No decisions yet on plans for airbase

The chances of RAF Coltishall being used to house immigrants have reduced, two Norfolk MPs said yesterday.

The chances of RAF Coltishall being used to house immigrants have reduced, two Norfolk MPs said yesterday.

In a bid to clear up the confusion which has surrounded the future of the airbase in recent weeks, both Norman Lamb and Keith Simpson held meetings yesterday with senior government officials.

Confusion over the status of Home Office proposals to build a 500-head detention centre on the former airbase has been fuelled by misleading statements from John Reid's department in the last few days.

North Norfolk MP Mr Lamb yesterday held a formal meeting with prisons minister Gerry Sutcliffe and a senior official from the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), while Mid Norfolk MP Mr Simpson met Mr Sutcliffe at breakfast in Westminster.

Many people still believe the final decision has been made to house immigrants in a centre at the base - thanks to conflicting statements from the Home Office earlier this week and the subsequent inaccurate media reports which followed. But that final decision is still to be made, a fact confirmed in yesterday's meetings.

"I have been told the Home Office is looking at April or May before they say yes or no, although they hope to conclude it quicker than that," said Mr Lamb.

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Mr Simpson said he had been given the impression a decision might be made by March 23, when the Coltishall taskforce next meets at Norfolk County Council's headquarters in Norwich, but this appeared to be the most optimistic scenario.

Meanwhile it emerged that the probability of the airbase being used at all had reduced, at least by a small margin.

"The alternative to RAF Coltishall which has always been talked about is prison ships," said Mr Simpson.

"I get the strong impression these ships are increasingly the favoured option. It's not clear, but there are value for money and flexibility considerations which may be pushing the Home Office towards those ships."

And Mr Lamb said: "It seems to be becoming clear to the IND that RAF Coltishall may not be the best site on offer. It is remote and a long way from the London airports. Taking people backwards and forwards to those transport links will be costly and time consuming. I am sure they would want to be closer to urban areas and those airports.

"The airbase is still a serious option, but perhaps slightly less likely now than in recent weeks."

Both MPs were buoyed to a certain extent by further pledges the site would not be "mothballed", which would have struck a serious blow to the future economic health of the surrounding area. If the site is not needed at all the Home Office has said it will sell it off as soon as possible, whereas if they decide to use a proportion of it for an immigration centre, they have said they will sell the remnants quickly as well.

"Gerry Sutcliffe told me they are not going to hang on to the land that they don't need," said Mr Simpson.

"Any unused land would be seen as a dead investment and the Treasury simply won't allow that.

"He has said there is not going to be a long hiatus."

But both Mr Lamb and Mr Simpson said there was still no guarantee the latest picture would not change.