THE Tees Valley mayor is to buy a struggling airport for £40m to keep the planes flying and to prevent houses from being built on its land.

Ben Houchen claimed his deal would not cost local taxpayers a penny and that if, in years to come, the airport failed, the public would be left with land and infrastructure worth more than the £40m outlay.

He said: “This is a deal that will secure our airport’s long-term future, and delivers on the number one election pledge I made to the people of the Tees Valley: an airport owned by the people, for the people.”

However, the deal could yet be thwarted by the five Labour local council leaders who have to approve it, and before yesterday’s announcement, they launched a pre-emptive strike calling it a “vanity project”.

Under Mr Houchen’s deal, he would buy Peel Holdings’ 90 per cent stake in the airport and the 819 acres that surround it for £35m. He would then buy the neighbouring 61 acres, which have planning permission for 350 homes, for a further £5m.

“If the deal is approved, I’ll stop the housing development,” he said. “In fact – if this deal is approved and for as long as I’m mayor – houses will not be built at this airport. Not a single one.”

Mr Houchen said the money would come from the £513m pot that was devolved from central government to the Tees Valley.

He said: “The people of the Tees Valley will not have to pay a penny extra to finance this acquisition. Our valued public services will not be affected by this deal, our councils will be completely insulated and protected, and our other priorities will still be delivered on.

“Taking back control of our airport presents a once in a generation opportunity for the Tees Valley to find its voice again. As we look to a positive future outside the European Union, we won’t just be competing with Newcastle, Leeds or Birmingham – our success depends on our ability to work, trade and collaborate with old friends and new allies around the world. That means we have to be as accessible, visible, competitive and pro-active as possible, and it starts with securing the long-term future of our airport.”

The airport is currently losing £2m a year. Robert Hough, the chairman of Peel Airports, said: “We have tried our level best over the last 15 years and I have to say it has been very, very tough for us without financial support from the public sector.”

Asked about the future of the airport without Mr Houchen’s intervention, Mr Hough would only say: “If the deal doesn’t go ahead, the airport will have to change.” Last week in Parliament, Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham said he feared the airport would close in 2021.

Peel has owned the airport in conjunction with the five Tees Valley councils since 2003. The airport’s peak came in 2006 when it was used by 910,000 passengers. Since then passenger numbers have fallen to 131,000 in 2016-17.

However, Mr Hough said yesterday that the latest figures to September show that it was used by 140,000 passengers, showing a 14 per cent rise which makes it the second fastest growing airport in the country.

He said: “These are changed circumstances that can for a new beginning at Durham Tees Valley.”

Mr Houchen, who hopes to complete the deal in the second quarter of next year, said: “In the short term there will be losses that have to be sustained. We will not turn it into a profitable venture within three months, but over four to six years we will make it stand on its own two feet.

“We have a plan to attract more airlines, more flights, and then we will have a full redevelopment of the 819 acres which will bring more investment and more jobs and really see this airport take-off.

“With a new plan, new leadership and a new vision, the People’s Airport will pay for itself.”

He said he would be presenting his plan in detail in the next couple of weeks.

He said: “My argument is that even if the airport isn’t as profitable as another venture, the wider economic benefit means it is the right thing to do. The airport today adds more than £50m to the local economy and already supports 1,000 jobs.

“The airport cannot be talked about in isolation. International investment doesn’t arrive by bus, it arrives at an airport terminal. When we speak to investors, it is embarrassing to say they have to go to Manchester and drive two hours to get here. The airport is a strategically important asset that facilitates the economic growth of the whole region.

“Without a thriving airport you can’t make the region a success.”

Mr Houchen is calling an emergency meeting of the Tees Valley Combined Authority in January. If three of the five Labour council leaders – of Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Redcar & Cleveland – vote against the plan, it will sink.

Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson, in whose constituency three-quarters of the airport lies, said: “I’m not trying to undermine this initiative, but there are legitimate questions that need to be answered because this is taxpayers’ money.

“Who is going to be the operator – will this be a case of the public sector taking the risk and the private sector taking the profit?

“How much more investment will be needed? Does the mayor have airlines that are prepared to fly out of Durham Tees Valley? Has independent due diligence taken place – we need to know about the viability of the scheme.

“I want to see the airport flourish, but this is taxpayers’ money that is being spent.”

Stockton North’s MP Alex Cunningham, whose constituency contains the other quarter of the airport, said: “The mayor has made repeated statements saying his deal to buy the loss making airport won’t cost council taxpayers a penny – yet he is prepared to use the cash, hard won by our combined authority even before he was elected, to fund it. Whatever way you look at it - that is taxpayers’ money.

“There is no doubt that there will need to be an independent examination of the business case and financial figures of his proposal – and I for one will be seeking a long term, cast iron guarantee from the mayor and any partner he is working with, that taxpayers won’t be saddled with both the bill and with shoring up an airport which has been losing around £2m a year.

“Perhaps it is time he accepted that just as the NHS isn’t going to get £350m extra every week if and when we leave the EU, he can’t buy the airport without diverting tens of millions of pounds of public money – public money that is designated to create and support jobs throughout the Tees Valley.

“Instead he should work with the Combined Authority to develop and support other ways in which more airlines can be encouraged to provide services from Durham Tees Valley.”

However, Cllr Doris Jones, who has represented the village of Middleton St George on Darlington council for more than 30 years, said: “It is a lovely Christmas present for the village. The people are delighted that they will not be getting another 350 homes, and they will be getting their back instead.”

Another Conservative, the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Simon Clarke, said: “This is a breakthrough moment and will be welcomed right across our area.

“The response of local Labour leaders says it all: having sold it off on the cheap, and then attacked Ben bitterly for saying it needed to be rescued, they are now trying to undermine this announcement. They will not succeed – the funding is in place, a deal has been agreed and we are lucky enough to have a mayor of the Tees Valley who understands and respects our priorities and honours his word.”

Mike Matthews, the managing director of the Stockton-based global car parts manufacturer Nifco, said: “I whole-heartedly support the deal. I work with a lot of international businesspeople who have a little giggle about our little airport and its poor facilities when it should really be a badge of honour for the region.”

Airport’s flightpath

1939: The airport begins as RAF Goosepool

1964: Transferred to a consortium of local councils to run as a civilian airport

2002: Bulk of ownership transferred to Peel Holdings, one of the country’s largest private investment companies which owns land and property, and operates Doncaster-Sheffield and Liverpool airports

2006: Airport’s heyday with 910,000 passengers

2015: With passenger numbers slumped post-crash to 140,000 a year, Peel draws up a masterplan which includes developing businesses on the airport site and building hundreds of homes

2017: The outside Conservative candidate to be the first Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, announces that buying back the airport is to be his number one, headline-grabbing election pledge