A New Battle Of Britain Breaking Out Over Derelict Wartime Airfields
Spiralling demand for new homes in England has developers desperately seeking land. And there are some sites across the country that could be perfect, as they're in wide open spaces with modest infrastructure in place. The problem? They're World War II airfields that, though derelict, are a significant part of British heritage. As local councils and advocacy groups face off with developers, the historical sites continue to crumble, and housing remains a significant problem.
Bruton Knowles planning specialist Steve Pozerskis gets a bird’s-eye view of the problem as he flies light aircraft and gliders across Southern England. “I fly, so clearly I am not keen on transforming every old airfield in the country into a building site. On the other hand, some of them have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where commercial or residential redevelopment is an obvious solution,” Steve says.
“Brownfield development on old airfields has become a major sticking point, dividing the community between those who wish to preserve sites at any cost and younger generations who need somewhere affordable to live.”
Wisley Airfield in Surrey was the site of aircraft testing during World War II. After the war, it was forgotten. It has become a place where people walk their dogs. In 2014, Cayman Island-based Wisley Property Investments submitted a plan to create a new town on the site, with retail, a school, a vast park and up to 2,500 homes. The response from surrounding communities was swift and clear: absolutely not. Groups organized to protest the development, and one councilor considering the application commented that he did not want to be remembered for turning “rural pasture into an urban ghetto.”
After two years of appeals, the application was soundly rejected. Over four miles of runway remain, cutting black stitches over the green land.
RAF Manston in Kent was active in World War I and World War II and was a Battle of Britain hotspot. That’s a photo of the air base taken in 1933 by the Luftwaffe. In World War II it was used as a South coast base for emergency landing crews of bombers returning from Europe. Even with that history, there was less (though still passionate) outcry when two developers submitted plans to redevelop the 800-acre site in June 2016. Plans for Stone Hill Park, as it will be called, seek permission to build 2,500 homes across four communities: the Taxiways, the Meadow Edge, Heritage Gardens and Airfield Avenues. The scheme will also have two primary schools, a hotel, a swimming pool, sports fields, gardening allotments and possibly a film studio. The project would create up to 4,000 jobs.
Resistance to the development has been heated, but the project was moved forward in October 2016 after a viability study found that the land was suitable for just about anything other than aviation.
There are successful developments. Further north, the old Bomber Command base at RAF Bicester was sold off and is being used for classic car restoration, Steve tells us. “It doesn’t always need to be housing—Bicester was sold by the MOD and the airfield buildings and hangars have been restored to their original condition. The Gliding club on-site has been allowed to stay. It’s like an industrial estate built in the 1940s! Jobs have been created whilst the overall historic nature of Northern Bicester area has not been diminished. In fact, it has been improved from almost total dilapidation."
RAF Filton, which once hosted a squadron of Spitfires, became the home of both the Brabazon and Concorde. The airfield site is in the process of being transformed into Charlton Hayes, a new town of 2,000-plus new homes.
Wellesbourne in the Midlands was used by No. 22 Operational Training Unit during the war, but Steve tells us it's now the subject of fierce rearguard action as the landowners seek to close the airfield and demolish buildings on the site. It looked like it was going to happen, too, but just this week the council removed permitted development rights from the site owners.
RAF Halesworth in Suffolk, shown here, is mostly unoccupied these days, but back in World War II, it was a training facility for D-Day. The last time a development proposal was offered for the space was 2013 and it seemed halfhearted, with 400 homes proposed.
Bruton Knowles town planner Paul Barton believes building on brownfield sites—such as old airstrips—is preferable to sending the bulldozers onto the UK’s greenfield sites. “Given the government’s clear intention to accelerate new home delivery it is obvious some sort of compromise is required between those wishing to defend our old airfields and those looking to build on them," he says. He advocates for a "realistic approach" to cope with the enormous increase in populations since these airfields were being built and used back in the 1930s and 1940s.
“Miles of flat, brownfield sites cannot solely be used by people walking their dogs while an entire generation are seeking a place to live,” Paul says.