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Are we wasting the 'peace dividend'? Celia Clark looks at the ongoing large-scale sale of redundant defence sites--and at the need for change in the current disposal arrangements. (Defence Estate)(Cover Story).

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) is currently disposing of large numbers of surplus defence establishment sites throughout the UK. Barracks, underground bunkers, housing, victualling and ordnance yards, Territorial Army bases and drillhalls, Martello towers, airfields, and rifle ranges are all up for sale, as the MOD, faced with defence cuts and ever more expensive military technology, combines formerly separate facilities for training, research, catering, and storage and supply onto core, tri-service sites.

Although exact figures are hard to ascertain, the MOD landholding is huge, even after some years of the land disposal process--the MOD estate is the second largest in the UK, after the Forestry Commission (about 1 per cent of the total UK land area (1, p. 15).

The 1992 Treasury rules' insistence on sale of government land within three years of coming onto the market at the highest price and optimum planning value (with slightly longer time scales and slightly lower bids for historic sites) continues to cause local controversy. In 1996-97, MOD land disposals raised 100 million [pounds sterling] (1)--and it is an ongoing process; in 2002 the Treasury agreed with the MOD a target of 500 million [pounds sterling] to be raised over the next three years. This money is used to fund defence spending, although in terms of the cost of military hardware it is insignificant. There is a growing consensus that receipts should instead be used for reconstruction of local economies, with free or at-current-use-value asset transfer--as happens in the United States and Sweden.

The closure of defence sites affects local economies, in some cases very significantly. Consequently local authorities and local communities look to the new uses arising on sites coming onto the market to help strengthen local economies--or in some cases to rebuild formerly defence-dependent local economies--and to meet local needs and aspirations.

To date, most Crown development has been undertaken under non-statutory consultative arrangements. (1, p.32) The MOD is required to ensure that prospective new uses conform to local plans. However, in practice new uses bringing in the maximum financial return are often determined in-house by Defence Estates, the specialised agency responsible for selling defence sites, advised by consultants, with little contact with the planning authority until they are sold.

The outcomes may be high-value land uses which do not address local expectations. Planning authorities find the speed, delay, and uncertainty of site releases frustrating. It is still not standard practice for the MOD to partake in the development plan process. (1, p. 10)

Maximising income from land sales may be important (although 300 million [pounds sterling] would scarcely pay for the cost of an aircraft carrier), but not at the expense of achieving other social, community, and environmental objectives. For example, thousands of surplus service houses are being sold to the highest bidder instead of passing to key workers and social housing tenants--Annington Homes purchased over 57,000 MOD homes in 1996, and while most of these are leased back to the MOD, the purchase agreement guarantees an annual release to Annington of 600-700 empty houses. The Deputy Prime Minister and the Housing Minister are as concerned as local housing interests that formerly publicly owned houses are not available for social tenants.

Another major problem is that there is a clear clash of government objectives which has yet to be addressed: the Treasury and Defence Estates seek maximum financial return; the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) is pressing for brownfield redevelopment (MOD sites being prime candidates) while also requesting sustainable development, which may not be compatible with the highest bid; and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) rules require beneficial re-use of conserved buildings and sites, which is unlikely to be a developer's priority.

As yet, there is no clear national picture of the ways in which this public land might contribute to urban and rural regeneration and meet the needs of surrounding communities, whose economy may have been damaged as a result of site closure. The disposal process has been under way for some years, and current practice in the redevelopment of military sites suggests that, while some disposals are well handled and achieve local consensus, considerable problems and controversy sometimes arise, and there is an expectation of public benefit which is not always met.

The disposals system and Crown immunity

Public criticism of the current disposal arrangements is long-standing. Evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee (2) and the Defence Committee (3) stressed that the present UK system causes serious conflict and is unacceptable as a process that claims to be in the public interest. In 1998 the National Audit Office stressed the need for a more forward-looking estate strategy, which would achieve higher receipts from sales, reduce the cost and time taken to sell property, and strengthen accountability for meeting the MOD's objectives for the defence estate.

