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Manston airport: Potential compulsory purchase order and doubts over land values for developers could scupper development plans for Ann Gloag

09 June 2014
by Chris Price

Having ended a century of aviation history, Manston airport owner Ann Gloag is reportedly considering turning the site into a garden city.

Whatever she decides to do, the Stagecoach founder is not in for an easy ride. 

A tear fell down the face of Nicola Hill as she watched Manston airport’s workers walk out for the final time.

Protestors with MP Sir Roger Gale, front right, on the day of Manston airport's closure

Protestors with MP Sir Roger Gale, front right, on the day of Manston airport's closure

“I hate the people who have done this,” said the mother-of-two from Margate, whose firefighter husband Michael has been forced to take a job at an airport in Afghanistan.

“They don’t care about the people who work there but we have to suffer because my children’s dad has gone away.”

More than 140 people lost their jobs as the airport near Ramsgate closed, leaving an eerie quiet over the UK’s fourth largest runway, operational since the First World War.

Its owner Ann Gloag bought the airport for £1 in November but closed it less than six months later, with the airport said to be losing £10,000 a day.

The runway at Manston is the fourth-longest in the UK. Picture Simon Burchett

The runway at Manston is the fourth-longest in the UK. Picture: Simon Burchett

That was despite three offers from US consortium RiverOak to buy the site, with the aim of turning it into a European cargo hub.

The final bid was typical of the fast-moving nature of the airport’s final months.

It gave hope to campaigners hours before the site was due to close but was rejected moments before staff walked out for the last time.

Heart-wrenchingly, the offer met Mrs Gloag’s asking price, reported to be £7m.

“When she was offered what she asked for, it was her worst nightmare,” said MP Sir Roger Gale, who has campaigned with fellow Thanet MP Laura Sandys against the closure.

Tasha Girdler was very upset at the closure. Picture Tony Flashman

Tasha Girdler was very upset at the closure. Picture: Tony Flashman

Workers leave the terminal building for the last time. Picture Tony Flashman

Workers leave the terminal building for the last time. Picture: Tony Flashman

Protesters against the closure of Manston Airport

Protesters against the closure of Manston Airport

“It is apparent she had no intention of running it as an airport. Now I take anything she says with a pinch of salt.”

The Scottish businesswoman leaked to the nationals she is considering turning the site into a garden city.

Before that, she may face a lengthy legal dispute with Thanet District Council, who are considering issuing a compulsory purchase order, funded in part by RiverOak who say they are still interested in acquiring the airport.

“The legal case has to be watertight because Ms Gloag has a lot of money and will no doubt throw it at expensive lawyers...” MP Sir Roger Gale

The council successfully bought Dreamland in Margate using the method which went to the High Court and Court of Appeal, at great cost.

“The legal case has to be watertight because Ms Gloag has a lot of money and will no doubt throw it at expensive lawyers,” said Sir Roger.

“With the support of RiverOak, who are also not short of money, they will know what they are doing. Their chief executive has said they are in it for the long haul.

“I cannot say whether they will be successful but I can say if Mrs Gloag thinks she will have an easy route to a housing estate then she has got another thing coming.”

A decision has not been made on whether a compulsory purchase order will be issued, with Mrs Gloag set to meet council leader Cllr Iris Johnston in the coming weeks to discuss the future of the airport.

Even if she maintains ownership of the site and gets planning permission for homes, there remains an elephant in the room.

“The big problem is east Kent won’t attract mainstream developers,” said David Parry, development consultant at West Malling-based property advisors Smiths Gore.

Manston airport site owner Ann Gloag

Manston airport site owner Ann Gloag

“It is a long way out of London and the land values are generally low.

"There is a narrow gap between the cost of building the infrastructure and the revenue you would get from development. It becomes more risky in terms of profitability.

“Developers are more likely to concentrate on areas with high demand but demand has fallen away in Thanet.

"It is not going to be top of people’s lists.”

A few miles from Manston, the first houses at the Cross Quays development near Westwood Cross shopping centre were unveiled last month, more than 15 years after the project was first put forward.

A two-bedroom house at the Persimmon-built estate – set to create about 1,000 homes in the next decade – starts at £142,950.

The first homes at the Cross Quays development near Westwood Cross have gone on sale

Mr Parry said: “The land at Manston would still be more valuable as houses but the owners will need to watch it because infrastructure could be quite costly and the return values are quite low.

“If they get planning consent development would be slow. I advised on the 1,000-home development at Cross Quays 15 years ago and only now is it being developed.

“I suspect they have not done their homework. Everyone automatically thinks if you put 15,000 houses on a site it is like a licence to print money but there is a lot more to it than that.

“If you are going to replace an airport you have to give something special to the community and that is going to cost.”

A spokesperson for Manston Airport said: “A number of people have approached the owners with ideas for the future of the site and they will be considered over the coming months.

“No decisions have been made by the owners regarding the future of the site and it is likely to be a number of months before any decisions are made.”

If the Mrs Gloag eventually decides against turning the site into houses, there are many other options.

“It would make a fantastic solar farm,” said former Virgin Group brand director Will Whitehorn, a former right-hand man of Richard Branson.

Richard Branson's former right-hand-man Will Whitehorn at Kent 2020 Vision Live

Also an ex-President of Virgin Galatic, Mr Whitehorn spoke at the Kent 2020 Vision Live business show at Kent Showground, Detling, last month.

He told Kent Business: “Manston is in a corner of the UK and maybe it would be better if Kent bites the bullet and makes better use of the land.

“The best thing is to create an opportunity that provides the most number of jobs. People should think positively about it.

“It’s sad it’s closed. I’m a lover of aviation. I have landed at Manston airport. I love the history but if it was going to work as an airport it would have worked by now.”

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