I beg to move,
That this House has considered A Better Defence Estate strategy.
In November last year, it was announced that 91 military bases across the country would close. That represents a 30% reduction in the Ministry of Defence estate. The announcement was part of the “A Better Defence Estate” strategy, and closure dates for bases ranged from 2017 to 2032.
One of the barracks earmarked for closure in 2027 is Invicta Park barracks in Maidstone, in my constituency. The Government argue that their aim is to improve military capability and rationalise the estate. Of course, those goals are well understood. We are told that decisions have been taken based on military advice and extensive engagement. I have serious concerns relating to the nature and extent of the advice and engagement, and to the lack of information regarding costs, benefits and environmental safety. I would like the Minister to provide further details when he speaks, but today I want to focus most of my time on the extremely negative impact that the decision will have if it goes ahead.
First, site closure will affect thousands of service and civilian personnel and their families, who still do not know what it means for them. Will they need to commute further, move house, or move their children from schools? Will they have a job at the end of it all? That uncertainty washes over everyone in the family. It also impacts socially and economically on local communities. Businesses, schools and places of worship will all be affected by the departure of those people. There will be a loss of military heritage, and of support and connection with towns and counties around the country. Many of these connections span hundreds of years, and are the source of the close bond between our armed forces and communities.
There will also be a reduced ability for the military to recruit and retain the best service personnel at a time when recruitment and retention figures for regulars and reserves are especially worrying. The increased uncertainty, coupled with wives and families being moved from vibrant and popular towns such as Maidstone and York to isolated “super-bases” such as Catterick and Salisbury Plain, will have an adverse effect. Some even feel that the Government have simply got the policy wrong in terms of military capability and effectiveness. Indeed, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Awford, who is now retired but who was a commanding officer at Invicta Park barracks, believes that:
“The decision to close Invicta Park Barracks is unsound. It will be a negative step for the army”.
Large garrisons with many shared facilities will become the norm. They will be separated from local populations and distant from specialist training bases. There will be no jobs for wives and no girlfriends for soldiers. The quality of life will decline. It will do nothing for morale or recruitment, which comes from the good liaison between the Army and the local population.
Many of those negative outcomes are shared by colleagues across constituencies, but in addition we each harbour unique vulnerabilities that deserve consideration. In my case, it is the plight of serving Gurkha soldiers and their families, and that of Gurkha veterans. Invicta Park barracks is the home of the 36 Engineers and the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers. Unlike the 36 Engineers, who expect to be posted and moved from time to time, the Gurkhas tend to remain located at one base, which they make their permanent home. All Gurkha soldiers who have joined the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers since 1994 have been based at the barracks for their entire career. They are, of course, seconded from time to time, but they always return to Maidstone and to their families, who remain in the town.
That is part of a long-standing, balanced understanding between the UK and the Gurkhas. They come from afar and take great risks in fighting for us, while being able to retain around them the support of their veterans, their wives, their children and the wider Nepalese community. To wrench serving Gurkhas and their families from their cultural base and permanent home denies them the benefits of that equation. I do not believe that to be right or fair.
My hon. Friend is making very strong points and I want to support her on that one. I represent the other side of Maidstone and recently met a group of Nepalese ladies, many of whom are wives of Gurkhas at the barracks. Does she agree that the Gurkhas are very much part of the community in and around Maidstone? The fact that they are there permanently is an important factor that should be considered as part of those decisions.
My hon. Friend and neighbouring MP—we also share the same first name, which makes for a bit of confusion—makes a very good point. As I will go on to say, the Gurkhas and the Nepalese community are cherished and respected. There is wide opposition to the closure, so much so that a petition against it that I have been running for just a few weeks already has 2,500 names. That expresses the strength of the feeling from the people of Maidstone that we do not want to lose our Nepalese community. The soldiers and their families have worked hard for many years to integrate and to become part of the fabric of the area. As I have said, they have succeeded, and are widely respected and cherished.
One former Army wife, Mrs Jean Ruddell, who lived at the barracks for seven years, told me how difficult it had been for the Gurkha wives when they first arrived in 1998-99. She said that it was a real culture shock and that they had been a little like rabbits in headlights. However, they worked hard, learned English and enrolled in classes to assist them in finding work. They fully immersed themselves in Kent life and in the county town. She said there was mutual respect for different traditions and beliefs. She described it as real harmony and as multiculture at its very best. She remarked on what a tragedy it would be to see all of that broken up, at a time when togetherness and commonality are more important than ever. Another lady summarised well how many Nepalese people feel:
“We will miss the close connection with the Maidstone community. We love it here and have made it our home. We will need to start all over again if we move. It is so hard to build such relations.”
To illustrate the cross-generational feeling, one 85-year-old Gurkha veteran told me: “If our soldiers move, their wives and children will move too. We will be left stranded. We will lose the help and support given to us by our younger generation. We rely upon this heavily, especially those of us who have been injured or who are disabled”.
In the armed forces covenant annual report, the Secretary of State for Defence says:
“We have a duty across society to recognise this dedication and sacrifice, by ensuring that the policies we make, and the services that we provide, treat our Service personnel, Veterans, and their families fairly, and ensure they suffer no disadvantage by comparison to the rest of society as a result of their service.”
I fully support the covenant, and the Minister should be rightly proud of the role he has played in establishing it within society. A key pillar of the covenant, as the Secretary of State said, is to treat our service personnel and veterans and their families fairly. However, if the decision to close Invicta Park barracks goes ahead, the Government will not, I believe, for all the reasons I have stated, be acting fairly, and will be in breach of the covenant.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She outlines passionately the impact on her constituency. Does she agree with the wider concern that, if the rationale and thinking behind the estate strategy pervades the training and reserves estate, we could see other problems right across the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and if he makes a speech today we will hopefully hear more about that. There are a number of important contributions to be made by Members on both sides of the House and it is important that they are all heard. I also want the Minister to have plenty of time to speak and to address the issues that will no doubt be raised.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important subject. On the wider question of the management of the defence estate, does she agree that there are some immensely important, significant, historic buildings, some of which are of national importance? It is vital both that they are treated with great sensitivity and care and that, within the period of the rationalisation, the most careful plan for their use is arrived at?
As always, my right hon. Friend makes a very good point. I agree with everything he has said. There are some wonderful, beautiful, old, historic, listed buildings. I have one—the old officers’ mess—as part of Invicta Park barracks. I agree that there has to be a plan and that the buildings must be looked after and treated with great sensitivity and care.
In closing, I ask the Minister please to look again at the decision to close Invicta Park barracks. It cannot just be about houses and money. Although I recognise the need to rationalise the military estate, super-garrisons might not always be best. Our military is about people and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) recently said, without the human capital, all our ships, submarines, jets, planes, helicopters and tanks across the world are of no use to us. In that case, and in my case, with the Gurkhas and the Nepalese community in Maidstone, it is about the maintenance of a vibrant and highly successful military and civilian multiculture, the value of which should not be underestimated.
