Special report: Does Norfolk County Council purchase of RAF Coltishall equal money well spent?

raf coltishall aerial shot. Picture; MIKE PAGE raf coltishall aerial shot. Picture; MIKE PAGE

Thursday, December 19, 2013
8:43 AM

A bargain-priced opportunity to boost Norfolk’s economy which was too good to pass up, or a rash purchase which is gambling with taxpayers’ money?

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Plans for the site

RAF Coltishall closed in 2006 with the loss of hundreds of jobs. The county council agreed in June last year to buy the 600-acre site and took ownership in January.

The council’s proposals include:

Exploring the possibility of installing solar panels on about 50 acres of the site.

Developing the officers’ mess for housing and scaled housing development on a rolling programme.

Renting land out to up to three tenant farmers. The council says prospective tenants could be using land on the flying field area for occupation from late 2014.

Removing aggregate from both ends of the runway. It would take 18 months to extract 140,000 tonnes, of which about half would be used for the Postwick junction scheme east of Norwich and the rest on other highway schemes. The rest of the runway would be retained.

Controlled public access to, and a heritage trail around, the old playing field area with passes issued to local residents.

One thing the council insists will not be appearing at Coltishall is an incinerator, should the proposal for King’s Lynn fail.

The council says Coltishall is not deemed suitable for such a plant.

For now, the jury remains out on Norfolk County Council’s purchase of RAF Coltishall for £4m.

It will remain so until it becomes clear whether the authority will generate the money it thinks it will from selling land for housing, renting space to businesses and collecting income from tenant farmers.

And even if it does, there are critics who maintain any development of the base should have focused on the reason it was built – aviation.

Just as in the case of the incinerator, the sketchiness of the initial detail, once again justified by commercial confidentiality, caused suspicion.

Aircraft hanger at RAF Coltishall
Picture: James Bass

Copy: Ed Foss
For:  EDP NEWS: RAF COLTISHAL SUPP
EDP Pics © 2006    Tel: (01603) 772434Aircraft hanger at RAF Coltishall Picture: James Bass Copy: Ed Foss For: EDP NEWS: RAF COLTISHAL SUPP EDP Pics © 2006 Tel: (01603) 772434

It struck many as odd that the council, which was in the midst of cutting £140m, entered the fray to buy the base last year, six years on from it being put up for sale.

What was even more peculiar was that it did so – and its cabinet agreed in June last year to buy it – without a detailed business plan and without consultation with the public.

Consultation did come – as did published estimates of the capital and revenue which would be generated – but only after the deal to buy the base was done.

The former RAF Coltishall base that has been bought by Norfolk County Council. Contraol tower.Photo: Steve AdamsThe former RAF Coltishall base that has been bought by Norfolk County Council. Contraol tower.Photo: Steve Adams

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The consultation was on what could be done on the site, rather than whether it should be bought.

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 suddenly 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.

He said, last year, that his scheme would keep the aerodrome and its historic buildings intact whereas he believed the council would “parcel up and sell off as many buildings as possible in order to get its money back”.

Mr Giddy, backed by UK investment manager Artemis, returned with another offer earlier this year.

At that time the council told the EDP there had been no offer to buy the base, but council leader George Nobbs has since confirmed Mr Giddy did send an email to the council which would have seen Hans House and Artemis purchase a leasehold interest in the site and then lease it back to the county council in return for an annual rent.

Mr Giddy told the EDP he had offered the council £9.9m for the leasehold, on the basis of the authority paying rent in a leaseback arrangement.

That, he said, would have meant the council could recoup the money it had spent on the base and it would be spared the responsibility for paying for the upkeep of the buildings.

Mr Giddy said: “The council did not regard it as a proper offer and they would not meet me about it. If they do not want to play ball, well, it’s their ball.

“We gave it our best shot to get them out of jail and I know we could have done something positive.

“We would not have dug anything up or knocked anything down. We would have continued flying in and out of Coltishall.

“Aviation is the big apple on the tree and if the fruit is not picked it goes rotten. The apple is ripe for the picking, but the council seems content to let it fall.

“It’s taken them a year to think about what they are going to do with the site. I think that speaks for itself.”

Labour leader Mr Nobbs said the council did not buy the site with the intention of selling it again, although he said the authority would “consider any practical proposals”.

He said he stood by the decision made by his Conservative predecessors to buy the base.

He said: “To the best of my knowledge, Cliff Jordan [former cabinet member for efficiencies] and Derrick Murphy [former county council leader] came up with this idea and it was one which, when they explained it to me, I was happy to support – not that they needed my support at the time, as they were in power and I was in opposition.

“Nonetheless, when the other side comes up with a good idea, the right thing to do is try to help rather than hinder and my view about Coltishall hasn’t changed since then.”

However, Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat North Norfolk MP, who last May said he supported the council’s proposal “in principle”, is now not so sure.

He said: “I went to a briefing session and was extremely troubled that there was no business case.

