Last night there was a meeting in Llanbedr Village Hall about Kemble Air Services plans to reopen the airfield. By the time it was over there could be no doubt that Kemble have the overwhelming support of the community, the Welsh Assembly Government, the local MP, the Snowdonia National Park Authority, all the neighbouring community councils and that even the Countryside Council for Wales can find no cause for concern. It was equally clear that everyone was sick and tired of the antics of the Snowdonia Society, which have stalled Kemble’s plans for the last two years.

The fist thing that we noticed as we approached the village hall was that there were more cars around than I can ever remember seeing in Llanbedr before. The second was a rather flurried looking Lord Dafydd Ellis-Thomas, Presiding Officer (Speaker) of the Welsh Assembly, desperately trying to find somewhere to park. For a very small rural community this was obviously going to be an exciting evening.

Inside the hall, the hundred or so chairs were soon occupied. By the time the meeting started there was at least an equal number standing around the edge of the hall and even in the porch because they couldn’t get in.

The meeting was arranged by Llanbedr Community Council, but the chairman for the evening was our MP, Elfyn Llwyd, who immediately made his support for Kemble’s plans clear and introduced Lord Ellis-Thomas, who confirmed that there was wholehearted support from the  Welsh Assembly Government too.

Mr David Young, of Kemble Air Services, gave a resume of the problems that his company had encountered over the last two years. An application to the Snowdonia National Park Authority (the planning authority in this case) for a certificate of lawful use was turned down on legal advice at the end of last year. However they have since intimated that, if the application was re-submitted with slightly different wording, it was likely to be approved. The problem was that the Authority were unwilling to explain to Kemble what alterations were necessary. He also pointed out that there was obviously established use of the site as an airfield extending back for seventy years, and he suggested that the requirement to obtain a certificate of lawful use was a measure intended to appease the Snowdonia Society.

He outlined Kemble’s plans saying that their immediate priority was to get the gates of the airfield open again and find tenants for the hangars: perhaps ones involved in aircraft maintenance or the development of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Beyond that they intended to use the airfield for whatever purposes they could within the limits of its previous usage. They fully accepted that, if they wanted to do anything else there, they would have to make an application for planning permission. What they were not prepared to do was accede to the Snowdonia Society’s demand that they should start from scratch and apply for planning permission for an airfield. The delay and heavy costs involved would make the project unviable.

Mr Caerwyn Roberts, chairman of the Snowdonia National Park Authority, responded by expressing surprise that Kemble had encountered problems over the wording of the application for a certificate of lawful use and saying that he had instructed his staff to offer every assistance.

Tony Jones, representing the Countryside Council for Wales, spoke briefly about the importance of various sites on and around the airfield, including one where their are Great Crested Newts[1]. He said that CCW would be advising the planning authority and that he looked forward to working with Kemble to ensure that these sites were protected. There was no indication in anything that he said that the CCW opposed Kemble’s plans.

Throughout these proceedings, every statement in support of Kemble’s plans was greeted by loud, sustained and near universal applause.

Mr Alun Pugh, director of the Snowdonia Society and soon to be the Labour Party parliamentary candidate for the Arfon constituency at the general election, was then given an opportunity to speak. He claimed that the Snowdonia Society were eager that jobs should be created at the airfield and the buildings should be used in a way that was appropriate to the National Park. He gave no indication of any alternative use there might be for an airfield in this area other than aviation. The Snowdonia Society’s only concern, he said, was that a full planning application should be made together with a detailed environmental assessment. He described the application for a certificate of lawful use as a ‘short cut’. At this point the meeting lost patience with him and he had to give up, but not before Elfyn Llwyd had intervened to explain that COLW was perfectly lawful and not a short cut.

The Chairman of the Snowdonia Society, Dr David Lewis who introduced himself as ‘a resident of Llanbedr’, also tried to speak but was inaudible.

Representatives of three neighbouring community councils spoke giving unqualified support for Kemble. A multitude of comments from the floor were,  with two exceptions, in favour of the project. One speaker attempted to persuade the meeting that Kemble’s operations at their main airfield in Gloucestershire were subject to widespread protests and petitions.   Those present who were aware of the excellent reputation that Kemble has both in Gloucestershire and the aviation industry as a whole disagreed vociferously, and when he changed tack and tried to assert that reopening the airfield would harm tourism in the area the reaction of the meeting became boisterous. Some of the most successful tourist enterprises in North Wales have developed over the last fifty years on land adjacent to the airfield while it was operating at a level that is unlikely to be seen again.