What a great pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) for leading the debate. I have found the Minister who is here today to be a listening Minister. He has engaged with me as much as I have engaged with him, and I am grateful for that.
I wish to speak about the situation in Chester, at Dale barracks. Some 2,000 years ago, a bunch of Romans came along and set up a camp—a castrum—in what was to become my city. The castrum gave its name to Chester, which has been a garrison town ever since Æthelfrith defeated the Welsh at the battle of Chester—apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who is on the Opposition Front Bench. The first Earl of Chester built a chain of castles around Chester castle in 1071. We have a history that goes right through the second world war, when we had RAF Sealand—still in place today—and the headquarters of the Western Command. That history is very much part of the city’s DNA, and we are proud of it. We are proud to have those links to the military and to have an Army presence. We have the Westminster Centre for Research and Innovation in Veterans’ Wellbeing at the university, we have a recruitment office in the centre of the city and we have Dale barracks, which is now under threat.
The barracks was traditionally home to the 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment, and then the Cheshire merged with the Worcesters and Foresters and the Staffords to form the Mercian, so I understand that things do not stand still in the Army. Things move and things change—we also had the Royal Welsh based there for a while. Although we are not an Aldershot, a Catterick or a Colchester, we are a military city and proud of it. There are advantages to that. Chester is an attractive place to live, and so many of my constituents are former servicemen and women and their families who have made their home in the area. Schools in the Upton area are set up to cater for children facing the disruption of military life, for example when their parents are sent away on duty at short notice. Personnel retention rates in Chester are therefore much higher than elsewhere, because families are happier and there is less pressure on the servicemen and women themselves. Closing the barracks may well be a saving in the short term, but it would be a false economy.
The super-garrison structure in the south-west of England is part of the Ministry of Defence’s investment of more than £800 million in infrastructure in the Salisbury plain area, with a similar development proposed for the north-east, but super-garrisons do not cater for where troops are recruited from, and we have a high recruitment rate in the north-west. The net effect is that service personnel—in the Army in particular—find themselves bouncing around the country on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons trying to get home or back from work. I know of one former officer living in Chester who spent two years driving up and down to Sandhurst. He described being so far away from family as a reason why people might leave the Army. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald referred to that. The armed forces attempt to post service personnel close to their home town during their final years in the Army to help their and their families’ transition, and closing the Dale will further reduce that option for those from Chester and the north-west, which, again, will have a negative impact on retention rates.
I ask the Minister whether all options have been exhausted regarding the utility of Dale barracks. Could we provide other services and place other units there, perhaps a centre for combat stress and psychological therapy to link in with the work of the university? Can we beef up the presence with cadet forces? The facilities are modern; they were upgraded only in the past 20 years, so it will be a false economy for the Army and the MOD, as well as damaging to the local economy, if we close them simply, I believe, because of the high land values in Chester and move servicemen elsewhere. I am most grateful to the Minister for his time.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this important debate. I represent the home of the British Army—Aldershot—and I am well aware that there are facilities around the country, principally in Army rather than Royal Air Force hands, that have been allowed to deteriorate. It is necessary, therefore, that we examine the military estate.
Having said that, I have a success story to report. No one has heard of the most successful private finance initiative project, the £8 billion Allenby/Connaught project run by the award-winning contractors Aspire Defence for the refurbishment of not only Aldershot garrison but Tidworth. As a result of the sale of military land in Aldershot, the garrison has been transformed, with fantastic new buildings. Apropos the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) made about buildings, I have to say that Grainger—it is running the Wellesley programme, which involves the release of land in accordance with a master plan—has spent a great deal of time ensuring that some of the historic buildings in Aldershot have been maintained. It has made its headquarters at the Smith Dorrien House, a 19th-century brick building that it has restored fabulously.
That is a very good story, but I am concerned by the fundamentals of the review. We know why it is being done. It is not to ensure that we have a better estate; it is to raise money. That is the brutal truth. The Treasury is not giving enough money to the Ministry of Defence. We have our national priorities completely wrong. We are spending an immoral amount of money on overseas aid, and we are neglecting our armed forces. The review is one of the consequences of that.
The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) is absolutely right about the footprint of the estate. I have the Welsh Guards stationed in Aldershot. Come Friday afternoon, the whole lot decamp down the M4 to Wales. We will not be able to recruit if we remove military establishments from other parts of the country and concentrate them all in the super-garrisons such as the one in Aldershot—I accept that it is doing a great job, but I am looking at the bigger picture nationally. The points that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald made about that were absolutely right.
The programme is misconceived and being done in a rush. The Minister knows that Minley Manor was sold in great haste. I had a furious bidder on the phone to me saying, “Why was I not offered the opportunity to make a best and final offer on that property?” The Old War Office in Whitehall is also being disposed of in something of a hurry. There is a gathering rush to remove military facilities, and we will pay a big price. As a Minister I went to Leuchars to announce its closure as a RAF station. Fortunately it was not closed, because it is now an Army station. It enabled us to accommodate soldiers coming back from Germany. We had somewhere to put them, but the way the Ministry of Defence is going now, we will not be able to have that flexibility. Our armed forces are the smallest they have been since the time of Wellington, but look at the dangerous world in which we are living. A policy simply to cash in on the value of the estate seems misguided when we may well need to build up our armed forces in the future, given the state of the world we find ourselves in today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this debate and on all the efforts she has made to co-ordinate attempts by Members to ensure that this matter stays at the top of the agenda.
I am speaking today because I was very disappointed to find out that Redford cavalry barracks and Redford infantry barracks in my constituency are earmarked for closure in 2022. The closure of Redford barracks would remove a truly historic site from the military estate and leave families who live and work in my constituency in a position of great uncertainty. The Redford barracks has been situated at the foot of the Pentland hills for almost 100 years. When it was built in 1909, it was the largest military base built in Scotland since Fort George. The announcement that it faces closure is a dark day for the military and for military heritage in Scotland. In their proposals, the Government have said that the military estate “has failed to adapt” to meet 21st-century needs, but it is the task of Government to adapt the military estate. The responsibility for its not having been so adapted lies with successive UK Governments.
The proposals in the publication set out a commitment to deliver:
“Regional centres of mass for light infantry battalions supporting national resilience and community engagement”,
but it is not clear which of the centres in Edinburgh the MOD plans to use for that purpose. The obvious choice for the Scottish Army HQ would be Redford barracks, as it is situated in the capital city of Scotland. More importantly, the closure of those infantry and cavalry barracks will be devastating for the local community of Colinton and the people who work and live in that area. It is important to note that the buildings at Redford barracks have category B listing, and it will prove very expensive for any developer to convert them into housing.
