Plymouth City Council won't offer financial backing to city airport plan
PLANS for a dramatic rescue for Plymouth City Airport have suffered a major blow.
For the first time the city council has made clear that it will not offer any financial support to save the airport which shut last December.
Sutton Harbour Holdings, the operator, last year exercised an ‘Armageddon clause’ in its 150-year lease on the land.
The company sold off its airline, Air South West, and then closed the airport, claiming the business was no longer viable.
Leaders of both main political parties in the city have remained diplomatic until now, giving cautious backing to the group Viable, which has drawn up a business case to run the airport.
But now the local authority leadership appeared to pull the plug on any support for Viable coming from the council, saying it could not pump money into any rescue plan.
Asked about the future of the airport by Cllr Ian Bowyer, the former Conservative Cabinet member for finance, Council Leader Tudor Evans said people had voted with their feet by not using it.
“If it had been popular I would have thought there would still be an airport there today.
“More people signed the petition to save the airport than used the airport.”
He said the council was not prepared to pump money into it.
Addressing himself to Conservative members of the council’s overview and scrutiny management board, Cllr Evans said: “We are singing from the same page.
“The issue for us is that we don’t own the lease. It belongs to Sutton Harbour Holdings.
“I agree with Vivien Pengelly [his predecessor as council leader] that it has to be a private sector solution.
“Viable is a group of people that believe they can run the airport.
“They don’t have an airline and they don’t own the airport.
“Clearly the council is not wedded to Viable. I am not in a position to do financial due diligence on Viable because that’s not my job.”
Cllr Evans said he had been invited to a presentation by Viable which just showed “pictures of happy passengers” on aircraft.
He said Cornwall Council was pumping money into Newquay Airport, but Plymouth City Council could not afford to do the same.
In its business plan Viable has said it would need the airport to be reopened with key tenants.
“They are talking about running a helicopter service and getting Flag Officer Sea Training back,” Cllr Evans said last night.
“Good luck to them.
“They are talking about getting Plymouth Flying School back.
“Good luck to them.”
Viable chairman Raoul Witherall said later that he did not want to comment on a meeting he did not attend.
But he said: “We are looking forward to sitting down with the new administration and discussing our proposals, which would allow the council to redeem the lease without having to divert funds from other projects.”
Cllr Evans defended his decision to give Sutton Harbour Holdings the 150-year lease when he was council leader in 2000.
He said the private sector had failed to deliver a solution at the time.
“I as leader then had about 24 hours to secure a long-term future for the airport.
“At the time we secured not only an airport operator but an airline.”
Mr Bowyer said later that Mr Evans’s remarks appeared to close the door on the airport.
But he added: “I think there are other ways the council can and should be as helpful as possible. The last council and this council have underlined that economic growth is the number one priority, and an operating airport would be a significant part of that.”
Sutton Harbour Holdings has valued the airport land at about £4.5million, a figure that is likely to multiply if it can get permission for housing development.
Two reports from consultants, commissioned by the previous Conservative administration, said there was no operator or airline willing to run the airport or flights.
Auction of airport equipment won't stop rescue bid
THE group that wants to reopen Plymouth’s closed down airport says moves to auction equipment will not stop its plans – and it has even put a team of experts together ready to run the facility.
Raoul Witherall, chairman of the Viable group, said it was too early to name the “operational management team” but stressed it included “competent, trained and experienced” people.
He was speaking just hours after an on-line tender sale of airport gear was concluded – but before last night’s bombshell from the city council over its support for Viable’s plans, on which he declined to comment.
Sutton Harbour Holdings, which closed the airport last December, brought in Lincoln-based Peaker Pattinson (Auctioneers) Ltd to sell the kit.
Tenders to buy a two-floor, modular office block, complete with fire escape, kitchen, and toilet; and metal-clad ex-flying school cabins plus its air-conditioned ex-teaching cabins, had to be submitted by noon yesterday(WED JUNE 13).
They will go to the highest bidder in a sealed bid contest, but a SHH spokesman said the result of the sale could not yet be revealed because “tenders will need to be evaluated”.
More equipment – including four fire tenders, runway vehicles, generators, boilers, ticket machines, baggage trolleys, office furniture, a smoking shelter, a check-in desk and metal detectors – will be sold at another on-line auction on July 11 and 12, where prospective buyers will be able to see what rival bids have been made.
Council leader Cllr Tudor Evans has called for the sales to be stopped and asked SHH to retain key airport assets to avoid jeopardising any potential re-opening.
Neither sell-off includes “operational equipment” such as navigation systems and power units, which are seen as more important and less easy to replace if the airport is to be reopened.
Mr Witherall said the auction “does not wreck our plans at all”.
The operational kit is due to be discussed by airport lease-holder SHH and lessor Plymouth City Council, and Mr Witherall said: “We hope the council will take a more robust line.”
SHH, which holds the 150-year lease of the 104-acre airport site, shut the Devonport facility saying not enough businesses used it.
Viable has produced a business plan to reopen it and wants the lease to revert to the council.
Mr Witherall said: “We have an operational management team in place, ready to deliver safe and efficient operations at the airport, once we re-open it.”
He said such a team would be needed to satisfy demands from the Civil Aviation Authority.
He said the people on-board, while un-named at this stage, had “the necessary experience and training”.
“These are very competent and qualified people in their field,” Mr Witherall said.