Fringe Box



Feature: The Story of Wisley Airfield Part 3

Published on: 3 Oct, 2018
Updated on: 6 Oct, 2018

Ben Paton

Ben Paton is a resident of Ockham who continues to campaign against the development of the former Wisley Airfield, also known as Three Farms Meadow. In a series of three articles, he tells the story of the site from the perspective of a local resident whose family goes back in the area for some generations.

In the first part, Ben traced the history from the Second World War to the 1980s and in the second the 1981 Public Inquiry into the development of Wisley airfield and its aftermath. In this final part, he asks, who wishes to develop the former Wisley airfield and why?

In 2007, a former Conservative cabinet minister, David Mellor, and a property developer, Douglas Maggs, thought they could change use of the land at the former Wisley airfield where Lord Lytton and Jenstate had failed. So they formed a Jersey company called Wharfland Investments. Mike Murray, a Conservative councillor in the Vale of White Horse was managing director.

Wharfland offered £22m, some £73k per acre, a multiple of the agricultural land value to buy from the agricultural land portfolio of Legal and General. The land, was inside London’s green belt and government inspectors had refused two previous attempts to change the use at a public inquiry. Legal & General may have thought Christmas had come early.

For a return, Wharfland had to change use of the land. It had two strategies: make a planning application and demonstrate “very special circumstances”, or, persuade Guildford planning authority to remove the land from the green belt.

Wharfland applied to make films. Guildford gave permission to make one, the film “War Horse”. The project demonstrated only the unsustainable nature of the site. All impedimenta had to be transported to and from the site, including water and generators. Massive film sets were taken to and fro on narrow country lanes.

There were massive queues of cars entering and leaving the site during filming. Filming was done at night outside the terms of the permission. Restoration of the damage to the land took two years after filming stopped. Guildford Borough Council (GBC) did not monitor or control the activity.

View of the former airfield from Hatchford Hill with Woking in the distance

Wharfland then sought permission for an “In Vessel Waste Composting Facility” on the previously developed land nearest to the A3. That was granted, subject to 37 conditions, including restrictions on the number of lorries to access the site, hours of operation and lighting etc. Wharfland never built the facility.

Then Wharfland shareholders sued the company in Jersey for failings in its accounts. A Russian oligarch called Lisitsin claimed to have been defrauded and sued in the High Court. The court awarded costs of £730,000 and damages of £1.7m. The judge said the defendants were “knowingly complicit in fraudulent misrepresentation”. Mr Maggs put Wharfland into liquidation.

Subsequently, the owners of Wharfland formed a new company in the Cayman Islands called Wisley Property Investments Ltd (WIPL). WIPL purchased Three Farms Meadow from the liquidator of Wharfland for £7 million.

Shareholder registers are not publicly available in the Caymans. Although the exact ownership is concealed, some speculate that WIPL’s main stakeholders are the same as Wharfland’s and could include RAB Capital, a hedge fund and a significant Russian investor. Wisley Action Group asked GBC to exercise its powers to ascertain who owned WIPL but the council refused.

WIPL clearly wants to maximise the value of its investment. In 2016, Mike Murray gave a presentation at a Russian property conference stating that high-density residential development was the most profitable use of the land and that he estimated that Three Farms Meadow had a gross development value of £1 billion.

His presentation has a slide showing acquisition costs of £7m, £4m of costs and £300m “end site value”.

WIPL paid GBC for pre-application advice. Minutes taken by Savills show that Guildford’s then head of planning was considering promoting the site in the next Local Plan. She advised WIPL that “a technical review be undertaken [of the green belt] and assessment to inform any future planning application or Local Plan promotion” and GBC commissioned the Green Belt and Countryside Study to cover Ockham, a site not previously considered.

It seems clear from the minutes and FOI requests that Guildford maintained no Chinese walls between those officers responsible for giving pre-application advice and those who would assess a planning application.

Collaboration extended to asking for copies of the draft planning application pre-submission, advising WIPL to carry out consultation in Guildford, not Ockham, advice on the local plan evidence base, on the timing of the Local Plan and on the best time to submit a planning application.

View from the former Wisley Airfield looking east towards Martyr’s Green

WIPL was advised that the pre-submission Local Plan would be ready in January 2015 and approved later that year. Guildford advised that if an application was made pre-Local Plan very special circumstances would be required and that key circumstances would be “housing need” and allocation of the site in the Local Plan.

WIPL’s MD Mike Murray had been in charge of the Local Plan in the Vale of White Horse which planned to build more than 20,000 houses.

In late 2014, WIPL submitted planning application 15/P/00012 for 2,100 houses pleading very special circumstances VSC. The circumstances cited were that Guildford had allocated the site in the Local Plan, that the site was approved in Vol V of the Green Belt and Countryside Study, that there is no credible, viable alternative, that it will promote economic growth, that there is a housing shortage and that it will improve the environment.

WIPL continued to submit documents until December 2015 and Guildford’s Planning Committee finally heard the application in March 2016. It refused permission on 14 grounds: green belt; SPA; strategic road network; transport sustainability; affordable housing; effect on local shops; conflict with Surrey waste plan; harm to the surrounding area; harm to listed building; air quality; lack of schools; lack of policing; lack of health infrastructure and lack of library provision.

WIPL appealed this decision in October 2016. A public inquiry was held in October 2017. GBC defended only two reasons for refusal, green belt and harm to the area. Other parties defended other reasons, in particular Highways England which defended its concerns about the impact on the A3.

The inspector refused the appeal and wrote: “Paragraph 17 of the framework sets out the core planning principles. The eleventh bullet point advises that planning should actively manage patterns of growth to make the fullest possible use of public transport, walking and cycling and focus significant development on locations which are or can be made sustainable.

“The appeal site is not in a sustainable location.”

In June 2018, the Secretary of State, Mr James Brokenshire, supported the Inspector’s decision to refuse planning permission.

But despite refusing planning permission in 1976, 1980, and in 2016 and despite the Secretary of State refusing the Appeal in June 2018, GBC is still including Three Farms Meadow in its Local Plan.

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Responses to Feature: The Story of Wisley Airfield Part 3

  1. William Stephen Langley Reply

    October 4, 2018 at 6:36 pm

    Nearly eighty years ago I left Ockham School. Miss Willby no doubt breathed a sigh as I departed.

    A war was in the offing. Watery Lane was going to be closed and that large field would take the overflow from Vicker’s Wellington bombers. There was an uneasy feeling during that phoney war in the early days, before it became a frightful undertaking to keep Britain free.

    Few people, I suppose remember Ivor Gibbons. He died in Africa. The last time I spoke to him he was driving a Ripley baker’s van. I would like to dedicate this plea: Keep that big field free of any building in memory of Ivor Gibbons who gave his life for freedom.

    • Paul Robinson Reply

      October 5, 2018 at 11:58 am

      Wisley didn’t become an airfield until 1943 after Vickers Chief Test Pilot made a forced landing there in 1942.

  2. Peta Malthouse Reply

    October 5, 2018 at 9:53 pm

    More stink but evidenced by very careful research. I am afraid I am rapidly reaching the opinion that our politicians at government and local level have been lying to us.

    Strong words but please do not forget that both the Tories in government and at GBC were elected on the basis that they would protect our green belt. The Conservative government then changed guidance to local authorities that made it easier for them to find reasons to build in the green belt.

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