Airport sale would see coffers soar

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CASH-strapped council chiefs could ease the cuts with a massive cash windfall, it has been claimed.

A leading financial columnist reports that the 10 local authorities who own Manchester Airport – including Wigan – would each expect to raise more than £100m, if they agree collectively to cash in some of their investment and sell a half share in the booming enterprise.

However, rather than use the money to help offset the level of Government cuts, sources suggest that they are considering using the £1bn to buy into a London airport instead.

Council leader Lord Smith today insisted that such speculation wasn’t new, and said that it would be foolish to dispose of such a valuable possession in a time a recession.

The Sunday Times claims that Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, is vying with the ruling family of Abu Dhabi to buy a 50% stake in Manchester Airports Group.

It says the local authorities, including Wigan, will then use the cash to pay for a piece of Stansted Airport instead.

Manchester Airports Group owns four airports in total, with a portfolio also comprising East Midlands, Bournemouth and Humberside.

Manchester Airport handled 23 million passengers in 2011, compared with 18 million at Stansted in Essex, which is likely to be put up for sale in the autumn.

Sale of the stake would be conditional on Manchester Airports Group’s winning the race to buy Stansted.

An independent councillor today called for a commitment that any money raised will be used by the council to off-set the £66m of emergency budget cuts planned over four years.

Hindley’s Jim Ellis said: “The result of this sale would be to net at least a £1bn windfall to the 10 local authorities, of which Wigan is one.

“This would be a welcome addition to Wigan’s coffers, which could be used to save facilities such as Drumcroon.

“I think Wigan people would be outraged if the council, rather than helping to ease the plight of the people of Wigan, use it to buy Stansted Airport.”

Lord Smith said Wigan “wasn’t involved in buying airports” but is “strengthening” the financial position of Manchester Airport.

He said: “If Coun Ellis did his job as a councillor properly and turned up at council meetings, he would have seen the item had been discussed at cabinet, and would have been able to ask questions so he understood what is really happening.

“The shareholders of Manchester Airport have agreed to expand capital available to invest.

“This will strengthen the company and allow it to continue to pay the annual dividend to its shareholders.

“Wigan Council already uses this to support local services, and will be able to do so for years to come.”

Lord Smith added that Coun Ellis demonstrated a lack of financial foresight by failing to acknowledge it would be “foolish” to dispose of such a valuable asset in the midst of a recession.