Bristol campaigners claim Filton Airfield consultation was 'a sham'
FILTON Airfield is destined to have thousands of homes built on it – but the decision to allow development has already been called into question.
Allegations have arisen that South Gloucestershire Council planning officers worked too closely with consultants for the airfield's owners, BAE Systems. Campaigners for the airfield referred to emails between council planners and Bournemouth-based consultants Terence O'Rourke.
In one of them, a council official says: "You may have already picked this up. At our full council meeting on Wednesday, a question and motion will be raised by Councillor Ian Scott (Labour) in relation to Filton Airfield.
"I've attached the information that is in the public domain. 'X' (name redacted) and I have been advising 'Y' (name redacted) on framing the necessary responses and please be assured this is all in hand. Can talk a bit more when we meet later today."
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The council's lawyer John McCormack advised councillors at their special meeting at Kingswood Civic Centre that he was satisfied they had been properly advised and therefore they could continue with the meeting and decision.
But Labour leader Andy Perkins (Woodstock), above right, said afterwards he was "gobsmacked" by the allegations and would be seeking meetings with the council's senior executives to discuss them.
Tory Cabinet Councillor Brian Allinson (Stoke Gifford), right, said: "I've no reason to believe that any impropriety has taken place. We're told it's part of our council officers' remit to have discussions with interested parties." The allegations were brought up by airfield campaigner Paul Lee who received the emails after making a request under the Freedom of Information legislation. He told councillors before they held their debate that council officers had "significant input" into a report by BAE Systems on the future of the airfield.
He alleged: "It's clear that South Gloucestershire Council officers worked with BAE on this report and provided a steer on its contents.
"We have several other documents that show consultations involving Filton Avenue have been a complete sham. Throughout, South Gloucestershire Council has told us no decision had been made. Thanks to these FOI documents, we now know nothing could be further from the truth."
Councillor Perkins called for the debate to be postponed until the allegations could be investigated but councillors agreed to continue after further advice from Mr McCormack. Councillors were being asked to agree a planning blueprint called the Core Strategy which sets out how many homes can be built in the area in the years to come.
Labour moved an amendment calling for the airfield to remain as it is and therefore not allow it to be redeveloped despite the fact that BAE Systems have decided to close it down at the end of 2012.
Ian Boulton (Lab, Staple Hill) said the decision would be one of the most important the council ever made.
"Please demonstrate you are not out of touch and have listened to the people," he said. "Seventy-five per cent of people who responded to the council's public consultation exercise said we should keep the airfield."
Councillor Perkins said allowing the airfield to be developed was a knee-jerk reaction to plug a hole in the housing numbers which the Government was demanding should be built in the area. The councillors had previously been united on 21,500 new houses for the area but now they are being asked to accept 26,500. Lib Dem Councillor Pat Hockey (Frampton Cotterell), above right left, said: "We have to live in the real world and we can't be sentimental. The harsh reality is that it's not in our gift to keep the airfield open. What we're being asked is, 'What do you suggest if the airfield is to close?'
Councillor Adam Monk (Lab, Filton) said if the airfield remained designated as it was, then the value of land would remain very low and therefore BAE Systems would be forced to come up with different options.
The Labour amendment was defeated by Tory and Lib Dem councillors voting against which means the airfield is now earmarked in the Core Strategy for 2,500 homes.
Another Labour amendment, to protect green-belt land called Haw Wood, next to the airfield, was also defeated and therefore is also destined to be redeveloped.
One of the speakers before the debate was Sir George White, right, whose great-grandfather, also Sir George White, founded the airfield 100 years ago.
He spoke passionately about saving the airfield which his great-grandfather and which had led to 70,000 people working in the aerospace industry during the 1960s.
But he said: "BAE got their hands on it and the evidence suggests that they've deliberately been running it down with the aim of it becoming a brownfield site, ripe for development."
He urged councillors not to allowing the airfield to be lost forever for the sake of company's shareholders.
Afterwards, Tory Filton Town Councillor Doug Daniels, a retired Rolls-Royce designer, said: "I'm appalled. They've just erased 100 years of Filton's heritage and they'll live to regret it."
Another Filton Town Councillor, Darryl Collins said: "I'm gutted."
The decision is not the end of the story as the revised Core Strategy which now takes into account the future of the airfield, will be put before a planning inspector who will decide if it should be formally adopted. Before he can do this, he will hold what is called an Examination in Public, probably in April, a form of public inquiry where people can put forward their views.