Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?

There has been a recent ‘spate’ of developments with planning applications that affect Britain’s wartime heritage, and in particular the airfields that were used during the Second World War.

With land at a premium, a housing crisis that is growing, these sites are becoming more and more handsome as development opportunities. Many have a ready-made infrastructure, many are open fields and as such, prime agricultural or development land. So what does the future hold for Britain’s heritage?

We have seen applications submitted or at least interest shown, for the former: RAF Kings Cliffe, RAF Downham Market, RAF West Raynham, RAF Denethorpe and RAF Coltishall, further applications have now been seen affecting former RAF Dunsfold, RAF Bourn and RAF Wellesbourne Mountford.

We also know that the USAF have given notice of withdrawal from their major UK base at RAF Mildenhall, the smaller site at RAF Molesworth and the remaining site at RAF Alconbury. The Government has already announced it will be selling these sites for housing after the military withdrawal in 2020-23. These three sites form part of an estimated £500m sell-off that would also include: RAF Barnham (Suffolk), Kneller Hall (Twickenham), Claro and Deverell Barracks (Ripon), Lodge Hill (Kent), Craigiehall (Edinburgh), HMS Nelson Wardroom (Portsmouth), Hullavington Airfield (Wiltshire) and MOD Felton (London). Changes at RAF Lakenheath will also see job losses through streamlining of operations.

It is estimated that the 12 sites could accommodate an estimated 15,000 homes with Alconbury having 5,000 alone.

The former airfield and barracks at RAF Waterbeach is also subject to planning proposals, and the Bassingbourn barracks near Cambridge is also under the development spotlight. The recent closure of Manston (a vital Second World War airfield) has led to speculation of its future both as an airfield (possibly London’s third) and as a development opportunity. These are perhaps just a few of the prime areas of land that are now becoming the focus of planners and developers alike.

There are many variables in this heated and long-lasting debate, in fact far too many to raise and discuss here. Strong feelings exist both toward and against the idea of development and it is certainly not a new one. Employment, jobs, environment, heritage, housing etc, they all create discussion and a strong case for both arguments, but the debate here is not “should we build or not” this is quite frankly, inevitable and in many cases much-needed, no, it’s more how can we meet the needs of an ever-growing population with the needs to preserve historically important sites that form the very thread of today’s society.

We have a dynamic population, and as health care improves, social mobility increases and a growing desire to own our own home increases, the need for more housing, affordable homes and homes for rent also increases. We are an ageing population, care homes, schools for our children and hospitals for the sick are all in much greater need. Where do we build them?

Whilst housing demands have always been with us and the need for more housing an all important one, the recent developments suggest that these old airfields could become prime land to meet these future housing needs.

Many of the current Second World War airfields are now either industrial conurbations or agricultural areas. Most have little or no remnants of their former lives visible, and certainly not widely accessible. Many argue that these sites are scrub, derelict and in need of development, and some indeed are. A proportion of the more recently used sites, are ‘mothballed’ or in part operating aviation related activities. They cover huge areas and have a ready-made infrastructure such were the designs of war and post war airfields. These sites also contain extensive dereliction, primarily due to being left and allowed to decay by their owners. Vandalism and pilfering has left them rotting like carcasses of forgotten wild animals. Where industry has been operating, contaminates have seeped into the soils, damaging flora and fauna growth; some so severe that they are rendered too difficult to reclaim as ‘Green Space’. Certainly on paper, they offer good sources for today’s desperate housing stock.

However, balance this against the historical and cultural importance of these places and the argument becomes a little blurred at the seams. Had it not been for the people who came to this country from all over the world to fight the Nazi tyranny in the war years 1939-45, then Britain and Europe would probably not be the Europe we know today. Many thousands of people gave their lives during those dark days, and for many of them, these airfields were their last homes, cold, often draughty huts on the outskirts of some bleak airfield. Their dedication helped form the very society we live in today, the democracy and freedom of speech we so enjoy and relish, the open spaces where we can walk our dog without fear and in freedom. The fact that we can have this very debate, is in itself, testament to those who came here never to return. The very nature and fabric of our local communities has been built around the ‘friendly invasion’ the acceptance of others into our quaint life and idyllic life-styles. Influences from other nations and cultures grew and developed as a result of those who came here from far and wide to give up their lives.

These sites have become monuments to them, their lives and deaths, many still have no known grave; many simply ‘disappeared’ such was the ferocity of the explosion that killed them. The design of Britain’s airfields are architecturally significant to our heritage, buildings were designed to fulfil a purpose and just like our castles and stately homes, they are monuments to a significant period of not only British, but world history. Our education system, includes this very period as a subject for discussion, debate and analysis. To build over such sites without due regard to them would be a travesty, and one that we would regret in the future. To paraphrase that well-known quote; If we are to learn from our mistakes then we need to remember the past. The Second World War is still, for the moment, in living memory, the veterans and civilians who survived it are dwindling in numbers and very soon their memories will be lost for ever. Each day brings news of a lost veteran or a newly discovered story. If we don’t acknowledge the value of these places, if we don’t plan for their ‘preservation’ then both we and our future generations, will be the ones to regret it.

