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Woolwich Barracks

Volume 618: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for selecting this topic as the last to be debated before the Christmas recess and, in so doing, providing me with an opportunity to put on the record my objection to the proposed closure of Woolwich barracks. As I might not get another chance, may I take this opportunity to wish you and the staff of the House a very merry Christmas?

I am also pleased to see the Minister in his place. He knows Woolwich station well, and I know that, for reasons he might touch on in his response, he is extremely fond of it. I would like to take this opportunity to let him know that the extremely courteous manner in which he has engaged with me on this issue over recent weeks has been appreciated.

There has been an unbroken military presence in Woolwich since 26 May 1716, when a royal warrant in the name of King George I authorised the formation of two permanent companies of royal artillery in the town. The Gunners’ regimental motto is “Ubique”, which as Members will know means “everywhere.” It could just as equally serve as a metaphor for the imprint of the military on Woolwich, which is visible in everything from its architecture to its street names. The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery are quartered in Woolwich today, maintaining a bond between our community and our armed forces that spans three centuries. In determining to sell off Woolwich barracks by 2028, the Government intend to break that bond.

There will of course be those who argue that the disposal of the barracks has been a long time coming, that we should just accept that Woolwich’s days as a garrison town are numbered, and that the focus of this debate should therefore be on the future use of the site and how we secure the optimal outcome for those affected, not whether the decision itself is the right one. If I was convinced that the Department’s case for disposal was irrefutable, that is the debate I would have called for today, but I do not. I believe that the case for disposing of Woolwich barracks has not yet been made convincingly. I hope to probe the rationale that underpins the decision and, in so doing, convince the Minister to ask his officials to revisit it.

In objecting to the closure of Woolwich barracks, I want to make it clear to the House that I do not seek to undermine the Department’s defence estate strategy in its entirety. In his statement to the House on 7 November, the Secretary of State for Defence was correct in asserting that the current estate is too big, too diffuse, too expensive and too inefficient. He was also right to argue that, as a result, it too often fails to meet the needs of our armed forces and their families.

Just as the size and structure of our armed forces have changed to meet different threats over recent decades, so it is right that the defence estate is modernised and rationalised for reasons of affordability and efficiency. I fear that that will be extremely challenging to execute in practice, but I take no issue with the strategy itself. The issue I want to raise is not whether the strategy to reduce the MOD’s built estate is the right one, but whether it is right that the disposal of Woolwich barracks should form part of it.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

I believe that it is not right for three main reasons.

The first is that I question why the Department’s approach to Woolwich station has altered so dramatically over such a short period. It is worth recalling that it was only in 2009, in the defence estate strategy that preceded this recent one, that Woolwich station was designated a core site. Sadly, no detailed justification for that designation was given at the time, so it is impossible to know the detailed reasoning that underpinned it, but it seems reasonable to assume that there were solid strategic grounds for it.

As a core site, Woolwich station has been the recipient of significant investment over recent years. The Woolwich development project announced in 2009 provided for new and refurbished accommodation. A new, purpose- built, state-of-the-art equestrian training facility and accommodation centre was built to accommodate the King’s Troop following its transfer from St John’s Wood in February 2012. Even now, funding is in the pipeline to comprehensively remediate and reinstate the King’s Troop external exercise area on Woolwich common, following its use in the 2012 Olympic games.

I simply ask the Minister, what has changed about Woolwich in the past few years to so fundamentally alter the thinking of officials in his Department in relation to the future use of the site and to license the Government to write off the significant investment that has been ploughed into it over the past few years? It will strike many of my constituents as little more than an asset-stripping exercise driven by an analysis of rising land values in London rather than an exercise driven by the requirements of our defence estate.

The second reason relates to the first. I am not entirely convinced that the strategic case for selling off Woolwich barracks is as watertight as has been presented. In the correspondence we have exchanged over recent weeks, the Minister has assured me that the Department’s estate optimisation strategy was formulated with military advice provided by each of the front-line commands. I have no reason to question that assurance, but I do question whether the advice received was sufficiently wide in scope and, specifically, whether the Department, along with other Departments, has assessed the value of the site as a strategic resilience location outside zone 1.

