The 1950s ‘industrialists’ were concerned about Gatwick becoming an international airport for the pressure it would create, not least in terms of competition for jobs and wage inflation.
More recently there have been fears that if ‘Gatwick catches a cold (economically) then Crawley catches a cold’ and all the while, lurking in the background, is the prospect of a new runway.
A look at the numbers reinforces this perception of vulnerability. By some estimates, almost a fifth of all Crawley jobs are in the aviation sector. It is no surprise then that Crawley has been reported to be one of the hardest hit by the COVID crisis, with spikes in unemployment, furloughed staff and calls from local politicians for more Government help.
But what is the answer? I have been around policy makers for long enough to know that talk of creating a more diverse, less aviation reliant economy is easier said than done.
The fact is we have a superb international airport that is hungry to grow and, normally, hungry for jobs. Rather than becoming a more diminished contributor to our economy it is likely to be a bigger contributor in the future.
Huge swathes of land are protected for a full-length second runway preventing development for other uses and, in the meantime, the airport is pursuing routine use of the standby runway to increase passenger throughput to something like 70 million passengers per annum. I would also like to see it move more freight and be less leisure dependent.
For some this will be viewed as bad news, particularly in view of what we are currently going through. It also seems to fly in the face of creating an economy less reliant on aviation. I for one am not enthusiastic about our most precious and finite resource – land – being mothballed indefinitely and frustrating the growth of places like Manor Royal.
That said, in ordinary times we enjoy the benefits of high employment. But if we are serious about supporting the growth of other parts of the economy alongside the airport, we must be bold.
The traditions of innovation are still there, particularly in the health and medical sectors but also in simulation. Logistics has always been important and increasingly so, and there are opportunities to capitalise on aspirations for a green recovery.
Metrobus are leading the way in looking at hydrogen buses and it won’t be long before the Fastway fleet is powered this way. Innovative companies working in the renewable sector like Naked Energy and Bramble Energy, to name just two, are growing here. There are plans to retrofit Council homes and in Manor Royal we have been working on a project that looks at the potential for creating and sharing energy generated from onsite renewable sources. Plus the aviation sector itself is committed to being cleaner, greener and more efficient.
The airport will always be the single biggest part of our economy. For Crawley to be more than an ‘airport town’ we need to ensure that land and labour is not entirely consumed for any single industry, that we make more of other parts of our economy that work well, we look to build on new opportunities based on activity that is already happening – like the green sector - and we inspire our kids to be an active part of Crawley’s future. Find out more about Manor Royal at www.manorroyal.org