Future of former airbase at Coltishall up in the air
11:02 18 August 2014
It cost Norfolk county council £4m to buy the former RAF Coltishall airbase - but some fear the jobs and economic boost promised may never be delivered.
The controversial decision to spend £4m of taxpayers’ money to buy RAF Coltishall has been questioned by the “jaundiced” community who fear the mooted regeneration of the base may never deliver the jobs and economic boost promised.
But – as it emerged proposals for a massive solar farm at the base face a race against time to secure permission to avoid missing out on subsidies – bosses at Norfolk County Council have said the time to judge is not now, but in a decade’s time.
The county council bought 600 acres of the Battle of Britain base from the Ministry of Justice in January last year.
That move was criticised because the decision was taken by the authority’s cabinet, without public consultation and before a business plan was drawn up.
The council said it hoped to create hundreds of jobs at the base, with businesses invited to take up leases.
But just a trickle have been agreed, while proposals to dig up some of the runway are in limbo.
And the pressure is on to get a solar farm development, covering some half of the site, off the ground.
Robert Watson, chairman of Coltishall parish council, said there was growing concern over what the future held.
He said: “It has gone on for so long. We were told at the outset that this represented a viable option for Norfolk County Council and we were pleased to see that, because we hoped it would get life back to the base, help the local economy and mean it did not go to rack and ruin like some bases have. We have representatives on the community liaison group, but when questions are asked the council just seems to hide behind commercial sensitivity.
What else could happen?
RAF Coltishall closed in 2006 with the loss of hundreds of jobs. The county council agreed in June 2012 to buy the 600-acre site and took ownership in January last year.
Their vision for the base includes the possibility of:
A solar farm;
Developing the officers’ mess for housing (The council is working with Morgan Sindall on a £10m housing scheme) and scaled housing development on a rolling programme;
Renting land out to tenant farmers (although the solar farm proposal which is currently on the table could scupper that idea);
Renting buildings out to business;
Removing aggregate from both ends of the runway;
Controlled public access to, and a heritage trail around, the old playing field area with passes issued to local residents.
Other, commercial, parties were interested in the base. A bid, by TAG Aviation Stansted, to buy the site and use it to recycle old airliners fell through for financial reasons. Bruce Giddy, from the Hans House Group of companies, bid £4.1m for the base, but the county council expressed its interest and the Ministry of Justice agreed to sell to the authority – for less than Mr Giddy had bid.
Mr Giddy’s proposals included installing a 250-acre solar farm, creating a heritage centre and aviation museum and offering a home to engineering and aircraft building firms.
Backed by UK investment manager Artemis, he then approached the county council offering to buy the leasehold interest in the site and then lease it back to the county council in return for an annual rent.
The council was not interested.
“I know they have to be circumspect, but it feels like nothing concrete has been put forward.
“There is a somewhat jaundiced view which wonders if anything positive is ever going to happen...
“As a parish council, we have Coltishall as a standing item on our agenda, but it feels like, for years now, I am having to say ‘sorry, but there’s nothing to tell you’.”
Simon Shaw, chairman of Scottow parish council, said: “The parish council view is that things do not appear to be happening. When most people spend £4m on something they have a business plan.
Some fear that base will become a white elephant
The decision by Norfolk County Council to buy RAF Coltishall was, to many, extremely puzzling – not least because of the lack of a business plan.
But, to put it into context, that decision was made by the Conservative-controlled cabinet at a time when there was considerable emphasis on finding ways to generate revenue for the authority.
There was a mantra that the council needed to become more business-like and it seemed to make sense for the authority to try its hand at becoming a commercial developer, with the apparent rewards that could bring.
To outsiders, that seemed like a gamble and a very risky one, whereas within the council, the feeling was that they had bagged a bargain. It remains to be seen who will be proved correct. But there is a perception that Coltishall could become a white elephant.
Progress feels excruciatingly slow and when projects do come forward they seem to hit obstacles which some will say were very predictable.
Tom McCabe, interim director of environment, transport and development says the decision should be judged over the next decade. He seems relatively relaxed that there has been just a trickle of leases signed so far and urges patience. But he also acknowledges that luring businesses to Coltishall will not be easy.
