What is a city without an airport? On Sheffield, Doncaster and Robin Hood

The airport is so small we could find no useable pictures of it online. Image: Getty.

Having a skewed sense of pride in your city of birth is not uncommon.  Whether you hail from Glasgow, Baltimore or Stuttgart, you’re keen to promote your home town and emphasize its positives to the world. And if you define yourself as a Glaswegian, then your own identity is based in part on the identity of Glasgow itself – so the question of whether your city is seen as an international destination or a provincial backwater can become somewhat personal.

I’m from Sheffield and have always had great pride in the place. Despite it being a medium-sized, unglamorous city with few tourist attractions, it does have two fine universities, a metro system (OK, light rail) and an airport – or these days, half an airport.

When I was growing up, Sheffield’s rivalry with Yorkshire’s other big city, Leeds, was intense. Located just 30 miles up the M1 motorway, Leeds appeared to hold all the cards – a greater population, taller buildings, a grand train station and a busy airport.  Sheffield, on the other hand, suffered from higher unemployment and greater economic stagnation.

And, to my further shame, my home town was regularly cited as Europe’s largest city without an airport.

All this seemed to change in the 1990s, when Sheffield’s new light rail system began operations and Sheffield City Airport opened. Located close to the city centre, this brand new airport had a very short runway and a tiny terminal. But the sight of sleek regional jets touching down beside the Parkway, the main arterial route into Sheffield from the M1, had me bursting with civic pride. Now, surely Sheffield could be defined as a proper European city, boasting as it did both a sizable metro system and its own airport.

The late, lamented Sheffield City Airport. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

We even outdid Leeds, I told myself gleefully, as our rival didn’t have any form of light rail, and its unimpressive (if larger) airport was miles out of town. Indeed, as discussions over its proposed light rail system stalled, Leeds was regularly identified as being Europe’s largest city with no light rail or metro. Sheffield, I believed, was now forging its own identity as a major urban player. Surely it was only a matter of time before the city’s light rail system was connected to the new airport, I thought, and could begin whisking passengers into the city centre in a matter of minutes. Could we soon have genuine bragging rights over our Yorkshire rival?

Alas, my dream was shattered. In June 2008 the cash-strapped Sheffield Council closed City Airport and sold the land for development. The official excuse was that the airport was making a loss and the runway couldn’t be extended for larger jets. But many Sheffielders were unconvinced: all airports make an initial loss, opponents pointed out, and the parkway site was virtually the only flat place for an airport in this hilliest of British cities.

Despite the protests, the closure went ahead. My home town had regained the unwanted moniker of being the largest European city without its own airport.

Or had it?

As City Airport was in its death throes, the former RAF base at Finningley, 18 miles to the east, was being rebranded as a passenger airport. Located to the south of Doncaster, Finningley wasn’t really on my radar. I knew it was a hassle to get to from Sheffield, with the initial stretch of motorway followed by a circuitous, mazy route on minor roads. Reports of people getting lost when driving to Finningley were not uncommon, and everyone knew the rush hour traffic around Doncaster could be appalling.

Despite it being branded as “Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield”, Sheffielders remained skeptical. No direct public transport link existed from Sheffield, they pointed out, and naming the airport after Robin Hood didn’t help matters as the mythical Prince of Thieves was strongly associated with Nottingham and green tights. Besides, Finningley was too far out of town to be seen as Sheffield’s airport, wasn’t it?

To make matters worse it soon became clear that the name “Doncaster Sheffield” was too long to fit on most departure boards, which meant that the name was regularly shortened to “Doncaster”. Soon it began to be universally referred to as “Doncaster Airport”, the Sheffield part of the name being dropped by all but the most pedantic. And to be fair, “Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield” doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?

I remember despairing of the marketing of DSA. For a start, Sheffield is four or five times larger than Doncaster. Shouldn’t the major city’s name have come first? To be honest, I’d have been quite happy with departure boards dropping Doncaster from the name instead.

As for Robin Hood, this was simply a nod to a recognisable name. There were far more worthy candidates to name an airport after, not least flight pioneer Amy Johnson, who lived and studied in Sheffield.

Initially, a relatively wide range of flights were offered from DSA, to places like Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels. However, Like Sheffield City Airport, it’s fortunes declined after a bright start. Passenger numbers slumped after Easyjet pulled out in 2012. By 2014, the only flights left were seasonal “bucket and spade” destinations to the Mediterranean and a range of little-known East European cities offered by the Hungarian budget carrier Wizz Air. DSA was still routinely mocked by Sheffielders, many of whom still chose to fly from Manchester or Leeds. “You can’t fly anywhere from Doncaster” became another common refrain.

Ooooh, shiny. Image: author provided.

Since its nadir in 2013, however, glimmers of hope have emerged. The airport’s marketers seem to have realized that Sheffield has a certain amount of name recognition, and efforts are being made to refer to “Doncaster Sheffield” in all official communications and literature. Thankfully the name “Robin Hood” appears to have been downgraded. 

In 2016, the airline FlyBe launched new routes to seven destinations including Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Dublin, and annual passenger numbers increased from 830,000 in 2015 to a record 1,2 million in 2016. Last winter, ads for the airport, with the slogan “fly local” began to appear in Sheffield’s main train station and elsewhere. The airport also began sponsoring Sheffield United FC. 

More significantly, getting lost on the way is now a thing of the past. A new link road opened in 2016 connecting DSA to the motorway, meaning the airport is now just a 25 minute drive from Sheffield city centre, When the final stretch of the link road is completed in 2018, the travel time could be closer to 20 minutes, which is better than many other comparable city-to-airport journey times, including Leeds city centre to Leeds-Bradford Airport.

I’ve flown into the airport a few times now and do now get the feeling of being almost home when stepping off the plane. For me, however, DSA will never achieve full status as Sheffield’s airport until you can jump on a bus to and from the city centre. Currently, public transport users in Sheffield must take a train to Doncaster – there’s only one 25 minute “fast” train per hour – before switching to a thrice-hourly bus service for the 20-minute onward airport journey. With hourly trains running direct from Sheffield to Manchester Airport, which offers low fare carriers and destinations galore, it’s little wonder that DSA is still seen as a something of a niche market.

Some Sheffielders still cling to the belief that the city “doesn’t have an airport” and “Doncaster doesn’t count”. And to be honest, there’s no way the light rail will link it to the city in my lifetime. However, even though I commonly refer to it as “Doncaster” these days, there’s no doubt that DSA is gradually becoming better known as Sheffield’s airport and my civic pride is slowly being restored. It’s not perfect, but I’ll take it.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.