In January 2003 an idea from the RAF Association Portcullis Club saw a need to set up a Heritage Trust that could work to ensure that sufficient protection was given to ensure that what is left of Kenley's historic airfield remained unchanged for ever. Little came of this because there was no threat to motivate anyone.
Co-incidentally English Heritage were conducting surveys of military airfields due to an awareness that many were being built over. A lot of important national history was being lost if sites were not catalogued and graded. They remarked that “Kenley was a uniquely well preserved survival representative of improvements made to key sector airfields before the Battle of Britain”. Subsequently the 12 ‘Blast Pens’ that shielded parked aircraft from the effects of bombing during the war were made ‘Ancient Monuments’. This was important because the landowner across Hayes Lane had already tried to bury them by using his land as a landfill site. Croydon Council enforced restoration to the previous condition.
Once the announcement about the monuments was made it became clear to those at the RAFA that really, there was so much more that English Heritage should be made aware of. As a result surveys were conducted with the historians and archaeologists from English Heritage with the Superintendent of the City Commons hosting their visits.
During this time residents in and around Coulsdon had fundraised an amount sufficient to save some land from potential development and add it to the Farthing Down Common. This set in motion a chain of events that recognised the power of people locally working together for the common good. At a meeting at the Portcullis Club two groups were formed, one as Friends of Farthing Down and the other as Friends of Kenley Airfield. The Kenley committee was formed of local resident group representatives, parish councillors and the RAFA representatives. Thanks to the Coulsdon initiative the original aim of heritage protection for Kenley was achieved.
The remarkable chain of events continued. The Radio Communications Agency that had moved into the Officers Mess in 1979 and saving it from dereliction as a result, was taken over by the Government Agency OƒCom in 2004/5. As has become usual the new agency was intent on asset stripping with an associated total disregard for any sentiment in relation to historical values.
Once the sale details were known Friends of Kenley Airfield set about fundraising for itself. It was unlikely that the whole package of the Officers Mess and the land surrounding it could be bought, but, like the Coulsdon Group previously it would be a great idea to secure the land surrounding the Mess and gift it to the City Commons. Such an achievement would also secure the future of the Portcullis Club as it stands within these grounds. In a remarkably short period of time well over £40,000 was either raised or pledged in support of this drive. The terms of sale were set against us because OƒCom wanted the land and buildings to be sold as a single package. As it turned out there is no doubt that the sealed bid from the Friends/City consortium would never have matched the estimated £3,500,000 bid by the luxury homes developer. The group had fought and lost but had gained great credibility through its demonstration of determination to succeed. It also underlined a fact that so many people were prepared to support initiatives relating to the airfield.
But, there was still more going on. The visits by English Heritage had convinced them that of all the military airfields visited, Kenley was by far the best preserved of all World War II airfields nationally. Their recommendation to the London Borough of Croydon and Tandridge District Council was that the whole of the area originally covered by RAF Kenley, that now included some of the common too, should be classified as a Conservation Area. The benefit of this to the area is that it takes Green Belt to a higher level and that no change can occur within it except in such a way that would improve it. Remarkably the two bureaucracies worked exceptionally quickly and efficiently together and the conservation area completed at about the same time as the Officers Mess was sold in late 2005.
All seemed to have been achieved; the airfield and its surroundings were adequately protected, the Officers Mess, once the planning process had started, would pay back some land because it was very clear, there would be no social or affordable housing in the type of development envisaged. The friends group adopted a caretaking mode.
This lasted for about a year before another major situation occurred. There has never been harmony between the military authorities and the public ever since the common was annexed by the Air Ministry/RFC in 1917. The public used to get in the way of flying operations then just as the perception is that they do now. There is no record of any accident happening during peacetime at Kenley that has caused the loss of life or any severe injury. This does not preclude the fact that an accident could happen; taking the risk a stage further the liability has to be insured against and insurers demand that precautions to reduce the risk are in place before providing cover. The MoD made a decision to erect a 1.2 metre high metal palisade fence that would separate the public areas, including that already concessed, from the airfield operating areas. The fencing would prevent everyone from making a complete circuit of the airfield as they have had the freedom to do so for many years. Croydon Council stepped in once again and said that despite earlier advice full planning permission was necessary. Once again there was a real threat to the airfield and the beauty of its open space. Remembering that a great battle for freedom had been fought from this airfield the successors of those that won that battle were intent on restricting that freedom.
Naturally, those that use the airfield regularly or occasionally for their leisure or in pursuit of their hobbies, were very upset and they could only make their individual protests through the planning process. However, Croydon Council refused planning permission but through its own pragmatism decided that a series of ‘Safety Working Group’ workshops should be held that would include the significant parties as well as representation by the Friends Group. It became clear that the Friends Group was more and more taking on the definitive role of public spokesman, this could only be a perception because it was a totally unofficial acceptance of the role. Although the role was there no one had asked the Friends to undertake it nor had the Friends asked any one whether they should do so or not.
The decision was made to ‘go public’ hold a Public Meeting and ask those present to confirm our standing as their representatives in matters affecting the airfield. It was also relevant that no one community group or parish council could take this position because the public to be represented came from all the areas that surround the airfield and indeed further afield. The meeting was held in Caterham on the Hill on 23rd July 2008 in front of an exceptionally well-attended meeting, there was total support that Kenley Airfield Friends' Group should be formed but double the number attending had already submitted postal confirmations that they agreed the proposal.
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that there is an intense local desire to ensure that our open space, our place of peace and tranquillity, our airfield where the aircraft do not have engines and our place of great national heritage should remain unspoilt in perpetuity.