British GA Airfields

In response to the subject of British airfields under increasing threat from property developers since airfield categorisation as ‘brown field’ sites, John Gilder has provided the following information in his capacity as Vice-Chairman (Planning) of the General Aviation Awareness Council.

Seeing the comments with a petition link for Sibson I thought this note would give an inkling of what is happening in regards to General Aviation airfields at a national level and the role in the General Aviation Awareness Council (GAAC), the organisation representing our mutual interests to the Government.

Through Steve Slater I was recruited into the GAAC in 2012 and, on the basis of my planning experience, the Board invited me to succeed him as the Vice-Chairman dealing with Town Planning issues following his move to the LAA. The GAAC is an ‘umbrella’ organisation representing the spectrum of active GA organisations in discussions with Government. Our members include the LAA, AOPA, BGA (Gliders), BBGA (Business), AOA (airfield owners), Balloonists, Micro-lighters, Farmers, Aeromodellers and many others. Our Board meets quarterly with our next meeting at the end of February 2017.

Together with my GAAC colleagues, Steve Slater (LAA) and John Walker (AOPA) we are monitoring the situation with almost every airfield currently or imminently under threat. Our Chairman, Charles Henry, and I are also progressing discussions with the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) to address the “brownfield” issue, among others. We met the DCLG on 6 December and a follow up is scheduled for late February, so this is very much a live situation and, they are listening.

The DCLG response on the issue of Airfields being Brownfield merits a special mention as a few key points have already emerged:

1. the land must be redundant (i.e. unused) for inclusion in Local Authority lists of ‘Land suitable for development’, by definition active airfields are, therefore, not subject to the presumption that development should be allowed.

2. the Minister, Gavin Barwell, responded to an enquiry by Nick Hird MP explaining that airfields are not ‘designated’ as brownfield, they are ‘described’, which appears to mark a change in DCLG thinking.

3. the DCLG restated that any application relating to an existing airfield should be treated the same as any other application and all relevant evidence should be considered. This means amenity value, community use and wildlife habitat can be included – airfields should not be in a lesser situation than any other user.

4. a concern was raised with the DCLG that planners do not always consider the requirements of ‘the third dimension’ when reviewing planning applications. Airfields need space beyond the boundary for emergencies, tall obstructions close to airfields can be a hazard. This was accepted and will be discussed again at our next meeting.

Moving to the specifics at Sibson, the proposal has met with strong local objections and the current application is expected to fail. However, it is only the start as the landowner is behind the application and has both the resources and incentive to keep pressing. The plan is for a self contained community scheme (cf Wellesbourne), which are not now generally favoured by Local Authorities who see them as socially divisive traffic generators that leave the LA with the cost of provision, and continuation, of services. We will support the LA when the time comes, just as we already have at Panshanger.

Among others being monitored, RAF Halton is a very big site and our focus is the airfield, which is largely separate from the main buildings. These are easier to develop as the site services already exist and the area is substantially developed. We are not aware of any applications but are monitoring the situation closely and are aware of interest from airfield operators who believe it could be commercially viable.

The timings in the recent announcements apparently took the RAF by surprise and it seems that even those on a short timetable (Henlow, Colerne and Chalgrove) may struggle to close by 2020 as the relocation sites are unlikely to be ready. Henlow is of particular interest to GA and positive initial discussions have been held with several interest groups including Sport England and the Shuttleworth Collection. The Local Authority has the site allocated for airfield use in its current plan. We intend to meet with both the Flying Club and LA early in 2017 to discuss possible options. Manston is also a very current situation with an American-led challenge creating a tricky issue for the Local Authority. Again we are due to meet the local Supporters Group in January.

One final note, we are still seeing applications for wind farms or single turbines and one of the supporting arguments is that they are a ‘green’ solution. This is not necessarily true; the largest windfarmer in the UK stated several years ago that all the viable sites had already been developed. In some instances the cost of removing the turbines has not been factored in to the ‘green’ calculations and, more recently, we have heard that turbines in Scotland are gradually shaking loose from their plinths necessitating replacement far more quickly than anticipated and effectively negating the ‘green’ argument offered in their planning application.

The New Year is likely to be a busy one; we are making progress with the DCLG who now understand that the uncertainty caused by the “Brownfield” confusion is deterring investment in aviation facilities and encouraging speculation by voracious developers. They have also reaffirmed the policy that GA is the critically important starting point for those aspiring to the larger Commercial Aviation sector and needs to be protected.

John Gilder MRICS MRAeS