Councillors Oppose Bid To Remove Their Airport Fee Setting Role

St Mary's Airport

St Mary’s Airport

Councillors have spoken out against a proposal to give a new airport manager free hand in setting fees and charges.

Members were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to oversee price rises under plans put forward by the Senior Manager for Infrastructure and Assets, Craig Dryden, at last Thursday’s Transport Committee meeting.

Craig’s recommendation would give any future Accountable Airport Manager more autonomy over day-to-day running, including the budgets.

He told councillors that the proposal would streamline airport management and allow quicker decisions to be made on operational issues, without having to wait for the next committee meeting.

A report written by the company that manages Exeter and Blackpool airports has recommended a “step change” in the management and governance at St Mary’s to improve performance and service.

Craig says without this, there’s a risk it could close. The facility is already under increased oversight from the CAA.

But in a heated debate, councillors lined up one-by-one to reject the officer’s plan, because they’d loose their power to set the fees, including landing charges.

Cllr Marian Bennett said the islands’ tourism industry was very sensitive to the cost of transport, which could increase if airport charges went up.

Cllr Robert Dorrien Smith recalled the situation two years ago before the Transport Committee was in place. Airport costs were “hiked up” by almost 30%, he said, without any consultation.

That was “completely unacceptable” and should be avoided again at all costs, he added.

Craig had proposed an “oversight and scrutiny” role for the Transport Committee but this left some members confused.

Cllr Gaz O’Neill repeatedly pressed Craig to explain what that actually meant.

“Does that mean if the airport manager decides to double the fees, this committee can simply turn round and say we wish you hadn’t?” asked Gaz.

Craig said any significant increases being proposed would be reported back to Council.

But Gaz questioned how the Accountable Manager could have full control of setting fees but the Council could still change those if they didn’t like them.

“It has to be one or the other,” he said.

Craig finally admitted that the committee wouldn’t be able to change the fees once they were set, but said there would still be “an element of scrutiny.”

Gaz said he didn’t want the airport manager coming to the committee to get permission, “to buy an envelope.” But he felt strongly that the Council needs the ability to “step in” if there was a crisis.

Committee Chairman Chris Thomas and Vice Chair Steve Sims appeared to be the lone voices in favour of the proposal to give a manager the authority to set fees without councillor involvement.

Steve said the fees shouldn’t be a political decision.

He said the council should not have voted to freeze them last year, even though he admitted that he’d voted for the freeze himself. And he couldn’t see how airport staff would be in a worse position to make that decision.

Cllr Sims said he “didn’t really care about fees and charges – it’s the other stuff that’s important here.”

That comment brought a swift reply from Cllr James Francis, who said it was “an extraordinary thing to say,” adding that he “shouldn’t be Vice Chair of the committee if that’s what he thinks.”

Steve said he was confident that any charges put forward would always be reasonable but Robert Dorrien Smith disagreed, pointing to the “very extravagant” budget put forward two years ago, with people “seeming to order £200,000 fire engines once a week.”

Robert said it still hadn’t been explained why changes in governance meant taking away the Council’s ability to set fees. “Why does that need to happen?” he asked.

Gaz felt increased flexibility for airport staff doesn’t mean elected members handing over all responsibility. He didn’t want to have to tell the community in the future that, “it seemed like a good idea at the time and now there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“That’s not increased flexibility,” said Gaz. “It’s delusional.”

The airport is run as a separate trading account, meaning it has its own budget and needs to break even over the long term.

Cllr Dorrien Smith felt the Transport Committee should be like a board of directors, with the Accountable Manager being the executive who brings his proposals forward to them for approval.

“Or can the manager set the fees and then tell us afterwards, ‘I hope you like it’?”

“That won’t do,” said Robert.

He suggested that any increases should at least be capped to the rate of inflation.

In the end, councillors voted to approve the proposals to bring in an Accountable Manager but they were adamant that they want to retain control over fees and charges. So they’ll want that caveat written into the Transport Committee rules or ‘terms of reference.’

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