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Embattled UK transport secretary Chris Grayling could come under more pressure, this time as a US land developer looks again at acquiring Kent’s Manston Airport to run it as a full-freighter gateway.

Riveroak Strategic Partners (RSP) has attempted to buy the disused airport several times, with a compulsory purchase order rejected by Thanet District Council (TDC) in 2015.

Now RSP has applied for a development consent order (DCO) with the Department for Transport (DfT).

But questions have been raised over the merit of a DCO. Pinsent Masons, solicitor for airport owner Stone Hill Park (SHP), described the move as a “government-sponsored land grab”.

“RSP’s DCO is an ill-founded and cynical attempt to be given compulsory acquisition powers to acquire, at an undervalue, land with significant development value,” said the firm.

“It is, in short, little more than an apparent attempted land grab, and is a potential abuse of the Planning Act 2008.”

Documents filed with the Planning Inspectorate indicate that RSP intends to pay £7.5m for land that reports suggest has a development value of up to £500m.

A solicitor source told The Loadstar that, for a DCO to be employed, the DfT would need to show that the land in question was of strategic and national importance.

“When it comes to Manston Airport’s strategic, national importance, God only knows how it has even got so far as to be at a hearing stage,” said the source. “Nowhere, in any of the DfT’s reports or national policy statements on the UK’s aviation future is Manston acknowledged or recognised.”

The source added: “While an airports national policy statement exists, it does not provide policy support to Manston… indeed, no planning policy, national or local, supports reopening the airport. In fact, the most recent evidence compiled by Thanet District Council for its local plan review confirmed it was highly unlikely for any viable operations to return to the airport.”

According to another source, Manston’s location prevented it from being useful for air freight services: for example, from Manston to the M25 would take an hour by road.

However, a third source, with experience of running full-freighter services, claimed Manston could be a viable full-freighter airport.

“Overall, the trend in Europe and the US, with congestion at general main ports, is ‘splitting’ cargo from passenger operations,” said the source. “Bright examples are Liege, Leipzig, Luxembourg, Zaragoza, Rickenbacker and Huntsville, and the same will likely be required in the UK, in particular looking at Brexit.

“So, the question for the UK is which airports can take the role, as Stansted is getting congested and Heathrow is a niche destination for freighter operators, currently. Prestwick had its niche for great circle flights coming from the US and for oil and gas and engine traffic, but it is a bit far out for the London area.

“East Midlands had a great development with express operators and could leverage this into general freight, Doncaster has good potential too. Manston could fulfil the same role; in the past it had a great track record for perishables and its proximity to London is good.

“Key to all of this is long-term investment to build up a proper freighter parking, warehouse and truck-dock infrastructure, as well as customs clearance.”

But both this source and Pinsent Masons question RSP’s suitability to develop and run Manston successfully as an air freight airport. Citing the council’s 2015 rejection, the law firm pointed to the council’s decision that RSP’s parent company did not fulfil the requirements for a “suitable indemnity partner”.

“RSP still cannot show it has the funds to deliver the proposed development and does not control the funding to meet even the most modest estimate of the land acquisition,” said the firm. “Furthermore, it has elected, in the face of previous concerns raised, not to provide evidence that would enable the examining authority even to assess whether funding could be secured for the proposed development.”

The solicitor also cited a report, independently commissioned by TDC from Avia Solutions, as well as ones from York Aviation and Altitude Aviation.

“[All three] reached the conclusion that the RSP proposed developed for a freight-focused airport at Manston were not realistic or economically viable,” said the firm.

According to the Planning Inspectorate, impact reports from both Thanet District and Kent County councils are required by Friday, with hearings scheduled for mid-March.

RSP has yet to respond to The Loadstar‘s request for comments.

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  • Aaron

    February 13, 2019 at 7:41 pm

    Good article although I would challenge the opinions of the “third source”. Stansted is NOT congested and has around 20,000 freight slots free. Prestwick is also a pretty poor model for success in view of the fact that the Scottish government subsidises its collasal annual losses.
    Manston lost around £100 million over its 15 year commercial history operating in the “niche” dedicated freighter market. The dedicated freighter market is also in decline as bellyhold takes an ever increasing share of an overall airfreight market that’s been flat for the last 15 years and not predicted to increase over the next 30 years by the DfT.

  • Ralph

    February 14, 2019 at 5:54 am

    “Government sponsored land grab” is rich when Stone Hill Park Ltd have been paid well over £6m by the very same Department for Transport in order to use Manston Airport as a lorry park. The same money has been spent trying to submit planning applications in order to build 3,700 houses on the airport.

    • Ramsgate resident

      February 14, 2019 at 9:43 am

      Whatever they earn out from HMG it is still their land bought and paid for when nobody else wanted it. Before you say they only paid a £ Riveroak could have done the same though looking at their latest failure to provide legitimate and credible financial information to the Planning Inspectorate I doubt they had that

  • P Moore

    February 14, 2019 at 5:56 am

    A Director of RSP, Tony Freudman, is a disbarred solicitor. He is the only one of the cabal with experience in airports. None of which have been a success. They have all gone into liquidation. All of this is a well known fact so what are RSP doing employing him ? RSP stated that with control of Manston they will be handing it over to a management company, will the rules and regulations agreed with RSP hold with this new company and have they been checked out for desirability to run this airfield>

  • Glenn Horwood

    February 14, 2019 at 9:02 am

    Your piece is mostly codswallop! Manston, has excellent road links, look at Google earth, it’s less than 45mins from M25 and about 15 mins to M2 and about same to M20 and its dual carriageway/ Motorway nearly all the way, as for Prestwick, do you actually know where Prestwick is??

    • Ramsgate resident

      February 14, 2019 at 9:37 am

      Have you seen the congestion on the A2/M2 ??
      Pl us it’s near enough at a standstill at the Dartford crossing every day without fail.

    • Mike

      February 14, 2019 at 10:51 am

      Glenn, your comment is exactly the sort of fiction that has characterised the pro-airport campaign (longest runway in the country, major diversion airfield etc etc) Google maps shows Manston is approximately 60 miles from the M25. Do you really believe lorries can average 80mph along the A299, M2 and A2?

    • Andrew

      February 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm

      The facts speak for themselves. Manston, near a dual carriageway or not, is too far away from anywhere else to be a cargo hub.
      When Heathrow temporarily stopped taking cargo during the Olympics, Manston was still open. But not one kg of displaced cargo came to it. One has to wonder why.

  • Anne-Marie Nixey

    February 14, 2019 at 9:36 am

    Thanet is surrounded by water on three sides. Whilst being a suitable vantage point to fight invading forces, it is in totally the wrong location for freight. Even as a commercial airport it failed due to its unsuitable location, and that was with government funding! RSP have failed time and again to prove funding is adequate and where that funding stream would come from. The Secretary of State woukd be wise to be wary of this offer, due diligence not being his strong point. There is no fuel pipeline at the old airport. Tankers would be coming in and leaving empty, freight trucks arriving empty and leaving full. For the potential of 83,000 flights a year! If anyone says they can get to the M25 in less than an hour now enjoy it. You won’t be with that congestion on the road.

  • Ramsgate Resudent

    February 14, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    RSP is a start-up with no assets, 90% owned by a Belize company MIO Investments which so far has prevented the U.K. government from undertaking financial due diligence. It’s directors (Mr Freudmann) have a track record of airport acquisition, private and government funding (inc over £100m for Manston BTW plus huge infrastructure investment from Kent County Council) followed by airport closures. Completing robust diligence is essential as the whole Seabourne fiasco proves.