Neither comprehensive, nor conclusive or decisive: Seven reasons not to rely on the Government's Plymouth Airport Study
Within hours of the Department for Transport’s long overdue Study on Plymouth Airport being published last Friday evening (19th December), some predictable responses were already emerging. We were told that the airport debate was now settled, and the ‘dream’ of its reopening over. But the prospect of Plymouth Airport being reopened – and soon - is neither a debate nor a dream. It is Local Authority policy and it is very real.
Why did this Study come about?
Governments of all stripes have done little to support Plymouth’s transport needs over recent decades. Rather they stood by as Plymouth was stripped of its four-times daily services to Heathrow and Gatwick, then finally of its airline and airport. While the employers packed up and left, Government put this down to market forces. Unfortunately, Plymouth stood little hope competing against major international airlines into Heathrow. Other Government departments will have to figure out why Plymouth is failing to keep pace with national growth and productivity. They might start by considering that the South West has some of lowest transport spend per capita in the UK.
Government does pay attention during elections though and thus it was in the run up to the 2015 General Election that the Chancellor announced a Study into Plymouth Airport. A month later, the then Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin appeared at Plymouth Airport for a press photoshoot and told Plymouth that ‘the door is open’ for Government funding to help restart air services at Plymouth. “If there is something we can do in Plymouth then I’m keen to see it happen”, he said.
Eighteen months after that election and long after the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary of the day had come and gone, a Study has finally appeared. So what does it have to say?
And what does the Study say?
Firstly, the scope of this Study seems arbitrarily constrained for a piece of work that has taken 18 months and compared to Plymouth City Council’s comprehensive approach in 2014. it is worth paying close attention to both what the Study does and does not consider. Here are our seven reasons to be wary of relying on this document:
The Government Study plays heavily on the commercial risks and recommends that these be mitigated. Every business has commercial risks attached to it and aviation especially so. But significant economic benefits are the reward for getting this right.
While it recognises that there is general consensus on the 100,000-150,000 passengers per year being available to Plymouth, it observes that there is not consistent evidence on passenger demand. Passenger demand of course would be a function of the kinds of services offered and the prices they were offered at. But absence of evidence does not amount to evidence of absence. It is just that this Study has not had that passenger demand evidence to consider – hardly surprising since the airport is presently mothballed.
The Study also points to the runway length as a factor that could constrain delivery of services. This is not new information and a short runway can in fact prove an advantage by enabling lower operating costs and keeping competition at bay. But the Study does point out that neither airport infrastructure nor airport noise present insurmountable problems and notes that new technologies such as GPS would permit better service levels to be provided in future.
So where does that leave us?
We have today in Plymouth an airport that has a perfectly usable runway, control tower, hangars and equipment. There are a good number of similar smaller airports that run viable operations across the UK as are possible at Plymouth. The owner, Plymouth City Council has wisely decided that the airport has a vital role to play as part of the city’s future transport mix. It recognises that shorter journey times and quality links direct into Plymouth will help realise its vision of becoming the vibrant waterfront city we all aspire to seeing.
Eighteen months after the General Election that prompted it, the Government has come up with a Study of limited scope that is neither comprehensive, conclusive nor decisive. And this at tax payers expense, two years after Plymouth City Council produced a much more thorough and original piece of work as the evidence base for its transport policy.
Going by information available in the public domain, it appears that the present leaseholder has been advised that it must build houses on the airport if it is to pay down its growing debt pile and so understandably objects strongly to Council policy. But that is no reason to further weaken Plymouth’s frail transport links. This Government Study does little more than muddy the waters.
The matter will be for the Planning Inspector to decide next year during the Examination in Public when Plymouth City Council will defend its planning policy. It will be then that comprehensive data will be considered in a process that is both conclusive and decisive.