Countdown to Plymouth City Airport debate: The council leader's view
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.
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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.
The airport debate is at 2pm on Monday at the Civic Centre.