Filton Airfield has been sold to a high-profile property developer in a deal believed to be worth £120 million, Bristol's daily newspaper The Post has reported.
BAE Systems, the owners of the airfield, confirmed a deal had been signed to sell the historic site last night – the day before the birthplace of British aviation closes to flights for good.
Property firm Bridgehouse Capital Limited has agreed to buy the airfield after several months of negotiations. The London-based property firm is owned by multi-millionaire businessman Andrew Ruhan.
BAE Systems announced more than a year ago that it was planning to close the airfield, saying it was no longer “economically viable”.
The 350-acre site does not yet have full planning permission but has been earmarked for housing and employment use in South Gloucestershire Council’s latest development blueprint.
It is believed a planning application will be put together in the spring to develop the site.
A BAE Systems spokesman said: “BAE Systems will continue to move forward with plans for the redevelopment of the site, which will create much needed housing and commercial development to support economic growth and inward investment in the local and regional aerospace and advanced engineering industry.
“We can confirm that, in support of delivery of this vision, we have entered into a development partnership with Bridgehouse Capital who bring further development expertise that will enhance our ability to implement these plans.”
The value of the deal has not been confirmed but The Post understands it to be about £120 million.
The airfield, which is seen by many as the birthplace of the UK’s aviation industry, was due to close to flights for the final time later today.
A BAE spokesman added: “After a long and illustrious history at the heart of Britain’s aviation industry Filton Airfield today closes its gates and ceases operational use.
We want to pay tribute to everyone who has a connection to Filton both past and present.
“The final decision to close was made on the basis that the airfield is no longer economically viable – verified by an independent study – following discussions with the main user Airbus and a thorough examination of other potential aviation uses for the site.
“This view was also supported by the interim findings of South Gloucestershire Council’s Examination in Public process which was put in train to assess their core strategy.”
The company reiterated its support for a new aviation heritage museum on the airfield, for which it has donated a site, £2 million of funding and £400,000 of professional help. It also confirmed that the air ambulance and police helicopters based at Filton will continue to be able to fly from the site.
BAE says the airfield is running at a loss of £3 million a year and redevelopment of the land would lead to the creation of thousands of jobs.
Earlier this year the company’s real estate director, Andrew Cheesman, said it had pumped more than £7 million into the airfield during the past six years but this had not generated any long-term commercial interest.
Bert Hindle, chairman of the Save Filton Airfield group, believes there is still a chance the airstrip can be saved. He said: “It does not surprise us at all that BAE Systems has been talking to developers.
They have always made it clear that they see no future for the airfield.
“The line throughout all of this from the company has been that the airfield is not economically viable. What we have been calling for is an independent study into the site, something which has been backed by the mayor of Bristol.
“As far as we work out, selling the airfield as a going concern has never been a part of BAE’s plan. The aim from the very beginning appears to have been to sell off the land for development.
“There is no planning application for the land at the moment, which means that the bulldozers are not likely to move in straight away.
“The airfield might be closing but that does not mean that the fight has been lost.”
Bristol mayor George Ferguson has said that without an independent report into the airfield’s economic viability it was difficult to make a “sensible” decision on its future. He told The Post it was vital for the whole area “that we get this right”.
He said: “I have a terrible feeling that BAE Systems are taking the short-term economic option rather than thinking long-term. That would be the worst thing, if we lose some of that expertise and some of that pioneering industry from Bristol because of the loss of the airfield.”
A spokesman for Airbus, which is based next to the airfield, said: “The closure of the airfield will have no significant effect on our business and we have mitigation plans in place regarding the change of venue for our passenger shuttle using Bristol Airport and the transportation of the A400M wings via Portbury docks.
“Airbus has a lot of experience moving wings by land/sea – our A380 wings made in north Wales are moved by this method already.”
Some of the most famous aircraft in aviation history were developed and built at Filton, including Concorde. The site was originally opened by Sir George White in the run-up to the First World War.