James with representatives of 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards during a Welcome Home Event for 20th Armoured Brigade
James Gray MP with representatives from Google and The Countryside Alliance Foundation
James Gray MP welcoming representatives of 20th Armoured Brigade to Parliament
James at The Springfields Academy
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Conservative): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to have this debate, and to sit under your able chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am sure that the debate will be orderly and sensible with you looking after it.
I am here to talk about an extraordinarily important event for the people of North Wiltshire. The influence of RAF Lyneham in the community is extremely great, and the proposed closure of the RAF element of the base would, if nothing else were to be done about it, have a devastating effect. I thank my hon. Friends who have attended, particularly those from the county of Wiltshire-my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (John Glen) and for Chippenham (Duncan Hames). I also offer apologies from my hon. Friends the Members for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and for Devizes (Claire Perry), both of whom would have been here but unfortunately had to be elsewhere. We have, I think, unanimous support from Wiltshire Members, but I also see other hon. Friends with an interest in Wiltshire and am glad that they have taken the trouble to be here this morning.
I shall start by doing something one should never do, which is to disobey the Prime Minister. This time last week, Councillor Mary Champion, the mayor of Wootton Bassett, her deputy, Councillor Heaphy and Johnathan Bourne, the town clerk, had the great honour of being invited to No. 10 Downing street to see the Prime Minister, so that the Prime Minister could thank them and the people of Wootton Bassett for the efforts that they make in paying tribute to our fallen heroes as they come back down through Wootton Bassett high street. One of the things that the Prime Minister said to the mayor at that very pleasant meeting was, "Whatever you do, please don't let James start banging on about Lyneham. He's always banging on about Lyneham." I am sorry to have to say to the Prime Minister that I intend to continue to bang on about Lyneham as long as I possibly can, to the boredom of all who will listen, until we find a satisfactory solution, to avoid the potential catastrophe that would occur for my constituency if Lyneham were to be closed and nothing else were to be done. The issue is a huge one and I have taken a keen interest in it, and campaigned long and hard on it, over five or six years. It is about 12 months ago that we had a debate in this Chamber to discuss whether it was right that the RAF should leave the base. I am afraid I intend to keep up that effort until we come up with the right solution.
Before I move on to the substance of the matter, it is perhaps right, as we face the beginning of the end of repatriation ceremonies through Wootton Bassett, to pay tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett and surrounding areas. The Royal British Legion in Malmesbury, Chippenham, Calne and other parts come into the town, often once or twice in a week, in all weathers without fail, to bow their heads for two seconds in tribute to the coffins of the fallen that come back through the town. I think, looking back to the first of those occasions, that I was the only person there. It was after the tragic downing of flight XV179, the Hercules that was brought down in Iraq. I and the TV crews saw the 10 coffins coming through the high street. I said to the crews, "Turn off your cameras and we will go and pay our respects on the pavement." Ever since then, the people of Wootton Bassett have turned out in great numbers week by week. They do not want any thanks for it. They do it just because that is their civic duty and because they support the armed services, but none the less they stand proxy for the grief of the nation and it is right that we, here, should pay tribute to them. As we see the beginning of the end of those ceremonies, I hope that whichever place takes over the sad repatriation duties, whether that will be RAF Brize Norton or somewhere else, it will find some similar way of marking the occasion when the bodies are brought back to the nation.
This week there was a photograph in The Daily Telegraph of one of the last "Fat Albert" C-130s being carried by road past the iconic pillared town hall of Wootton Bassett. Seeing the end of RAF Lyneham coming down through the high street brought home a message to us all.
We in Wiltshire will say a sad farewell to the RAF. The nearby Yatesbury base still has the first world war officers' mess and hangars of the RAF, which was founded there roughly 100 years ago. Ever since then the RAF has had a home in Wiltshire. Sadly, when it leaves Lyneham later this year a long and distinguished link with the RAF will end.
Many people in the area are retired from the RAF. We thank the RAF for what it has done and say goodbye with great sadness. We have fought long and hard against the suggestion that the Hercules fleet should be moved to Brize Norton. I continue to believe that that is the wrong decision, but sadly it was taken too long ago to be reversed and we have now come to accept the reality that the RAF will leave. The last flights will be in August and September, and the base will be finally vacated by December 2012. We regret that and think that it is a wrong decision but have come to accept it as a fait accompli; there is nothing else we can do about it. So we say a sad farewell to the RAF and look forward to what will happen in the future.
I am concerned about the possibility that nothing will happen in the future, which is something that we have seen elsewhere; my own Government foolishly closed RAF Wroughton nearby and left it vacant for many years. Vandals moved in and the value declined, and the economy was damaged as a result. The same happened only 15 or 20 years ago when the Army left Corsham. Again, it was left vacant for a long time, the economy went down and the result was catastrophic.
Whatever happens to RAF Lyneham when the RAF leaves, we must re-use the site swiftly and cleanly. We must not allow Defence Estates to sit on it, or the vandals to move in. We must find a quick and speedy solution. After all, the local economy depends to a significant degree on the base. Something like 3,400 jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on it, according to a recent survey by Wiltshire council. About £90 million within the local economy comes from Lyneham. If the site were to be left vacant and nothing were to happen there it would be a disaster for the local economy. I am glad to say that two or three commercial interests are taking a keen interest in the site. I am working closely with them and will be keen to encourage them in every possible way and try to find other uses for the site. There are difficulties with that, but there are some commercial possibilities for the site, and I welcome that.
By far the strongest sense of what one might call local unanimity is on the point that when the RAF leaves later this year we would like the Army to return to the site. We were therefore much encouraged by what the Prime Minister had to say during his statement on the strategic defence and security review. He told the House that there would be
"changes in the way in which some RAF bases are used, but some are likely to be required by the Army as forces return from Germany. We owe it to communities up and down the country who have supported our armed forces for many years to engage with them before final decisions are taken."-[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 798.]
Well, there is no community, up and down the land, that has supported our armed forces more than that of Lyneham, Wootton Bassett, Calne and the surrounding area. I hope that the vacated RAF Lyneham base will be one of the most attractive for the Army returning from Germany.
We believe that Lyneham, unlike one or two of the other bases around Britain that are similarly making bids for the Army, has some unique selling propositions. First, we have an immensely strong military connection. Half the British Army is in Wiltshire. Wiltshire is a military place. It is an agricultural place. It is a place of market towns and villages, a place of high-tech industries -we must not forget that-but it is predominantly, overwhelmingly, agricultural and military. The whole ethos of the place is military. Many of the people are ex-military and the people in the area support the military. I suspect that things would be quite different in some other bases where local people would, frankly, breathe a sigh of relief as they said goodbye to the military presence in their constituency. The people of North Wiltshire would very much welcome the Army.
