Wet Take-Off From Leeds Bradford

Leeds Bradford abandons its expansion plans – where does that leave us?

Mar 11, 2022

Tahir Latif is Secretary of the Greener Jobs Alliance.  The opinions expressed here are his own, and not necessarily those of all GJA members.  In the spirit of this newly created blog space, we invite alternative views and responses, which can be sent to gjacoms@gmail.com .

The news that Leeds Bradford airport has opted to abandon its expansion plans is hugely welcomed by climate activists everywhere and a testament to the extraordinary efforts of the grassroots organisation, GALBA.  Backed by the local trades council, GALBA has been meticulous in rooting its opposition to the expansion in the needs of the community and workforce.

Instead of expansion, LBA is choosing to ‘develop’ its existing terminal.  Regardless of what this will actually mean, the decision raises important questions about both the short- and long-term future of the aviation industry and its workers.

Our immediate response – protect workers and serve the community

Airport expansion has often been a source of difficulty for the trade union movement.  The environmental imperative to reduce flying conflicts with the promise of more jobs from a growing industry.  

For some, this is a false dilemma, with aviation employers among the most resolute in seeking cuts in numbers and conducting relentless attacks on terms and conditions, as seen during the pandemic and including repugnant ‘fire and re-hire’ policies.  While expansion is seen as a way of staving off the full extent of these impacts, it can be argued that at best it only slows the decline in numbers.

However, the decision by LBA to not expand will undoubtedly impact on workers at the airport.  So now is the time to make good on the proposals contained in A Green New Deal for the Leeds City Region.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be divided, unions and activists need to unite around the job proposals made in the report.  Aviation workers cannot be abandoned, we must demand that their skills and labour are utilised for the good of local communities and the planet – in green transport, retrofitting homes, providing renewable energy, and in care, education and health.   

In other words, the victory of the anti-expansion campaign is only the first step; the second is to convert that victory into something meaningful for the communities and workers in the region.  

GALBA are fully aware of this and are committed to making it happen.  Solidarity with the affected workers and their unions is essential to achieving a fully successful outcome.

Longer term impact – the need for public ownership

The standard argument rolled out by airport management is that if they don’t expand, someone else will, and the competition will be lost.  Climate arguments don’t cut it because the same traffic will just go elsewhere.  This, of course, assumes that ‘elsewhere’ doesn’t have its own anti-expansion campaigners, and that campaigns are purely about NIMBYism.  

In truth, every proposed expansion in the UK is being met by a forceful campaign of local activists.  And guess what?  Those activists talk to each other.  Because they recognise the obvious point that NIMBYism isn’t a climate argument, it doesn’t matter where carbon is emitted.

But where does that leave us in terms of LBA?  

First, by the logic of pro-expansionists (and capitalist accumulation generally), LBA is dooming itself to a downward spiral that will end with its closure if it doesn’t ‘compete’ with its neighbours.  This only makes sense in a market model.  We should be looking to reduce flying dramatically, not choke off access completely.

Second, it is absolutely essential that the great victory achieved by GALBA is developed into a winning strategy across the whole of the UK, with the jobs arguments described in the report (and the similarly-styled report for Gatwick) forming the basis for an alternative approach to transport – an approach that is green, accessible, affordable and creates thousands of jobs.

What both these points allude to is that the competitive model of UK airports is hopelessly unsuited to meeting the challenge of climate change, or to delivering the jobs that challenge requires.  We need our transport sector to be taken into public ownership.  A public transport system can be integrated to create a network that service the needs of the mass of people rather than a tiny elite. 

In summary, we should rightly celebrate the abandonment of LBA’s expansion plans and see in this a display of what determined ‘people power’ can achieve.  But we also need to look ahead to where that victory takes us, as green campaigners, as workers, and as communities, and organise now to achieve it.

Photo: Robert Fraser flickr.com/photos/robertf/