Birmingham Airport is at loggerheads with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) over its outspoken support for expansion of aviation services in London.
The UK’s senior management organisation is urging the Government to build a third runway at Heathrow, or a new airport in the South-east of England.
But the claim by CBI Director-General John Cridland that “Britain will be left behind in the premier league of nations” if Ministers fail to increase runway capacity in or around London has infuriated Birmingham Airport, which sees itself as a natural site for expansion rather than the “overheated” capital.
John Morris, Head of Government and Industry Affairs at Birmingham Airport, has written to the CBI requesting an urgent meeting with Mr Cridland.
Mr Morris said the CBI appeared to be split over the issue, since the organisation’s West Midlands branch is supporting expansion of Birmingham Airport.
In a letter to the CBI in London, Mr Morris said: “Both as a CBI Committee Member and as a representative of aviation, I regret that we may have to disagree on this publicly unless you are able to take a more balanced view towards aviation across the UK.”
He points out in the letter that other European countries have more than one major airport, including Germany which is building its sixth.
“There is no reason, other than selfish self-interest, that the UK should not adopt the same model,” Mr Morris added.
He said that Birmingham Airport has the capacity to take an additional nine million passengers a year immediately, with planning consent to expand towards 30 million.
The economic case for expanding the airport is likely to become even greater if the planned 200 mph HS2 rail service linking Birmingham Airport to London, with a spur to Heathrow, is built.
The letter continued: “With the South-east overheating and the regions crying out for direct connectivity, we can have the best of both worlds by supporting a rebalanced economy.”
Mr Morris told the Birmingham Post: “We remain mystified why the CBI at the centre continues to peddle the one airport model.
“If you have a number of large airports and distribute them around the country then everyone gets a bit of the economic benefit that flows from that.
“The idea that the UK should have only one hub airport in London is nonsense.”
Mr Morris added that CBI West Midlands director Richard Butler had been “very supportive of a more realistic and balanced approach” towards future aviation policy than the policy emerging from the organisation in London.
Birmingham Airport’s concerns are based on a “misunderstanding” of CBI policy, according to Mr Butler.
He said the organisation believed that airport expansion was necessary both in London and Birmingham in order to meet growing demand.
Mr Butler said: “The CBI has two angles, unfortunately the media has only picked up on one. We need to do something about airport capacity in London and the South-east, we are also backing the growth of regional airports like Birmingham where they have capacity for expansion.”
He said the planned extension of Birmingham’s runway as well as the arrival of high speed rail would enable the airport to complement Heathrow.
“In travel times, Birmingham Airport will be closer to London than Tokyo Airport is to Tokyo,” Mr Butler added.
Mr Cridland set out the CBI’s views in a newspaper article, where he accused the Government of ignoring the need for new runways in the South-east.
The article continued: “We desperately need a bold vision for the UK to have a world leading airport.
“The coalition agreement says no more runway capacity in the South-east of England. I can’t cope with that. Surely if we want to stay in the premier league of the world economy, if we are going to access export markets of the world’s emerging economies, we have got to have a world-leading airport.”
He said the coalition had come up with a bold vision, thinking a generation ahead and committing tens of billions of pounds for a high speed railway from London to Birmingham and beyond. Yet for ministers, airport expansion “is the issue that dare not speak its name, ” Mr Cridland said.
The CBI had not yet done detailed analysis on where it believes airport expansion should take place. “People in the industry think it should be built on Heathrow because there is so much sunk capital and connectivity already there,” he said. “That is why it would be quite radical to start somewhere else.
“There is a lot of thinking to do on this but there is no point doing that thinking if we are going to be banging our head against a brick wall. There is no point doing that detailed work if we haven’t won the battle on the principle. At the moment the Government doesn’t even have the vision.”
Mr Cridland added: “The job of the CBI is to tell it as it is. If Government gets something wrong, it is our job to point that out even if it’s politically inconvenient. It is not my job to be in Government’s pocket.”