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Gale's View - Is Manston Airport Dead and Buried?

November 11th 2015

A local newspaper headline asks “Is Manston Airport Dead and Buried”? The answer is “No. Emphatically it is not”. The fact that five out of six Thanet District Councillors, risibly called “The Cabinet”, have decided not to do business with the one serious player that has demonstrated the willingness, the determination and the resources to see the airport re-opened may be of some brief comfort to those outsiders who wish to foist an unwanted and unloved development upon East Kent but it is a decision that cannot and, I believe will not, be allowed to stand.

That not even all of those chosen to rubber-stamp a profoundly questionable recommendation without, by their own admission, either understanding or even reading the papers that were before them makes a travesty of democracy and calls into question the whole role of “cabinet” administration at local government level. Canterbury City Council has already abandoned this experiment in favour of well-tried and trusted committees and Thanet should do so as a first measure before, then, moving to join an East Kent Unitary Authority that will be capable of taking decisions that are less parochial and more representative of broader local opinion.

Let us be clear: notwithstanding the pro-developer stand taken by the present Leader of a Kent County Council that also suffers from an autocratic “cabinet” administration, most of East Kent`s elected County Councillors want to see Manston re-opened as a fully-operational airport. They are joined by an overwhelming majority of local City and District Councillors including, of course, those many UKIP members elected in Thanet on a “We will re-open Manston” ticket. If you add to those votes the support, through the ballot box, for Craig Mackinlay in South Thanet and myself as Conservative Members of Parliament and the votes cast for Mr. Farage during his failed bid to “capture” the Manston issue and there can be no doubt in the minds of most that there is, not just in Thanet but throughout East Kent, an overwhelming majority that has rejected Gloag, Cartner and Musgrave`s development plans and wants our airport back.

The need for the airport also chimes with the national interest. Demand for the establishment of a freight hub as a means of providing an alternative to cross-channel road freight and international cargo that is too often held to ransom is rising, not falling. There is a clearly-established need for a major diversion facility and that is on top of the fact that Manston remains the location-of-choice for Search and Rescue services covering the Straits of Dover. A number of significant aviation-related businesses have indicated that they want to locate at Manston Airport and there remains, of course, the long-term desire to re-establish both TG`s general aviation and light aircraft business and some dedicated passenger flights to carefully selected locations. “Localism” cannot allow a Council that has got its fingers burnt through the compulsory purchase of Dreamland and is running scared of the process to be deterred from pursuing the objective that the majority of people want to see realised.

So what happens next? There are very real concerns over the manner in which the Leadership and monitoring officers of Thanet District Council have sought to prevent the prospective purchasers from making their case to the full Council and the fact that that full Council has been denied the opportunity to vote on an issue that is vital to the whole future of East Kent, the County and, arguably, the Country. Thanet`s Opposition Councillors have indicated that they want the process that led up to Thanet`s “Cabinet” decision subjected to scrutiny. That will be a first step towards injecting a degree of real democracy back into the system. Next, Cllr Bob Bayford, the Leader of the official Opposition in Thanet, has indicated his willingness to establish a “coalition of goodwill” to take over the administration of the local authority and to pursue, in the public interest, the policy that people have voted for. Such a coalition must embrace those of all political parties that wish to honour the pledges that they made during last May`s election.

Cllr. Wells, the Leader, for the moment, of TDC has announced mysteriously that he has four parties expressing interest in purchasing the airport and running some kind of operation involving planes. I myself am aware of two such although they do not appear to be supported by hard cash and there were, of course, others that put their names forward and were discarded during the cold-marketing exercise conducted by the Council under the last administration. I would be surprised if a fresh player were to come forward at this stage and I regard the likelihood as little more than a cynical exercise designed to kick the issue into the political long-grass. What East Kent cannot and will not settle for is some kind of “poor man`s Rochester” trying to operate a light airfield as part of a development of overspill housing for London and still more unused industrial facilities looking for occupants.

To my astonishment, though, even following the ill-informed criticism to which they have been subjected, RiverOak maintain their determination to acquire and operate Manston as an airport and they therefore remain the most serious player in this equation. If local democracy is to mean anything then they should be allowed, surely, to make their public interest and business case to an inspector at the public inquiry following the instigation of a compulsory purchase order. If they fail then they, but only they, will lose a great deal of money. If they succeed then their commitment will have been justified. To achieve that we need a leader and a Council with the guts to give them the chance to prove themselves.

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