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GreenhamCommon goes back to nature

GREENHAM COMMON, the former cruise missile base and scene of one of the greatest women's protests in history, is to be reborn as a wildlife reserve and eco-friendly business park.

Where trespassers risked being shot just 15 years ago, the public will be able to enjoy the slightly surreal prospect of walking on what was one of the coldest symbols of the Cold War.

The scheme, now just a year away from completion, is the creation of Greenham Common Trust, a charitable organisation of local benefactors which bought the former US air-base from the Ministry of Defence two years ago for pounds 7m.

The motivation for the Trust was to avoid letting Greenham Common, declared redundant by the US military in 1992, fall into disrepair. "We didn't want Greenham to go the way of other old air-bases. All the best bits are sold off to the highest bidder while the other, less desirable parts, are left to become derelict," said the Trust's chief executive, Stuart Tagg, who admitted the site had been bought "warts and all - and there were a fair few warts".

The Trust then sold most of the base, 700 acres, to the local council for pounds 1. Its remit was to transform the derelict open spaces into a traditional common of heathland, home to a wide range of flora and fauna. The verges of the runway have already been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The Trust is now employing consultants to produce a feasibility study into how the business park, the remaining 200 acres, can be made as environmentally sensitive as possible, qualifying for a European Commission grant available to "100 per cent green" communities. As a Trust, all profits made from property rents will be reinvested in local community schemes.

Today, the former air-base retains a military feel. Vast oil storage tanks litter the landscape. The perimeter fencing remains - along with a few caravans housing long-term peace protesters - but the main military detritus has been removed: the barracks have gone, recently razed to make space for a new phase of the business park.

Many of the air force buildings have already been converted for more peaceful uses. The former sergeants' mess is now a community art centre which employs a resident potter, and the old court house is now a base for the local branch of Mencap, the mental health organisation. Within 12 months the public will be able to walk along the former taxiway, which will be a gateway to the common, using a network of footpaths and cycle routes. Where hardfaced US military personnel once kept watch on picketing peace protesters, now soft-eyed cattle graze.

"The common will go back to what it was historically," said Mr Tagg. "We hope this will be a way to show how the most negative of events can be turned into a positive. We thought about changing the name but that would be to deny the history, which is enormously powerful."

The runway - location for some of the most potent Cold War images of the 1980s, when US cruise missiles were flown in - is being crunched up for recycling and the control tower is to be a visitors' centre. English Nature, the RSPB and other wildlife organisations are being consulted on how to create the most diverse range of species.

The silos remain the property of the Ministry of Defence until 2001, when ownership will be transferred to the Trust and the three rings of fences which surround them will be removed.

Bruce Kent, vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, welcomed the scheme. "There is an irony in this. The whole peace movement brought the issue of nuclear weapons out of the cupboard of secrecy," he said. Mr Kent also called for a monument to the women to be erected on the common. "Their efforts did as much to empower women as it did to remove the weapons."

Joan Smith, the Independent on Sunday columnist who reported and participated in protests at Greenham Common, said the history of the anti-nuclear campaign should be recorded. "I'm a little suspicious of flowery notions about nature but if the common is to return to the people, there must be some recognition of a protest that touched so many people's lives."