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Royal Marines: Basing Arrangements

Volume 652: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2019

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

It is time to put an end to the uncertainty over where our Royal Marines will be based in the future. At the outset, I pay tribute to all those who serve in the Royal Marines. As the UK’s high-readiness, elite amphibious fighting force, they offer the UK hard power options when diplomacy fails and when disasters strike. Their contribution to our country has been delivered in blood and sweat, and I want to thank the Royal Marines in uniform today; those veterans who have served for their contribution to our national security; and forces families for their support for those who have served.

Tonight I want to focus specifically on the Royal Marines base in Stonehouse in Plymouth. In 2016 it was announced that this historic and spiritual home of the Royal Marines would close in 2023, but three years on we are still not certain where the Royal Marines will move to when Stonehouse barracks close.

This is not the first debate today about the Royal Marines. Earlier my fellow Devon MP, the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), made the case to keep open the Royal Marines base at Chivenor. MPs with Royal Marines on their patches are not fighting among ourselves; indeed, there is agreement that we need certainty for the Royal Marines’ long-term future, wherever that may be. Certainty is required for 40 Commando in Taunton, as well as for those Royal Marines at Chivenor and those in Stonehouse. As the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, I am proud to make the case for the Royal Marines—the pride and joy of our armed forces—to continue to be based in Plymouth, their spiritual home for more than 300 years.

We all know that the Royal Marines are the UK’s finest fighting force, with unique and valued capabilities. I have seen that for myself at the Commando training centre at Lympstone, with the commando obstacle course and at passing out parades. I have seen it in Plymouth, with the Royal Marines at Stonehouse, the Royal Marines band school in Portsmouth, and, on a rather blustery day, on the back of an offshore raiding craft on the River Tamar with Royal Marines from 1 Assault Group.

It is with great regret that I say that the morale of our Royal Marines is suffering, in part due to the uncertainty about their future basing. I know that from speaking to many of them off duty in bars around Plymouth and while door knocking in my city. The latest annual armed forces continuous attitude survey suggests there has been a significant fall in morale across the services. Two years ago, 62% of Royal Marines officers rated morale in the service as high; now, that figure is just 23%.

Since 2010, Plymouth has been on the hard end of cuts to our Royal Navy and Royal Marines. With the cuts to 42 Commando, the loss of the Royal Citadel and the sale of our Royal Navy flagship, HMS Ocean, at a bargain price to Brazil, Ministers have cut more often than they have invested. That must not be the end of the story for the Royal Marines and their long and proud association with Plymouth.

Talk of further cuts continued last summer, when there was speculation that Devonport-based amphibious ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark could face the axe, too. If those cuts had gone ahead, there would have been a logical threat to the existence of the Royal Marines. Rumours last April that the Marines might be merged with the Paras only added to concerns that that was being lined up as a real possibility. Time after time, I have stood up in this place to demand answers but, unfortunately, Ministers have refused to rule out the loss of those capabilities. The petition I launched to preserve the amphibious ships and the Royal Marines attracted 30,000 names, the bulk of them from the far south-west.

I am pleased to say, though, that in September, after a long, hard-fought campaign, we were relieved to hear that the Government had decided to save HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. That was the right decision, and I thank the Minister for championing those ships and the Royal Marines.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on saving our amphibious capability; I think he would acknowledge the work the Select Committee on Defence did, too. Does he agree that we all should acknowledge the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), who is another local MP, and the willingness of the Defence Secretary to take on board the message we were trying to relay? He even announced his decision ahead of the modernising defence programme announcement—at the Conservative party conference, no less.

Sadly, I did not get an invitation to the Tory party conference this year. I appreciate the point that the Chair of the Defence Committee makes. Our campaigns as a city are best fought when they are cross-party, and I hope that in the future the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) will be here to make the case, too.

Stonehouse barracks is the oldest operational military barracks in the country. Since the Corps of Royal Marines was formed in 1664, it has had a base in Plymouth, close to Devonport. Stonehouse barracks, which opened in 1756, was the Royal Marines’ first ever dedicated and purpose-built barracks. There were similar barracks in Chatham and Portsmouth, but Stonehouse is the only one remaining.

Since world war two, Stonehouse has been home to elements of 41, 42 and 43 Commando, and it was home to 45 Commando until it moved to RM Condor in 1971, when Stonehouse became the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade. I am pleased that the Minister confirmed yesterday that Condor is safe; I hope he will have similar good news in due course for the rest of the Royal Marines bases.

