Spy plane plan for RAF base grounded

RICHARD BATSON A bid to turn disused RAF Coltishall into a research centre for unmanned spy planes has been grounded because the eye-in-the-sky boom is too far in the future.

RICHARD BATSON

A bid to turn disused RAF Coltishall into a research centre for unmanned spy planes has been grounded because the eye-in-the-sky boom is too far in the future.

It is one use for the former airbase which has been ruled out, at least for now, by officials trying to influence the way it is regenerated under new ownership.

A report hints that the possibility of an asylum detention centre on part of the base might not as bad as some local fear.

And it has also emerged that the first batch of 50 homes next to the base are likely to be up for sale, on a first-come first-served basis, in April - despite council calls for them to be sold to a housing association.

The delve into the world of “unmanned aerial vehicles” - remotedly-controlled military and civilian planes which do variety of search and surveillance jobs - came after an approach from an industry insider, said Norfolk County Council's economic development manager David Dukes.

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A site in west Wales was already promoting itself as a location for research and development in the emerging sector, with the help of development grant money.

But while Coltishall was a less remote and potentially more attractive site, the real investment for the industry was unlikely to come before 2012.

“We have not got the millions of pounds to spend keeping the airfield infrastructure warm during that period,” said Mr Dukes, so it was an unlikely way forward.

Other interest had come from a manufacturer of temporary housing and assembler of light aircraft, while a boat builder had since found another site.

Defence Estates were however seeking to sell the site as whole to a single developer, so the council was keeping a note of potential users of parts of the campus to pass on to the new eventual new owner.

A decision is still awaited on whether the Home Office want to seek the former airmen's barracks as an asylum removal centre.

Mr Dukes' report, to be discussed by Norfolk's planning, transportation, environment, waste and economic development on Wednesday, says the use could reinstate some of the £21m lost to the local economy, and that after local opponents of the scheme had visited similar centres “many fears appear to have been allayed.”

He also says there was no evidence that property prices slumped near such centres - a view echoed by Annington Homes, which will be disposing of 342 former military houses at Coltishall in a separate sale.

The council urged a bulk sale to a housing association, but Annington said it preferred to help first time buyers and key workers get on the property ladder by selling to them direct, with incentives such as free legal or survey fees.

A spokeswoman for the company, which had sold more then 13,000 former MOD homes the same way in the past, said work on “makeovers” was under way - including décor, flooring, render, outside paint, doors and porches, along with landscaping.

The first 50 would go on sale mid April, but she could not yet indicate the prices.

More information on the Annington website www.annington.co.uk