The future of Doncaster Sheffield Airport: Interview with Mayor Oliver Coppard

The Local Democracy Reporting Service discusses upcoming funding and political tensions with the Mayor of South Yorkshire amidst the ongoing negotiations to reopen Doncaster Sheffield Airport.

When Doncaster Sheffield Airport was at risk of closure, was there anything that could have been done to change the mind of Peel in hindsight?

“No, I think Peel had made their mind up before they had approached me and made the decision public.

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“They called me and other stakeholders 24 hours before going public with the announcement of the airport’s closure, I think at that point I’d been in post for three months. They had never made contact with me to flag up their concerns.

Oliver CoppardOliver Coppard
Oliver Coppard

“We had offered them a significant loan previously and they had withdrawn from that conversation once we asked them for more clarity around their financial position. We aren’t going to throw public money at a company that won’t tell us what their financial situation looks like.

“During the review, there was a deal on the table for them to sell the airport and the opportunity for them to take money from us to keep the airport open for 12 months. Every single time we have gone to them with solutions they have come to us with problems and a mindset which was fixed.

“We had been working with Peel and Doncaster Council for years to invest in Gateway East and make that whole site thrive.

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“There was a £1.24million grant to support increased cargo capacity and a £3.5million loan to support growth through our Business Investment Fund, we used £13million part funded from our Regional Investment Fund to open the Great Yorkshire Way in 2018, and there was another £5million loan to support airport growth through the MCA’s investment fund.

“For Peel to then withdraw unilaterally and not have a conversation with us as a strategic partner to allow us to understand what their challenges and opportunities looked like, and what we could have done about them together, was in my mind not the right approach.

“That land is a huge opportunity in their view, for things like housing and business park growth. They are property developers, these are not people who can make airports thrive. We’ve seen that in Sheffield, in Tees Valley and now in Doncaster.

“What we need is to bring in an investor who can run an airport in a way which makes it grow and develop over time. Around the South Yorkshire Airport City concept there is a whole opportunity to work around the sustainable aviation sector.

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“We have some great assets in the sector; Hybrid Air Vehicles who are going to base themselves in Doncaster, and Boeing who have got their only manufacturing facility in Europe here and are just opening their second facility in the next few months that we’ve invested in.

“That’s the conversation we could have had with Peel from the beginning, they chose not to have that conversation with us, that’s why it’s taken us this amount of time to get to where we are now.”

A cross-party group was set up in July 2022 to negotiate a plan for the airport. Did all parties have the intention to work together from the offset?

“I can only speak for myself and this organisation, and the council leaders that I’ve had these conversations with. Clearly [Doncaster Mayor] Ros Jones and the council are deeply committed to reopening DSA, as are we.

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“I would ask people to look at the actions of people when we have gone through this whole process.

“I have always tried to work in partnership, we’ve always offered the opportunity for meetings, for people to give their support to the work that we’ve been doing, and yet the government and some of our Conservative colleagues haven’t necessarily offered all of their support.

“It feels it’s been adversarial, and that has not for me been the right approach.”

What could this government support have looked like?

“There are a number of things I think the government could have done. Frankly they could have put more pressure on Peel to keep the airport open and engaged with us to add their weight to the work we were doing.

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“We got good advice from a former attorney general that the Civil Contingencies Act was a viable route to allow us to keep the airport open and the government quickly said that that wasn’t the case.

Liz Truss said she was going to do everything she possibly could in order to keep DSA open and she didn’t even get in touch with me and my office to see what she might be able to do to support us.

“They’ve not given us any additional funds in order to be able to add to the firepower that we’re putting towards DSA. I’ve asked for £30million to be reassigned from a project for a railway link to the airport to be put towards its reopening instead.

“What they’ve said now is that they are prepared to accept a bid from us but they’re not going to change the rules around the funding, which means we’re likely to get another no from them.

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“I will keep on doing whatever I can with the powers, the money and the tools that we have to reopen DSA regardless of what the government might do. I don’t say that with any sort of anger, it would just help if we had a partner in London who was prepared to help us.”