The dossier that I presented to the Minister this morning included letters from Wiltshire council, Lyneham parish council, Wootton Bassett parish council, the chamber of commerce and a number of other people, all of whom are saying that they would like the Army to come to Lyneham. As nothing in this world is unanimous, I will no doubt be hearing from some people who do not agree with me. None the less, the overwhelming feeling in North Wiltshire is that we would like the Army to come to Lyneham. There is also a strong benefit of such a move for the Ministry of Defence itself.
Our first unique selling proposition is that we strongly support the military. As to who we would like to see coming in, I have a number of possible answers. The Prime Minister has announced that some 15,000 soldiers are returning from Germany, the details of which I will come back to in a second or two. We believe that a flexible brigade could fit into Lyneham. The base may be slightly too small, but there could be room for a multi-role brigade. Failing that, there are a number of smaller units located around the area. One thinks of Colerne in which the Signal Regiment is based. Nearby Hullavington houses one of the two Royal Logistics Corps Regiments in the area, the other one being in South Cerney. There are a number of other similar small units dotted around the area that could usefully be co-located at Lyneham, thereby saving a lot of money.
It has also been said that the university air squadrons, which are dotted around the place, could reuse the hardstanding at Lyneham. The base, therefore, could either house a multi-role brigade or be used for co-location. Someone else mentioned the Anglo-French rapid reaction corps. I know that the people of North Wiltshire would very much welcome French service personnel if indeed they were to form part of the rapid reaction corps. The fact that we have the RAF infrastructure on the base means that we can deploy people rapidly. There are thousands of square feet of hardstanding, hangars and an air traffic control building, which would be useful assets in the rapid deployment of forces, whether they be the Anglo-French rapid reaction corps, special forces or others.
Lyneham has a number of significant assets that could be offered to the Army. Without delaying the House too much, let me quickly run through them. Lyneham is a 1,359 acre site, which is much bigger than any other RAF or Army base. It is fully equipped and will be vacant by 2012 at the latest. The last flights are scheduled for August or September this year. However, if the Army wanted to move into the base sooner, I dare say that the RAF could hasten its exit.
Lyneham's main asset is its location. It is 20 miles at most from Salisbury plain-just a few minutes' flying time. It is close to all sorts of other training assets and to the M4, so Wales is not far away. There is a large number of training bases across the county, and the site is close to London, Berkshire and elsewhere. Therefore, it is ideally located for training.
Some other parts of the RAF are being located elsewhere. It would be wrong of me to mention any bases in particular. However, I must say that last night, I attended the Adjournment debate of the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). I support what he had to say, and he said it very well. None the less, Leuchars would be quite different in terms of training areas, as would Lossiemouth. Lyneham, on the other hand, is at the heart of the military and offers real training space.
Although I am not privy to the MOD's sometimes arcane accounting procedures-one chap understood them, but he died some years ago-we all know, I think, that when the Army comes back in very large numbers from Germany, the MOD will not have vast sums of money to spend on it. Among other things, the Army will need substantial accommodation and training facilities for its military personnel.
At its peak, Lyneham housed 3,500 RAF personnel and their families. There is a married quarters estate of 610 houses for other ranks and 155 houses for officers, which will largely be vacated by 2014 at the latest, although I understand that a number are already occupied by soldiers from the 9 Supply Regiment Royal Logistics Corps.
There are 20 barrack blocks with 892 good-quality rooms. One block has multi-occupancy-rooms-two-man bedrooms-and four blocks have en-suite rooms, which is quite unusual. The sergeants' mess has 210 rooms and the officers' mess 135. Taking all the accommodation together, there are more than 2,000 bed spaces available, and they are available today, or as soon as the RAF leaves. The Army could literally march in as the RAF flies out.
The other ranks' dining room has capacity for 1,000 people. There is a large Navy, Army and Air Force Institute building, a Spar shop and every kind of sports facility-fitness suites, sports hall, tennis courts, squash courts, trim trail, four rugby and football pitches, a cricket square and a bowling alley. There is just about everything that one could possibly want by way of sporting facilities. Moreover, there is ample space for building a new barrack block or other facilities if they were needed.
The whole site is secure. The fence has recently been redone. There is some 14 km of fence around the site. Inside the wire, there are training facilities that include a lecture theatre and conference room, a training centre with three classrooms, various small classrooms, a 25-metre rifle range, a respirator testing chamber and a four-lane dismounted combat trainer, all of which would be useful for an incoming Army unit. The camp has several headquarters buildings, an unlimited supply of office space-the RAF seems to need a large numbers of offices, but the Army needs rather fewer. The site has a total of 12 hangars, with 52,000 square metres of internal storage space. It has about 50 hectares of runways and parking areas, which could presumably be used as hardstanding for all sorts of things. For example, there could be helicopter or fixed-wing rapid deployments from the base. The extensive runways would also be useful.
The site has vast military transport facilities. I am told that it has an 81,000 litre diesel and 27,000 litre petrol kerbside facility, an air traffic control building, fire services, explosives stores and so on. There are also first-class, recently rebuilt medical and dental centres. The infrastructure is all there. Although some parts of it may be a little tired, the MOD has, none the less, recently spent £5 million on upgrading the base. As I understand it, the standards required by the Army are slightly lower than those required by the RAF. Although the RAF may think some of the facilities are a little tired, I suspect that the Army would say, "This is significantly better than some of the places that we have found elsewhere."
I appreciate that the standard of accommodation in Germany is very high, as it should be, so if we are bringing soldiers back, we will have to offer them equivalent accommodation. In short, after a bit of rebuilding and tidying up, the site could be a most worthwhile base at a minimum cost to the MOD. If the MOD were to take over a less well supplied base, the cost would be considerable. There are, of course, many examples of RAF bases being reused by the Army across England. In my own constituency, RAF Hullavington is now home to the 9 Supply Regiment Royal Logistics Corps and Bassingbourn and Abingdon are both good examples of reusing RAF sites for the Army.
In addition to the military infrastructure that is readily available to the Army, there is good local infrastructure. Although Lyneham is predominantly a military village, the schools, roads, and shops are all in place. The Army could move in tomorrow and it would find that the civilian infrastructure was available. I was recently at a meeting with the head of the local primary school, who was very concerned that the RAF was leaving the area. The school is first class and was recently reopened by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall. It could be available for use by the Army tomorrow. Very few places in the area could offer that kind of facility.
It seems that we in Lyneham are offering just what the Army needs. There is an additional, if not slightly negative, reason why the MOD should consider Lyneham's facilities. There could be problems with regard to the base if the Army were not to use it. It appears that there is a Crichel Down problem. I think that some 60 owners are laying some claim to the base and it could take some time-potentially, although not necessarily-for the Crichel Down thing to go through. However, that issue certainly needs further examination. Furthermore, if the base were to be handed over to civilian use there would doubtless have to be a significant level of decontamination, which would obviously have to be done to remove explosives, oil and other materials from the site. If that were to happen and the site were left vacant for a time, there would be all the costs of maintaining the site during the period that it was vacant, so there would be a significant cost to the Treasury of not doing something with the site swiftly.
