LIVE VIDEO: The future of Plymouth City Airport discussed today
THE fate of Plymouth’s airport site was to be debated today by the city council.
The crucial discussion has been triggered by a campaign petition with more than 37,000 signatures in favour of getting the closed airport back in business.
Ahead of the debate, campaigner Maddi Bridgeman has written to all 57 Plymouth councillors urging them to declare whether they have any financial interest in redeveloping the Roborough site.
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Mrs Bridgeman, a spokeswoman for the save-the-airport group Viable, was one of the organisers of the petition calling for State ownership of Plymouth City Airport, which was closed by operators Sutton Harbour Holdings last December.
The company has invoked a so-called “Armageddon Clause” in its 150-year lease on the land, allowing it to redevelop the land if an airport is not viable.
Sutton Harbour Holdings has put forward a masterplan to build homes, shops and businesses on the site.
In her letter to councillors Mrs Bridgeman said that during her campaign she had heard claims that some councillors had a financial interest in developing the land.
Councillors are obliged to declare any interest over £25,000, but Mrs Bridgeman wrote to them saying: “I am asking that if any of you have a financial interest in the closure and redevelopment of land at Plymouth Airport, whether financial or otherwise, could you please declare it at the beginning of the meeting.”
Cllr Vivien Pengelly, Conservative group leader on the council, said she did not have “a penny of interest” in Sutton Harbour Holdings, and did not know of any councillors who did.
“I think the debate can make a difference,” Mrs Pengelly said. “It is making people realise how much Plymothians want to keep the airport.
“The only thing the council can do is to make sure that in all planning documents it stays as airport land.
“Times are hard at the moment, but as we come out of the recession someone could perhaps turn it back into a heliport, a flying school or even a small airport.
“It would be silly to look at other options in a year’s time as Tudor Evans wants to do.”
Council leader Tudor Evans has laid out five tests for any business which wants to take over the airport. He has made it clear that there will be no public subsidy.
He said: “The community signed a petition and we have got to respect that.
“It’s much harder to reopen an airport than to keep one open, particularly as CAA regulations will be much tougher than they were.
“I am going to listen to what the petition says.
“We are going to honour our promise to search for better connectivity. Does that include seeing if we can get a new airport? Of course it does.
“But Viable says it will take at least six years to reopen the airport so the question is, what do we do in the meantime?
“It’s a big petition which means it’s a big issue and it’s going to require a big response.”
The airport is at present protected from development until 2021. Earlier this year the council removed the land from its Derriford and Seaton area action plan, which will decide new development guidelines for the area.
Mr Evans said the airport’s fate would now be decided as part of the wider Plymouth Plan, which is still in its very early stages of development.
Mrs Bridgeman, who will be speaking on behalf of the save-the-airport campaigners at the council meeting, which was to start at 2pm today, said: “We want our airport back. An open airport is an open city and we need to secure overseas investment and future employment for our residents and children.”
Viable has set up a company to reopen the airport. Raoul Witherall, a director, said it wants to buy the freehold of the site. He said he had financial backing and intends to have flights to Britain and Western Europe within two years, and a plan to create a hub with worldwide reach in five to 10 years.
Mr Evans told The Herald that Viable’s petition got the debate on to the agenda, but did not change the council’s five tests. Nor did it change his view that if a suitable operator did not come forward by next summer, a decision on whether to release the land to housing would have to be made.
“They will get a debate which is respectful and open. It will be given proper consideration.”
“It is important to appreciate that this process is not a referendum, it is a petition to get a debate going.”
Oliver Colvile, MP for Devonport and Sutton, joined the marchers as they handed over the petition. He said: “We would all like to make sure that we can keep the airport going. Unfortunately it would necessitate buying out Sutton Harbour Holding’s lease.
“I will write to Sutton Harbour Holdings to ask them what price they’re offering for the lease of the land.”
Raoul Witherall, director of Viable Plymouth Ltd, said: “This petition shows clearly that a very significant number of people in Plymouth want to see their city flying again.
“No-one should dismiss this petition lightly. It is the largest petition Plymouth has ever seen and its supporters will expect it to be taken seriously.
“The council must move to permanently protect Plymouth’s airport from any kind of development that would hinder future airport operations.
“As a business we are glad that the council has called for future airport operators to come forward and are confident that we can satisfy the five tests set out last month by Tudor Evans.
“We are already at an early stage in discussions and are hopeful we will be able to reopen the airport for Plymouth.”
The airport closed in December after leaseholder Sutton Harbour Holdings said it was no longer viable following the economic downturn.
Sutton Harbour Holdings took over the airport in 2000 after being granted a 150-year lease from Plymouth City Council, which owns the site in Roborough.
The new Labour council, who took control from the Conservatives, announced last month it was seeking a commercial partner to take over the site and run an airport. However, the authority said it could not provide any subsidy.
The council said its members debated any petition handed in which had more than 5,000 signatures.
HERALD COMMENT: The problem is complex but the answer is simple – this city should have an airport
WHETHER or not anyone can profitably operate an airline from the Roborough site at this moment in time is a matter of debate but the need to maintain the potential for an air link is not.
For Plymouth to thrive we must have ambition – we must turn our gaze from our glorious past and be prepared to grasp a prosperous future.
Our airport is not some vanity project to show our neighbours in Exeter or any other British city that we are as good as them. The continued existence of the airport is a statement of intent, a vital tool on which we may well rely to build the future we want rather than the future we are given.
Of course, the site is far from perfect. The runway is too short, too narrow, too prone to bad weather. But it is the only one we have or will ever have.
