A BATTLE to bring a lossmaking airport under public ownership has escalated after a leading politician’s plan was branded “fanciful” by a Labour MP.

Phil Wilson yesterday called on Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen to drop his bid for Durham Tees Valley Airport (DTVA), warning he risks undermining operator Peel’s plans to strengthen the base.

However, last night Mr Houchen, who swept to election victory on a promise to wrest the airport from its owner, dismissed Mr Wilson’s claims, accusing the Sedgefield MP and his party of a “cheap political stunt” as they wilfully allow DTVA to decay.

The row comes just days after the mayor claimed “every man has his price” following Peel’s assertion that it is “not inclined to sell” the former RAF site, based on the outskirts of Darlington, and is instead intent on pumping all proceeds from the sale of soon-to-be residential land into the airport.

Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday, Mr Wilson said it was time for Mr Houchen to stop using DTVA, which is losing about £2m a year and has seen annual passenger numbers collapse from nearly a million to around 130,000, as “a political football”, warning the mayor not to “promise what you can’t deliver.”

“Now is the time for grown-up politics,” Mr Wilson said of DTVA, which complements KLM flights to Amsterdam with services to Aberdeen and Norwich after losing operators and holiday charter flights.

“We should support the owner in their plan and not seek to undermine it.

“I say to the mayor, draw a line under any idea of trying to nationalise the airport, because public ownership is not a panacea.

“Instead work with Peel, become an ambassador for the airport, and help us secure its future.

“If you have a private sector company willing to carry such a financial burden, why would you want to transfer that burden to taxpayers?

“One thing I have learnt in this job is that if you really want to do something big for the local area, don’t grandstand, don’t promise what you can’t deliver and don’t take the people of Tees Valley for granted.

“I will work with anyone, including the mayor, to secure the airport’s future, but the idea of public ownership is fanciful, and I think the mayor knows it.”

However, Mr Houchen, who has long questioned Peel’s investment into the site, said it is Labour and Mr Wilson who are doing the showboating.

He said: “Not a single Labour MP has met with me to raise the issue of the airport since my election.

“This is grandstanding at its very worst and is the type of cheap political stunt that makes a deal harder to reach.

"Labour are doing all they can to defy the will of local people.

"It’s clear Labour MPs would rather sit back, stick to the status quo and watch our airport decline.

“I am the only one with the vision to see our airport thrive once again.

"I have a democratic mandate to deliver on my pledge to bring our airport back into public ownership and that is what I’m committed to doing.”