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Yogic flyers get their own air base

Two years after the US air force stopped low-level flying over the Suffolk countryside, the county's bemused inhabitants are bracing themselves for a new invasion - 4,000 yogic flyers, followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

The Maharishi Foundation plans a University of Natural Law at the 1,000-acre Bentwaters air base, near Woodbridge, which has lain empty since the USAF pulled out of East Anglia in 1993.

According to Geoffrey Clements, vice-chancellor of the university, the 2,000 students who will initially occupy the site will provide a strong enough coherence "to influence positively the collective consciousness of the whole country".

He said the effect of the university's unique curriculum of transcendental meditation and yogic flying would reduce the country's crime, improve health and boost educational attainment.

The departure of the Americans dealt a heavy blow to the local economy, which was dominated by more than 13,000 US airmen and their families.

The university promises a range of accredited degree programmes in management, science and the humanities, as well as "the unique Natural Law-based programmes of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi".

The Natural Law Party bounced into the popular consciousness during the Euro elections last summer when it took advantage of a rule allowing political parties fielding at least 10 candidates a five-minute broadcast on national television.

The party's publicity infuriated rival eccentric Screaming Lord Sutch, who was unaware of the rule. "The Natural Law Party gave loonies a bad name. They had people flying through the air and that's even too loony for us - we've at least got our feet on the ground," he said.

Despite its promises of eradicating disease and the attractions of its unique airborne meditation technique, the Natural Law Party's 310 candidates in the last general election all lost their deposits.

A spokesman for Bidwells, the East Anglian surveyors who brokered the deal for the site's owner, the Defence Land Agent, said: "The university option was by far the most complementary to the local authority's planning brief."

According to Bidwells, more than 60 inquiries were made about the air base, which boasts 2 million square feet of offices, 700 homes, aircraft hangars and reportedly indestructible shelters.

The successful buyers are reported to have paid several million pounds for the site.

The foundation's bid was the only one that meet Suffolk Coastal District Council's strict criteria. Jeremy Schofield, director of planning and leisure, said the university offered a real chance to compensate for the loss of economic activity when the USAF left.