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Kent County Council accused of lacking ‘courage’ in fresh Manston Airport row

PUBLISHED: 10:54 14 September 2017 | UPDATED: 13:38 14 September 2017

Manston

Manston

Copyright © Ian Pollen

The local authority has defended a decision to postpone a presentation by RiverOak Strategic Partners

Kent County Council has been accused of lacking “courage” in a row over the future of Manston Airport.

The local authority’s growth, economic development and communities cabinet committee was due to receive presentations last week by two big players in the airport saga, with differing views on how the land should be used.

Councillors were set to be presented with a vision for aviation use on the site by RiverOak Strategic Partners (RSP), which has recently concluded a consultation into its plans, in which it outlines ambitions to re-open Manson as an air freight hub, pledging to create some 30,000 jobs by 2020.

It is working to obtain a development consent order (DCO) and an application is expected to be submitted before the end of the year.

Sir Roger Gale. Photo: Ady Kerry Sir Roger Gale. Photo: Ady Kerry

Members were also expected to receive a presentation from representatives of Stone Hill Park (SHP), which wants to provide some 2,500 homes and leisure facilities on the site, and last year submitted a planning application to Thanet District Council, which is still currently being considered by officers.

However, SHP chiefs decided to pull the plug on the presentation at the eleventh hour, and KCC then decided to also postpone the appearance of RSP as well, claiming, perhaps understandably, it would make more sense for the committee to be presented with both sides at the same meeting.

Indeed, senior figures at the council, including leader Paul Carter, have chosen to maintain something of a distance from the heated debate in recent months.

County Hall passed a motion in July 2015 which said: “We the elected members of KCC wish it to be known that we fully support the continued regeneration of Manston and east Kent and will keep an open mind on whether that should be a business park or an airport, depending upon the viability of such plans and their ability to deliver significant economic growth and job opportunity”.

Thanet North MP Sir Roger Gale, however, who has been at the forefront of the campaign to return the site to aviation use, was left fuming at the decision to prevent RSP from presenting to the council.

He told us: “I can see no reason whatsoever why RiverOak should not be allowed and encouraged to make a presentation to the council, so they can be informed as to their aspirations and intentions.

“They are not mutually exclusive. It’s not an election campaign. What are they afraid of? Surely county councillors can exercise their own judgement?

“I can’t see any justification for taking an agenda item off the agenda. The leader and the cabinet should have the courage to allow RiverOak to make the presentation and judge for themselves.”

Sir Roger also pointed out that Dover District Council had received a presentation from RSP back in July, without an accompanying exhibition by the SHP team.

It is not the first time the Conservative MP has been at odds with senior councillors of the same party over Manston, however.

In an exchange of emails seen by KentNews.co.uk following a Freedom of Information request, Sir Roger threatened to publicly question Cllr Carter’s status as a senior representative of the party prior to the county council election earlier this year.

He said: “I wish to know whether you support our local Conservative councillors and Conservative county council candidates in their determination to see Manston re-opened as an airport or whether you support Ukip in their desire to see the site developed for housing.

“If the former then please say so publicly. If the latter then I cannot see that you have any authority to represent the Conservative Party at County Hall in the run up to the county council elections and I shall have to pursue that line further and equally publicly.”

The Ukip leader of Thanet District Council, Chris Wells, has repeatedly said the local authority remains open to the possibility of the site returning to aviation use if “a credible investor” comes forward.

In his reply to the MP, Cllr Carter said: “My position and that of the county council is unchanged and very well summarised in the resolutions that were passed.

“It is not for the county council to determine whether a change of use is permitted - that is for Thanet District Council.”

The Tories strolled to victory in May’s election, winning 67 of the 81 seats available at County Hall and Sir Roger has not since publicly questioned his authority, though he has suggested Cllr Carter “does not represent the views of Conservative members of east Kent” - a criticism laughed off by the council leader.

In response, Cllr Carter told us: “There’s good logic to it. What I understand to be the case is that Stone Hill Park were conscious that the draft Thanet local plan is yet to be launched and until that time they would rather not disclose details.

“Politically it’s quite contentious and it’s sensible to give them equal time. We want to play it with a straight bat.”

A KCC spokesperson added: “About a week before the cabinet committee meeting scheduled for September 6, KCC received a request from the owners of Stone Hill Park for their presentation to be deferred to the next meeting on November 21.

“They had made significant changes to previous plans in the light of the public consultation they had conducted and felt it would be more helpful to the cabinet committee if their presentation focused on these rather than what they had previously announced.”

Their request was as follows: “Stone Hill Park will be delighted to present to Kent County Council the full details of their plans, but are at present in the process of including additional detail of a technical nature, which will add to the overall design quality.

“A short delay in their presentation to Kent’s elected councillors would ensure that they are informed of Stone Hill Park’s complete plan, which will allow them to gain an in depth understanding of our ambitions for the former Manston Airport site.”

The council spokesperson added: “KCC felt it sensible to move the other connected presentation, from RiverOak Strategic Partners, to the same date so they could be considered together.

“A decision by Dover District Council to hear the RiverOak presentation on its own is not a matter for KCC comment.”

A spokesperson for Stone Hill Park told us its plans were still progressing as scheduled.

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