Thursday, 4 July 2013

£5m Tory bet on recreational Rochester Airport

Many of my regular readers will be numb by now at the staggering level of fiscal incompetence that we witness almost weekly from the Conservatives in Gun Wharf

Last week we had the latest fiasco; the £27m botched Planning Strategy which will cost £100 for every man, woman and child in Medway. Add this into the KM stories on the Chatham Bus Station fiasco and the flawed one-way system flow in Chatham and a theme comes through in just 10 working days of news. We have a cabinet that simply does not challenge officers to the appropriate level in Gun Wharf; it is an incapable and incompetent administration led by a weak and increasingly feeble leadership. Tories incapable of managing a crisp packet opening without a fiasco, let alone a major multi-million pound project.

The Tory Cabinet will be discussing the airport next Tuesday and a number of major questions are arising about whether £5m of public money is being spent well. The report is worryingly vague. 

I blogged on this before when the Council rushed out the announcement on improvements to this airport without any notice to anyone (around Christmas holidays last year). Quickly put out after was an overtly partisan Rochester Airport update leaflet refusing to acknowledge it was effectively a u-turn on the cast-iron pledge they made to the electorate pre-2003 that none of the current Rochester Airport site would be touched or developed.  That was the same election incidentally they claimed the Conservative Party would never build an airport on the Hoo Peninsula.

The story that local Conservatives have spun a yarn on Rochester airport is not surprising; some Tory Councillors still feel the bus station was a model of good governance (no joke they really do)... and the line is that times have changed. And to that end they certainly have; developing and selling a site at the trough of the commercial market now compared a site with real development potential in the late 1990s / early 2000s. Managing the taxpayer £ coming second again.

The content though on this Rochester Airport report should worry any sane and rational individual looking to invest £5m of public money. Rochester Airport is  according to the report ostensibly a recreational airport; it has limited to negligible major commercial or cargo use and it is a hobby-horse for a small number of enthusiasts. 

Now I have no problem with enthusiasts lobbying for the best for them and I salute them for the efforts; my job however as an opposition Councillor to scrutinise £5m of Medway taxpayers spend and highlight whether I believe it is on an economically flawed proposal; and where the limited potential upside is not going to residents but on those with a hobby.

Many of our residents are driving on potholed roads; having to stomach cuts to Sure Start budgets or a rising local business tax burden to operate a business. We have terrible health inequalities and our Care Homes are being hived off to the Private sector because we have, apparently, no money left.

Except we now do. 

When it comes to finding £5m for an airport and its surroundings however; money can be found almost without question. To say it smells rotten would be remiss; the money is going into a cleverly devised fund called the South Medway Development Fund. It sounds impressive until you note they money only goes into the airport and surrounding site... more South Rochester perhaps.

Taxpayers money will be used to fund these improvements for the primarily recreational airport (Airport Strategy Document; Appendix)

And what do residents get out of the investment; well less visibility over an Airport which is likely to be off-limits to anyone without the money for a plane or a licence to fly one. The users however of this recreational airport will be getting new facilities...

Perhaps though some jobs? Taking out the Return on Investment on this £5m on an airport with limited commercial scope; I cant see how any major commercial or avionics company would want to be sited near it. Why would you if you couldnt fly key materials?

And is there a demand for commercial premises surrounding the site at present? No there is not; I can merely point to anyone who has driven up the Maidstone Road and you can immediately tell there are a significant number of empty premises (including last timed I checked the former Comet).

The last major commercial operator for Rochester airport pulled out a decade ago (Marconi) and BAE Systems as I understand does not even use the airport for commercial use. There is limited demand as I understand for any expansion of commercial premises from existing operators despite the clever spin in the consultation document about 'spin off' companies from BAE. The claims made were so utterly vague about 'potential' interest they were meaningless.

I'm always suspicious when someone claims a 'great deal' of interest before even a plan has been submitted. I would be very interested to see if the Council has actual tangible names of major business who would be willing to commit to investment. Enquiries are not the same as active interest. This statement is far too vague to be acceptable; I believe it deliberately so. 

Let us suppose however there is an active business interest in moving onto the site; the money from the resultant sale of Council land should then go into improving residential roads and cutting taxes on existing small business in the towns. People rightly will want to choose the best course for this.

The only business that will certainly benefit though is that of the Coffee Shop which has been planned into the proposal. Nice to see someone has the priorities... 

I believe this is another dodgy programme by a Conservative party which is not acting in the public interest. It is almost as if the lessons over the Medway Tunnel, Chatham Bus Staton, Aveling & Porter (yes its still a car park) and the Brook would have been learnt. Instead we have small business already struggling in Medway and Tories spending millions on hair-brained schemes which I believe of limited value to the taxpayer.

You can read the full Cabinet report here; it is a scary read for what will be £5m spend of public money.

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