Blog: Doncaster Airport: the dream that crashlanded

Anthony Rae, Friends of the Earth: In 2001, as the lowcost airline  business model was entrancing everyone including policy makers, Peel Airports presented the case at Public Inquiry for their proposed new airport at Doncaster Finningley (now and maybe aptly called Doncaster Sheffield Robin Hood … if it’s stolen value from its shareholders!)  I represented Friends of the Earth at the inquiry, which eventually approved the planning application. Peel projected a bright future for the airport’s soaring growth: by 2005 it would have passed the 1 million passengers per annum (mppa) level on its way to 2.3mppa by this year – 2014. Leeds Bradford and Humberside airports – in 2000 at 1.6 and 0.44mppa respectively – would it’s true suffer a certain amount of diversion as a result of the new entrant – but the Yorkshire region airports as a whole would continue to grow: from about 2mppa (LBA and HUM only in 2000) to around 10-11mppa in 2014 (all 3 airports). Astonishingly the later Doncaster ‘masterplan’ actually proclaimed its intention of reaching that figure on its own, surpassing LBA to become the region’s largest airport. Pure fantasy!

But what actually happened? Well Doncaster never made it past 1mppa and then slowly descended to its present 700,000 plateau. Peel have long since sold out and moved on. Leeds Bradford – having been bought by venture capitalists Bridgepoint for £180m at the top of the market, with the intention of heading towards 7mppa – troughed for a long time below 3mppa before recently creeping over that threshold. And Humberside just collapsed – as have so many  other smaller regional airports such as Teesside or Blackpool – to just 240,000ppa.  The three Yorkshire airports combined now provide for around 4.5mppa, less than half what had been forecast by the airport operators at the Finningley inquiry.

And fortunately so because fewer flights mean much less climate emissions, in a situation where the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s expert advisors, are having to allocate a full quarter of the total UK 2050 carbon budget to aviation (with a small wedge of that to shipping), mostly to fly people on holiday – not exactly essential to UK PLC. Every attempt by policy makers at all levels – local, regional and national – to peddle the line that ‘regional airport expansion is critical to regional growth’, and ‘airports = jobs’, have proved to be fallacious. Ironically they included Caroline Flint MP, now Labour’s shadow Energy & Climate Change Secretary, in whose constituency Finningley is located, and a cheerleader for opening in 2001. None of them were prepared to include the carbon costs to every other section of the economy and society in their calculations, and regrettably that is still the case.

In 2010 the disastrous 2003 Air Transport White Paper, the blueprint for this new age of expansion, was ignominiously withdrawn. Friends of the Earth meanwhile has continued its critique of airport growth on climate grounds; the current argument is that there is no room for any expansion at all in the dominant London airports system because that would breach the CCC’s carbon limits. So aviation’s position as a principal climate change ‘denier’ continues.