Heathrow expansion: are the benefits for Wales just pie in the sky?
Both the Welsh Labour and Conservative parties backed the expansion of Heathrow, claiming that it would have benefits for Wales as well as London and the south-east of England.
Every Welsh Conservatives MP and 18 out of 28 Welsh Labour MPs voted in favour.
However, every Plaid Cymru voted against the scheme, and all 35 Sottish National Party MPs abstained.
“We couldn’t vote for a third runway at Heathrow with no guarantees of the benefits,” said SNP transport spokesperson Alan Brown.
So, will the proposed third runway really benefit Wales, or is it another example of investment flowing to London while Wales makes do with creaking infrastructure?
One person who is adamant that supporting a third Heathrow runway was the right decision is Anna McMorrin, Labour MP for Cardiff North
She described the Heathrow expansion project as “a lifeline to the Welsh steel industry at an absolutely critical time”.
“370,000 tonnes of steel will be needed to build the new runway, 10% of the total steel output of the UK in 2015, and Wales is well placed to help meet that need,” she added.
“The Welsh government has signed an agreement with Heathrow that will see many of these well-paid jobs come to Wales.”
The Welsh government’s Strategic Partnership Agreement with Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd was signed in March 2017.
It speaks of “exploring the possibility of locating off-site manufacturing logistic hubs in Wales to support delivery for the 3rd runway” and commissioning a study into the benefits of Heathrow expansion for Welsh businesses and tourists.
This would, in theory, create “up to 8,400 jobs” in Wales. However, there is as yet no official confirmation that Wales will actually become one of the manufacturing hubs.
The trade union Unite urged MPs to vote in favour of the project, citing UK-wide benefits. Not surprising, given that Unite represents over 34,000 Heathrow workers and thousands more in the UK steel industry – but what about workers in Wales?
We reached out to Unite with questions on this, but nobody was prepared to give us any Wales-specific figures on job creation or the economy.
Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon, is one of the nine Welsh MPs who voted against the scheme.
He told Nation.Cymru: “Quite apart from the green issues like air pollution, noise pollution and the climate change impacts, this is yet another case of the overheated south-east England economy getting a boost and Wales getting nothing out of it.
“In fact, we lose by it because Cardiff Airport loses potential passengers. People from the south of Wales will be passing by the publicly-owned airport near where they live and going to Heathrow for their flights.”
Cardiff Airport has been owned by the Welsh government since 2013, run as a commercial business at “arm’s length” from the government.
In contrast, Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd is a private company owned by a consortium of overseas businesses called FGP Topco Ltd.
The consortium has one UK investor (a pension scheme for universities), which owns just 10%. The other investors are based in Spain, Qatar, Canada, Singapore, the United States and China.
Will Cardiff Airport itself lose or gain from the Heathrow project? 1.5 million passengers fly from Cardiff annually and the airport’s ‘Masterplan’ identifies a further potential market of 2.4 million people in Wales and 4 million people in south-west England.
The airport’s operators are confident that the Heathrow plans will complement rather than conflict with these goals.
Deb Barber, CEO of Cardiff Airport, said that she was “pleased there has been further progress on the Heathrow third runway decision”.
“We can offer a viable, complementary service to London airports as we can operate 24/7 with no slot constraints – this can support the extra capacity of London.”
The Heathrow agreement with the Welsh Assembly says that airlines who wish to operate routes from Wales to Heathrow can bid for start-up capital from a £10m route development fund.
Hywel Williams says this won’t help much: “Nobody’s going to fly from London to Cardiff. They’re going to take the train, and the trains are unreliable.”
He would rather see investment in affordable, reliable public transport, he said.
Earlier this month, the Welsh Assembly’s Cabinet Secretary for Transport reported that Network Rail’s Wales Route receives just 1% of total spending, despite making up 11% of the network.
Plans to electrify the rail route between Cardiff and Swansea were cancelled last year.
Mr Williams would like to see much more ambitious investment in Welsh rail, including electrification all the way to Fishguard and better north-south rail links.
If you live in Caernarfon, it’s quicker to get to London, Sheffield or Birmingham by rail than it is to reach your own country’s capital city.
Mr Williams believes that this, alongside investment in Welsh roads and our state-owned airport, should be the priority.
If Heathrow expansion had been classed as an English project, the Treasury’s system for allocating spending would ensure that the other nations of the UK received a funding boost to match it.
Unfortunately for Wales, the Heathrow project is classed as “national”, because the UK government considers the benefits to be UK-wide, which means we get nothing.
The day of the Heathrow vote, Monday 25th June, was notable for another piece of news. The Swansea Bay tidal lagoon was set to create thousands of Welsh jobs in the renewable energy sector.
But the UK government used the furore about Heathrow expansion as cover to sneak out the news that it would not be investing in the Welsh project.
What does this decision, and its timing, tell us about the UK government’s infrastructure funding priorities?
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