Manston Airport: Is its future going to be as a commercial powerhouse or sprawling housing estate?

There are few industrial sites in the county which create such a tsunami of divided public opinion to its future as that of Manston Airport.

On one side you have the compelling potential for some significant industry in an area of the county, Thanet, which is crying out for opportunity and aspirational career options. All contained on a site with a long history in the aviation sector.

Manston Airport shut back in 2014 – ever since then it’s been locked in a tug of war. Picture: Terry Scott
Manston Airport shut back in 2014 – ever since then it’s been locked in a tug of war. Picture: Terry Scott

On the other, you have the not entirely unreasonable argument that environmentally it fails to fit with many modern green credentials as well as the airfield’s less than stellar previous track record when it comes to commercial success.

For the last two years, the only progress it has made has been through the legal system (and even then at a pace which would make an arthritic sloth look like Usain Bolt) as the complicated decision-making process deployed is challenged through the courts.

Frustrating, certainly, for those wanting to see the site deliver on all its promise and big talk of significant investment. Yet, you also cannot deny the option to legally challenge the approval process if there are questionable aspects. Better to be safe than sorry, after all.

However, regardless of how the final decision falls, the bigger question is what will happen next?

Those behind the airport talk of a huge £800m investment. But just where that investment is coming from remains shrouded in mystery. And even if given clearance, Manston has proved adept at failing to make the sums add up in the past under previous operators.

Preparing for take-off...but will planes ever reach for the skies again? Picture: Chris Davey.
Preparing for take-off...but will planes ever reach for the skies again? Picture: Chris Davey.

Yet if those campaigning against it succeed, what then for what will then become prime real estate? Simply more housing? Almost inevitably – and given previous proposals – that is what will occur.

There may be some industrial opportunities incorporated, but there will forever remain the question of ‘what if?’. What if the airport had gone ahead? What if it was a success? What if Thanet and east Kent, more broadly, had a jobs creation hub with which to inspire those coming up through the local schools?

It’s hard to argue against a potential future with a successful airport at its heart; one which can alleviate Thanet’s heavy seasonal dependency on tourism. But it’s equally hard not to feel an anxiety about the airport’s hugely ambitious stated plans – as shrouded as the enormous funding required is, in self-imposed secrecy.

The one thing we can all be certain of is that this site sitting in limbo for however long is not doing east Kent any good at all.

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