Balfour Beatty, which owns the Squires Gate site, today finally broke its silence on the future of the airfield – insisting safeguards were in place should demand rise, following a lengthy information blackout over its Blackpool operation.
The firm was responding to claims by Coun Tony Williams, leader of the Tory group on Blackpool Council, who this month met the man charged with transforming the Squires Gate site.
Demolition work was completed on the international terminal this month -–the first step towards the development of the airport as an Enterprise Zone.
And Coun Williams – who was a leading figure in the fight to save the airport from closure – fears this is the first step in a gradual running down of the Blackpool operation.
He fears some runways could be closed and part of the main landing strip could be absorbed by the Enterprise Zone making the return of holiday flights impossible in the long term.
Coun Williams met with Chris Formby, who was engaged on a consultancy basis by owners Balfour Beatty to oversee changes at the airport.
“The airport continues to operate despite the removal of the terminal and to good effect at the moment,” said Coun Williams. “The helicopter service to our offshore gas rigs, the many flying schools providing aircraft training, aircraft engineering facilities, the many daily business jet visit and the continued operation of the Citywing service.
“There is a lot still going on that we might all not see every day and the airport is still supporting jobs and livelihoods for those involved.”
Although he is encouraged by investments made at Squires Gate and the possibilty of Citywing extending the range of destinations served by the resort, Coun Williams did raise some longer term concerns.
He fears further rationalisation could impact on light aircraft using Blackpool
Coun Williams said: “It was disappointing to learn the shorter North West / South West runway had already had its usage restricted with a view to it been closed down.
“These restrictions prevent light aircraft taking off and landing in stronger cross winds.”
He continued: “What was made perfectly clear at our meeting that the likelihood of commercial passenger carrying jets coming back to Blackpool is extremely slim if not impossible.
“The whole infrastructure for a larger aircraft service has been completely decimated with most of the necessary scanners and check-in facilities removed along with the actual terminal.
“The remaining runway will probably in time be shortened and provide more space for the Enterprise zone.”
At its peak, Blackpool Airport handled hundreds of thousands of passengers a year and has been served by Ryanair, Monarch and Jet2.
But it was the acrimonious relationship with the latter that spelled the end for the airport with high court action over the contract the two parties signed – which Balfour said was costing the facility more than £1m per year.
Danny Nicholson, of campaign group Save Blackpool Airport, was concerned by Coun Williams’ claims.
He said: “If this were to be true it would confirm all our worst fears.
“We need investment in the airport, Blackpool needs to have these flights back.”
Balfour Beatty insisted the current 3,294 ft runways was protected from any development and the firm remained open-minded about the return of major airlines.
A spokesman said: “The Enterprise Zone specifically excludes the airport’s main runway which continues to be in use.
“Blackpool Airport has put in place safeguards should the return of volume passenger operations prove viable in the future.”
Balfour Beatty is yet to confirm a permanent management team for Blackpool, making clear Mr Formby had only been employed on a temporary basis.
A spokesman said: “Following the departure of the previous airport director, who was employed by the airport’s management company, Chris Formby was employed as interim airport manager while a permanent replacement was secured. There will be an announcement made in due course.”
The airport owners said there were no further demolition plans for the site and no changes were planned to the current runways in operation.
Coun Williams: ‘Statement is completely mis-leading and full of false hope’
Coun Tony Williams says he is yet to be convinced by assurances given by Balfour Beatty or Blackpool Council – the council retains a five per cent stake in the airport – over the future of the site.
He said: “Coun Mark Smith the Labour council spokesman with responsibility for the airport recently stated that the main runway was being retained so that in the future larger aircraft could come back to Blackpool Airport.
“His statement is completely misleading and full of false hope in not only the medium term but in the long term too.
“More importantly it lacks any plan or thought about how this could be achieved on the site at all.
“I believe that the people of Blackpool have been led down a long and winding garden path in regards to assurances, statements and promises made by those with a controlling interest in our airport.”
But Coun Smith hit back at such claims.
He said:”There is going to be a lot of debate about the site in the next few days with the launch of the Enterprise Zone.