So where do we go from here? The plans published for RAF West Raynham and RAF Coltishall take into account the nature of these sites, they are sympathetic to their historical value and acknowledge the sacrifices made. West Raynham utilises the very buildings that were created, thus keeping the atmosphere for those who wish to visit. Small museums create a record, first hand experiences and artefacts, all valuable records for the education of future generations. But both of these are unique. Both closed in more recent history, they have retained their structures whereas many older sites have had theirs long since demolished.

It is a delicate balance, and as sad as it would be to see them go, there has to be legislation to create compromise. Sympathetic developments have to be the way forward, acknowledgement of the sacrifice has to be high on the agenda. Many of the airfields I have been too have no museum, no memorial barely even a signpost. Surely this is wrong.

If we are to preserve our fragile heritage, we need to consider the implications of the planning process, to look at the value of these sites as both suitable housing and significant historical areas, the sacrifice of the many needs to be acknowledged and it needs to be done soon.

Sources and Further Reading.

Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England ” HM Gov, November 2011

Stimulating housing supply – Government initiatives (England)” House of Commons Library, 9 December 2014

The “Get Surrey” news report issued on January 5th 2016 relating to Dunsfold can be found here.

Then latest news from “Cambridge News” December 16th 2015 can be found here.

The “Stratford-Upon-Avon Herald” January 6th 2016 front page story about Wellesbourne can be found here. (This may be a limited time link).

The latest news on RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath published by the BBC, 18th January 2016 can be found here.

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15 thoughts on “Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?

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  3. It is sadly very late in the day for many former airfields.
    Most have been left to decay or have been redeveloped with no regard for their historic context.
    Times are changing however, the West Raynham development brief, for one is very encouraging.
    The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), has been recently revised in order that such considerations have to be presented as part of planning applications in order to protect heritage assets. I imagine past mistakes have facilitated this change.
    As for West Raynham, there are encouraging signs for positive development in the near future.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Hi,
    What a nicely balanced view and discussion. There is nothing more true than “it is a delicate balance”. Nations need housing, industry and infrastructure to grow and prosper. If that doesn’t happen, the sacrifices of so many would still be wasted; what value is a gift if we don’t use it?
    I think there must be a balance that works for all. Clearly it’s impossible to save every historic field – be it Amiens, Battle or Coltishall – but their original developments make former airfields an easy target.
    Perhaps there is an option where a handful of strategically placed and especially notable airfields are preserved in their entirety as ‘museum sites’, while the others are carefully and completely documented before any development.
    I also think the developers should acknowledge their obligation (and debt to the past) by funding that documentation, including a suitable memorial space within their plans, and having historical merit (such as choice of street names) judged as part of the approval process.
    …It is a suggestion anyway. I wouldn’t want to pontificate from the other side of the world and, for once, I don’t envy you your proximity to history. Most of our WW2 airfields were returned to the termites and goannas 70 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, – you make a valid point. Some developments have indeed small memorials built into the plans, but these are not as part of the normal development process. As far as I’m aware there is no obligation to do so and developers could quite easily disregard the historical aspect if they so wish. I agree with you in that a museum or at least a dedicated memorial should be included in any development plans submitted, and that should become statutory. The ‘listings’ of buildings offers some protection, but only if it is ‘significant’ and generally as part of a much more complete collection such as hangars and runways. Older sites have little left, but newer ones are still relatively complete. They offer the best opportunity for ‘preservation’, West Raynham and Coltishall are thankfully both being developed with this in mind. It is difficult but good to know that people around the world are taking notice. Many thanks for your kind and thoughtful contribution. Andy

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  6. Great post Andy, highlighting some very real concerns that we, as aviation enthusiasts have about losing our aviation heritage.

    I come from Swindon in Wiltshire, my father and I have spent many a happy, sunny, Saturday afternoon at Kemble airfield in Gloucester, watching light aircraft taxi by – and the odd Canberra PR.9 – but sadly it looks as though the Canberra has moved on – however, it seems that time is up for Kemble too as the site is to be sold off for housing. (I believe that Kemble was an MU in WW2).

    My father was really quite upset. Now he rides his bike out to Middle-Wallop. One can only hope that the Army keeps this rather wonderful airfield open, especially with it’s rich WW2 aviation heritage – and that it doesn’t go the same way that some of our beautiful and historic airfields have and become housing estates for our ever increasing population.

    Rich.

    Liked by 1 person

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