Our security services have had incredible success in foiling terrorist attacks on the British mainland, but the threat to the UK from terrorism remains severe. Last night’s tragic events in Berlin are a timely reminder, if one were needed, that we can never be complacent. Lord Harris’s recently published independent review into London’s preparedness to respond to a major terrorist incident makes it clear that, while the involvement of the military in the event of a prolonged attack or a move to the critical threat level was once seen as a last resort, it is now integral to the planning process. In such a scenario, the military could now be deployed under Operation Temperer, which would allow for the mobilisation of up to 5,000 troops to increase the operational capacity and capability of specialist counter-terrorism and armed police. If they were called on, those troops would require accommodation, and there is a case for looking at Woolwich—as a strategic location outside zone 1 and close to the River Thames—as a site that can provide that necessary resilience. While I do not expect the Minister to comment publicly on such a sensitive matter, I would urge him to satisfy himself on this point by looking again at whether there is strategic value in retaining Woolwich barracks as a resilience location in response to a major terrorist incident or a comparable civil emergency.

The third and final reason is that the closure of the barracks will have a detrimental impact on my constituents and on a local community whose very history and identity are intertwined with our armed forces.

I declare an interest as a former member of the Royal Artillery and having done my training at Woolwich barracks for two weeks before I joined the Territorial Army. I remember the importance of not only the camp but the museum. We have lost the museum, unfortunately. I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate because this is an important matter. Does he agree that we need to retain the barracks for the core reason of looking after the MOD, looking after the Army, and ensuring that we have it there for the future? The future is uncertain, and for that reason we need Woolwich barracks.

I thank the hon. and, I believe, gallant Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely right. This is a unique site and there is good reason, given the risks of an uncertain future, to retain it. He will know that the collection that was formerly at the Firepower museum in Woolwich has been moved to Larkhill, where I know that, albeit in a different location, it will be cherished and valued. Its collection includes the many medals that have been awarded to the Gunners for outstanding acts of bravery.

The one thing that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned that is incredibly historic about Woolwich is the fact that it was the original Royal Military Academy, and actually superior to Sandhurst in priority terms. Sandhurst has taken the Royal Military Academy badge from Woolwich, but Woolwich has that huge history. It is not just about the Gunners.

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman may know that the Woolwich academy is commonly known as “the shop”, because the first building was a converted workshop from the Royal Arsenal. It is luxury flats now. Many of my constituents are concerned that the whole area of land on which the barracks now lies will simply be sold off for housing that many of them cannot afford.

The decision to close the barracks will have a detrimental impact on the community. That impact will be felt by the whole community, not only by the staff who work at the barracks, because Woolwich has been, and remains, a garrison town. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Woolwich without a military presence. I recall the day in 2012 when the King’s Troop returned to Woolwich—in the words of the then commanding officer, Major Mark Edward, the “spiritual home” of the Gunners—and locals of all ages lined the streets in their thousands to welcome the troop back. That is a sign of the deep affection in which the garrison is held—an affection that has arguably only deepened in the wake of the tragic murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby on the streets of our town in May 2013.

However, it is not just a question of sentiment and identity. The regiments that are stationed at the barracks, and those that have served there in the past, have all supported the community in very practical ways. Every year, the garrison commander makes available his barrack field for an Eid-in-the-community festival that has done more than anything else to build trust and understanding between the local Muslim community and our armed forces. In the wake of Lee Rigby’s murder, that could not have been more timely. All that work—I could give numerous other examples if I had the time—will be lost, and the loss will be acutely felt by the local community, if the barracks are closed.

I finish by simply saying this: it would be a travesty if an association—a bond—between the community in Woolwich and our armed forces that has lasted for over 300 years was ended now for anything other than the most incontrovertible of reasons. For the strategic reasons I have raised, but also, unashamedly, for reasons of history, identity and sentiment, I hope that the Minister will revisit the case for disposing of the barracks and come back in the new year with a reconsidered Government position.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) on obtaining this debate on the future of Woolwich barracks—an MOD site in his constituency. I thank him for his kind remarks about the manner in which I have attempted to engage with him and, indeed, other hon. Members over what I absolutely accept is a pretty emotional process as we move to close a number of sites across the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the fact that I should declare my interest not only as a member of the Army Reserve, but as one who is based at the barracks under discussion. It is my home barracks at the moment—it is where I go to serve. When we are faced with these decisions, they are, of course, personal and emotional, and it is not without considerable thought and effort that I have questioned this potential closure myself.

Let me say from the outset that the Department is ever mindful of the emotive nature of estate rationalisation and that the concerns and feelings of all local communities affected by our plan have been, and will continue to be, considered as part of the decision-making process. Before I address that point in detail, let me start by explaining the imperative behind our plans, which the hon. Gentleman has touched on.

