Monday, March 20, 2006

Swords into Ploughshares - Greenham Common

This is a copy of the article which appeared in Liberator describing the transformation of Greenham Common from a military airbase back into a common

Swords into Ploughshares

In 1992 the Ministry of Defence declared Greenham Common Airbase surplus to military requirements. Tony Ferguson describes how the local Liberal Democrats have involved the community and returned the commons to public access

On 8th April 2000 the fences finally came down and the public were at last able to roam freely over Greenham and Crookham Commons which made up much of the former Greenham Common airbase. What seemed like an impossible dream some eight years ago has finally been realised.

The airbase which was so notorious in the 1980’s for Cruise Missiles and Peace Protests was originally declared surplus to military requirements back in 1992. Liberal Democrat run Newbury District Council urged the Ministry of Defence to restore public access to the commons and to sell the land back to the Council.

However, it rapidly became clear that the Treasury were only interested in maximising the capital receipt from the site and had no desire to meet the wishes of local people.

Following a meeting with Hampshire Councillors to discuss their experiences at Blackbushe Airport it became apparent that the Council needed to be far more proactive if the once in a lifetime opportunity to create a better environment for the community was not to be missed.

The council established two clear objectives. Firstly to ensure that the community had a say in and a degree of control over the future activities which would be allowed to occur at Greenham Common. Secondly to be the successful bidder and to return overall control of the site to the local community.

The council talked to a wide range of bodies and individuals with a view both to finding a way of purchasing the airbase from the Ministry of Defence and to drawing up a planning brief to ensure that future development could be controlled even if the site was purchased by someone else

The council drew up a draft planning brief and consulted widely before adopting the brief as policy in 1994. The brief said that the developed area which had housed the barracks and the technical buildings could be used and redeveloped for employment generating purposes. The vast majority of the open area where the runways were was to be preserved as grazing heathland. The site was to be remediated with the runway being removed and all the fuel tanks and lines being taken out.

Meanwhile the Council pursued its links with the local business community and as a result of this the Greenham Common Trust was formed. In 1997 the Greenham Common Trust acquired the airbase from the MOD for £7m and the vast majority of the open space was transferred to the Council. The acquisition was funded by the banks, the Council and by the MOD accepting stage payments.

The Greenham Common Trust runs the developed area as a business park with old buildings let to commercial tenants. In addition the Trust and the Council put forward a bid to KONVER for European funding towards an Enterprise Centre. This resulted in the award of some £800,000 of European money and the Enterprise centre was formally opened earlier in 1999 and is already nearly full.

The profits from the Trust are used in several ways.

Firstly the costs of acquiring the airbase need to be met with loans from the bank and the council to be paid off and stage payments to be made to the MOD.

Secondly, the Trust has been contributing to the costs of restoring the open area with some £750,000 due to be handed over to the Council to pay for this.

Thirdly the Trust needs to reinvest in the Business Park and in particular the infrastructure which will be required in the long term especially roundabouts on the A339 and the internal road network within the park.

Finally the residual profits are handed over to a Distribution Committee which acts like a local lottery board. Local organisations can make applications for grants and the committee decides how the available funds should be used. In the first three years alone some £125,000 has been generated for local good causes. However, this sum will pale into insignificance once the debts have been paid off and the infrastructure has been put into place on the business park.

In parallel with the business park acquisition the Council has been
restoring the open area. Over 1m tonnes of crushed concrete have been removed from the site. All the underground fuel tanks have been removed and the pollution around the sites of these tanks has been remediated.

One small part of the airbase at the western end was reopened to public
access in September 1997 to reaffirm our commitment to returning the open area to public access. The remainder of the airbase was finally reopened to the public on 8th April 2000.

Finally the Council is currently in the process of promoting an Act of Parliament (Greenham & Crookham Commons Bill) to protect the open area in perpetuity.

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