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Flight of Fancy?

Flight of Fancy?Almost two years ago, counterbalance heard credible rumours that Blackpool Airport had a plan to acquire the Morrisons supermarket site off Squires Gate Lane. Whilst this might, or might not, have been true, it suggested change was in the air. So when a chance to hear the airport boss speaking to a pensioners group arose, we put our stone-coloured anorak on and went along to listen.

The notes of that meeting are long gone, but we believe the speaker was more candid than he might have been, and we recall him saying the plan was to increase passenger throughput from 350,000 a year to 6 million a year over the next six years

That's significant.

He also said there was a plan to extend the runway toward Queensway - again we can't be sure, but memory says the plan was to stop it 250 metres from Queensway itself.  This was to be able to take  bigger aeroplanes. However, as the speaker was at pains to point out, the bigger planes were also newer and quieter, so there would be less noise, not more. Hmmmmmm.

A planning application to extend the runway was submitted by the its then owners, but has not been proceeded with.

We were also picking up rumours of another plan to extend the runway (so it could accommodate 747's) that would see it extended over Queensway itself, with the road passing through a tunnel under the extended runway.

Then, for quite a while, the rumours stopped. New services started to arrive at the airport. Bigger planes were seen in the sky (and heard from St Annes town), and budget airlines started to appear. 

Then MAR Properties Limited bought a controlling interest, with Blackpool Council (its former owner) retaining a 5% share, and Fylde Council, in whose borough most of the airport falls, began to take an interest. Subsequently, City Hopper Airports Limited contracted with MAR to manage the airport property which is done in conjunction with a firm called Blackpool Airport Limited who deal with day to day management issues.

We kept a watching brief on what was going on, not least because if Blackpool gets its super casino, and its hoped-for 'regeneration' you can be sure the extra thousands of visitors won't be coming up the M55, and the railway won't cope with them all either.

Another interesting piece in this aviation jigsaw, was the recent plan to restructure Local Government to give us a new 'Regional' tier. In this plan, the Government precluded Blackpool Council from completely absorbing its neighbouring councils, but Blackpool did suggest some 'adjustments' to their southern boundary. This of course, showed their intention to move the airport within the Blackpool boundary, giving them control of its future planning applications.

But neither the regional government plan, nor the boundary changes, came off.

Then quite recently, a telling comment was found buried in an obscure policy report to Fylde Council. It was talking about justification for certain planning policies, and it said in respect of the airport, the policies were important so that Fylde did not hamper the expansion plans of the airport which was seen as a 'regionally important facility'.

Interesting - and quite unusual for the planning arm of a council to appear so promiscuous toward potential developers.

Recently, in another apparently unrelated action, Fylde Council reviewed the arcane sounding Draft Regional Spatial Strategy for the North West. In essence, this sets out the Government/s "advice" (for which read instructions) to local Councils on a plethora of planning matters.

Fylde's officers had looked at the Government's draft plans and made some suggestions for change. Two that we spotted as being of interest were:

Policy RDF5 Green Belts:
The Government says there is no need for any exceptional strategic change to Green Belt boundaries before 2011, and any small-scale change should be dealt with via the new Local Development Framework process. (This is just one of the latest planning buzzwords and not really crucial here).

Fylde's response was to say that although the text to the Government's Strategy mentioned what it called "small scale detailed boundary changes to meet aircraft needs" at Liverpool and Manchester Airports, no mention was made of the possible need to relax Green Belt boundaries at Blackpool Airport to accommodate operational development. Fylde's Officers said the strategy should include a reference to Blackpool Airport as well, just to make things completely clear.

So once more Fylde is complicit in the plan to let commercial interests take advantage of the local greenbelt that helps separate us from Blackpool.

Furthermore, the Transport Policy (RT31)  compounded this, saying that the economic activity generated by the region's airports should be supported, and that more details of future needs should be identified for Manchester, Liverpool and Blackpool airports.

Fylde agreed with this approach and said it would undertake an Area Action Plan for Blackpool Airport to encourage economic activity in the area.

Sweet surrender sounded complete.

But then the airport produced a document called "The Future - Blackpool International Airport Masterplan" It is glossy, with pictures and maps, it is full of hopes and aspirations, but short on hard evidence.

Last night, Fylde Council considered this document and an officers report on it. counterbalance and some friends went along to listen to the discussions.

For the first time, a dose of common sense was injected into the proceedings when officer's comments in the report were properly cautious, pointing out that assertions of growth do not constitute facts on which to base proper planning assessments.

In essence, counterbalance thinks this version of the airport's document is a 'try-on'. They have put it out to see what they can get away with it, and they have been rumbled.

You can see the proposed masterplan and Fylde's officer comments in this  2mb Adobe Acrobat download from Fylde Council's website.

In broad terms the plan envisages closing some of the smaller runways, extending the business park further into the green belt to raise development cash, providing a taxiway, increasing the facilities for car parking and terminal services and, eventually, providing a new terminal and hangars on the south side of the runway - toward Blackpool Road North, Leach Lane and Rodney Avenue.

