Confusion and secrecy over sale of former RAF Coltishall to Norfolk County Council

Confusion and continuing secrecy are surrounding Norfolk County Council's (NCC) bid to buy former RAF Coltishall.

Site owner the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) confirmed to the EDP on Friday that contracts had not yet been exchanged for the former Battle of Britain fighter base, which closed in 2006.

But both a leading county councillor behind the bid and a spokesman for nearby residents opposed to the sale say an NCC officer clearly stated at an inaugural meeting of the Community Liaison Reference Group - set up to brief interested parties and help them shape plans - that the exchange had taken place.

However, an NCC press release issued after the July 12 meeting qualified that announcement, claiming that there had been 'an initial' exchange of contracts.

The puzzle comes as the MoJ has refused, for a second time, to disclose details surrounding the sale of the 600-acre base following a Freedom of Information Act (FoI) request from the EDP.

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We wanted to know why the MoJ had dropped Bruce Giddy's Hans House Group of Companies and instead made NCC its preferred bidder.

Mr Giddy offered �4.1m for the site and had plans including a large solar farm and a heritage centre, using historic buildings.

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The council wants to rip up the runway and restore much of the site to farmland, possibly recycling the resulting aggregate in the planned northern distributor road (NDR).

But, in an official FoI response, the ministry said releasing the information could result in the preferred bid being amended or withdrawn, and harm the MoJ's reputation for handling commercial negotiations.

The ministry also refused to disclose information after an FoI request by the EDP in November 2010 to discover who was bidding for RAF Coltishall at the time.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said if the council and Mr Giddy allowed public disclosure of their bid details the MoJ's objection would 'fall away.'

He added: 'It should be possible to be open about it, which is always my preference.'

Steve Riley, chairman of the Badersfield Campaign Committee for the protection and development of ex-RAF Coltishall, which opposes the NCC bid, said the July 12 announcement that contracts had been exchanged had given the impression that there was 'not much left to argue about.'

Mr Riley claimed the statement was 'outrageously misleading' because it was denied by the MoJ, and he condemned the liaison group as a 'cynical propaganda exercise'.

Councillor Cliff Jordan, the liaison group chairman and cabinet member for efficiency, said he too had heard Mike Britch, head of the county's NPS property arm, say at the meeting that contracts had been exchanged.

But Mr Jordan did not think the discrepancy was significant. 'As I understand it they have exchanged contracts although there is some work left to do.'

He added: 'There is nothing 'iffy' about this deal at all. It's all straight as a gun barrel.'

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