Manston: one last diversion
One of the few pieces of advice I’ve ever paid attention to is: ask yourself “What’s really going on here?” So… what was the Select Committee about, and why did it spend so much time looking at Manston?
The publicly stated remit for the Committee was to inquire on the “role of smaller airports, and the steps the Government and EU are taking to support them”. In practice, there was little exploration of their role, and much more emphasis on how to support them. In aviation, support usually means tax breaks - in this case the tax is Air Passenger Duty (APD).
The aviation industry has complained about APD ever since it was invented, and regional devolution has made things worse. Northern Ireland’s Belfast airport clearly illustrates the disadvantage of APD in the business it loses to neighbouring Dublin airport. Scotland has the power to drop APD, which would jeopardize Newcastle airport. If Wales does likewise, Bristol airport would be threatened. All the smaller airports in England are getting twitchy, complaining it’s not a level playing field.
The Select Committee provided the aviation industry with a forum to air its grievances about APD. The Committee’s report provides the Department for Transport and the (English) smaller airports with a stick with which to beat the Treasury. In that respect, it’s served its purpose.
So what about Manston?
Manston airport had already closed before the inquiry started. The Select Committee considered Manston as a case study "both to inform our wider recommendations and because the Kent public are concerned". In fact, the amount of "concern" in Kent had been exaggerated by aviation lobby groups, and then magnified by Sir Roger Gale’s access to Ministers and media. Manston turned out to be little more than a diversion.
Inexplicably, the Select Committee failed to take the opportunity to be “informed” by the people they questioned. Alastair Welch had been General Manager at Stansted, and then bucked the national trend in making Southend Airport a success. In contrast, Tony Freudmann (part of the team that wants to grab the site) has been closely involved with more aviation failures than anyone else I know.
It was a perfect opportunity for the Select Committee to find out what makes a small airport succeed, what makes it fail, and what role APD might play. And they fluffed it. Instead, they spent a large portion of their precious time delving into the share-holdings and ownership of the companies that own the ex-airport site.
I got the impression that the Committee Chair, Louise Ellman, didn’t fully understand the questions she was asking on this subject, let alone the answers. I suspect she had been fed the questions by Sir Roger, who in turn had been fed by the “pro-Manston” groups. The Select Committee learnt nothing from their case study of Manston that could usefully be applied to other smaller airports, or to their consideration of the impact of APD.
The Committee’s remit covered 40 or so airports across the country - open, active airports. Why did they spend so much time asking Sir Roger’s questions about a closed airport? For the same reason Minister Hayes came to Kent to re-announce a DfT inquiry while standing next to a parliamentary candidate - electioneering.
Anyway, on with the report…
* * * SPOILER ALERT * * *
There’s a lengthy rehash of the time wasted on the 2nd and 23rd Feb - Manston’s history and irrelevant questions about ownership. Ann Gloag is invited to publish her commercial arrangements, TDC is dissed for being small fry, KCC and DfT are rebuked for not having been more helpful, DfT is encouraged to play the sensible grown-up, and the Government confirms it has no interest in buying Manston.
In TDC’s place, I would be peeved - central Government has no “right of oversight”, the Council has followed due process, and that should be the end of it. The Committee haven’t considered the possibility that it didn’t take long, and didn’t cost much, for TDC to reach their decision simply because it was so obvious. (Is this 6 month old company, based in a foreign tax haven, with no accounts, and no up-front cash a prudent choice? No.)
In KCC’s place, I would be peeved - yes, KCC did change their minds… because the facts changed. For years assorted owners had been telling KCC that the airport was a sure-fire winner. Then the owner tells them it’s a dead duck. And it’s not central Government’s place to tell KCC how to spend its budget, just as it's not KCC's place to prop up a failed business. KCC's job is to focus on what's best for Kent, and KCC has clearly decided that regeneration is the best available option.
In Ann Gloag’s place, I would tell them to take a running jump.