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Long-running dispute over airfield sees council hit by new legal action

Wiltshire Council faces fresh legal action by Old Sarum Airfield in a planning dispute stretching back 13 years.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government won a High Court case in July over a planning appeal against Wiltshire’s refusal of an application to develop part of the airfield for housing.

In its renewed litigation, the airfield alleges breach of contact over an agreement it said it reached with the former Salisbury District Council in 2007 to reduce the number of flights in return for permission to develop part of the site for housing. It claims Wiltshire has reneged on this.

Richard Clewer, Wiltshire’s deputy leader, said: "We're disappointed that in this time of public need, we have to spend public funds unnecessarily resisting an unsustainable claim.

“However, we can confirm that we have received notice of legal action from Old Sarum Airfield, which we are strongly defending.

"Given these are ongoing legal proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”

The airfield was used mainly for flight training and private flying but its owner said it ceased flights last year after financial losses.

In July’s case Mr Justice Robin Knowles ruled against Old Sarum over a proposed development of 462 homes and associated commercial space.

Wiltshire had rejected this, a position upheld on appeal by a planning inspector, who noted relations between the council and airfield were at a “point of impasse”.

The airfield argued that the inspector’s ruling should be quashed because she failed to determine and take into account a number of significant public benefits, her reasons did not meet the standard required and that the airfield suffered substantial prejudice as a result.

It also argued that the inspector's decision making was irrational and unfair.

Robin Knowles J found the airfield had “no ground at all for complaint” about the consideration of public benefits.

He also rejected the arguments about the quality of reasons given and irrationality.

The judge also commented on the poor relations between the council and airfield. He said: “In preparation for and at the hearing before me the parties engaged in a way that was highly adversarial. In my view the encouragement of the inspector to the claimant and the council to work together was well placed.”

Following this case the airfield then initiated action over the claimed breach of contract.

It said it had issued a writ against Wiltshire for breach of contract over the 2007 agreement with Salisbury.

According to the airfield owner’s statement, its consultants had worked with council officers since then to secure low levels of flying so the residential development could proceed without noise disturbance but the airfield could still function viably.

The statement said: “With the planning appeal process exhausted, the loss making situation is unsustainable and Old Sarum Airfield will begin the return to pre-2007 levels of flying activity as a first step, including flight training, with the goal to eventually exceed 100,000 flight movements a year with hangar and other developments of the type now permitted by Westminster’s new planning policies.”

It said that despite assurances from senior councillors, it had become clear the council “had no intention of supporting the mutually agreed redevelopment plans”, in which the airfield had invested £5m.

“This massive failure of the planning system is a poster child for the [prime minister’s] recent indictment and sadly means that we now have no option but to pursue the local authority for breach of contract,” the airfield’s statement concluded.

Mark Smulian