Manston Airport was developed in the First World War where the open farmlands were used as a site for emergency landings. A training school was then set up and two units were stationed at Manston; the Operational War Flight Command and the Handley Page Training School. By 1917 the Royal Flying Corps was well established at Manston and was to play a key role during the Battle of Britain and other air fights later in the century. However, recently, Manston has been under immense scrutiny and has had an unstable past few years. Passed from pillar to post in terms of owners, with forced sales and bankruptcies, the airport has finally entered the tenure of Ann Gloag (famous for founding Stagecoach), who closed the airfield that she bought for £1 in an act of “corporate vandalism” (words of local MP Sir Roger Gale).
In April 2014, Gloag closed Manston at the loss of 144 jobs in Thanet’s most economically deprived area, and left no option for the sale of the company, despite numerous investors tabling bids. Sir Roger Gale then called for a compulsory purchase by Thanet District Council in order to “"remove the airport from the hands of those who clearly have other objectives." However, many argue that Thanet District Council simply do not have the funds or the purchasing power to buy or maintain Manston. So what can be done, and why should this historic airport be saved?
For a start, the airport at very low capacity under Gloag still maintained 144 jobs. The site clearly has the potential, judging by its currently underdeveloped infrastructure, to expand into the vast amount of space inside its fences. If this could be provided by stable and well maintained ownership, it would allow the airport to serve an international market and deliver a vital economic boost to Thanet. With continuous questions regarding England’s air potential; another runway at Heathrow, expand Gatwick or build in the Thames as the Mayor of London suggests, surely Manston is the ideal alternative option. Manston has the potential in terms of size, history, staff and location to be a major international airport - boosting England’s capacity.
Manston, although called Kent International Airport, has never really been an international airport. Now it has the chance to be. Yet money hinders this start. Money hinders Gloag’s willingness to sell. Money hinders the investors’ bids. Money hinders the council’s compulsory purchase. In the words of Pink Floyd, “Money it’s a crime” and in this instance it truly is. If Thanet cannot compulsory purchase the airport then the government should support this bid. Although the defence budget has been cut and the department streamlined, the MoD does have £40billion in its annual pot. One option could be the compulsory purchase of the airport, backed by the government, allowing a joint venture between the MoD and the council. Indeed, this would be a fantastic site to consolidate the MoD’s position in the South at one of its most historic locations of all. As well as building a capacity for the RAF, it would also allow the creation of an international airport capable of serving Britain’s growing economy; boosting investment into the area simultaneously. Sounds like a good economic idea then? A plan? It’s certainly long term. I think it’s time someone coins the phrase ‘A Long-Term Economic Plan’. I don't think I've heard it before...
By Tom Chidwick
NB - My grandfather, Fred Costen BEM, served as the Crew Manager at the Manston Airport Fire and Rescue from 1999 to around 2009.