The city’s drawing boards are creaking under the weight of plans for developments yet to be turned into reality – thousands of homes are currently on hold for locations across Plymouth waiting for a time when the bricks can be laid. To build on that unique airport site would demonstrate a crass reliance on short term fixes to long term issues.
And we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. The economy will certainly change for the better over the coming decade, aviation is being transformed by the advance of technology and the Heathrow Runway 3 debate promises to have a major impact on route availability for regional airports like Plymouth.
And there are wheels within wheels - witness the public inquiry currently taking place at Jurys Inn where Sutton Harbour Holdings and the council are slugging it out with Wharfside Regeneration over the right to create a new heart for the north Plymouth. All these things are connected and create an intricate maze through which we must navigate.
Few conversations about Plymouth pass without the use of the word ‘vision’. There are those who bemoan the lack of it and others who try to capture it in a phrase.
However we express it, our vision must be for a city greater than it is today. A city where an airport will be a crucial incentive for commerce and activity. A city which relies on its national and international connections to build its reputation as a buzzing business community and a must-see destination.
To allow bulldozers to rip up our airport would be to diminish ourselves and limit our aspirations.
We should not forget why today’s debate is taking place – more than 37,000 people signed a petition. That cannot be dismissed – it is a powerful groundswell of opinion. Let’s hope any pedant who retreats into a line by line analysis of the precise wording of the petition proposal or speculation about the commitment of the signatories is greeted with the groan they deserve. The point of the petition is that it expresses a widely held view that we should protect our airport. Certainly, one can only wonder if a petition in support of plans to build on the site would even get into double figures.
Over the past week The Herald’s debate series has covered a wide range of views.
We heard from a former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, Jed Griffiths, who is convinced the airport is a vital building block in the city’s regeneration. But that view was countered by transport analyst, Neill Mitchell, who regards the airport as a lost cause.
Council leader Tudor Evans – a veteran of this debate – is, perhaps, one of the individuals with the most to lose from this issue. Whether or not it is fair, his legacy may well be defined by the fate of the airport. Local politicians are certainly not in it for the money and those who can raise themselves above the clamour to lead with conviction deserve our respect. Cllr Evans insists he is doing everything he can to help discussions to reopen the airport – we hope that is enough to deliver the right outcome for Plymouth.
Raoul Witherall, the chairman of Viable – the group that wants to restart air services from Plymouth – spoke clearly and eloquently about his plans. No one should doubt his commitment to creating a profitable airline but it is time for the substance to be tested. Viable’s recently announced ambition to obtain the freehold of the airport land certainly deserves close scrutiny to prevent us finding ourselves in exactly the same position in a few years – only with the potential developers and not the council owning the land. Viable should be given the opportunity and the necessary commercial assurances to allow them to set out the detail of their plan. There are important questions for them to answer over their financial backing but if they can satisfy reasonable scrutiny it would be a scandal in the making if they were blocked.
David Parlby from the Chamber adopts a pragmatic position – he wants a successful airport but wants to see the numbers that can make that happen. He is keen to move on and feels that if a deal cannot be made with Viable then we should consider the option of developing the site to create economic activity, wealth and jobs. He rightly calls for an end to the bickering over the historic reasons for the predicament in which we now find ourselves and for a constructive approach to finding a solution.
Charles Howeson of the Plymouth Area Business Council – a man with a vested interest in the rail link to the city who might be expected to welcome the decline of a competitor – speaks from the heart when he says we must work together to secure the future of the airport. There are few people who understand the workings of this city so well and he is convinced by the need to retain our runway.
Sutton Harbour decided not to take part in our debate series but their motivation is clear and honest – profit. It is a company that tried – tried harder than many give them credit – to run an airline from Plymouth and sees no way forward to make money for its shareholders out of aviation so are looking to go back to their strength – development – and capitalise on the value of the land.
Sutton Harbour is a valued and significant player in the economy of Plymouth and will, no doubt, play an important role in the future prosperity of the city. But we should not forget that it is the duty of the company’s directors to put its shareholders’ interests first, not the interests of the city or its people. The fact is SHH has received a very strong hint that the value of their lease may increase dramatically in the next year because the possibility has been mooted that planning restrictions could be lifted. It is high time that possibility was removed and the council sent a clear message that the airport land will remain for use as an airport – only then can sensible discussions progress.
Each side in this debate has good arguments and we have tried to allow them each to speak clearly and calmly. While no final decision will be taken today it is important we start to head in the right direction.
Imagine this city in a decade. You will look back at a day like today and recall the countless promises we made to ourselves to build a better future, to create a vibrant economy, to become a city with a vision. You will look back at a day like today and see whether those promises were kept or whether we recoiled when the grand words needed to be turned into action.
A failure to maintain the airport will surely be seen in the future as yet another missed opportunity, another self-inflicted wound from a big city resigned to a small town attitude.
Some dismiss this debate over the future of our airport as a distraction. They are wrong. This city is capable of dealing with more than a single issue at any one time and the future of our airport is inextricably linked to our future success.
It has been said this city punches below its weight – certainly it has allowed itself to be easily overlooked. We should have the confidence to stake our claim to a destiny in which we become a thriving city served by road, rail, sea and air. A city at the cutting edge of marine technology, advanced manufacturing and alternative energy. A city which is a cultural and tourism hub for this huge region.
There are days like today which will define our history. The Herald calls on our leaders to put aside petty squabbles over the reasons for the situation in which we find ourselves. Nor should they get bogged down in nit-picking discussion of the fine print. This is a time for people to say what they believe and act on it. This is a time to work together to stand up for what is right for the future of this city and its people.
That is why we say this city should have an airport.