Gamston Airport in Nottinghamshire is under threat of being redeveloped for housing - the latest in a long of list that has at various times included Kemble (Cotswold), Redhill, Wellesborne Mountford, Plymouth, Manston and Long Marston airfields. The proposal to build a 'green village' at Gamston was produced by Bassetlaw District Council as part of a strategic plan for the period to 2035. If its ideas are implemented, 625 dwellings will be built at Gamston over the next 16 years, and a further 1,825 will be added at a later date.
Gamston isn't a major commercial airport, but it is thriving centre for general aviation (GA), pilot training and corporate flights. It is home to more than 100 aircraft ranging from light singles to private jets and helicopters. There are two flight schools on site, as well as related undertaking support and maintenance activities. So although no scheduled airline services are threatened by the proposed development, closure of Gamston could impact aviation in the UK; it would reduce opportunities for would be pilots in the area to learn to fly and restrict corporate and recreational flying in the region, all of which generate money for the local economy.
The proposals came as something of a surprise because the UK government has been making pro-GA noises over the last year or two and seemed to be prepared to protect our airfields. That's not to say there was an expectation that every facility in the country would be safe, but there was at least a belief that a broad selection of smaller airports would no longer targets for housing redevelopment. Gamston seemed to be on a fairly sure footing as one of the better developed general aviation airfields in the UK, which is usually quite busy.
Strategic airfields network
The UK Government's General Aviation Strategy of March 2015 set out a vision that aimed to make the UK “the best place in the world for GA as a flourishing, wealth generating and job producing sector of the economy”. Another Government document 'Beyond the Horizon: The Future of UK Aviation - Next Steps Towards an Aviation Strategy’ published in April 2018 restated the importance of general aviation and recognised concerns about airfields at risk of closure.
Back in February 2018, Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg said: "Smaller airfields and the pilots who use them contribute £3bn to our economy and support more than 38,000 jobs, be that through business jet operations, flying schools or leisure flying."
At the time she appointed Byron Davies, former-MP and the founding Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), to the role of General Aviation Champion at the Department for Transport. Baroness Sugg explained that part of Davies' role would be to help identify a network of UK aerodromes that are most important for non-scheduled flying to flourish: "We want to preserve these benefits of general aviation and ensure appropriate and proportionate protection for the significant parts of this network that underpin that contribution."
All good. So why then is Gamston - a thriving site for general aviation - slated for potential closure? Maybe it isn't important enough to be part of the UK's strategic airfields network?
Baroness Sugg also commissioned York Aviation to produce a report and in October 2018 the firm duly delivered a 61 page document "Research into a strategic network of general aviation aerodromes".
Its contents first evaluate the performance of the UK's airfield network as a whole, and then deals with the catchment area of the UK's general aviation airports. It uses that data to identify regions that do not have good access to such facilities. The report also examines the services provided by each airfield, again to pinpoint gaps and overlaps in the network. Categorisation of the UK's airfields is based on whether or not facilities such as hard runways, pilot training, hangarage, maintenance, fuel, customs and air traffic control are available - alongside which sectors (such as corporate flying, light aircraft, microlights, gliders, etc.) they can be used by. The report identifies further factors that need to be considered in building a strategic network including surface access, community engagement, the environment and heritage value.
York Aviation compiled an airfield database as part of its study and recommended it should be kept up to date. However the firm pointed out that: "there is simply no central organisation or agency with responsibility in relation to the full range of GA activities and certainly none with a remit to collect significant amounts of data... Ultimately, this means that maintaining and enhancing the database that has been developed is a significant ongoing challenge."
General Aviation Champion
We now move on to a report, 'General Aviation Strategic Network Recommendations', produced by the General Aviation Champion Byron Davies. In it, Davies says: "If the government really wants to preserve the many benefits of GA and ensure appropriate and proportionate protection for significant parts of the network identified in the work package completed by York Aviation, it will use the strategic network to inform decisions on aviation and planning policy."
