Letter to the Editor: No secrecy in airport plans

Steve McDonald - Upper Hunter Shire Council general manager
Steve McDonald - Upper Hunter Shire Council general manager

To the Editor,

I thank Mr. Pinfold for his letter and contribution to the debate regarding the redevelopment of Scone Airport. However, there are various assertions contained in his letter that warrant correction.

In his opening remarks Mr Pinfold states that the Airport redevelopment was launched "4 weeks ago", has "been developed secretly over the past four years", that "there was no previous consultation" with the Airport's stakeholders and that those stakeholders who are members of the Airport Management Committee "must have been sworn to secrecy by Council to avoid any opposition from the other stakeholders until it was too late for their objections to be considered".

These comments are neither fair nor accurate. After several years work planning and consulting, the draft Airport Master Plan was presented to the Airport Management Committee and User Group on December 17th 2015. We note from our email records that Mr. Pinfold was invited to that presentation, although the minutes of the meeting show that he did not attend. However, on 27th January 2016 Council received two pages of constructive commentary on the draft Airport Masterplan from Mr Pinfold in which he raised various issues, but states that "overall I generally agree with the report's recommendations".

On March 17th 2017 Mr. Pinfold was also invited to the Extraordinary Airport Committee Meeting called to discuss the Design, Feasibility Study and Grant Application for the Scone Aviation Visitor Attraction. Again, Mr. Pinfold did not attend the meeting.

Airport Management Committee meetings have never been conducted in secret, non-committee members are always welcome to attend and even to present to those meetings, as indeed Mr. Pinfold has previously done. The minutes of the Airport Management Committee meetings are reported to the monthly Ordinary Council Meetings for adoption, and all of those meeting agendas and minutes are available - for anyone to access - either online via Council's website or via hard copies which are available in Council's offices.

Additionally, details of the Airport redevelopment were also included in Council's Delivery Program and Operations Plan (DPOP) which came off public exhibition back in May 2017. Mr. Pinfold's submission focused on Airport Fees and Charges.

With regard to Mr. Pinfold's comments regarding CASA compliance issues and regulations, I would refer both him and readers to the previously published letter of Mr Griffiths, the independent CASA approved airport inspector who has undertaken the last three safety audits of Scone Airport. The results of these inspections show that there are various compliance issues and defects at the Airport that need to be addressed in order for the Airport to gain certification when new regulations come into force in August 2020.

Regarding the financial implications of the redevelopment, allow me to make the following points.

Depreciation is a valid cost attached to the airport operations as it, in essence, represents the annual consumption of the airport assets. This is in fact a key driver for the case for the upgrade, as much of the airport infrastructure is near the end of its useful life. Further, the Buildings and Infrastructure Renewal Ratio, which is essentially the extent to which Council is funding depreciation, is one component of the NSW Government's 'Fit for the Future' program that evaluates the sustainability of Councils which Mr. Pinfold refers to in his letter. Council is currently meeting this benchmark.

In terms of future borrowings, Council's Debt Service Cover Ratio, the component of 'Fit for the Future' which Mr. Pinfold referred to, the availability of operating cash to service debt, including interest, principle and lease payments, is also strong at 5.02 times. Let me reassure readers that Council is in a strong and solid financial position.

The Federal Government recently announced the $100 million Regional Airport Program to fund exactly the type of safety upgrades Council is carrying out as part of the Airport redevelopment. Council will be applying next month for additional funding under this scheme in order to further reduce Council's component of the total cost of the project.

Council remains committed to the Scone Airport upgrade. We are delighted that the State Government has assessed the project favourably, and committed considerable funds towards it. Together we will deliver a compliant certified Airport, a tourist attraction unique in the southern hemisphere and a thriving aviation industry cluster.

Yours sincerely,

Steve McDonald

General Manager

Upper Hunter Shire Council