2009: St Helena fights back – and the Tories fly in

St Helena Airport Timeline

2009

January: Governor Gurr departed for London to press the case for reviving St Helena’s airport project and attempt to solve perceived problems.

16 March: The Labour government announced a new public consultation on air access.

Ian Mathieson, recalling the history of the project in the St Helena Connection, said: “It was difficult to see this as anything more than a need to be seen to be doing something.”

9 April: DFID released details of its new consultation. It said:

“Whilst remaining committed to ensuring that access to the island should not be reduced, we needed to consider whether the building of an airport was the most appropriate choice in these rapidly changing circumstances.”

The consultation sought views on three options:

  • Start work on an airport immediately
  • commission a new ship instead
  • defer a decision for up to five years

The exercise was quickly denounced by Kedell Worboys, St Helena Government’s representative in London. She said:

“This consultation is wholly unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money. The options for access were thoroughly explored during the 2004 feasibility study.”

Clive Warren, the former DFID desk officer who secured the original commitment to build an airport, led a pro-airport campaign in Jamestown, while pro-ship campaigners feared that air access would destroy the island’s culture.

Rosemary Stevenson was despatched to St Helena by DFID to listen to islanders’ views. The Castle urged Saints to turn out to meetings in force “to make sure that Rosemary delivers the right message when she returns to the UK.”

Without an airport to create a tourism industry, said Governor Gurr, the island would not be able to reverse decades of economic decline and falling population.

2-12 May: Conservative MP Mark Lancaster was dispatched to St Helena to investigate the case for an airport on behalf of Andrew Mitchell, the shadow minister for international development. He stayed at Plantation House as a guest of the governor, Andrew Gurr.

It later emerged that he had to sleep rough in the governor’s garden after Mr Gurr had accidentally locked him out while he was canvassing public opinion in the bars of Jamestown.

He confirmed the story in an email to St Helena Online: “Crawled back about two am having been in the nightclub on the front,” he wrote. “Despite having given me the key, the Governor had accidentally bolted the outer door, so I spent the night on the bench rather than wake him up.”

Mr Mitchell later said: “He came back with the information we needed to be sure that we should proceed with this project. I think he was taken to the pub by a large number of generous Saints who wanted to show him a good time, and I understand they certainly did.”

10 July: Governor Andrew Gurr and Sharon Wainwright, SHG’s airport project manager, left the island to hold meetings with Saints on Ascension and the Falklands, urging them to support the campaign to revive the airport project.

October:report on the BBC programme, “From Our Own Correspondent”, spoke of pessimism about the prospects of an airport, but said flights “would take away the main reason tourists go to St Helena, which is that you can only get there by sea.” The piece quoted Michael “Newpence” Benjamin, who had returned to his native island intending to build tourist accommodation, and had been due to sign contracts on the day the airport project was put on hold. It also told of families that had been broken up because parents had to leave the island to work, and could not easily return home without an airport.

28 October: the outcome of DFID’s consultation found overwhelming support for immediate resumption of the airport project: 69% of petition signatories (1,672 people), 80% of written responses (87 responses) and at least 70% of people giving oral responses – at some meetings, many more.

Rosemary Stevenson’s report said islanders feared the five years delay favoured by the UK government would “take the island beyond the point where decline can be reversed”. She wrote:

“In almost every meeting, participants on St Helena said they felt disillusioned, and a sense of disbelief, distrust or betrayal when the Pause was announced. Morale on St Helena is very low.

“The fundamental point made was that St Helena’s economy is so weak and its population declining so much that it needs a major impetus now to halt this decline.

“Most of those leaving the island are working age people, leaving elderly people and young children behind, with adverse consequences for the island’s social fabric as well as its economy. Access to adequate health provision is constrained.

“But while some support faster ships and other sea based options, a large majority of respondents do not believe that continuing access by sea can provide the means to a vibrant economy, and note that it has failed to do so in the last twenty years.”

On the same day, International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander issued a Written Ministerial Statement. It said:

“We will consider carefully the views submitted in the consultation, taking into account the current economic conditions.”

December: Lord Ashcroft, a major Conservative Party donor, gave interviews to Saint FM and Radio St Helena while flying around the island in his private aircraft, as a gesture of support for the airport campaign.

He later told the Daily Telegraph he had been fascinated by the island since visiting, aged two, when his father was en route to his first colonial job. “The story in my family was that when my parents’ backs were turned, I fell into Napoleon’s goldfish bowl.”

Next page:
2010: the project revives – and Basil Read comes through
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