A CANDIDATE to be the first mayor of the Tees Valley is to buy back Durham Tees Valley Airport if he is elected in May.

Yarm businessman Ben Houchen, the Conservative candidate, said last night that he will use part of the mayor’s £15m-a-year budget to take the airport back into public ownership.

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He said: “For too long, Teesside airport has been allowed to decline. Fresh thinking is needed, and a pragmatic and practical approach needs to start by acquiring the airport in order to give it new leadership.”

The airport is 89 per cent owned by Peel Airports with the rest owned by the five councils of the Tees Valley. Passenger numbers have plummeted from nearly one million in 2006 to just 140,000 in 2015.

The new mayor’s prime responsibility will be to boost economic regeneration in the Tees Valley using powers handed down from central government.

“The new devolution deal gives a large annual cash sum to the mayor, which can also be used for additional borrowing,” said Mr Houchen. “There are many calls on these resources, but a rejuvenated airport needs to be one of the top transport priorities.”

With Labour dominating the five councils of the Tees Valley – Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Redcar and Cleveland – its candidate, Sue Jeffrey who is the leader of the Redcar council, starts as favourite to win the election on May 4. However, it is Mr Houchen who is setting the agenda as this is his second headline-grabbing announcement of the campaign after he announced he would look to abolish scandal-struck Cleveland Police if he were elected.

The plight of the airport, and its effect on the local economy, has been a major concern in the area, with a group called Save Teesside Airport set up in 2015. Peel, though, has a “masterplan” for the airport’s future, which includes expanding aviation businesses on the site and building hundreds of houses.

Regular flights go to the Schiphol hub in Amsterdam, and to Aberdeen, and last year it was announced that it is hoped to restart a route to London by 2030.

“The current airport owners have their own ideas for development on the site but our local authorities have lost interest in forcing through a change in the decline of air services,” said Mr Houchen, who is the Conservative leader on Stockton council.

The airport, next to Middleton St George, started life as a Second World War military base. In 1963, it was bought by the then Cleveland County Council. That council was abolished in 1996 and the five unitary authorities took on ownership. In 2002, they transferred the bulk of the ownership to Peel, which owns airports in Doncaster, Sheffield and Liverpool, in the belief that its private skills and greater resources could run it better. However, in 2010 it controversially introduced a £6 levy on each passenger.

Mr Houchen, who refers to the airport by its pre-2004 name of Teesside, said: “The airport has been decimated by the local Labour-run authorities and local people now have less influence over it. The result has been a struggle for flights compounded by policies such as drop-off fees and passenger fees that actively discourage airport users.”

Whether the mayor’s budget will match Peel’s valuation is debatable, and there is some irony in a Conservative candidate effectively proposing to renationalise a transport asset.

However, the Conservative MP for Stockton South, James Wharton, backed Mr Houchen saying: “This is a long running issue and it is welcome that at least one of the candidates is looking to address it. I would expect this proposal to be of real interest and it may well be the long term solution we have been looking for.”

  • As well as Ms Jeffrey, the other declared candidates are Chris Foote Wood for the Liberal Democrats, Hartlepool councillor John Tennant for Ukip and John Tait for the North-East Party.
  • Reaction to Mr Houchen’s announcement will appear in The Northern Echo on Tuesday.