Trouble in the air as civic silver is sold off on the cheap

For the sake of a one-off capital gain all five West Yorkshire district councils have voted to end seventy-five years of municipal ownership of the airport at Yeadon. None of them apparently had confidence in the capacity of local government to continue the development of this successful enterprise. Sixty years of the erosion of municipal powers by central government has evidently so sapped the will of our civic leaders that they are now doing the job for Westminster.

From day one the airport was a civic initiative. The prospect of air travel on a reliable scheduled basis began to be taken seriously in the late 1920s. In October 1928 the Air Ministry wrote to all major local authorities urging the establishment of aerodromes. Typically Sir Charles Wilson MP, the leader of Leeds City Council, declared himself in favour of an airport for Leeds. The following year Leeds and Bradford jointly began the search for a suitable site and hired air pioneer Sir Alan Cobham as a consultant.

Cobham's report strongly recommended Whinmoor but this site, to the east of Leeds, was unacceptable to Bradford City Council who refused to contribute to it. Sir Alan then stated that Yeadon was "undoubtedly the only possible Municipal aerodrome site within the environs of Bradford." The airport opened in October 1931 and scheduled flights, to London , Newcastle and Edinburgh, began in 1935.

Crucially the development of a municipal airport was a clear indication of civic faith in a new means of transport. It was the final flourish of a century of civic enterprise that had seen the municipal authorities taking the initiative in building hospitals and prisons, providing gas and electricity, creating clean water supplies, and, of course, meeting housing, education and welfare needs. Lacking general powers most of these initiatives came through private acts promoted in parliament.

From 1945 onwards successive Labour and Conservative governments have stripped local government of its locally administered services, either by taking them over nationally or by forcing their sale. Even in the case of housing and education many councils have been forced to put their services in the hands of separate boards, away from the direct responsibility of elected councillors.

Electors may well complain about the quality of local representation, often no doubt with justification, but at least the opportunity was there on the first Thursday in May every year to replace one's councillor. Now, with so little responsibility left with councillors, the basic democratic right to change local policy has largely disappeared.

Apart from the period when it was requisitioned as a military airfield, Leeds Bradford Airport was always administered by a joint board with representatives from the local councils and as such had only indirect accountability to those councils. Together with political colleagues at the time, I saw the advent of the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council as a means of unifying the administration of the airport under one authority, just as the police and fire services became a direct county responsibility. The destruction of the Metropolitan County Councils in 1986 by Mrs Thatcher ended that possibility but the civic responsibility for the airport continued. The West Yorkshire authorities responded in 1987 by making the administration of the airport a limited company, with all the shares owned by the five councils.

The five local authorities stood firm against the Major government's attempt in 1995 to bribe the municipal airports into privatisation by halving the amount of sales receipts that had to be used for debt reduction if an airport was sold off by 1997. In fact, since 1997, still in effect under municipal control, the development and usage of the airport has soared. Passengers in 2006 totalled almost 2.8 million, compared to 1.2 million nine years before, and the terminal buildings have been improved out of all recognition.

Why then the decision to sell off such a going concern? It is perverse in the extreme for our elected councillors on the Leeds Bradford Board to stand firmly behind the airport through the forty difficult years since it was returned to them by the government only to abandon it when its success was manifest and assured. Here was a municipal enterprise that had worked, against all the entrenched prejudices of those only too ready to point the finger at the many ventures that had to be propped up with regular infusions of ratepayers' cash.

Municipal responsibility does not have to mean municipal dullness or limited horizons. Far from it. Look around at the evidence of civic initiative and foresight in West Yorkshire. In Leeds, for example, individuals such as Colonel Walter Harding, Sir John Barran, John Hope Shaw and Rev Charles Jenkinson left the still visible legacy of municipal initiative of City Square, Abbey House, Roundhay Park, the reservoirs north of the city and the transformation of social housing. In more recent days Sir Frank Marshall ensured the survival of the Grand Theatre - now being transformed to meet the needs of opera and a lyric theatre in the twenty-first century.

These elected councillors, and the city they led, were served by chief officers of stature and ability. Chief education officers such as Dr James Graham in Leeds and Sir Alec Clegg in the West Riding were recognised nationally. Or a rugged Chief Executive like Gordon Moore in Bradford who was one of the best civic "fixers" I ever met. The idea that men like this could be constrained by pettifogging municipal small mindedness would have been laughed at. The use of the phrase "postcode lottery", to indicate a demand for uniformity across the country, is in totally opposition to local initiative and ideas.

The importance of key officials has been vividly true of Leeds Bradford airport, which has been exceptionally fortunate in having Ed Anderson as its Managing Director for ten years, and as a Chief Officer at Leeds City Council for seven years before that. At a time when key people move jobs at a rate of knots Ed Anderson has shown the value of establishing a presence and a reputation in a key enterprise and thus being able to work productively with public authorities.

If we want to retain a Yorkshire identity, and if we want to restore and enhance civic pride we have to have confidence in our local institutions. Local politicians of all parties need to stand up against central government - of whatever political colour - for locally administered services accountable to elected members. Our five local district councils have done local democracy a great disservice by voting to sell off such a visible example of municipal initiative and responsibility. Their councils may gain several million pounds into their coffers but they have sold the civic pass all too cheaply. I believe that our civic leaders will live to rue the day they chose to sell off the civic silver.