The House of Commons Defence Committee held an Inquiry into the Ministry of Defence Estate in April 1994. Evidence was submitted to the inquiry by district and county councils and by the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Countryside Commission, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, and Dartmoor and Northumberland National Parks on the serious effect of military land redundancy on local communities and economies, in the context of the importance of defence industry to the national economy. The submissions laid particular emphasis on the damaging effect of delays in decision-making and on the lack of consultation with planning authorities.

Michael Gwilliam, then Bedfordshire County Planning Officer, speaking on behalf of the County Planning Officers' Society, stressed to the inquiry the inevitably strong inter-relationship between the procedural, land use, transportation, social, and environmental issues stemming from the implications of the run-down and closure of Ministry of Defence estates. In his view, the MOD needed to embrace the principles of sustainable development within an overall strategy of base closures, to reflect the government commitment to the integration of environmental concerns into decision-making at all levels as set down in the White Paper This Common Inheritance: Britain's Environmental Strategy (published in 1990).

The Committee's report recommended, among other things, urgent discussions between the MOD and the Department of the Environment over general planning guidance on the re-use of MOD sites, and that the rule requiring the best possible return should be applied with due acknowledgement of potential non-cash gains to the community. (4) Little progress has to date been made in this direction.

Defence Estates' remit is to secure maximum price rather than local benefit, but as part of the ODPM's Sustainable Communities' initiative, English Partnerships (EP) is to become involved at a strategic level in the disposal of all major government-owned land, including defence sites. EP is responsible for drawing up a register of surplus public sector land across the country to ensure that wider government objectives, including housing need and regional economic strategies, are factored into disposal decisions.

Crown immunity has, to date, exempted government departments from planning legislation. The principal exception has been the ability to grant themselves planning permission, after merely consulting local authorities over development proposals, or other consents in anticipation of disposal under section 299 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. (1), p.31 There is a clear case for removal of the exemption, accepted by the Government as long ago as 1999.

Research carried out for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions argued that there 'is an overwhelming acceptance and support for the abolition of Crown immunity ... It is creating unnecessary and avoidable conflict between the MOD and planning authorities, which is having a detrimental effect on the disposal of surplus land. It also creates complications for the MOD in establishing what existing use rights it has when it wishes to dispose of land or buildings. The Government has already consulted on this and a commitment has been made for abolition. It is recommended that this be treated as a high priority if Government wishes to improve the current context for disposing of surplus land.' (1, pp.7, 34)

At the Beginning of June, Planning Minister Jeff Rooker announced that the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is to be amended to end Crown immunity from planning control, 'subject to certain safeguards'. New clauses in the Bill is to be remitted to a standing committee before it resumes its remaining Parliamentary stages.

Areas for change?

In what ways should the disposals system be changed? Some lessons from experience are already clear, and there is a range of key issues raised by the current disposals system that need to be addressed:

* The Treasury rules: Do the Treasury rules of 1992, stipulating that UK defence sites should be sold within three years of coming to market at maximum planning value, operate in the public interest? And is there a local public interest, distinct from the national one? The process of preparing for sale and agreeing the terms of disposal, new uses, and subsequent developments is necessarily long term, and cannot satisfactorily be achieved quickly. Should time scales be lengthened, as they are for historic sites; and should the Treasury rules be replaced?

A more effective and locally rewarding disposal system, replacing the Treasury rules, might well be modelled on what is required of local authorities selling land. They are obliged under the Local Government Act 1972 to obtain the best consideration that can reasonably be obtained for the sale of land, other than by way of a short tenancy or with the consent of the Secretary of State for a disposal at less than best consideration. This requirement has been modified by various General Consents for small disposals, but still applies. The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Local Government Association is currently considering making a request for a change to the national defence disposal rules along these lines.

Local authorities have obviously been obliged to adhere to the 1972 Act, but some have interpreted the 'best that can reasonably be obtained' clause by linking this to planning consents that can reasonably be obtained from planning authorities. In modifying the present system, a local link is' therefore required which will oblige Defence Estates to consider the reasonable aspirations of the local authority in the planning of the area within which the disposal of land is situated (see below). If the MOD were required to agree a development brief with the planning authority in advance of any sales, this would give it the opportunity to negotiate reasonable requirements with regard to the scale, form, and quality of the proposed development or redevelopment.

