Thursday, 10 April 2014

Is it time for London City Airport to close?

The average salary of passengers using London City Airport is £92,000 and traffic accounts for just 2.4 per cent of the capital’s total flight demand. These are two of the arguments put forward in a report, just published, which argues for the closure of the Royal Docks site.

The persuasive New Economics Foundation (NEF) study makes the case that retaining London City airport makes no sense economically, contributes little socially and is a missed opportunity.

Opening in 1987 – as the redevelopment potential of the Docklands was being recognised – the airport obviously has strong business ties. Last year, more than 3.3milion passengers used it with most coming from other major business centres such as Amsterdam, Zurich, Frankfurt, Geneva and Luxembourg. Of these, the report claims, three quarters of inbound journeys ultimately ended at Canary Wharf or the Cities of London and Westminster.

Moneyed business travellers clearly enjoy the convenience the airport provides, but does it really contribute much else?

Well, not according to NEF. It occupies 500,000 square metres – a huge area in such a congested city – and directly contributed £110m to the UK economy in 2011, while the nearby ExCel exhibition centre contributed more than £500m.

The airport hasn’t delivered on jobs either, it argues.

‘For example, despite claims that additional jobs would be created following planning approval for expansion in 2009, the number of jobs has actually fallen since then – London City Airport data records 2098 jobs in 2009 compared with 2,055 jobs in 2012.’

This is despite London City Airport claiming in their planning application to double flights to 120,000 a year would create 1,000 jobs.

And it's not just about the jobs the airport itself has failed to deliver, with a crash safety zone of three miles, it limits business development.

Moreover, pollution levels in the capital are an increasing problem and they can hardly be helped by an airport so close to its centre. Only today a separate, shocking, study found more than 25,000 people die a year from air pollution in England, 5.6% of all deaths annually. And NEF claims Newham, in whose borough the airport is sited, is 'particularly badly affected'.

'Death rates in the borough from chronic heart and lung diseases - commonly exacerbated by air pollution - are among the highest in London.'

It goes on:

'Significant levels of noise are experienced by 18,000 people around City Airport. The World Health Organisation recommends a noise level of no more than 50 to 55dB for residential areas, but in the Royal Docks area every local school experiences noise levels at levels of 57dB.'

So apart from more planes, noise and pollution, what do residents of Newham - get from the airport? Probably not a great deal. Average salaries in Newham are about £22,000 - they're not really the target audience. And as for jobs, while the airport aims to 35% of staff being Newham residents, it has fallen way short.

And of all of London's flights, City airport accounts for just 2.4 per cent - 'its numbers could be readily absorbed by Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted' the report says.

Inevitably, London City Airport is not happy at the report’s conclusion saying it would be ‘turning the clock back 30 years'.

'Passengers, especially business passengers, vote with their feet - if they found other airports easier, quicker, or more convenient, they would already be using them.'

Perhaps, but I'm not convinced. Were the airport to close would anyone take their business out of the country? It is hard to imagine. Not only are there plenty of other airports from which to choose, Crossrail will soon be completed giving London an extra piece of impressive infrastructure. I find myself wondering whether it is the airport itself for whom time has passed. When the area was less developed it made some sense, a part-catalyst in encouraging international businesses to base themselves in a part of London that had been desolate for too long. Now there are no such concerns.

I recently toured development sites across east London and the rate of change is frankly astonishing. A new city is being created from an industrial wasteland but London remains afflicted by a shortage of homes. Taking into account the economic arguments, the environmental costs, can such a huge site - a resource really only available to the ultra-wealthy who have plenty of other options anyway - really be justified anymore?

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