Anger over mothballing of RAF base

RICHARD BATSON A former Norfolk airbase was mothballed by the Home Office yesterday creating the “worst of all worlds” with no guarantee of new jobs and putting the redevelopment of the site on hold.

RICHARD BATSON

A former Norfolk airbase was mothballed by the Home Office yesterday creating the “worst of all worlds” with no guarantee of new jobs and putting the redevelopment of the site on hold.

Amid growing anger last night , MPs warned ministers' decision to buy the former Coltishall airbase raised questions about how the £20m hole left in the local economy by the departure of the RAF will be plugged.

The government's indecision is the latest twist in speculation about the future of the base, which was first touted by the Home Office as a possible detention centre for asylum seekers then as a possible prison.

Yesterday ministers confirmed the Home Office was poised to buy the site - in a deal thought to be worth about £12m - but said there were no immediate plans and the base was to be land-banked for possible future use.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb was “incandescent” at the indecision which he said could blight the site and not deliver the jobs, income and economic investment locals were hoping for under its redevelopment.

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Even the use of the site as an immigration detention centre, as was previously suggested by ministers, would have created 500 jobs, but the latest news means the future is unclear.

“It is the worst of all worlds,” said Mr Lamb who tagged the Home Office handling of the saga as “incompetent, inept and unacceptable.”

“Things could drag on interminably. It potentially blights the site for private purchase.

“Apart from the housing which is being sold off separately the base could decay - just like the scenario we had at RAF West Raynham and which we wanted to avoid here.”

His Mid Norfolk counterpart Keith Simpson said there could still be a change of heart before the buy-up was confirmed by the secretary of state.

He was keen to get assurances that if the Home Office did mothball the part of the site it potentially wanted - and which nobody else apparently did - the rest would go back on the open market to save the whole base being in “suspended animation.”

Mr Simpson said the latest move was unfair after local people had ridden a rollercoaster of emotions as fears were raised then plans delayed.

The Norfolk County Council officer for the task force seeking to redevelop Coltishall, David Hayman, said the Home Office told him they were buying the land so it was “not sold from underneath them.”

The private sale of the airbase had been suspended, and any re-sale of unwanted parts was not likely to happen until the summer - and would have to tackle the problems of splitting the base's single set of power and water services.

He called for clarification on the Home Office plans for the site, so that the task force could try to “wrap something else useful around it.”

Mr Lamb was due to visit an immigration removal centre at Oakington near Cambridge yesterday - on a fact-finding tour of the kind of facility earmarked for Coltishall by the Home Office, which initially showed no interest in the site, then had a change of heart amid rising immigration problems.

But following recent leaks that the government might now want it as a jail for asylum seekers, he decided to check with Home Office and immigration department officials about whether it was worth going if Coltishall was no longer going to be a removal centre.

It was Gerry Sutcliffe, junior minister for criminal justice and offender management, who confirmed the Home Office was going to get the site - but that it would be held as a contingency in case it was needed in the future.

Mr Lamb was also told that it was still destined to be a removal centre, but that there had always been the intention - and that people had been briefed accordingly - to have some provision to hold criminals who were unable to be deported because of the risks they faced back home.

Coltishall parish council chairman John Harding said local businesses would still benefit from the sell-off of the former RAF homes, but the delay put job prospects “in limbo” and fuelled speculation that it was buying time to make a higher security unit which would house criminals.

He pointed out that documents from earlier meetings about the centre clearly gave Home Office assurances there would be no serving criminals held there.