One of the most celebrated armed forces airfields may be sold off to private investors as part of plans Ministry of Defence (MoD) chiefs are considering to help boost budget shortfalls. RAF Northolt, the oldest operational base of the Air Forces, could go for hundreds of millions to property developers wanting to build on such an elite piece of land in north London. It's also believed that high-level talks are being held in Whitehall for the site to be used as a satellite airfield for London Heathrow Airport, which is only about four miles away.
Northolt was established in 1915, which was three years before the forming of the RAF. It spreads over hundreds of acres in Hillingdon, and its future is part of a bigger review of the defence estate. It's probably most famously known as the airfield where the body of Princes Diana was repatriated to after her death in France in 1997. Sources in the industry suggest that talks have been held about the base being included in an upcoming consultation about the future of air travel in Britain.
It would be a big blow to the military if it lost one of the most cherished bases by the armed forces. The base was a home for British Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons during World War II. The units defended the British capital during the Battle of Britain. The base also houses the 32 (Royal) Squadron, and during the London Olympics next summer, the RAF Typhoon fighters that were deployed in Libya are due to be based there. Additionally, Her Majesty flies mostly from Northolt, while the US's Air Force One uses the base when the president visits.
Former Defence chief Air Commodore Andrew Lambert tells journalists that it's a shame that RAF Northolt could be lost. He's sure that the airfield will make a lot of money, as it's an elite piece of real estate. However, he would like to know if the MoD has calculated its sums correctly.
Officials for the MoD say that all options are on the table and have suggested that selling the base is unlikely to happen. A spokesman said that they continue examining all defence expenditure to secure the best value, and RAF Northolt isn't an exception. The base generates revenue through landing fees of private flights, he added, and income sources are kept under review. Other sources have also downplayed the plans to make it a satellite for Heathrow, saying that the idea is unlikely even though the sites are so close to each other.
A spokesman for the Department of Transport (DfT) says that Chancellor George Osborne made clear last autumn that they will explore all the options available to maintain the aviation hub status held by the country. The only exception is that a third runway at Heathrow has been taken out of the equation. This spring, the government will hold a consultation on an overall sustainable framework for the nation's aviation industry, he added.