Thursday, October 22, 2009

Controversy Over Stobarts Southend Airport Truck and Rail Freight Plans

Locals Question Haulage Company’s Motives
Shipping News Feature

UK – The Stobart Groups plans for the redevelopment of London Southend airport have come under fresh criticism as new questions were raised by local residents as to whether the company’s proposed plans are actually their true intention.

Stobart’s, who occupy a niche in the UK similar to US LTL carrier Con-Ways and operate over 1,850 tractor units and one rail train, purchased the airport in December, 2008 after submitting development plans in 2004.

The acquisition caused some concern amongst residents of the Southend and Rochford area in that, as a multi-modal freight operator, Stobart’s may intend to use the airport as an air freight and intermodal facility. This has raised protests on the grounds that, not only would noise pollution be increased from air traffic, there would also be a major increase in road and rail congestion, something that the town already suffers from.

Stobart claim that its intention is to upgrade Southend to a fully functional regional airport serving the South Essex and London passenger markets which, by extending the runway by 300 metres and building a brand new railway station to service the airport, will see passenger numbers rise from 48,000 in 2008 to a projected 2 million by 2020. The growth, they claim, will also create an estimated 6,700 jobs in the area.

However, residents have voiced concerns that Stobart’s agenda is not quite as it seems. Mr Brian Free, who lives in a road adjacent to the airport believes that the Stobart Group has little interest in using Southend for flight operations, freight or otherwise, but as a new hub for its multi modal business.

Mr. Free points out that the figure of two million passengers is based upon the projections of the 2003 White Paper on air traffic which was written at the start of the financial bubble which has since so spectacularly burst.

Mr. Free also points out that the business model that the Stobart Group appears to be adopting for the airport, based largely on summer holiday traffic, has failed other airports and airlines. Stobart’s, he says, are planning to exploit the situation by creating a freight facility ‘through-the-back-door’ and give them a significant advantage over their competitors.

“They (the council and people of Southend) think they will get an airport. In reality they will end up with a road and rail depot,” he says.

“The magic word ‘air-port’ gives them a base rent-free. A few passenger charter flights and some night freight flights should meet the terms of the lease in the short term. These will continue to be subsidised by council tax as they are now.

"The airport pays no ground rent on the land it occupies and the rents of the business premises that would otherwise accrue to the council go to the airport.”

Speaking to Handy Shipping Guide Mr. Free stated that he believed that the current work being undertaken on the new airport rail station is greater than that required for passenger traffic and will, he suspects, be largely developed as a rail freight handling facility.

Nobody was available from Stobart’s or their representatives to comment on their plans for the airport or Mr. Free’s accusations and Southend airport has, despite several requests for information from Handy Shipping Guide concerning the infrastructure plans, not made any comment.

The planning situation is complicated by the fact that the airport runway extension comes under the jurisdiction of