DEBATE about the future of an airport ensured the televised hustings for Tees Valley mayoral candidates really took off on Thursday evening.

Conservative Ben Houchen repeated his pledge to buy Durham Tees Valley Airport from its owners, Peel Holdings, but Labour’s Sue Jeffrey responded: “I wouldn’t buy an airport that is losing £2m a year and pass that debt onto everyone.”

The Liberal Democrats’ Chris Foote Wood said: “The decision by Labour-controlled Darlington council for 350 houses next to the airport has to be reversed immediately.”

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His point was taken up by Ukip candidate John Tennant. “350 houses being built next to the airport is an absolute shambles,” he said. “If that airport gets its investment and expands, those houses will need to be pulled down.”

Ms Jeffrey said she would work with the owners of the ailing airport. “I will invest in the airport and turn it into a thriving international gateway,” she said.

But Mr Houchen said: “The biggest problem with the airport is the current owners. They are not interested in running the airport. They have only committed to keeping it for five years because the local authority has taken on responsibility for the pensions and allowed them to build 350 houses.”

Pressed by chairman Richard Moss, BBC Look North political editor, on whether he would use compulsory purchase powers to buy the airport, Mr Houchen replied: “We ideally want Peel to get round the table, but there are plenty of options available.”

Polling day for the first Tees Valley mayor, who will oversee economic growth in the council areas of Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, and Hartlepool, is May 4. The campaign has yet to capture the public imagination and is now likely to be overshadowed by the hurriedly called General Election on June 8.

In fact, the loudest applause in the BBC’s debate, staged at Macmillan College in Middlesbrough, came for a questioner who demanded that the mayor be scrapped. Mr Tennant, the Hartlepool council Ukip leader, who will hold a referendum on the post should he be elected, said: “There’s so much voter apathy. No one wants this. No one was asked about this. The five councils signed up to this without our say so.”

Yet all candidates felt the mayor could improve the area’s transport infrastructure, with a metro system proposed by all. Ms Jeffrey, who generally gave the most detailed answers, spoke about the need to improve the bus network while Mr Foote Wood demanded an 800mph test track be built and a downstream road and rail “superbridge” over the Tees.