Middlesbrough businessman Andy Preston is calling on local councils to be transparent about the secret deal they did to effectively sell Teesside airport.
He fears that the deal done may have been a very weak one and may ultimately cost council tax payers many millions of pounds.
The charity leader and Middlesbrough Mayoral candidate is backing an ongoing campaign calling for local authorities to reveal the exact details behind a deal that saw Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar & Cleveland, Hartlepool, Darlington and Durham councils sell almost all of their shares in the region’s airport.
It is understood that the 2003 sale of 79% of shares in the airport saw the councils receive a meager sum of just £500,000 between them.
After many years of decline for the airport, majority owners Peel Holdings are now proposing that housing be built on part of the land, a move many Teessiders feel will the first stage in the airport’s closure.
Ironically closure of the airport could make the land worth more than £100 million if sold for development.
However, despite Freedom of Information requests by local campaigners, the councils have refused to reveal details of the deal with Peel.
Both Middlesbrough and Stockton councils insist the information is “commercially sensitive”.
Mr Preston said: “The sale and decline of what most of us still call Teesside Airport is understandably one of the biggest gripes among Teessiders.
“Many local people believe the councils carried out a secret deal to sell the airport. That deal and the airport’s subsequent decline is raised with me more often than almost any other subject.
“People are understandably upset – but getting to the bottom of what has happened, and continues to happen, is proving tough.
“An investigation is needed. It’s very clear that rate-payers may well have forgone tens of millions of pounds of value.”
Formerly owned by the five local authorities, the airport passed into Peel’s hands in 2003 when they purchased 75% of the shares – before the councils sold them a further 14%.
Peel now own 89% of the shares, with the remainder held by Middlesbrough (1.69%), Stockton (2.08%), Darlington (2.91%, Redcar & Cleveland (1.7%), Hartlepool (1.08%) and Durham (1.45%).
Peel now have a ‘master plan’ they say will regenerate the airport, with the sale of land for the development of up to 400 homes, generating millions of pounds of profit, at its heart.
The campaign for the councils to reveal more about the secret deal with Peel is being led by SAVE Teesside Airport campaigner Suzanne Foster (pictured, above, with Mr Preston and fellow campaigner Norman Coad).
Freedom of Information requests were submitted to Middlesbrough, Stockton and Darlington councils, asking how much Peel paid for the initial 75% of shares and what undertakings were made about the airport’s future – and what further undertakings were made when the further 14% of shares were sold.
However, the quest for clarity came to a dead end when all three councils refused to release the requested information, with both Middlesbrough and Stockton insisting it was commercially sensitive.
In a letter of reply, a Middlesbrough Council officer wrote that releasing the information “could adversely affect the commercial interests” of Peel or the authority.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Suzanne. “How can a deal made by all the local councils nearly 13 years ago be commercially sensitive?
“We don’t know what deal was made, what money changed hands or what undertakings were made about the airport’s future. Without that information how can the public judge how valuable any more promises from Peel will be?
“With Peel’s master plan for the future of the airport coming up fast, it’s time the councils revealed the truth behind the deal.”
The campaign by residents across Teesside also seeks to highlight the shocking decline in passengers since Peel took over in 2002, from a peak of more than 900,000 as recently as 2006 to latest annual figures of just 140,000 for the year ending February 2015 – a fall of 84%.
In the same period of time Newcastle figures have increased by about 30% and Leeds by more than 120%.
Suzanne added: “At a time when air traffic generally has been increasing and two other regional airports have enjoyed a boom period, you’ve got to wonder about Teesside’s decline.
“Most people can only come to the conclusion that it’s the result of either extremely bad management or a deliberate policy on the part of Peel.
“Either way, our councils, as minority shareholders, have a responsibility to keep the airport going – and to communicate with the public the decisions that were made behind-the-scenes that resulted in this mess.”