An elegant lady who has lived in Llanbedr all her life complained that reopening the airfield might increase road traffic, evidently having forgotten that until quite recently over two hundred people were employed on the site, and that Kemble do not have any plans or expectations that such a level of activity could be achieved again. Her views failed to find any support.

The meeting finally ended with Mr Pugh of the Snowdonia Society on his feet again attempting to defend his organisation’s actions against a welter of questions, particularly about whose interests he thought he was representing.

When new developments are mooted in small rural communities there tend to be divisions of opinion, and these can lead to acrimony. This was a particularly heart warming meeting as it was clear throughout that the large turnout was a demonstration of near universal support for Kemble’s plans to resurrect Llanbedr’s airfield, which has been a part of the life of the village for as long as most people can remember. Add to that the commitment from the Assembly Government, our MP, the Snowdonia National Park Authority and all the community councils in the area and you have a situation that is near unanimity. Even the Countryside Council for Wales seemed to be unable to find any grounds for concern about the newts.

Before Kemble made a bid for the airfield lease they took the very sensible precaution of consulting the local community councils about likely public attitudes to their plans. Evidently they are a company that prefers to work with people rather than in the face of opposition. The Snowdonia Society took no such precaution before they launched their campaign against the airfield plans.

Let us hope that the reception that their director and chairman received last night will have persuaded them that further attempts to disrupt this project will only do even more damage to the reputation of a society which, until recently, was respected as a useful, objective, non-political influence in the National Park, but is now seen as being irresponsible, self-serving and out of control.



[1]  Local rumour has it that these are found only in the firepond on the airfield , and as this population is remote from any other, how they got there is a mystery. The most likely explanation involves a bored airman with an interest in natural history and a jam jar.

9 Responses to “Airfield plans welcomed by everyone except the Snowdonia Society”

  1. It is very disappointing that Snowdonia Society, an unelected body who have a very singular objective in dragging Wales backwards, can have such a disproportionate effect on peoples’ lives and jobs.

    Llanbedr is an airfield – any fool can see that and it is disingenuous for the Society to seek to delay the opening of this excellent facility that could offer the area high value jobs.

    I am appalled by the sanctimonious holier than thou attitude of the Society and their attacks on various members of the local population, including the local MP, who have tried to ensure this area of Wales can offer high value employment to the people of N Wales.

    Paul J Whitelegg

    Former Contract Manager MoD Llanbedr

  2. Paul

    Do I remember you making a very useful contribution at the end of the meeting?

    I joined the Snowdonia Society over a decade ago when it was an extremely useful, responsible and effective organisation. I remain a member in the hope that eventually it will get back on track because I believe that we need an objective, non-political watchdog in the National Park. The problem is with the present officers and trustees who seem to be acting without regard for the views of the membership.

  3. I too joined the Society ten years or more ago and support their CONSERVATION objectives. Somewhere along the line, they lost their way and started promoting PRESERVATION – a fatal activity destined to ultimately destroy its object. I hope they will get back on track and continue the really useful work they historically have undertaken. I also hope that Llanbedr airfield will re-open and thrive and bring back into operation one of the most valuable and unused pieces of infrastructure in the area.

  4. TonyN

    As you know I used to live relatively near the airfield. At the time I viewed it as a blot on the landscape and in my ignorance of the dire straits of the local economy probably would have signed a petition to shut it down and return it to the countryside.

    With the perspective of age (mine!) greater wisdom and distance, I now see this attitide was entirely wrong and indeed almost colonial, in as much I didn’t have to live with the consequences of what would have been my actions.

    I wonder if the Society-and its membership-are geographically remote and/or relatively well off and consequently are unable to see the potential of the site as a much needed employment opportunity?

    Is there any proper business plan in place which would describe how the owners intend to develop the site and bring a degree of prosperity to the area that might be unrelated to tourism?

    Tourism is a very unreliable cash crop and one that if Barmouth is anything to go by has been declining for years.

