Plymouth City Airport: Countdown to the debate
In the run-up to next week's big council debate over the future of Plymouth City Airport, The Herald starts a series of articles examining all sides of the issue. Should it stay or should it go?
A petition calling for state ownership of Plymouth Airport will be debated by councillors next Monday, writes Keith Rossiter.
The airport was closed last December by the operator, Sutton Harbour Holdings.
The company has a 150-year lease on the land and has put forward a masterplan to build homes, shops and businesses on the site.
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Meanwhile, a company set up by the founders of the pressure group Viable says it hopes to acquire the land and restart air services from the city.
KEEP IT: Jed Griffiths
Jed Griffiths, a Plymothian and former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, urges the city to keep its airport.
PLYMOUTH is at a crossroads in its history.
When I began my planning career at Plymouth City Council in the late 1960s there was so much optimism about the future of the city and its place in the regional and national economy.
In more recent times it has been marginalised, not only because of the economic downturn, but also because of a fixation by the Government on London and the South East.
The abandonment of regional planning by the coalition has meant that the role of regional airports has been minimalised in the national airports debate, which is concentrated on London.
I agree with Cllr Tudor Evans that the provision of an airport in Plymouth is a strategic planning issue.
In my view it is vital to the future economy of the city.
With the proposals put forward by the Viable group, with an extended runway, there would be enhanced linkages between Plymouth and London, the rest of the UK, and – more importantly – European destinations.
If Viable is successful their development could deliver the policy set out in the council’s core strategy and help to maintain and strengthen Plymouth’s place in the South West economy.
In a tough economic climate, Plymouth must fight its corner vigorously.
If the airport is removed, it is gone for ever – and with it a building block for the city’s regeneration.
REDEVELOP IT: Neill Mitchell
Neill Mitchell, veteran independent transport analyst, says Plymouth should look east.
FRANKLY, I think the airport has long been a lost cause, notably ever since the failure of the parliamentary initiative in respect of Harrowbeer back in the 1960s.
Exeter International has now grown beyond all expectation (to Plymouth’s benefit) and should next modify its Companies House registered name of “Exeter & Devon Airport Ltd” to embrace its full stakeholder market catchment as “Devon International Airport”.
It was, after all, the Devon County ratepayers who subsidised its survival for 50 years, prior to privatisation.
In my opinion, there are only three circumstances which would empower Plymouth City Airport to be “viable”:
1. Ring fencing of landing slots on the proposed Runway 3 at Heathrow exclusively for regional air services. (We have allies in other distant regions pushing for this)
2. Designation of new landing slots at the proposed “Boris Island” re-located London international airport for regional air services.
3. Further development in the USA (for civil aviation application) of the pathfinder “Osprey” tilt-rotor vertical take-off and landing aircraft. This is perhaps still years or more from full civil airworthiness certification.
Otherwise, we should push hard for the renaming of “Devon International Airport” (despite the outright opposition which would result from the City of Exeter lobby.
In the second part of our debate, Viable Chairman Raoul Witherall states the case for re-opening the airport and extending the runway.
Up until a few years ago it was possible to take a plane from anywhere in the world and arrive into Plymouth with just one stop at London Heathrow.
That is the kind of connectivity that most cities would bite your arm off for. And it is the kind of connectivity that business partners in the world’s fast emerging economies are looking for in the UK.
As was feared at the time, losing access to Heathrow resulted in companies with international connections one by one drifting away from Plymouth. Perhaps you or a family member once worked for Toshiba, Murata, Tecalimit, Standard Products, Eatons, Halliburton, Sifam, STC Nortel, AchesonStafford Miller, Gleason or American Golf.
Since then, Plymouth’s connections have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where we are now crossing our fingers for a three hour rail journey to Heathrow which will still require a change at Reading ...in 10 years’ time.
Plymouth’s airport is not and never will be a Gatwick or Stansted. It is a destination, not a hub airport and one limited by factors such as runway length, the build up of neighbouring residential developments and impacted by others such as the weather. But these factors did not prevent the airport from serving Plymouth well for 85 years. And it is possible to reduce marginality and optimise the airport with a number of simple measures. Moreover we believe it is possible to transform Plymouth’s airport into a superb fit-for-purpose facility that will more than serve the city’s air transport needs and help drive economic growth over the next 100 years.
