Why the airport link road plans are vital for the North, not just Leeds
It’s almost impossible at the moment to read or talk about the Northern Powerhouse without using ‘connectivity’ in every other sentence.
Politicians, civic leaders and business organisations are talking about the need to drive the Northern economy by connecting its biggest cities. More often than not it’s Manchester and Leeds that’s at the centre of the debate, but increasingly it’s being recognised that we also have to include cities such as Sheffield, Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle.
That connectivity, of course, is largely about transport. We all understand that if the North is to compete effectively with London and the South East, it needs to be built on a strong and sustainable transport infrastructure.
But the Northern Powerhouse isn’t just about inter-city investment: HS2, trans-Pennine electrification or a better motorway network.
It’s also about intra-city connectivity. The North needs to be able to move people about within its cities, not just across them.
That’s why the plans for a new link road to Leeds Bradford Airport are so important.
Yesterday, Leeds City Council announced a two-month public consultation process on three options, costing between £15m and £75m. It will start on 23 November and run until late January 2016.
On the face of it, spending up to £75m of public money on one road on the outskirts of Leeds sounds like an extravagance when council and government budgets are under significant pressure, but this is a vitally-important investment.
The council and the airport – and even Transport in the North – need to be on the front foot throughout the consultation process and beyond, explaining why the North needs that link road.
It may not be on the scale of Manchester Airport, but Leeds Bradford Airport is an important gateway to the rest of the UK, Europe and beyond.
If the Northern Powerhouse is to become reality, it needs to improve its international access, and that means being much less reliant on Manchester Airport.
Too many people on the eastern side of the Pennines choose Manchester over Leeds Bradford, even when the latter goes to the same destinations. And one of the reasons for that is access.
It would be tough to argue that Leeds Bradford is in the ideal location for an airport, but it’s there and it’s unlikely to be moved any time before the next ice age. So we have a choice: develop it or let it wither, and let the North’s economic growth wither alongside it.
Airport bosses have already announced ambitious plans to develop the site that will enable it to double passenger growth over the next 15 years, from 3.3m a year to 7.1m by 2030.
Developing the airport will also boost jobs, directly and indirectly, and help secure further investment in the city and beyond.
But without improved access – both road and rail – it’s hard to see that vision being achieved.
Which brings us back to the link road, and why there needs to be a better understanding among residents, businesses and other interested parties of why it’s such an important development – not just for Leeds, or even for West Yorkshire, but for the North.
Not surprisingly, the Green Party, the Campaign for Better Transport and others have already voiced their opposition, and more will join the debate once the consultation process starts, but it’s important those in favour are also heard.
In particular, the plans need advocates among the local and regional business community, so a strong communications programme is essential to engage with businesses and help build that support.
The airport is key for business across the North. It helps create jobs and fuel investment. Its contribution to the Leeds economy alone is estimated at £100m a year. With expansion and better road and rail links, that economic contribution will mushroom.
As with any development of this type, local residents (and I’m one, living only a few minutes from the airport) will have concerns about disruption and increased congestion, but the reality is that growing the airport without improving the transport infrastructure around it will only make that congestion worse.
Work on the link road is not due to start until 2019, but the work to secure the hearts and minds of residents and businesses alike starts today.