The Government have said that they will consult local authorities and the Scottish Government where necessary. It is a pity that the UK Government have consistently refused to engage with the Scottish Government ahead of such decisions being taken. However, there is still time to consult. As the local MP for the area, I would be happy to meet the Minister to help facilitate constructive engagement between the UK Government, the Scottish Government, civic society in Edinburgh and the relevant local authorities. To that end, it would be helpful if he could confirm when the consultation will begin, how long it will last and the format it will take.
I have been in correspondence with the Minister and his Department about the prospective closure of Redford barracks, and I have been given various assurances that there is the intention to do this and that. It would assist the consultation process if undertakings could be given at the very beginning on Redford cavalry and infantry barracks. I stress that they are of historical significance and are situated in the capital city of Scotland, so they are the natural and appropriate site for any Scottish Army HQ.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this important debate. This is the second time I have talked about Kneller Hall, which is in my constituency, and I am grateful for the opportunity to reiterate the arguments. It is interesting that those views are shared by many other Members here.
I want the Minister and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation to use some military expertise in their defence estate strategy. I am not a soldier—my background is more in peacekeeping—but I know that wars are not won with destruction or bullets; they are won with hearts and minds. That is what the estate is about. Kneller Hall in Whitton has the heart and mind of the community. The Minister will know that it was the Duke of Cambridge—not the current Duke of Cambridge but the second Duke of Cambridge—who realised that military music is incredibly important in inspiring courage, strength and loyalty in the military and the other services. When I talk about the heart of the community, I am not talking just about the sons of people in Twickenham who serve in Kneller Hall. It is not just about fathers who see their sons go into Kneller Hall; mothers and daughters also serve at Kneller Hall. It is part of our heart and our mind.
Will the Minister ask the DIO to use some military intelligence? I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) for giving me some new ideas—I hope that the military will take this on—about what can be done for Kneller Hall. We have precious listed buildings. I am interested in some partnerships that could be created to renovate Kneller Hall. We were told recently that the military stopped investing in the building in the 1990s, but there are ways to get round it.
Kneller Hall is part of the community, but it is also about military strategy. We could be recruiting more people. As everyone knows, Twickenham is one of the best places to live. It is in London and is great for young people. It is the home of rugby. It is a brilliant place to have a joint band, which I know the Minister is considering. Kneller is the place. It is where young people can be inspired. I know that the Minister has some medals, but, as I have said before, I will pin another medal on his chest if he can enhance and improve Kneller Hall. Thousands of people have signed petitions. I submitted a petition in the Commons, but the Facebook petition continues. I am talking not only about people in Twickenham; Kneller Hall has influenced people across the globe. It needs to be at the heart of our communities. The Minister must use his military expertise and military strategy and win hearts and minds for us.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on setting out the case so effectively. I will make a few specific comments about Northern Ireland.
As a former member of the Defence Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) is now a member—I regard this strategy as a matter of grave concern. The facts are plain. The estate is costly and somewhat ungainly. On paper it is easy to see how selling off pieces of the estate will not only bring to an end maintenance costs for the property or the area but will bring in a windfall. If we add the magical phrase “affordable housing”, how could anyone say no to that? I am sorry, but I wish to stand against some of the proposals in the footprint strategy.
The Ministry of Defence says that its estate, which covers 1.8% of the UK land mass, is inefficient, expensive to maintain and incompatible with the needs of the modern armed forces; the future estate will be smaller and clustered around areas of specialisation. I have no doubts whatever about the accuracy of those claims. However, I wonder whether someone can explain to me how we can possibly meet defence needs and the obligations to our armed forces in consolidated, precise little blocks. On paper, I can see how Northern Ireland per head and for surface area should have limited military input, but the reality of our history in Northern Ireland demands a strong presence. The service history of our residents demands home bases that cater for families. I remain to be convinced how the plans will fit the needs of our armed forces. The excuse that the estate needs work is not one that flies with me. It is not good enough to run something down to dispose of it when that will leave gaps in our estate strategy and, more importantly, our defence strategy. There is a significant risk that the poor condition of the estate will affect defence capability. I want to put that on the record as well.
I have great respect for the Minister. I appreciate his help in responding to all the different issues and how hard he works as a former soldier and as a Minister. Kinnegar Base in Holywood, on the boundary of my constituency, has been a thriving hub of activity, employing up to 1,000 civilian staff and providing much-needed support for the Army during the darkest days of the troubles. I understand that there is perhaps not the need that there once was for bases in Northern Ireland; bases have been steadily disappearing in the natural course of the reduction in troubles. However, we cannot be complacent about security in Northern Ireland. With a police officer shot last month and other threats, there is a very real need for Army support that surpasses population levels.
When I joined the Ulster Defence Regiment, I trained at Ballykinler. The sell-off of Abercorn barracks is a backwards step, not least as the accommodation should be retained for social housing rather than sold as a development opportunity. With respect to the Minister, I question that. Redevelopment in co-operation with communities to provide housing is a much better way to use the site than to sell it to the highest bidder. If that is what we are doing, I respectfully say it is wrong. The selling of the family silver can no longer be allowed. We are looking at future generations who will not have meaningful pensions. We have sold our children’s inheritance before they are born.
Hailing from Northern Ireland and a military background, I cannot support the closure of all three bases. It is my sincere nightly prayer that my little country of Northern Ireland never again finds itself in need of the Army support and presence that was once a part of everyday life. However, the practical side of me feels that the basic structure must still exist.
I know that other Members in this Chamber, such as the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), who represents the Woolwich base where I once trained and of which I have very fond memories, are also asking for a rethink of decisions. The Government should and must rethink the strategy and cut costs without cutting the defence capabilities and leaving us vulnerable and our military families vulnerable and unsupported. The Minister must consider those points before making decisions.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) for securing the debate and for her kind words earlier.
The Defence Secretary’s announcement that 91 sites across the UK will be disposed of is part of a long overdue defence estates rationalisation strategy. Although I wholeheartedly support the Department’s determination to assess its asset base—nearly 4% of the UK—and to work out what it does and does not need for the 21st century, we need to be very careful how we do this. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I led our hearing a few weeks ago to assess how the review was going. Sadly, so far I am dissatisfied that the detailed and holistic economic cases have not yet been done for each of the sites identified. That risks achieving financial and operational failures rather than gains for both the MOD and the taxpayer.
