Fury at plan to turn Dambusters headquarters into migrant centre

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The Home Office could scupper plans to preserve the base of the Dambusters’ planes and pilots by turning it into accommodation for 1,500 refugees. Locals and historians are furious about the government’s plan for RAF Scampton, which was also home to Vulcan bombers and Red Arrows after the Second World War. If it goes ahead the regeneration would wreck a £300-million, 15-year development project to protect Scampton as a heritage site, keep it functioning as an airfield and create a state-of- the-art space centre for launching satellites.

Historian James Holland said: “What a mess this is. It is absolutely insane. There are so many unused airfields, so why do they have to choose the most historic in the country?”

He said of the alternative plan: “It will bring jobs, money, retain the heritage and create a high-tech aerospace hub – but the Government has kicked that into touch.

“They say the asylum plan will be temporary. How temporary is temporary? It could be there for years and by then investment will go elsewhere.”

He also worries the historic airfield and its buildings could be permanently damaged.

“The wartime hangars are listed but the officers’ mess isn’t.

“The whole thing is incredibly cloak and dagger.”

Security contractor Serco, working with the Home Office on asylum seeker accommodation, has already placed an advert for staff to work at Scampton.

Skills required include “conflict management, de-escalation, reporting anti-social behaviour and responding to complaints or medical requests”.

But Oliver Wheeldon, one of four directors of Scampton Holdings Limited, which earlier this month won the blessing of West Lindsey District Council to turn the Lincolnshire base into a heritage site, said: “Our innovative, exciting plans have been hugely prejudiced, if not scuppered, by this asylum plan.

“They are compromised, but we will continue to persuade people that our plans are the best for the whole area.

“I don’t know how you can do a redevelopment scheme with 1,500 asylum seekers plonked in the middle of the runway. We cannot let the dream die.

“We spent nine months in a tightly controlled process and emerged as the preferred bidder.

“We are the company local people and the council believed in to make the most of the most important airbase in the UK.”

Mr Wheeldon’s plan involves maintaining the airfield so the Red Arrows can train there again if they want.

There would also be an aviation business zone specialising in space technology – particularly relevant as ministers want Britain to become a space and technology superpower.

It is even thought that satellites could eventually be launched from there.

The office of Guy Gibson, who led the 617 Squadron on their daring Dambusters mission, would be preserved.

As would the grave of his black Labrador, who was run over and killed by a car on the night of the raid.

Eighty years ago this month, the Royal Air Force formed a new squadron, initially known as Squadron X, which was led by 24-year-old Wing Commander Gibson. He assembled aircrew then trained them to drop bouncing bombs on three dams in Germany.

Adapted Lancaster planes had to approach their targets in darkness at a height of 60ft (18m) and a speed of 232mph to destroy the dam walls and flood Germany’s industrial heartlands.

The drum-shaped bombs spun backwards as they fell and would then skip towards the base of the dams before exploding.

On May 16, 1943, the now renamed 617 Squadron left RAF Scampton in 19 Lancasters.

Gibson was in the first wave, which attacked and breached the Mohne Dam. The Eder Dam was also breached, flooding Hitler’s factories.

The mission is thought of as RAF Scampton’s finest hour.

However, of the 133 aircrew that took part, 53 were killed and three taken prisoner.

Gibson won the Victoria Cross, becoming Scampton’s third recipient, but he died the following year, aged 26, over the Netherlands.

His dog is buried near the old briefing room, with railings protecting the grave.

Winston Churchill was among those who wanted Guy Gibson’s bravery and sacrifice to be preserved forever. On December 19, 1944, he made his feelings clear in a letter of sympathy to Gibson’s widow Eve: “I had great admiration for him – the glorious Dam-buster…His name will not be forgotten.

“It will forever be enshrined in the most wonderful records of our country.”

After the War, the 6,000-ft runway launched countless Vulcan bombers. Later the Red Arrows display team were based on and off at Scampton for 30 years.

As a child Mr Wheeldon would watch the Vulcans take off and the Red Arrows practise their routines.

They inspired him to become a qualified pilot, and in his spare time he flies a Gnat aircraft, like the ones used by the Red Arrows before they switched to Hawks.

He said: “Already a museum at Scampton has closed and Guy Gibson’s old desk and other personal possessions have been removed and taken to the RAF Museum in Hendon, north London.

“Under our plans Gibson’s office would be saved and become part of an aviation heritage centre.”

Local Conservative councillor Roger Patterson said: “I feel utterly betrayed, devastated and disgusted.

“The whole community was delighted because we had a plan to protect the heritage, develop the site for space industries and build two hotels, which would create jobs. The future was bright, but now all that is under threat.

“I was told the Home Office could ride roughshod over planning laws and effectively take over the base.

“We have nothing against asylum seekers and we have sympathy with the Government over the asylum issue, but why threaten a great levelling up opportunity?”

Local Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh is seeking assurances from the Home Office that the proposed asylum plan would be “strictly temporary”.

He is due to meet Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick on Monday, along with local councillors and directors of Scampton Holdings.

Sir Edward told the Daily Express: “The Home Office says it’s only for two years but you can’t do anything while they [the migrants] are there. It wouldn’t matter if it was 1,500 boy scouts, it would stop any regeneration.

“This is the most historic RAF base in the country. The RAF have a terrible history of leaving their bases to wrack and ruin. Our view is if you think the migrant crisis will be solved in two years, well, who knows what is going to happen?”

Local council leader Owen Bierley added: “Any suggestion the site might be used, albeit on a short or medium term, to house asylum seekers would jeopardise plans.”

When the Red Arrows left last year for RAF Waddington, Lincs, locals fought back tears. Last night a government spokesman said: “We have always been upfront about the unprecedented pressure being put on our asylum system, brought about by a significant increase in dangerous and illegal journeys into the country.

“We continue to work across government to identify a range of accommodation options.

“We are engaging with local authorities and key stakeholders as part of this process.”

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