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