Leisure conference in place of strife

5th January 1996 at 00:00
When travel and tourism students at Newbury College decided to organise a conference as part of their work experience programme, they plunged themselves into conflicts which would challenge the most seasoned professional.

Greenham Common - the symbol of anti-nuclear protest in the 1980s - is up for grabs. Still owned by the Ministry of Defence, a multi-million bid to turn it into a leisure complex has been submitted by Newbury District Council and a consortium of local business.

But environmentalists want it returned to the heathland and forest it was before being requisitioned for an airbase at the outbreak of the Second World War. As a subject for a conference, it was guaranteed to provoke controversy.

The students' general national vocational qualifications course leader, Mike Callan, said: "This conference is all about managing conflict. It's a classic situation of the demands of leisure versus the need to conserve the environment."

In the end, it proved much more. All the problems which could beset conference organisers did happen. The caterer suddenly put up the prices. A party of students from another college had to cancel when staff went down with flu.

And, while the conference last term attracted 120 representatives from six colleges, the day coincided with the biggest winter freeze for 10 years.

Nevertheless after transport and fees were deducted students had managed to make a profit of Pounds 1,000 to help pay for a fact-finding visit to Atlanta next April to watch preparations for the Olympics.

If that was not enough, the event was besieged by hungry newshounds from the local press, radio and TV.

Maddy Clow, one of the two 17-year-old students leading the conference organisation, said: "You get the real-life experience of handling things that go wrong."

Students at the conference took a hard-nosed attitude, siding with the developers. Among their invited speakers was a Greenham peace campaigner, a local council planner, a representative from the Sports Council as well as environmentalists and local pressure groups.

But co-organiser Marie Pope, made the leisure and tourism students position clear, insisting that the need for a new leisure complex was desperate.

The local cinema and gymnasium had closed and the old airbase buildings were ripe for the Pounds 3-4 million redevelopment. "There are lots of employment opportunities for us here in redeveloping the airbase."

She added: "War could have happened. It didn't and the Greenham airbase was here to try and prevent it. I'd like to see the airbase turned over to leisure uses. Newbury needs it."

The students insist that the needs of a much wider community are at stake and have commissioned studies into the feasibility of converting hangars into multi-sports centres and of using the former airstrip for open air sports.

But other groups such as environmentalists fighting the A34 Newbury by-pass development oppose the project. They are far from happy with the development as a way of reconciling a new peacetime role and the base's recent troubles. But not all campaigners objected.

Peace campaigner Katrina Howse, who still lives in a caravan outside Greenham's main gate even though the camp still holds horrors for her, said: "We came together to take on the strongest military power the world has ever seen and we believed we had a right to do so. For us it meant the future of the whole world and a chance to stop a nuclear war that could have wiped us all out."

Now Katrina would like to see the old base providing local employment and welcomed the camp being turned to leisure use. The Greenham women now target their protests against nearby Aldermaston which makes Trident nuclear warheads.

But even leisure development may not be plain sailing. Steve Hunt, a leisure entrepreneur who has turned the camp's old gym into a dance hall and was an invited speaker, said: "The days of rapid expansion are over.

"This industry is now dominated by the big hotel and brewing chains. Opportunities are getting more and more limited and only the very best will make it."

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