Homes worth fighting for
The Ministry of Defence is selling 91 military sites, which the Government says will create 55,000 houses and flats, says Graham Norwood
If there’s ever a silver lining to a public spending cut, it could be in this week’s news that the Ministry of Defence is selling off a further 56 sites. Good news, because one man’s redundant military building is, literally, another man’s home: the MoD says the total of 91 offloaded sites will create 55,000 houses and flats.
Turning no-longer-useful public buildings into homes is not a new trend. MoD sell-offs in recent years have coincided with a new wave of respect for our Armed Forces, influenced by US attitudes and the launch by Prince Harry of the Invictus Games. The result is that the quality of the homes carved from old military properties is often spectacularly high.
“There’s an emotional attachment to a military building – it’s a civic pride you don’t get with an office block,” says Andrew Bullivant of estate agency Atwell Martin.
“Homes made from a naval dockyard, for example, must have a nod to the past and be treated sympathetically.”
He should know: Bullivant has been a central figure in the development and sale of almost 1,000 homes on ex-MoD sites in Plymouth over the past decade. The highest profile scheme by far is Royal William Yard, a complex of handsome waterside buildings built in the early 19th century as a victualling centre to prepare food and rum for sailors.
The buildings’ transformation by quirky developer Urban Splash into 200 high-end flats – the last one sold 18 months ago – has been so wellregarded that the project was named Development of the Decade by industry journal Property Week.
Visit the scheme and you’ll see why. The homes are strikingly modern and comfortable inside while retaining thick stone walls, cast-iron pillars, ships’ timber beams, arched windows and cantilevered staircases – a blend of naval history and contemporary style that sums up the appeal of military buildings.
There is more to come in this maritime city, too. Bullivant is selling apartments at Millfields, a newly converted ex-naval hospital that treated the wounded from Trafalgar to the Falklands (£550,000 for a large three-bedroom flat, atwellmartin.co.uk). A nearby marines barracks is to be converted soon.
“Military buildings have unique histories but also unusual shapes and sizes, making them more distinctive than converted schools, offices or warehouses,” says James Morrison, a buying agent in Portsmouth and Southampton, other cities with ex-MoD buildings aplenty.
A case in point is the eight-bedroom home created from Fort Redoubt, a one-time defence base on the Isle of Wight, for sale for £3 million (bilesandco.co. uk). It comes with a onebedroom holiday cottage and three acres of land, but the stand-out features are the accompanying moats, ramparts, tunnels, barracks, gun emplacements and helicopter landing pad.
Also in the Solent, close to the Isle of Wight, is Horse Sand Fort, an outpost built in the 1880s to defend Portsmouth against the French. The MoD sold it 50 years ago but it is now in poor shape and a conversion will be a challenge. Aside from being 15 minutes from land by boat, it has two storeys, an internal road, 15ft-thick armoured walls and a 200ft-wide deck. Even Sarah Beeny might be hard-pressed to make it habitable if she stumped up the £875,000 guide price (lsh.co.uk).
Not all MoD sites are so unusual, which may be just as well given that the country’s housing crisis needs thousands of homes, not just unique fortresses.
Well over 100 RAF bases have closed since the Second World War. In the Forties and Fifties, some became motor racing circuits – Silverstone, Thruxton and Castle Combe are still tracks today – but recent closures have invariably led to substantial housing schemes, taking advantage of the presence of utilities, foundations and surrounding roads.
RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, which hosted US Air Force aircraft during the first Gulf War and was closed in 1994, now has planning consent for 2,100 homes to be completed by 2031. There are also plans for 1,300 new homes on the former RAF Uxbridge site that was shut in 2010 – famous for being the location where Winston Churchill said in 1940 that “never was so much owed by so many to so few”.
The chance to live with a rather more stylish piece of Churchillian military history exists in central London’s Trafalgar Square where Admiralty Arch – Sir Winston’s official residence just over a century ago, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty – is being redeveloped by a Spanish company. Among the apartments being created is one for sale at £150 million – believed to be the most expensive apartment ever put on the market in London (admiraltyarch. co.uk).
If your budget is not so large – Admiralty Arch would incur at least £19 million in stamp duty alone – you can still benefit from some military history turned into homes. More modest MoD sales recently announced include Amport House, a Hampshire manor house with gardens designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire, where Second World War Hawker Hurricanes used to be assembled.
For those who mourn Britain’s declining military might, such disposals may be sad, but for many thousands these will become homes fit for, and certainly inspired by, heroes.
Safe space: Fort Redoubt, a former defence site on the Isle of Wight, has been turned into an eight-bedroom home, on the market for £3 million with Biles & Co
Fix up: Millfields, an ex-naval hospital, has been turned to flats
Naval gazing: Royal William Yard prepared sailors’ food