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RAF Scampton and the Red Arrows

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2019

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the closure of RAF Scampton and the location of the Red Arrows.

There are strong historical, social, economic and human factors at play in the closure of RAF Scampton. It is more than 100 years old; it was founded in 1916 as Home Defence Flight Station Brattleby, and renamed to Scampton a year later. With the expansion of the Royal Air Force throughout the 1930s, the base at Scampton played its part in developing the skills and training that was to prove vital just years later. After the outbreak of war, it became one of the central air stations for Bomber Command and is most well-known for the Dambuster squadron, led by Guy Gibson, which inflicted a serious blow against the Nazis with the famous raid. Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross, RAF Scampton’s third, and his insensitively named dog is still buried at the base today.

Across the second world war, RAF Scampton saw a loss of 551 aircrew and 266 aircraft. The bomber legacy was continued after the war, housing Canberras and Vulcans in the 1950s. It was then that the runway was extended, forcing the old Roman road of Ermine Street, the A15, to curve in compensation. That was recognised on the station’s official badge, with the curved longbow representing the new layout of the old Roman road from London to York, and the arrow had the same north-easterly orientation as the runway. The Central Flying School came to Scampton in the 1980s, as did the ever popular Red Arrows, in 1983.

It is not just historical considerations but practicalities that matter. In the 1990s, RAF Scampton was mothballed and the Red Arrows were moved to RAF Cranwell. What looked a good decision on paper proved a very bad one in practice. Cranwell proved far too crowded a base for the Red Arrows, which had to share it with the RAF College, a flying school, several training squadrons and a naval air squadron. One air enthusiast wrote to me to point out one incident that proved what a bad idea it was to base the Red Arrows at Cranwell. One day a flight faced a landing gear malfunction and had to land with its wheels up, or pancake as the flyers call it. The fuselage of the Hawk aircraft hurtled across the apron of the runway at great speed, passed through a car park and ended up wedged against the control tower and the duty operations Land Rover, damaging a number of cars en route. Clearly, it was not just the uncrowded skies of Scampton that had proved so useful. That is a very important point in terms of avionics and the Red Arrows—uncrowded skies.

In early 2000, the RAF realised the foolishness of the move and re-opened Scampton to house the Red Arrows again. The proposal now makes the same mistake twice. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I was the MP when they mothballed Scampton the first time and our arguments were not listened to then. Lessons need to be learned from the recent past.

The last time that this happened, it was apparently found that the land at Scampton needed a lot of remediation. I tried to find out if the land might actually be sold at a loss because of the remedial work needed, but I have been denied access to the impact assessments. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that information needs to be made public?

Obviously, we have to hear from the Minister about land values and regeneration, which is an important part of the debate.

In all our dealings with defence, we must learn that we need the flexibility to deal with changing situations and unexpected threats. That applies as much to keeping HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, with their amphibious assault capabilities, which I am glad the Government have committed to continuing, as it does to keeping RAF Scampton open. The situation we are in today may change rapidly and we need the ability to respond to that effectively. So, too, may the threats we face. Relations between the UK and Russia, while far from war-like, are not quite friendly either. Russian aircraft test our air defences frequently, as NATO aircraft likewise test Russia’s. Scampton is not, of course, a frontline fighter base at the moment. It is not unimaginable that we would need to deal with a scenario in which things heat up over the North sea. As one of my constituents pointed out, if somehow RAF Coningsby was taken out of action, RAF Scampton could be very quickly converted into a frontline role with quick reaction alert capability. If the base is permanently shut and redeveloped, that option, and the flexibility it provides, is off the table. Obviously, if we lose a runway, it is lost.

There are strong economic worries, given the hit that the local secondary economy will take. We need to consider the needs of local enterprise and businesses that are involved directly or indirectly with RAF Scampton.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I was blessed to visit RAF Scampton during my time in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme and to see Vasco, who looked after us. My colleague, the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) participated also. I noted the tremendous integration between the local community and the base, and the fact that many depend on the base for their livelihood. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that community must be a material consideration in any decision, and that the Ministry of Defence owes that community a duty of care that it must fulfil?

As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a very valuable point. I entirely agree with him.

