Britain’s eventual exit from the European Union continues to dominate political chatter among the city’s politicians, writes Harewood councillor Ryan Stephenson.
Will it be a delayed departure? Will the journey be fraught with turbulence? Will the landing be hard or soft?
The truth is, at this stage nobody can be certain. We may each have our own preference but the manner in which the UK departs the EU remains something to be determined in negotiations between the UK Government and EU officials. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean Leeds City Council can’t begin to strengthen the foundations of the city’s post-Brexit economy.
Last month the Secretary of State for Transport gave the go ahead for a third runway at Heathrow. Far from this being investment in infrastructure to benefit only the south of England, when Heathrow expansion takes off it will deliver an estimated economic boost of £9 billion for Yorkshire - with up to 11,000 new jobs. This is a platform from which Leeds should now seek to attract foreign investment into the city-region.
With expansion, Heathrow’s direct link with Leeds & Bradford International Airport will connect Yorkshire to 40 new regular long-haul routes, allowing businesses to access markets that are today out of reach.
The return of the regional link from the Heathrow hub to Leeds & Bradford was hard fought for in 2011 and has since contributed significantly to the 3.5 million passengers using the local airport each year.
By providing a hassle-free connection from Leeds to London Heathrow, British Airways has reinstated an internal connection that now makes Heathrow a global gateway for Yorkshire. Over 50 per cent of passengers use the route for onward worldwide connections, meaning passengers can check-in at Leeds and not see their luggage again until they land in Shanghai, Seattle or Sydney.
Heathrow Airport clearly recognises the importance of these domestic routes to its business case for expansion and has committed to bring forward a £10million route development fund for the expansion of new domestic connections, this includes a commitment to partnering with Local Enterprise Partnerships, Chambers of Commerce and regional governments to work with airlines to improve domestic routes through Heathrow.
This is where the leadership of Leeds City Council needs to jump into action and seize an opportunity to put Leeds on the map as the platform for international trade in the North. Heathrow currently handles 29 per cent of all non-EU UK exports by value. It’s what makes the expanding airport Britain’s biggest port by value and why it plays an unparalleled role in transporting British exports across the world.
For Yorkshire-based exporters, including small and medium enterprises based here in the Wetherby area, expansion at Heathrow will allow them to take their goods further and grasp the opportunities that exist in the world’s new and emerging markets.
I recently called on the ruling administration in Leeds to appoint a trade envoy with the specific responsibility of forging new relationships with the city’s counterparts across the Commonwealth of Nations.
At this early stage of Heathrow’s expansion plans, Leeds needs to be front and centre greasing the wheels of new trade opportunities in emerging markets whilst lobbying airlines to include these destinations as part of the 40 new long-haul routes.
And here in Leeds we don’t have to look very far for inspiration, with the in-built advantage of over 16,000 people of Indian origin living in the city we have a resident population willing and able to help Leeds build new and prosperous trading relationships in emerging markets. More impressive still, the Indian Diaspora in the UK accounts for just 2.5 per cent of our population yet contributes 6 per cent to our GDP.
In the months ahead, while Ministers prepare to battle out an exit deal with the European Union, Leeds needs to flex its own muscle as an economic hub in the North. We have a long history of forging successful civic ties with cities across the world and we should now be looking to expand this partnering programme to include one of India’s growth cities.
Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), for example, with its heritage as the oldest operating port in India, saw GDP growth of 6,8 per cent last year.
Despite this – or its position as the West Bengal state capital – there is no direct flight from the UK and therefore no direct access to its market.
Heathrow expansion can help our economy take off post-Brexit but councils in the Leeds city-region must now get to work encouraging trade opportunities between India’s growth cities and our own golden triangle here in Yorkshire.