Timely saving of RAF Coltishall history

Richard BatsonA bid to save the heritage of a former RAF air base is being branded a 'fitting tribute' on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.Richard Batson

A bid to save the heritage of a former RAF air base is being branded a 'fitting tribute' on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

Coltishall's fighter planes played a vital role in the war-changing 1940 campaign in the skies, as well as many conflicts afterwards, before its closure in 2006.

Planners are trying to balance saving its history, stretching back to 1938, without putting off developers wanting to find new uses for the airfield and its buildings.

Designating part of it as a Conservation Area aims to do that, and a council officer said the timing could not be more appropriate.

Phil Godwin, North Norfolk District Council conservation and design manager, said in a report that the base was 'the physical embodiment of the nation's heritage at a pivotal moment in our history.

'Seventy summers on from 1940, it seems all the more fitting to pay tribute to the contribution the former RAF Coltishall has made to the history of both the nation and locality by safeguarding the site's remaining built heritage and general setting.'

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He stressed that the designation would not put a development freeze on the area - but simply require any development to have a high standard of design and fit in with the surroundings.

Mr Godwin said very few second world war airfields still survived in recognisable forms, having been converted to commercial uses or adapted for other military purposes, making RAF Coltishall rare.

Adapting existing and constructing new buildings might be needed to 'ensure the future viability of the site' and meant finding the right balance between change and conservation, he added.

Key characteristics which needed to be saved included the already-protected Spitfire pens and blast wall, but also the wartime hangars, control tower, mess buildings, unique graffiti, and squadron signs.

The Ministry of Justice, which acquired the whole site to use part of it as a prison, aims to market the remainder, but has been awaiting the outcome of the conservation area bid - which resulted from public concern.

The MoJ had expressed some earlier concern about the impact of conservation status on future development potential, but following discussion 'does not have an over-riding objection' added Mr Godwin in his report, which will be debated by the district council planning committee on Thursday, but also needs Broadland Council's backing as part of the site is in its patch.

Local councillor Spencer Whalley said the report seemed to achieve the wishes of local people without stopping development, adding: 'It means people cannot go in with a bulldozer. It preserves the airfield but would not stop people bringing work to the area.'

Among those who have expressed an interest in taking over the airfield is a firm wanting to maintain its flying roots - by bringing in airliners to be broken up and stripped down for parts, in a 'surgical deconstruction' operation that would create more than 300 jobs and training opportunities.