Wales politics

Cardiff Airport buyout: Conservatives' value for money call

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Media captionIn a debate in the Senedd there were accusations of a lack of transparency and fantasy business models

Conservatives are calling on the Welsh government to prove its plan to buy Cardiff Airport will be good value for the taxpayer.

Tory AMs used a debate in the assembly to attack what they called Labour's attempt to "nationalise" the airport.

But ministers have defended their plans, saying they have public opinion on their side.

They expect the deal to be completed in the coming months after negotiating an agreement with the current owners TBI.

First Minister Carwyn Jones, who announced last month that the Welsh government plans the buyout, has been sharply critical of the airport, which has seen declining passenger numbers.

The total was down 13% in 2011 to a little over 1.2m. Over the same period, passenger numbers at its nearest competitor, Bristol Airport, rose 1% to more than 5.7m.

There was a further fall in the first half of 2012 to 440,000 from 558,000 - a decline the airport blamed on the departure of low-cost airline bmibaby.

A price for the deal has not been announced, but Mr Jones insists a commercial operator will be brought in to run the airport if the sale goes through.

Sources say the cost, which will be met from existing Welsh government budgets, is likely to be in the "tens of millions".

Despite assurances that it will not receive subsidies or burden the taxpayer, there have been questions about whether public ownership will succeed in turning around the airport's fortunes.

Commercial operator

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has warned it might not be a long-term solution and rival Bristol airport has sought assurances that Cardiff will not get state handouts.

Speaking in the Senedd on Wednesday, Tory transport spokesman Byron Davies said buying the airport was "a financial liability we do not need in this age of austerity".

"This government is fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with the strategic direction of Wales, let alone an airport," he said.

For the Liberal Democrats, Eluned Parrot said she had no philosophical objection to a publically-owned airport, but she had seen no evidence it would mean more flights for passengers, represent good value for money for taxpayers or benefit the economy.

The first minister's "immoderate rhetoric" about the airport had "scared away any airlines that may have been interested in running flights from Cardiff", she added.

Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas said the airport should be a gateway to Wales, but "it is failing entirely".

Although something had to be done about it, he said that after publically criticising the airport for months the first minister "has been forced into a position where he had to take action".

Business Minister Edwina Hart said negotiations about buying the airport were commercially confidential and that she could not provide a "running commentary" on them.

The government had a good working relationship with the current owners, she told AMs.

"Nobody has been put into a corner, I can assure you," she said.

The purchase will go ahead if the due diligence process satisfies ministers that it represents a "sound investment".

On Tuesday, Mr Jones defended the move when he faced AMs in the Senedd chamber for the first time since announcing the plan.

He said the Welsh government was "proud of the fact that we have secured the future of Cardiff Airport" and claimed the Conservatives were "out of touch with public opinion".

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