Last week Matthew and Melissa debated the migration of people to Thanet, from London (DFL – Down from London) and further afield (DFA – Down from Anywhere).
Matthew was in favour, Melissa not. Just over 53% of those who voted agreed with Matthew, just over 40% were with Melissa with the remaining just under 7% not sure.
This week the pair have alternate views on the Manston airport site, a hot potato in Thanet whichever side of the fence you are on.
I love airports. I grew up in the shadow of Stansted airport, where my mum worked as an air traffic controller, and would occasionally sneak me in to watch the planes take off and land. To me, they represent mystery, romance, the thrilling allure of escape.
For Thanet, its airport represents history, yes, but also opportunity.
Manston was central to the air defence of Great Britain throughout both world wars, but safe to say it’s had a chequered history ever since. Firm after firm have used the airport as a cash cow, crippling it with debts and poor decisions, yet throughout the decades it has nonetheless remained a solvent, viable business proposition, whether for trainee pilots, cargo or passengers. Why else would interest in it remain so intense? What shouts so loud as money?
And why would RiverOak, a firm with experience of creating a hugely successful cargo hub airport in Texas, as well as vastly expensive and successful new airport terminals at JFK and Newark airport, have been so keen to acquire Manston?
Because profit. That’s why.
What, then, will Riveroak Strategic Partners (RSP) now offer Thanet? Jobs! Proper jobs, local jobs. An airport in this area will mean well-paid jobs for locals, and also a boom in our tourist industry, for all the bars, hotels, restaurants, shops. Add to this the indirect opportunities created by having well-paid jobs available locally, vastly increasing the spending power of those connected with the airport, and the economic advantages for Thanet – indeed, all of East Kent – start to appear considerable.
Let’s now consider the alternative proposals of Stone Hill Park. They would prefer instead 4000 new houses (4000! In one place! That’s because driving anywhere in Thanet isn’t challenging enough, apparently). They won’t build the houses, either, but instead sell land on to others over a 20 year horizon, so that early purchasers will be surrounded by congestion, filth and noise for up to 20 years. These 4000 homes will all need gas, electricity, sewerage and water supplies, meaning the laying of new supply lines, and gaining a supply capacity which is currently nowhere in sight.
Stone Hill also claim to offer thousands of permanent manufacturing jobs, although it isn’t clear exactly what these would be, or indeed, whether local people would be prioritised. There seems to be every chance this would represent an opportunity for people outside the area to make a quick profit, then clear off again.
RSP, however, who seek to reopen Manston as an airport, require their contractors to employ as many local people as possible, and indeed are already putting education and training in place to make that happen. There are no longer careers officers or vocational advisors in our local schools. How else can we lift the aspirations and skill levels of the young?
Moreover, how else can we hope to secure Britain’s place in the world? China has built more than 100 new airports over the past few years, with plans to build many more, while we here in the UK have bulldozed half the number of our airfields. China is now the second biggest economy in the world, with its coffers growing at the fastest rate, while the UK slides sorrowfully down the table. Don’t we want more for our country?
And on a local level, don’t we want more for Thanet? Localism means working with what’s already here, as well as considering what the existing population truly wants and needs. Let’s invest in our area for the good of the people who already live here, building on our already considerable heritage and resources, retaining our unique, indubitable character, and bringing training, investment and employment where it’s so urgently needed. Bring planes back to Manston.
Manston is a place that’s embedded into our local psyche. We’re all pro-airport or pro-redevelopment … or anti-airport or anti-redevelopment, depending on the language you use.
There has been a landing strip at Manston for 100 years, and it is rather iconic; it provided a base of operations during wartime, training facilities during peacetime, and a place for commercial ventures that never – aha – got off the ground.
There has been a lot of effort in getting it redeveloped, and I applaud everything that’s been done by so many passionate people; especially as they continue to fight and look at options long after – sadly – all the equipment making it a space that could enable Manston to restart immediately has gone. I’m not being facetious when I say that either, merely admiring peoples’ tenacity.