On 31 January 2003, the ODPM issued a consultation document to local authorities proposing a significant relaxation in the requirement for best consideration to be obtained. If enacted, the new General Consent will enable authorities to dispose of their interest in land held under the terms of the Local Government Act 1972 in ways that they consider will contribute to the promotion or improvement of the economic, social, or environmental well-being of the area which they represent and for which are responsible, for less than the best consideration reasonably obtainable, providing the under-value does not exceed 2 million [pounds sterling].

* Defence Estates' remit: Defence Estates' remit has no links to the objectives of other government departments, such as urban or rural regeneration, or to beneficial new uses for historic sites. One might ask whether a more neutral agency such as those found in other countries, working to joined-up government objectives, might not be more productive in meeting the higher expectations of public benefit from re-use of government-owned land.

* The transparency of early stages before site release: The Government appears to have accepted that Crown exemption is no longer justified. Government guidance in operation before the recent announcement on Crown exemption recommended that Defence Estates should liaise with local planning authorities so that defence sites that are likely to become redundant are included in the preparation of local plans--but the extent to which this happened was questionable, and there were doubts about the effectiveness of the liaison process even when it did. However, some local authorities--Hampshire County Council, for example--have had regular liaison meetings with the regional Defence Estates agents to discuss anticipated disposals.

A further problem lies in the exclusion of the public from defence sites on national security grounds: most people who live around the sites, as well as councillors and council officers, have never seen inside the perimeter, and this may reduce planning authorities' and local peoples' capacity to generate new ideas for these sites.

* The role of local authorities: It is important for there to be a strong planning brief early on in the disposal and re-use process. However, the secrecy of early MOD decisions can cause difficulties for local authorities, especially if they are not privy to the land use choices and shortlisting of bidders. Should local authorities be more proactive, anticipating disposals?

In Hampshire County Council's experience, an agreement with the local planning authority which enables land to be sold with the benefit of planning consents achieved against the provisions of the development brief has led to enhanced financial offers, as well as major improvements in the quality of the development. This process does require the vendor to be involved for a longer period of disposal, but it has been shown to provide stronger capital receipts and to achieve better quality and a more socially responsible form of development.

Again, transparency in the early stages is vital, and matters might be improved if disposal were handled by an agency with a regeneration remit.

* Uncertainties in the MOD's planning: The MOD says that it discusses future land uses with the local planning authorities and statutory and other bodies as appropriate. But when there is a change of heart by the MOD, as happened at HMS Daedalus and Portland, and sites are hot sold, local authorities may be left having wasted considerable sums of money in preparatory activities.

* The role of local communities: What role should local communities play in decision-making over the future of defence sites? What forms should public participation take, and at what stages in the disposal process should it be timed?

Developers are now aware of the value of early public consultation, and often begin by holding community planning events, to enable them to determine what locals want. At the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard in Gosport, Berkeley Homes employed John Thompson & Partners to run community planning events even before they had purchased the sites. They were able to open up sites which locals had never seen and gauge their expectations. However, it is not always clear how the findings of such events relate to local plans and planning or development briefs.

Tandridge Council actually began the process at an earlier stage still, when closure of Caterham Barracks in Surrey was first mooted. Local people said they did hot want clearance of the site--in contrast to a nearby hospital where this had happened. They wanted the barrack blocks kept and very limited development, so a conservation area was designated befote sale, which limited developers' options.

Local communities have sometimes themselves initiated consultation--as occurred at Mount Wise in Plymouth, for example, where the local community successfully convinced the MOD that land taken from the centre of Devonport should now be returned.

The MOD has sometimes handled some disposals in exemplary fashion--the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey in Essex, with its serious problems of pollution, secrecy, and undetermined heritage value, being a good example, Here, a consensus-building exercise, where all those with an interest in the future of the site were carefully identified by the consultancy CIVIX, offered an opportunity for opposing interests to negotiate and agree land uses together, (5) Why has this good practice hot been followed elsewhere?

