Alconbury airfield planning application ‘is holding move’

THE owners of Alconbury airfield look set to get a five-year extension to their planning consent for a rail-connected freight terminal next week – but that does not mean it will ever be built.

THE owners of Alconbury airfield look set to get a five-year extension to their planning consent for a rail-connected freight terminal next week – but that does not mean it will ever be built.

Property developers Urban and Civic, who acquired the site last autumn for �27.5million in conjunction with a Northamptonshire developer, also want Huntingdonshire District Council to extend temporary permission for a variety of uses that between them keep around 800 people in work.

Planners will recommend next Monday that the council’s development management panel backs both applications.

However, the firm’s long term plans may involve the railways.

Urban and Civic has not been idle since acquiring the site last November, project director Tim Leathes told The Hunts Post yesterday (Tuesday).

It hoped to bring forward proposals late this year or early next for a future use that fitted with both the county council’s plans for Cambridgeshire and the district’s aspirations for Huntingdonshire.

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At the heart of the proposals will be the creation of good quality employment opportunities, sound transport links – U&C has been talking to the county about extending guided bus services to the site and to Network rail about a connection to the railway and a possible passenger station – a leading edge low-carbon and sustainable environment, and the development of a master plan that includes re-connecting the site to adjacent communities, tearing down security fencing and re-establishing footpaths and bridleways.

After the promised public consultation “we hope to have reached the stage of an outline planning application towards the end of next year,” Mr Leathes said.

HDC originally refused the freight depot plan nearly 10 years ago. But it was allowed on appeal by the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott with more than 70 conditions attached, which made the plan impossible to implement.

Principal among them was a condition that, before any part of the site could be brought into use, a connection to the nearby East Coast main line must be built, including a flyover connection to the southbound lines and reinstatement of the up slow line at Conington that was lifted by British Rail in the mid-1980s when the line was electrified.

Not only would the railway engineering work have cost hundreds of millions of pounds that would have had to be spent before the site earned a penny piece, but there is virtually no capacity on the main line for additional freight trains until it is widened at, among other locations, Holme Fen and Welwyn in Hertfordshire – something Network Rail has ruled out for the foreseeable future.

However, Urban and Civic’s key players, Nigel Hugill and Robin Butler, are widely thought of a ‘sharp cookies’, who would not have invested all that cash if they did not think they could turn a profit.

The site’s previous owners, Alconbury Developments Limited, were expected to return to the planners with new proposals for a road-based freight park, which would have been turned down out of hand because the road network could not cope with the traffic volume.

With use of the runway for commercial flights also ruled out by Mr Prescott’s conditions, rail too costly and road unsustainable, the future use of the site as a freight terminal on any scale looks unlikely.

But the planners think it reasonable to give Urban and Civic time to put forward new proposals for sustainable use of the 1,000-acre site, so approving the two applications and preserving people’s jobs is a good short-term strategy, they will tell councillors next week.

In any case, the new owners have insisted that their tenants comply with changes required by HDC when the temporary use was last extended, to reduce the impact on residential neighbours.

Informal discussions between the owners and planners are expected to continue as the developers formulate uses that might find favour with HDC, but it is too soon for those proposals to have acquired any shape.

When Urban and Civic acquired the site last year, however, they promised: “The former airfield has an important heritage which is to be recognised and can help inform the way any development is laid out.

“To that end, the possibility of high-quality high-technology business uses must be examined. Urban and Civic are sure that beautifully designed low-carbon family neighbourhoods should form part of the mix, as presently being discussed by the East of England regional planners.” The region’s planning framework was last week formally scrapped by the new Government.

But U&C’s vision continued: “The company can see the need for green infrastructure – parks, woodlands and allotments – as part of a commitment to healthy lifestyles, and excellent public transport – including the new guided bus [which was still at bthe time expected to start operations within weeks] – connecting new homes and places of work to a reinvigorated Huntingdon, where the principal focus of shopping and other services ought to continue to be concentrated.

“It is important that the people of Huntingdon and its whole district feel that the development of Alconbury airfield is conceived and delivered on terms that reflect their own ideas and expectations, and which contribute something of real and enduring value to local life.”

The planners will aim to hold the developers to those sentiments.