As one of several MPs taking up reservist roles —I recently applied to join the Royal Navy Reserve—I want to highlight my concerns by using the proposed closure of HMS Sultan and Fort Blockhouse in Gosport, as they are a good example of the concerns that we identified on the Public Accounts Committee. One aim of the better defence estate programme is to release land for house building, but scope for housing in Gosport is severely limited by the local plan and the lack of local demand. Sale to commercial developers is complicated by high onsite maintenance costs. HMS Sultan contains heritage assets and listed buildings—that is an issue with a lot of the sites identified—including two Palmerston forts, a site of nature conservation and land protected as open space, which is also an issue in several of the sites identified.
Fort Blockhouse contains designated nature conservation sites, open space and important heritage assets, as well as a sea wall with an estimated annual maintenance cost of £1 million to £3 million. A local expert estimates that it would cost £10 million to repair the wall fully, which could rise to £100 million if there was a breach. Maintaining the sea wall is essential for the physical integrity of Portsmouth harbour, which will soon be home to our marvellous Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, which the Minister will be pleased to hear I look forward to seeing tomorrow.
At Blockhouse the local authority is optimistic about the significant potential to regenerate the site as part of a mixed-use leisure and maritime allocation, but the MOD’s decision to retain the waterfront part of the site—the most commercially attractive segment—significantly jeopardises the opportunity to generate employment.
The business case for disposing of HMS Sultan remains unclear. Estimated renovation costs are considerably lower than costs associated with relocation. Work to improve Sultan’s accommodation is necessary, but generally the site is fit for purpose, as evidenced by Ofsted’s recent outstanding rating for its training provision. Furthermore, a recent investment of some £850,000, with £470,000 coming from the LIBOR fund, to renovate the warrant officer and senior ratings mess, which serves more than 500 trainees and permanent staff, will be completed next month. It seems a contrary decision to get rid of something that has such a significant investment. Second-order consequences of dismantling an excellent training provision for the Royal Navy are worrying. The Navy is short of engineers, and to undermine an important educational pipeline could have significant operational ramifications. The local population offers an excellent recruitment pool. The density of retired officers also provides a source of teaching professionals.
I have summarised many of the key problems. Releasing the 91 most expensive sites makes surface-level financial sense from the MOD’s perspective, but it ignores the reality that in some cases the sites may be the most difficult to sell to developers. I know that the disposal process is in its early stages across all the sites, and I welcome the MOD’s commitment to explore development opportunities fully with local authorities and development agencies. It is disappointing that analyses of the sites earmarked for disposal are taking place after disposal decisions, but I sincerely hope that a business-minded approach will begin to drive disposal decisions alongside the military requirement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate this morning, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing the debate.
The armed forces have more than 1,000 years’ history in the city of York, which was built on trade and also on defence. Imphal Barracks in my constituency, now listed to close in 2031, was built between 1877 and 1878. Two years ago my predecessor received assurances from the Ministry of Defence that the Army would stay in York. The Army basing plan on 5 March 2013 secured York as a garrison for the future, and serious investment was put into upgrading the buildings on the site. The city therefore believes that the Government are wrong to close the barracks.
No economic or social impact assessment has yet been carried out, even though MOD procedures say that it should be. Can I turn the Minister’s attention to joint service publication 507? It says that an impact assessment should include
“redundancies or impact on the local economy”
and goes on to say that
“MOD investment appraisals are concerned with appraising public value; that is the value to UK society of a proposal or option rather than just to the Exchequer or the Department.”
That work has not even been undertaken—I understand from discussions with officials that it could take at least 18 months—so it is rather premature to announce the closure of Imphal, without that essential work being done first.
The Army provides some of the largest employment opportunities for the city of York. We have 728 serving personnel, who of course bring with them their fantastic families. We know that the MOD is wrestling at the moment with the issue of spousal employment, and there is no better place to look for opportunities than in a city such a York, with its two universities and a college, which provide excellent education, as well as York schools. The opportunity for armed forces personnel to base their children in York schools, where they can catch up with their education and do well, is so important. There are 376 highly skilled civilian jobs based in York—a city where the average wage is below the national and regional average at around £22,000. That is important for our local economy. If we also consider the more than 100 contractors as well, and the jobs at Strensall that will disappear, we are talking about 1,500 jobs in a city the size of York. That will have a very serious economic impact, and the impact assessment of that is yet to be done.
I am grateful to senior armed forces personnel who talked through the operational issues with me. As the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) highlighted, these measures will have a real detrimental impact on recruitment and retention in the armed forces. In France, this experiment was tried, and was halted in its tracks because it created real difficulty for recruitment and retention. There is already a retention problem for the Signals, which are based in York. This will escalate that and clearly destabilise the armed forces, which is not what we want.
I wear this khata today as we have a Gurkha community in the 246 Signal Squadron based in York. They form a central part of my community; their families are integrated. They worship at the barracks and are part of the reach into the city. I met with them on Saturday night—they pleaded to remain part of York, because they see it as their home, where they want to settle.
The reality is that the work has not been done behind the scenes. This is a Treasury-led issue, not a Defence-led issue. It is about time a pause button was hit and we reviewed the reality of the impact that these closures will have.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing the debate and on her excellent speech. Let me be clear: I agree with the principle of what the Government are trying to do. We have to take some painful decisions and some of those decisions will inevitably have effects on individual constituencies that some of us will not like. However, I share the concerns of a number of other speakers that we are in danger of losing our national footprint.
I should like to introduce two specifically defence elements into the equation. First, spousal employment continually comes up in the top three reasons for leaving the armed forces. The second factor is local house prices. I do not support the idea of an allowance to replace service family accommodation, but I do support aspirations for more members of the armed forces to have the opportunity to buy housing.
In terms of those two factors, if we look at the footprint of what is proposed, we find all too often that the bases under threat are places where there is plenty of spousal employment and plenty of affordable housing—Canterbury in my constituency, which closed recently, Maidstone in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, Chester, Ripon and so on. The expansion is increasingly taking place in places such as Catterick, completely isolated and in the middle of nowhere, or in areas such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), where housing is desperately expensive. That cannot be retention-positive. It is not fair to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take account of wider community issues beyond a certain point, but those points are critical for the future manning of the armed forces.
I echo a point made by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). I happen to know Redford barracks quite well. When I had some responsibilities for Scotland, I visited it a couple of times. It is a prime historic military site on the edge of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. Unlike the hon. and learned Lady, I am a passionate Unionist. That site should be one that we make more of, as we get rid of some of the frankly uneconomic and unmanageable garrisons in the edges of Scotland. I know Fort George and the rest are unhappy, but I support those closures. Redford should be a place we concentrate on. I am not going to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for the figure because that will be commercially confidential, but I will ask him to write to me to reassure me that the estimate for the value of Redford barracks in his considerations takes account of the fact that it is listed and, as such, is of very little value to a developer. I understand that even the outbuildings are listed.
