What’s going on with RAF Coltishall?
County council bosses have insisted they are committed to spending taxpayers' cash to buy the former air base at RAF Coltishall - despite the deal being hit by delays and the authority facing the prospect of having to make �125m worth of savings.
The ruling Conservative cabinet at Norfolk County Council revealed in the summer how they had agreed in principle to buy the 600 acre site from the Ministry of Justice.
The authority, which the MoJ has named as its preferred bidder for the base, which closed in 2006, has not revealed how much it plans to pay.
Nor have specific plans been drawn up for what the council intends to do with it, although the authority has indicated it would like the majority of the base leased for farming.
Former air force buildings could be converted into homes, while other buildings could be offered to businesses to buy or rent, with a trail giving the public the chance to learn about the history of the base.
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Councillors said in the summer that they hoped to secure a deal by the end of September, but with December only a few days away, contracts have yet to be signed.
But Cliff Jordan. cabinet member for efficiency at the county council, said the delays were merely due to the council being 'diligent', while the council is today due to publish papers which will reveal the latest progress.
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He insisted it was still worth investing in the former Battle of Britain base, despite the county council having launched a review of how it operates, amid warnings of a bleak deal for local government from chancellor George Osborne in next week's autumn statement.
Mr Jordan said: 'Buying the site at the right (one-off) price is capital spending which will enable us to generate a stream of revenue income year-after-year into the future, and support job creation.'
But the council's determination to push ahead came in for criticism from Mike Brindle, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat group at County Hall.
He said: 'This is an easy way to spend up to �10m, which I think is what it would cost to purchase the base and get it into order. We are dead against it and can't see why they are doing this when any return on it is likely to be over the long-term.'
Rival bidder Bruce Giddy, managing director of the Hans House Group of Companies, said his group's �4.1m offer was still on the table.
He said he could not understand why they county was persisting with its bid. He added: 'They are painting themselves into a corner to buy when we have the funds available. We don't want to knock anything down, or dig anything up, and our plans haven't upset everyone.'
Hans House wanted to create a 250-acre solar farm, to create a heritage centre and aviation museum and to offer a home to engineering and aircraft-building firms.
QUESTIONS ABOUT RAF COLTISHALL
We asked Norfolk County Council to answer a string of questions about what's going on with the former airbase? This is what Cliff Jordan, cabinet member for efficiency, said in response:
Why does the council want to buy the site?
'The site has now lain unused for six years and, as the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had not been able to secure private sector investment, there was clearly a risk that the site would remain unsold and unused or bought by a speculator who would be able to sit on the site for many years. 'That's why the county council resolved to buy the site to ensure it is brought into productive use as soon as possible for the benefits of local people and the wider Norfolk economy.'
What does the council intend to do with the site, once it is bought?
'If we are able to conclude the purchase of the site, we will draw up a fully detailed master plan from which a number of individual schemes and projects will emerge. Each project will need to be the subject of a detailed business case supported by a sustainable funding model.
'We expect the site to generate significant income stream over time and to create new opportunities for Norfolk businesses.
'At this stage, no decisions about the future use of the site have been made and we are still happy to receive suggestions and ideas from local people and businesses.'
How much has the council offered for the site?
'We have always said we would be happy to release what we have paid for the site once it is in our hands and that remains the case.'
Where is that money coming from?
'Efficient financial management delivered an underspend in the 2011/12 budget which has allowed the council to put money into the Norfolk Infrastructure Fund which will be used to fund the site's purchase. We expect the site to generate an income and to be capable of sustaining jobs.'
Why couldn't the business plan be presented before the base was bought?
'We needed to take decisive action and intervene when it became apparent that private sector investment had failed to materialise. For us, allowing a strategic site to fall into the hands of a speculative developer who would merely land bank the site was not an option.
'We have always said that we want to open up the site to enable it to be used in a variety of ways, including business use, improving access to the site for local people and protecting the sites heritage and historical assets.
'No decisions have been made and we have been open to hearing the suggestions and ideas of local people. Developing a detailed Master Plan will follow should the purchase be concluded.'
Why not leave it to the open market?
'The MoJ had failed to find a private investor since taking ownership of the site, which ceased operations in 2006. Buildings at Coltishall are increasingly in a state of poor repair. So the county council intervention has only come because the rest of the market has failed at a time when the national economy has slowed.
'The Ministry of Justice soon recognised the quality of our proposal and named us as the preferred bidder. Since then, we have been pursuing the purchase of the site.'
Why has there been a delay in the signing of the contract? It was originally meant to be September.
'It's a very large site – over 600 acres – with a prison in one corner of it. Although we had originally hoped to conclude a deal before now, we have been diligently examining all aspects of the proposed sale to ensure we are fully satisfied in achieving value for money for council taxpayers.
'These complex discussions are now in their final stages, but we will not buy the site unless we are fully satisfied with the terms of the sale. In essence, we have simply been diligently acquiring relevant information – as any house buyer would – to be sure of achieving good value for money.'
The council previously said a masterplan for the area would be drawn up 'in the autumn'. Given the delays in signing the contract, when is that masterplan going to be put together now?
'As mentioned above, a fully detailed master plan will need to be drawn up and discussed by elected councillors in the coming months, should the sale be completed.
'We have set up a community liaison reference group and we plan to discuss our merging thoughts with them in the coming months. We will also be inviting businesses to come and view the site and their feedback will also help inform our thinking.'
Given it has been predicted the council could face a further round of having to make savings, does that change the council's view over the importance of buying the base?
'No. We see the site as a strategic asset which can be fully realised over many years. Buying the site at the right (one-off) price is capital spending which will enable us to generate a stream of revenue income year-after-year into the future, and support job creation.'
Does the council still plan to remove the runway? If not, what has changed?
'We do not envisage using the runway for aviation purposes given the proximity of Norwich International Airport. Our current thinking is that solar panels could be sited on part of the runway and we are currently investigating what level of income could be achieved from that. However, there are a number of options for the site and they are all on the table – nothing is set in stone.'
What are the council's plans for preserving the heritage of the site?
'The site is currently closed to the public as it has been for very many years. We believe there is an exciting opportunity to make a heritage asset available to Norfolk residents for the first time. We have commissioned Cold war experts at the UEA to inform our emerging proposals. We are also working with the Spirit of Coltishall on an initial assessment of significance of each and every building. We want to make the site's heritage accessible to local people and visitors.'
What does the council think would happen if it were not to buy the base?
'There was a great risk that the vast majority of the site would have remained sterile, unused and unloved.'