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17 January 2019
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Musings on the need to change with the times

11 March 2013

The grey mist swirled as I strode out beyond the line of buildings.

No challenge rang out, and nor did any sentry’s rifle fire. I stopped and looked around, and with every right to be where I was, for it was around 20 years ago that this piece of England ceased to be off limits to the likes of civilians like me.

As a child of the early 50s I grew up in the depths of the Cold War and four of the secret sites that were icons of that period were Greenham Common, where I took my lunchtime stroll yesterday, Aldermaston just to the west, Harwell a little to the north west and Porton Down a little further to the south west. To a boy feasting on spy thrillers any of these sites could crop up in a story and they had an almost mystical quality about them.

I was born in Newbury and the expansion of Greenham cost us our rented accommodation before I was a year old as the mighty dollar was there for the taking and tenants had little or no protection in those days.

The airbase that became home to the US Strategic Air Command and later to nuclear missiles therefore had an early impact on me, and a few years later when we lived a little further east our hamlet would turn out to cheer (or jeer) the Aldermaston marchers on their Easter stroll over the 50 odd miles from that base to Trafalgar Square for their rally. Harwell could be glimpsed from the Oxford ‘bus while Porton Down lurked somewhere beyond the hills as somewhere that truly nasty things went on at (Alistair Maclean’s Satan Bug was on the bookshelf at home).

Once the Cuban missile crisis had passed the onset of adolescence and the excitements that that brought saw these sites fade somewhat in my consciousness until the Greenham peace camp became headline news.

More recently I flew light aircraft from Blackbushe and Aldermaston was not too far off the end of our take off climb so a right turn would be made to comply with the minimum clearance for overflying the site. Just beyond Aldermaston the mile or so long scar that had been Greenham’s main runway stuck out like a sore thumb for miles and the area that we used for practise manoeuvres was in the triangle formed by those two sites and Harwell, so I got to know  them all again.

But it was as a result of becoming involved in facilities management that I have found myself visiting all four of those cold war icons for legitimate purposes, although Porton Down and Aldermaston are both still high security sites, Harwell is less so and Greenham has been returned to us to stroll upon.
Times change and we should never overlook that. Of the sites that I have been responsible for the strategic planning of one has been demolished and replaced by flats, another is being demolished to make way for a supermarket and a third has been absorbed into a larger, newer site.

We can let change happen to us or we can try to drive change. The strategy  meetings that I sat through on the now defunct sites that I’ve mentioned all featured a common thread; the users of those sites never once considered that they would soon become little more than a memory and unwilling to consider alternatives that would have allowed flexibility. I sometimes wonder what became of the people.

Survivors evolve to at least keep up, but winners change first.

John Bowen is an FM consultant