“As a parish council one of our concerns is that Scottow is often overlooked, yet the majority of the base is in Scottow. That is a source of irritation.”
However, council chiefs have stood by the controversial decision, saying the time to judge whether it was the right decision was not now, but in a decade’s time.
Tom McCabe, interim director of environment, transport and development, said it was important to take a longer-term view.
He said: “If it was quick and easy, then the private sector would have done it a long time ago. It’s one where people will need to judge us in 10 years time. It’s a big project. We have had a steady stream of inquiries. What you tend to see with projects like this, is that you get two or three anchor tenants in, a supply chain starts and then others follow.
“We have got five or six separate leases and 30 or 40 inquiries, some of which are speculative and some of which take an awful lot of time to work through.
“But it’s a five to 10-year journey. If it was on the A11 it would be an easier sell. But it has to be more of a local offer, because it’s not off any A-roads.
“It is more of a boutique offer. It will serve north Norfolk, rather than being some big logistics development... I think there will be hundreds of jobs created there in two or three years.”
• IT’S A RACE AGAINST TIME TO SEAL THE DEAL ON SOLAR FARM
Council bosses have admitted they face a race against time to seal the deal on a huge, multi-million pound solar farm mooted for the former RAF Coltishall base – or the scheme could falter.
Earlier this summer, Norfolk County Council announced it had been approached by a company which wanted a 25-year lease on up to 300 acres of the base.
The council said it could not reveal the identity of the mystery developer – or how much such a scheme would cost – for commercial reasons.
But the deal, or specifically the rent from it, was hailed as potentially providing a “healthy return” on the council’s investment on the base at a time when government grants were being cut.
However, another government rethink has cast a shadow over the solar farm deal, with the subsidies the developer was hoping to secure due to be axed.
The potential hurdle is that the current subsidy scheme – which sees owners of such farms paid thousands of pounds under the renewable obligation scheme – is due to end on March 31 next year.
Schemes which can show they have committed significant financial commitments to projects could be handed a grace period, and council officers have been in discussion with the mystery developer over whether the Coltishall scheme will qualify.
Tom McCabe, interim director of environment, transport and development at Norfolk County Council, admitted the pressure had been ramped up.
He said: “The pressure is on from the point of view that every developer needs certainty with regards income. We have been having discussions with them two or three times a week to talk through a number of issues, some of which we have been able to put to bed.
“We are still working towards a scenario where we have got all the planning in place and signed off by the end of March and sorted out the connection to the National Grid.
“Then they should have a guaranteed subsidy for the 25 years which means security over their numbers. As things stand, things remain encouraging.
“We are still working towards the big milestones of signing the lease and submitting the planning application and I am still expecting us to pass those key milestones and to have the scheme signed off by the end of March.”
In the meantime, long-gestating and hugely controversial plans to dig up the end of the runways remain in limbo. The council confirmed those proposals are on hold pending the outcome of the solar farm proposal, seven months after they were submitted.
Officers had said it would create an estimated 140,000 tonnes of aggregate, which could be used for schemes such as the Northern Distributor Road.
But Scottow Parish Council, Broadland District Council and North Norfolk District Council have objected, as has heritage watchdog English Heritage.
Mr McCabe said there was a potential issue over the dust from the aggregate removal affecting solar panels, but stressed mitigation measures would be possible if both projects ended up going ahead.
With the runway removal unpopular in villages near the base, Toby Coke, chairman of the council’s environment, development and transport committee, conceded there were “factors which worked against it”.
• One organisation which is keen to take one of the hangars at RAF Coltishall is Norfolk police. But, given the force currently uses a hangar for storage and training, albeit without planning permission, that can hardly be classified as an exciting newcomer to the former airbase.
Norfolk County Council has applied to North Norfolk District Council for planning permission so the constabulary can use hangar 3 and building 382 for those purposes. The force would switch there from another hangar at the base, which has long been used, but for which it had not had formal planning permission. Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service also use the site for training purposes.