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Response to Avia report on Manston

November 2nd 2016

At a meeting in Beltinge Village Hall convened by the Herne Bay Town Crier last week the lead item was the future of Manston Airport. While in local authority terms this is the responsibility of Thanet District Council it has, of course, very specific implications for the Bay as well as for the United Kingdom

I have received, as have local District and County Councillors, Councillor, the first response of RiverOak, the American-based company seeking to acquire the airport and to re-open it, to a recently commissioned report and the Local Plan process. It makes interesting reading and it kicks the bottom out of the pretence that the commissioning of the report on the viability of Manston was anything other but an expensive and cynical exercise designed to pave the way for Cllr. Wells` ambition to abandon his election pledge to see Manston re-opened as a fully-fledged airport and , with the support of the Leader of Kent County Council but not of a majority of his Members, to pave the way for a revised local plan re-designating the airfield for overspill housing for Londoners – which is what inevitably a housing estate would become – and for industrial use for which there is no demand and already an excess of land.

Writing to the Chief Executive of Thanet Council those acting for RiverOak say:

“We are concerned that the Council may be about to take significant decisions about the future of the airport in a clandestine manner and on the basis of a report that is not robust, has not been tested or consulted upon and is indeed inaccurate, inadequate and misleading”.

An initial assessment of the Avia solutions report indicates, for example, that their estimate of cargo demand is “in direct conflict with the conclusions of at least six respected studies showing considerable unmet and future demand for dedicated air freight” and that there is “no demand for air cargo to or from new destinations for 34 years”. It also makes the assumption that “Manston will reopen in the same configuration as before” when in fact the authors of the report were fully aware that RiverOak intends to invest in the region of £150 million to increase aircraft handling capacity.

I have said publicly many times that the UK is losing cargo business now on a multi-million pounds a week basis, to mainland European airports and with Brexit and the need to develop markets further afield in Asia and the Far East there will be further demand still for dedicated air freight. That business will go either to Frankfurt, Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle airports or it will come to Manston. There is no alternative. Even with the announced development of Heathrow, which I welcome, there will be no wheels on new runway tarmac in the South east for at least fifteen years and by that time demand will have grown still further.

What is as worrying as the lack of understanding reflected in the Avia report, however, is the still greater lack of transparency and democratic process within the Leadership of Thanet District Council. As RiverOak has indicated publicly there was a private briefing for Councillors about the report on 17th October and which Avia presented their “conclusions” to Members. Neither the agenda for nor the minutes of that meeting have been published. “The evidence of pre-determination by the Council and its individual members and lack of regard for proper due process” is indeed of great concern. It is also a process to which no self-respecting professional Council Officer should be party and may well end up either with the Local Government Ombudsman or Judicial review.

Local authorities – District and County – are fully aware that RiverOak is in conversation with the Planning Inspectorate and that that company intends to apply, in the National interest, for a Development Consent Order for the re-opening of Manston as a freight hub and subsequently passenger airport. That process is currently being delayed by those at present in control of the site and who are denying to the company the access necessary to complete the final stages of their Environmental Survey – a survey which, ironically, would also have to be carried out before the airfield could be granted planning consent for any alternative use.

As part of the DCO process there has to be not only a study into the environmental aspects of the airport which, as RiverOak`s spokesman explained to the Beltinge meeting, will include a house-by-house study of noise and air pollution and flightpaths, but also of proposed flying hours and a comprehensive business plan, all of which will be open to public scrutiny and investigation before the inspector makes a recommendation to the Secretary of State. The Company that the Leaders of Kent and Thanet have tried to suggest has no resources is already committing many millions of pounds to the process of acquisition prior to the investing of eye-watering sums to transform Manston Airport into the facility that the United Kingdom so desperately needs. Responsible, reputable and visionary local authorities truly serving the public interest would get behind such a project rather than seeking, for whatever parochial interest, to frustrate it.

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