A personal view – Peter Forbes, Director, Alan Stratford and Associates
The approval of the Development Consent Order (DCO) for a major cargo hub at the disused Manston Airport is a highly controversial and political decision by the UK Department for Transport. But is this in the best interests of the UK aviation sector and the local community in East Kent? In this article, I offer my personal view as to why I feel that this decision, which over-ruled an earlier recommendation by the Planning Inspectorate, is flawed and will only potentially benefit the developer rather than provide the promised 23,000 new jobs both to the local area and across the UK as a whole.
I should firstly advise that I have been personally involved with Manston airport over a number of years – initially providing consultancy advice through my company, Alan Stratford and Associates, to the then-owner, the Wiggins Group and subsequently to Thanet District Council (TDC). More recently I carried out a feasibility study for a private investor interested in acquiring the site and re-opening the airport. The main conclusion of this study was that, whilst a small-scale freight / passenger airport might just be commercially viable, the real value was in the sale of all (or part) of the land for housing development.
However, since this study, the economic landscape has changed through the impacts of Brexit, Covid-19 and several smaller UK regional airports have either closed or are struggling financially. In the case of Manston, there was also a key issue as to whether permission for night flights would be granted from TDC, which would strongly impact on the relatively modest levels of dedicated freighter traffic that might be achievable. In the end, the potential investor did not proceed further. I am not currently working for any group involved with the airport.
In assessing this project, it is useful to review the airport’s history. The airport was originally an RAF station with dual RAF and civilian use but was sold by the Ministry of Defence in 1999 to the Wiggins Group, a publicly-quoted property investment company. The Wiggins Group, who rebranded themselves as Planestation developed Manston primarily for low-cost UK operations. During 2004 and 2005, the Irish airline, EUjet based up to seven B737 aircraft at the airport for UK domestic and European short-haul operations. Planestation subsequently purchased a stake in the airline. The venture, however was short-lived and Planestation went into liquidation in July 2005. Later that year the airline was purchased by Infratil, a New Zealand-based company, who also owned and operated Prestwick Airport. Infratil marketed the airport primarily for freight. There was some hope that it might be recognised as an overspill London airport for passenger traffic although this never materialised due to its location and poor surface access. From 2010 onwards, traffic levels declined and the airport became financially unviable, reportedly losing over £3.0m a year just prior to its closure in 2013.
Later in 2013, the site was sold to Ann Gloag, a Scottish entrepreneur, reportedly for £1.00. She subsequently sold it on Stone Hill Park, a property company, who intended to develop the site with plans for some 4,000 homes and a business park, whilst retaining a ‘heritage’ airport for vintage aircraft and other light aviation. Although proposals for some housing at the site were included in Thanet District Council’s Draft Local Plan, these were subsequently rejected by Councillors in favour of retaining Manston for freight and passenger use. In July 2019, Stonehill Park sold the airport to RiverOak Strategic Partners (RSP) reportedly for some £16.5m. RSP plan to develop Manston as a major freight airport with some limited passenger traffic. Planning consent for this has been now given through a Development Consent Order (DCO) approved on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport, although this was against the recommendations of the Planning Inspectorate examining panel. A local community group has vowed to raise funds to challenge this decision through a Judicial Review.
In order to fulfil the requirements of the DCO, RSP needed to show that the airport was a significant national infrastructure development with a minimum of 10,000 ATMs per annum. Under RSP’s forecasts, Manston would handle some 181,436 tonnes of cargo with 10,144 cargo ATMs by Year 6 of its operation. Passenger traffic was forecasted at 965,925 by Year 6 and 1,307,259 by Year 18. The development is forecasted to create some 23,235 direct, indirect and induced jobs – of which 3,417 were direct jobs at the airport itself. This compares against the total of just 150 jobs at Manston when the airport closed.