 

The airport people say they have no plans to extend the runway as the previous owners planned to, they believe they will be able to manage by adding a  taxiway that will shorten inter-flight delays. 

However, counterbalance has done its sums on the number of people expected if the super casino arrives, and we don't think the passenger throughput is possible without using 747 planes - and they can't use the runway as it is. Even 737 and 757's have to use limited fuel or passengerloads in order to take off. This limits their destinations to central or southern Europe, so the big money gamblers in the US can't arrive by air unless the runway is lengthened. Maybe that idea will 'appear' when everything else has been approved.

The new facilities are to meet growth of around 1000% on the airport's low case projection, and 1230% on their higher estimate. This arises from passenger growth from 350,000 to  either 3.3 million or 4.3 million. and a change to either 102 or 141 flights per day. Flight numbers are difficult to compare with today because at present a large number of small aircraft use the services. These will go as the larger planes take over the airspace. The previous estimate of 6 million passengers a year has either been revised downward, or there are porkies flying around as well as aircraft.

The impact on the green belt that separates us from Blackpool is potentially catastrophic. Not so much that people will notice the change (although those living near to the airfield will of course), but in planning terms, the purpose of the green belt designation is to prevent built development, (including hard surfaces) between the towns from joining up. If this scheme goes ahead as planned, the very purpose of the green belt will virtually be denied.

Several of the Councillors, notably planning chairman Trevor Fiddler, said Fylde was not making enough of this opportunity to generate economic and tourism benefits, and this was a great opportunity for us. 

This is well intentioned, but mostly wrong-headed. The principal flyers will be casino addicts. The Casino will have its own attached five an four star hotels that will match anything in Fylde. 

Furthermore, the basis of casino operation is to keep the punter on a single site and take their money in both gambling, entertainment, refreshment and accommodation. So whilst Blackpool's hoped for 7 million visitors (if they ever materialise) will produce some spin-off for Fylde, it is not likely to be that great.

He also thought officers were being too negative and wanted the tone of their recommendations softened, but the Committee considering the matter mostly left them as they were. They did however agree to his and Roger Small's suggestion that a three man Task and Finish group be formed to consider all the matters, and that a joint meeting with Blackpool Council would be a good idea.

The effect of this will probably be to move most of the difficult arguments behind closed doors and out of the public eye. Here officers can be directed more easily to soften the presentational tone ( without embarrassing public reporting), if softening is felt to be needed.

We know that the key driver for development is the Casino in Blackpool. If it happens, it is expected to create international demand, and flights will literally take-off. If it doesn't go ahead, airport growth will be much slower, if not crippled.

The repot says that passenger charges alone will not fund the development of all the facilities needed.

You know where this is leading don't you gentle reader? Yes that's right, the plan (so far) is to seek planning permission to develop part of the green belt adjoining the industrial estate for commercial non-airport uses. 

Such permission would multiply the value of the land (owned by the airport) overnight by maybe a thousand times, and provide the money to complete funding the airport development.

The situation gets even more complicated because in law, the airport might have what are called 'Permitted Development Rights and development for airport operational purposes might not need an application for planning permission (to do the  runway works and the terminals and car parks and hangars). The suggested change of green belt to industrial might be the only application Fylde receives.

But the situation could become even more complicated!

Suppose that the airport has these permitted development rights, and develops some hangars say, on the south side near Rodney Avenue. That takes the land out of the green belt classification without Fylde BC having any say in the matter. They could then (note here we are not saying they plan to do this) apply for, residential or commercial use planning permission on the (new) industrial land which is no longer green belt, and Fylde would have a hard time to refuse it because it will have become redundant industrial land, whereas they would never have allowed such development on green belt land.

This is why there is so much interest and speculation in what land the airport is acquiring at the moment. 

We have heard from several usually reliable sources they have bought the Pontins Holiday site, (makes sense if you were planning to include a railway terminal on the 'airfield') - and gossip circulating after last night's meeting suggested they might also have bought the open land at the corner of Kilnhouse Lane and Queensway near the traffic lights.

The key thing in all of this is they can't make it stack up without cross subsidy funding from some other land use, and Fylde most definitely will have a say in whether that gets permission or not  - assuming the land is in Fylde.

So why won't the exponential growth in passenger numbers pay for the developments?

Well, along with most everyone else who reads the papers, counterbalance knows that budget airlines' business model is predicated on paying exceptionally low, or more usually no, landing fees. So if there is a shortfall in passenger revenue to fund the airport development, we wonder why our green belt should be used to subsidise Ryanair or whoever else might not be paying proper taxes and dues like the rest of Fylde's businesses.

The big question is will it happen at all, or is it all pie in the sky? The answer, as is so often the case, will depend on whether subsidies in one form or another, be it planning permissions, or  something else, are dropped into the pot.

Here, Fylde Council probably hold the aces, and we will be watching their future decisions with interest.

Dated: 26 July 2006


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