Flying the flag for Norfolk’s rural industry: new horizons for an old RAF airbase?
- Credit: Matthew Usher
From fighter jets to furniture shops, the old RAF airbase at West Raynham has seen plenty of change. Is this finally the start of a sustainable plan for its place in Norfolk? Jess Staufenberg reports.
With abandoned military watchtowers stretching towards an open sky where Blenheims and Beaufighters once flew, an old RAF airbase in Norfolk has re-opened for business in a very different kind of battle.
At one time deliberately hidden away in the countryside by the Ministry of Defence, the West Raynham airbase is now trying to place itself firmly on the map as a business hub for rural industry in Norfolk.
The latest investors at West Raynham business park are indeed brave - they believe their masterplan to attract the region's often 'forgotten' rural businesses, with the added bonus of residential homes on site, will succeed where previous owners have given up and sold on.
Now with 275 residents moved into the old officers' homes, and 22 companies in the renovated military buildings, the park could lead the way for a much-needed shift in Norfolk from its urban areas to countryside 'clusters', businesses at the site have said.
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Ciaran O'Neill, marketing executive for hardwood design company Norfolk Oak, said developing rural areas in this way would open the whole region to business rather than just its cities and towns.
'Using brownfield sites around Norfolk is a fantastic way of getting companies the space they need, for the price they want,' said Mr O'Neill. 'But it also makes not just Norwich acessible, but the whole of Norfolk accessible as well.'
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Mr O'Neill said Norwich was fast becoming a hive of activity for the region, an effect which should be felt outside of the city too.
'We've had the A11 duelled, we're getting a lot of traffic now, Radio 1's big weekend is coming to Norwich - and I think it's time for the rest of Norfolk to jump on that,' he said.
Moving its showroom and workshop into a converted aircraft hangar had also allowed the 19 staff to lead customers through the start-to-finish of wood design for the first time, said Mr O'Neill.
The business park was useful for companies like Norfolk Oak which needed plenty of space but which would normally be situated singly and struggle to make themselves known, said a leading asset manager for the site.
Ian Fox, director of FW Properties, which are currently managing the site, said rural industry clusters were the way forward for businesses in isolated locations.
'I think rural businesses are often forgotten - we look at big businesses that work in big city centres or big industrial parks, but there's a lot of business that needs more space,' said Mr Fox. 'And clusters work, don't they? Industries cluster together because they have spin-off from each other.'
The diversity of businesses is obvious - among them are a blacksmith, an agricultural company, a nursing group and an artist's studio.
The demand for rural industry is clear, with 44pc of the region's workforce employed in rural businesses according to Norfolk County Council.
But poor transport links to the site have made attracting people to the area difficult and has slowed development, said Mr Fox.
'It's not on the main road, which is one of the reasons we haven't done what we want with it so far,' said Mr Fox. 'If we were on the edge of the motorway this would have all been developed a long time ago.'
The future of the site has seemed uncertain on a number of occasions since 1994, when military operations ceased and it stood abandoned for 12 years under the ownership of the Ministry of Defence.
A group called Hodge Homes then bought the site in 2006, before rapdily selling to Norfolk businessman Roger Gawn of Thalia Investments in 2007.
In 2012 Mr Gawn's company then went into administration, owing £20m to principal investor Investec Bank, which led to administrators Moore Stephens and FW Properties being called in.
FW Properties are now working with North Norfolk District Council to improve road links towards Swaffham and King's Lynn to attract more business and, crucially, tenants.
Richard Powell, chair of the council's Norfolk Rural Development Strategy, said putting community well-being at the heart of plans was as important as attracting business.
'Opportunities for sustainable, local growth are good for the economy and communities, especially if it is on brownfield sites such as West Raynham,' said Mr Powell. 'We would also want to see added value through land being set aside for young people and the health and well-being of the community, to create a long term option for the site.'
Open for rent and sale since 2007, perhaps more houses should have been bought by now - yet 'Sold' signs continue to pop up by the old airmen's houses in a new community hub called The Kiptons, and children can be seen playing in the renovated officers' quarters, The Orchard.
With better links to towns like Fakenham, more residents should move in and eventually enable the site to work almost self-sufficiently, said Mr Fox.
'A lot of rural businesses are going to struggle more because people have to get here,' he said. 'But we have 128 houses here and another 44 nearby - so you can create a sustainable community here so people can support the industries. That's our plan.'