There has been much recent coverage in the local press about proposals for housing development on the airport site. Given that the Local Authority and the Joint Local Plan are resolutely opposed to such development, these proposals are just that - proposals.
They have come of course with a number of arguments against aviation at Plymouth airport, most of which have gone unchallenged. Here then is our response to some of the arguments against aviation tabled over the past week.
1. General Aviation (GA) offers little real value or strategic connectivity for Plymouth
This is plainly not the case. The Government reported in 2015 that nationally, GA is worth £3bn to the economy, and supports some 38,000 full time jobs in the UK. While any of the individual airports and airfields may not seem very substantial in itself, the network effect creates a multiplier on value. Moreover, GA supports the UK’s £60bn aviation sector through skills, training, business development access, engineering and so on.
In terms of Plymouth, firstly, GA makes possible vital and immediate non-scheduled passenger services such as business aviation, chartered aircraft, air taxis, private flights and so on, all of which do contribute to strategic connectivity and all of which were active at Plymouth airport prior to closure.
Secondly, GA provides for business, leisure, training and emergency service needs which the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states Plans should take account of - Plymouth had a rich history in supporting each of these as well as military - another component of GA
And thirdly, GA provides a deliverable and sustainable means of retaining an airlink at Plymouth until such time as commercial scheduled services are reintroduced. As an example, with the first-class rail fare to Glasgow presently at £660 - historically one of Plymouth airport's strongest routes - and journey time saving of between 7 and 8 hours to be gained each way, a variety of passenger services can be expected to establish themselves to this and other destinations in time.
2. The private sector has had six years to come up with a business plan. Why should we expect things to change over the coming five years?
Since the airport closed in 2011, the one single obstacle to the airport’s return to aviation has consistently been the development hope value placed on the site by its present leaseholder. The fact is that it simply is not worth £11.8 million as an airport and capitalising this would likely cripple a new operation. Several would-be buyers including ourselves have in fact come forward since 2011 with a variety of aviation models but on each occasion, the site acquisition proved insurmountable.
What is different now is that the present planning process finally provides a real mechanism for correcting the site’s value in line with aviation use and so releasing the airport at a fair market value. Should the Council succeed in defending aviation use, the airport will be in the hands of a new airport operator long before five years are up.
3. FlyPlymouth’s plans require a £9 million subsidy which will not be forthcoming…
The £9 million plan put forward by FlyPlymouth was just one of the many possible options for reintroducing aviation at Plymouth Airport. This plan set out a fast-track route to reinstating scheduled services as at that time, all the interest was on restoring passenger air services. The subsequent Government Report was explicit in acknowledging that it had considered just the one plan and that other approaches may be possible.
Furthermore, it is not the case that the Government has ruled out whether or not such funding would be available at some stage to a reopened Plymouth. The self-same funding packages FlyPlymouth referenced presently support services including routes from both Exeter and Newquay today and all new regional routes in the UK seek public sector support to get to breakeven.
Notwithstanding this, given the present planning process, FlyPlymouth’s plan is presently focussed on the general aviation opportunity identified by the City Council. That plan is sustainable, detailed, evidenced and has full private sector funding to allow it to be delivered.
4. SHH’s independent report shows GA to lose £1M per year…
It is true that Sutton Harbour Holding's independent study does show a £1 million loss per year. But this has failed to persuade the City Council. There are over 200 airfields in the UK which operate sustainably and Plymouth is no different from any other viable airport on this basis.
What is interesting is that few of these airports and airfields are viable in terms of aviation revenues alone. Almost all UK airports support their aviation revenue with ground-based commercial revenues – hangars, workshops, offices, training, storage and so on.
Also interesting is the fact that SHH's model shows zero ground-based revenue which might be thought an oversight for a property company. There are of course many ways of ways of balancing operating costs against revenues in an airfield to deliver a sustainable profit – few airfields operate identical businesses.
FlyPlymouth has taken extensive specialist advice and produced a GA Business Plan for Plymouth Airport that will be funded entirely through private investment. There is zero funding requirement from either the local or national authorities to make this happen. Of course, the financial elements of FlyPlymouth’s plans will not be published; Business plans by their nature are commercially sensitive and do not belong in the public domain.
5. Isn’t the land better used for development when we have an airport at Exeter?
Unlike much of the UK, Plymouth is over-supplied with residential development opportunities - many of which take years to come on stream if at all. And delivery of new housing is actually very slow compared to capacity – a fact exemplified in that the new houses at the end of the former crosswind runway at Plymouth airport are only now being completed, ten years after the project was first approved!
But Plymouth also has a significant transport deficit – which is well known. We are one of the UK’s most peripheral larger cities with journey times and connectivity issues that impact negatively on growth, investment and productivity.
A city/subregional airport like that in Plymouth offers local connectivity and GA services that Exeter just cannot provide. Most air passengers from Plymouth since Plymouth airport closed have been shown to travel not through Exeter but through Bristol or Heathrow.
The Plymouth Plan then is entirely right to commit to the retention of unique and irreplaceable transport infrastructure. Plymouth airport has already contributed more than its fair share of residential development land to the City and should rightly be allowed now to provide a variety of valuable air services.