Ballina Shire Council has no plans to sell its fast-growing airport despite concerns that it may be privatised, according to mayor David Wright.
A confidential session of council last night voted to note a scoping study looking into the airport’s future, and to not put the facility out to tender.
Cr Keith Williams said following the meeting of council’s commercial services committee that he would continue ‘fighting any plans to privatise the Ballina-Byron Gateway Airport’.
Cr Williams told media that while he was pleased privatisation for the airport was on hold ‘for the short term’, the plan to achieve ‘investment readiness’ over the next five years ‘meant future privatisation remained the preferred strategy of the majority of councillors’.
He said the airport was currently ‘driving substantial government investment into the shire’ and a private airport ‘would not be eligible for this funding’.
But mayor Wright said the airport was a ‘fantastic asset’ for the shire, going ‘really really well’ and would not be sold.
Cr Wright told Echonetdaily ‘we know it’s tremendously valuable and won’t sell it’ and that looking at the scoping study was all about exploring alternatives for growth of the airport.
‘We were never looking at selling it, but options for leasing it or running it in partnership.’
Cr Wright said 40 hectares of land fronting the road to the airport was under rezoning, and council would like to see the land developed into an airport/industrial precinct ‘which would open up lots more jobs’.
Other plans included improving the main access road to the airport with $3 million in federal money, as well as building a new road to link with North Creek Road for easier access from Byron Bay and Lennox Head.
The mayor said council policy was ‘not to make a lot of money’ from the airport but run it ‘sustainably to provide infrastructure for locals and tourists to use the airport and its services at reasonable prices’.
‘This (scoping report) was about getting more information, we noted it, there’s nothing sinister about it, we wanted to see what could be done,’ Cr Wright said.
‘Ballina airport is the fastest growing airport in Australia, with half a million passengers a year and continuing to grow.’
Cr Williams said he didn’t support ‘the privatisation of our major public assets and I think the public has had a gut-full of governments of all levels and all political persuasions, flogging off the silverware to pay the bills’.
‘Adopting an “investment readiness” approach also means abandoning the growth strategy for the airport which has been so successful to date.
‘It means higher charges for airlines (and passengers), less services and a fattening of the profit margin to attract a buyer.,
‘The doubling of passenger numbers through the airport over the last decade and $10 million in state and federal government funding announced over the last six months is a testament to the success of the growth strategy and the fantastic management team we have at the airport.
‘It the moment the Airport is driving substantial government investment into the Shire. A private airport would not be eligible for this funding.
‘The carpetbaggers from Sydney would tell you that a private airport operator gives us greater access to the capital markets. True. But what they don’t tell you is that someone still has to pay the bill. And that someone, would be us.’
Cr Williams said council appointed consultants, The Airport Group, last September to undertake the scoping study on the long term lease of the airport to a private operator.
Last night’s decision was that council ’notes the contents of the Scoping Study and adopts a strategy to bring the Airport to a state of “investment readiness” over the course of the next five years’ and advises The Airport Group that council ‘will not be proceeding to Stage 2 of tender RFT778 as the Airport is not currently in a state of “investment readiness”’.