That point is paralleled all over the country. To take the point through, there is the alternative of moving more units to Leuchars, which is a very nice base—my son happens to be serving there. Unfortunately, the local community is not large enough to provide spousal employment for a large expansion and, because it is right next to St Andrews, house prices are among the most expensive in Scotland.
My hon. Friend the Minister has to take difficult decisions. I am with him on the fact that difficult decisions have to be taken within our shrunken defence budget, which I, like others, would like be greater. However, in deciding where we focus the armed forces of the future, we must take account of the two key factors of spousal employment and house prices, and the overall footprint.
I commend the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) for securing this debate. I was delighted to join her at the Backbench Business Committee to make the case for it.
When the announcement was made, the shockwaves went through my constituency of Midlothian, where the closure of Glencorse barracks has been intimated. Understandably, the community were upset at the lack of consultation before or after the announcement, but there are two glaringly obvious issues in Midlothian that compel me to speak in the debate today: first, the huge loss that the base would be to service personnel, their families and the wider community, but also to infrastructure and the local economy; and secondly, the enormous financial investment made by the Ministry of Defence a number of years ago, which now seems entirely pointless.
The position I take today is an entirely cross-party one. Every elected member at all levels for the community representing the Glencorse barracks supports the position. All six local councillors, Christine Grahame MSP and myself have joined together and have met the local community. This is an entirely united position. A petition is on its way and, in due course, we will look to present it to the House—I am sure many hon. Members will do the same.
The history of Glencorse barracks is well-known, from its start in the Napoleonic war as a prisoner of war camp, through to its current situation. Unlike many other bases, Glencorse is fit for purpose following a £60 million upgrade in 2003 to 2005, at which point it was hailed by the MOD as benchmark accommodation for our forces. It is frustrating that some of the information around that investment is difficult to come by—it was announced not in Parliament, but on a visit to a construction firm by the then Defence Secretary. When we ask the MOD for information about the investment, we are simply told that the information requested cannot be provided in a format that would not incur a disproportionate cost. As an elected Member, it is very frustrating trying to get to the bottom of some of the details. It would appear that I am able to get more information from Midlothian Council and through the Scottish Government than from the Ministry of Defence. I ask the Minister to reflect on that experience—Members of this House ask questions to be better informed when making cases in situations such as this one.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about Glencorse. Does he agree that, in the case of Fort George in my constituency, very little evidence has been supplied to say that it would save the MOD money? In fact, it will simply leave a £12 million to £16 million annual hole in our economy.
I agree. That is certainly true for many of us who are making the case for retaining our local bases.
Given the investment in Glencorse, it makes no financial sense to close the barracks. It has already been upgraded to the condition of a modern Army base, and it meets the criteria set out in the most recent defence estate reviews. It would be financial suicide to throw away such an investment.
There are rightly concerns that closure would damage the local economy, given the number of troops that are based there. Penicuik is a thriving community, but it needs more to support it. Given the investment in local schools and the special training given to local teachers to support our armed forces, if those Army personnel and their families were removed from the community, the impact would be felt down the line well beyond any closure.
Lastly, I must address the disappointing regard that the MOD has shown to Midlothian councillors and the Scottish Government following the announcement. I urge the Minister to take that on board and engage with all of us in the future. If the closures go ahead, what happens afterwards is vital. This ill-thought-out decision is financially unsound and strategically absurd, and it needs to be urgently stopped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) for securing this debate.
I am here to speak about Brecon barracks—I am the only Welsh Member here apart from the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David)—which is an important part of Brecon and Wales. There has been a barracks in Brecon for 200 years. In fact, the buildings that are currently used have been in existence for 200 years. Not only has it been home to the British Army in Wales, but many detachments from it have gone across the world—the South Wales Borderers’ visit to the Anglo-Zulu war was immortalised in the film “Zulu”. The adjacent museum contains 11 Victoria Crosses—one of the largest collection of Victoria Crosses outside Lord Ashcroft’s hold. The Secretary of State, in his announcement about the better defence estate strategy, said that the museum will be unaffected, as will Dering Lines and Sennybridge, the infantry battle school. The barracks has been an integral part of the garrison town of Brecon.
It was interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) talk about house prices. House prices would plummet in Brecon, because more than 100 civilian jobs are involved in the barracks, and many retirees from the military come back to live in the Brecon area. It is vital in economic terms that the barracks remain.
The infantry battle school trains over a vast swathe of the Breconshire national park, but the defence estate does not own all that land—a lot of it is owned by local farmers. The relationship between those farmers and their families, many of whom have civilian jobs in the barracks, will be tarnished and damaged immeasurably if the barracks closes. I ask the Minister to look again not just at the economic issues but the emotional ties and the relationship between the military and civilians. That is vital, and we cannot put a price on it.
Brecon is home to the 160th Infantry Brigade and Headquarters Wales. I would like the Minister to solve a conundrum that I cannot get to the bottom of. I have spoken to the Army—in fact, I was at Brecon barracks for the 138th commemoration of the battle in the Zulu war. When I speak to the officers and the commanding officer, they tell me that they have had no conversations with politicians at a senior level, but when I speak to politicians at a senior level, they tell me that the Army is pushing for the closure of the estate. Both seem to say that the Defence Infrastructure Organisation is the middle organisation, but I wonder how much it listens to politicians and the Army. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that in his response.
Finally—there is much more I would like to say, but time is against me—Brecon barracks is not Chelsea barracks, as much as I would like to say it is. In economic terms, I am afraid that the sum that would be raised from Brecon barracks is minuscule compared with building a new HQ somewhere else in Wales. I ask the Ministry of Defence and the Minister to think again.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) for securing this important debate and for making such a passionate contribution on behalf of her constituency. My remarks will focus purely on the local issues in my constituency, and on the impact on the community of Strensall.
Strensall, a rural village in the north of my constituency, is the site of Queen Elizabeth barracks and Towthorpe Lines, and is home to Headquarters 2 Medical Brigade, 34 Field Hospital and the training sections. Under the plans, the MOD is due to dispose of both sites by 2021. Imphal barracks, which is just outside my consistency on Fulford Road in the south of York, is scheduled for disposal by 2031. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has already touched on it, so I will not go into too much detail about it. There are 54 civilian support staff employed at Queen Elizabeth barracks and Towthorpe Lines, and 365 at Imphal.
Ministers want to support our armed forces as well as possible by directing resources into new equipment and personnel, rather than using them up on maintaining buildings and land. I appreciate that the current defence estate is vast, ageing and expensive to maintain, but it is only right to express the deep disappointment many local residents feel at the proposed changes.
York garrison has a long, proud history. There has been a barracks at Fulford since 1795, and in recent years Strensall has taken pride in its role as a centre of excellence for military medicine. However, I am encouraged by the fact that the Minister and his Department seem committed to engaging with the affected communities and managing any proposed changes in York as sensitively as possible. I thank him for having a constructive meeting last month about this issue.