So, from the point of the view of the Army, RAF Lyneham is fcalhighly attractive and from the point of view of the MOD, RAF Lyneham is a useful solution to a problem that it has. The MOD has been instructed to bring 15,000 soldiers in total back from Germany and it is currently considering what to do with them. The use of the site is also a useful solution from the point of view of the local area, which will face economic catastrophe if the Army does not use the site or if there is no alternative commercial use for it. Actually, marching the Army in as the RAF flies out some time later this year-I suppose that now it would have to happen next year-seems to be an extremely neat solution to a variety of problems. We have what the Army needs; the Army needs us; the Treasury needs Lyneham, and the local area needs the Army and would welcome the Army, as local people have made very clear. Also, I think that the nation owes a little bit to RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett for all that they have done in recent years.
So I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the debate this morning. I am glad that we have such a large number of people here supporting our efforts. I do not imagine that the Minister will do anything other than listen carefully and nod wisely. I am not asking him to answer my requests straight away. However, I hope that he will listen carefully to what I have said; that he and his officials will read the dossier that I have given them; and that we have at least been able to add some knowledge to the consideration that I know is currently going on among large numbers of people at the MOD. I believe that Lyneham would be ideal for the Army and I also believe that the Army needs Lyneham.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Thank you for calling me, Mr Betts. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.
First, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing this excellent debate and on the way in which he has made his case so eloquently. He and I have attended a number of debates in the past few months, which were secured by the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and, as he has mentioned, the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell).
What is very clear is the deeply held affection that communities up and down the United Kingdom have for their military bases, which has been demonstrated by their Members of Parliament. I am sure that we all pay tribute to the community around RAF Lyneham for the way in which it, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has said, has conducted itself and supported our gallant and fallen service personnel on their return from overseas.
I simply wish to make a few observations to the Minister to tease out some answers, as the hon. Gentleman has already tried to do. The Minister will obviously be aware that a large number of troops are due to return from overseas in the next few years. Obviously, he will also be aware that when the Chief of the Defence Staff appeared before the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, he introduced a note of caution about the timetabling for the return of the troops from Germany.
It will probably not surprise you, Mr Betts, or indeed the Chamber, that two issues in particular concerned the CDS, and it is fair to say that those concerns were shared by the Defence Committee-I say that as I look at the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who is also a member of that Committee. The first was the issue of the troops' families. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has already said, it is not simply a case of bringing home 15,000 servicemen and women, because their families will obviously need to be accommodated. I remind the Minister that, according to his own Department's figures, accommodation for some 25,000 personnel within the defence estate of the United Kingdom is considered to be not of the highest standard, and my understanding is that there are currently no plans to upgrade that accommodation.
The second issue that concerned the CDS, as he pointed out when he appeared before the Defence Committee, is how we will educate the children of the returning service personnel. I do not wish to repeat the argument that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and I had during consideration of the Armed Forces Bill about how to educate those children, but there is a very real issue about the schooling that we need to provide for all the children of returning personnel.
Mr Gray: It is worth paying tribute to the first-class Wootton Bassett comprehensive school, which is two or three miles down the road from Lyneham. At the moment, of course, its pupils are 30% to 40% RAF, so we would have primary and secondary school places immediately available in the surrounding area, if necessary.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I hope that the Minister will be able to go slightly further and give a guarantee that, as part of the assessment that I am sure he is making, there will be a proper assessment of the current capacity for education of returning service personnel's children and, if necessary, a guarantee that additional funds will be provided to any of the military bases-or rather, the local authorities in whose areas the military bases are located-that are chosen to house returning personnel, to ensure that we do not have a surplus of demand over capacity and so that no local authority is left with challenges as a result. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that the schools in his local area already have that capacity, but I nevertheless hope that the Minister will carry out a proper assessment of this issue.
Regarding the accommodation of service personnel and their families, I would be grateful if the Minister were to tell the Chamber whether the MOD is confident that all accommodation at RAF Lyneham is of the highest standard. If it is not, can he say what the timetable is for bringing it up to a suitable standard?
As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will recall, we touched on the final issue that I want to raise with the Minister today in last night's Adjournment debate. I have a long-standing concern that the MOD has perhaps not always carried out its decision making in a duly transparent way and has not sought to ensure that the communities affected by its decisions are the first to know about them. I hope that the Minister can give a guarantee today that not only will the process for any decision making on the return of troops and their stationing within the UK be conducted in a clear manner and that he will share the details of that process with the House and the Defence Committee, but that he will do everything within his power to ensure that the communities affected by those decisions are the first to know about them, then the House and lastly the media, rather than what has unfortunately happened in the past, where the media have found out about decisions before the communities affected by them.
I want to end by again congratulating the hon. Member for North Wiltshire on securing this debate and on his powerful words.
John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) for securing this debate. As someone who grew up in north Wiltshire and who is aware of the footprint that RAF Lyneham has in the local area and in the county more widely, I also pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done during the past seven years in campaigning to keep the RAF at Lyneham and to the work that he is now doing, as he reflects the reality of the decisions that have been made, looks to the future and seeks a constructive way forward.
I speak as both a Wiltshire MP and as a member of the Select Committee on Defence. It seems to me that there are three significant reasons why this case for having the Army come to RAF Lyneham needs to be carefully examined.
The first reason is that it is quite clear that there is huge symbolic significance to RAF Lyneham and its relationship with Wootton Bassett. It is impossible for the Government to pay great tribute, with one voice, to the people of Wootton Bassett, which is just a few miles down the road from RAF Lyneham, for all that they have done to recognise the huge contribution of all those who have fallen in battle, and at the same time, with another voice as it were, not to go out of their way to recognise the impact that this decision, if it does not go the right way, would have on the local community. Effectively, RAF Lyneham is the gateway between the UK and Afghanistan, and over many years the people of the surrounding area have made a massive contribution to the well-being of service personnel's families.
The motto of RAF Lyneham is "Support, Save and Supply". As my hon. Friend has set out fully this morning, the opportunities for RAF Lyneham to continue to serve the armed forces-in this case, the Army-are significant. The infrastructure is in place, and I do not need to point to the long history over the past 50 years of the people of Lyneham and Wootton Basset's service to the nation, but the decision has clearly been made to move the RAF to Brize Norton. We have to acknowledge, however, that we cannot make such decisions wholly without emotion and without respect for the wider issues at play in the vicinity.
The second reason is the economic value of RAF Lyneham. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) knows that the Defence Committee, of which I, too, am a member, looks at the strategic issues, but the economic arguments are massive. There are about 2,500 civilian and military personnel at Lyneham, and several thousand acres of land are connected with the base. The impact on the local economy has been estimated at about £90 million a year, so if Lyneham were to no longer have a significant military footprint, a considerable gap would be left which, as the chairman of Wootton Bassett chamber of commerce has pointed out, would be unsustainable. If the decision does not go the right way, there will be a direct adverse impact on the economy of Wootton Bassett.
