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The urban revolution of Cold War conversions is a battle in itself

The bomb-proof hangars of the RAF base at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire can be seen from a great distance. On the skyline they look like children's toys willfully scattered about in a tantrum. Closer to, they turn into giant sun-bleached carbonated drink cans, half-buried in the ground. Altogether there are 56 of them, each named after an American fighter pilot, and each sealed up as tight as a Pharaoh's tomb.

There are probably more than 600 ex-nuclear airbases scattered around the world. Certainly there are 160 decommissioned bases in the US, and about the same number in the 'old' NATO countries of western Europe. Then there is the Middle East, SouthEast Asia, and the bases built by the former Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact countries.

Ten years ago the American architect Michael Sorkin, a man who once nearly joined the immortal ranks of ex-principals of the AA school, toured the world lecturing on the subject of converting decommissioned Cold War bases into new towns. He hailed it as potentially the greatest urban revolution in history.

Unfortunately, if RAF Upper Heyford is anything to go by, it is not going to be like that.

While the 485ha accommodation part of the base might have been a town of sorts when it was operational - with 5,000 service personnel, 1,000 civilian employees, a church, a supermarket, shops, a hospital, bowling alley, all-night pizzeria and petrol station - when potential developers came to look at it in the mid-'90s they could see nothing but problems.

With the exception of a handful of suburban villas for senior officers, all the housing there was said to be virtually useless. Hard-nosed property agents emerged from guided tours shaking their heads and talking of Dad's Army huts, bleak terraced houses, American motel-style barracks and Second World War ribbon development. Of the 1,200 dwellings on the base, barely a dozen were said to be mortgageable - nor was the infrastructure much good. The base water supply was said to leak 350,000 gallons of water a day.

Of the 400 would-be developers who asked for the agent of the MoD's 1994 sales brochure for Upper Heyford, only 25 put in bids, and eight were shortlisted to negotiate purchases or co-development deals. The identities of these consortia were said to be protected by 'commercial confidentiality', a useful successor to the Official Secrets Act, whose baleful warnings are still in place more than 10 years after the departure of the American Air Force. In any case, the deadline for announcing the name of the successful applicant has long since passed.

Unlike the Church Commissioners, who made a famous mess of their property speculations, the MoD has in the past made a tidy profit from the sale of its unwanted establishments.

Because instant urbanism did not work, it turned elsewhere. This is the problem with the whole bonanza of Cold War bases, from San Francisco Bay to the Cherwell Valley. No wonder the Upper Heyford locals are blasÚ about the cost and the size of the development that will follow. The notorious purchase of RAF Bentwaters by the Maharishi Yogi Foundation, for conversion into a 'University of Natural Law' for the study of transcendental meditation, led to an unsuccessful bid for £100 million of Millennium Fund money - not exactly what the government had in mind. But they need not have worried. For the past 10 years the principal activity at the air base has been the roar of car transporters bringing tens of thousands of registered, but unsold, cars for temporary storage on the immense reinforced concrete runway. That and the profitable letting of all those 1,200 'unmortgageable' houses.

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