The South's airport towns are ready to boost the UK's economic recovery with a focus on apprenticeships and sustainable innovation, but a shift in policy is needed to help them make this happen.
This was the clear message from a regional event convened by the Catalyst South group of Local Enterprise Partnerships, who brought together aviation businesses from across the South at a summit last week to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry and airport towns in the region.
Catalyst South welcomed Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports, a selection of businesses in the local supply chain, MPs, councillors, business leaders, and the UK’s first on-site aviation college to the virtual event, which was facilitated by ITV News Correspondent Mike Pearse.
Together, these influential stakeholders discussed how the future of airport towns will be shaped. Their discussions set the groundwork for an action plan that will allow the Catalyst South group to work with businesses, educators, and the public and private sectors to put measures swiftly in place to prevent a cycle of decline in airport towns.
Three key drivers emerged from the day, comprising sector-specific support at a national level from the Government; how LEPs and Catalyst South can help to facilitate the industry’s move to Jet Zero; and community recovery and growth, including the diversification of local economies and job support for residents.
What the industry needs
The pressing need for continued support for the whole aviation industry was a key message to emerge. This means ongoing aid for all supporting services such as hotels, carparks, engineers and aircraft management, which are all cogs within the wider aviation industry.
There were calls in the short term for a clear solution to open borders sensibly and remove the ‘hassle factor’ to encourage people to start travelling again, giving the industry and its supply chain the opportunity to start to recover from the impact of the pandemic.
The impact felt in the local communities also need to be addressed. There were calls to help airport towns diversify their economies and build resilience to try and lessen the shockwaves felt from any similar events in the future. There is an urgent need to provide support to residents who are currently still furloughed and at risk of losing their jobs when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends in the autumn. Data for the scheme showed that there were 33,200 jobs still on furlough within the passenger air transport sector in May 2021, equating to 57% of employees. This excludes the wider impacts felt in supporting industries.
The sector needs Government to formulate a specific response and plan to aid post-pandemic recovery in airport towns, due to the recognition of unique difficulties faced in these areas. This would include a sector-specific extension of the furlough scheme to try and prevent the cliff edge these towns and businesses are facing at the end of September. Businesses are also eager for the apprenticeship levy to be made more flexible, so that young people do not miss out on opportunities that were delayed due to the pandemic.
What we will do next
Catalyst South will be examining the local economies of airport towns in more detail, identifying the needs depending on the level of reliance that areas place on airports. This will feed into wider-reaching discussions surrounding areas in the South that rely disproportionately on a single industry to provide jobs and growth.
Catalyst South will bring together a Task Force to drive forward the work, identifying actions that can be taken by local organisations brought together by LEPs. Together, these organisations will develop a comprehensive strategy for recovery that encompasses all aspects of the industry, including supply chains, support services and job growth.
A report by SQW will be released in the coming weeks with recommendations and proposals for airport towns in the South, which have been shaped by the discussions that took place.
LEP Network Chair Mark Bretton said:
“Convening and creating this forum is the first step in the Catalyst South group of LEPs supporting the aviation industry and associated sectors to share their experience of the pandemic, and is a crucial role for LEPs as we build our recovery from the past 15 months and transition from the EU. The experience and calibre of the representatives in the virtual room today is significant.
“By bringing the right people together to understand the local perspectives, we will have a greater collective voice which we can take to Government and the private sector to encourage the investment and interventions that are needed. This will be an important contribution to LEPs’ role in the Government’s Plan for Growth and to ensure that the challenges faced in the region are recognised as part of Levelling Up. The impact on towns in our region as a result of the pandemic’s effect on airports cannot be ignored.
“Another important pillar of this work is to drum up local support for these airport towns in their medium and longer-term recovery. LEPs are best-placed to bring together these organisations, using our unique convening power across the business, third sector, academic and Government landscape to provide the best possible support in the coming months.”