Thirdly and finally, the strategic defence and security review has reached some uncomfortable conclusions, and it has made some difficult assessments of what needs to happen over the next 10 years, driven by the acknowledged financial mess that the Government have inherited. With 10,000 to 15,000 troops returning to the UK, we need to find the right situation for them to locate to, and it is absolutely clear that in Wiltshire the Army has a very welcoming home. In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), there are so many strategic reasons why it would make sense for the Army to locate to Lyneham. It has been suggested that the Royal Logistics Corps could move from South Cerney and Hullavington to the Lyneham base, but a number of other options are available.
I ask the Minister for a timely decision, because considerable ongoing debate would leave the local economy open to lots of uncertainty. If that is not possible, we must ensure that we put in place a clear plan for the economic regeneration of the area, and allow the options to be fully explored and quickly executed. If there is a problem with the transfer of assets from the RAF to the Army, it needs to be worked out and dealt with quickly and sensibly, rather than allowing internal wrangling in the Ministry of Defence to stop progress.
The case seems very clear: Lyneham is a symbolic home of the armed forces and should continue to be so, whether for the RAF or the Army. There is an absolutely sound economic case for that, and it also presents an effective, practical solution to a problem that will need to be dealt with over the next 10 years. An Army base at Lyneham makes sense, but we must ensure that it happens quickly, so that the people there can have some reassurance after their massive contribution over the past 10 years.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I congratulate my neighbour, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), on securing the debate and, in particular, on the dexterity and skill that went into securing a 90-minute one, which affords many more of us the opportunity to participate. I rise primarily to demonstrate the shared interests of my constituents and his.
Despite Wiltshire being a rural county, it has great affection for Lyneham and the RAF there. As we have heard, ordinary Wiltshire people, far beyond the confines of Wootton Bassett, share in the honourable act of respect for our fallen, and I have on occasion bumped into Chippenham residents after a repatriation there. Even before I was elected to Parliament, I was privileged to have the opportunity to visit RAF Lyneham as part of the excellent Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers programme-SaBRE-where we saw a well maintained, busy base, which clearly had a number of people who lived further afield than the base participating in the effort. That is an important consideration in our approach to the future for Lyneham.
My honourable neighbour has made a comprehensive case for the military benefits of the Army coming to Lyneham, and I recognise that that must be the primary basis for any decisions, but it is important that I take the opportunity to set out some more of the economic consequences of the current situation. We have heard that the estimated contribution to the economy of the MOD's involvement at RAF Lyneham is some £90 million a year, and my constituents voluntarily raise the topic of that economic impact with me. The impact is felt over a wide area, and is reflected in the wide array of partners that have come together under his chairmanship of the Lyneham taskforce, as it has sought to put together a vision for Lyneham. Members of the taskforce include the South West regional development agency, Wiltshire council, Westlea-our local social landlord-and, importantly I would argue, the Wessex association of chambers of commerce, which, among representatives of business groups has a very acute understanding of the concerns of businesses in the area, and is an association of which I was a member until May last year.
I am pleased to report a conversation with the chairman of Chippenham chamber of commerce, who is very keen for the Army to come to Lyneham. The chamber is very concerned about the widespread and, from the point of view of ordinary members, hard to quantify consequences of leaving Lyneham empty. I suppose that we must consider that we might be unsuccessful in our calls today, for it will not be easy for either Wiltshire or the Ministry of Defence, to achieve alternative futures for Lyneham, which the taskforce has carefully considered. Nevertheless, it is important that the Minister is aware that there is an easy alternative.
With level heads, the members of the taskforce have considered the future aviation use of the airfield and have concluded that a commercial airport development at RAF Lyneham would be wholly inappropriate. I echo the views expressed earlier in the debate of the importance of a timely decision. Too many communities in other parts of the country have seen areas blighted because unused defence assets have been hung on to, which ultimately leads to a very expensive regeneration effort. It is certainly the view of people in Wiltshire that we need a clear future for Lyneham before very long.
Without wishing to stray too far from the subject, there are lengthy debates about housing development in Wiltshire, and it is important to recognise that there are no easy get-outs to be had from taking such advantage of the land in Lyneham. Surely it is essential that any future development in Wiltshire involves sustainable communities. It would be a travesty if we built housing developments that did not provide jobs for the people living in our communities. Considering the large population expansions that even Wiltshire council still seems to desire in places such as Chippenham, we cannot afford to remove many jobs, which would create a great imbalance in the local economy.
Importantly, although the site is large, not all of it is suitable for development. We must consider the potential agricultural returns on the site, if it were not successfully reused by the Ministry of Defence. I urge the Department not to see the land as an asset to be sweated or a cash cow presenting financial benefit, or to use that as a reason not to support the exceptionally well-developed case made by all the partners under the leadership of my neighbour the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. I invite the Minister to consider in particular our anxiety for a swift decision about the future of Lyneham and the community's immense appetite for its continued association with the Ministry of Defence. It is an opportunity for us, as a community, to show our hospitality to the Army.
Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), who has campaigned assiduously for Lyneham and for investment in his constituency. I was born in Chippenham and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), I grew up in north Wiltshire. I therefore feel that I should make a brief contribution to support my hon. Friend and say that the key factor about RAF Lyneham is how much support it has had from local communities.
Lyneham, with its Hercules fleet, generates a lot of noise but precious few complaints. I lived in the area during the Falklands war, when lots of Chinook helicopters were ferrying supplies at all times of the day. Local people show great support for the RAF, and the RAF has been a good neighbour. Indeed, some of the biggest arguments that I have seen at local parish councils concern whose turn it is to go to the open day at Lyneham and perhaps get a trip in an aircraft. People value the connection with Lyneham, which is an important point for the future.
Mr Gray: I thank my hon. Friend for being here to speak in support of this debate. He is absolutely right. In my 14 years as a Member of Parliament for Lyneham, I do not remember a single letter of complaint from any constituent. There was one exception when a clay pigeon shoot was being held too near the wire-we had it moved-but with regard to military activity, I cannot remember a single complaint.
Mr Syms: That certainly reinforces my point that north Wiltshire and the military have had a close relationship. As my hon. Friend has said, Lyneham is a tremendous asset, given its sporting facilities and existing housing. I do not know what condition it is in-the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) made a good point about the state of the defence estate; we must ensure that our armed service personnel have good-quality homes-but it is a material factor.
