East Devon District Council (EDDC) chiefs have unanimously backed a package of financial support to help ensure Exeter Airport can avoid the ‘worst-case scenario’ of closure.
The coronavirus pandemic and the collapse of Flybe have left the transport hub facing an ‘existential threat’ to its future – with year-on-year passenger numbers down 94 per cent in August, writes Local Democracy Reporter Daniel Clark.
EDDC’s cabinet last week approved the further deferral of £180,000 of business rate relief, over three years, and increasing its budget for a scheme to improve Long Lane by £1.1million.
Councillors also agreed to endorse the concept of a ‘sustainable aviation cluster’ centred on Exeter Airport.
Project director Andrew Wood told members in a report that that the airport had probably been the business most impacted in the district by Covid-19.
He added: “It is not possible to say categorically that the package of support outlined in this report will stave off the threat facing the airport, is not a cure, and won’t address in totality of issues they face, but it will help to cushion the impact of the pandemic and we hope it is more than a gesture.
“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.”
Flybe, which accounted for 75 per cent of passenger numbers at the airport, went into administration on March 5 – leading to the loss of 931 local jobs.
Mr Wood added of the impact of the coronavirus crisis: “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.”
In total, £580,000 of the Long Lane improvement works will be guaranteed by the airport’s parent company.
The scheme will see the ‘unfit-for-purpose’ road – which links the airport and the Hampton by Hilton hotel – widened and improved.
This will enable plans for a new ‘Airpark’, one of the four planned ‘Enterprise Zones’, to progress.
Councillor Paul Hayward, EDDC portfolio holder for economy and assets, said taxpayers’ money that was being put on the line.
He added that the authority could offer business rate relief of £180,000 from the airport’s overall bill of £600,000 bill as it was ‘the right thing to do’.
Cllr Hayward said the Government should offer a year-long relief from business rates for all airports in England and Wales, in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Cllr John Loudoun, portfolio holder for policy co-ordination and regional engagement, proposed the support package be approved and said: “This demonstrates the confidence we have in and around the Airport.”
Councillors backed the proposed business rate relief request which will be funded through the Enterprise Zone programme.
Members also agreed to increase the budget of the Long Lane project by £1.1million to £3.7million – which will be borrowed against ring-fenced business rates income.
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