Our defence estate represents almost 2% of the United Kingdom’s land mass. That is equivalent in size to Luxembourg and almost three times the size of Greater London, which is perhaps the comparison we should use in this post-Brexit world. Whatever comparison we choose to use, it remains a fact that our estate is vast and vital to our military capability. It is where our people work, live and train; where advanced equipment is maintained; and where cutting-edge research is undertaken. It is also where major exercises are conducted and major operations launched.

It is, therefore, vast and vital, but it is also inefficient and does not meet the standards that we expect to provide to our people in the modern world. Some 40% of our assets are more than 50 years old. What is more, while the armed forces are 30% smaller than they were at the end of the last century, the estate has reduced by only 9%. That is why the 2015 strategic defence and security review committed to invest in a better built estate that will reduce in size by 30% by 2040 and that will, most crucially, better support the future needs of our armed forces.

Last month we set out how we plan to do that, when the Defence Secretary unveiled our strategy for a better defence estate—the most significant change to defence land since the second world war. The strategy has two strands. The first is to rationalise and consolidate our estate by selling off sites that are surplus to defence needs and bringing people and capabilities into new centres of specialism. Secondly, we will invest by spending £4 billion over the next decade on improving our infrastructure and modernising our accommodation. In short, our vision is to create a world-class estate for our world-class armed forces—one based on their future needs, rather than those of previous generations.

Before I continue, I should say that, given the scale of the strategy and the fact that it will be delivered over 25 years, those plans are subject to revision, but they set out our current intentions. It is a strategy that we must deliver.

Turning to the matter at hand, as part of our strategy we have confirmed the disposal of 91 sites, including Woolwich. The decisions to dispose of those sites were made as the result of a systematic and thorough review of all of our defence assets by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, working closely alongside head office and each of the frontline commands.

When it comes to the rationale behind our decision to dispose of the Woolwich site, the reasons are many, clear and, I hope, compelling. First, selling Woolwich will contribute to our overall aim of consolidating our defence estate into fewer centres of gravity and specialisation, with better support capability. It goes without saying that, given its size and location, the site itself is not suitable to become one of those larger centres. Let me explain further. When it comes to supporting military capability, a barracks in an urban location, such as Woolwich, simply cannot compete with those located in less densely populated areas. At Bulford barracks in Wiltshire, for instance, soldiers live literally on the doorstep of Salisbury plain training area, the largest military training area in the United Kingdom, equivalent in size to the Isle of Wight. They are also located alongside other units with which they live, work and train.

By comparison with Salisbury plain’s 94,000 acres, the entire Woolwich site stands at 252 acres. That includes an outdoor training area, but one that is, as hon. Members might imagine, severely constrained. For instance, if soldiers want to practise live firing or conduct an annual personal weapons test, they must be bused an hour and a half south to Lydd ranges on the Kent coast. What is more, when it comes to working and training, units based in Woolwich do not have the day-to-day access to other units that their colleagues elsewhere enjoy. As such, they miss out on the vital exchange of ideas and tactics that gives an Army its crucial edge.

I accept everything that the Minister has said; that is logical. What I am concerned about is this: where is a unit such as the Royal Horse Artillery, which needs to be close to central London, going to go? We have had all these facilities built in Woolwich specifically for the Royal Horse Artillery, and now, a few years after producing them, we are going to throw them all away. It does not seem to make sense to me.

I will come on to that in a moment, if I may. In many respects, the site for the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery at Woolwich is sub-optimal, because it is away from central London, where the Royal Horse Artillery historically used to be. We are looking, in another project, at how we might be able to relocate the site closer to central London, where the Royal Horse Artillery perform their ceremonial duties. Woolwich is not an ideal site for them; they moved there out of need, because of a lack of equine space elsewhere in central London. I will come back to that in a moment.

Woolwich dates back to the 18th century. The site has a proud heritage, but one that comes with a high price. The grade II-listed barracks were built 240 years ago, and they require care and attention far beyond anything that modern, purpose-built barracks would need. Of more importance is the fact that the technical accommodation on the site—meaning things such as offices, garages and stores—will require extensive investment in the not-too-distant future, and they are not set to support the armed forces going forward. Although the single living accommodation was modernised back in 2010 to ensure a good standard of living for our personnel, by the time we complete the disposal of Woolwich, we will have had 18 years of return from that investment and it will not be too long before further updating is required.