Lyneham is not only a good base for deploying units from Germany on military grounds, because we should pay attention to what is good for armed service personnel's families. There are homes near the base, but there are also a wide range of homes in the community for those who wish to buy. It is an RAF tradition for people to live in all the communities around the base including not only Swindon, but Chippenham, Calne, Wootton Bassett and Malmesbury-a lot of personnel have become part of local communities. North Wiltshire is an incredibly good place to live. It is conveniently located for the training grounds on Salisbury plain and in south Wales. I consider it a no-brainer to use Lyneham for a good military purpose.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) made the good point that, with the RAF going, a swift decision is sensible, so that we can make use of this tremendous asset and locate the military somewhere that they can train and base their families, with good-quality schools and education and a supportive community. That would be a good decision for the MOD, serving personnel and their families and the people of north Wiltshire, who have done a lot to support the military and will continue to do so.
Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing this important debate and on his work to support and champion the armed services generally as chairman and founder of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces. He hosts troops returning from Afghanistan here in the House of Commons, and I know that he served with the Honourable Artillery Company, so he has a personal understanding of the armed services. He has also been a champion and advocate for RAF Lyneham and his constituents for many years. I commend him on his tenacity in ensuring that the future of the base remains on the political agenda, despite the sad news that the RAF will be leaving Lyneham, with final vacant possession by December 2012.
It is right to pay tribute to the local community for its support of the armed services. We have all seen the poignant tributes on television in which local people and others from far afield pay homage to the fallen servicemen and women repatriated from Afghanistan who land at RAF Lyneham and then proceed through Wootton Bassett High street. It stands out in all our minds. Those residents express the gratitude that our nation feels to those who sacrifice their lives to protect our freedoms and way of life. That symbol of local support never fails to move me. It is one of the reasons why, to my mind, RAF Lyneham is well placed to become a new home for the Army. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, people in the area have unwillingly accepted that Lyneham will cease to be an RAF base by 2012. That is not to say that acceptance has been easy, but he has been resolute in championing Lyneham and making the case against its closure.
It is with a heavy heart that the people of North Wiltshire must say a sad farewell to the harmonious bond that they have had with the RAF for 80 years. However, the new Government have given at least some encouraging news. We were all heartened to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's announcement that as part of the strategic defence security review, which other hon. Members have mentioned, our service personnel will return from Germany and some of them will be rehoused on a redundant RAF base. I take this opportunity to echo some of my hon. Friend's sensible arguments why Lyneham has much to offer as a home to some of our returning troops, but first, giving examples from my own experience, I will explain why maintaining an armed forces presence in Lyneham is of undeniable benefit.
As a Territorial Army recruit, I did most of my basic training at the Prince of Wales barracks in Grantham, which used to be an RAF base. I was posted to the Royal Citadel in Plymouth for six months before being deployed on Operation Herrick. Both camps are integral to their local communities, have a large beneficial effect on them and help project a positive image of the Army, with all the obvious benefits that that brings. Local areas clearly benefit socially and economically from the presence of a military base.
In Lyneham's case, the withdrawal of service personnel from the local community would have an immense impact. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, the study commissioned by Wiltshire council in 2009 demonstrated that the gross added value to the local community would be reduced by up to £90 million. Furthermore, 3,400 jobs in local services, retail and other sectors were likely to become redundant, and real household disposable income would decline by about £86 million. That is an obvious impact on local people. He was also right to mention the devastating economic consequences that the local area could face if the base closed permanently.
Besides the economic effects, one thing is abundantly clear: the people of Lyneham and the local area would welcome the Army, which must be one of our biggest considerations. Given Wiltshire's strong military connections and Lyneham's proximity to Salisbury plain, I see it as a natural choice for rehousing troops returning from Germany or further afield. Local people not only accept Lyneham as a military site-service personnel are already well integrated into Lyneham and the surrounding areas-but, given that 21,000 military personnel and their dependants reside in the county as a whole, the local area would need to change little if Lyneham, as we hope, becomes an Army base. As my hon. Friend has informed us, letters of support from the local community and the chamber of commerce are a clear indication that that is desired across the board.
In conclusion, I agree that rehousing returning troops at Lyneham would provide the Army with a large, convenient and well-resourced base close to major training areas and other military sites and offering readily accessible family accommodation. It is overwhelmingly clear that local people would welcome it, which is far from guaranteed elsewhere. There are prevailing reasons why serious and urgent consideration should be given to moving the Army to the site as soon as possible.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I am grateful, Mr Betts, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. May I join the tributes to my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray)? For many years, he has done his level best to maintain the presence of the Royal Air Force at Lyneham. Indeed, prior to the election, I had several conversations with him about his work, and I was struck in particular by the report that he and others prepared before the election. It outlined the very basis on which he secured today's debate, and it argued that civilian use of the Lyneham airfields was not appropriate, that the clean-up costs for the area would be considerable and that logic therefore dictated that military use of some kind-that is, the Army-was appropriate. I support that wholeheartedly.
Mr Gray: I am sorry for interrupting my hon. Friend's fine speech, but I want to correct him on one small point. I am absolutely committed to keeping the RAF at Lyneham and, after that, totally committed to getting the Army on to the site, but if there is to be no military use for it, I believe that we could use it for other civilian, commercial and industrial uses. I would certainly work with industry to try to make that possible and would not rule out commercial use.
Mr Buckland: Forgive me, but I was talking about was the site's lack of suitability for use as a civilian airport. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) also made that point. It would be incorrect to say that Lyneham has an unlimited range of options, and it is important that we reinforce that point. I support my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, however, in saying that, if we cannot retain military use for the area, we clearly need an action plan for commercial use, so that we can generate much-needed jobs.
The communities of North Wiltshire and of Wiltshire in general have always supported the presence of the Royal Air Force in their county. Moreover, it would be wrong of me not to pay tribute to the residents of Swindon, who play such an important part not only in supporting the work of RAF Lyneham, but in playing host to many personnel-both current and former-who work at the base but who live in my constituency or that of North Swindon. Some of the former personnel serve on Swindon council and are great friends of mine. They have years of experience in the RAF and feel strongly that, if Lyneham cannot be retained for use by the Royal Air Force, it should be retained in some military capacity.
I pay tribute to the community of Wootton Bassett for playing host to the repatriation ceremonies. Anybody who has been to a ceremony will know exactly what my hon. Friend is talking about. It is a unique atmosphere in which the residents of the town, without too much fuss, take a few minutes from their busy lives to give time and space to pay homage to those returning from Afghanistan, whose families are given time to mourn their loss. Indeed, my hon. Friend and I had the pleasure and the honour of attending the Royal British Legion's field of remembrance in November, which was hosted by His Royal Highness Prince Harry. The event took place at Lydiard park in my constituency, but it was designed to acknowledge the contribution of Wootton Bassett and of the communities of North Wiltshire and Swindon to the repatriation ceremonies. At the end of those ceremonies, many motor vehicles containing my constituents returned to Swindon having played their part in supporting the town of Wootton Bassett.
I am grateful that my hon. Friend has referred to RAF Wroughton. It was an air base in my constituency, but it is now home to a large collection of Science museum artefacts that cannot be stored in London. The fact that they are now stored in the hangars of RAF Wroughton is an innovative use of the site. My hon. Friend is right to say, however, that far too much time was lost after the closure of the base to determine what would happen. Time brings deterioration and uncertainty, and it causes many problems in relation to sites as large as Wroughton-Lyneham is, of course, a very large site indeed.
