional airports, businesses, specialist interests and communities, and instead, in my view, acts as a constraint for those willing to bring these challenging issues to the table.

This approach risks harming regional growth. I have three observations on why Government needs to take on a greater role in facilitating a way through the tensions:

  • The planning system cannot manage this balance in the national interest without a strong national policy steer;
  • Airports cannot realise their potential in isolation, and any growth needs to be properly considered and embedded in local industrial strategies and development plans, supported by national investment. Furthermore, this investment needs to be effectively directed to help address growth and impact tensions, for example in surface access to improve local environmental conditions;
  • The way regional airports operate now could change dramatically as consumer habits and preferences change with technology and as airports review their air space requirements to consider ways of attracting investment and increasing capacity. What this means from a spatial planning perspective is that planning and decision-making needs to keep pace and engaged with the innovative and operational arms of the aviation world.

So where do we go from here? I think heading over to the work of the ports industry is a good starting point. Collectively, they appear to be a few strides ahead of regional airports, and the Government’s recently published Maritime Strategy 2050 badged as a real partnership between government and industry. If you then head over to the Government’s Clean Air Strategy, published in January, you can see what that starts to mean. For Ports, expect to see a Government-led Clean Maritime Council this summer supported by a Clean Maritime Plan and Air Quality Strategies for all major English ports. In the context of noise and climate change, is there not scope for something more imaginative and collaborative than relying on the planning system, to avoid airports being forgotten in the government’s mind?

For now, the question remains, ’how can regional airports, their supporters and those wishing to help or challenge them, grasp and overcome some of the tricky challenges they face?’

Personally, I think building momentum through emerging local industrial strategies and connecting them with development plans is crucial. This approach can help establish the regional business case for airport development and for national investment to facilitate the connecting surface access opportunities in line with housing and employment opportunities.

We recognise that each regional airport will have a different business model and viability is at the heart of any growth proposition. Yet viability is affected directly and indirectly by the support signalled in policy and planning decisions. Without a step change in tone and tangible actions in the Aviation Strategy that leads to a positive framework for challenging local conversations and decisions, I fear regional airports will struggle to achieve their ambitions.

For our part, we at Barton Willmore will continue to engage clients and collaborators on this strategic issue and will be responding to the Government’s Green Paper in April. We are also partnering with Cranfield University’s  ‘Urban Turbine’ project - industry-backed research into the future of regional airports and how technology and changing passenger preferences could have profound spatial impacts when considered at the city-region scale.

If you are interested in knowing more about our response to Government or our work with Cranfield University, do get in touch.

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Airports, Infrastructure, Transport