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From Cold War to warm insulation: how an RAF base is being turned into a new village

The recent government housing white paper detailed a range of plans the government has come up with for increasing the number of new homes being built, all of which is good news for various parts of the construction sector.

Indeed, those fitting cavity wall insulation, waterproofing cellars or showers and installing wetrooms could all be kept very busy if the construction sector and government can succeed in the quest of building 250,000 new homes a year, which is now the annual target in order to make up previous shortfalls in the previous bid to reach 200,000.

While ministers aim to get a million homes built during the parliament and insulation firms prepare to fill in the wall cavities, finding the space is not always easy. The greenbelt is not to be touched except in "exceptional" circumstances, communities secretary Sajid Javid said when he launched the white paper. While brownfield sites may abound in some cities where post-industrial land is not hard to find, the task is harder out in the lush English countryside.

However, one good source of brownfield in rural areas, particularly in the eastern half of England, is ​former ​airfields. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) is in the process of divesting much of its estate and many of these are ideally situated, offering a large space to build on close to important towns and cities.

A prime case in point is the RAF Waterbeach Barracks, which is located at the northern edge of Cambridge. Developer Urban and Civic has put in a planning application to build a new town of 6,500 homes, which will have two link roads to the A10. The plan is to construct the new town with a park-and-ride system to avoid traffic congestion heading into the heart of a city whose streets were never designed for cars. The development is also adjacent to the existing Waterbeach village, which has its own rail station running into the city.

Thus a location that was once a station for fighter jet squadrons ready to scramble if the Cold War turned hot is now to help meet the challenge of 21st century housing needs. The new homes will also include 600 care home units, as well as three primary schools, 16,500 sq m of shops, health care centres, multi-purpose community centres, places of worship, nurseries and a museum. There will also be work carried out to provide enhanced drainage in this part of the fenland to help keep the ground dry.

Commenting on the project, Urban and Civic chief executive Nigel Hugill said: "Outside London, Waterbeach is the best brownfield site in the country.

"Furthermore, Waterbeach precisely represents the cross-government department approach envisaged in the Housing White Paper.

"To that extent, it can be seen as a bellwether for the more rapid delivery of quality and scale."

The ongoing divestment of the MOD's estate will help create several more developments of this kind across the country, with many being just as conveniently situated as Waterbeach.

On the most recent announcement, made last September, under-secretary of state for defence Mark Lancaster detailed 13 more sites that were to be sold on for housebuilding. These included two more sites in the east of England - RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire and MIddlewick Ranges in Essex, while the majority of the other sites were in the south of England. These included Chalgrove Airfield near Oxford, which has been transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency, Amport House in Andover, Colerne Airfield and Azimghur Barracks at Chippenham, Southwick Park in Fareham and Royal Marines Stonehouse in Plymouth. There were also sites in the Midlands at Grantham, Melton Mowbray, Telford and Donnington, and at Catterick in North Yorkshire.

Mr Lancaster noted these will provide land for 17,000 new homes, of which 12,500 will be built by 2020.