RAF Coltishall: one year on

Exactly a year ago the Home Office threw the future of the former RAF Coltishall into turmoil, citing a pressing need for new places to house illegal immigrants.

Exactly a year ago the Home Office threw the future of the former RAF Coltishall into turmoil, citing a pressing need for new places to house illegal immigrants.

Since then paper has been shuffled and huge sums of money spent, but no final decision made. Ed Foss reports.

It has become a desolate eyesore, an uncomfortable embarrassment to those who served there.

Instead of rotting buildings, unkempt grass and fading glory, the former airbase at RAF Coltishall should by now have become a bustling, thriving part of the Norfolk economy, starting to provide jobs, millions of pounds of investment and a better future for the surrounding villages.

That would almost have certainly been the case if the Home Office had not interfered exactly a year ago today, stating they would take control of the base in case they needed to build an immigration removal centre on part of the site.

The shock eleventh hour intervention, described as “political panic” by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, was followed by repeated assurances that a final decision would be made quickly about the plan. Those promises have been broken repeatedly by the Home Office and its relevant arm, the Border and Immigration Agency (formerly known as the Immigration and Nationality Directorate or IND).

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The cacophony of disapproval about the delay has been widespread and included community leaders, politicians of all shades, a former station commander and the base's former station historian. And those are the ones who have spoken publicly. It is understood - and hardly a surprise - that the anger runs to the highest echelons of the RAF.

Yet, a year on, still nothing has happened.

Future potential plans for the site, such as a Gordon Brown's much-vaunted but nonetheless vague idea of an eco-town development, cannot get off the ground until the Home Office decision is made.

All of this has cost a lot of money. An exact figure is unclear, but as previously reported in the EDP the monthly cost of upkeep and security at the base while it lies empty is £50,000, which means £600,000 has been spent on this expense alone.

This figure is added to significantly by the loss in value of the decaying buildings.

Echoes of the former base at RAF West Raynham have become unavoidable, with the added irony that at Raynham some of the former homes have finally been sold on to the public after 12 years of dormancy.

At the heart of the community hit by the impasse lie ordinary folk, many of whom have now lost faith in the pledges of a government department and, by extension, a government.

“People have become resigned to long term government incompetence,” said Andrew Hadley, who until the last few days was the man at the helm of the Londis store in Coltishall village.

“I feel, as do many others, that the base is going to go the way of West Raynham.

“I fear this is an anniversary that will continue to be marked every year for many years to come.

“There is real anger and the situation is made all the worse by the way the site now looks, overgrown with weeds and left to wrack and ruin, especially after it was closed with such professionalism by the RAF and with such a lot of money saved on their budget”.

Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson said last night: “Did I ever believe we would be a year on with no decision? Absolutely not.

“A year ago I attended a meeting with the then IND and was told they intended to make the decision either before or straight after Christmas.

“Instead the decision has been continuously kicked into the long grass. Sadly I have no confidence left in the process.”

Mr Lamb said it was hard to be optimistic when the Home Office was “riddled with overwhelming incompetence”.

“I have no confidence at all in this shambolic crowd. We are left in the dark and completely stymied.”

A Border and Immigration Agency spokesman said last night: “The conversion of the former RAF Coltishall site into a removal centre for illegal immigrants is one of several options we are considering to increase detention space.”

The spokesman refused to be drawn on deadlines or the question of cost.

From the perspective of an office in the heart of London, the base at former RAF Coltishall is a speck on the map, made up of rough grassland, bitumen and a few apparently unimportant buildings. One would hope the Whitehall mandarins might attempt to understand the economic and emotional importance attached to this speck by people in Norfolk, but given their recent behaviour it seems unlikely.

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