But Manston airport’s days as a commercial airport have, I’m sad to say, gone. There’s a fascinating report entitled “No Room for Late Arrivals”; I had this shared with me on Twitter by someone who heard Melissa and I were writing these pieces and went out of their way to track me down.
I’ll let you read it at your leisure, but it did provide for a fascinating read. Did you know, for example, that there were three separate owners of the airport between 1999 and 2014? It’s difficult to keep track of what happened when, but the airports certainly tried to make it work – and none of them succeeded.
But would more cargo flights work instead? The previous owners have tried that to a degree, but perhaps a dedicated commercial hub would be the way forward. Well, the airport “accounted for no more than 1% to 2% of the UK’s air freight. It lost millions of pounds every year. It closed in 2014 because it could not attract cargo airlines to use it. The airport lost around £100m during its fifteen year commercial life.” (All from the report I mentioned)
One of the main questions to ask here is, “Do we need another commercial cargo airport?” The report notes that airports at East Midlands, Stansted, and Heathrow have spare capacity at the moment, so new owners at Manston would need to consider where they were going to get their cargo transport from; maybe businesses have already signed up, but if they haven’t, then a lot of work would need to be done first in order to guarantee a base level of income.
I’ve lived in Thanet all my life, so I’ve seen Manston’s fortunes wax and wane almost according to the seasons; every passenger airline that set up shop there, I’ve willed to succeed. But none of them have. I take no pleasure in saying that, but it’s the truth. One thing we have to consider is the efficacy of commercial planes from that site; it’s not like we haven’t tried, and it’s not like we haven’t studied it in some depth. There comes a time when something new might be worthy of consideration. A number of airlines can’t make it work, and the concept of night flights seems to inflame opinion as well.
Whether you’re a heavy or light sleeper, night flights in a relatively small area like Thanet could – I think we can agree – keep a lot of us awake at night. People who live in the flight paths of the bigger airports probably adjust to it to a large part, but not easily – and how many night flights would Manston have to allow in order to make the site viable? I ask because I don’t know the answer, but I would suggest that even one would be too many.
We should be rightly proud of our air flight heritage; Manston is part of World War 2’s history and is well-known amongst people interested in that era – which should be all of us, as there’s so much we can learn from those six years.
But Manston’s heritage is bigger than that single war; the Ministry of Defence has used it, private industry has been based there for years, we have a museum that I adore. But its central purpose of being an active, financially healthy airport is gone; the landing strip is pretty much the only thing left (I say “pretty much” because I can’t say with 100% certainty that there’s not anything else there), and I can only imagine the costs involved in bringing in new equipment to turn it back into an active airport – and that’s before any companies actually try to bring in flights.
So, let’s try something new; we can still respect the heritage of Manston without continuing to fight for the same future. The zeitgeist has changed, and we need to adapt; there are other options on the table, and yes we need to continue having discussions – will there be enough GP surgeries, schools, dentists, and buses for new residents? Will the water table and electric companies be able to provide basic utilities? There are people whose are employed to consider such things, and we must consider them now alongside the designs for a new, mini-town, but that mean we shouldn’t consider anything different. If we refused, Manston would stay empty and continue to sadly decay.
Manston’s future as an airport is the furthest away it’s ever been. We’ll not see it return to that state without significant, ongoing investment that may never see a return; insanity is often defined as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – we’ve tried making airports successful, so perhaps it’s time we tried something new.
Manston excites local passions; my comments in this piece will undoubtedly annoy people who disagree with me, and others will get annoyed at Melissa for her argument. I’ve deliberately not gone deeply into statistics and numbers, all of which could – and, for all I know, have – be interpreted differently. There is a wealth of well-researched material out there, and what I’ve read, a lot of support for trying something new. IAs my fellow columnist Seb Reilly said in his own column on the subject; “The impression I get – and I could be mistaken – is that many Thanet residents, myself included, would just like something to happen with the site … Jobs are surely a higher priority than nostalgia or profit.”
Let’s be open to new possibilities and see where it leads us.
NOTE: The poll ended at 576 Melissa and 928 Matthew. Unfortunately due to multiple voting we have now had to remove the poll.