Airfield increases activity to mitigate losses due to Wiltshire Council

This month marks 10 years since Salisbury District Council (now part of Wiltshire Council) made an agreement with the owner of Old Sarum Airfield, an agreement followed by the owner but which Wiltshire Council have not honoured.

In the late 1990’s the Airfield owner warned the Council against approving housing close to the Airfield. This advice was consistently ignored. By 2005 the easily foreseeable outcome was many noise complaints from new residents.  The Airfield’s rights to unlimited flying are sacrosanct as they pre-date the Town and Country Planning Act - as the Council discovered by means of a lengthy internal legal review.  In January 2007, at the request of Salisbury District Council, Matthew Hudson owner of the Airfield since 1986, agreed to control noise by restricting flying to a low volume of light aircraft, in return for the ability to make the restricted low-volume flying operation viable through development of non-flying revenue sources. In exchange for forgoing the noisier, more lucrative twins, helicopters and night flying, the Council agreed to allow housing development on some of Mr Hudson’s surplus land adjacent to the Airfield. Income from this would support a lower number of aircraft flying at the Airfield and allow its long-term future to be protected through the addition of commercially viable assets such as a Heritage Centre. The Core Policy subsequently put in place makes this exchange between Council and Airfield the cornerstone of planning policy for the Airfield and environs.

In the decade since this agreement was made, flying has been drastically reduced at Old Sarum, at the cost of many millions of pounds to Mr Hudson. An independent Noise and Vibration Survey commissioned at the end of 2015 confirmed this reduction has been successful, as residents of Old Sarum and Ford, who live closest to the Airfield, complained about the Equinox factory and road noise, but not about aircraft noise.

However, Wiltshire Council has continually delayed the development and created artificial obstructions to prevent it going ahead. Wiltshire Council’s own aviation consultant has confirmed substantial operating losses due to the ’quiet’ operating scenario since 2007, while the Airfield has projected those at more than £5 million not including overheads and financial costs. In addition to suffering millions in lost revenue, Mr Hudson has now expended more than £2 million in planning costs, much of this due entirely to some officers ignoring their own Core Policy.

The Airfield’s unrestricted flying rights predate by many years the Town and Country Planning Act. In 2016, Wiltshire Council’s aviation consultant projected the value of losing these unrestricted rights in exchange for planning. He forecast a loss of £830,000 in annual profits based on 110,000 unrestricted annual movements, while the Airfield operating team’s own projections show an annual cost of more than £2 million in profits. Capitalized at a 5% return this means a cost to Mr Hudson of between £16.6 million (Wiltshire Council’s figures) and more than £40 million.  Aircraft movements and activity since the expert’s report in 2016 have tended to validate the Airfield team’s position.

One can understand that £40 million represents almost £89,000 per proposed dwelling. The losses over the last decade including financial costs add perhaps another £30,000.  Before a shovel goes into the ground that is almost £120,000 of abnormal costs for each of the 450 proposed homes. Why would anyone not immensely public-spirited incur the 10 years of effort and tens of millions of pounds of development risk needed in order to have a remote chance to break even at best, compared to unlimited flying.  Unlimited flying which is tangible now and requires comparatively little investment. Nonetheless, in 2007 Mr Hudson was prepared to incur this cost simply to preserve the heritage of this historic airfield while also preserving the quality of life and the value of their homes for thousands of Wiltshire residents.

Now, after 10 years of default and stonewalling by the Council, Mr Hudson feels that he has no choice but to mitigate his continuing losses by resuming unlimited flying at the Airfield, with the aim of becoming the busiest, most robust grass airfield operation in the UK. Mr Hudson had previously reduced annual aircraft movements (take-offs and landings) from 60,000 to around 30,000. However, in the face of continuing intransigence from Wiltshire Council, he lifted the flying restrictions in stages during the last half of 2016. In 2017 the Airfield will surpass 60,000 movements; projections call for 125,000 within a few years. In addition, the lucrative heavier twin-engined aircraft and helicopters have been welcomed back, and night flying has resumed. These changes will produce considerably more revenue than restricted operations of quiet, light single-engined aircraft that Mr Hudson had mandated since 2007 so they will assure the continued viability of this unique heritage asset – which has been his goal since 1986.

Sadly, the Council's actions have also had an impact on the heritage centrepiece of the plans for the Airfield.  A deal in principle had been struck to house the National Aerospace Library in a purpose-built centre, but the Royal Aeronautical Society has delayed for more than a year and cannot wait any longer due to lease provisions of the current site at Farnborough.  Mr. Hudson has extended the time for determination of the planning application on numerous occasions but has indicated to the Council that he will not do so again.

Full information on the planning proposal can still be found through the Wiltshire Council planning application web area; reference number 15/04004/OUT.