Stand and deliver: Peel Airports declares war with MAG over Robin Hood airport expansion

3 April, 2018

The Peel Airports-owned Robin Hood Doncaster-Sheffield Airport (DSA) launched the grandly titled 'Northern Vision for a Connected National Economy' last month, the airport's 20-year master plan and strategic vision.

It goes well beyond what might be expected from an airport that handled 1.3 million passengers in 2017 even if growth has been continuous during the last three years and was especially strong in 2015 and 2016.

CHART - Doncaster Sheffield Airport has seen strong passenger growth with a particular boom in numbers in 2106 with a year-over-year rise of 46.5%Source: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and OAG

A synopsis of the master plan appears below. Salient words are bolded.

  • The East Coast Mainline (ECML) railroad to be connected to airport, making journeys to DSA from London or Newcastle under 90 minutes;
    • Rail link targeted for opening within five years, opening in 2024/2025, and delivering national aviation capacity before planned expansion at London Heathrow Airport;
  • Passenger targets:
    • Capacity for 25 million passengers p/a;
    • 11.8 million passengers p/a by 2050 if ECML station realised and delivered in 2024/2025;
  • Cargo: 250,000 tonnes p/a;
  • Terminal to double in size;
  • Up to 8500 new homes in the local area;
  • 5.5 million square foot employment space;
  • GBP238 million boost to tourism industry;
  • Creating the "next Aerotropolis for the UK", supporting high skilled jobs and opportunities in the North;
  • Supporting more than 73,000 new jobs in the Sheffield City region.

DSA's CEO commented: "Our vision sets out…how the impact of the airport's development will be for the whole UK and the North".

This is an airport, a conversion from the military base RAF Finningley in the mid-2000s and situated well off the beaten track compared to its peers, which several academics and analysts dismissed as an irrelevance before it was built.

In doing this the management seizes the nettle over the continuing delay in providing additional runway capacity in the south of the UK (i.e. at London Heathrow) and promotes the notion that existing capacity elsewhere in the UK can be utilised in the meantime while that runway is being built (i.e. over 10 years).

One advantage DSA has had, along with numerous other military airport conversions across Europe such as Frankfurt Hahn, is ample land in situ or nearby for commercial enterprises to grow. There is an attendant business park on a 62-acre site with 100 businesses already on the site and one that is oriented towards high quality industrial manufacture, a legacy of Sheffield's acknowledged cache as the UK's "steel city".

In Dec-2017 the University of Sheffield said it would develop an advanced training facility for aircraft engineers at the airport while Boeing, which has a long association with the city already, has a presence at the same university's site, where it is now building a new production facility to manufacture high-tech components for Next-Generation 737, 737 MAX and 777 aircraft. These projects are overseen by the Sheffield City Region Enterprise Zone.

CHART - All these factors reflects in the increase in cargo volume, which peaked in 2016 but declined a little in 2017Source: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and OAG

It is not so much the anticipated passenger growth that will catch the attention of rival airports' management; rather it is the use of such words as "national aviation capacity", and "next aerotropolis for the UK". The airport may or may not succeed in reaching its passenger targets but rail provision of the type that is achievable by the provision of just seven miles of connecting track would give it a distinct advantage and eat into the catchment area of those rivals and notably that of Manchester Airport, whose own second-largest catchment region after the Northwest is Yorkshire and Humberside.

That it might rival other airports for freight and land use will cause more concern. Manchester Airport prides itself on constructing the only purpose-built Airport City in the country, with Chinese involvement and valued at close to GBP1 billion.

Now, out of left field, DSA offers what can only be described as a competing facility, one that would "create 73,000 jobs and ultimately deliver GBP3.2 billion in gross value added to the UK economy".

Of course one must be pragmatic here. Across the globe, there is unrealistic talk of creating "airport cities" and "aerotropolises" where it is unlikely that they might thrive. There are certain economic, political, financial and geographical criteria that must exist before any of them can expect to be successful. Doncaster has few of them.

Even so, this master plan will be a red rag to a bull where the Manchester Airports Group (MAG) is concerned, as it impacts on Manchester's own attempt to hijack the Heathrow Hiatus and, for good measure, on the future prospects of MAG's own East Midlands Airport, 60 miles down the M1 motorway from Doncaster, and which is the UK's second busiest cargo airport after Heathrow.

To add insult to injury the Peel Group is Greater Manchester-based but no love is lost between it and the Manchester City Council. At one time, in its airport-sector heyday (which is not now), Peel even offered to buy out MAG. Then it built the new northern headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation in Salford Quays rather than in the city itself, leaving an ugly hole in the ground where its predecessor had stood, on a prime site, for years. Very few of Peel's grand projects are in Manchester; many are in Liverpool. It is persona non grata in the Town Hall.

This Doncaster master plan also brings into question the future of the 'Northern Powerhouse' project, which covers the 15 million or so people of the North of England and which exists to improve economic activity there.

MAP - Doncaster Sheffield Airport, formerly Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, is located at the former RAF Finningley station, in the Metropolitan Borough of Doncaster within South Yorkshire, EnglandSource: Google Maps

So far, the many disparate cities and regions of 'the north' have broadly sung from the same hymn sheet where the Powerhouse concept is concerned, even if many of them are quietly dissatisfied that Manchester seems to "get everything". Sheffield is the new kid on the block economically speaking, recently outshining Leeds, which is left out in the wilderness with this proposal.

Transport for the North, the statutory body that is a public-private partnership to develop and deliver strategic transport infrastructure welcomed DSA's master plan, saying it would "unlock significant passenger and cargo capacity and could create a major economic cluster, supporting the transformation of the North of England economy".

The problem is that Manchester has carried the torch for airport and associated economic activity development on a global scale for the North - along with "transforming the region's economy" and DSA's plan threatens to undermine it, rather than complement it. The question is, can you have more than one main focus of intercontinental transport activity in a region? In the south, there is London. Just London.

Bearing in mind the multitude of 'responsibilities' here - to public and private sector shareholders, to business and commerce and to the general public and the future wellbeing of the region, it will be fascinating to see how MAG, Peel Group, municipalities, statutory bodies and the government handle this unexpected conundrum. One that might even fracture and turn off the 'Powerhouse' altogether.