The estate optimisation strategy, “A Better Defence Estate”, which was published in November 2016, announced the Ministry of Defence’s intent to

“dispose of Stonehouse Barracks by 2023 and to reprovide for the Royal Marines units in either the Plymouth or Torpoint areas”.

The promise to provide a “super-base” in Plymouth is much touted by Government Members, and I believe it is a good one, but we have seen little evidence of where that base will be built. As part of a major defence shake-up, the Army’s 29 Commando will also leave Plymouth’s Royal Citadel, which the MOD leases from the Crown Estate. In answer to a parliamentary question a few months ago, I was told:

“Further assessment study work is being undertaken to inform the final decision.”

It is right that decisions about basing are taken on the grounds of military strategy by those in uniform rather than for party political reasons, but Ministers need to take a decision to address the uncertainty.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—as Members know, I am a fellow Janner, having been born in his constituency. Does he agree that, much though many of us have great affection for places such as the citadel, which for historical reasons has more guns over the city than it has over Plymouth sound, we must ensure that modern facilities are provided? It will be sad to see these places with great histories go, but we want modern facilities for the Marines, who are a cutting-edge fighting force, rather than to defend a 300-year-old barracks.

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts a piece of my speech, and he is exactly right. We need to make sure that the facilities for our Royal Marines and all our armed forces are up to scratch, and 300-year-old barracks are not providing the quality of accommodation required. It is right that in repurposing and reproviding those facilities in Plymouth we provide the Royal Marines with the finest facilities. I agree with him on that point.

Given the months and months of uncertainty, I was disappointed that a decision on basing the Royal Marines was not included in the recently published modernising defence programme. I said prior to its publication that if the MDP did not guarantee the future of the Royal Marines, it will have failed, and it did not even mention the words “Royal Marines”, let alone their future basing arrangements. That said, I am encouraged by the words of the Minister about news of their future coming soon.

The lack of clarity is a cancer to morale. Falling morale hits the Royal Navy’s and the Royal Marines’ ability to recruit and retain the very best. It affects capability, and capabilities affect our strategic options in tough times. The logic of basing the Royal Marines in Plymouth, close to amphibious ships, Royal Marines Tamar and training grounds is sound, but if a base is to be operational by 2023, after Stonehouse barracks closes, work needs to begin this year.

There is strategic importance in keeping the Royal Marines, Plymouth and Devonport together. When the defence review in 2010 reconfigured our defence capabilities, Plymouth was promised it would be the centre of amphibiosity for the Royal Navy. That is a promise that the Government must keep, and Royal Marines Tamar is a good sign that the MOD intends to keep that promise, but without a new home for the Royal Marines, it looks a hollow pledge. Plymouth and Devonport in particular must remain a centre of amphibiosity, in name as well as in strength, and that means not only having it set forth in a strategy but having the ships and the Royal Marines that make that capability what it is today: a world-leading capability that is a deterrent to our adversaries and a support to our allies.

In looking at what facilities can be reprovided for the Royal Marines after Stonehouse barracks closes, the Minister will know—because we have spoken about it several times—that I am also keen to look at the memorials in Stonehouse to Royal Marines who have died to make sure they are relocated sensitively or protected in their current location.

As a proud Janner—someone born in Plymouth who lives in Plymouth—I feel I can say that Plymouth all too often hides its light under a bushel, and then hides the bushel.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that it is essential that there remains a strong military presence that feeds into the local economy and community and that bases are not completely separate from but involved in and a help to the local area?

I agree entirely. Military bases might be surrounded by fences and razor wire, but they have bridges to the communities, connections to our economies and bonds deeper than any moat.

Royal Marine bases, such as that at Stonehouse, are part of the social fabric of our city, and I think we should say loudly that we are proud of them, we value them and we want them to remain part of the vibrant fabric of our community, contributing economic activity, expertise and the commando spirit of cheerfulness in the face of adversity to all things Plymouth.

A number of options have been or should be considered in the basing of this future super-base. Whether it is decamping 3 Commando Brigade to the Royal Citadel while Stonehouse barracks is refitted, building a new base at Devonport dockyard or Bull Point, expanding HMS Raleigh to accommodate the Royal Marines, building alongside Royal Marines Bickleigh or brownfield and greenfield options, Ministers must have a plan and make it public shortly.

Plymouth City Council stands ready to work with the Ministry of Defence, especially in assisting in land purchase, if the suggested locations currently fall outside the 3% of the country the MOD already owns. I fear there is little logic in disposing of Stonehouse barracks if Ministers seek to make a profit from the land. It will not deliver any profit and will require a significant multi-million-pound dowry if any developer is to take it on.

