A bitter war of words has broken out as the future of the Tees region’s airport was left hanging in the air.
Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen has promised to veto plans to hand £500,000 of public money to the owners of Durham Tees Valley Airport.
The Conservative mayor has vowed to scupper the plans after an amended budget was forced through by the five Labour council leaders who head the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA).
With Houchen having won last year’s mayoral election with a pledge of buying back the struggling airport, the initial budget would have committed the funds to setting out legal groundworks intended to bring the airport back into public control.
But the Labour leaders of Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar, Hartlepool and Darlington councils refused to sanction the move, instead approving their amended budget focused on securing £500,000 for owners Peel Airports to attract more flights to the loss-making airport.
However, Houchen – who must approve the budget before the money is handed to Peel – has refused to sanction the release of the funds.
Figures released by the Civil Aviation Authority show the airport’s 11th successive fall in annual passenger numbers – down to less than 129,000 in 2017 from a peak of nearly 918,000 in 2006.
The row came shortly after an announcement that Loganair was cancelling its routes from Teesside to Aberdeen – predominantly used by offshore workers – just months after their launch.
Houchen said: “It’s clear that the Labour leaders of our councils are in cahoots with Peel Airports. They are bending over backwards to bung £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to Peel for nothing in return. It isn’t going to happen.
“They’ve ridden roughshod over local politicians for decades, except I won’t give in to their bullying. Peel only stand up and take notice of people who stand up to them. That’s what I’m doing.
“When Peel requested permission to close the airport’s rail station, I vetoed it. Now they’re asking the taxpayer for cash, I’ll veto that too.
“They are a multi-million pound company. It’s about time they stuck their hands in their own pockets rather than going can in hand to rate payers.
“I’m disappointed but hardly surprised that the leaders of our local authorities are blind to Peel’s attempts to drive our airport into the ground.
“They’ve divested themselves of pension liabilities and pushed through planning permission for 350 houses. It’s clear what Peel are trying to do.”
Redcar council leader, Cllr Sue Jeffrey, was quoted as saying: “There has been something of a war of words here, but our amendment to secure the development fund has been passed.
“It is now time for us to draw a line under this, and for the mayor to work with us to secure these two new flights.
“We in the Tees Valley have worked together for the good of our area for 20 years. We cannot let political posturing cost us two new flights.”
Middlesbrough mayor Dave Budd added: “Mr Houchen has been busy trying to talk tough on this issue, which is tempting as a politician.
“But sometimes what needs to be done is to work together, cross-party, and with business, for the good of our area.
“If we are to see our airport thrive and attract new flights, this is one of those times.”
In a statement, Peel Airports said the amended budget in support of the £500,000 was “a positive step forward in supporting the airport to attract new services”.
But they added: “We are disappointed that the mayor is intending to block these proposals as we believe we have a shared ambition to bring growth in passenger services to DTVA.
“The proposals are made against funds already earmarked to DTVA development by TVCA and are to help strengthen the commercial offer to bring new leisure and business routes to the Airport, delivering economic benefit and important connectivity to the region. They are made in the best interests of Tees Valley and its airport.”
The statement said the proposals they had put forward for using the funding were part of delivering their promises in their Flying for The Future campaign, designed to reaffirm their commitment to the airport and securing passenger growth.
They continued: “The proposals include support for attracting holiday flights as well supporting our flagship service to Amsterdam, working to attract new business routes, and delivering further terminal improvements.
“We would work in complete transparency with TVCA on the investment of funding, with the benefit passed to airlines in entirety and evidenced in expanded terminal facilities.
“The practice of working collectively with stakehold In a statement, Peel Airports said the amended budget in support of the £500,000 was “a positive step forward in supporting the airport to attract new services.
“This has been seen recently with a £4.95m investment from the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership made to develop Carlisle Airport to support passenger flights.
“The funding which has today been allocated by the combined authority cabinet will, of course, be in addition to the continuing investment by Peel Airports in Durham Tees Valley. Since 2003 this has totalled about £40m.
“Any funding received from the combined authority will be matched by at least as much again from Peel Airports.”
The statement ended by saying that Peel hope that the £500,000 allocation would help to “begin constructive discussions with the combined authority on how, working together, we can support airport growth and its wider role as a major catalyst to the area’s economic growth.”