“I continue to be concerned about the council’s plans for the RAF Coltishall site. Before it was purchased, I made clear the council needed to have a considered business plan for the site. The Conservative administration ploughed on regardless, spending around £4m on a site that has remained dormant. It is completely unacceptable for public money to be used in this way at a time when the council’s finances are so tight.

“I was incredibly frustrated to hear that the council is now starting exploratory excavations of parts of the runway at Coltishall, damaging this valuable heritage asset and spending public money, despite the fact that it still doesn’t seem to have any clear business plan for the site.”

Mr Lamb added the council needed to “get its act together” and start to generate income from the site.

“Crucially, this must be done in close consultation with the local community,” the MP added. “I am incredibly keen to work with the council to find a viable commercial use for the site – and if necessary will lobby Vince Cable, the business secretary, who has always taken a keen interest in supporting Norfolk businesses, for government support for any business proposals.”

Mr Lamb will be discussing the issue with Mr Nobbs early next year.

The council refuses to reveal how the £4m purchase price was arrived at because it remains “commercially sensitive”. But it says the authority had decided to “step in” to “halt the sad state of decline of the site and bring it back into productive use for the benefit of Norfolk people, including the local community”.

The council says it has had 29 inquiries from businesses about Coltishall, before it has “actively marketed” the site.

Mr Nobbs insists: “It was a bargain for the local taxpayer and we recently announced the first of our concrete proposals in terms of planning applications and so on. I share my predecessors’ confidence that this will provide a good long-term return for the people of Norfolk.”

The council has spent £4.9m on the site so far, including the £4m purchase price, almost £340,000 on “associated purchase costs and other capital costs” and £580,000 in revenue, which includes the costs for the development vision, project management and marketing costs.

Nigel Dixon, Conservative county councillor for Hoveton and Stalham, said he had originally welcomed the proposal to buy the site in May 2012.

“It was a good opportunity to secure its future, to boost the local economy and to provide new revenue streams to replace funding cuts to the council. However, my greatest concern is that the crucial early task of taking specialist advice to assess the site’s strategic potential has been missed and the new administration don’t yet have a credible plan of how the site will be regenerated or how businesses will create new jobs.”

He called for an urgent review by councillors.

22 comments

  • When the council became aware that coltishall was to become vacant they should have moved norwich international there. Then this would have freed a huge area for housing on the edge of Norwich. This act along alone would have created more housing which the government still thinks we need and a larger more suitable airport for Norwich. The roads going to coltishall could have been improved along with the NDR. The economy in the local area would have been stimulated for years to come.

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    Panic

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • what would be the business accumen and expertise of Cllr. Jordan and his ex leader Mr. Murphy? What was the recommendation of NPlaw and did any of the officer vote for this purchase?

    Report this comment

    ingo wagenknecht

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • I am afraid that we are in the hands of a small number of individuals here, who have neither the knowledge nor the funding to enable them to be commercial property developers but who are quite happy to play at that role on the back of public money that could be put to a more proper use.

    Report this comment

    John Martin

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Shouldn't Councillors have to pass some sort of test before they are allowed to get their hands on our money to indulge in vanity projects about which they know nothing

    Report this comment

    alecto

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • The fact that it had been unsold for 6 years says it all. This was nothing more than a tame deal entered into by a Conservative cabal at County Hall to use our finances for solving a central government headache. Accordingly looking for the existence of a business case is about as fruitless as expecting something sensible to be uttered by Mr Nobbs.

    Report this comment

    guella

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Councils should never compete against the private sector, they should encourage them. Coltishall should be sold and the public money returned back in to the pot, this is an appalling act buy an unfit for purpose council

    Report this comment

    Sweet cheeks

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • I don't understand the purpose of Norman Lamb attacking the county council on this. Isn't this a coalition involving his own party? Are they literally sheep if they're not having a say in what goes on at the council? Rather than using the newspaper and publicising his 'meeting' wouldn't it be sensible just to talk to the people in the party he helps coordinate?

    Report this comment

    Jeffrey Osborne

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • No Chance of it every being used as an airport or runway again as North Walsham council are going to discuss a "no fly" zone after the latest villiage idoits popped up..... bound to be a show stopper! Make a great drag strip, Norfolks own Santa Pod.

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    Mr T

    Sunday, December 22, 2013

  • This article reveals yet one more affront to democracy by the present administration in County Hall. Hans House is an experienced developer. Artemis invests huge amounts of private finance each year. Why did the Cabinet not take professional advice on the offer of £9.9m - instead of denying for a time that any offer had been received - and then debate that offer formally in a Cabinet meeting open to the public? This was a vanity project from the outset, and the current administration is as determined as the previous one to run with it. This is despite the facts that (1) it is not the role of a service providing authority to undertake speculative capital projects (2) there is a far greater need in other areas for the sums involved and (3) it has no experience of commercial development.

