Cornwall's businesses 'left in the dark' over future of Newquay airport

-Credit: (Image: Spaceport Cornwall)
-Credit: (Image: Spaceport Cornwall)

The contentious move by Cornwall Council to get into bed with an American partner to run Newquay airport and develop the 650-acre airport estate has taken a new twist. The Duchy's business community has spoken out about not being consulted about the deal and, as a result, feels "left in the dark".

The local authority is deep in the process of finding a financial partner to develop the land and also take the financial pressure off the council when it comes to running the airport, which is subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of around £4.8m each year. The wider Cornwall Airport Newquay estate includes Aerohub Business Park, the Spaceport, Kernow Solar Park and 200 acres of land, which is likely to be developed by the new partner for housing and commercial property.

Although not publicly revealed by the council yet, CornwallLive understands the preferred partner is Westcore, an American property investment business with a European wing. Concerns have been raised among opposition councillors that Conservative Cabinet members are solely responsible for making such an important decision about the future of the airport.

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Twenty five cross-party councillors (Independent, Liberal Democrats, Conservative, Labour and Mebyon Kernow) recently lodged a call-in of the Cabinet decision to back the partnership due to lack of stakeholder consultation with the business community, insufficient information and policy departure. The call-in was rejected "in fairly blunt terms" according to the council's deputy leader and Tory councillor David Harris.

Kim Conchie, the outgoing CEO of Cornwall Chamber of Commerce, has said the business organisation is "very concerned" about the partnership bid. He said: "The airport is essential if we wish to have businesses like Pendennis Shipyard and Goonhilly headquartered in Cornwall. I have complained to [Cornwall Council chief executive] Kate Kennally and [strategic director for growth and development] Phil Mason as well as [service director for economy and skills] Glenn Caplin-Grey that businesses are feeling ‘left in the dark’ over plans for Newquay as we haven’t been consulted. I would be very happy to lead a group to review a plan and lobby council and the prosed bidder(s)."

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Outgoing Cornwall Chamber of Commerce CEO Kim Conchie (left) welcomes his replacement John Brown
Outgoing Cornwall Chamber of Commerce CEO Kim Conchie (left) welcomes his replacement John Brown -Credit:Toby Weller

Miles Carden, chief executive of Falmouth Harbour and former Spaceport Cornwall boss, is also concerned. He wrote to councillor Julian German, leader of the opposition at the local authority, stating: "What about Cornwall Council peer reviewing any decision through a private sector leadership group? I fear for the future of the airport and need reassurance that the right decisions are being made, albeit I fully understand the complexities and challenges with the airport."

Deputy leader Harris responded to concerns from Tim Dwelly, another opposition councillor, stressing that the council was "absolutely clear in terms of keeping the airport open in the long-term and that has been stated every time this matter has been looked at by Cabinet.

"Further, in terms of consultation Cllr Gardner [portfolio holder for economy] was clear in stating at the last Cabinet that he had had many informal conversations with the business community and had attended various business forums to talk about the future of the airport estate and, at the same meeting, I made a very simple point that representatives of the preferred partner had been clear in my conversation with them that they see the airport itself as a magnet for new ventures in the area."

Cllr Harris added: "Mr Carden has suggested some sort of outside review of any deal. No, we have appointed excellent external consultants and lawyers, we have experienced officers and at least some of us in Cabinet have experience of commercial transactions involving significantly greater amounts. So, to be clear again, the airport will remain open, it is key to so much that we should all be working on together."

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However, Cllr Dwelly was not happy with the response, saying: "David this is lame. 'The airport will remain open' is not a red line. It’s the weakest possible defence of what many fear: an airport run at a lower level by people without experience running similar airports.

"It comes after an amateur ‘we know the answer already’ commission of a consultancy which failed to review the airport management itself. Then handing a £200k bonus to a company that has partnered up with their recommended partner for years. A simple Google search will show this. Just type ‘CBRE Westcore’.

"Little wonder the Chamber and others have called for a proper rethink. Pursuing this reckless approach and arrogantly shrugging off legitimate business concerns not only risk’s damaging Cornwall Council’s reputation. It has already done so."

A final report about all aspects of the deal will be presented to the Cabinet in the autumn which will include more details about what could be built on the airport land.