    Tonyb

  5. TonyB:

    Remember the airfield is part of the landscape so far as we are concerned, and that it’s visual impact is small compared to the hundreds of acres of caravans along the coast to the south.

    There is no question of the airfield returning to agriculture; if it is not used as an airfield then it will eventually be developed in some other way. For as long as it lies unused, the need to create employment will mean development elsewhere, probably on greenfield, in the National Park; something that has escaped the Snowdonia Society. The alternative is to let indigenous communities wither and become retirement and holiday home centres.

    Does Kemble have a proper business plan in place? From what in know of their past record they are not the sort of outfit who act without careful planning.

    Over the last couple of years the Snowdonia Society has turned claims that Kemble are not ‘coming clean’ about their plans into a mantra. That is because Kemble are not prepared to announce plans for the next five or ten years with employment figures to match. The locals can understand why this is. They have seen too many businesses come into this remote and commercially challenging area with rigid plans, big promises, and lots of cash to invest and then find out that they haven’t got things quite right because trading conditions aren’t the same as where they come from. The result is usually insolvency or requests for a bailout a few years later.

    When Kemble say that their immediate objective is to get the gates open, find tenants for some of the buildings, start some general aviation, and then they will see what else can be done, the locals really understand that kind of thinking. In a challenging area like this it is dangerous to have preconceived ideas. The folk at the Snowdonia Society, none of which (so far as I can make out) has ever run a business, do not.

    Kemble have outlined a number of possibilities and refused to make any commitments until they see how things go. I call that being sensible and honest.

    Tourism here is seasonal rather than unreliable, and you are right; it is year round employment that really counts. Barmouth has always been something of a special case.

    Which brings us full circle. Your reaction on first seeing the airfield is not surprising. But in this area ‘repeat’ tourism is the norm. Many people come here because it is where they spent holidays when they were children. You meet few tourists who are visiting this part of Wales for the first time other than those from abroad. So for most of the visitors too, the airfield is just part of the landscape, if you choose to notice it at all.

  6. TonyN

    My son intends to come camping to North Wales this summer as a result of our knowing the area well in the past, so your point about repeat tourism is well made. However if there is mainly repeat tourism that implies that there is little first time tourism which has implications for the future.

    As outsiders we expect to see things pristine and therefore airfields are out of the norm and are automatically a blot on the landscape. It is only when you realise its potential importance to the local economy that you can view the airfield in different terms.

    I am wondering if the Snowdonia society and its members are viewing it as an aberration or as an opportunity? If the former-which seems likely- perhaps they need better educating in the realties of the need for local employment opportunities? You can’t eat the view.

    Tonyb

  7. Just a quick note, I’m glad the meeting went as it did and maybe showed the ‘SS’ that their opinion is perhaps not in ‘with the people’ as it were. Hopefully they will back down now and leave it alone.

    Paul

  8. In any planning proposal, the planning authority has a statutory duty to consult interested parties. The key word here is “consult”. The Snowdonia Society is just one interested party. Their views carry no more weight in planning terms than any other interested party. Having allowed a period for consultation, the planning authority then has a duty to determine any application. They do not have to “appease” the Snowdonia Society, or any other body for that matter.

    It is clear to me, as an Architect, that the Kemble proposals, which have almost universal support, should be approved without further delay.

    As a pilot, I regularly fly into Kemble Airfield, and I can reassure everyone that David Young and his team run a superb operation in full consultation with their neighbours.

    John R Holdcroft ARIBA,
    Chartered Architect.

  9. john holdcroft:

    All that you say is true of course, but there is one complicating factor. The Welsh Assembly Government originally offered the lease of the airfield with the assurance that there was established use implying that here would be no planning problems. Kemble, not surprisingly, sees the difficulties that have arisen since then as not being of their making, but that it is the responsibility of the WAG to solve the planning issues in accordance with their description of the property.

    I heard yesterday, from a fairly reliable source, that the WAG will now make an application to the planning authority (Snowdonia National Park) for the crucial certificate of lawful use.

    Kemble’s position at the time of the public meeting in Llanbedr last winter was that, if they had to start from scratch with planning applications for all activities at the airfield, then the time and cost involved would make the project unfeasible. I don’t blame them.

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