Future of former airbase at Coltishall up in the air

RAF Coltishall. Photo: Mike Page RAF Coltishall. Photo: Mike Page

Monday, August 18, 2014
11:02 AM

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.

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The future of the former RAF Coltishall site is still proving to be a controversial issue.The future of the former RAF Coltishall site is still proving to be a controversial issue.

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.

GRAPHIC: Possible uses for Coltishall airbase

The view from the control tower at the former RAF Coltishall. Photo: Bill SmithThe view from the control tower at the former RAF Coltishall. Photo: Bill Smith

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.

Councillors taking a look around the base just after the purchase. Photo: Steve AdamsCouncillors taking a look around the base just after the purchase. Photo: Steve Adams

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.

22 comments

  • Another fiasco at the expense of the hard pressed council tax payers. The council should now sell this to the person who wanted to use it for aviation purposes (thus preserving the runway in case of a national need in the future) or require Norwich Airfield to move there - as the council said would happen if Coltishall ever became available - and allow the existing noise polluting site to be used for housing as it's convenient to the city. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD THE RUNWAY BE BROKEN UP FOR THE OTHER WHITE ELEPHANT - THE NDR.

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    308GT4

    Tuesday, August 19, 2014

  • The comments posted under this article tell us more about the Coltishall fiasco than any EDP report. Careful County Council. After all the trouble you caused with the incinerator you have created campaigners who will never let anything slip by them ever again. Serves you right. Come on Toby, get this sorted. Unless you have been invited like Gnobbs to be a director.

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    alecto

    Tuesday, August 19, 2014

  • Firstly I think it was right that the council secured this site, as to what happens to it I think the general public should be allowed to decide.

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    gerry mitson

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • Thank you for eventually highlighting this White Elephant as a huge scam by NCC. They bought it to stop Giddy and Co from delevoping it as working, flying museum, just because NCC are shareholders in Norwich Airport, in fact Nobbs is a director of the airport and Norwich Travel. The residents have never been part of the consultation process, just a couple of local yes men! Those who are on the committee who want to be heard are quietened by the NCC heavies. The Police use of hangar 3 is coming to an end as NCC have placed an exhorbitant rent of £80,000 + per year, who pays that money? Oh yes that will be us as well. Where will the police train now? That will be in Essex! Giddy was offering it for free. Get a grip NCCand sell your White Elephant to someone who does have a clue

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    Commander500

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • Iffy cliffy is obviously pointing to the campsite owned by his family. Wonder if they will expand their business?

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    Canary Boy

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • These councillors look after their voters in their own little areas, then after that they see just how much of the public's money they can divert towards business acquaintances and to ell with everyone else.

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    Vic Sponge

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • Wonder how the conversation went? Man pointing : "Whats that funny looking building with glass on top ?" Reply: : That's the control tower " Man pointing : " Whats that for ?" Reply : " To guide airplanes". Man pointing: " Is this Norwich airport ?" Man with necklace : " This thing is heavy, I just wanted my wife to buy a gold chain? What are we here for ?' Reply : " We have just bought it ?" Necklace man : " What for " Reply: " No idea " Chorus: " What are we going to do with it " Again chorus " We have no idea, lets go to the pub , we are on expenses"

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    norman hall

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • Is it a squadron of pigs I see flying past ? no , on closer inspection , it`s fly past by a whole herd of white elephants . Same as the waste incinerator , tin pot councillors know better than anyone else . Sign the deal before the rest of us can voice our opinion .Nothing we can do , except pay for it in future council tax bills . Democracy does not exist in Norfolk politics , unless you`re a member of the small group of men who decided to do this .

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    dragonfly

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • I see from the photo that only Brian Rix is missing! Another long running farce in the making. Come on Toby Coke say something worthwhile.

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    ron cornell

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • In my garage there are several tools and machines bought because "they looked like they might be useful"......so far and its a long far......they haven't!! Same syndrome here I suspect. Sell the airfield to Artemis and let mr Giddy sort it out.

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    mjc

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • This developing fiasco has all the hallmarks of the committee that designed a horse. Ended up with a camel. Give a simple task to a council and it becomes a complex unsolvable problem. A great cost of course.