Knowing that you had gainshare funding available to reopen the airport, what was your motivation for also seeking the money that had been allocated for a rail link?

“Because we want any additional money that we can get in South Yorkshire for our plan.

“The government had told us that they weren’t prepared to allow us to spend that £30million on the rail link because of the closure of the airport.

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“They had what is known as a retain scheme, which essentially meant they had to sign it off before we were allowed to spend the money. Normally that’s not the case but they had specific doubts about that scheme.

“We then said that we would like to have the additional funds to spend on the airport reopening because frankly, we don’t have endless funds here at SYMCA. The gainshare fund needs to be stretched out over 30 years for the whole of South Yorkshire.”

In Tees Valley, Mayor Ben Houchen purchased their local airport from Peel Group for £40million. Did you or interested parties ever commit this amount in the early stages?

“We have just committed £138million to South Yorkshire Airport City. That’s already more money than Ben Houchen committed to buying Teesside Airport.

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“It’s never been just about the quantity of the funding, it’s about getting a good deal for the taxpayers, that is sustainable.

“The airport in Tees Valley is much smaller and doesn’t have the same opportunity as we have to create that sustainable aviation hub and a thriving regional airport. The Finningley runway is clearly a huge national asset.

“An investor came in and offered around £100million for the airport and Peel said no, because of the value of the asset more broadly.

“Yes, Ben was able to buy the airport for £40million, but one of my real frustrations is there’s always been this conversation that DSA is for sale. Even now when we’re putting significant amounts of money into this project, Peel are still saying they’re not going to sell it, they’re only going to offer a lease arrangement.

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“I’ve said from the beginning, there is no way for me to compel Peel to sell that asset.”

The infrastructure inquiry you launched has garnered some criticism for being forward-facing. Could an inquiry looking back at the reasons for DSA’s closure be beneficial to hold all parties accountable?

“I think as politicians we’re all accountable to voters ultimately through the ballot box. I was the only person so far who’s held a public meeting on the airport, I’m happy to keep on talking to people about why we’re doing what we’re doing.

“The point of the inquiry is to make sure this can’t happen again. From a perspective around defence, resilience and economic growth, I think we’ve got to have much more of an opportunity here in South Yorkshire to intervene when a private sector operator is turning one of their assets into something that we don’t think is good for the whole of our community.

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“I want to know what we need to be asking an incoming new government for in terms of devolution and powers.

“People have been throwing criticisms around about how we could have done things differently; that we should have just bought the airport, or just stopped Peel from doing what they have done, when we haven’t had the powers to do it.”

In recent weeks the airport has become more of a partisan issue. What would you say to people engaging in debates online?

“I recognise that there are frustrations right across the community, I am always happy to have those conversations, but I think actions speak louder than words.

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“We have just committed to a £138million investment, that is a very loud signal about our commitment to the future of Doncaster and South Yorkshire Airport City. I think ultimately, if people online, in Doncaster, and who call up the radio are fair, they will look at that and think that is the right approach.

“I think those people who are keen to throw around criticisms and accusations, and say that this is all being done behind closed doors, are misleading people because we are doing the right thing for people across South Yorkshire, creating jobs and growth and opportunities for everyone who lives here.

“That’s my job and I’m going to carry on doing it.”

What is the likelihood of the airport reopening, are there any obstacles ahead in the leasehold process?

“I am hopeful and optimistic that Peel will see that a private sector operator coming in with some expertise to create a thriving DSA will offer the best opportunity for them.

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“These things can always go wrong but what I can say is that we are doing everything legally possible to make that deal get over the line and make that vision a reality, Peel and the private sector have to do everything they can to do that deal and I’ve got every confidence that they are working through challenges as we speak.”

For those who simply want to know when they will be able to use the airport again, can you give an estimate on when it will be back up and running?

“All I would say is that we want it to happen as quickly as possible, and we will do everything we can to get airport operations up and running again, in terms of reinstatement costs, getting the airport to a fit state and protecting the airspace.

“We would like to see flights going out as quickly as possible and I think private sector providers would also like to see that happen.”

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