The toughest nut in Oxfordshire

Near the village of Upper Heyford a vast RAF base stands idle, home to 56 superhard hangars and 100,000 cars. Martin Pawley looks at a Cold War veteran's uncertain future
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Everything, as they say, is connected to everything else. In an experiment that took place more than 60 years ago, on a February day in 1935, an RAF bomber was ordered to fly towards the BBC short-wave radio transmitter at Daventry to see if the wings of a metal aircraft would reflect a radio signal. The result was radar. The bomber was a Handley Page Heyford, named after the airfield near the village of Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire where it first went into squadron service. Today that same airfield is taking part in its own experiment - the quest for a "sustainable" pattern of settlement for the 21st century.

Today Upper Heyford is in limbo. After World War Two the airfield was leased to the United States Air Force and spent most of the Cold War as a base for F-111 bombers. When the last of these aircraft left three years ago the base reverted to the RAF and the Ministry of Defence decided to sell it.

Now the 1,200-acre base, with its 1,300 houses, apartments and dormitory rooms; its administrative offices, bomb-proof hangars, underground weapons stores and (best of all), its billiard-table-flat hardened runway two miles long, is in the lap of the gods. Offered for sale by the Ministry of Defence in 1995 the complex attracted only limited interest.

All that has happened since is that it has become long-term parking for 100,000 unsold cars - an automotive successor to the wine lake and butter mountain.

In its present state the hangars of RAF Upper Heyford are its most prominent feature. On the skyline they look like giant dun-coloured Coca-Cola cans, half-buried in the ground with angular concrete fins at one end and a network of steel beams at the other. There are 56 of them, each named after an American fighter pilot, each sealed as tight as a pharaoh's tomb. When the Americans left, they shut each hangar's armoured doors and took away the motors that opened and closed them.

When people ask why Upper Heyford cannot become a civil airport they are told that the hangars, scattered around the runway like child's toys after a tantrum, would get in the way. It is an unanswerable argument.

For years no one was much interested in the sale of old aerodromes by the Ministry of Defence. Several became dismal, windswept office parks and nests of distribution centres, the cynosure of articulated trucks day and night. Then the Maharishi Yogi Foundation bought RAF Bentwaters, near Ipswich, for pounds 8m and made an unsuccessful Lottery bid to turn it into a "University of Natural Law" for the study of transcendental meditation.

This caused unease in the parishes surrounding Upper Heyford, most of whose residents wanted the base to sink gradually back into rural tranquility.

But this was not the view of Savills International, the MoD's selling agents, who still claim that the logistics of the base - set between two main railway lines a couple of miles from a junction on the M40 London- to-Birmingham motorway - should make it worth as much as pounds 100m, depending on what the ruling local authorities, Cherwell District Council and Oxford County Council, allow it to be used for.

Last year these bodies announced that they wanted to integrate the air base into their revised structure plans before anything was done - which would have meant a delay of at least five years - but this did not stop them entering into negotiations with an MoD/Taylor Woodrow/Wimpey/Westbury consortium of housebuilders, which proposes to build 1,000 or even 5,000 houses on the site over the next 10 years.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of it, this project, centred on the existing high-density base housing areas, would require 200 acres at most. The crucial question of what would happen to the hangar-strewn remainder is unanswered because the two councils are satisfied with the temporary leasing of the runway to car delivery companies, Thames Valley Police for skidding practice, and a number of smaller enterprises.

As a result they receive more than pounds lm a year in rents and are paying out only pounds 500,000 for security and maintenance.

This administrative hiatus is not everywhere admired. It has already precipitated an onrush of local alternative plans. A competition sponsored by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England earlier this year flushed out schemes for flooding the entire area for water sports; turning the runway into a linear city; carving the site up into "hangar-plus-hectare" small holdings; planting trees everywhere and only cutting them down when the time came to build houses; burying the ubiquitous hardened hangars under earth berms to create a "scientarium"; turning the base into a centre for sporting excellence, or preserving it as a "Cold War interpretation centre", a project with the added advantage of requiring very little modification to the existing buildings because "the whole site is already a national monument".

The most radical scheme of all was for the creation of a non-profit sustainable village trust to take over the whole site and supervise its progressive return to agriculture and forestry. This scheme called for the hardened hangars and runway to be broken up (however daunting the task), and the whole airfield to be made over to organic fanning.

In this project neither 5,000 nor 1,000 houses would be built on the 1,200-acre site, but a mere 70, all of them village dwellings intended for bona fide workers on the land. As the promoter of this scheme, landowner and organic farmer Jeremy Taylor who farms 900 acres near the airfield, points out, the key to any successful swords-into-ploughshares policy for Upper Heyford has to be genuine sustainability.

"Most people talk about that as though it means until the year 2006 or the year 2011," he says ruefully. "To me real sustainability means forever. The sustainable village trust would think in terms of planning for 2096 or even 2596. It already takes 15 acres of land to support the average American, and nine or 10 to support one of us.

"We have got to reorganise our whole use of the land along sustainable lines very quickly. If we don't, we will die in a sea of sickness and pollution. It's an immense challenge, bigger even than Hitler."

Although none of the competition projects has any official status, Upper Heyford's long flying history itself underlines many of the problems that any scheme must face. The base developer, whoever that turns out to be, will have to deal with a huge area of high, flat land, buffeted by strong prevailing winds that may have been ideal for flying but are far from ideal for residential areas.

This is a point studiously overlooked by the local politicians, who see Upper Heyford as a heaven-sent opportunity to absorb all North Oxfordshire's development needs for the next 30 years.

Another difficulty is the state of the existing air force housing. With the exception of a few senior officers' houses - now on short-term lets - all the living accommodation on the base is crammed into a 100-acre site across a public road to the south. Of the 1,200 dwellings there, barely a dozen are mortgageable. The services too are substandard, with the water mains, which have to be kept in use to serve a number of outlying civilian houses, leaking at the rate of 350,000 gallons a day.

Not surprisingly, the future of the base is an important local political issue, with many residents fearing that planning permission was in the offing for a new town as big as nearby Bicester, in what is otherwise a sparsely populated rural area. Suspiciously, some think, the insistence by local MP Tony Baldry and the two local authorities that nothing "long- term" will be done until 1997 - when the North Oxfordshire structure plan has been revised to take account of the air base - mirrors the MoD's deadline under the "Three-year rule", which requires it to divest itself of unwanted property within that time.

Whatever happens after 1997, the aftermath of the Cold War at Upper Heyford promises to be as protracted as the aftermath of World War Two. The airfield's 56 concrete hangars are virtually indestructible. They will see this millennium out, and probably the next one as well.