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Labour of Hercules? What next for RAF Lyneham

Dave Harvey | 16:37 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Plane landing at RAF Lyneham

In July 2011 the last Hercules will leave the RAF's base at Lyneham, in North Wiltshire, for ever. The base has been home to the cargo fleet for decades, but the MoD only wants one long haul airbase, and that is to be Brize Norton, just up the road in Oxfordshire.

The burning question, then, is what happens to the Lyneham site. It is vast, 1,300 acres. It brings in £90m to the pubs, taxis and traders of North Wiltshire. Close on 3,000 jobs depend on the base indirectly, according to the local chamber of commerce.

Eddy Shah

Eddy Shah has a plan. It's ambitious, in fact it's pretty spectacular. It features a snowdome; a Wiltshire Theme Park, complete with replica Stonehenge; an education centre and a thousand eco-homes.

"Heston Blumenthal is signed up to the catering plan," explains Eddy, as he likes to be known. "We've got over 1,000 acres here, we've got a bit of everything, I think this is a new kind of industrial revolution."

If you want to see the plans for yourself, have a look here.

HMS Arthur, now abandoned, near Corsham, Wilts

Now Eddy Shah is a strong salesman, and he makes his case spectacularly. He takes me to an abandoned naval training station near Corsham. HMS Arthur once trained a young Prince Philip, but twenty years ago it was closed, and nothing was done with the site. The place is now crawling with brambles, and covered in graffiti.

"My fear is that this is what will happen to Lyneham," he tells me. "If the MoD don't get a move on and make a decision, it will just go to wrack and ruin."

It's a strong campaigning tactic, for sure. But is it a little, well, hasty?

There is evidence the MoD is looking hard at a military future for the base. 20,000 soldiers and airforce personnel are on their way back from Germany, now the Cold War is well and truly over. Homes and training bases must be found.

"The Army want to come to Lyneham," the local MP tells me. James Gray has been lobbying hard, and is on good terms with both Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, and David Cameron. "They've both told me Lyneham has a very good case," he insists.

In fact, just last week I happened to hear Liam Fox at a Chamber of Commerce dinner in Bristol. He was making a speech, he could pick his subjects. And he chose Lyneham, interestingly. Taxpayers, he told us, are paying £250m a year to keep troops in Germany - and that is just on allowances.

"I would much rather spend that money in the British economy," he said, to much applause. My ears pricked up, because Liam Fox could have kept quiet. He was in Bristol, after all, and talking to a business audience. Why mention Lyneham, unless you are minded to send some work its way?

I put it to Eddy Shah that perhaps he was telling people the MoD would abandon Lyneham simply to bolster support for his own, commercial, plan. He laughed that one off. "I'm 67, the last thing I want is another big project! No, the message is clear - MoD: make your mind up. Otherwise, this community will die."

The Ministry remains tight-lipped. A decision will be taken before the Parliamentary break in the summer, I'm told. Well, if they decide to close Lyneham for good, Wiltshire may soon have a new theme park for skiing druids.


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