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£1.25m bid for a museum, hotel and training centre at RAF Coltishall – with 800 new jobs

PUBLISHED: 10:05 16 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:05 16 January 2014

The former RAF Coltishall base that has been bought by Norfolk County Council. Photo: Steve Adams

The former RAF Coltishall base that has been bought by Norfolk County Council. Photo: Steve Adams

A Norfolk businessman has revealed he is pulling together a £1.25 million proposal to turn RAF Coltishall into a museum, hotel and training centre, which he believes could create up to 800 jobs.

Rival bid was rejected

Last week the EDP reported that another bid to buy the site was rejected by council leaders as “not the basis for any serious consideration”.

Bruce Giddy, from the Hans House Group of Companies, offered to purchase a leasehold in the site for £9.9m, with the council paying rent in a leaseback arrangement.

His proposals included a 250-acre solar farm, a heritage centre and aviation museum and a home to engineering and aircraft building companies.

Mr Giddy said: “The council did not regard it as a proper offer and they would not meet me about it.”

Colleen Walker, cabinet member of economic development said the council had only ever received an informal offer from Hans House with financial backing from UK investment manager Artemis.

“They would require Norfolk County Council to rent back the land only at £650,000 per year for 25 years, which would equate to the council paying £16.25m over that period,” she said.

“In addition, Artemis/Hans House would require £2.075m of capital from Norfolk County Council to promote the site and repair the buildings, but Artemis/Hans House would receive all the income from leasing the buildings.”

She added: “If the council was minded to dispose of its interest in the former RAF Coltishall, it would be required to offer it on the open market, rather than negotiate with a single purchaser.”

Basil Todd, who owns the Wensum Valley Hotel and Golf Club, said he had been dreaming about the venture for the past eight years but now feels the time is right to push forward to make it a reality.

The 72-year-old, who lives at Welborne near Dereham, is a honorary president for the Spirit of Coltishall, a group set up when the base was disbanded in 2006 to perpetuate the memory of the station.

Special report: Does Norfolk County Council purchase of RAF Coltishall equal money well spent?

Other proposals under consideration

Norfolk County Council bought the former air base for £4m a year ago.

It has drawn up a number of proposals which include:

Solar PV on the site. A feasibility study is under way looking into a phased approach to installation of solar panels on an area of approximately 50 acres at the northern end of the site with a capacity of up to 10MW.

Develop the Officers’ Mess for housing. A full planning application is being drawn up with work envisaged to start this summer.

A subsequent appropriate scaled housing development on a rolling programme.

People interested in becoming County Farm tenants are now being asked to come forward.

A planning application is about to be submitted for aggregate removal from both ends of the runway. Material will be stock-piled on site so it is only removed when required. The initial aggregate removed would be used for the Postwick junction scheme east of Norwich. Use on other highway schemes is likely to follow. It is anticipated the main runway would be retained.

Controlled public access to and a heritage trail around the old playing field area with passes issued to local residents.

Development of business and employment opportunities of the technical area which includes the four hangars.

George Nobbs, Norfolk County Council Leader and Cabinet member for Economic Development, said: “The former base is a unique site which brings with it a number of challenges.

“Despite these, as well as the current difficult economic climate, we have been progressing well with developments and I’m pleased that we have received significant expressions of interest from sectors such as manufacturing, energy and leisure.

“We are fully aware of, and understand, the sensitivities of redeveloping the former airbase but we must push forward with bringing forward our development proposals to create a significant income stream for the County Council as well as boosting the local economy.”

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His involvement with the group came through his love of aviation and interest in the RAF and then by holding golf days and functions for RAF crews at Wensum Valley. He even has a Spirit of Coltishall room at the hotel adorned with photographs and artwork depicting the glory days of the base.

“I don’t want to see anyone digging the runway up, pulling down the officers’ mess or building houses,” he said.

“I want to take the whole thing on.

“My plan is to create a Cold War museum, linking in with the Royal Air Force Air Defence Radar Museum at Neatishead which would provide about 40 jobs. The officers’ mess would become a hotel, employing around 40 people and also be a training centre so young people from City College could come in and learn the hospitality trade. I’ve got a great team here at Wensum Valley but they all had to have training to get it right.

“The hotel would have an authentic RAF theme, recreating pilot’s bedrooms and pictures of aircraft on the walls.

“There is a big hall which would be a wonderful venue for dinners or wedding receptions.”

Outside in the hangars he would want to set up a training centre for aircraft engineering, from engines to air frames to hydraulics, electronics and instruments. He said he already has around 100 contacts with qualified personnel who can teach and take classes.

He would also like to see some of the 600 acres used for horticulture and ground maintenance courses providing apprenticeships as well as training places.

He also wants to provide a headquarters for Air Training Cadets with a light aircraft and glider training facility.

Mr Todd said to get everything up and running would cost about £1.25 million but he would also be prepared to buy the officers’ mess outright or even the whole site if current owners Norfolk County Council agreed.

Mr Todd said he had written to the council stating his intention to set up a charitable trust to purchase the airbase “with an agreed payback to the council over a defined period to reimburse the council taxpayers for their investment”. He added: “I personally could commence with the purchase of the former officer’s mess as a sign of my commitment and sincerity.”

He believes income from visitors to the museum would be enough to support the project on its own.

“I could see 100,000 visitors a year plus more for an air show which I would expect to hold once a year.

“I have proved what I can do here at Wensum Valley. I have created a 100-bed hotel, 1500-member leisure club with 100 employees from an old turkey farm. I think a hotel at Coltishall would do very well and I think altogether we could be creating 800 jobs.

“From my point of view it is not about the money it could make. It is about giving something back to Norfolk.”

Tom McCabe, interim director of environment, transport and development at the county council, said they were happy to consider any enquiries from interested parties.

“As people know, the council has an agreed development vision which we consulted on last year and that we’re working towards. Any alternative proposal would have to measure up to this in terms of factors including timescales, job creation and certainty of delivery.”

What do you think? Write including full contact details, to the Letters Editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE.

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