It is right to pay tribute in passing to the former Princess Alexandra hospital, which served not only the RAF, but all military personnel so well until its sad, unfortunate and, I would say, wrong closure in 1996. Perhaps those who took that decision did not foresee the huge demands now placed upon the medical service by those who return from the theatre of war who are scarred not only physically, but psychologically by their experiences. As the MP and the candidate for South Swindon, it has been wonderful over the past few years to meet so many people who have shared their experiences of the theatre of war with me. They have educated me in some of the difficult issues faced by former and current service personnel.
Mr Gray: My hon. Friend is speaking extremely well on the subject. He is quite right about RAF Wroughton. As someone who was a special adviser to the Conservative Government who closed RAF Wroughton, we should put our hands up and say, "That was wrong-we shouldn't have done it." It was a first-class place and a very useful facility, and I wish that we had it today. I fear that the decision in relation to RAF Lyneham may be rather similar and that, if we let it go and do not put the Army there, we will look back in 10 years and say, "What a damned silly decision that was."
Mr Buckland: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and I share his views entirely. Some important points have been made, particularly by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), about accommodation. It would be wrong to say that RAF Lyneham, although it is in a semi-rural setting, is not near large centres of population. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) has said, many service personnel who work in Lyneham live in Swindon, which as you will know, Mr Betts, is a large town with a large population. We have for many years happily paid host to service personnel and their families. Having met many of them over the years, I know that they are happy and content to live in a community that welcomes them and that readily acknowledges the contribution of the armed services in the local area.
I do not, therefore, think that accommodation is at all the problem. In fact, I cannot identify a problem that would be an obstacle to the Army locating to Lyneham. As many other colleagues have said, Lyneham's proximity to the M4 and its generally central location in southern England make it an ideal location for large numbers of Army personnel. Frankly, I cannot think of a better place to relocate returning personnel from Germany. I do not think that there are any obstacles to bringing our personnel back to Lyneham.
I also point out that leisure facilities in Swindon are enjoyed by service personnel. We have all sorts of facilities-cinemas, sports venues, an ice rink, swimming pools, leisure centres-and plenty for the families of service personnel to enjoy. Indeed, the facilities are currently being enjoyed by service personnel, who, as I have said, are a very important part of our community.
I have mentioned the need for urgency and for decisions to be made quickly. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) has said that a timely decision is needed, and I cannot put it better myself. If the Army cannot be located to Lyneham, will the Government help the local council, local businesses and the local chambers of commerce to come together to draw up an economic plan for the use of the site?
Schools have been mentioned, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has referred to Wootton Bassett comprehensive school. Again, plenty of primary and secondary schools in Swindon are already being used by service personnel, who I am sure would warmly welcome the children of Army personnel who relocate to Lyneham. In my view, it would be a seamless transfer if the Army came to Lyneham. It would not be the imposition of a wholly new culture on a community that was unfamiliar with it and that did not understand or appreciate the contribution of the armed services.
I urge the Minister and the Government to take up the suggestions made today and in other places to acknowledge the contribution of the local community to the life of our armed services, and to conclude that Lyneham is a no-brainer when it comes to relocating Army personnel from Germany.
Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to his hon. Friends for attending the debate and showing support for the case that he has made. I appreciate from their contributions that they have given support over significant time and that they recognise the difficulties that lie ahead.
I fully recognise the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the future of the base, its potential use and the undoubted socio-economic consequences of the closure of RAF Lyneham in just under two years' time. As has been said a couple of times this morning, he was present in the main Chamber yesterday evening, when the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) initiated an Adjournment debate- albeit a significantly less time consuming one-on his local RAF base at Leuchars. He made a strong defence of the need to retain Leuchars on the grounds of its militarily strategic location, and he sought to raise the important matter of the socio-economic impact of such a closure.
I recognise that a number of local chambers of commerce from the hon. Gentleman's constituency, including Wootton Bassett, have joined together to make the case for replacement employment at Lyneham. I want to put on the record my ongoing support for the people of Wootton Bassett. They have shown strength and fortitude over many months and, at the repatriation ceremonies that have regrettably taken place far too often, they have provided support for the families of those servicemen who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country.
Unlike the uncertainty that surrounds RAF Leuchars, Lossiemouth or Marham, after a base review that took two years to conclude, it was determined in July 2003 that Lyneham would cease to operate in its current form. However, I recognise that that does not make it any easier for the people who are either on the base or living within the surrounding communities. Hon. Members have made the case that they want to see early decisions-the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) has said that swift decision making is important-but it is important that the right decisions are made. We need to take appropriate time to think through the consequences of any decision. I wholeheartedly agree that when that site is vacated, swift action should be taken to put something else in place. If nothing happens when not only military bases but major employers in all parts of the country vacate large sites, those sites can rapidly turn into wastelands. Considering the beauty of the hon. Gentleman's constituency and the surrounding area, we do not need a wasteland to develop at that location.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that the site is ideally located for training and that there is a standard of available accommodation. From what he said at the beginning of his contribution, I know that he appears to have the Prime Minister's support. Irrespective of which party we are in, many of us would consider that having the Prime Minister's support would mean we were making the right noises.
Mr Gray: Although I might seem to be arguing against my own case, I should perhaps make it clear that the Prime Minister has not said that he necessarily supports the Army going to RAF Lyneham. He knows that RAF Lyneham is one of a number of sites that the MOD is considering, and he has encouraged me to make the argument very strongly, but it would be quite wrong to claim that the Prime Minister has spoken in support of my argument, as he simply has not.
Mr Brown: The hon. Gentleman was just a little bit sharp on his feet, because I was about to make the point that he has the support of the Prime Minister in at least making the case. From what I have read in the Western Daily Press, the case needs to be made to the Secretary of State for Defence and to the Minister. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman might be somewhat anxious that back on 31 August it was being said that the Secretary of State,
"has played down the chances of the West's biggest RAF base being occupied by thousands of soldiers".
If the manner in which the press have reported that is correct, the hon. Gentleman still has a battle to fight.
Mr Gray: I am most grateful for the hon. Gentleman's advice. The journalist who wrote that story, my good friend Tristan Cork, acknowledges that it is based on absolutely no facts whatsoever. The story was, of course, written before the strategic defence review was announced and before we knew that the soldiers were coming back from Germany. Dear old Tristan, who is a very good journalist and a close friend of mine, will acknowledge that he is not absolutely certain what that story was based on.
Mr Brown: I am astonished that journalists are not correct all the time, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's point.