We should recognise the importance of aviation to the Royal Navy and dockyard operations. Our city needs to do all it can to make itself a viable naval base and this means helicopters to support surface ship training and good transport links to other elements of defence support services.
Elsewhere, the airport has literally been a lifeline to Derriford Hospital supporting Air Ambulance, Search and Rescue (SAR) and transplant organ movements. The NHS is now needlessly facing a huge investment in a heliport to support its role as Trauma Centre South West.
And who hasn’t been on a crowded train recently and seen scores of people standing in the aisles? Plymouth Airport’s 120,000 passengers haven’t gone away. They have moved to other modes of transport. A re-opened airport can only be a good thing to alleviate overcrowding on our creaking railway.
So what is Viable proposing were it to reopen and operate Plymouth airport? Well, firstly, we would reinstate scheduled air passenger services to keep Plymouth in business. This includes opening routes to London Stansted, Manchester and Dublin which between them provide onward connections to 264 destinations in 63 different countries including the USA, Canada, India, Europe, Africa and the West Indies.
Secondly, we would extend the runway eastwards from its present 1,160m to 1,199m, the maximum that the Civil Aviation Authority will license on the available width of airfield.
With the addition of just 120 feet extra runway and a further 270 feet of grassed overshoot safety area, Plymouth will for the first time be able to handle aircraft that are commonly operated by today’s airlines. Moreover, these modern aircraft are lower in emissions and significantly quieter than the planes designed 30 years ago, meaning Plymouth airport will be a better neighbour. In time, we believe that this model will allow a growing number of routes to operate from Plymouth serving destinations as far as Spain and Italy with modern 115 seater jets.
In addition, Viable envisages developing modern facilities on and around the airport to enhance the aviation business. This means that the airport will form the centrepiece of major inward investment and regeneration that will help create jobs and value in the city. In the future, passengers travelling to and from Plymouth will not access the airport down a badly-lit country lane but via modern terminal facilities that show the city off to its best.
All of this will be delivered without a requirement for council funds; the airport can be run privately and profitably. Viable has taken a long hard look at the numbers and identified a number of untapped revenue opportunities and lower overhead modes of operation that will see the business stay in profit as it grows to scale.
One often repeated argument against Plymouth retaining its airport is that Exeter airport is just up the road. This may be true now but Exeter competes against Bristol and Bournemouth for the same low-cost holiday market and this renders it vulnerable. Falling passenger numbers and a loss making base airline have raised serious questions about its longevity.
In either case, the airport at Exeter competes for business from Plymouth. Why would any investor look at Plymouth with slow train and dual carriageway connections when Exeter has high speed rail, two hour motorway to London and Birmingham and an international airport. No, we wish Exeter well but not at Plymouth’s expense. We are in competition and need to look after our own interests.
But is Viable up to the job of financing, running, growing and developing the airport? The answer is a clear yes. Our Board has grown recently with the addition of Terry Linge, former director at Plymouth City Airport. Working with him, Viable has designated individuals to head up the air traffic and fire fighting services who bring the necessary experience and qualifications with them. And, most importantly, Viable’s Board has years of experience in financing and developing infrastructure projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds and delivering these for international clients.
This all sounds very good, but will we ever get back into Heathrow? Well this depends on government policy but with the Davies Commission to report back in 2015, we could well see one of three options recommended. Either Northolt will be opened to short haul and regional traffic with a reoriented runway and 15 minute transit to Heathrow; or approval will be given for Heathrow’s third runway; or approval will be given to develop a major multi runway London hub in the Thames Estuary. Our view is that Northolt is the most likely outcome as an interim step towards the Thames Estuary airport. If this happens, you could well be flying from Plymouth to Northolt and transiting to Heathrow in as little as seven years from now.
So should Plymouth build shops and student flats on its airport? We think not and we hope you will support Viable in its bid to keep Plymouth connected with the world.
Viable holds monthly meetings at the Future Inn Derriford to keep members and the public updated on developments. The next public meeting is this coming Tuesday September 25 at 6:15pm
In the third part of our debate, City Council leader Tudor Evans gives his views on the city airport.