* Responsibility for decontamination: Defence sites are often contaminated to a greater or lesser degree; who should pay for decontamination? At present, the MOD removes bacteriological, radiological, chemical, and other contamination where this cannot be done by civilian contractors, and explosive ordnance is cleared; but it normally passes responsibility for any further remediation to the new purchaser, with the cost of this work being reflected in the sale price.

* Conservation issues: What role do historic structures and buildings play in determining historic defence sites' future? Does the highest-price rule lead to clearance of much or all of existing structures (except those listed or scheduled), rather than sustainable re-use of those capable of a future? It is sometimes necessary to restrain developers anxious to get a return on their investment from making unacceptable and non-reversible change to historic buildings. However, early designation of a conservation area well before sale can help to protect a historic site and can help to strengthen the local authority's hand when negotiating with potential developers--as at Caterham Barracks and HMS Daedalus, for example.

In the absence of such action from the local authority, the Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust, for example, is considering applying to the DCMS to take default powers and designate the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough as a conservation area. Combined with early pre-sale public consultation on possible new land uses to meet local needs and aspirations, this can help to make authorities' response to developers' proposals more decisive.

English Heritage has suggested that letting historic buildings and sites on long leases, in a 'half-way house' arrangement, can pre-empt, to certain extent, the wholesale 'enabling' development that sometimes seems to go with outright sale. This can be a good solution where the military is able to work alongside such tenants, as at Devonport Naval Base and now Portsmouth Dockyard, where Vospers is building a vast new ship-assembly shed.

English Heritage has also stressed the necessity of a 'conservation plan' as part of a planning, development, and design brief.

* Subsequent uses following initial sale: This may be more of a planning than an MOD land release issue, but it may be related to how the site was marketed and packaged by the MOD.

The question of financial support for local authorities--such as Gosport--taking on historic sites has also been raised as a problem, and in some sites there have been disputes over nature conservation issues.

Looking overseas

In the UK, Defence Estates controls the sale process with a remit to bring in the highest return; but in other countries, agencies separate from defence, with, for example, a regeneration remit, are responsible for sales of government property, and they give local interests the dominant role over defence disposals--and sites which have assets that meet local needs may pass to new owners at nil or greatly reduced cost.

In the US, service homes are gifted free to the homeless, as are hospitals and schools, and the whole process is controlled by a locally appointed 'Base Reuse Committee', whose remit is economic reconstruction rather than maximum financial return. In Sweden local authorities can acquire sites at current use value, consult widely so that the new uses match local needs and aspirations, and then sell, retaining the profit from increased value. The French have an independent agency to handle the sale of public land, and it may be given away to local groups.

If the Government intends to maximise the use of brownfield sites for housing and other purposes, the Treasury needs to relax its grip on sales of government-owned land. At present, surplus NHS, defence, and other sites must be sold at the highest price and maximum planning value, which all too often makes them too expensive to redevelop to meet local needs. The UK may have something to learn from these overseas examples.

Community-friendly future?

The sale of defence sites alone is expected to raise an income of 500 million [pounds sterling] over the next three years, a large proportion of it from sales in the South East, where pressures for housing are high. Even if the UK disposed of government sites at their current value--as happens in Sweden--Mr Prescott would have a much better chance of achieving the targets in his 'Communities Plan'. Can English Partnerships be enabled to take a more community-friendly view than Defence Estates?

In 1996 the DOE commissioned research on MOD disposals, which concluded that no change was necessary to the current arrangements; but in view of the huge scale of site sales, and the scale of local controversy that often arises around particular sites, there appears to be scope for further research to identify good practice and changes to disposal procedures.


