Developer shows off plans for green acres and 5,000 homes at Alconbury
IT is difficult not to be swept along in the enthusiasm for the re-development of Alconbury Airport.
It is not just the Government’s approval for an enterprise zone on a unicorn-shaped 150-hectare parcel – which will form the economic backbone and early driving force for the development – but the 15-20-year vision for the whole huge 1,400-acre former spyplane air base.
On the one hand, there are opportunities for 8,000 jobs – most of them good quality, knowledge-based, probably science-based – and 5,000 homes. But what engages the imagination is what is – and perhaps more importantly is not – planned for the rest of those green/brown acres.
There are not many places in which the developer would start his planning process by identifying a listed building as a future cricket pavilion at the heart of the community. Nor would you expect the developer to want to retain control of social housing and engineer (or at least actively facilitate) social cohesion. But that’s the plan at Alconbury.
The airfield, less that part that is still occupied by the USAF, was bought by a new company called Urban&Civic almost two years ago. U&C’s two principals, Robin Butler and Nigel Hugill, have a serious track record in brownfield regeneration, including what is now the Olympic site in east London, the White City area of west London and a major project in the West Midlands. U&C later added 200 acres of farmland that links the airfield to the A141 Huntingdon ring road, just south-west of the railway line.
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What is hard for any post-Thatcherite Brit to understand is U&C’s corporate philosophy, because it looks beyond short-term profit. Anglo-Saxons on either side of the Atlantic find it hard to comprehend an economic model that looks 30, 40 or 50 years ahead for its payback.
It is meat and drink to Germans, and used to be to the Japanese and 19th century Brits, but it was kicked into the long grass by 1980s spivs in the City.
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It is a very welcome return to 21st century Huntingdonshire.
But 21st century Huntingdonshire was equally baffled that anyone would want to pay huge sums of money to give people a free day out on Saturday – ice creams, hog roast, free rides and the rest – in part of their county that they have not been allowed to see for well over half a century. And not only were they allowed in, but they were taken up on a ferris wheel so they could get a better view of those recently-dark acres, including the nuclear bunkers.
It will take a while to develop, but the first building work should start next year. When it is finished, half of the 1,400 acres will still be green space, and there will be even trees than there are already. There will be a new access from the A141 Huntingdon bypass, through parkland, and, although there will be some on-site shops aimed at people working there, they will not threaten Huntingdon town centre.
Public transport will be so important that links with Huntingdon will be quicker by bus than by car, thanks to dedicated bus roads, and U&C is well down the road in discussions with Network Rail about a passenger station on the site.
U&C is determined to get people out of cars onto public transport, said project manager Tim Leathes, who is also promoting all manner of low-carbon gizmos for homes and businesses.
Even before the public event on Saturday, ‘the great and the good’ had a look round. They included people who are key to making U&C’s vision for Alconbury work, such as Stagecoach managing director Andy Campbell, who will be happy to link the site into the new guided bus services, Network Rail, Cambridgeshire County Council’s acting chief executive Alex Plant, and Neville Rayner, chairman of the new Greater Cambridge and Peterborough enterprise partnership that is charged with making the enterprise zone work.
Also on site was Huntingdonshire District Council’s executive leader, Councillor Jason Ablewhite, who enthused: “It’s a tremendous opportunity for the district and all the people who live here.”
And the Ven Hugh McCurdy, Archdeacon of Huntingdon and Wisbech, said he believed lessons had been learned from Cambourne about the need to develop the community. “Urban and Civic seemed to be genuinely listening and hearing what was being said,” he told The Hunts Post afterwards.
INFORMATION: The consultation continues at www.alconburyairfield.co.uk