GA airfields provide a wide range of benefits but many are under threat of closure
Survival of the GA sector and its specialist airfields is important as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.
The sector as a whole is estimated to provide 11,600 direct jobs and to contribute £1.4 billion annually to the UK economy. It provides a range of economic and social benefits for users ranging from corporate aviation, pilot training and recreational flying across a variety of aircraft types ranging from larger fixed wing aircraft, helicopters through to microlights and gliders.
But whilst there are some corporate/business flights at UK commercial airports, the majority of GA flights are at specialist airfields, which range from larger airfields such as Biggin Hill and Gloucester through to farm strips. Many of these were previously military airfields but they are not necessarily located close to the UK’s main population areas. As an example, a county such as Lincolnshire has more airfields than a more densely populated one such as Surrey. In the past five years, several GA airfields particularly in the south east and the Midlands have closed for redevelopment. whilst others have been bought on a speculative basis for property development, particularly as ‘garden villages’.
It is certainly true that the land value for development for some airfields can be greater than that from GA activities alone. But, given the wide-reaching benefits of GA, the government’s proposals to establish a network of airfields with some degree of planning protection against such development seems logical.
Is a network of protected GA airfields the best way forward?
The concept of a network of airfields with some planning protection against closure for development was included in a revision of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2018, but its precise nature is still to be finalised. The network would need to be spread geographically across the UK and should enable all GA users to access a local airfield suitable for the type of activity. The degree of the planning protection is still to be determined and it is possible that there might be varying levels of planning protection and guidance for different groups of airfields. At present, the Department for Transport is awaiting suggestions from the industry on this although the situation is more complex due to proposals for the reform of the land planning system recently published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). Airfields were not specifically covered in these proposals and it has been suggested that a new category of ‘infrastructure’ is established which would facilitate new investment at and around an airfield whilst still giving some protection against its full closure. A further complication is that several airfields in the SE, such as Fairoaks and Redhill which have been purchased by property developers, are in the Green Belt. Whilst Green Belt status may prevent these airfields being closed in the immediate future, this is a double-edged sword as there is little or no scope for any other form of aviation-related or other supporting commercial development to improve the airfield’s financial viability in the longer-term.
Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey will soon be closed and redeveloped as one of the UK’s 19 new ‘garden villages’.