When I was a fresh-faced chair of the Employment and Economic Development Committee back in 1993 my responsibilities included Plymouth City Airport.
Back then I used to go to public meetings in Derriford where I was booed for supporting the development of the airport operation by people who didn’t want planes taking off and landing near their homes.
Twenty years later as leader of the Council I’m still getting booed by some people – but this time because the airport has been closed by its owners after being declared as unviable, a decision made possible last year by the Council’s previous Conservative administration.
I want Plymouth to have an airport now every bit as much as I did in the early nineties and over the years I have fought hard to support the airport and keep it open. As leader of the Council in 2003/4 I helped ensure the airport remained open after British Airways pulled out and Sutton Harbour approached us to help with their rescue package to ensure air services continued. The Council not only saved the airport but helped start an airline, too. This action helped keep the airport open for almost eight more years.
The Council later supported the release of land to enable further investment in the airport. As well as support from the Council, the airport received around £8 million of public subsidy through one-off payments.
Despite this help the airport struggled. Unfortunately, falling passenger numbers in recent years, compounded by competition on the London route, and then its loss, spelt the end of scheduled services from Plymouth and the eventual closure of the airport.
Sutton Harbour Holdings now retain a long lease on the airport site and while it may wish to develop the site for other purposes, it is currently protected for use as an airport under the Core Strategy, the strategic plan for how land should be used in the city.
The recent petition shows the level of support for a new airport for Plymouth. I fully understand the strength of feeling in Plymouth about the airport and welcome the efforts of those who have been campaigning for one. As much as we would all like to see a new airport open, good intentions need to translate into sustainable plans. The five criteria we have set out for any potential operator provide a basic check that any company wanting to run a business would expect to answer. Put simply, the questions for potential operators are: can you secure the airport from the current leaseholder, do you have planes to fly and have you got destinations that people want to fly to?
Unfortunately, at a time when the Government is slashing funding for local services and we are having to make tough decisions about what services we can and can’t provide, the Council is not in a position to be able to subsidise a commercial operation.
However, I have instructed Council officers to meet with all interested parties and try as hard as possible to enable and support plans to open an airport.
In the meantime, the site remains protected as an airport under the Council’s Core Strategy for the next nine years.
It is important that as the debate continues we do not let the closure of the airport hold back our ambitions for Plymouth. We are continuing to work on improving both rail and internet connectivity and to build on our city’s qualities, which far outstrip those of many other cities. We are determined to ensure that airport or no airport, Plymouth continues to drive forward its ambitions for growth and future economic prosperity.
DAVID PARLBY: Chief Executive Plymouth Chamber of Commerce:
“IF you want to get there you don’t want to start from here” is an oft quoted expression.
But concerning Plymouth City Airport (PCA) we most certainly do have to start from here.
It is fruitless complaining about the lease agreement between Plymouth City Council (PCC) and Sutton Harbour Holdings (SHH) and speculating on the longer-term intentions for developing the land: the facts are that the lease exists and SHH’s primary duty is to its shareholders.
Plymouth Chamber of Commerce wants a successful airport for Plymouth for the long term.
Having seen (unlike the vast majority of those who are interested in this matter) the financial numbers that are required for a successful operation at Plymouth, we know that our objective represents an enormous challenge.
A successful airport requires flights going to the right places at the right times and at the right price.
The multiple constraints of a short runway, limited destinations, fickle weather, high landing charges, fierce competition, increasing fuel prices and shifting Government policy mean that it is especially difficult for any airport and airline operator to deliver this desired combination from PCA.
Add to this the difficulty of resolving the financial implications of the lease, and it makes the airport situation an especially intricate Gordian knot.
We know this because the Chamber spent a lot of 2011 talking to possible airport and airline operators. None was interested.
A successful airport also means that it is not subsidised by the public sector. The Chamber does not support the propping up of failing entities which require constant nourishment from the taxpayer.
There is now a proper process in place to determine the future of PCA. The land has to be used as an airport under current planning policy.
So no-one is going to be able to build houses or anything else on the airport for several years at least.
Change of use will require a lengthy and formal process with a great deal of consultation.