    Report this comment

    Nemesis

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Honest.J. - I have it in black and white from the EA that Coltishall did not receive a flood alert on 5th December. Strange that when you consider the planned incinerator site, adjacent to the river at King's Lynn, has supposedly the same flood risk assessment (Category 1 risk) and King's Lynn was flooded! Makes you wonder.........

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    Sandy.L

    Tuesday, December 24, 2013

  • So, Coltishall isn't suitable for an incinerator? Would the council care to explain why? I do not advocate them anywhere but it would be very interesting to see the councils reasoning. I agree that the site should have bcome NWI, as ex RAF the base would have been ideal and many private aviation firms wanted the same

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    d, west lynn

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Briefly NO, the money was not well spent and shouldn't have been spent at all. The MOJ was completely at fault for accepting a lower offer than Hans House, so here we have a government department accepting a lower offer than it could have. The council never had, and, really still don't have any idea what to do with the site, yet still, willingly, spent £4,000,000 of OUR money on it. Councils excel at only one thing, as a rule, incompetence, here is yet another example

    Report this comment

    Windless

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • If the council’s proposals include renting land out to up to three tenant farmers, let's hope these would not automatically be three councillors!

    Report this comment

    Sandy.L

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Councils should not be landlords in any way shape or form !

    Report this comment

    Albert Cooper

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Keith S, like many posting comments here, I am a Norfolk taxpayer, are you saying we are not in a position to comment? Putting to one side that I have no trust in NCC whatsoever now, I have grave concerns not only about NCC's wastage of money buying Coltishall in these austere times, but more importantly their failure to look into the associated costs of any work. I have seen some of Bruce Giddy's comprehensive investigations and the purchase price will be small fry in comparison to what's in store. I too would be interested in knowing NCC’s reasons why Coltishall is not deemed suitable for an incinerator, but then I doubt they’d admit the truth. As a matter of interest, was the site issued with a flood warning on December 5th and how about Snetterton?

    Report this comment

    Honest John

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Norfolk County Council claims to have cut over £140 million from its budget over the past 3 years and in addition has to cut an additional £189 million due to government funding cuts. In light of these figures how can the purchase and retention of the ex RAF Coltishall site have been, or still be, acceptable or justifiable? Clearly, the council is unfit for purpose and the councilors who have made and attempt or continue to justify their actions held to account. The saddest part of the whole affair is the site could have been used for aviation related businesses as proposed by private investors. However, what should be remembered is that nostalgia and a desire to preserve the base for its historical importance in its past service to the RAF shouldn't be used as an excuse to use taxpayers money when other essential services to the people of Norfolk are being either removed or eroded for a lack of public funds. This site should be placed back on the market and it's future, if there is one, decided by the private sector.

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    Bad Form

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Ah. Have we the makings here of a solution to Heathrow's 3rd runway? NCC making a bid to offer land and a runway already made, for "London Coltishall"? Much cheaper than building it at Heathrow and much less political flack as well because there is no flourishing anti-3rd runway campaign at Coltishall where it would not be new, merely re-designated. Sounds like a winner to me. I'm sure Michael Ryan and Stelios Haji-Ioannou would not be too reticent about re-branding it as a London airport destination. It's only a 3-hour transfer to the capital.

    Report this comment

    BernardJuby

    Saturday, December 21, 2013

  • I'd like to see the qualifications of those who have commented so I can be assured they are in a position to do so.

    Report this comment

    KeithS

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • It's simple - at present it's 600+ acres of land not in agricultural use. Turn it back to farming, and then the County Council can develop the equivalent area of farmland closer to Norwich (Norfolk County Council is a big agricultural landowner) for housing, without actually "losing" any farmland... Kerching!

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    g hu

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Norfolk County owns 16200 acres of farmland which brings in rent from 145 tenants. Coltishall is small beer to County Farms. I my be that rural areas need more income than just taxes because services tend to be more expensive.

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    oldowl

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • In answer to the question, too early to tell i reckon. However, i note there are still some deluded people who think it would be a great idea to relocate an airport to a site 8 miles further from its current catchment, whilst moving it nearer to the sea; where the road infrastructure is totally inadequate and only able to be improved at huge expense; where there is absolutely no onsite infrastructure apart from a (admittedly longer) runway; where it would cost £millions to relocate the likes of KLM, Air Livery, Klyne, Saxonair etc. Plus, it is not the Council's decision. The airport is in the majority ownership of a private company and I am sure they could come up with 100 more reasons why it would be bonkers to relocate it to RAF Coltishall. There is more chance of my beloved Lowestoft Town playing in the Premiership. Anyone who persists with this utterly deluded concept as part of any argument about the rights and wrongs of the Council's involvement in RAF Coltishall has absolutely no credibility whatsoever.

    Report this comment

    Tom Jeffries

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

  • Why not build a load of cheap wooden chalets there so that Walcott & Hemsby beachside dwellers have somewhere to live when the winter strorms come?

    Report this comment

    Rhombus

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

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

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