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Business Analysis & Features

Mayfair developers are hoping for a happy landing with Cambridgeshire airfield project

A pair of Mayfair high-fliers have plans for a disused Cold War airfield, says Laura Chesters

What was it that first attracted a couple of Mayfair-based property developers to a vacant airfield near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire?

Was it the ambience? The site resembles the set of a disaster movie after a nuclear explosion.

Or perhaps it was the nuclear warheads that were said to be stored here during the Cold War by the US military (never confirmed)?

Perhaps more likely was the fact the 150 hectares was nominated as an enterprise zone by the Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership and the local council which means that the desolate site is ripe for development.

Still, Alconbury Weald is a bit of a different gig to Nigel Hugill's and Robin Butler's former projects. The pair, who founded private equity-backed property group Urban & Civic in 2009, were the brains behind the land assembly for the giant shopping centres on either side of London that are now successfully run by Westfield.

Both the Stratford London and Shepherds Bush bases were painstakingly put together, and while Mr Hugill, inset right, and Mr Butler were at developer Chelsfield, they worked on plans for the Olympic Park as Stratford landlords.

Alconbury might not sound as glamorous as London shopping centres or an Olympic development, but the former Cold War airfield near Huntingdon is the largest vacant former industrial site in the south of England. The outline planning application that the pair submitted, which is due for a decision next month, is the second-largest plan submitted in more than three years.

The site was originally used by the RAF and United States Army Air Forces during the Second World War. It was then the prime base for US Cold War operations and was the European home for the U-2 spy plane. The Avionics nuclear bunker was only completed in 1989 – just six months before the fall of the Berlin wall – at a rumoured cost of $40m (£25.2m) and was never actually used. The bunker is now listed.

With history like that, Urban & Civic decided it had potential, and after buying the site in 2009, they pieced together further areas to create more than 1,400 acres.

Their plan is to create offices for start-up businesses and technology specialists to compliment what is already happening around Cambridge – also known as "Silicon Fen" or the "Cambridge Cluster". The group has applied for planning permission for 3 million square feet of employment space – about three times the size of the O2 – and 5,000 new homes.

But the site is stuck in the middle of nowhere just off the A14. Why would a business want to start up there when they could be in Cambridge? Urban & Civic think they have the answer.

The development is accompanied by plans for new transport connections including an extension to the Huntingdon to Cambridge guided bus and discussions are underway with Network Rail for a new station on the East Coast line which could be the northern terminal for Thameslink.

The first building on the site – The Incubator – will be open in December and more will be soon if plans are approved by the local authority.

Mr Hugill says: "The purpose of an outline application is to establish appropriate parameters for what is likely to be a 20-year build programme, while providing sufficient scope to react to what will inevitably be changes going forward.

"It may sound a little complicated, but that is exactly how we managed our initial proposals for the Olympic Park, so we do know that the system works."

And now, Urban & Civic are hoping it will be chocks away come next month.