Last week the idea of a new airport in south-east Wales popped up again, as it does – in one form or another – every few years. And, as is invariably the case, the coverage focused on the practical aspects and consequences, rather than on the underlying principles and assumptions.From a UK-wide perspective, building a new airport to the west of London somewhere around the Newport-Bristol-Cardiff area makes a great deal of sense, if you believe that:
- continued globalisation is either a good thing, or else simply inevitable
- demand for air transport will continue to grow
- demand for air transport can and should be satisfied
- we will find a way of dealing with the environmental consequences of an approach to aviation policy which simply sets out to satisfy every demand
The coverage – presumably because it started in Wales – also assumed that such an airport should be on the Welsh side of the estuary. But hold on just a minute there – why should that be? Clearly any airport on such a scale is well beyond Welsh needs, and has to serve a wider area. Indeed, as I said above, it makes sense only when viewed as a UK-wide project. And from a UK perspective, it is far from being obvious that the best site is on this side of the estuary rather than on the other.
Nor can such an airport, any more than the existing one at Rhŵs, ever be a Welsh National Airport in the sense of serving the whole of Wales. Even in a wholly independent Wales, with the best conceivable north-south links, much of the north of Wales still be better served by using airports such as Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham.
And why not? There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people in one country depending on an airport in another. Geneva is in Switzerland; its airport is in France. And the proponents of a Severnside airport are depending on the assumption that large areas of England will depend on, and choose to use, an airport in Wales; so large areas in north Wales continuing to depend on airports in England is not incongruous.
So, from a UK perspective, with a number of assumptions about future transport choices, Severnside airport may indeed make a great deal of sense, even if the most logical location is on the English side.But does it make sense from a Welsh perspective, given a government commitment to putting sustainability at the heart of government decisions? Does it make sense if one believes that globalisation will turn out to be a comparatively short term phenomenon, doomed in the long term by environmental and resource constraints? Scarcely.
It owes more to a preoccupation with the ‘grands projets’ so beloved of many; and a belief that increasing wealth in one small corner of Wales is the solution to poor average GVA per head. It is yesterday’s thinking not tomorrow’s.