Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Stormont must lead way for future of our airports

Flying high: Northern Ireland’s three airports play a vital role in our economic prosperity
Flying high: Northern Ireland’s three airports play a vital role in our economic prosperity

What is the connection between Boris Johnson and George Best? The answer is in the skies.

London's colourful mayor has long argued that the solution to the UK's aviation needs is a brand new airport in the Thames estuary, rather than further expansion at Heathrow, or one of the other four 'London' airports.

Dubbed 'Boris Island', the proposal has supporters and detractors in equal measure. Others want Birmingham to become the country's hub airport. But David Cameron is wary.

So what does a prime minister do when he is in a tight spot? He sets up a commission, chaired by an eminent person, to 'recommend options'. By pure coincidence, it won't report until after the next general election.

All this might seem a long way from George Best Belfast City Airport, but Northern Ireland's three airports are vital to the province's economic prosperity.

Heathrow directly supports 1,000 tourism jobs and 900 airport jobs here and aviation as a whole supports £1bn-worth of exports.

Last year, the Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee held its own inquiry into air transport strategy. The MPs concluded that, while Westminster prevaricates, airports such as Dublin, Schipol and Frankfurt stand ready to fill the vacuum created by delay and confusion over the expansion of London's capacity.

Yesterday, the Government responded to the committee's report. It pointed out that it has already devolved to the Assembly air passenger duty rates for direct, long-haul flights departing from Northern Ireland, which has already helped to save the route to New York.

Whitehall also pointed out ways in which Northern Ireland could help itself. The committee recommended better co-operation with the Republic on airports.

The Government reminded them that, while civil aviation matters are reserved, aerodromes are devolved and it is up to the Executive to consider how best to encourage opportunities between airports on both sides of the border. The committee said that "in an ideal world", there would be a halt at Sydenham for George Best Belfast City Airport, a rail-link to Belfast International Airport and the station at Eglinton would be re-opened to serve City of Derry Airport.

But strategic planning, transportation strategy and public transport are also devolved matters.

In other words, while David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson tussle over how to solve a problem like Heathrow, Stormont should be doing its own bit to map out its vision for Northern Ireland's airports.

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