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Expanding Birmingham Airport ‘could be answer to Government’s Heathrow woes’

Expanding Birmingham Airport ‘could be answer to Government’s Heathrow woes’

🕔13.Sep 2016

A major expansion of Birmingham Airport could be approved to help the Government avoid making a tricky decision on a third runway at Heathrow, it has been claimed.

Theresa May is said to be considering a proposal based on the arrival of the HS2 high speed rail system in 2026, which will reduce travel times between Birmingham airport and Heathrow to 40 minutes enabling passengers to switch quickly between the two airports.

The idea – effectively turning Birmingham into Heathrow’s third runway – has been put forward by Treasury minister Jim O’Neill, the Financial Times has reported.

Lord O’Neill, whose responsibilities include infrastructure and regional development, is understood to be arguing that an expanded Birmingham airport would also offer fast links to the Northern Powerhouse cities of Leeds and Manchester once the second phase of HS2 is completed in 2033.

He is believed to have told officials advising Mrs May that an expansion at Birmingham airport rather than Heathrow would send a massive signal on the Government’s determination to rebalance the British economy.

Lord O’Neill, former chief economist at Goldman Sachs, is chairman of the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Advisory Board which advises on the growth of the Greater Manchester economy.  He has long been an advocate of positive Government action to drive forward economic development in Britain’s cities outside of London.

The Government could take a decision on the future of London’s aviation space as early as next month and it is possible MPs may be given a free vote on the highly contentious issue of choosing between a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick.

Outspoken critics of a third Heathrow runway from the Government’s own ranks include Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary and former mayor of London, and Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, whose Putney constituency is under the Heathrow flightpath.

It is unclear whether Lord O’Neill’s contribution has come too late to influence a decision, or whether the Prime Minister may be persuaded to take more time to consider the role Birmingham could play in relieving the crowded skies over the Capital.

Howard Davies’s airports review put forward just the two options – expanding Heathrow or Gatwick.

It specifically ruled out expanding Birmingham for the time being arguing there was “not a strong case for expansion” as an answer to the aviation capacity crunch in London and the south-east.

His commission said in 2013 that Birmingham airport, where the single runway has recently been extended, would not be operating at capacity until the mid-2040s and that expanding it would lead to an increase in noise for a relatively high number of people.

But it added that expansion of Birmingham “may merit reconsideration as part of any future assessment of options for a second new runway, particularly as the long-term impacts of HS2 on patterns of travel and aviation become clearer”.

The Financial Times reports that Lord O’Neill’s  representations on Birmingham’s future role are being taken seriously in Number 10, noting that Mrs May’s co-chief of staff Nick Timothy hails from the city and wants the Government to focus more attention on the Midlands.

Paul Kehoe, Birmingham airport chief executive, has supported the expansion of Gatwick as the solution for meeting the shorter-term aviation needs of London and the south-east, but has also spoken many times about the feasibility of Birmingham becoming Heathrow’s third runway via HS2.

Reacting to Howard Davies’s Airports Commission report last year, Mr Kehoe urged the Government to take a cautious response “so as not to damage the ability of regional airports to grow”. He added:

The Midlands is a powerful engine of growth at the heart of our country and needs direct aviation to succeed. With our £200 million investment in the airport, including our runway extension allowing for this summer’s extended series of direct flights to Beijing, we are doing all we can to support the region’s businesses and leisure passengers.

Whilst the Government continues to review all the evidence before it, Birmingham Airport looks forward to continuing the expansion of our long-haul offering in support of the region’s economy.

In a statement on the latest development, the Airport said

A vibrant Birmingham Airport is vital to the growth of our region and we need to maximise the benefits of HS2.

With HS2’s arrival in ten years, Birmingham Airport will become the UK’s first high-speed connected airport and its catchment area will be dramatically enlarged into central London, giving it an increasingly national role.

Mrs May launched her Tory leadership bid in Birmingham with a promise to broaden the Government’s regional policy away from just “one or two cities” in the north. The Conservative party

Mrs May’s team says it won’t abandon the Northern Powerhouse but will look to supplement the northern strategy with a particular focus on the Midlands.

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