(1) Development of the Redundant Defence Estate. Fuller Peiser/University of Reading, for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Thomas Telford, London, 1999

(2) Control and Management of the Defence Estate: Ministry of Defence Property Services Agency. House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. HMSO, London, 1987

(3) Report of the Defence Lands Committee (The Nugent Report). House of Commons Defence Lands Committee HMSO, London, 1973

(4) The Defence Estate: Volume I--Main Report. Volume 2--Minutes of Evidence and Memoranda. House of Commons Defence Committee. HMSO, London, 1994

(5) M. Keeping: 'How to dispose of a problem site--conferring allowed'. Town & Country Planning, 1995, 64, May, pp. 148-149

RELATED ARTICLE: Defence site re-use--problems and examples.

Some MOD sites, once used by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), are now being developed by another agency. An Act of Parliament divided DERA into two parts--DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory), which remains a part of the MOD, and QinetiQ, a new commercial organisation with a board of directors--and the land assets were split between these two. The total value of the assets transferred to the new company, Qinetiq, was 680,000,000 [pounds sterling].

The MOD has now sold off 30 per cent of QinetiQ to venture capital company The Carlyle Group, which takes on industrial organisations and develops them into a wider role by investing in them if they are undercapitalised, or realises their assets in a commercial framework. Examples include the Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford, where five wind tunnels were developed in the Cold War period and where 4,000 people worked at its height. The wind tunnels are much larger than those at RAE Farnborough, and the Bedfordshire County Archaeologist and representatives of Bedford Borough Council have expressed concern that they are not listed or scheduled. John Schofield, Head of Military and Naval Evaluation Programmes at English Heritage, says that English Heritage has only recently learnt of the site: its Cambridge office recorded and photographed it in March/ April 2003. According to a QinetiQ spokesperson, the wind tunnels are unlikely to survive on site, and Qinetiq plans to develop the site for small business units and start-ups.

Historic defence sites often have very high numbers of stakeholders and severe complexities. The DCMS guidelines of 1999 for government departments disposing of historic buildings recommend that maximisation of receipts should not be the overriding aim in cases involving the disposal of historic buildings. Sites should be considered as a whole to preserve settings, using methods other than sale on the open market or competitive tender where these will increase the chances of securing appropriate ownership and use. Early consultation with all interested parties to help to overcome any difficult or controversial issues is recommended. Clearly, at present, this does not always happen.

The Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough--which has been called 'the cradle of British aviation', where the country's first sustained powered flight took place, where Concorde was tested, and where carbon fibre and ejector seats were invented--was sold in 1999 to Slough Estates for 55 million [pounds sterling], rather than to preferred developers, who had planned a science park, to be built using KONVER money (EU funds for former defence regions), combined with a heritage base as a 'National Science Centre'.

This option would have been much more responsive to the huge historic importance of the surviving structures. These include a balloon shed, aircraft manufacturing buildings, a seaplane testing tank, the magnificent 24 foot wind tunnel used to test complete aircraft, and the enormous 'transonic tunnel' of 1942; but many important structures have already been lost, because the planning brief was prepared by Slough Estates rather than Rushmoor Borough Council, which has chosen not to protect it as a conservation area. The council is keen to promote employment and the Air Show, which takes place every two years.

The Farnborough Air Sciences Trust's (FAST's) unique collection of artefacts, archives, documents, and film have been moved to a much smaller building outside the boundary, and the future of the listed and unlisted buildings on the RAE site remains unclear. The transonic wind tunnel has recently been upgraded to grade I listing, the 24 foot tunnel to grade II*, and the R52 building, home of one of the oldest wind tunnels in the world, to grade II, which increases their protection, but the Thematic Study of Aviation by English Heritage is still on the DCMS Minister's desk.

RAE Farnborough is a nationally important site whose future should have been determined at national level. FAST members have put forward a check-list of actions to improve matters for historic defence sites, and SAVE Britain's Heritage is currently preparing an alternative vision for the site, subject to discussion with Slough Estates and Rushmoor Borough Council.

Two factors improved the course of redevelopment of the Royal Clarence Yard, at Gosport on Portsmouth Harbour. Gosport Borough Council and English Heritage commissioned a historian, Dr David Evans, to research the history and evolution of structures within the yard--brewery, bakery, co-operage, artificers' workshops, reservoir, landing stage, railway station--and provide an independent analysis of the site and its heritage significance, which influenced the development proposals by the purchaser, Berkeley Homes. In general, a proper research study of historic sites by the MOD before sale would save thousands of pounds and several years of negotiations.

