RAF Northolt may be sold to raise defence funds

The Ministry of Defence is considering selling off one of its oldest and most internationally renowned airfields, RAF Northolt, as it seeks to raise money to help cope with swingeing budget cuts, the Guardian has learned.

All or parts of the site on the outskirts of north London could be sold for commercial development, and there have been high-level talks in Whitehall about whether the airfield could even become a satellite for nearby Heathrow.

This would enrage local residents but it has not been discounted by ministers, who are trying to reconcile the decision not to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow with industry clamour for more capacity.

The future of Northolt, which occupies hundreds of acres in Hillingdon, is under scrutiny as part of a review of the defence estate, which is looking at whether MoD land could be sold to raise revenue at a time of a budget squeeze and redundancies.

The base is still used by visiting VIPs and is the home of the 32 (Royal) Squadron, but it is 50 years since it was the UK's busiest airfield, and dignitaries could be diverted to Heathrow four miles away.

This proximity has raised interest in Whitehall, and ministers are considering whether to include Northolt in a consultation about the future of UK air travel, which is due to be launched in March.

One industry source told the Guardian that the idea had been discussed in government. "It has its advocates because of its location close to the capital and to Heathrow, and there are some people who would welcome it," the source said.

"But it shares some of the drawbacks of extending Heathrow, including the increase in noise for communities in west London." Another source said: "In many ways it is less ridiculous than Boris Island."

BAA, which owns six UK airports including Heathrow, said "all options should be put on the table" when the review starts. "We would not want to rule out anything until there has been a proper comparative study that looks at the pros and cons of each option," a spokesman said.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: "As the chancellor made clear in his autumn statement, we will explore all the options for maintaining the UK's aviation hub status with the exception of a third runway at Heathrow. The government will consult on an overarching sustainable framework for UK aviation this spring."

Northolt is one of the armed forces' most celebrated bases, and its loss would be deeply felt within the military. It was established in 1915, three years before the RAF was formed, and during its 96-year history it has played many roles. It is the RAF's oldest operational airfield.

In the second world war it was a home to British Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons that defended London during the Battle of Britain. When Heathrow was under construction, it was the briefly Europe's busiest civilian airport. The Queen takes most of her flights from Northolt, and it is where Air Force One lands during visits by the US president.

It has been the site of many emotional homecomings, including the return of Diana, Princess of Wales, in August 1997. Her body was repatriated to the UK from France on board an aircraft of the Royal Squadron. In footage shown across the world, the Prince of Wales and the princess's elder sisters, Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes, accompanied the coffin, which was draped in the royal standard.

In recent years the base has been placed under the spotlight by campaigners investigating the UK's support of CIA rendition flights. Three years ago the former Guantánamo Bay prisoner Binyam Mohamed was flown back to Northolt after his release. RAF Typhoon fighters will be based at Northolt during this summer's Olympics.

Air Commodore Andrew Lambert said the RAF had already lost bases of historic importance because of defence cuts, and questioned whether it was necessary to add Northolt to the list.

"It would be a great shame to lose RAF Northolt. I am sure that the site would make lots of money because it is just off the M25 and is a prime bit of real estate, and it is the nearest airport to London. But I'd want to know if the MoD has done its sums properly," he said.

"The MoD is in a position where it is saying, 'we are running out of money, so let's sell something off to raise money'. We might be in a position where it doesn't make sense over the long term. It would have quite a big impact because Northolt is where all the very senior people and the royals fly from."

The MoD said no decisions had been taken. There are some in the military who will argue to retain an MoD "core" at Northolt, even if it becomes a commercial hub in the future.

A spokesman said: "We continue to scrutinise all defence expenditure to secure the best value for money. RAF Northolt is no exception. It already generates revenue through landing fees from private flights and sources of income generation are of course kept under review."