Battle lines drawn over proposal for 87 houses on RAF Kenley

Residents in Kenley, Old Coulsdon and nearby Caterham have been expressing deep concern about proposals to build 87 “barrack-style” houses on part of what used to be RAF Kenley.

Kenley airfield: the place is steeped in history

The planning application has been lodged with Tandridge District Council for a 12-acre site in a conservation area, close to heritage, listed buildings, and which is just to the south of the Croydon borough boundary.

Kenley Aerodrome itself is entirely within Croydon, from where nothing more belligerent than gliders fly today.

Historic England has described Kenley as “one of the most complete fighter airfields associated with the Battle of Britain to have survived”.

It once had a set of military buildings from the 1930s which, according to a Surrey County Council heritage report, “most strongly contributes to the character and appearance of the Conservation Area today”. Notable architects such as Edwin Lutyens, Reginald Blomfield and Giles Gilbert Scott “had an influence on the final designs”, according to the report.

These buildings included the Grade II-listed NAAFI and various workshops and (real) barracks. But fires ultimately led to the demolition of the old control tower and last of the WWII hangers, and a 2016 blaze also destroyed the Officers’ Mess, which was also Grade II-listed.

Yet the Surrey council official who drafted its September 2022 report on the importance of the Kenley conservation area noted that even those buildings that have survived form “a well-designed holistic scheme”, saying that “the open character, landscaping and layout of which gave the area a campus character for ordinary troops stationed at Kenley”.

Classical: Kenley’s NAAFI (Navy Army Air Force Institute), including the old canteen, is a Grade II-listed and used as a school 

The report continues, “These aspects are still evident today and make a strong contribution toward the character and appearance of the Conservation Area as a well-designed scheme for a 1930s airbase.”

And just in case this bit managed to get overlooked, the Surrey official put the next sentence in bold: “These areas must not be dismissed as being of no interest.

Tanfield District Council has a problem, though, in that it is unable to meet its housing targets because around 95% of the authority’s area is designated as Green Belt.

It is this pressure which the landowners are seeking to exploit in gaining permission to build what is estimated to be £30million-worth of new houses on land off Salmons Lane West, “also known as Kenley Campus”.

The application has been filed by a Fleet Street firm of lawyers on behalf of Croydon and District Education Trust, which is registered with the Charity Commission. One School Global, an independent day school for pupils aged between seven and 18, has been based in Kenley’s former NAAFI building since 2015.

The application makes the case that they want to build on “previously developed brownfield land”.

The planning application documents state that the scheme “will result in the development of an existing parcel of previously developed land formerly used as RAF Kenley surrounding an existing school centered [sic] within the site.

“Spatially, the school building, which is Grade II-listed, is a prominent built form and the wider setting, which is subject to this application is associated with this historic use.

“The outline proposal is for 87 buildings which will reflect the character of the site’s military past through the use of ‘barrack’ style design and reflecting the scale and form of development found on the site during its military history.” None of the homes will be more than three storeys high.

Tandridge Council’s much-troubled local plan had designated the site for no more than 75 homes, of which 40% needed to be affordable.

‘Barracks style’: how the developers want to build houses around the site of the school

Under the latest proposal, 34 of the homes would be “affordable” – 39% of the scheme, which proposes 13 two-bedroom houses, 61 three-bed houses, nine four-bed homes and four five-bedroom houses.

Tandridge’s 2019 Local Plan made a series of recommendations over housing targets, but change of political control of the council meant that the Plan was never formally adopted. Referring to “a hiatus of three and a half years since the plan was examined”, the applicants state that, “the council’s housing need remains pressing and the adopted development plan is significantly and increasingly out-of-date”.

In a slightly passive-aggressive kind of way, the application, which runs to more than 100 pages, includes as appendices the full reports from the Planning Inspector where housing schemes in Green Belt areas were rejected by local planning authorities, who then found themselves overruled. One of those costly cases involved Tandridge planners over a housing development in Warlingham which they originally turned down.

Not for the first time, battle lines have been drawn over Kenley airfield.

As Tandridge’s planning portal notes: “This is a major planning application and a departure from the development plan.

“The site is located within the Kenley Aerodrome Conservation Area, it affects the setting of Listed Buildings, and affects the Setting of Scheduled Monuments.”

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