As I said at the beginning of my contribution, it is clear that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have been arguing the case for RAF Lyneham since the announcement was first made in 2003. It is clear from the debate that he is not giving up one iota in bringing forward proposals for the future of the base. He has given the Minister what appears to be a significant document that outlines exactly what he would like to see. From what we have all heard in debates over the past weeks and months, however, I am sure that he recognises that something of a pitched battle is going on, because more than 15,000 troops are coming back from Germany. People are staking their claims to have those troops return to a variety of different locations across the UK to fill the gap that will be left when bases close. It will be appropriate for the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State to look at all those cases carefully before the final decision is made.
I am aware that, during the intervening period since the announcement of the base closure, certain tentative proposals have been flagged up. I only want to mention one, namely the proposal for the base to become a possible location for a consolidated support helicopter base under Project Belvedere. Regrettably for the hon. Gentleman, those on the base and the wider community, it was concluded that the proposal did not represent best value for money. Specifically, it was decided that the efficiencies that could have been achieved from such a major rationalisation programme would not produce the necessary return, given the investment that would have been required. If we are to consider whether some of the bases that will become vacant should become Army accommodation, perhaps some locations are more appropriate than others. The Minister may confirm this a little later, but significant investment might be needed in some of these locations. Value for money should be the underlying principle when the Government consider what to do.
I shall briefly return to the issue of decision making, because the Minister said yesterday evening:
"we do not expect that work to be concluded for some time yet, but we hope it will be by the summer."-[Official Report, 25 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 270.]
I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity this morning to say whether the decision on the future of RAF Lyneham will be taken at the same time as the decision on all the other bases currently under review. It would be inappropriate if the Department and Ministers were looking at one set of bases and not reaching a decision on the subject of this discussion, so I hope that they are all in the melting pot together. I also want the Minister to give an indication of what options the Department and the Government are considering, if he can give any indication at all.
The big issue, to my mind, is the socio-economic impact of what is happening or is likely to happen. The hon. Member for Chippenham has mentioned £90 million per annum flowing into the local economy, which is a significant sum. Such a gap cannot be plugged easily. I am not convinced, although I am no economist, that merely by moving in a couple of thousand Army personnel and their families, we would plug the gap if that £90 million were lost.
Mr Gray: May I correct the hon. Gentleman slightly? I do not mean to intervene on him too often and am most grateful to him for being so generous with his time. He is wrong, because if 2,000 or 3,000 soldiers and their families were to move into the area, it would exactly replicate the RAF personnel who are leaving and would indeed plug the economic gap that he has described. If we got a reasonable number of soldiers in there, it would be precisely what we want for the local economy.
Mr Brown: I bow to the hon. Gentleman's probably better knowledge of what is happening in the locality. The main point that I am trying to make, to support the hon. Member for Chippenham, is that £90 million is a significant sum. That will need to be carefully considered.
In respect of finance, is the Minister prepared to say whether a specific and dedicated budget to assist with any transition arrangements for RAF Lyneham will be available? He will be determined to ensure that he keeps a tight check on the budget in the Department, but what additional support might be available to the local community if the MOD is not prepared to fulfil some of the wishes expressed this morning?
I fully recognise that it has been a traumatic time since the initial announcement in July 2003, and it is still a worrying time. Whatever the decision that Ministers and the Secretary of State make and whatever the outcome, if it is not good news, it will still be a devastating shock. I hope that, in the time that I am leaving available to the Minister this morning, he will be able to give a flavour of what is being considered by the Department, even though he cannot give details of any ultimate decision. We are all, perhaps a little tentatively, looking forward to the summer, when we will see the wider picture that he and his ministerial colleagues will be able to paint for the future of many of our bases.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): It is a pleasure to have you presiding over our deliberations, Mr Betts. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) for initiating this important debate on RAF Lyneham and the effects on the surrounding community. Its importance is reflected in the fact that so many of my hon. Friends from the Wiltshire area have turned up to support him. I also thank him for the dossier that he has given me from local community leaders. I assure him that we will give full consideration to what it contains as we move forward with our decision making.
Hon. Members will know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has been an assiduous and persistent advocate for RAF Lyneham. In fact, during the previous Parliament, he must have raised it with almost as great a regularity as the fondly remembered Tam Dalyell raised the sinking of the Belgrano. Nothing would provoke me to imagine that he will be dropping the subject any time soon. He has campaigned industriously against the closure of Lyneham on behalf of his constituents, and I recognise that a wide section of his constituency has a very great concern about the future of the base.
I join my hon. Friend and several other hon. Members in paying tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett, who have provided such a dignified and moving homecoming for the deceased. That has been appreciated by the whole nation. We shall shortly be moving the repatriations to Brize Norton, but this is a moment to pay tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett for what they have done.
I also pay tribute to all the personnel who have served at RAF Lyneham since it opened for active service in 1940. It is rather an important point that, as has been said, it was announced in July 2003-getting on for eight years ago-that the future air transport and air-to-air refuelling fleets would be co-located at RAF Brize Norton by 2012. It must be acknowledged that the savings from that co-location will be significant. It is not possible to reopen that debate-the co-location is going ahead-but that decision meant that Lyneham would no longer be required for its current purpose, with current units leaving the base by 2012.
The Department has examined several alternative uses for the site. As the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), who speaks for the Opposition, has mentioned, it was considered as a consolidated support helicopter base under Project Belvedere, but for the reasons that he has outlined, that unfortunately did not work out.
Mr Gray: The Minister is, of course, right, and I would not seek to reopen that debate. We are none the less a little puzzled as to how it can be that we will save an enormous amount of money by co-locating the air transport fleet at RAF Brize Norton, but we would not save a similar amount by co-locating the helicopter fleet at Lyneham. There seems to be no logic in those two arguments: one co-location does not pay; the other does. However, that involved the previous Government, whom the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) supported, so perhaps we need not reopen that argument.
Nick Harvey: The key point is that when we are considering value for money, we have to balance the scale of the investment to build the facility against the savings that we will make from having everything at one location. I was not party to that decision, but clearly when those numbers were ground through the computers at the time, the judgment was arrived at that the Project Belvedere option did not represent value for money.
Since then, it has seemed unlikely that another defence use will be found for RAF Lyneham. I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) talking about the need for an economic plan, and I could not agree with him more. I am just mildly mystified as to why, 14 months before the base closes, the local civil population is talking about the need for a plan when the announcement that the base would cease its current role came eight years ago. The point that I am making is simply this: if there is to be a civilian use for RAF Lyneham in the future, rather than a military one-I am not saying for one moment that that will be the case-it will be for the local civil community to decide what that future will be.
The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway asked about transitional assistance. There is no precedent for that coming from defence funds in the cases of other base closures. It would certainly be something that other Departments and local authorities, particularly under the new localism agenda, would need to pick up. My hon. Friends are absolutely right, and the tone that has been struck-
John Glen: Will the Minister give way?
Nick Harvey: In a moment. The tone that has been struck by my hon. Friends thinking constructively and positively about what the alternative uses might be is exactly the right way forward from where we are now.
