Airport would have to repay East Devon
A package of financial support to ensure Exeter Airport can avoid the "worst case scenario" of closure is set to be signed off by East Devon councillors.
The double whammy of both the collapse of Flybe and the covid-19 pandemic has led to the airport facing an existential threat. When Flybe, which accounted for 75 per cent of passengers numbers at Exeter Airport, went in to administration in March, it led to the loss of 931 jobs locally. This was followed by the coronavirus crisis with passenger numbers down by 94 per cent during August. Now 96 employees are facing redundancy.
East Devon District Council is to be asked to approve measures to support the airport, including a further deferral of £180,000 business rates, forward-funding the airport’s share of the Long Lane enhancement scheme by nearly £750,000, and to endorse the concept of a sustainable aviation cluster centred on Exeter Airport.
Project director Andrew Wood, in a report to the council's cabinet, says that the proposal is high risk, but that the airport is a significant employer and economic driver for the district, it had been significantly impacted by the pandemic, and the scale of job losses are unprecedented.
He adds: “Passenger numbers at the Airport in May 2019 were 97,000 and in May 2020 the equivalent figure was just nine. From the beginning of the financial year to the end of the July passenger numbers dropped by 99.5 per cent compared to the same period last year.
“As we emerge from lockdown commercial flights have now recommenced from the airport. But this is nowhere near the scale that might otherwise have been expected with passenger numbers down by 94 per cent during August. Whilst some former Flybe routes have been picked up by alternative operators such as LoganAir and Blue Islands, other key routes including to Paris and Amsterdam are not currently being operated. The flying programme continues to be further impacted by the uncertainties around quarantine restrictions.
His report says that more widely, the Devon economy is not likely to return to pre-covid-19 levels of performance until 2027 and employment rates will not recover until 2030 without significant investment between local partners and government.
It adds: “The most obvious alternative option would be not to provide any form of public sector backed support. The Airport does though face an existential threat currently. In the worst case scenario the Airport would close. This would lead to further large scale job closures, reduce business rate revenues and also diminish the connectivity of the region.
“Furthermore if the propensity of local residents to fly was not diminished, this would lead to longer trips (e.g. to Bristol) to access flights with the potential for a higher carbon footprint accordingly.
If agreed, the measures would see the proposed business rate relief request within state aid limits to be funded through the Enterprise Zone programme, increasing the budget for the Long Lane project by £1.1m, and recommends to council the borrowing of up to £3.7m against ring fenced business rate income to implement the scheme.
The Long Lane Enhancement Scheme will widen the road that runs past Exeter Airport and down to Hampton by Hilton hotel, which will enable a new Airpark – one of the four planned ‘Enterprise Zones’ – to come forward, as the current ‘unfit for purpose’ road prohibits its development. The scheme includes the construction of a T junction, rather than a initially proposed roundabout, at car park 1 at the airport. The carriageway between car park 1 and the Flybe Academy/Hampton by Hilton hotel will then be widended to ensure a road width of 6.5m and footway is achieved and to ensure tie-in to the proposed roundabout junction.
And while Long Lane is being widened, a new road to connect Silverdown Office Park to the FlyBe Academy access road, known as the “Silverdown Link”, will be built. Once the Long Lane works are finished, the Silverdown Link will become a permanent bus and cycle only link.
The previous £2.55m budget for the Long Lane scheme was agreed by the cabinet in March – on the same night that Flybe’s collapse was confirmed. The airport was due to provide South West Water with nearly £800,000 for the installation of a proposed deep sewer system, with work to take place at the same time as the Long Lane enhancement. Those works will still take place, but would be funded by Enterprise Zone Board, with the Airport to repay the cash at a later date.