Secondly, Berkeley Homes may have learnt from the opposition to earlier clearances at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, as it commissioned John Thompson & Partners to hold a 'Community Planning Weekend' in the yard in 1998, involving hands-on planning by 500 people, most of whom had never been on the site before. Since then, there have been regular meetings with Gosport Borough Council, English Heritage, and local people. Marcus Adams of John Thompson & Partners says that the masterplan established principles of scale and massing and of conversion, new build, and new uses; and allowed a phased approach, establishing certainty for the developers, who were able to submit a single planning application. The scheme is due for completion in 2006, allowing access to the waterfront for the first time, employment in the co-operage, and providing social housing for Portsmouth Housing Association and opportunities for leisure and recreation which Gosport previously lacked.

Having seen the impact of other 'average' residential estates, Ashford Council was determined that the redevelopment of the former Rowcroft and Templar Barracks in Ashford, on a site split by the Channel Tunnel rail link, would achieve real design quality. Ian Grundy and Julia Wallace of Ashford Borough Council and Roger Smith of Westbury Homes were responsible for an 'Enquiry by Design' process (as advocated by the Prince's Foundation), whereby the developer, local people, and local authority work out detailed plans for a site. Local stakeholders shaped the plan for a real mixed-use community, with well designed buildings and open spaces, proper shopping streets, a health centre, and a linear park to shield the development from noise from the railway line. Local people and groups have been firmly involved from the beginning, with a creative input on design. It is clearly of advantage to developers to consult people early on, because local opinion can be incorporated by the time planning permissions are applied for, so minimising opposition because the development is acceptable to most people and interest groups.

In contrast to the earlier clearance and redevelopment of a local hospital, the release of the barracks at Caterham was anticipated by Dick Moran, a local councillor whose party held the balance of power at Tandridge District Council. The council consulted with local people on four alternative redevelopments of varying density (local people preferred the lowest-density option and retention of existing buildings) and also declared the barracks a conservation area. Consequently, when the land was sold by the MOD, the purchaser, Linden Homes, had a clear steer on what was likely to be acceptable.

John Thompson & Partners were commissioned in January 1998 to instigate a community participation process and to prepare a masterplan for the site. At first, clearance of most of the buildings, including the barrack blocks and church, was proposed. A 'Planning Weekend' was held in March 1998, and a consensus emerged for an integrated community with a mix of uses that would serve both new residents and businesses. New buildings were to be high density, matching the scale of the converted barrack blocks, while leaving plenty of open space. The developer helped to finance a community trust, which was given the former sports ground for use by local sports teams.

Linden Homes converted the officers' mess to house its temporary headquarters, which are now to be handed over to Caterham Barracks Community Trust as a Business Enterprise Centre at a significant discount from market value. The Guinness Trust developed 96 affordable housing units scattered across the development; a 60-bed nursing home was developed for the Anchor Trust in the grounds of the former commandant's house; and the grade II listed chapel was converted for temporary use by the Skaterham CR3 youth project.

The gymnasium was converted as a dance studio, rehearsal space, children's 'soft play' park, and exhibition space managed by the Community Trust; the quartermaster's store was converted into a health and fitness centre; the former rifle range is to include a purpose-built skateboard facility and community farm; and the sergeants' mess is now to become an animal hospital. Property values--particularly in the converted barracks--have rocketed, and the developer-subsidised bus service is popular with commuters, who have accepted restrictions on car ownership on site.

The scheme has won an RTPI Award for Planning Achievement, a BURA Charitable Trust Award, and an award from the EU.

Dr Celia Clark is a Lecturer at the School of Art, Design & Media at the University of Portsmouth. She is currently writing a book about the future of historic dockyards in different parts of the world for the Wessex Institute of Technology.
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Author:Clark, Celia
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Date:Jun 1, 2003
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