The case of Manston Airport: why government should not attempt to pick winners

The TPA has long been concerned about the amount of taxpayer money spent involved in Manston Airport – an ex-RAF base in East Kent. After three successive commercial ventures failed to make a go of it, there has been sustained pressure for Thanet District Council (TDC) to acquire the airport by compulsory purchase order (CPO) to ensure that it continues to be run as an airport. In the 16 years since it was sold by the RAF, Manston has lost its various owners £100 million. A recent report to TDC advised that it was not commercially viable and since then, Kent County Council have recommended against it.

The saga of Manston as a loss-making enterprise is not new, but Kent’s report revealed far more. Throughout, it stressed that the county council had been actively supporting the airport, clearly proud of their record of sinking taxpayers’ money into the venture. They clearly state that “over the years Manston has received more than £1 million in financial assistance from Kent County Council”, including buying shares in the operating companies, including options to buy more.  This turned out to be a poor investment of taxpayers money as it was lost when the company went into liquidation.

In addition, plenty of money was spent indirectly for the benefit of the airport. £100,000 was given to Visit Kent when the then operator was interested in scheduling flights to Amsterdam. They also detail a number of transport links, totalling well over £100 million. No doubt these links benefited the Thanet area more generally, but KCC’s report is keen to emphasise that they were for the benefit of Manston.

This airport has never turned a profit, and shows no likelihood of doing so if operating as an airport. The TaxPayers’ Alliance welcomes KCC and TDC’s stepping back from the idea of a CPO, but millions have already been wasted. If companies want to invest their money then this is an issue between them and their shareholders, but councils should not risk taxpayers’ money in this way. Government does not have a history of successfully picking winners and should stop trying to hold back the tide.

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