COUNCILLOR CHRIS WELLS: Henry, Manston And Me!
Editors Note: The author is the leader of Thanet District Council.
In the context of the tortured debate about Heathrow expansion, involving £15-20 billion of expenditure, and perhaps 15 years of intense local community opposition, having a runway available less than 100 miles away with good transport links is surely, at the very least, an excellent interim solution. Perhaps a permanent one. Certainly, a more cost-effective one.
That was where Henry Bolton and I once stood, together, on the Manston Airport issue
Ranged against that are:
the vested interests of those running flagship international airports, transporting the majority of airfreight in the belly of passenger aircraft;
that the 800 or so acres that constitute Manston Airport have never really delivered the quality or quantity of jobs, and thus wealth creation, they should;
that Thanet Council’s years under both Labour and Conservative control is littered with poorly handled regeneration and inward investment projects.
This has been the real context faced by the UKIP administration for Thanet Council, leading to some very difficult decisions.
- Whatever happens on this site, jobs and wealth creation must be at the heart of the project and that means if it is to be an airport, passengers beat freight. Passengers use more services, produce higher numbers of shift jobs, and wider ranges of work opportunity.
- However, the current proposal is for a freight hub, 19 times the size of what was there before; although aviation experts on whose work it is based have recently shredded the business plan.
- Regional airports across the U.K. – and wider – can and do add jobs and wealth to the local economy with the right mix of services, but require considerable investment. In Manston’s case, certainly £50m plus, for refurbished terminals and equipment.
- As the Council does not own the site, if a CPO route is to be followed finances must be visibly in place.
- Labour and Conservative history at the Council gets in the way. The Labour Party’s 2014 ‘toxic and dysfunctional council’ may has been replaced by UKIP’s ‘palpable improvement’ and ‘respected political leadership’, but no one should be surprised if due diligence is undertaken with proper caution, especially when we have had to settle the reckless bills left by others.
- Having seen the campaigners favoured candidate miserably fail, twice, to meet reasonable criteria for indemnity partnership on basic business principles, including redacted names of investors, we have still had the courage and belief to keep talking to, and looking for, alternative business investors for aviation.
- The UKIP administration has also had the courage to objectively follow the evidence base of local plan processes, represented in practice by the (Tory) government’s infamous growth agenda. A plan previously delayed by both Conservative and Labour since 2011.
That process is causing agony across the South East and beyond. It is akin to playing on a government programmed one-arm bandit, which responds, whenever interrogated ‘build more houses’. With a penalty of little defence for any site if you sit without an up to date local plan, or 5-year housing supply. Which aptly describes our situation.
Is a Development Consent Order the answer? Given the front end loading of a DCO, it is not even yet a question, let alone an answer giving any certainty. One Thanet MP claims a war chest of £300m is available; of a set of legal documents costing £4m; of aircraft flying out of Manston within 12 months – though that’s the third year in a row he has made that prediction, an irony seemingly lost on campaigners. All to come from a source who could not provide a simple letter of credit for £20m in 2015, and whose ‘alternative proof of funds’ had all identifying details redacted from them.
The alternative put forward by the legal owners, with a public track record of successful regeneration, and available funds following their sale of Discovery Park, includes the promise of a heritage airfield to acknowledge the history that seeps across the site.
Debate on this issue has been anything but cool and calm. If you stand on a street corner in Thanet and shout ‘planes back to Manston’ you will likely be cheered and applauded. It has taken the best part of a thousand words to lay out an honest attempt at dispassionate analysis, which many will begin but not read until the end. Rationality-versus-emotion? In the post-referendum world, it’s a popular debate. Here the final decision will shape the future of Thanet for years to come.
In the habit of this debate, I suspect I will now be subject to considerable abuse. Some call for resignation, others want me run over in a car, or see me hung, for not giving way to their demands.
Interestingly enough, during recent weeks, amid all the shouting about the local Plan, my email inbox has been very different. Messages that start with phrases like – ” I would never have voted UKIP, but your integrity and obvious agony in coming to the right decision for your community is both welcome and honest”.
I once predicted I wanted to run a boring Council. I will settle for a Council considered honest by their electorate.
In the only meeting I had with Henry Bolton in his role as Chairman of one of the Manston campaign groups – in his yellow trousers and checked jacket reflecting the mini-me Nigel Farage fashion of the time – he made it clear he backed the consortium that had failed the basic business tests, promoted redacted investors, led by a former solicitor, struck off following a professional standards case involving misappropriation of client funds. The same man who has promised to develop 8/9 airports and failed in them all, including, previously, Manston.
Henry has now backed rebel Ukippers still demanding an airport, whose alternative investors include one described by an appeal court judge as having been sentenced for 17 offences on seven occasions for various offences involving dishonesty, and another whose last job as business development director for an airline that ended in the airline’s bankruptcy…although he was using another name then, so suppose that’s all perfectly normal!
Henry, Colleagues, it’s not that we haven’t tried, but whilst fulfilling the election pledge for aviation has proved near impossible, hanging on to it means sacrificing hundreds of acres of greenfield sites to government housing demands whilst the brownfield airport site would remain empty and sterile; which breaches another UKIP pledge on greenfield development.
And won’t more elections be fought, and won, across this country on the issue of Greenfield development, because few seats have airports to battle over.
I challenge Henry with words attributed to renowned economist John Maynard Keynes: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”