CONSERVATION AREA STATUS TURNED DOWN

Press Release:

Waverley Borough Council’s Executive decided at its meeting on Tuesday 6th June that it was ‘not suitable’ to establish a Conservation Area at the historic Dunsfold WW2 Airfield site, the birthplace of the Harrier Jump Jet, and now used among other things for filming TV’s Top Gear.

The proposal to consider the site for conservation on the basis of its heritage value and the history associated with it, had come from local residents in late 2016 and the Council carried out a public consultation which ended in April this year.

87 responses were received, including support from 3 Parish Councils, and a letter from Historic England. The report presented to the Council on Tuesday explained that 84 were in favour and only 1 response was against the proposal, but went on to summarise that objection and agreed with several of its assertions.

One of the key supporters of the idea of a Conservation Area is the Dunsfold Airfield History Society (DAHS). A spokesperson for DAHS said; ‘This decision by Waverley is hugely disappointing and clearly flies against the overwhelming views of the local population, and people interested in the proper conservation and celebration of the heritage of this unique site’.
While the Council pointed out that there are no set criteria for assessing the merits of a Conservation Area, they did cite the extensive guidance provided by Historic England. In their report, Council Officers agreed that the site is of historic importance and that it is already an Undesignated Heritage Asset. ‘The problem with that’, said the DAHS spokesperson, ‘ is that it adds absolutely no level of protection.

We asked that question of the Executive in writing but our question was not read out and no answer given at the meeting’. Council Officers had visited the site for one day to assess the heritage assets, and concluded that the condition of the majority of them was ‘poor’.

Historic England has recently listed Primemeads Farm within the site and is still separately assessing several other structures for potential listing. According to Historic England ‘another mechanism by which the significance of an airfield can be highlighted, as a historic landscape, is through conservation area status’.

Making former military airfields into conservation areas does not stop development and change but adds a level of protection and control for the local authority when changes happen.  There are 9 other former military airfields across the country that do have conservation area status, and DAHS said ‘It seems a no brainer that Dunsfold, now under threat of complete demolition, should be afforded at least the same level of protection that these other airfields have’.

Detail of DAHS proposal for designation

History:
Dunsfold Aerodrome was built in 1942 by the First Canadian Army as a temporary airfield for use by the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII. The site was completed in just 20 weeks. The layout of the airfield consisted of three standard runways (one 2,000 yards and the other two 1,400 yards), laid out in a triangular pattern with a perimeter track surrounding it. Dispersal sites clustered off to the south and east and a main technical area was located to the north. The airfield was opened on 16 October 1942 by Lieutenant General A.G.L McNaughton of the First Canadian Army with a commemorative stone placed in front of the control tower that still exists. The first arrivals were three Mustang squadrons from the RCAF in December 1942. They mainly carried out reconnaissance as part of the army cooperation.In June 1943, Army Co-operation command was disbanded and the airfield became a fighter station allocated to the new 2nd Tactical Air Force.

Dunsfold was one of five airfields used by No.2 group and was home to three Mitchell II squadrons. These squadrons were part of bombing missions aimed at the Germans’ long range weapons sites, and, in the months prior to D-Day, aimed at sites which could reinforce German positions after the invasion. By the end of October 1944, the Mitchell squadrons had left and Dunsfold was placed on care and maintenance.

After the war when the airfield was used as a landing ground for DC3 Dakotas bringing back over 47,000 prisoners of war. In August 1946, the Aerodrome was declared inactive and the airfield was leased to Skyways Ltd, a charter airline. Skyways used the airfield to refurbish, test fly and deliver Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft for the Portuguese Air Force, it also played a Major part in the Berlin Airlift between 1948 and 1949, making 2,730 of the total 21,785 flights to Berlin.

Following the liquidation of Skyways in 1950, the lease was acquired by the Hawker Siddeley Group. The company used the airfield for final assembly work and flight testing of its Sea Hawks, Hunters, Sea Furies, Gnats, Harriers and Hawks. From the 1960s, the company became involved in developing Vertical/Short Take-off and Landing (VSTOL) planes (Harriers). Much of the work was carried out at Dunsfold and some of the engine testing bays still survive. It is around this time that the runways were lengthened/widened to allow for testing. On 21 October 1960, the first P1127 (the forerunner of the Harrier Jump jet) made its first tethered flight at Dunsfold, which led to its first conventional flight in November of the same year.