Aha - excellent! Unfortunately though, York Aviation previously said "that there can be no ‘single network’ of airfields and that the existence of a wide range of different user groups with different needs makes the definition of a network particularly challenging."
Could Gamston Airport be part of a strategic network? (Google Earth)
Davies added though: "Much debate has taken place as to whether a comprehensive list of airfields in order of merit, should be drawn up in the Aviation Strategy from this database. This could for example result in the top scoring 20% being identified as worthy of protection, which would perhaps amount to some 110 airfields... While such a process would generate a protected list it would also of necessity create a mirrored list of less protected airfields. The effect of this could be to encourage the consideration of these locations as redevelopment sites..."
The upshot is that - as yet - there is no defined strategic network of airfields in the UK. So where does that leave Gamston?
Strategic network: what strategic network?
Davies recommended "that the government considers (i) publishing criteria that would enable an airfield to identify itself as being part of the strategic network and local authorities would have to take this into consideration when planning applications are made or (ii) producing a list of airfields that comprise the network, based on the criteria identified in this report."
He continued to propose "that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government together with DfT jointly prepare new planning guidance which gives further detail on how the policy to ‘recognise the importance of maintaining a national network of GA airfields’ applies in practice, making clearer that those airfields which meet the criteria for the strategic network of benefit from enhanced protection; and also that their planning policies have regard to airfields that fall outside of the strategic network."
But we haven't defined a strategic network of airfields in the UK. Neither have the criteria for being included in it been defined. So the 'strategic network' offers no protection to airfields and local authorities will fall back on established planning principals.
The threat from garden villages
The latest National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) says that local policies should "recognise the importance of maintaining a national network of general aviation facilities – taking into account their economic value in serving business, leisure, training and emergency service needs, and the Government’s General Aviation Strategy."
However, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for General (APPG-GA) believes that the NPPF and other related planning guidance "cannot be deemed as either appropriate or effective as it currently stands." According to the APPG-GA every licenced airfield in Surrey is under threat, in Hertfordshire there is only one remaining, while in 22 counties across the UK there are none.
Going back to Davies' report again, he says: "A key catalyst for this [York Aviation] report has been the concern amongst aviators within the GA sector... that the survival of suitable airfields to service the many and varied aspects of the GA community is currently under threat by developers."
He continued: "The government is keen to champion ambitious councils that wish to make new garden communities a central part of their plans for housing and economic growth... This ambition presents obvious challenges and risks to airfields. Owners and operators of financially struggling sites will be tempted by the potential gain from the granting of planning permission and the potential value that could be realised from development."
Gamston Airport is classed as a brownfield site - well yes, the fields are brown!
Lacking any clarity from a strategic airfield network, the government's national policy framework prioritises building new housing on 'brownfield' land. Land that has previously been developed on is classified as 'brownfield', and airfields fall into that category. The APPG-GA points out that the classification of airfields as brownfield land means there is irrefutable evidence that local planning authorities see such sites as suitable for development. And Bassetlaw District Council went right down that path in its 138-page Draft Bassetlaw Plan which says:
"The amount of land available at Gamston Airport allows for the creation of a sustainable and standalone new settlement... Whilst development of the site would result in a loss of airport related employment, the new village would provide opportunities for new employment."
"Gamston Airport is relatively free from any significant constraints and also benefits from being classified as previously developed land (brownfield) due to its current use an airport. The present use of the site is considered to be an inefficient use of land which could... ultimately provide greater long term social and economic benefits to the local and wider District and economy through the creation of a sustainable settlement."
Further government input required
So there it is. Bassetlaw District Council want to build on Gamston Airport. There is meant to be a strategic airfield network in the United Kingdom and this should, in theory, should protect some of facilities from redevelopment. But the General Aviation Champion, the Aviation Minister, the All Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation and the Government as a whole haven't yet got their acts together and defined this network. So we don't know whether Gamston would be in it - or not. When - or if - the network will ever be compiled remains open to conjecture. Until they do, the UK's smaller airports will remain under threat of being reused for housing.
Text © The Aviation Oracle