Concerns over future of RAF Watton airfield
Fears over potential future developments at the former RAF Watton airfield were put to politicians and policy-makers at a vociferous public meeting.
More than 60 people packed Carbrooke Village Hall to air their views on the 205-hectare site which will be disposed of by the Ministry of Defence after being deemed surplus to requirements last year.
Friday's meeting was chaired by Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, who fielded questions alongside district councillors Keith Gilbert and Michael Wassell, and Breckland's principal planning officer David Spencer.
Mr Spencer assured the meeting that the airfield was not allocated within the district's emerging local development framework and, as a greenfield site, was unlikely to be approved for housing by Breckland's planning committee.
But public concerns remained that any refusal could be overturned on appeal by a planning inspector – a scenario which had already happened with the high-density development built on technical areas of the former base.
Mr Freeman said he shared the meeting's lack of confidence in the 'broken' planning system and pledged to help the community generate its own growth plans as part of the coalition government's localism agenda.
'We face a central challenge in Norfolk between two instincts we hold dear – the instinct of keeping Norfolk special and the instinct to improve it and make it a place of opportunity,' he said. 'They may seem contradictory but I insist these two instincts are not irreconcilable.
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'I will be your staunchest defender in making sure you get the growth you want. There is clearly a lot of concern about the airfield site, so you must make sure you influence future decisions.'
Other speakers questioned whether there was a genuine need for development in the Watton area, and said housing associations were engaged in 'social engineering' by bringing tenants in from towns like Great Yarmouth or Thetford, creating a need which would otherwise not have existed within the local population.
Doubts were also raised over whether the existing public services and infrastructure of surrounding villages would cope with any new development.
But district and county councillor John Rogers said the fears could be proved groundless, as the MoD was duty-bound to sell the requisitioned land back to its former owners before marketing it to house-builders.
He said: 'I know farmers in Griston and Caston who want to purchase most of the land and they want it for farmland, not development. I believe there has been a bit if scaremongering going on about houses being built on the airfield but there can be no development there until the MoD sells it – and they have an obligation to sell it back to the previous landowners.'
One suggestion for the airfield to remain a green open space for recreational use received a round of applause.
Mr Spencer said Breckland Council had set a target of 1,000 new homes in Watton between 2001 and 2026, and 750 of those had already been built or received planning permission.
'We are looking at relatively low development in Watton of only about 25 houses per year spread over the next few years,' he said. 'The situation should be improving but there is a lot more to do. If the airfield site was developed at the densities we have experienced already, it would equate to 8-10,000 houses. We have got to ask who is going to live in those houses what the potential for any development is.'