A PRIVATE operator which was brought in to help turn Teesside Airport around has been accused of "jumping ship" after it this week emerged it would withdraw its involvement.

Esken, formerly known as the Stobart Group, yesterday confirmed it would be handing back its 25 percent stake in the airport, just two years after it had agreed to help run it.

The operator, which had been brought in back in 2019, had been responsible for the oversight and development of the airport, and to implement a 10-year rescue plan.

Read more: Stobart Group held 25 percent stake in Teesside Airport handed back

At the time, the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said Stobart had the "experience, credibility and relationships" to make Teesside "fly," saying it was the "right" partner.

The Northern Echo:

As it was announced on Tuesday, Esken provided a statement to investors saying that given "positive developments" in the past 12 months, it "no longer required" its support.

No further reasons were given, while Mr Houchen said Esken had played a key role in supporting its transition back into public ownership.

Read more: Private operator's letter concluding agreement with Teesside Airport IN FULL

But now Labour figures on Teesside have called for clarity on Esken's conclusion of involvement, while one leader has claimed Stobart has "stepped away from liability."

Labour MP for Stockton North, Alex Cunningham branded the announcement as "disappointing," highlighting previous suggestions they would make the airport "viable."

He said: “It’s disappointing to see Stobart jump just ship two years into a ten-year plan when they briefed the Combined Authority and others about their successes elsewhere, and how they’d make Teesside not just viable, but a major airport in its own right. 

The Northern Echo:

“This decision also poses the questions: why and when did they decide this, and did the Mayor know of Stobart’s plan to abandon Teesside Airport before the May election and his request for a further £10m to support it.

“Stobart is leaving local taxpayers to shoulder the costs.  I just hope the Mayor isn’t going to spend even more of our people’s money on this project when our communities still suffer from a totally inadequate public transport system."

As part of yesterday's announcement, it was revealed that the 25 percent stake relinquished by Esken would be transferred into a newly set up foundation.

Mr Houchen claimed the Teesside Airport Foundation would then help support jobs and education, but only once it returns to profit. 

In a letter to investors from Esken on Tuesday, it had confirmed it would be entitled to a share in the proceeds not exceeding £31.3m if the airport was sold before January 2023.

But as part of a "safeguard," Mr Houchen yesterday said there would now be the requirement for a referendum across the Tees Valley if ever the airport is put up for sale.

Mr Cunningham said: "That said, I hope this Foundation does create a real locally-led airport, as the Mayor promises, and promotes a culture of transparency that has been seriously lacking so far.

"A lot of our money is resting on the airport and it is only right that local people know the full financial picture including its huge public subsidies.

“The educational and training arm of this Foundation is also welcome news but hope it isn’t left to do the work the Tees Valley Combined Authority was set up to do -  create jobs and enhance the skills of local people – but is used to complement a wider plan around employability.”

Labour MP for Middlesbrough, Andy McDonald echoed Mr Cunninghams' comments suggesting the deal between Esken and the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen seemed "questionable."

He said: "I am deeply sceptical about whether that was ever wise or whether it ever amounted to value for money.  I strongly suspect there is more to come from this story."

Last night, Labour leader for Redcar and Cleveland, Councillor Carl Quartermain tweet that Esken had "stepped away from liability."

The Northern Echo: Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council's leader Sue Jeffrey

Meanwhile, the Labour Councillor for South Bank, Sue Jeffrey raised concerns over Esken's decision to withdraw when it receives a fee for operating the airport.

She said: "The key question for me is why would Esken pull out of a contract that pays them a fee to operate the airport and offers a big share of future profits if they are confident about future prospects. 

"I am also concerned that it appears that the decision to invest a further £10m of local taxpayers money in the airport was taken without members of the TVCA cabinet being told that Esken were withdrawing.

"It also appears to undermine the basis of the decision made by the TVCA Cabinet, including myself, when we agreed to the airport purchase in 2019 – that if things did go wrong the airport and land would retain/increase in value, could be sold and the proceeds offset against any losses. 

"If by setting up a charitable foundation TVCA are now bound by a referendum before sale this will be costly and time-consuming and will inevitably affect any residual value."

"There needs to be much more transparency about how this decision was made and the implications for the future of this huge investment made by local people. 

"They have put their trust in the TV Mayor to deliver a successful airport, if he is confident that this plan is going to speed up the time when the airport stops being a drain on TVCA resources and moves into profit then lets see the detail of that plan so we can all be reassured that this is not just window dressing to divert attention from the Esken pull out and its implications."

The Northern Echo:

In response, Mr Houchen accused the Labour Party of praying at "every turn" for the airport to fail as he hit back. 

He said: “I really don’t understand why the Labour Party pray at every turn for our airport to fail.

"Let’s not forget, it was the Labour Party who abandoned our airport to Peel who wanted to turn it into a housing estate and sat by while they did it.

"Even going so far as to give Peel permission to build 350 houses on the airport that would have seen it close. 

"It’s why I have put protections in place so that if Labour ever get back into power they can’t sell off our airport again without a public referendum.

Mr Houchen said that the announcement had "zero impact or cost" to the airport, claiming Mr Cunningham had not yet met with him to discuss our airport in the past two years.

Hitting back at Cllr Jeffrey's comments, Mr Houchen accused her of actively campaigning against saving the airport from closure.

He said: “The bare-faced cheek of Sue Jeffrey knows no bounds. The Labour leader who actively campaigned against saving our airport from closure and who seems any money spent on the airport a waste of time and resources is shameless.

"I’ll take no lessons from a failed politician who helped drive our airport into the ground and who destroyed the finances of Redcar and Cleveland council when she was the leader.

"The fact that Sue Jeffrey’s real gripe is that a local referendum is now required to close the airport and local people will have a direct say on the future of our airport shows she is completely unfit for elected office."

He added: “It’s time they get over it and move on, we’re all bored of this constant negativity and talking down Teesside and our airport, it’s not fair on the staff who are doing a fantastic job and have worked their socks off to turn it round from the shambles we were left with.

"We now have a fantastic management team that will help deliver more prosperity, more flights and a brighter future for our local airport.”

Peter Gibson MP said “Labour locally are once again circling and praying for failure. Having flogged our airport off in the past for little money they cannot bear to see the ambition and aspiration for our region that Ben has brought about.

"The people of our area want to see the airport succeed and it is right that they have a say if a future Labour Mayor chooses to play games and close it down”.

David Shearer, Executive Chairman at Esken, last night said, “We are pleased to have had the opportunity to play a role in supporting Teesside International Airport’s return to public ownership and help it on the start of a journey that is now underway with a multimillion-pound overhaul of the terminal.”

A spokesperson for Esken added: “The Combined Authority and the airport team at Teesside have made tremendous progress increasing the number of airlines serving the airport.

"This has been achieved against an incredibly challenging backdrop given the pandemic. Given that progress we felt now is the right time to step away.

"We aim to focus on our core businesses as we work to come back stronger as the UK starts to emerge from the pandemic.”


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