In July 2019, on the day of the final Conservative Party leadership debate, Boris Johnson headed North for a hard hat, high-vis photo op at Manchester Airport’s new £1bn terminal.
The message was clear: a resurgent North of England would be at the heart of the new PM’s plans for a global Britain in a post-Brexit world.
A powerful and seductive vision, no doubt, and in late 2019 it would go on to bring General Election success.
But what a difference a year makes. If the Prime Minister was to make the same trip North today, he would find an echoing, empty shell with 25,000 jobs on the site on the line and a further 45,000 at risk in associated industries.
I know the Government has faced an unprecedented challenge in supporting the economy through this most challenging of years and I have some sympathy with them. To be fair to the PM and Chancellor, their interventions have provided a lifeline to many people and businesses.
But they have also left some glaring gaps in support and one of the biggest is airports and aviation.
The case for supporting the sector is strong.
Operations may have been temporarily halted by Covid-19 but there is no question of viability once a vaccine is found.
And, when that time comes, we will need them to be ready to spring immediately back into life. Regional airports support hundreds of thousands of jobs beyond those employed directly on site. They bring in the visitors and investors on which so many other jobs depend. We will need them to be the engines of our recovery from this crisis.
But, as things stand, they will struggle to start up.
Back in the heady days of April, airports were promised a support package by the Government but, beyond the general furlough scheme, it has never materialised. Airports have been left grappling with the huge costs associated with running major pieces of infrastructure whilst their income has more or less evaporated. It is no exaggeration to say that British aviation is facing the biggest financial crisis in its history.
The deeper they go into this crisis without support, the greater the damage they are sustaining and the longer it will take for them to recover.
The impact is already being felt in communities like Wythenshawe where a significant percentage of local people depend on Manchester Airport for their employment. If the neglect of aviation continues, we could see communities like this suffer the same impact as those who saw heavy industry closed in the 1980s.
But the damage could be even more far-reaching than this. Other countries who we will soon be competing against are way ahead of us on aviation. Across Europe, some £31bn has been spend propping up airlines and airports.
Other countries have also been much quicker than us to realise that the industry needs more than direct financial support. Germany introduced testing regimes to reduce periods of self-isolation many months ago. In Dubai, you can be tested and receive a result in 15 minutes. There are similar systems in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Singapore and France. Here? Barely a thing.
The Government’s ‘Global Travel Taskforce’ promised to collate the sector’s suggestions for a route out of this paralysis and present a package of measures to Downing Street by early November. Although it was unveiled in October, the email inbox for suggestions only went live on Wednesday. Any contributions submitted before that date have disappeared into the internet ether. Can you blame the industry for feeling a sense of despair?
What is needed is a new sense of urgency from the Government before it is too late. It is airports outside of London that are likely to be disproportionately impacted. We need a plan and we need it now.
Finalising a proper testing regime would be a start. But, with airports effectively shut down by the travel ban, they also need a wider support package and a series of innovative measures to encourage airlines to re-introduce as many services as possible, as soon as possible. Without that, there is a risk tens of thousands more jobs will be lost.
The Prime Minister needs to be reminded of his trip North in July 2019 and of how critical our airports were to his vision of a rebalanced, post-Brexit UK. He needs to know that continued inaction on this crucial issue risks leaving Britain stranded on the periphery of international travel and trade just as we enter the brave, new world.
I have had my disagreements with the Government recently on their treatment of the North and could easily add the neglect of Manchester Airport to my charge sheet. But I don’t want to be at constant loggerheads with them. I remain ready to work with the Government to deliver on their ambitions for the North of England and nobody would be more pleased than me if their “levelling-up” agenda really began to take off. But, if things carry on like this, it will be as grounded as all of those planes sitting on the Manchester Airport tarmac.
This piece was first published in Sunday Telegraph on 8 November, 2020
Article Published: 08/11/2020 09:18 AM