Amending the Levelling Up Bill: Aviation, growth and economics

Rather than focusing primarily on the environmental issues, Green peer Natalie Bennett took on the Conservatives on their own ground in amending the Levelling Up Bill: the questions of growth and economics.

Airplane on runway
Green peer Natalie Bennett

​​You might expect me, as a Green, to be concerned about aviation expansion in the UK – the carbon emissions, the amplified effect of a variety of exhaust gases at high altitude, the inequality that sees huge amounts of government money invested in supporting aviation when in any one year half the British population does not fly as one per cent of people are responsible for one-fifth of flights.

All of that is obvious, not to mention the impacts on the ground of air and noise pollution, and the disruption of lives, in schools, colleges, universities and homes that aviation causes. Yet still the talk of airport expansion continues in London and many other parts of the country – despite the total proposed expansion far exceeding any possible demand. For white elephant creation, airport expansion is surely a close rival to HS2.

But rather than focusing primarily on the environmental issues, in a modest little amendment to the Levelling Up Bill, I responded to a useful and important report from the New Economics Foundation, entitled Losing Altitude: The Economics of Air Transport in Great Britain, by taking on the Conservatives on their own ground, the questions of growth and economics.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic tourism revenue – crucial in many of the parts of the country in which ‘levelling up’ is very much an issue – had stagnated. And following the boost during the pandemic, the early trends suggest that the situation has resumed. Across the nation, that means a large net travel deficit: air travellers spend £32 billion more abroad than foreign travellers spend in the UK. Looking at that at a regional level, not far off half of the foreign spending is in London and the South East, so the rest of the country is proportionately even worse off.

Arguments are still heard that airport facilities are needed for business travellers, yet business travel has declined by 50 per cent in the past decades. Much business that used to require travel is now conducted remotely, a trend rapidly accelerated by the pandemic.

But what about the jobs? Well, the sector is one of the poorest job creators in the economy per pound of revenue. Automation – about which we so often hear travellers complaining, otherwise known as lack of service or anyone to solve your problems - and ‘efficiency savings’ have meant that the rapid rise in passenger numbers between 2015 and 2019 was not enough to restore direct employment to the peak – pre-financial crash – in 2007.

Wages are significantly lower in real terms than they were in 2006. That’s not for the top jobs (who are raking it in), but for the bulk of workers. The report sets out how between 2008 and 2022, air transport saw the largest real-terms pay decline of any sector in Britain.

Investing in more facilities for air travel is not only environmentally disastrous, it is also to the benefit of already wealthy parts of the country, at the cost of the rest. Which, given that this is the Levelling Up Bill, should be a matter of considerable significance.

And we have a government – or at least a party – that three prime ministers back was elected on a promise of reducing regional inequality. When figures just out show that the gross disposable income gap between London and the country is at record levels, 43 per cent higher in the capital than in the rest of the country, it should surely be cause for a rethink about any further investment in air travel. And much else besides.

My amendment was simple. It proposed a review, to examine, in the government’s own terms, the regional socioeconomic costs and benefits of planned expansion of the UK air transport sector, in a world that has radically changed. For the government – whatever its political hue – to have such facts before it in 12 months' time – surely they could see the benefit of that? Of course, I got a ‘no’. But at least the facts were set out – for Conservatives, and Labour, to see.