“The airport shut because it could not afford to trade any more.
“That is the decision the current operator had to make.
“OK, the current terminal has been flattened but the runway remains there.
“The idea is that if any operator came forward wanting to bring services to Blackpool a new terminal could be built, closer to the runway which would be beneficial for the airline and the passengers.
“If an operator came forward tomorrow we would give serious thought to any proposal.
“That will always be the case.
“If someone wanted to open flights from Blackpool we would have to listen.
“I don’t know where Coun Williams is coming from.
“The runway stays, there is no risk to it.”
And Coun Smith made it clear Blackpool Airport remained a viable operation despite the drama of the past two years.
“The airport is still there, it is still operation,” he said.
“It is still being used and there are still passenger flights, although not on the scale of services to Stansted or Spain.
“If an operator comes forward wanting to re-start that kind of flight the door remains open.
“But we have to remember, there has to be money in it for any operator to want to do that.”
‘Aviation is vital to this zone we’ve more space than London City Airport’
Blackpool’s Enterprise Zone is set to launch tomorrow and could see wholesale transformation of the airport site.
More details of what the £9.8m scheme could bring to Blackpool and the Squires Gate site were revealed at a networking event at the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce’s offices near the airport.
Rob Green head of enterprise and investment at the Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company, the group which will over see the Enterprise Zones at the airport and the sister zone at Hillhouse in Thornton, outlined the potential of the project.
He said although the airport’s main runway will be protected with a 150m clear zone on either side, changes could include moving aviation operations along Squires Gate Lane closer to the runway.
He said they would move either to existing hangars on the west of the airport or to newly-built aviation facilities near the runway where a new terminal building will be built.
He said that the scheme could also see the movement of municiple playing fields on the east of the airport site being shifted on to the green belt area on the south west of the airport to allow new businesses to move in.
AFC Blackpool’s ground is excluded from the zone and so will remain where it is, but the huge sheds along the front of Squires Gate Lane which used to be an aircraft factory building Wellington bombers during the Second World War could also go to be replaced by units for heavy energy industries such as wind turbine or heat pump firms.
He said: “The first thing we have to do is to commission a full masterplan for the Enterprise Zone. It should be ready by August
“The existing category three airport will remain. This is a long-term project. The Enterprise Zone will remain in place until 2040 that’s a long time to deliver the jobs and benefits it can bring.
“Things will not happen overnight. There will be some easy hits but we have to get the whole plan right at the start.”
He said the area would be split up into several zones. In one, new businesses would be eligible for business rates relief and in another enhanced capital allowances to invest in heavy plant and machinery.
He said the first development would be the Energy HQ which will take the place of the former international terminal.
And he confirmed that new entry roads would be constructed to the whole Enterprise Zone to reduce rush hour tailbacks which workers on the industrial estate currently suffer.
He said: “One of the problems we have had with the industrial park now has been the access.
“People have told us about the long delays and I believe the access issue has stifled growth. It is a priority of ours and it will be addressed in the masterplan.”
He said the new Energy HQ would have its own access onto Squires Gate Lane, but two more entry roads may be creating as the zone progresses.
One could be on the eastern part of the site , perhaps on to Common Edge Road.
He insisted that aviation would remain part of the Squires Gate site and said that protecting the main runway could in future see the return of large commercial flights.
He said: “Part of the remit when we were putting the Enterprise Zone bid together was that aviation would be retained on the site.
“We were targeting the energy sector, food and drink which the Fylde is very good at with its farming hinterland, digital and creative industries and advanced manufacturing.
“But we could see developments with aviation companies moving in. For example an expansion of executive jet
operations as they become pushed out of Manchester and aircraft conversions to freight carriers.
“Aviation is absolutely vital to this zone. There are 400 acres of land on the airport site, London City airport operates on 100 acres, so you can see there is surplus land which can be developed but plenty of room for aviation.”
He said that the plan was to create just over 3,000 jobs on the site by 2030, but he added that the zone remit was in place to 2040 so even more jobs could result after that.