I have been asked about the timetable for a decision. I can only repeat that it is more important to get things right than to do them at breakneck speed. A detailed study is taking place of the entire defence estate and the ramifications of bringing nearly 20,000 personnel back from Germany. I reassure the Opposition spokesman that that is a comprehensive piece of work and that it will not be piecemeal. That work is going on at the moment, and it will take a few more months. In any event, we anticipate that decisions and announcements will be made before the summer recess, which is the approximate time frame for the decision. To that extent, my point about those in the local community knowing where they are will be resolved in the next few months, but it is wise for them to make contingency plans.
John Glen: The point that needs to be made is that local communities are being prevented from establishing a viable economic plan. They have done considerable work with Wiltshire council to establish an embryonic plan, but an MOD decision is required before that option can be fully explored. One cannot do the local plan before the MOD decision is known.
Nick Harvey: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, but, with respect, this bone of comfort-that the Army might come back from Germany-has been thrown only in the past couple of months, and I am still mystified why planning for a civilian future did not start long ago.
Mr Gray: The Minister must not be mystified. The explanation is that the Lyneham taskforce convened within weeks of the original announcement in 2003, and the civilian-military co-operation involving Wiltshire council has been constant since then. The local community has been fully engaged for the past seven years in looking for alternative uses, so the Minister is quite wrong to think that we have not been. As he has said, however, the Army is a useful bone to be thrown at this stage.
Nick Harvey: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that. Clearly, I had drawn the wrong implication from some of the other contributions, which suggested that we needed to form an economic plan now. My hon. Friend, in whose constituency Lyneham is based, has said that such plans exist, and it is useful to have that recorded and clarified, so I am grateful to him.
Since the announcement in October, work has been under way to look at the basing requirements of not only the Army, but the RAF and the Navy. As I said in previous debates, including the one about Marham and the one about Leuchars last night, that is a big piece of work; we must get it right, and we will take our time to do that. I hope that we will be in a position to put all these local communities out of their agony as soon as possible, and I readily acknowledge that uncertainty is being caused in every community.
We have received many representations from hon. Members, local authorities, local groups and the devolved Administrations, and we will do what we can to take them all on board. Of course, there will be socio-economic impacts, but that will be true at any of those bases. We recognise those impacts, but they must be balanced against each other. Our overriding consideration, as the Ministry of Defence, is the military arguments. Bringing the Army back from Germany is something that we will do only once, and it is important that we get it right and put the Army in the right place for the next several decades. I must stress that we cannot really have a beauty contest between different parts of the country to secure the prize of a base in their locality.
Whatever the outcome of the review, it must be about what is best for the armed forces. Bringing back the Army units stationed in Germany is not an easy job. Once it has been decided which units we are bringing back to which locations, detailed work will have to take place to plan those moves. As the Opposition spokesman has said, investments will have to be put in place to prepare the bases that will receive those Army units. The work going on to bring the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps back to Innsworth, near Gloucester, has taken years. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, who painted a rosy picture of the Army marching in as the RAF marched out, but the likelihood of that happening is infinitesimally small. The programme to bring the Army back from Germany will happen over 10 years, and in almost no imaginable case will we see the Army march in as those vacating bases in the next year or two march out.
I implore Members to reflect on what was said in the strategic defence and security review about the Army's intention to organise itself into multi-role brigades. Although we would not necessarily seek to accommodate an entire multi-role brigade on a single site, we will nevertheless want units to be located near enough to each other to use common training grounds and make formations as a brigade for training purposes. There is, therefore, a wide range of considerations. Is the new base big enough to accommodate the units? Does it have the right accommodation? How much would it cost to upgrade? How much new building will there have to be? What is access to training facilities like? Are the training facilities of the right type? How long will travelling distances to those facilities be? Where will the other units involved in training be? All those questions need addressing, and it will take time to balance them all and ensure that we get things right.
The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway asked about schools, and we will, of course, give every consideration to the education requirements of future military communities. He also asked about accommodation, and I acknowledge that there is a lot more work to be done on improving service family accommodation. However, I urge hon. Members to recognise our desire in the SDSR to build a new employment model for members of the Army. We want more super garrisons, so that people who progress through the Army will be able to spend more of their career in one place, which would be more like the Navy and the RAF, and therefore to put down roots and find houses among the local population. As we go forward into future years, more of the Government's effort will focus on ensuring that members of the armed forces can buy their own homes and settle in communities. Although I do not rule out building further family accommodation, we view that as the second-best option. The desire will be to help people settle into communities.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the scrutiny process and how we will let communities know about decisions. It would be desirable to let some community leaders know before official announcements are made, but the only way to inform whole communities is through the media, so the hon. Gentleman's argument becomes slightly circular.
On the economic impact being £90 million, I agree with the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, who said that replacing like with like has a neutral effect on the economy. I saw that in my own constituency, where the Marines replaced the RAF at Chivenor. The economy recovered fairly quickly, as did local services, schools and so on.
My hon. Friend has made a strong case on why Lyneham would be a good base for the Army. Many of his arguments have a great deal of merit. He mentioned the proximity to other Army units in Wiltshire and to Salisbury plain, and those are good arguments, as well as reasons why Lyneham is in quite a strong position as we look at the different bases.
The Opposition spokesman asked for guidance on how the Government's thinking is going. My point about multi-role brigades and the need for units that will make formations together to be within easy reach of each other is one of the factors, and the military's footprint across the different parts of the UK will be the other. One point that I would make about Salisbury plain, however, is that we must be realistic about its capacity to absorb a huge increase in the amount of Army training that goes on there.
The House has had debates about various other RAF bases. Obviously, every community is inclined to look at the worst-case scenario, but I reassure hon. Members that no decisions have been made yet, and we will continue to look at the whole issue with an open mind. Today has been a useful opportunity for the Wiltshire community to make particular local points. It has been useful to hear from the neighbours of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire about the impact on the wider Wiltshire economy, which I am well aware of. One way or the other, I travel through Wiltshire twice a week. My wife's family are from North Wiltshire and are still there, so I am familiar with the locality, and I can see the advantages of RAF Lyneham and the impact that it has on the community.
We must look beyond the local considerations, base by base, to the wider defence picture. We need to make the best use of our existing assets in the UK. I do not want to mislead Wiltshire Members into thinking that there is necessarily a future defence use for Lyneham at the moment-it is too soon to say that, because there is still a lot of work to do. In the mean time, we continue to make plans for the disposal of Lyneham. We shall, however, as I have said, try to put all the local communities out of their agony as soon as we can. We shall work with other Departments, devolved Administrations-where appropriate-and local authorities to ensure that our plans can be implemented with the least possible disruption for the communities affected.
As they were in the SDSR, our decisions must be objective, unsentimental and based on the military advice that we receive about what is best for the armed forces. We shall also have to look at what provides the best value for the taxpayer, and we shall, of course, consider the impact on communities and regional economies as we balance those factors. We must limit our resources to where they are most needed.
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