Converting Air Force Base Ysterplaat and the Wingfield military base to low-cost housing sites is theoretically possible but at this stage impractical and prohibitively expensive if all the burden is placed on the Department of Defence.
This is according to African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier, who was commenting on the matter after repeated calls by political parties in the runup to municipal elections in November that state land be converted for low-cost housing and other uses.
“Ysterplaat and Wingfield are certainly in ideal locations for low-cost housing, and it may make sense to relocate the military units currently situated there so as to free up the space for that purpose. However, it would have to be a realistic proposal that has a plan for how to handle both the substantial cost of relocating those SANDF units as well as the Graaffs Trust’s restrictive rights over the land,” Olivier stated.
“None of the proposals that have been presented so far by any political party meet that standard, as all vaguely wave away the problem of relocation cost as a non-issue, when in reality it’s a core and crucial problem that will make it impossible for the Department of Defence to accept the ‘release’ of the land for any other purpose. In short, the cost of relocating the units presently at Ysterplaat and Wingfield to other locations is so high, and the defence budget so constrained, that if the DoD was forced to carry the costs the inevitable impact would be the forced closure of the units. That would mean a permanent crippling of the Air Force’s search and rescue and maritime patrol capabilities in the province and a severe impact on the Navy’s technical training.”
Air Force Base Ysterplaat is home to 35 Squadron, which performs maritime patrol with its C-47TP fleet, and 22 Squadron, which regularly uses its Oryx helicopters for search and rescue and firefighting. Having these capabilities in the area is important in light of South Africa’s maritime search and rescue treaties, which make it responsible for responding to air crashes in much of the Southern Ocean region. Wingfield hosts the Navy’s technical training unit and a supply depot.
“Wingfield would be the easier and simpler candidate for re-use, if only partially, given that a large portion of the base is unused and it would therefore be possible to slice off that section for low-cost housing without needing to move the existing naval facilities. The only complication there would be the Graaffs Trust conditions. It would also need less land and soil rehabilitation than Ysterplaat,” said Olivier.
He noted that much of the land on which Air Force Base Ysterplaat and Wingfield are built was acquired by the government over 80 years ago from the Graaffs Trust for a nominal fee, subject to the restriction that it be used for ‘for Defence purposes or as a civil aerodrome’ only. The Trust remains the pre-emptive rights holder and has to give approval for any other use of the land, whether that to its sale, use for low-cost housing, or similar. Failing an agreement, it has an automatic re-acquisition right of the land, likely at the equivalent of the original nominal cost.
“The Graaffs Trust’s pre-emptive rights over the land represent a problem which might substantially drive up the cost of releasing it for low-cost housing,” Olivier states. “For instance, when the government wanted to explicitly rezone Acacia Park for residential purposes in 2006, as it had been built on part of Wingfield, it was forced to pay the Graaffs Trust about R260 million in inflation-adjusted terms as part of a settlement agreement to remove the restrictive clause. Unfortunately the Trust’s current leadership have been ambiguous about their intentions should the land be released, with the clearest indication yet being Helen Zille’s 2018 statement (as Premier) that she ‘had a meeting with Brett Moore, who represents the Trust, and he says the trustees are perfectly ready to work with government to develop significant sections of the land for precisely the purpose we want.’ What exactly Moore meant by ‘significant’, and whether being ready to ‘work with government’ means releasing the land, will have an impact on costs and the number of houses that could be built.”
More significantly for the South African National Defence Force is the cost and potential impact of relocating the SANDF units currently resident at AFB Ysterplaat and Wingfield and of rehabilitating the sites for safe occupation, “both of which are completely unaffordable under the current defence budget,” Olivier believes.
“In the early 2000s, as part of a process which saw the SANDF close down and return to government dozens of bases, the South African Air Force investigated the closure of Ysterplaat and the relocation of its assigned units, such as 35 Squadron, 22 Squadron, 80 Air Navigation School, and 2 Air Servicing Unit to alternative sites at Cape Town International Airport, Air Force Base Overberg, and Air Force Base Langebaanweg. It was abandoned after it was discovered that only the initial costs to establish replacement facilities at all those locations would be over R200 million, not including many additional costs or rehabilitation.” It has been estimated that relocation costs, especially if any rehabilitation is required, would now amount to over R1 billion.
“A later proposal to turn Ysterplaat into a public-private partnership as a civilian airport also failed, owing to an inability to attract investors. Similarly, the Navy intended to move its facilities from Wingfield to Simon’s Town, but found the cost of building the replacement facilities to be unaffordable. Those were also at a time when the SANDF enjoyed a much larger budget than it does now,” Olivier pointed out.
“Worse,” he maintains, is that “the SAAF’s original planning to relocate away from Ysterplaat assumed that it would be able to expand into a section of Cape Town International Airport owned by the South African Police Service that 35 Squadron currently uses as an alternative operating base. It would have meant that there would have been no impact on search and rescue or firefighting response times, or on maritime patrol endurance and range. But the airport’s now-approved runway realignment and expansion plans means that’s no longer possible and so the cost and impact of a relocation away from Ysterplaat will now be substantially higher.”
The Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) had planned a major upgrade of Cape Town International, including a new runway, although those plans have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive reduction in revenue for ACSA that it brought about.
“I strongly believe that the Air Force and Navy are both willing to relocate from these bases in order to accommodate government’s need for housing, but they quite simply can’t do it under current funding levels. Not unless they just abandon the bases and close down units like 22 and 35 Squadrons,” Olivier maintains.
“Because the re-use of these sites is clearly regarded as being important for both local and national government, the only practical solution that does not cause severe harm is for the SANDF’s relocation from both bases to be funded out of the budgets of other local and national departments. That way everyone wins: large tracts of land are made available for low-cost housing, the SANDF is able to continue providing its crucial services like search and rescue, fire fighting, and maritime patrol to the region, and the cost can be spread so as not to be too large a burden on any particular department.”