The units at the site in York are scheduled for redeployment, and the MOD is still assessing the future of the civilian staff employed at Strensall and Imphal and the option of retaining some MOD facilities in the York area. My personal view is that the MOD has an obligation to offer people new or alternative roles wherever possible. As many have strong links and family ties with the city of York, I and many residents believe that the retention of some kind of military presence in York is essential.
However, the disposal of those sites and their potential development for housing and local infrastructure will have the widest impact on the city of York. The announcement in November has already had a significant impact on York’s local plan. Completion of the plan has been delayed by six months while the council undertakes a full technical consultation regarding the sites so they can form part of a comprehensive and accurate plan that includes the brownfield sites that are potentially available. It is likely that the sites will be developed into residential housing. For a small community such as Strensall, that represents a significant change, so it is vital that it is carefully managed through early and comprehensive engagement with local residents, especially given the established place of the barracks in the local community.
I would like the MOD to set up a local working group to involve local residents in the process. I hope the Minister will take that idea forward, because community engagement is key for the future of the barracks in Strensall.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Rosindell, and I thank the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) for securing this important debate. All hon. Members who have spoken have made interesting and valuable contributions.
The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald quoted the words of the Ministry of Defence, that the aim is “improving military capability” and “rationalisation of the estate”. She spoke about the extensive “engagement”, but expressed serious concerns about whether that had taken place. She was right to have those concerns.
The hon. Lady also spoke about a real lack of information and huge uncertainty for serving personnel, their families and the wider communities. Her points and those of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) about the potential impact on the already poor figures for retention and post-service employment were particularly well made.
It is important, as the hon. Lady said, for the whole process to be viewed through the lens of the armed forces covenant. I am, however, no more convinced than she is that that has been the case, particularly in relation to the impact on families. The points that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) made on spousal employment were especially important.
Interestingly, the debate is titled “A Better Defence Estate Strategy”, although in reality that is simply not true: it is not better, and it stretches credulity to describe what has been announced as a strategy, which would suggest some forethought and a plan. The Government do not have a great history with plans, and this is a case in point. We heard, for example, from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the staggering lack of ongoing investment and maintenance over recent years. The strategy, if we may call it that, is in essence a farce. It aims for the loss of a fifth of the entire Scottish defence estate, which is extremely important and very concerning. Furthermore, the plans will have a real impact on the ability to provide conventional defence.
We heard about the lack of consultation, either with the public or with the Scottish Government, yet the aim is to close so many bases, many of which are of historical and cultural significance to our communities, as has been described so eloquently today, and all of which provide stability and important economic value to serving personnel, their families and their host communities. The lack of proper consultation leaves it somewhat unclear whether any of those factors have properly been taken into account. We anticipated that there would be cuts, but the volume proposed for Scotland is crushing and the justification for it is simply missing in action.
I asked the Minister some written questions about the plans, because I was keen to understand what was proposed and what financial projections could have led to such devastating decisions. The answers I got back left me, sadly, no clearer. I queried what savings would be achieved in running costs in each of the 10 years of the infrastructure reform programme. The Minister, for whom I have great respect, told me what savings it was hoped to achieve across the piece: £140 million over 10 years, rising to nearly £3 billion by 2040, all apparently to be reinvested “back into Defence”. Interesting, but not an answer to my question, which was a valid one, so I tried again.
This time I asked what capital investments were planned and what receipts were planned to be realised in each of the 10 years. I thought that was quite straightforward—clearly, the MOD would not have a plan that it had not based on proper financial metrics, would it? This time the answer was—well, the same as the first answer, although it helpfully clarified that the profile across the 10-year programme was “being refined”. In plain English that means that the MOD does not know—the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) said the same a little more politely.
The MOD has therefore announced this hugely important and hugely destructive programme for the Scottish defence estate without doing the maths. That is outrageously irresponsible. Scottish armed forces personnel, their families and the local communities will feel gravely let down by that back-of-a-cigarette-packet approach to their lives. The hon. Member for City of Chester, for example, spoke powerfully about the impact on personnel and children, which is hugely important. The rest of us might reflect on how comfortable we are with our conventional defence footprint being planned with that kind of so-called strategy.
What exactly are we looking at? What is the scale of the cuts? My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) pointed out that the Black Watch will leave its historical home at Fort George with a loss of more than 700 jobs and £16 million a year to the highlands economy. The Army barracks at Redford and Craigiehall in Edinburgh, and historic Glencorse in Midlothian, which is home to 2 Scots, are to be axed.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument about the financial cost, but promises to people have been broken as well, including the solemn promise that the Black Watch would have a permanent home at Fort George. How will the Minister respond to that betrayal of the people who have served in the Black Watch?
My hon. Friend’s point is particularly well made. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Interestingly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) pointed out, although it is only 13 years since a £60 million investment in Glencorse, which was described by the then Secretary of State for Defence as a “super-barracks”, even Glencorse has not been saved from this Government’s financial mismanagement of and disdain for the defence of Scotland. No wonder Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, expresses such concern about the plans, saying that they throw the future into doubt for thousands of staff.
Even if numbers of service personnel remain steady, significant numbers of civilian jobs will be lost, estimated at 700 at Fort George and 200 in Stirling. Unite described the closures as “brutal” and emphasised the impact on our local communities. As the MOD should know, in many instances the bases earmarked for closure are at the heart of their local communities, providing a source of decent and secure employment. Not only is the MOD weakening the defence of Scotland, but it is creating real problems for thousands of people.
All we can say with certainty is that, in the MOD’s own words, there is “reprovision intended for Scotland”. Meanwhile, a massive upheaval and a great deal of uncertainty for service personnel and their families will certainly result. All of that is accompanied by the staggering lack of detail and clarity that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) described so well, which is causing huge concern and uncertainty and throwing huge doubt on the programme and on defence planning and provision for Scotland.
The National Audit Office has identified a black hole of at least £8.5 billion of unfunded costs caused by the steady decline in the condition of the estate. It states that there is significant risk that the poor condition of the estate will affect the Department’s ability to provide the defence capability needed. In addition, the UK Government’s military priorities are all wrong for Scotland: we are a maritime nation with no maritime patrol aircraft and not one conventional ocean-going vessel in our ports. We have grave concerns that as our conventional capability shrinks further and further to pay for nuclear weapons, the United Kingdom’s last line of defence is increasingly becoming its first and only line of defence.
The announced closures are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey put it so well, the latest in a series of betrayals and the breaking of promises made to the Scottish people before the independence referendum when we were told time and again that defence jobs could only be protected in the Union. We were threatened with dire repercussions in the event of a yes vote. The then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), claimed that in the event of independence “the Scottish people” would not benefit
“from anything like the level of security the UK armed forces currently provide, or the level of prosperity that Scotland’s defence industry currently delivers.”
