A near 20-year saga of neglect and decay to the Grade II-listed Officers’ Mess at the former RAF Kenley could be close to a conclusion after Tandridge Council last week granted planning permission for the buildings to be restored and converted to provide 32 flats.
Eighty years ago, RAF Kenley was on the front line in the Battle of Britain, its Spitfires and Hurricanes providing fighter cover for London, alongside RAF Croydon and Biggin Hill.
Countless heroes will have used the Officers’ Mess during World War II, many of them having their last meal before being scrambled for the latest Luftwaffe bombing raid, perhaps never to return.
Kenley had been the site of a military aircraft base since 1917, although it was not until the dark days of 1940, and the threat of invasion by Nazi Germany, that its grass runways were made permanent with concrete.
The Mess building was constructed in 1932, to a design by the Air Ministry’s Directorate of Works and Buildings. After almost 50 years of service, the Officers’ Mess fell silent in 1978, as the RAF left Kenley. With its two runways still mostly intact and a collection of other buildings and shelters also still standing, Kenley is the last RAF fighter base still recognisable from its Battle of Britain days.
Hence the heritage interest in the future of the Officers’ Mess.
The buildings were bought in 2005 by developers, Comer Homes, who proceeded to do very little with the site apart from allow it to decay, as they encountered financial issues and came up against planning constraints in the Green Belt.
A total of four planning applications had been submitted previously – none of which have been accepted by the council.
Two fires, in 2016 and 2019, both suspected cases of arson, caused catastrophic damage to the buildings.
And last week, Tandridge Council took a different view of a fresh application, while admitting that a new block of flats would be “an inappropriate development in the Green Belt”.
In addition to the restoration and conversion, a new “traditional design” block of 10 flats will be built on the site of Flintfield House, which was demolished in the 1970s, and the original lodge will be restored.
The decision notice says that “special circumstances” exist which outweigh other Green Belt considerations.
“The proposed alterations, extensions and new build elements would provide a viable use which would preserve the listed building for future generations without significant harm to its significance.
“In addition, public access would be secured as part of the Legal Agreement and therefore the proposal would result in a public benefit. Significant weight is therefore attached to preservation of the listed building and its grounds.”
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