PCC has established five tests and given the private sector a year to come up with a realistic commercial proposal before PCC will even consider change of use. The Chamber regards this as an eminently sensible approach.
The only game in town right now is Viable. However, as far as the Chamber is concerned, Viable’s plans still only amount to unsubstantiated claims.
We cannot assess them properly as we have not been given access to their financial projections or funding arrangements.
The Chamber suspects that there may be a deal to be done around the lease. If it can be done the short to medium term future of the strategic asset that is PCA is addressed, leaving the operation down to conventional business and risk management.
We hope, but remain to be convinced until we see the numbers, that Viable’s plan is sound.
What we do not need is another failed airport and the same debate taking place again in a few years’ time.
If the deal cannot be done, the question then becomes:
Do we do something else positive with the land – i.e. develop it, create economic activity, wealth and jobs in the knowledge that it can never again be used as an airport?
Or do we leave it fallow (which will in itself be costly) in the hope that circumstances change and PCA might become successful – against a background of having to catch up with competing regional airports which will have progressed significantly in the intervening years?
The Chamber considers the latter question as being a much more difficult one to resolve than our current predicament. We therefore urge all parties involved in the negotiations to come to an early and positive conclusion for the good of Plymouth.
CHARLES HOWESON: Chairman of Plymouth Area Business Council
THE reborn airport debate championed by Viable, informed by the Chamber of Commerce, listened to by the co-operative city council and being carefully noted by SH Group (and indeed by HM Government!) is an historic and timely one.
While we are at it let’s not forget this debate is evoking almost unparalleled passion amongst us Plymothians who rightly think that we own the freehold title to all infrastructure.
What’s done is done; let’s not go backwards.
The very best of intentions were exercised by our predecessors a decade ago in both the public and private sectors at a very difficult time for our city, when BA pulled out at short notice. There was much to be proud of in our reaction to that and today’s challenge is in many respects a lesser one.
Then, strategically, we in Plymouth took all the right steps in partnership, we opened an airline, traded, and indeed used and protected the airport, and then the international recession hit everything and so none of the sums then added up tactically.
Just because that’s been the case for 24 months and may still be today, (and I don’t argue this fact) it does NOT mean that it will be the case in the future, even five years away. Viable argue tomorrow!
We and our city leaders in all sectors have a very real responsibility to look, and indeed to plan, ahead; after all, we intend to (indeed we must!) grow Plymouth in order for our urban economy to survive in a strong inter-city competitive environment.
That’s quite enough of a challenge without in any way haltering our all important communications links, all of which need continuous improvement. We need road, rail and, yes, AIR links to achieve this vital growth. Were we, today’s decision-making team, to allow the support infrastructure for any of that to wither and die for any reason at the present time due to an external economic “blip” that we did not have the courage to challenge and overcome, then our successors would rightly levy a very harsh judgment on us.
We could literally ruin this city’s economy and with it our prosperity, our property values and, yes, our very enjoyment of life here.
It’s such a fragile balance, and local recession is a very ugly prospect indeed for all of us who care for and hold a stake in the city. At present, nationally, we are all in the same boat, but a local lack of competitiveness is a completely different ball game.
So what is the debate about? It should not be about preserving the airport infrastructure – that should be blindingly obvious; we clearly have to. It should be about how we do it, and what combination of support for a holding plan is needed, and for how long.
Don’t not let us say in black and white or sector terms that it’s just up to A or B, or that C can’t do this or that, some of which will no doubt be true. Let’s instead genuinely and powerfully seek at least a six to ten-year solution using determination, originality and Plymothian stubbornness, at least for the sake of our immediate successors, and let’s do it in a cross-sector partnership way.
It might be that the public sector acquires and holds and that the private sector then re-leases (at a profit to the public sector!) This is a capital project in the first instance, and there are any number of combinations that we could employ if we are intelligent and of one mind.
This will require firm leadership, and that’s clearly there, and a resource to be proud of. So let us support its co-ordinating and overcoming the obstacles, and let us not be diverted by either politics or irrelevance, or individual or corporate egos, or indeed the temptation to look backwards.
This must happen – now let’s ALL get on and see to it.
