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Special report: The future for Shoreham Airport
5:50pm Tuesday 16th July 2013 in News
On a hot summer’s day by the banks of the River Adur there is always a buzz in the warm air above.
But that’s not because of an outbreak of flies or some other pest.
For more than 100 years a part flood plain between the towns of Shoreham and Lancing has been a place for aerial objects to take off and bed down.
Given its history and claim to be one of, if not the oldest, operating airports in the world, it is clear why there was so much unrest at the idea of the publicly-owned freehold of the land being sold off to a private firmfor possible development.
Throw in the chequered history of the current operators of Shoreham Airport and it’s even more obvious why dozens of people had major concerns.
So why, then, was the idea even on the table?
And why was it dropped just days after The Argus broke news of a potential deal?
The answer may lie in the history.
In 2006 Brighton and Hove City Council and Worthing Borough Council sold the leasehold of the UK’s oldest working airport for a cut-price £8 million due to mounting debts.
However, the freehold of the site remained in public control.
When new leaseholder Erinaceous went into administration in 2008 with debts of £250 million, the leasehold was sold to Albermarle for a nominal £10.
So it was hardly surprising that there were concerns over whether the taxpayer would get a good deal from any sale.
Paul Yallop, leader of Worthing Borough Council, which holds onethird of the freehold, said: “There have been various rumours about the leaseholder’s plans for the future.
“One of my main concerns was that when it was originally sold there were criticisms over the price.
“I think taxpayers would reasonably expect to share in any windfall that might come from possible development in the future. But there’s a view that we should preserve this historic airfield.”
However, the history lesson runs deeper than that.
Airport operators say they need finance to meet a legal commitment included in the 2006 contract to regenerate the airport buildings.
It must invest a minimum of £4 million on redeveloping and refurbishing the premises contained in the airport lease.
If it defaults on this commitment it must pay a further sum of up to £1 million to the two councils on or before September 16, 2013.
Jason Kitcat, leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, which holds two-thirds of the lease, said Albermarle has approached the council about purchasing the freehold but that a solution had not been reached in time for the committee meeting last week.
He said the decision would be deferred for the time being.
Coun Kitcat said: “The operators have a legal commitment to regenerate parts of the airport and I hope they will come good on those commitments.
“We would like to see a successful and flourishing airport but ultimately it’s down to the operator to run their business.”
Meanwhile a former member of Shoreham Airport Owners and Operators Association (SAOTA), who did not wish to be named for fear of losing his licence, warned there was a risk of “unwelcome development” at the site.
He said: “It is good to hear the council has delayed the discussion.
I suspect a lot has gone on in the background and with luck the council will be having second thoughts about dealing with Albermarle and risking unwelcome development of the site.”
He added: “The lease as it exists guarantees the functioning of the airport and if it is sold or given away one can only be extremely fearful of its future, given that we are obviously in the midst of a back room deal.
“The airport manager is a worried man as when September comes, if they have not started refurbishment of the terminal and main hangar, they will be in breach of their lease. He is putting on a brave face but time is running out.”
Ric Belfield, airport general manager, has rejected any suggestion the airfield could shut and the site developed.
He insisted that even if leaseholder Albermarle acquired the freehold it would be bound by a ‘keep airport open’ clause for the next 30 years.
Mr Belfield said owning the lease would make the airport more attractive to investors, which would allow “long overdue” plans to upgrade the Grade II* listed terminal and municipal hangar.
After learning the item has been dropped, he said: “Our position hasn’t changed.
“Hopefully it will go to the council at a later date.
“The airport was sold in 2006 with a 150-year lease and clause.
Even with the freehold we will have to stick to the ‘keep airport open’ clause.
“Gaining the freehold would be more of a tidy-up exercise to make the airport more financeable.
“The council will consider in due course whether to sell the lease. It may be that the timing of it needs to be tied in with Worthing Borough Council.”
Conservative city councillor Geoffrey Theobald said taxpayers’ interests should be at the forefront of any deal, saying: “Before we sold the freehold I would want to be assured that it would be in the best interests of the council taxpayers of Brighton and Hove and of Worthing, as well as the residents of Adur district.”
East Worthing and Shoreham MP Tim Loughton played down the prospect of Worthing selling up.
He said: “It is not the policy of Worthing council to sell their share of the freehold and Adur council are also not keen to see any change in the current status quo.”
Shoreham Airport is also famous for its annual airshow and has also been used by celebrities, such as Sir Alan Sugar.
The airport has also been used as a location for the filming of one Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories, an episode of the 1980s BBC TV Series Tenko and scenes from the film of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Who owns it?
A clause in the 150-year lease committed the holder to keep the site as an airport for at least 35 years and complete £4 million regeneration on the Grade II* listed buildings.
But leaseholder Erinaceous went into administration two years later in 2008 with debts of £250 million, grounding all flights.
Days later the airport was sold to Albermarle Shoreham Airport Limited, a company which had links with dissolved Erinaceous.
The airport was reopened after the nominal £10 sale and Albermarle was bound by the clauses.
In 2010 jobs were axed leading to fears for the airport’s future.
Earlier this month it was revealed Brighton and Hove City Council would discuss selling its twothirds stake, meaning Albermarle’s lease agreement would no longer hold.
Albermarle is now at risk of defaulting on the regeneration commitment in September 2013.
Aerodrome’s ‘‘light bulb’’ moment
The aerodrome was officially opened in June 1911.
In July 1911 a Valkyrie monoplane flew a box of light bulbs to Hove in the first recorded cargo flight.
During the First World War it was used by the Royal Flying Corps as a departure point Allied aircraft to join the conflict across the Channel.
In 1930 the municipal authorities of Brighton, Hove and Worthing formed a joint committee to establish Shoreham as the municipal airport for three towns.
The Art Deco-style terminal building was opened in 1936 and designated Grade II-listed in 1984.
During the Second World War the airfield was bombed several times and a German plane was shot and crash-landed near the terminal building.
The Beagle B.206X was developed at Shoreham during the 1960s.
The pre-war Municipal Hangar was Grade IIListed in July 2007.
It is currently used by private light aircraft, flying schools, helicopter maintenance and sales and pleasure flights.
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