“Some people are refusing to leave,” the workman tells me. “The bailiffs are going in any day now”. No – this isn’t Dale Farm. This is the regeneration of the Rowner estate in Gosport, Hampshire. Rowner was built in the 1960’s for Royal Navy personnel. The Navy no longer needed it by the 1980’s and sold it, which was when the problems started. Ten years later it had become a virtual no go area for public services. It is now in the middle of a massive regeneration scheme which will see 500 of the original homes demolished. A lot of these houses were bought privately after the navy pulled out, and a Compulsory Purchase Order has been used to buy them back prior to demolition.
As I walk around, the signs that until recently these were people’s homes, cherished like any other, are all too visible. The “Beware Killer Guinea Pig” notice on a front door, the nesting box on a balcony, the abandoned child’s tricycle in a back garden. At first I assume the whole area is empty, but the workman I speak to points out a few houses that are still occupied. This is where people are waiting, I assume, for that unwelcome knock at the door. It’s a telling reminder that one person’s regeneration can be another person’s lost home. And with property prices on the estate so low, the local objectors argue that displaced families cannot hope to become owner occupiers elsewhere.
Rowner is a grey concrete estate in classic modern movement style, and I try to imagine what the original designers hoped for. As a campus, occupied by Royal Navy families with a common set of interests, a NAAFI and a community centre, I can imagine that it might have worked. But it does feel very isolated. You have to make a detour of up to a mile round the HMS Sultan training college to get into Gosport – and passing all that barbed wire is enough to make anybody feel unwelcome. I can see why it didn’t become the location of choice for civilians.
But building of new homes is going on apace at “Alver Village” as the southern part of Rowner is now to be known. From here new residents will be able to walk straight out onto Browndown Heath – an army training area, but quite safe for pedestrians. This is my route too, on my way to the new Enterprise Zone at Lee-on-the-Solent. On the heath in late November the gorse is still adorned with yellow blooms. Mind you this isn’t a sign of global warming. It’s certainly mild today, but as the old country people say, gorse will flower “in the kissing season”, which as long as your luck’s in can be any time of year at all.
I come out by the Browndown army camp. Here again the Forces are pulling out of Gosport. This 3 hectare “potential development opportunity” surrounded by heath is to be sold complete with its 5,000 sq m of buildings. “Development opportunity” is about right. The buildings look like something you could only use for a remake of The Great Escape. No sign of Steve McQueen on a motorbike though.
Soon the first houses of the little seaside resort come into view. Until the 1880s it was a solitary farm – called Lee Britain – but someone saw a development opportunity here too. I can’t quite see the sea yet, but the first floor balconies built into all the houses make it quite obvious that it isn’t far away.
Lee-on-the-Solent is quite the most well-to-do place I’ve walked through today. The shopping parade has its fruiterers, butchers, fish deli, bookshop and small supermarket, giving off the unmistakeable aura of a prosperous retirement community. On the front there are still people sitting outside the Bluebird Café, a Lee institution, eating ice cream. It feels an unlikely place for an Enterprise Zone. However, at the far end of the seafront is the evidence that I’ve reached my goal. The Fleet Air Arm war memorial, with several fresh wreaths of poppies from the recent Remembrance Day Service, stands proudly at the edge of what was for many years the home of the service – HMS Daedalus.
HMS Daedalus had a long and illustrious history. It first opened as an air base in 1917, and in the 1960’s was where the Combined Services Hovercraft Unit carried out trials of that then new innovation. The base finally closed in the 1990’s, but the runway is still operational. Since 2006 it has been home to the Coastguard area rescue centre – a far cry from my distant ancestor’s fight against smuggling in Hardway. There is also a Hovercraft Museum, and a number of the hangars are used by small businesses.
Now it is to be an Enterprise Zone , with the potential to generate 3,000 jobs in aerospace, marine and advanced manufacturing, while the Regional Growth Fund will pay to upgrade the airfield and support new aerospace businesses. The planning application is currently under consideration, and as far as I can tell the people of Lee are generally happy with it. They have already been through several rounds of consultation on the Planning Brief, and now there are only a few points to argue over: access roads, overlooking, and a secure future for the Hovercraft Museum. I think people see the continued operation of the airfield as a much better option than a big housing estate, which may have swamped Lee and taken away forever its timeless and friendly small town feel.
It’s not guaranteed to succeed of course. The runway is a big plus, and the slipway into the Solent could be too, although it is the other side of a busy road from the site. But there is plenty of competition in the south of England, which is why the benefits of the Enterprise Zone designation might make all the difference. If it does succeed it will certainly bring major benefits not just to places like Rowner, but to the whole of Gosport, which currently has only around 20,000 jobs for a Borough of 80,000 people.
Mind you it will bring some changes to Lee. I hear only two planes take off all the time I’m there. That is bound to increase. But Lee people seem proud of their town’s contribution to aviation, and the bookshop in the shopping parade has a locally produced pamphlet in pride of place detailing its history.
My journey ends in the Bun Penny. This pub, previously the Queen Victoria (the “Bun Penny” was a coin showing the old Queen with her hair in a bun), is the nearest to Daedalus. As I take a sip of my beer a 40’s big band track is playing. I can almost see the old Fleet Air Arm crews relaxing in here after a long wartime shift. Mind you the beer is a bit better now. Lack of essential ingredients meant the strength of British beer nosedived during the war, and took decades to recover. By contrast my pint of Oakleaf Hole Hearted is a taste explosion of citrus hops balanced by juicy malt and it slides down like a…
Sorry – I got a bit carried away there. I could have done that “Oz and James Drink to Britain” show if only I had been asked. Anyway rather fittingly my beer was brewed on almost the exact site of the Navy’s old brewhouse in Gosport – albeit in a modern industrial unit – keeping alive a centuries old tradition.
I get the bus back to Gosport for home. It’s dark now and as I wait to board the ferry the Spinnaker Tower across the harbour lights up the night sky like a scene from Star Wars. “Yes,” it seems to say to me “Portsmouth is where it’s at down here”. Gosport as a Navy town may be a shadow of what it once was, but the Solent Enterprise Zone could be about to find a whole new purpose for the place.