Implications of Brexit must be thought through
5 June 2017 | Author: Jim Steer, Director, Steer Davies Gleave

Over the last few weeks, DfT officials will have prepared for all eventualities, not knowing whether they will have the same ministerial team or new faces. Expect our civil service to focus on continuity, with no doubt some key early decisions, held back over the period of enforced hiatus since 21 April. At least part of the effort needs to go into the transport part of Brexit-planning.

It's one thing to realise that Brexit is the biggest change for the country since 1945. It's another to reckon on what it will mean for individuals and businesses and think through the implications. And it's another task again to consider whether "the way we do things" in public policy needs to change too. Is it too much to ask for a period of national resolve (if not unity), and for joined-up planning?

The Government is going to need a different relationship with the private sector, with those businesses involved in trade – which in practice means most companies once they expand beyond the start-up stage. All sectors are affected by Brexit, transport no less than others. So it is good to see the DfT inviting membership organisations such as the CILT to set out what is needed.

And the CILT has been clear to the Government that non-tariff barriers are a primary concern, with a firm proposal to streamline the multiple border control agencies on to a common "platform" – a key priority to mitigate the prospect of extended port of entry delays. Equally worrying is the prospect of restrictions on EU labour, leading the CILT panel to tell the DfT that "dependence on EU workers in the freight transport and logistics industry is so great that, at present, there is no solution for fully resourcing domestic supply chains without them".

But there are also opportunities, including the possibility of reversing the Rotterdam effect, with onward shipping from the major Dutch and Belgian ports for UK goods facing border controls that could be avoided for non-EU nations' trade by direct shipping to UK ports.

On the other hand, Heathrow faces a threat. An astonishing £101bn worth of goods is air-freighted through the airport each year, more than is handled at Felixstowe and Southampton combined. Much of this trade is shipped onward to EU destinations, so inevitably rival airports such as Frankfurt are eyeing the prospects. Since nearly all Heathrow's airfreight travels on passenger planes, the loss of this cargo-hold contribution to airline service viability could have wider consequences. Is planning for the new third runway at Heathrow recognising the changes that Brexit will bring?

Consultation responses on what will be an Airports National Policy Statement that sets the framework for Heathrow's application for the third runway were due to be submitted last month. Brexit makes international air service provision even more important.

The new runway at Heathrow is predicated on the economic benefits it is forecast to bring – courtesy the Airports Commission – across the UK. It was preferred to a new runway at Gatwick because Heathrow's economic benefits were higher and it was seen to be better placed to serve the nation as a whole, and not just London. Securing these national benefits from our only international hub airport requires that Heathrow is accessible from the whole country.

At present Heathrow's only rail links are to London. Highways England has said it won't widen the relevant section of the M25 any further. What's needed is connectivity from across the regions to Heathrow by rail. But here's the rub: such a possibility has no place in an Airports NPS.

Our peculiar provisions for airport planning accord to those local authorities adjacent to airports a statutory role, through Airport Transport Forums, to set local access strategies with the airport owner: in effect specifying mitigation measures of the type a major new retail centre would have to provide. Long-haul connectivity gets considered too, through possible obligations to provide slots for non-commercial flights to Heathrow from remoter parts of the UK. But for general regional connectivity there is nothing.

Sadly, the rail sector would regard providing rail services to Heathrow as a low priority, rather than being in the national interest. Yet without such services, how can the claimed national economic benefits from Heathrow expansion be secured?

Our major EU neighbours have put in place direct high-speed rail connectivity to their national hub airports. We might have to settle for less.

But rather than pretend that air passengers will happily make surface access journeys involving interchanges – the evidence is they won't – we need to provide direct regional services to Heathrow, even if they can't be high-speed. And a rail freight terminal wouldn't go amiss either. S of S: please note.

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