Anger over Home Office wait on Coltishal
Exclusive: Anger is mounting that an historic Norfolk air base is being left to rot because the Home Office is dithering over whether it is needed as an immigration centre.
Anger is mounting that an historic Norfolk air base is being left to rot because the Home Office is dithering over whether it is needed as an immigration centre.
Hopes of quickly finding a new use for the axed RAF Coltishall station to plug a £20m hole in the local economy were dashed when the government stepped in at the 11th hour saying it might be needed to house failed asylum seekers.
But nine months on and amid fresh news that a decision could still be months away, the last station commander has launched a broadside about the harmful impact of the delays
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Ex Squadron Leader Jason Hughes, who oversaw the closure of the base last year, said the benefits of the hard work preparing for a quick sale of the site had been completely lost - and the delay was costing thousands of pounds worth of taxpayers' money every week.
He said: “Every day that goes past is wiping money off the eventual resale value. The Home Office has wiped money off the public purse.”
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“When we left, the site was probably the tidiest it has been for 60 years and buildings were prepared for immediate reuse, not to lie empty for all these months.
“The fact it has laid empty so long, not boarded up, open to vandalism, not weather proofed and not being properly maintained - the place will rot.”
“One of the chief concerns was that a private investor would come in and land bank it - and then lo and behold the Home Office do just that at the eleventh hour. They are denying the local economy the chance to regenerate.”
The loss of money has been all the more frustrating because at the time of the official closure of the base, Air Vice Marshal David Walker praised those responsible for the 'drawdown', a small team headed by Mr Hughes, for saving a staggering £10m on their allocated budget
Mr Hughes, who has retired locally into civilian life and is vice-chairman of nearby Skeyton parish council, said his anger was shared by other local councils and communities.
His outburst came after a new letter from immigration minister Liam Byrne, also signed by security and policing minister Tony McNulty, saying they were “very sorry” they were not yet in a position to make a firm decision on the Coltishall site.
The note, to Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson, added: “I would, however, expect to do so in the coming months. I very much appreciate the frustration of your constituents.
“I would please ask them for their continuing understanding of our efforts to make a properly measured decision within the wider context.”
Mr Simpson said: “We are nearly 10 months into this and it is very unfair on the local community who have been pretty patient.
“We have to keep pressurising the Home Office on this and making sure it is not on the backburner.”
Fellow MP Norman Lamb from North Norfolk said the Home Office behaviour was a scandal. “It is completely unacceptable. The way this has been dealt with now constitutes a dereliction of duty,” he added.
Coltishall's runways fell silent in the spring of last year when the last Jaguar planes left after a long and illustrious history. Just days before the base closed in November, with plans well under way to put it up for sale on the private market, the Home Office made its 11th hour intervention - having previously said it had no interest.
The move - which could see hundreds of immigrants held on part of the base before their removal from the country - caused a storm of protest among local people, concerned about security, the effect on their property prices, and the impact it would have on redeveloping the rest of the base.
The Home Office initially pledged to reach a final verdict by mid-December, but the deadline has slipped repeatedly.