Ministers back reopening of Manston Airport as freight hub against inspectors' advice

Ministers have granted a development consent order (DCO) for the redevelopment of a Kent airfield into an air freight facility, despite a panel of inspectors recommending that the plans be refused on the basis of a lack of need.

Campaigners making their voices heard in support of the scheme (pic: Funk Dooby, Flick)
Campaigners making their voices heard in support of the scheme (pic: Funk Dooby, Flick)

Transport minister of state Andrew Stephenson, acting on behalf of his departmental secretary of state Grant Shapps, has issued a DCO for US investor RiverOak Strategic Partners Ltd to reopen Manston Airport as a dedicated air freight facility.

RiverOak wants the airfield to handle at least 10,000 air cargo movements per year while offering passenger, executive travel, and aircraft engineering services.

The scheme involves use of some of the decommissioned airport infrastructure, an upgrade of the airfield's runway and a re-alignment of the parallel taxiway.

The DCO also allows the construction of 19 new aircraft stands, 65,500 square metres of cargo facilities, a new air traffic control tower and an extension of the existing passenger terminal.

The airfield, which was used by both the RAF and the US air force until it reopened as Kent International Airport in 1989, is located approximately four km west of Ramsgate and five km to the north of Margate. Kent International Airport closed in 2014.

A report submitted by a four strong-panel of inspectors who carried out a public inquiry into the application last year, recommended that the secretary of state should not grant the DCO.

The inspectors said the levels of freight that the development could be expected to handle were "modest" and could be catered for with spare capacity at existing airports, including Heathrow and Stansted.

They said Manston appears to offer "no obvious advantages" to outweigh the strong competition from these more central airports and that it is "unlikely" that the re-opened facility would handle "significantly more" tonnage than previously.

On this basis, they concluded that the applicant had "failed" to demonstrate sufficient need for the development, which could not be met by existing airports.

However, the minister's decision letter said the secretary of state disagreed and concluded that there was a "clear case of need" for the development, which existing airports could not cater for.

These include increased capacity in North Kent for import and export of freight by air to, from and within the UK including support for high value and time-critical transport of goods. This would, according to the letter, in turn facilitate support for the advanced manufacturing sector, which the UK is seeking to develop.

The minister also concluded that the airport's development would deliver "significant" economic and socio-economic benefits to the surrounding Thanet and East Kent areas, which would outweigh any potential harm to the airfield's heritage assets and Ramsgate's tourist industry.

Angus Walker, partner at solicitors BDB Pitmans, who acted on behalf of RiverOak, said: "We are delighted to have secured consent for a development that is anticipated to bring 23,000 jobs to East Kent creating a significant boost to the region and the wider economy.

"To secure the first-ever DCO for an airport is a significant achievement: not least given the successful challenge to the Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS) putting Heathrow expansion in doubt."

The DCO will come into force on July 30, construction is due to begin in 2021 with the airport aiming to operate first cargo services in the first quarter of 2023.

Rival plans to build 2,500 homes on the airfield have been dropped after the site's former owner Stone Hill Park Ltd, sold the site to RiverOak.

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