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Defence Technical Academy

Volume 479: debated on Monday 21 July 2008

3. What progress is being made on the defence technical academy, St. Athan; and if he will make a statement. (219809)

The Department continues to work constructively with the Metrix consortium on a range of issues on defence training review package 1 to achieve an affordable, value-for-money, acceptable and deliverable project. Negotiations with Metrix are continuing and both parties are working hard to drive down costs and obtain maximum value for money for the taxpayer.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he take this opportunity to pay tribute to the integrated project team, Metrix and the Welsh Assembly Government for the way in which they are progressing this £12 billion private finance initiative, and especially their involvement of the local community in the planning and design stage, which has already resulted in a number of major improvements? Does he agree that, with a project of the scale, complexity and importance to the armed forces of this technical academy, it is important that we get it right and do not rush it?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As part of the planning process, we and Metrix are committed to an ongoing programme of consultation with the local community in Wales. We have involved the community in the redevelopment of St. Athan. That is a priority, and local comments will have a direct impact on how the details of any plans evolve. Public consultation exhibitions will take place—and, as my hon. Friend is aware, some are taking place at present.

But while it is important not to rush it, as the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) says, the defence training review does seem to be taking longer to come to signature than everybody had thought. In Bordon in my constituency, this is a very important matter because the regeneration of the town depends on everybody having a clear idea of the Ministry of Defence’s intentions. Are there any problems with the sale of MOD land that we need to be aware of? What is going on?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is taking longer than is ideal. The financial appraisals have thrown up some difficult issues, and we are working them through with a view to taking a decision before the end of the year.

The Minister will know that there is a warm welcome for this project not only in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), but across the whole of south Wales. There are people in my constituency who formerly worked at St. Athan and who are looking forward to the prospect of working there again in the near future, and many of them have important skills. Will the Minister confirm that none of the delay that has so far occurred has been because any of the services is reluctant to work with the other services, because where all the services work together in providing training they can significantly add value?

The St. Athan proposal added significant value to training in the whole area that was covered by package 1, and that was why it was considered to be value for money. That is not the reason for any hold-up. We are getting total co-operation from within the services, and also from the local community in Wales. There are affordability issues, however, which we are trying to work through with Metrix. That has caused some delay, but we are still doing our best to bring this to a good conclusion.

This project was announced with considerable fanfare in the run-up to the Assembly elections, but, 18 months on, there is still no signed contract. We already have one empty aircraft hangar in the area that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) serves as a result of a previous MOD U-turn. Does the Minister understand that there is fear in the community that the Government may be backtracking on the scale of the project, and can he reassure it that there is no truth in that?

All I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that he and his nationalist colleagues ought to reflect upon the size of the defence training capability in Scotland and Wales were they to get their way and form Governments in either of those places.

There are obviously serious difficulties with package 1, and it is clear that package 2 will never get off the ground. Does that not challenge the financial viability of the whole scheme, and has the Minister considered looking again at some of the investment the MOD has already made in my constituency at Blandford in the Defence College of Communications and Information Systems—more than £100 million over the past eight years—and at not sticking with the original defence training review plan, which was to locate communications and information systems training at Blandford?

We have announced a change in policy on package 2. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the synergies and, thus, the advantages in bringing people together, in the package 2 area were never as strong as those in package 1, so we are examining alternative solutions in those areas. Package 1 remains the best way of enhancing defence training, and we are committed to working through these problems and trying to deliver the proposal for St. Athan.