Royal William Yard, only a few hundred metres from Stonehouse, has shown that old military buildings can be repurposed beautifully but not without significant investment, ongoing capital support and massive public subsidy. I doubt the MOD is planning on such a scale of public subsidy for the Stonehouse site after it sells it. As a Grade II* listed building, it is not attractive to developers in its current form. Equally, the dated and historic facilities, lack of hot water, problems with heating and dormitory-based set up is not suitable for Royal Marines in the 21st century.

In conclusion, when does the Minister expect to have a long-term base for the Royal Marines announced, and what plans does he have for the Royal Citadel after the departure of 29 Commando? The Royal Marines dedicate their lives to the protection of our country and our national interests. The least we need to do is ensure they have certainty about where they will be based, be it at Plymouth, Taunton or Chivenor. I welcome the announcement that Ministers will make an oral statement about the better estates strategy in the coming weeks, and I encourage the Minister to use all the energies of his office to ensure that Brexit does not bounce or bump this statement. The Royal Marines and their families, be they in Taunton, Plymouth or north Devon, all deserve certainty about where the Royal Marines will be based in the future.

I was not sure whether we would reach this point, given the proceedings earlier today, but I am very pleased that we have.

Let me begin, as is customary, by congratulating the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this important debate. It has been quite a week for parliamentary interest in the Marines. That, I think, is absolutely fair and understandable, and reflects Members’ active interest in and passion for supporting our armed forces and the communities in which they sit. The hon. Gentleman is no exception, as he has illustrated in his powerful and passionate speech tonight.

I can say—and I could then sit down, but I will not—that answers are coming. The hon. Gentleman hinted at the fact that there will be a major statement on the rationalisation of our real estate and some of our assets in the very near future. I hope he recognises the importance of our carrying out due diligence correctly. As he mentioned, many stakeholders are involved. It is important for us to do our homework correctly and then make our announcements accordingly, because so many factors are involved.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the importance of what our military bases represent. They are not just defence assets. They provide homes, jobs and a way of life, and are sizeable communities in their own right. They often have a significant input into the local economy. They are, in essence, living organisms that have a symbiotic relationship with the wider community. Many of our military establishments—Stonehouse is a fantastic example, having been the first purpose-built garrison in the country—have been there for so long that they help to define the areas in which they sit, and add to their reputation.

Members will, however, be fully aware of the wider need to rationalise our defence real estate. It has grown over literally hundreds of years, and now represents 3% of UK land. We do not need it. It is superfluous to requirements, and indeed some of it is required for other purposes, such as housing. We need to use our defence budget wisely. It is simply not possible to retain huge defence real estate in the way to which we have been accustomed in the past—the legacy of sea, air and land assets that were often required and used during two world wars. We have therefore been obliged to conduct a wide-ranging study of Ministry of Defence land, with a view to transforming our estate into one that better supports the future needs of our armed forces.

With that, however, comes more bespoke investment. The hon. Gentleman suggested that Stonehouse was no longer appropriate. I visited that location; the shower units do not work, and Marines are living in eight-man accommodation. That will not attract the next generation of potential recruits. It is important that we build for the future, which is why we are investing £4 billion over the next 10 years to create a smaller, more modern and more capability-focused estate.

Before I turn to the UK Marine footprint, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I echo some of the words used in a Westminster Hall debate earlier today, which focused specifically on RM Chivenor. The Royal Marines play a critical and unique role in the wider spectrum of our armed forces capability. This year they celebrate their 350th anniversary. They have much to be proud of in their long history, including a vital role in Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, securing and defending the Rock of Gibraltar in 1704, the infamous raid on Zeebrugge in 1918 that earned two of them the Victoria Cross, and the D-Day landings in Normandy, where 17,500 of them took part in the largest amphibious operation in history. More recently, in 1982, they were essential to the recapture of the Falkland Islands.

Today, the Royal Marines are the UK’s specialised commando force—our elite unit, held at high readiness, trained for worldwide rapid response and able to deal with a wide spectrum of threats and security challenges. They often operate in dangerous and extremely difficult circumstances, from amphibious operations to littoral strikes and humanitarian operations. They are specialists in mountain and cold-weather warfare and jungle counter-insurgency. When diplomacy fails, the Royal Marines provide the UK Government with an impressive spectrum of hard power options with which we can respond. To every one of those Royal Marines, and to the veterans who have earned the coveted green beret, I say thank you on behalf of a grateful nation.