Finally, we must take into account the wider potential of the site itself. It is a key site in a popular London borough, which, with the introduction of Crossrail in 2019, will be a prime location for the construction of new homes for the capital’s workers. That is not the principal driver of the plan, however.

Taking all that into account, would it really be the best use of the defence budget and of taxpayers’ cash to retain the site? Would pumping money into facilities that are constrained by their age and location really offer us value for money? Would it be right to continue investing in a site that is sub-optimal because of the constraints on it? Would it be right to hang on to such a high-worth site when the money raised by its sale would otherwise be reinvested back into the defence estate where it is most needed?

Having examined the facts objectively and in great detail, the conclusion we have come to is: no, it is not right to hang on to the barracks. Having explained how we have come to that conclusion, let me turn to what will happen next. First, let me deal with the question of those living and working at Woolwich barracks. There are currently 1,054 military and 97 civilian staff permanently employed at the site. I recognise that our intention to close the site is unsettling for all those people and for their families. Let me reassure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich that we will do all we can to provide them with the necessary certainty about their future locations as soon as is practicable.

For operational reasons, I cannot go into detail on the re-provision of the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery any further than I already have following the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). The re-provision for the other units on site, including the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglians, is yet to be determined. What I can say is that all military personnel, regular or reserve, will be relocated with their unit or re-assigned in accordance with existing career management procedures. Civilian staff will be managed in accordance with normal departmental policy and processes. Formal trade union consultation will occur well in advance of any closure, and where possible we will look at other locations where those staff can be employed. There are also a number of third-party users of the site, and we want to give them the opportunity to find alternative locations with plenty of time.

Secondly, let me deal with the future of the site. My Department has begun the process of assessing the Woolwich site for sale. The findings of that work will better inform the disposal process and ensure that the revenue situation becomes clearer. The MOD, like all Departments, follows a set process for disposing of any site. Once declared surplus to defence requirements, the site is placed on a register of surplus public sector land, which is a database managed by the Cabinet Office that provides an opportunity for other public bodies to express an interest in acquiring such sites before they are placed on the open market.

Subject to planning permission, land at Woolwich might accommodate 3,000 housing units in support of any future Government house building targets, but any decision to use the land in this way would of course need consultation with the local authority, which would seek the views of local residents as part of that process. The local authority would also have to approve planning permission for appropriate housing for the location. The MOD will continue to liaise with the local council and planning authorities to ensure the best possible future use for the site, and the local community will be kept fully informed of all developments.

That leads me to my final point—it goes to the very heart of this debate—which is the impact of this closure on the local community. As I said at the start, the Department is ever mindful of the emotive nature of estate rationalisation—all the more so when the links between the community and the armed forces are as steeped in history as they are in Woolwich. After all, heritage and tradition are things by which the armed forces set great store. This year marks the tercentenary of the Royal Regiment of Artillery—and, indeed, of my own corps, the Corps of Royal Engineers—which was raised in Woolwich in 1716. To this day, Woolwich station remains a thriving and integral part of life in the borough. I witnessed that myself when I attended Armed Forces Day there earlier this year and saw the local people’s great support for the barracks.

The units based at the station enjoy living and working there. Likewise, I know the local community holds these units in great esteem, as the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said. We in the Ministry of Defence are truly grateful for the steadfast support we have received from the people of Woolwich over the centuries, and I appreciate wholeheartedly their concerns and those of the hon. Gentleman, who I must say has conveyed their concerns and expressed their wishes very eloquently in the Chamber this evening. However, modern armed forces must continually evolve and move with the times, and we must ensure our people have an estate that supports them and provides the working and living environment they rightly expect.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to see our decision to sell the Woolwich site for what it is—a well calculated judgment that forms part of a wide-ranging, painstakingly considered and carefully constructed plan. It is a plan to secure the future of our armed forces and the safety and prosperity of our nation for many decades to come, and a plan that benefits the Woolwich community by giving the borough an opportunity to use this great site in a new way. Having said that, as the hon. Gentleman has been so courteous in making the simple request that I look again at the detail of the decision, I make a commitment to do so once we return in the new year.

Winston Churchill, who can always be relied on for an apt quote, once said:

“If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

We stand at such a juncture now, so hard as it may be —and despite the commitment I have just made—it is our collective duty to look upwards, outwards and forwards and to work together for a better defence estate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.