As we were saying: councillors poised to resume questions over Newquay Airport and spaceport safety

Posted By on 20th November 2023

By Peter Tremayne

This looks like a tricky week for County Hall officials who are trying to dodge awkward questions about safety at Newquay Airport and spaceport.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) sees a scrutiny committee meeting which, at its last outing, was promised answers.  Friday sees another meeting of the audit committee, which first asked the questions in July.

The minutes of the economy scrutiny committee for 3rd October record a public question-and-answer:  “On 7th July this year Cornwall Council’s audit committee called for an investigation and report on multiple safety issues at Newquay airport and spaceport.

“The council’s Monitoring Officer said this report would come before this scrutiny committee.  When will that happen and do you think public safety is urgent?  

“The chairman stated that a written response would be forwarded to the speaker and circulated to the committee for information.”

No such answer has ever been provided.

The public questions part of tomorrow’s meeting also gives committee members another chance:

“Councillor (John) Conway (Launceston) brought a resolution at Audit Committee, passed 7 July 2023, to investigate serious endangerment and financial scandals, Newquay Airport/Spaceport Cornwall. The fact that officers continue to cover up, would this committee today cause and pass a resolution `There must now be a High Court Judge led Inquiry’?”

While councillors might baulk at the costs of a High Court Judge inquiry, they do have form when it comes to commissioning other inquiries.  The long-running “Cormac-gate” scandal of 2016 was brought to an end only after the council hired a barrister to confirm that there had been multiple failings in Corserv’s approach to investigating an historic but serious industrial accident.

The council’s auditors do not meet often, and Friday is their first opportunity to reflect on what has happened since they posed their question more than four months ago.  The short answer is “nothing.”

Some of the safety issues are potentially serious and might have resulted in prosecutions if either the airport or spaceport were operated in the private sector.

In October the Health and Safety Executive told County Hall it needed a hazardous substances’ planning consent to store highly flammable aerosols close to the main airport runway.

But concerned about unfavourable publicity just at the moment Richard Branson’s jumbo jet arrived, the council did nothing.  Even today it still does not have the right paperwork.

In January spaceport bosses encouraged about 1,500 people to attend a launch party, just yards from Mr Branson’s rocket.  Experts have told a House of Commons select committee that this created an unnecessary risk which could have killed everyone who attended.

While County Hall officials regard these questions as little more than irritating distractions, and are used to swatting away with contempt any concerns of elected members, their failure to take seriously issues raised by their own auditors risk creating another constitutional rabbit-hole from which common-sense rarely emerges unscathed.

Just a minute: four months later, where is this "report on health and safety matters?"

Councillors appear to be growing in confidence that their job is to question the executive.  On public safety, and on the grounds of the need for consistency and even-handedness between public and private sectors, they seem to have unstoppable points.

The council’s emotional and political reluctance to accept that its spaceport venture was a colossal blunder also keeps the issue in the headlines.

County Hall ignored warnings that Richard Branson was an unreliable launch partner and never inquired into the safety issues.

It now looks as if council officials’ desire to privatise the airport will eventually require closure of the spaceport in any event.  No business with an eye for commercial profit could afford to maintain a launch facility which has no prospect of ever attracting another rocket.



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