Council has ‘no plans to buy’ as owners’ silence goes on

Under threat: Balfour Beatty has announced Blackpool Airport will close unless a buyer can be found by October 7
Under threat: Balfour Beatty has announced Blackpool Airport will close unless a buyer can be found by October 7

Council bosses in Blackpool today claimed savage Government cuts have left them powerless to save the town’s threatened airport.

Owners Balfour Beatty revealed on Monday that the Squires Gate airport will “likely” shut on October 15 if a buyer cannot be found by October 7 – threatening 100 years of 
aviation history on the Fylde coast.

Blackpool Council, which previously owned the airport and retains a five per cent stake, today said it has “no current plans” to buy back the operation – pointing out it has been forced to cope with millions of pounds in cuts.

The council’s transport boss Coun John Jones said, on Monday, it was “likely the end of an era for the airport as a commercial passenger flight terminal which is a great shame.”

But opposition councillors have slammed the stance as “meek and mild”, saying town hall bosses should be doing more to stop the threat of the terminal 
being simply consigned to the history books.

And they are backed by growing pleas from residents and businesses across the town desperate to see the airport’s future secured.

In a statement, a council spokesman confirmed the authority was not in a position to look at taking control of the airport again itself.

The spokesman said: “The council faces £20m worth of cuts coming on the back of £60m cuts since the last election and has a number of other financial commitments so there are no current plans to buy the airport.

“We want it to remain an airport. There are many successful commercial regional airports around the country.

“We would be looking to discuss the future of the airport at the earliest opportunity with any new owner.”

But this apparent wait-and-see stance has sparked anger.

Conservative councillor Paul Galley, who represents Anchorsholme, said: “There is certainly more that can be done. Closure is the last thing that should be happening and the last thing we should accept.

“To surrender and say the airport can close is not good enough – the council has been far too meek and mild.”

Conservative group leader Coun Tony Williams said: “I think the silence from the council is deafening.

“They are quite willing to let this valuable asset go sailing down the river.

“The airport is vital to Blackpool – it’s unthinkable we could let it go.

“Balfour Beatty has been totally irresponsible, with no concern for Blackpool.

“I would like to have a meeting with them, to sit down and see what things council can do to help, but nobody came back to me yesterday.

“To turn around and do this to Blackpool is a dirty trick.”

The council did however move to reassure people the airport could not simply be used as development land for new homes if it was to go.

The spokesman added: “There is a covenant on the land which means it could not be simply developed for housing or other use without Blackpool and Fylde councils’ agreement.”

That came after Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden said whoever takes over Squires Gate should be told unequivocally the land would not end up being used to build houses.

He expressed dismay with Balfour Beatty over the suddenness of the closure threat, but has held talks with senior figures at the construction 
giant about the future of Squires Gate.

He said: “It is very disappointing that, up until now, Balfour Beatty has not thought to share the potential dire consequences of not being able to find a buyer for the air operations.

“The sudden announcement has caused a great deal of anger and heartache, for the people who work there, and because of the damage and disappointment that this threatens to bring to passengers, airlines and the local community in Blackpool.

“I hope that even at this late hour they will redouble their efforts to work with any potential buyers of the site who want to keep its aviation focus.

“I would encourage all parties including the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership to work with them on the process and I will be taking this forward with Blackpool Council.

“The crucial issue must be to maintain the runway presence at the airport and to negotiate on that basis.

“Both councils should look very carefully at the planning powers they can and should exercise to ensure that any potential buyer clearly understands that the future of the site must be aviation-related.”

“It’s an awful situation.”

Mr Marsden added the airport was a key aspect in the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership bid for Government funding and said the councils should raise the issue with the LEP as soon as possible.

The demands come as Balfour Beatty and Jet2, the airport’s largest carrier, again failed to answer questions put by The Gazette about why the terminal, which just a few months ago was reporting a year-on-year increase in passenger numbers, has found itself in such dire straits.

Sources have suggested the rocky relationship between the airport and Jet 2 could be to blame, after a High Court ruling in 2012 said the airport must continue serving Jet2’s early morning and late night flights, despite efforts by airport bosses to cut costs by only accepting flights between 7am and 9pm.

But, again, despite repeated requests to explain what led to Monday’s announcement, and why they chose to reveal a potential closure when talks to sell the airport continue with at least on interested party, Balfour Beatty refused to comment.

A spokesman for Jet2 said the firm did not wish to comment on the situation until the airport closes or a sale is completed.

Contingency plans are still being worked on for passengers who had either booked flights after October 15 or are due to fly abroad just before the potential closure date.

A spokesman from Citywing, which operates flights to the Isle of Man and Belfast from Squires Gate, said they knew the airport had been put up for sale but were surprised by the closure announcement.

He said: “We are working together with the airport to seek out an interim position for continued operations, with a view to having a positive outcome for the longer term. ”

But David Bentley, from Oldham-based aviation consultancy Big Pond Aviation, said the situation looked dire.

He added:“Regional airports like Blackpool are struggling everywhere. In Europe about 44 per cent of all airports are making a loss and across the world the figure is over 60 per cent.

“The business model is not ideal. The major airlines are not interested in expanding into regional airports and the low cost operators are now looking to fly from the primary airports where they can maximise revenue per passenger for example by targeting business commuters.

“The regional airlines who might be interested are under pressure too, some are struggling to make a profit and area going through a consolidation phase, so there is no real potential for growth there at Blackpool.”

Mr Bentley said low cost operators could just as easily use Manchester Airport to cater for the region as there was plenty of capacity.

He added: “I think the second runway in Manchester is operating at less than 50 per cent so there is plenty of room.

“It is tough for the smaller airports and the future will probably lie away from high volume carriers.

“Even with freight, most companies truck freight down to Heathrow or fly it in the belly of the big commercial aircraft so there is not much room for business growth there.

“There’s hardly a single investor I can think would be interested in buying a regional like Blackpool.”

Balfour Beatty, which this week issued a profits warning for the third time this year, has stated it wants to pull out of all its airport operations.