As the debate over the future of airport services in South Wales continues, this time with the Institute for Welsh Affairs (IWA) putting forward a proposal for discussion for a new Severnside Airport, I though it was time to republish an article I wrote on the subject back in 2006.
Despite the reaction from some quarters, I still believe that such a plan should not be dismissed without due consideration, especially given its job creating potential (which was one of the factors behind the plan when it was first discussed in the House of Commons forty years ago).
I am sure the debate will continue so here is my tale from seven years ago.
"With new legislative powers being devolved to Wales in May, there is increasing interest as to whether the Assembly will be less timid in its approach to economic development and transport issues than it has been during its first two terms.
In particular, the absence of any large major project in developing the potential of our nation means that we continue to prop up the UK’s prosperity league table with little prospect of any major change in the future. The fact that we have qualified for another round of European Structural funding as one of the poorest regions in Europe is testament to this.
One future cure for this economic malaise could be the attraction of imaginative large infrastructure projects that could, and should, make a difference to the Welsh economy.
A few months ago, I was sent details of a plan that has been doing the rounds for a number of years, namely the development of major international airport within Wales. No, I am not talking about Cardiff Airport, which continues to be a small regional airport at best. Rather, it is the development of a major international airport to the east of Newport that would serve the whole of the Wales and West England region. This was considered as part of the UK Transport policy three years ago but was, unsurprisingly, rejected as unworkable (although many suggested this had more to do with the interests of existing airports in the South east of England than any independent assessment of the benefits to Wales).
The White paper on the future of air transport has stated that by the year 2020, the number of passengers per annum in the UK will rise from 180 million to 501 million, despite the increasing worries about climate change. Not surprisingly, the report focuses solely on the development of the London complex of airports, a move that, according to the report, will increase air misses and, more crucially, increase the impact on the environment considerably.
Can we ignore such developments in Wales when a proposed Wales and West International Airport (WWIA) could cater for a catchment area of up to 30 million passengers per annum? Clearly, there would be little reason for individuals who live or have business in the Wales and West England region, and who require intercontinental facilities, to use one of the London airports and, in doing so, travel an average surface travel distance of 130 miles. With the WWIA, this would be reduced to an average of 40 miles, thus creating an attractive option for many passengers. With the M4 and the main Swansea-London railway line adjacent to the proposed airport, links into the UK road and rail network would be easy.
It would seem that in developing an airport strategy for the UK, there has been very little consideration of how to minimise the environmental impact of the growing air traffic over the next decade. In contrast, it has been argued that transferring Trans-Atlantic flights from London to the WWIA would save an estimated 6 million tonnes of air fuel every year. In terms of construction, the landside operation of the WWIA could be built on brownfield land and no part of the sites of special scientific interest in the Severn estuary would be affected by the development. The airside operation would consist of an offshore runway in the Severn estuary and therefore no person would live under the flightpath or within the noise impact footprint.
The benefits for the economy could be enormous, especially for the Gwent Valleys region which is the second poorest area in the UK. As many are no doubt aware, an international class airport which handles both passengers and cargo requires a substantial labour force to maintain an effective operation, and the report suggests that a new airport could create up to 45,000 direct job opportunities and generate at least £1.25 billion for the local economy.
Therefore, the proposal to develop an airport equivalent to that of Manchester or Gatwick for Wales to make most of this nation independent of England for its air transport seems very compelling, especially as it would bring all the economic benefits that the London-based airports are currently so keen to retain for themselves.
Rather than dismiss this out of hand, I would urge the Assembly to have the courage and the vision to at least consider such a plan themselves. This would enable many unanswered questions about this development to be thoroughly examined in detail, especially its overall environmental impact.
More importantly, it will demonstrate to the outside world that we in Wales can match our rhetoric for economic development with bold intentions for our future prosperity".