A number of councillors at Cornwall Council have accused its Conservative cabinet of secrecy over the possible sale of Newquay Airport.

The council invoked “special urgent decisions” last week to take a “timely investment proposition” concerning the airport to the market, but the majority of councillors don’t know the details and have asked for more transparency.

Opposition councillors are now calling for the future ownership of the airport to be “debated openly in public”, ideally at a meeting of the full council.

The council didn’t respond to reports that a “heads of terms” agreement [a document outlining the main issues relevant to a possible sale or partnership] was due to be signed this week, granting exclusive negotiating rights to one bidder with a single proposal finally coming before the cabinet in a few months time.

A number of councillors told us that council officers invoked an “urgency” procedure to bypass discussion at scrutiny committee level which they believe was stopping any opportunity for debate. However, the council has denied this, stating that any future proposals will be discussed again by its economic growth and development overview and scrutiny committee.

It is clear, however, that some councillors are in the dark as to exactly where the council is with any possible sale of the airport, which runs at a loss and is subsidised by Cornish taxpayers.

The accusation

Liberal Democrats’ deputy group leader Leigh Frost, who sits on the scrutiny committee, said: “What we have seen so far is secretive conversations taking place in the background. A statement hasn’t even come to councillors. We have had to hear it through the media, which is embarrassing.”

Cllr Frost said he had written to the council’s monitoring officer asking for more information on the matter as a member of the scrutiny committee, but he had not received a response. He added he would “appreciate the honesty of what decisions are being made”.

On August 23, two “Special Urgent Decisions” were added to the cabinet’s work programme online, to be made “on or soon after” Tuesday, August 29 regarding Cornwall Airport Newquay. Many councillors were unaware of this.

The notice states: “The Leader’s report on the Strategic Airport Review is urgent due to the necessity to take a clear and timely investment proposition to the market. Identifying potential investment partners could lead to budget savings in the future and the timeline for assessing possible savings before the next financial year is important, as are the related operational implications for the airport. Therefore, the timeline is critical.

“Equally, the costs of the process will be reduced if the timeline is shortened. A final decision on whether to accept any investment offers will be taken by Cabinet in the spring.”

The report’s details were not published as the details were deemed confidential and “commercially sensitive both for Cornwall Council, Corserv, Cornwall Airport Limited (CAL) and the tenants of both Cornwall Airport Newquay and the wider airport estate”.

Liberal Democrat Group leader Colin Martin says the process is rapidly turning into a farce. “Last November, in a confidential meeting, I raised concerns that without a clear carbon-reduction policy, this process could lead to a significant increase in emissions from aircraft. Councillors were assured that all options were still on the table and that a further report would be produced in January.

“Now, suddenly, a ‘Special Urgent Confidential Decision’ is to be made: ‘Special Urgency’ means the decision needs to be made within five working days. ‘Special Urgent Decisions’ can only be challenged before they are made. However, because it is also ‘confidential’, councillors cannot read the details until after the decision is made!

“The report which repeatedly stressed the importance of ‘moving at pace’ was written over nine months ago, so rather than trying to claim ‘Special Urgency’ and sneak out a decision over a bank holiday weekend, the cabinet member should be organising a special briefing to explain to the scrutiny committee what happened to the update they were promised in January.”

We understand that the council decided, in private, towards the end of last year that the “optimal solution” for the future of the airport was a partnership, with Cornwall Council retaining a “small stake”, which some councillors have equated to privatisation. The council stated it would still have a “seat at the table” allowing a degree of control.

What the opposition councillors say

Cllr Tim Dwelly, shadow economy portfolio holder, said: “We are saying: the future ownership of Newquay Airport should be debated openly in public. Yet again the Conservative leaders of the council are undermining the future of an essential Cornwall asset. Yet again they are doing it by the back door, with the process shrouded in secrecy. By avoiding scrutiny, the Cabinet presumably thinks they can get a sell-off deal done without a full council vote. Have they learned nothing from the Mayor nightmare?

“In the previous council, we were committed to keeping the airport, because we knew that without council ownership, there would be a risk that Cornwall could lose its airport forever. We didn’t want to be one of those places that lost its air links – like Plymouth did.”

He added: “We think the council should look again at a small airport fee for passengers, possibly a carbon reduction fee that helps the airport reduce emissions. Such a fee would cover the cost to the council of running the airport. It’s important to remember though that before Covid the airport subsidy was coming down rapidly. The airport is critically important to businesses and jobs in Cornwall.

“It is no good the council dressing all this up as commercially confidential, an ‘investment opportunity’ and the rest of it. If the proposal is to hand control of the airport and/or freehold ownership of the land to a new body with the council only keeping a minority share, that is a sell-off. It is privatisation. The idea that this all has to be done under ‘urgency’ procedures is nonsense. Councillors shouldn’t fall for this spin. Neither should the people of Cornwall.

“In the view of the Independent Group, and no doubt others too, the future control of Cornwall’s vital airport should be openly debated and voted upon. If that doesn’t happen, very serious questions will again be asked of the Cornwall Conservatives’ commitment to proper democracy.”

Labour and Lib Dems speak out

Jayne Kirkham, Labour Group leader at Cornwall Council, was also perturbed.

She said: “I have raised questions in full council previously about the airport and Cornwall Council administration’s plans for it. I am concerned that there should be full transparency and consultation on the terms of any deal regarding such an important public asset on public land.

“My concerns are particularly over whether the administration plans that the freehold of the land is to be retained, the terms of any lease and whether the council retains a majority ownership. If the Conservative Council intends to sell off the airport, then they need to be open about it and on what basis.”

Joanna Kenny, the Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate for the St Austell and Newquay constituency, said: “There seem to be many councillors in the current administration that don’t approve of a done deal and want a proper competitive tender exercise. Not to mention the implications if a future private owner starts selling off the real estate. It appears that other councillors, and specifically the two councillors who represent the electoral divisions that split the airport estate, have not yet been consulted. Whatever happened to ‘no surprises’?”

Council statement

Cornwall Council and its leader Linda Taylor did not respond to concerns about a lack of scrutiny or possible privatisation of the airport. However, a council spokesperson said: “The council continues to explore options to ensure that Cornwall’s airport is protected and maintained at minimal cost to the taxpayer. The decision to explore investment options has already been discussed at the council’s economic growth and development overview and scrutiny committee and is on the forward plan, meaning future proposals will be discussed again by the committee.

“This is the start of a process and no formal decisions on the future of the airport have yet been taken. The safeguarding and continued operation of Cornwall’s operational airport is at the forefront of the current process.”

Steve Double, MP for Newquay, co-chairs the Regional Airports APPG which works to lobby government on behalf of small regional airports. He said: “Having raised this already with Cornwall Council, my understanding is that what is being reported on is merely around Cornwall Council investigating investment opportunities for Cornwall Airport Newquay in order to expand services, create jobs and safeguard its long-term future.

“Cornwall Airport Newquay is important to our Cornish economy and I support the council in its work to find an investor as we do also need to be working towards it having a sustainable future and reducing the amount of Cornish taxpayer subsidy that goes towards it.

“I understand that this is part of an ongoing process that has only just got underway and nothing is on the table as yet. However, as it progresses I trust that all proposals will be carefully considered by the council before a decision is made and that it will be based on what is right and best for the people of Cornwall.”