Just as with the non-existent national shipbuilding strategy, the Trident safety issues that we can hear about on CNN but not in this House and the national equipment plan that the auditors say simply does not add up, we have vital questions about our future defence estate going unanswered. The Government are full of warm words for our forces—perhaps the Minister will also take the opportunity to update us on what he is doing to secure the return of Billy Irving and the Chennai six—but in reality such words are sometimes seen as just that, words. The UK Government seem quite unable to ensure the defence of the realm. The UK Government have failed in their first duty to their citizens and betrayed the people of Scotland yet again. An independent Scotland would have a proper conventional defence force built in our national interests.
We have had an excellent debate this morning. I congratulate the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on raising the issue and on speaking so eloquently about her own constituency and the Invicta Park barracks in Maidstone. All of us have natural empathy for the Gurkhas, recognise the huge contribution that they have made to the defence of this country and are deeply concerned about their treatment and that of their families.
We have heard from a number of Members about different areas, but I will mention in particular the contribution about Kneller Hall, which I feel strongly about as a musician myself. I recognise the contribution to music generally, not only in the armed forces. As a Welshman, I have a long appreciation of the barracks in Brecon and was tempted to burst into “Men of Harlech” when the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) talked about “Zulu”. I am very pleased to be going up to Brecon this weekend to hear the band Rorke’s Drift. I am sure it will be a superb performance.
This is an important issue. As we all appreciate, 1.8% of the UK’s land mass is currently taken up by the defence estate, and we are talking about a massive contraction in the size of that estate: 91 sites will close and the estate will be cut by 30% by 2040. I have several concerns, which in part echo what Members have already said, and I will distil them into three areas.
First, I am deeply concerned by the apparent lack of rationale behind the closure programme. It appears that we are embarking on an arbitrary voyage rather than embracing a long-term strategy driven by changing military need. I suspect that the Treasury is lurking in the wings and demanding that this kind of change takes place as quickly as possible. We are talking about a potential reduction in the workforce of 18,000, or 30%. We are talking about relocation. We are talking about individuals having to travel long distances to work—or, I suspect, large numbers being transferred to the private sector. I am mindful of the Public and Commercial Services Union’s concern that the programme may well be a smokescreen for the privatisation of the workforce and a reduction in their terms and conditions.
Secondly, I am concerned about the impact of closures on local communities. That concern has been articulated by several Members, and there is no better example than the one the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald provided about how the Gurkhas are very much integrated in the local community. They feel as though they are part of the community, and the community welcomes and embraces them. It would be a great shame if we simply severed such an important link on the basis of short-term financial expediency. I must question whether this is all about value for money.
The National Audit Office said that past actions that the Ministry of Defence
“took to live within its means are now leading to increased costs overall and creating risks to military capability.”
My concern is that that ill-thought-out approach is being replicated. We can all point to the example of what happened with MOD housing and Annington Homes, which the Public Accounts Committee looked into in some detail. Unfortunately, the MOD sought to make savings by selling service family accommodation to the private sector but failed to achieve a good sale price. The result was a continued deterioration in the MOD estate and accommodation for service personnel. That is a great shame for the armed forces as a whole and the British Army in particular, and we need to learn from those mistakes and ensure that we do not replicate them.
That leads me to my concern about the involvement of the private sector in this process generally. I am especially concerned about the key role of Capita, which leads a consortium. Capita was awarded £90 million between June 2014 and July 2016, half of which went into its profits. That is a cause for concern. The National Audit Office highlighted that, saying that the MOD has
“failed to set contractual safeguards to ensure savings are achieved from operational improvements, which was the primary aim of the contract”
given to Capita,
“rather than one-off cost-cutting.”
The NAO added that Capita
“has not met all milestones or performed adequately against agreed key performance indicators.”
In other words, the taxpayer, the MOD and the armed forces are being short-changed by an ideological move by this Government.
Those are my concerns. My general concern is that there is a genuine fear that land will be sold off below market value. We are told that there is a need to build more houses. We all agree with that, of course, but the Ministry of Defence so far has not demonstrated that it has put its important talk about new houses into practice.
One of the statistics that I omitted in my reference to Project Allenby/Connaught is that the Ministry of Defence is delivering on that talk with 3,850 new properties in Aldershot. Somehow, the Ministry of Defence stumbled on a good idea and appointed Grainger to manage the release of that land, and that is what is happening.
Indeed. That is commendable, but it is the exception rather than the rule. That is not being replicated elsewhere across the estate. It shows what can be done if a clear strategy is in place, but as we have heard, there is no clear strategy. The Government are taking a ham-fisted approach towards the estate on a very short timescale and in a manner that has not been properly thought out. What has happened in the past is a clear indication that we are unlikely to see the 55,000 new homes that the Government have promised.
I wonder how a strategy that runs to 2031—that is in some 14 years’ time—can be described as having a short timescale.
It is important, first, to have a strategy in place. The strategy is absent. Secondly, once the guidelines for the approach have been worked out, there should be proper consultation. As we have heard, in so many cases, consultation is retrospective. Once consultation has taken place, we should move to a contraction of the estate. I agree in principle with many Members that the estate is too large, but we need a proper, structured approach, not for decisions to be made and justification provided retrospectively.
Let us have a proper strategy, a debate and a consultation, and then let us seriously and sensibly approach the contraction of our estate. I would like to hear the Minister’s response not only to those points but, more importantly, to the concerns that several Members have articulated this morning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this debate, and welcome the opportunity to discuss our strategy for a better defence estate.
Some Members, especially the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), seemed to question whether there is a strategy, so I will spend the first half of my time trying to explain exactly how that strategy was put together—it was based very much on military capability. I will then try to address some of the individual points that colleagues have raised. Realistically, I will be unable to do that in the 10 minutes I have—I must allow my hon. Friend time to wind up—so I commit to writing to hon. Members.
Until I became a Defence Minister, I did not appreciate the sheer size of the Ministry of Defence’s landholding. We are the country’s third largest landowner, after the Forestry Commission and the National Trust. Our defence estate represents almost 2% of the United Kingdom land mass—it is equivalent in size to Luxembourg. Whatever comparator we choose, it remains a fact that our estate is vast and vital to our military capability. It is where our people work, live and train, and where advanced equipment is maintained, cutting-edge research is undertaken, major exercises are conducted and major operations are launched.
The estate is vast and vital, but it is also too inefficient. To give hon. Members an idea, our estate costs £2.5 billion a year to maintain, 40% of our assets are more than 50 years old and, because of long-standing budgetary pressures, we simply have not been able to spend enough on maintenance in recent years through successive Governments. Many units are housed in bases and locations that are not fit for purpose and that are neither geographically nor logistically efficient. 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%.