The 2015 strategic defence and security review confirmed our commitment to the Royal Marines. I am sorry that there was much speculation about the future of assets and locations and about the size of the Royal Marines. I hope that the publication of the modernising defence programme has put some of those concerns to bed, with the confirmation that the futures of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion have been secured.

The House will be familiar with the family of units that make up the Royal Marines Orbat, which is heavily weighted towards the south-west: 3 Commando Brigade is headquartered at Stonehouse in Plymouth, which it is expected to vacate by 2023; 40 Commando is based at Norton Manor Camp in Taunton and is earmarked for a move; and 42 Commando is based at Bickleigh barracks in Devon. In addition, Lympstone is home to the amazing commando training centre. The hon. Gentleman said he had visited the centre, and I have visited it too. It is an incredible place that not only trains UK commandos but attracts trainers from other parts of the world, who come to see our standards of professionalism. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned 29 Commando Royal Artillery, which is based at the Royal Citadel. Again, that accommodation is no longer fit for purpose. We cannot even get the artillery vehicles through the front doors any longer, so we cannot stay in that location. The Commando Logistic Regiment is based at RMB Chivenor, which was debated at length in Westminster Hall this morning. At the other end of the country, 45 Commando is based at Condor, which was also the subject of debate this week. Finally, there is 43 Commando, the Fleet Protection Group, which looks after our nuclear assets.

Turning to the policy surrounding the future basing arrangements, the Government made a series of announcements following the 2016 basing review, with a view to delivering a more efficient and sustainable defence estate. Subsequent feasibility work has revealed that the original plan needs further technical and affordability assessments to ensure that it delivers the Navy’s capability requirements while ensuring value for money for the taxpayer. That work has been under way for some time, and as I said earlier today, further announcements will be made in the near future.

The MOD remains acutely aware of the impact of the uncertainty around the final decision, of which the hon. Gentleman spoke, on our service personnel and their families. The principles underlining the future of the Royal Marines basing plan include maintaining operational capabilities, which is first and foremost. Much though any Member would like assets to remain in their locality, we must recognise the duty laid out in the 2015 SDSR, and that operational commitments must come first. The provision of modern, enabled and co-located command and control facilities to manage small and medium-scale enduring amphibious operations is at the core of what our Royal Marines do. They must also have the ability to generate the force, so we must be able to maintain the Royal Marines in the south-west, which will provide easy access to specialist amphibious shipping and land and sea training areas that will enable the Royal Marines to generate the force and deliver the primary amphibious outputs that we expect of them.

Turning to estate optimisation, the Royal Marines will, over time, reduce their overall infrastructure asset base to focus available resources better into a smaller footprint that will be fit for purpose, efficient to operate and sustainable. Of course, the morale component of garrisoning units and their provision of domestic stability must also be protected. The hon. Gentleman touched on that. The morale of our armed forces is important, and co-locating units into smaller geographical areas allows them to support each other and focus on the collective operational output. It also provides opportunities for families to move, but not too far from each other, so that they can invest in a single home rather than constantly having to move. All of that helps to recruit and retain people into the Royal Marine family.

This consolidation has not just taken place over the past couple of years; it has been part of a 25-year package, which will see the Royal Navy focus more on centres of specialisation. In the long term the aim is to rationalise the number of Royal Marine barracks in the south-west, as I think the hon. Gentleman understands, but also to combine military and infrastructure expertise in order to transform the places where the armed forces live, work, train and operate.

The part our Royal Marines play in fitting into the wider jigsaw of the UK defence posture has come up in all the debates on the subject, and I stress that point because from where I sit the world is changing fast and becoming more dangerous and complex. The threats are diversifying and intensifying. We are a nation that for so long has retained an ability, and indeed a desire, to help shape the world around us as a force for good, but I believe we will soon reach an inflection point beyond which our role on the international stage will be permanently diminished unless we invest more in defence. We will not be able to assist our allies who look to us for international leadership, we will not be able to defend our existing and new trade routes in a post-Brexit world, and we will not be able to robustly defend ourselves in the new arenas of conflict such as cyber and space if we do not invest in defence, and that includes investment in our brave Royal Marines.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue and allowing us to debate it, and for giving me the opportunity to underline the MOD’s commitment to our Royal Marines and our armed forces in general. We are committed to their capabilities and to their families, whose support is critical. That is why their interests and needs must be a factor in the estate equation.

As I said this morning, the rationalisation of more than 90 military locations continues, and I look forward to making a statement in the next round—in the very near future—with a detailed announcement of the number of locations.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.