Westminster is deliberately holding back Cardiff Airport – and Wales’ economy – to favour Bristol

Touchdown at Cardiff Airport. Picture by Clint Budd (CC BY 2.0)

David Williams

This morning the Welsh Government has accused the Westminster Government of deliberately holding back plans to boost the number of domestic routes from Cardiff Airport.

This isn’t a surprise as the Westminster Government has shown every indication of wanting to hold back the development of Cardiff Airport and favour the nearby Bristol airport over the past few years.

And it largely seems to be succeeding. At the start of 2019 both Cardiff airport and Bristol airport released their performance figures for the last 12 months.

For supporters of Bristol airport, they are encouraging. Bristol gained around 300,000 more new passengers than Cardiff in 2018.

Bristol’s total of 8.6 million passengers is over five times bigger than the 1.58 million passenger intake at Cardiff. It is forecast to exceed 9 million in 2019.

The size difference between the two airports is now starker than ever before.

Despite this the Westminster government continues to refuse to devolve Wales tax powers, ensuring Bristol airports’ continued success over Cardiff.

Air passenger duty 

Scotland has had power over air passenger duty (APD) devolved since 2015. ADP reductions in Northern Ireland occurred as early as 2011.

Wales voted for further devolution in 2011 by a large majority, at just over 63%. By 2012 this APD tax was recommended for devolution by the Silk Commission.

Now almost eight years later Wales is still requesting and Westminster is still refusing.

Bristol’s advantage has grown considerably in the meantime.

A second smaller proposal has also been made, that of devolving only long-haul flight APD.

This would have been a boost for Cardiff that wouldn’t have negatively influenced Bristol to the same extent, as Cardiff has a much longer runway than Bristol. At 2 kilometres Bristols runway is one of the shortest in the UK and there isn’t space to easily expand it.

Cardiff can offer long-haul flights requiring longer runways that Bristol physically cannot.

However, devolution to Wales of APD for long-haul flights is also still refused.

Lobbying from Bristol 

Bristol airport has strongly lobbied against any benefits to Cardiff and it has worked.

Since 2012 Bristol has attracted around 3 million new passengers per year through its doors. This growth alone is almost double the current passenger intake at Cardiff.

The lobbying has worked so effectively that Bristol airport is now close to its full capacity. It has recently had to submit planning permission to expand to allow further growth.

This expansion is planned despite the fact that many more people would be affected by noise pollution coming from an expanded Bristol airport compared to Cardiff.

This now means that while Cardiff has a lot of capacity for passenger growth, this is being prevented so that Bristol airport, which doesn’t currently have space for it, can expand its site in the next few years and then have that growth for itself.

Welsh potential 

If devolved the increased range of destinations accessible from Cardiff will be significant. As the January 2019 inquiry into APD for Wales said, Cardiff airport currently has very few destinations considering that it serves a catchment area of 2 million people.

An increase in destinations would bring huge benefits to Wales. It would boost the economy, tourism as well as ‘brand Wales’.

This morning it was announced that the contract for flights between Anglesey and Cardiff has been awarded for the next four years. These short-haul flights could also be increased in number if APD was devolved.

Via more regular flights from Anglesey to Cardiff passengers from the north of Wales could then travel on to a new wide range of destinations, as quick as they could reach Manchester or Liverpool airport in many cases.

Given that the proposed train connection from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth is still many years away, this could be a great step forward in the integration of the north, mid and south Wales.

What now?

Given that Scotland and Northern Ireland have had APD devolved for many years, it is difficult to understand Westminster’s refusal to devolve them to Wales beyond the need to favour an English airport over a Welsh one.

That Cardiff has the runway length to have flights Bristol is unable to, while Bristol is already over five times the size of Cardiff and is even nearing its airport capacity, makes the ongoing refusal outrageous.

It is decisions such as these that suggest to the people of Wales that devolution, which is ultimately controlled by Westminster, is not enough for Wales, and may explain the recent rise in support for Welsh Independence.

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