In the fourth part of our debate into the future of Plymouth’s airport we asked leaseholders Sutton Harbour Holdings to make their case. The company declined. The following views have been compiled from interviews with The Herald over the past two years.
Sutton Harbour Holdings took over the lease of Plymouth City Airport in 2000. Two years later it faced a challenge when Brymon Airways pulled out.
“The airport was in trouble and rather than selling we started Air Southwest,” said chairman Michael Knight.
For a while business took off, with 13 routes flying from Plymouth, generating a cash windfall that was used to drive regeneration in the city.
“We had three planes, but we didn’t take into account the combination of adverse factors,” Mr Knight said.
Sutton Harbour Group’s lease of the airport from Plymouth City Council contains an “Armageddon clause”, allowing it to sell off the land if the airport is no longer viable, with three-quarters of the proceeds going back to the city.
Mr Knight refuted claims by some people that this was always the end-game. “People have always said, ‘Were you only after the land? Was this just a wicked plot?’ ” he said. “It was not.”
The airline ran into a perfect storm of increasing competition from Flybe, high fuel prices and a strengthening dollar, the economic downturn, a couple of harsh winters, and the Icelandic volcanic eruption which grounded flights across the UK.
“In January 2010 we spent £80,000 de-icing planes – in Plymouth, which is unheard of.
“That damaged the whole group because we have had to absorb £8.4million of losses in 2010/11. The size of our company is such that we could not absorb those losses,” he says.
In the end they had to take a big loss in selling Air Southwest to Eastern Airlines for £2million. Within months Eastern said it would be quitting Plymouth.
“Really, the airport just isn’t viable,” Mr Knight said.
Last year Plymouth City Council backed SHH’s plans to shut the airport on December 23, after the council produced two consultants’ reports which said no one wanted to run the airport or flights, and not enough businesses used the airstrip to make it economically sustainable.
On December 23 last year the company said there was now no access to the airport or its car park, it was closed to air traffic and the aerodrome licence would be surrendered.
SHH said there would be “limited ongoing maintenance” but stressed the airport was “being closed, not mothballed” and talks would now take place with the council about its future.
In March this year, challenged over landing rights for emergency helicopter flights, a spokesperson for the company said: “In the event of an emergency where the helipad at Derriford is unavailable it would be up to the individual pilot to decide whether to set down the aircraft elsewhere.
“If that happened to be on former airport land that would be a decision for the pilot over which we would have no control.
“Because the airport has been closed since December 23 last year there are no facilities such as air traffic control, fire cover or insurance in place, so use of the land for an aircraft is not something we can facilitate and any landing would therefore be at the pilot's own risk.”
In May, as the company prepared to auction airport equipment, a spokesman said:
“The airport has been closed for almost six months and the council has been fully aware of our intention to auction surplus items.
“Since early September last year we have instructed an independent commercial agent to handle all inquiries relating to the airport and evaluate any proposals. We have received no substantive proposals from any party.”
Now Sutton Harbour Holdings has revealed its own “masterplan” to build houses, shops, offices and student flats on the site.
Jason Schofield, chief executive of Sutton Harbour Holdings, said: “We have shown how the former airport site presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create exactly what the Derriford and Seaton area action plan strives to achieve, and more.
“We have looked in detail at other sites in the area and concluded that the former airport site presents the best opportunity to deliver a carefully considered and fit for purpose heart for Derriford that helps meet Plymouth’s growth agenda.
“There will be those that will accuse us of jumping the gun by publishing these plans, but we are responding to a planning policy debate that is happening now, and a timetable over which we have no control.
“We believe the draft area action plan must take account of the former airport site.
“Now that the airport has closed we also have an obligation under the terms of our lease to achieve best value for the site. These plans are credible and deliverable and we hope they will be taken on board.”
A Sutton Harbour spokesman added: “The plans have been submitted in response to the city council’s area action plan consultation and are not a formal planning application.”
This month Sutton Harbour’s annual meeting was told the company was “working on achieving best value for the site, in accordance with the terms of our lease with Plymouth City Council”.
A link road at the former airport site has been completed and Sutton Harbour will now receive the final payments from a developer for this surplus former short runway land, already sold for housing.