The whole point is that the armed forces are now at their smallest size. What strategic thinking is the Ministry of Defence doing to consider how it will cope with an increase in all three services to meet future demands? Once we have scrapped an airfield, it will take an awful lot of compulsory purchase to get one back.
As I described at the start of my speech, we own 2% of the United Kingdom. Even if we reduce the estate by 30%—someone can do the maths— we will still own 1.4% of the United Kingdom. After the reduction, we will still have an area twice the size of Greater London. There is still scope, if needed, to expand.
In these straitened times when budgets are tight but the threats to our country are growing, efficiency and productivity are the watchwords of successful defence. Let us not mince our words: an inefficient defence estate undermines the effectiveness of our armed forces and the security of the nation they exist to protect. Those are the hard facts. We need to act, which 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 and enhance our military capability, ensuring that our armed forces are the best they can be.
In November, we set out how we plan to do that, when the Defence Secretary unveiled our strategy for a better defence estate, which is the most significant change to defence land since the second world war. The strategy is based on advice from the service chiefs and all decisions in it have been predicated on military need. It has two strands, the first of which is to rationalise our estate, selling off sites that are surplus to defence needs and bringing people and capabilities into new centres of specialism. Secondly, we will invest, 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.
Those are lofty words, but what does that mean in practice? For the Royal Navy, it means continuing to focus on operating bases and training establishments around port areas and naval stations, with surface ships in Portsmouth and Devonport; all the UK’s submarines on the Clyde; a specialist amphibious centre in the south-west, based around Devonport; and helicopters based at Yeovilton and Culdrose. For the Army, it means specialised infantry will be concentrated in Aldershot; mechanised, wheeled capability, including two of our new strike brigades, will be in Catterick; air assault forces in Colchester; armoured and tracked capability around Salisbury plain; medical services in the west midlands; and hubs of light infantry battalions in London, Edinburgh, Lisburn, St Athan, Blackpool and Cottesmore. For the RAF, it means building on its existing centres of specialism, with combat air in Coningsby, Marham and Lossiemouth; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at Waddington; air transport at Brize Norton; force protection at Honington; and support enablers at Wittering and Leeming.
The strategy will also see our joint forces command consolidate as much of its capability as possible in centres of specialisation, with defence intelligence at RAF Wyton, the defence academy at Shrivenham and information systems and services at MOD Corsham all due to absorb units relocating from elsewhere. No less importantly, for our servicemen and women and their families, it will mean a better quality of life, which is a key factor for us when we consider that the welfare of our personnel and their loved ones is the key to efficient and effective armed forces. By locating our servicemen and women together with capability, we will provide better job opportunities for their partners, more stable schooling for their families and increase their ability to buy their own home. For those continuing to live in service accommodation, we will invest in creating more modern and more comfortable homes.
I thank the Minister for giving way on that point, because that is contrary to what the armed forces families are saying. They want to be integrated into the wider community. Personnel are saying that, too, because they want to know that their families are stabilised while they are focused on operations.
The whole purpose of consolidating into larger garrisons, often near large centres of population—York is one but not the only one—is to give that stability so that people are not constantly being moved. For example, the consolidation of three armoured engineer regiments around Salisbury Plain means that, as a soldier progresses in their career and is posted between the three regiments, they can stay in the same home. That is the sort of stability that we want to create, rather than having them posted from one end of the country to the next every three years.
Finally, a better defence estate will deliver better value for money for taxpayers. By releasing sites we no longer need, we can help build the houses that we do need. Our strategy includes plans for the release of sufficient land to build up to 55,000 homes in this Parliament. Yes, some areas will lose their military establishments, but the timely publication of our better defence estate strategy will give the MOD and the affected communities both the time and the opportunity to plan the future uses of those sites.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald gave a passionate opening to the debate. I understand her concerns, but the simple fact is that her barracks, Invicta Park barracks, is too small. I know it well as a Royal Engineer. She knows that the Engineer regiment currently on that site has to have one of its squadrons displaced at Rock barracks up in Suffolk. It is difficult for a commanding officer to command a regiment when one of their sub-units is more than 150 miles away, and there is no opportunity to expand the site of their barracks.
Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned the Gurkha community. As my hon. Friend knows, I joined the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers—the regiment she talked about—as an 18-year-old in 1988 and served for three years in Hong Kong. Subsequently, the regiment moved to Kitchener barracks in Chatham and has now moved to her location. I think only four of us in the Chamber were in Parliament at the time of the great debate about our fight to try to equalise the terms and conditions for Gurkha soldiers in the British Army. That was absolutely the right thing to do, but she and the hon. Lady now seem to suggest that we should treat Gurkhas differently from other British soldiers. I find that worrying, and it could be the wrong thing to do. As someone who is a strong advocate for the Brigade of Gurkhas and probably the only Member of Parliament who has served—twice—in the Brigade of Gurkhas, I urge a degree of caution about how we make progress on that front.
I met the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) recently and talked about Dale barracks. I confirm that Fox barracks—the reserves barracks—will remain in place, and the Mercians will relocate in the north-west, co-locating in the King’s Division.
In many ways, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) articulated the vision for the future. We want to invest in our infrastructure in the years ahead to create the first-class environment. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber spoke of their concern about the lack of infrastructure, but no one who argued against the estate strategy explained where the money would come from if we do not have the opportunity to dispose of some of the estate. I confirm that all of the money we will release from disposal of the estate will be reinvested in defence.
I will not give way because we have no time and I have to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald one minute to wind up at the end.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) and I had a debate almost exactly a year ago in this Chamber. She realises that it will cost £30 million simply to refurbish Kneller Hall. We are currently looking at three other sites for potential relocation—no one has started to leave yet—but it is the sort of constrained site that, as we discussed last year, is simply not an ideal place for future investment.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) underlined the need to invest in our estate. That is exactly what the strategy does—it releases the funds that we can reinvest into the estate. I am running out of time, and I have to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald one minute in which to wind up.
I thank all hon. Members present for supporting the debate, and for their valuable contributions. Many of the negative points that have been raised are shared, but I am pleased that we have also heard about some unique vulnerabilities, whether historical or geographical, including the case of the Gurkhas and the Nepalese community in my constituency. I want to clarify for the Minister that I ask not for different treatment, but for fair treatment.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s remarks about capability and rationalising, but I still have concerns that the desire for cash and housing is clouding thinking. I think there will be a negative long-term impact on military communities and the country. I shall finish where I began, by asking the Minister, a man who has valuable personal experience, to look again at the decision to close all 91 of the barracks and bases in question, and to return with a reconsidered Government position.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).