In 1969, the Harrier was introduced into the RAF Service with the ground training phase taking place at Dunsfold. Until 2000, when BAe Systems ceased activity at the aerodrome, all derivatives of the Harrier family of aircraft evolved from Dunsfold. The airfield was also used by the Royal Observer Corps (ROC). A monitoring post was constructed in 1961, in the south western corner of the airfield for nuclear reporting during the Cold War. The post was closed in 1991 following the break-up of the Communist Bloc.

 

Mitchell Bomber flying over Dunsfold in 1944. Source; Public Archives Canada

Conservation Area

Dunsfold: 'Before the war it was the most remote village in Surrey: now, well hidden, an airfield tests jet fighters.'

Nikolaus Pevsner, Buildings of England: Surrey 

Historic England explains that Local Planning Authorities are obliged to designate as conservation areas any parts of their own area that are of special architectural or historic interest, the character and appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.  Waverley Borough Council Planning Department are considering an application for designation of Dunsfold Aerodrome as a Conservation Area.   There is a consultation process concluding on April 28th 2017.  Please read what follows and look at the references to Historic England’s documents. Then if you  want to support DAHS and make comments about the designation you can make them on the Waverley website.  It is a simple questionnaire.

You may be surprised to know that former military airfields can – and do – become designated as Conservation Areas. This is because conservation areas are not just about ‘old buildings’. They have a much wider role to play than that. In the words of Historic England (formerly English Heritage);

‘The totality of an aerodrome cannot be captured through statutory designation alone, and other approaches such as conservation area protection….. have been shown to be appropriate’ (Historic England (4))

In respect of Dunsfold Aerodrome,  the case for establishing a Conservation Area is very much about the historical context, the people, and the events (of national and international importance) that are inextricably linked to the site. But it is also about the appropriate management and preservation of the large number of heritage buildings still existing, the future of which is currently uncertain. Most members of the public are unaware of the existence of these structures as the site is still private and largely ‘hidden’. It is not coincidental that at this point in time Historic England is considering the designation of at least 10 structures on Dunsfold Aerodrome – in other words ‘listing’ them. This would have an important bearing on the designation of the site as a Conservation Area.

Plan of Dunsfold Heritage Assets click to expand:

‘The vast majority of nationally significant airfield structures will be most appropriately protected through listing…..Another mechanism by which the significance of an airfield can be highlighted as a historic landscape, is through conservation area status.’  (Historic England (5)).   

Conservation of a special place such as Dunsfold Aerodrome is about the complex processes through which we as individuals or as groups define ourselves and  our relationships with the natural and cultural aspects of the airfield. It is about a sense of place – profoundly important for individual and community identity, and the ‘significance’ of this airfield as a heritage asset. Currently, Historic England recognises Dunsfold Aerodrome as an Undesignated Heritage Asset; if it were to be granted conservation area status this would raise it to Designated Heritage Asset status.

There is a recognised procedure for appraisal, designation and management of a Conservation Area (Historic England (6)). Appraisal of an area for conservation can include establishing its significance for a number of reasons:-

  • History, Landscape and Identities
  • Rural Sense of Place
  • Urban Sense of Place
  • Cultural Landscapes
  • Conservation, Biodiversity and Tourism

 

DAHS exists to research and make public all of the history of what has been called ‘Surrey’s most secret airfield’*, to celebrate historical achievements, and preserve precious assets and memories for the benefit of current and future generations. We believe that the right and proper way of doing that is for all statutory bodies, local councils and stakeholders to work together to establish a robust framework for the airfield that will inform and guide its future management and development, recognising its heritage value. A conservation area covering the site would be an ideal means of achieving this.

What makes Dunsfold Airfield special?

  • The relatively ‘untouched’ nature of the 1942-built airfield
  • The survival of a large number of key physical assets, including the runways, in their original form
  • Home to the development of a number of iconic British military aircraft; including the Hunter, the Hawk and the Harrier ‘jump jet’ – world class technology that led to military and economic success.
  • Berlin Airlift – Dunsfold Airfield helped to avert what would probably have been a humanitarian disaster.
  • 3 permanent runways designed for the WWII bombers and latter used to test new aviation technology.
  • Wings and Wheels – major air show and motorsport event attracting 25,000 visitors and over 1000 participants.
  • Home to the BBCs Top Gear programme watched in 214 territories worldwide and has an estimated global audience of 350 million

Examples of former military airfields that have been given Conservation Area status include;

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