Arab millionaire's plan for Kent airport meets mass opposition

Wildlife groups enraged by scheme for European travel hub, reports Michael McCarthy
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The Independent Online

Controversial plans to create a new regional airport handling up to two million passengers a year in one of the most environmentally sensitive corners of England have been condemned by the Government's wildlife agency, Natural England.

A public inquiry into the scheme at Lydd in Kent will open today to consider proposals by a multi-millionaire Arab businessman to transform what is currently a small, local airfield used by light aircraft, with a tiny commercial passenger throughput, into a regional hub capable of handling passenger jets such as Boeing 737s and Airbus A319s. He hopes it could fly large numbers of people to business and holiday destinations all over Europe.

The plan has aroused intense opposition, not least because the proposed location – Lydd Airport – is right next to two areas of substantial environmental interest and importance: Romney Marsh and the Dungeness peninsula. Dungeness, in particular, with its unique landscape of vegetated shingle which harbours astonishing populations of rare plants and insects alongside lakes rich in bird life, is specifically protected under two separate European Union wildlife laws, the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive.

Fierce criticism of the scheme has come from conservation bodies, led by Natural England, whose view is that because of the EU directives, permission for the airport cannot be granted "as a matter of law". The agency goes on to refer to "the very substantial and unmitigated harm that is likely to be caused by the proposals" to local habitats and wildlife which are protected both nationally and internationally. Other conservation groups are just as scathing. The RSPB has described the plan as "completely unacceptable", while the Campaign to Protect Rural England says it is "shockingly ill-conceived". Residents says they fear that the peace of the area – Romney Marsh is officially the quietest part of Kent – would be destroyed not only by jet aircraft noise, but by thousands of new traffic movements that would become necessary. They are also concerned that the marsh landscape itself will become industrialised.

Another fear of residents concerns the danger of siting an airport handling 70-tonne passenger jets in close proximity to a nuclear power station – Dungeness B sits on the shoreline less than three miles from the airport.

"We are deeply concerned about the safety aspects associated with creating a regional airport adjacent to the Dungeness nuclear power complex – and under one of the main migratory bird routes in the south of England," said Louise Barton, of the Lydd Airport Action Group. "The risk of crash damage is high. We are also concerned about the destruction of the special character of Romney Marsh for the sake of a limited number of seasonal jobs. This is a preposterous proposal."

The scale of the opposition is shown by the fact that, until last summer, the soon-to-be abolished Government Office for the South-East had received 14,000 objections to the proposals and only 200 in favour.

However, for all that, the local authority – the Tory-dominated Shepway District Council based in Folkestone – supports the scheme and has approved the planning application, despite the fact its own officers also recommended that it be turned down.

It did so at a council meeting last March when, in what critics allege was a quite extraordinary procedure, councillors altered their own environmental consultants' report by deleting paragraphs saying that the scheme would harm protected areas, and substituting paragraphs of text supplied by the airport company itself, saying that it would not.

The former Conservative leader Michael Howard, who was then the local MP, spoke strongly in support of the airport proposal at the meeting and advised councillors that they did not have to accept the advice of their officers to turn it down.

The Tory leader of Shepway council, Robert Bliss, the retired owner of a saddlery company, said at the weekend that the issue of altering the consultant's report was "a matter of common sense". He said he did not accept Natural England's assertion that the scheme would be environmentally damaging, and said the council supported the airport expansion because it might provide "several hundred" local jobs. The airport's operators suggest it would provide between 200 and 210 jobs directly, with a further 100 created indirectly.

Yet whatever the number of jobs the scheme might provide, the driving force behind it is undoubtedly the desire of Lydd Airport's owner, the Saudi business mogul Sheikh Fahad Al-Athel, to turn a loss-making airport into a going concern.

Sheikh Fahad is a colourful and immensely rich figure who is a friend of Jonathan Aitken, the discredited former Tory minister and MP for South Thanet in Kent. The sheikh was involved as a middleman in the £20bn Al-Yamamah arms deal between the Saudis and Britain. Educated in America, where he obtained a Master's degree in business, Sheikh Fahad founded the FAL group, a leading Saudi hotels-to-healthcare conglomerate, and has played a key role in the kingdom's rapid industrial and commercial development over the past 30 years.

He bought the airport in 2001 for £4.1m (and the adjoining Lydd Golf Club) and renamed it "London Ashford Airport" – although the market town of Ashford is nearly 15 miles away and London is more like 70. But the airport's accounts indicate that he has never been able to make it pay, with only 588 commercial passengers passing through in 2009. The latest available figures show annual operating losses of more than £1.8m in both 2007 and 2008, and accumulated losses of £10.6m.

His plan now is to transform the facility into a money-making regional international airport. His proposal is for a new terminal building to replace the small, original one built in the 1950s, which is showing clear signs of age (it has a Biggles Bar and a Battle of Britain Function Room). This would take the current annual capacity of 300,000 passengers (only a fraction of which is actually used) up to 500,000, with the eventual aim of two million passengers handled each year.

The existing 1,505m runway would also be lengthened to allow passenger jets such as Boeing 737s and Airbus A319s to take off and land fully-laden (at present they can get in and out of the airport only with restricted loads).

After permission was granted by Shepway council, the plan was "called in" for public examination by the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles. The inquiry, which is expected to last for 13 weeks, begins at Folkestone Civic Centre tomorrow, in front of an inspector who will produce a report – but Mr Pickles will have the final say.

What's under threat?

Specialised wildlife which can be found at Dungeness and, often, nowhere else inBritain include

Brown-banded carder bee: A very uncommon bumblebee found in local grasslands. Dungeness harbours 11 of Britain's 25 bumblebee species.

Nottingham catchfly: A scarce wild flower related to the campions and pinks, which opens only at night, so it is pollinated by a moth (the white-spot moth).

Sussex emerald moth: This lovely green insect is one of Britain's rarest moths and breeds only at Dungeness, in the region of the nuclear power complex.

Purple heron: This majestic waterbird bred in Britain for the first time last summer when a pair nested at Dungeness and raised two young.

The Dungeness peninsula

Conservationists fear that the proposed expansion of Lydd Airport will have an adverse effect on the adjoining Dungeness nature reserve and its communities of rare species, through bird-scaring measures, disturbance and the deposition of exhaust fumes from aircraft and from a greatly increased number of vehicles.