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    norman hall

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • No one has mentioned Monson yet, he is the fool on the right. Monson is the man responsible for the waste portfolio back in 2006 when the Lynn incinerator scandal began and prior to that the Costessey incinerator fiasco and the cancelled Costessey MBT facility. Those 4 people carry the blame equally along with Jackson, Hull, Allen, Tyas, White and McNeill for the loss, to date, of tens of millions of pounds from the public purse in the pursuit of burning waste and buying Coltishall without a clue as to the hidden liabilities of the site or what to do with it. Nobbs is beyond clueless and also to blame. I wont start on Yarmouth Outer Harbour yet I just await further developments on that pet project of Castle and his mates.

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    Canary Boy

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • Any approval of a solar farm will be followed by a lenghty geophysical examination, most likely followed by test trenches and an archeological examination of the areas about to be used for such subsidy hysting development. NCC still comprising those three on the left of the picture, the incinerator shameless, is prioritising its party political agendas above what a sensible business would have done. Rather than entertaining the existing offer of 4 million, which they most likely will not get back anymore due to their lack of nous, they choose to use us all as underwriters, again, unbelievable and untenable. We should withold out council taxes until these tax wasters are gone and adequate safeguards are taken to stop NCC legal department backing such risky ideas when the economy is faltering.

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    ingo wagenknecht

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • Starkadder, your comments about a public body using tax payers' money are very apt. The problem is that a number of NCC members - with no relevant skills or experience - see themselves as gifted developers, particularly Cllr Cliff Jordan who bears the greatest share of the blame for this rash purchase. They ignore the fact that developers in the real world have to raise their own funding, and that if their schemes are unproductive they go under and possibly lose everything. If you play at being a developer on the back of tax payers' funds and you fail, you lose nothing. That is the privilege of the tax payers. There simply is no accountability within local authorities, as the incinerator debacle is rapidly demonstrating. On the skills and experience front, were you aware that it was only after the former NCC Cabinet had purchased the site that it sought internal funding for land contamination surveys? This was against the background of earlier initial surveys suggesting that the site is heavily polluted, as you might expect given its use until 2008.

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    Nemesis

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • We are currently struggling with a wind turbine application in Mattishall and the fact that NCC say they cannot disclose figures and names on the Coltishall application is beyond comprehension. They are after all a public body using tax payers money so tax payers must have a right to know exactly what is going on. Had matters been a bit more transparent on the incinerator debacle then these buffoons might not have got into such a muddle and lost phenomenal amounts of our money, which no one is taking responsibility for. What actually is the problem of being open and honest so things can be considered properly on their merit or is that a bit too radical?

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    starkadder

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • What's the inference between a Lego model and a Norfolk County Councillor??? One's a glueless kit.....

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    Norfolk and Good

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • Looks like the Incinerator Project all over again.I wonder who would employ these idiots.

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    Norfolkman

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • I fear that closer to £6m of public money has been committed to date. The MoJ required NCC to separate out the services, which presently also serve HMP Bure, within a strict time limit. Bruce Giddy estimated the cost of that at well in excess of £1m. It has also had to commit funds to improve the access route. The chances of obtaining planning permission from NNDC for a 300 acre solar farm between now and next March are pretty slim. Look at what happened with the incinerator. The scale of the project is such that it would in all probability be called in by the Secretary of State. The people in the photograph are some of the ones to blame, but Gnobbs was equally supportive of a purchase without a business plan. I just wish Cllr Toby Coke would issue a public statement so that the people of Badersfield know exactly where they stand. In his shoes, I would be going down on bended knee to Mr Giddy and Artemis.

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    Nemesis

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • This council is full of pie in the sky ideas but they never think them through before wasting our money, time and time again they do the same things and fail every time. Party politics, the wrong people, and an apparent immunity to blame all in all a really poor collection of stupid. Another £4m + down the drain, with nothing to show.

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    parkeg1

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • The ancient spot the plonker picture of Iffy Cliffy, Borat and the no longer County Council member Steward shows who started this ridiculous scheme.

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    alecto

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • Oooh! They could dig up the runway and use it as hardcore for the universally supported NDR, then the resulting hole could be roofed over and used as a new prison. Or it could be a fracking site. Or a private runway for the council leaders when they go to check out primary school Jungian philosophy teaching methods in Feydhoo.

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    So_Many_Haters!

    Monday, August 18, 2014

  • The perfect location for a waste incinerator!

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    Citizen of EUSSR

    Monday, August 18, 2014

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

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