On the night of 17th September residents from in and around the Parish of Lympne met at Lympne Village Hall to discuss the offer, made recently by Homes England (HE) to the Parish Council, of the opportunity to lease out part of Lympne Airfield.
For those of you who don’t know the back story, HE, a Government quango set up with the express purpose of promoting house building within the UK, purchased the airfield in collusion with Folkestone and Hythe District Council (F&HDC), for £9 million of taxpayers’ money from former owners, Phides Estates (headquartered in Jersey). The purchase was conducted in stealth – not even Lympne Parish Council was aware that a purchase was in view until the deal was completed.
The Airfield is a site of national historic significance, both for its role during WWs 1 and 2, as well as its place in aviation history more generally. Several planning applications for the site have already been rejected, with one of those judgements being upheld in the High Court. Nevertheless, there are proposals for housing development on the site within the district’s Local Plan and it is also included within the area of search for the proposed Otterpool New Town, a development of 12,000 homes (or is it 8,000 or 5,500? – the plans are becoming increasingly vague!)
HE clearly want someone else to carry the cost of maintaining the Airfield while they decide what to do with it in the longer term. Tenancy of the site had already been offered to a local farmer, but HE have offered to lease a subsection of the land to Lympne residents in response to a request from the Parish Council that villagers might continue to have access to the field as they had done for many years whilst the airfield was under the ownership of Phides. However, whilst offered for a peppercorn rent, the cost of upkeep of the land would pass to the Parish and the length of the lease is only 3 years. Ominously, the parcel of land on offer almost exactly replicates the piece of the Airfield identified as the green “buffer zone” in F&HDC’s Otterpool proposals, an area laughably supposed to help Lympne retain its distinct village identity while urban sprawl is inexorably imposed on it at every other possible point.
The meeting in the village hall was, unsurprisingly, packed. Initially it seemed villagers had a straight choice between two options:
Accept the lease (although everyone agreed that the term of 3 years was a derisory offer and the lease could only be accepted if the Parish Council were able to negotiate a term nearer to 20 years) and its ongoing maintenance costs, and thereby retain access to the Airfield.
Let the local farmer tenant the entire site, and carry the costs of farming it, but lose any access.
The picture became rather more confused however, as there was conflicting information about the possibility of the farmer actually allowing villagers access around the borders of the entire site were he to take possession of all of it. Clarity on that point was needed to enable residents to finally make up their minds about their preferred option.
Perhaps inevitably, discussion of the needs and preferences of the local canine population, who regularly frequent the Airfield with their owners, took up some time, but the focused contribution of a few speakers encouraged those present to grasp the bull by the horns, rather than the dog by the lead, and to consider the strategic implications of either accepting, or rejecting, the lease in the wider context Otterpool New Town. Whilst willing to consider some development within Lympne, the overwhelming majority, if not all, of the villagers present at the meeting utterly opposed the overwhelming scale of the proposals for Otterpool and deplored the threat the development posed to the history and heritage of the village by the further destruction of the Airfield. Ultimately, what residents wanted conveyed HE (and F&HDC) was that they:
did not condone the arbitrary division of the Airfield and wanted access to as much of it as they could possibly have, ideally by the Parish Council negotiating with HE for the tenancy of the entire site, although it seemed very unlikely HE would agree to this.
would prefer to come to an agreement with the tenant farmer for continued access around the borders of the entire site, than accept a lease that enabled HE to pass off the cost of maintaining part of the land on to the village until they were ready (presumably) to build on it.
did not want a part in any dealings that could be misinterpreted as condoning HE’s stealth acquisition of the site, or being willing to accept “sweeteners” to help overcome their antipathy to the Otterpool proposals.