Let me mention Hawker Hunter Aviation. Its land and buildings are privately owned, but it fulfils contracts for the Ministry of Defence and its suppliers. Its business depends on the continuing existence of the airstrip at Scampton, which is far from guaranteed. If the base is redeveloped, we will also need to know what ground has been contaminated by defence use and what the cost of clean-up will be—a very important point. There are many stories to the effect that when the MOD re-routed the A15 to curve around the extended runway, it gave a guarantee that if the base was shut it would restore the original route of that ancient Roman road. Will the Minister comment on that point?

Talking of the Minister, I thank him personally for the gracious way in which he has tried to keep me informed at all times, including coming to my office two months before the decision was announced in public, with several of his officials, to explain what he was doing. I objected then to the closure, as he knows, and I keep objecting, but at least he has been very gracious in trying to keep us all informed. As we all know, he is a quite excellent Minister.

Of course, it is all very well for Ministers and civil servants to find savings—I encourage it—but I fear that they have made a decision to close RAF Scampton without being in full knowledge of the facts, and the changing facts.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, I was also lucky enough to visit RAF Scampton with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme last year and to meet the Red Arrows and to hear of the wonderful work that they do. They also told us of the very specific piece of airspace that they have secured above Scampton, which is very difficult to replicate elsewhere in the UK. It is both high and wide, giving them plenty of room to practise their clever manoeuvres. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a very important consideration?

That is an absolutely essential point. The decision, although signed off by Ministers, is really taken by air marshals, avionics experts and all the rest of it. Scampton is unique in having this very high, wide, clean airspace. This is not just about RAF Scampton. It is about what is good for the Red Arrows and what is good for Lincolnshire. We want to keep them in Lincolnshire, not have them moved to Yorkshire, for very good reasons. This is not about sentiment. There are very good reasons to do with the clear blue skies in Lincolnshire.

It may be less expensive to keep Scampton open for defence purposes than to bear a huge clean-up cost to make it marketable to private sector development. There are four hangars at Scampton in various states of disrepair; the Minister may want to comment on that. At least one is in a relatively bad state of repair. Of course, the one that has the Red Arrows is in a superb state of repair—you could eat your breakfast off it. The others, particularly the one behind Guy Gibson’s office, is not so good. The MOD cannot do what it has done in the past—just clear out and leave these huge hangars there, with a massive clear-up bill. It must make sure before it leaves the site that the hangars are fully repaired. It cannot walk out once again and neglect its responsibilities.

I know that West Lindsey District Council and Lincolnshire County Council are already making preparations with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that any transition is done sensitively and takes on board the needs of the community. Unfortunately, we have seen the Ministry dispose of such sites very badly in the past—particularly at Hemswell and Binbrook in my constituency—and lessons need to be learnt.

Ex-MOD communities in West Lindsey have witnessed a variety of problems. They are often geographically remote or separate from other communities. Housing stock is disposed of in various ways, lessening the chances of developing cohesive, resilient communities who can establish links with other communities. Large structures that are poorly suited for conversion to civilian use are left to fall to pieces, making them more expensive to refurbish or demolish. The closure of MOD assets such as shops and social clubs has a profound effect, leaving communities with few amenities and dependent on travel by car or insufficient bus services. Roads have been poorly maintained, sometimes to the extent that they are deemed unfit for use. Heavy fencing and barriers, which are useless once the MOD assets that they protected are gone, are often left unmoved. Access to utilities such as gas mains has been an issue—not to mention broadband connectivity.

I echo the concerns of West Lindsey District Council and agree that if closure goes ahead, which we oppose, a robust and adequately funded exit strategy will be needed if the MOD is going to do the job properly. Ministers will have to tell us whether the full financial impact has been costed. There is also the superb RAF Scampton Heritage Centre, which provides free admission to the general public. One needs to pre-book in order to visit it, which is understandable because it is on a functioning military base. Can the MOD guarantee that the Heritage Centre will be allowed to continue? West Lindsey District Council and Lincolnshire County Council do not have the funding to take it up.

Can the Minister guarantee that the history of this important site will not be simply destroyed or neglected? The history of Bomber Command is no less important than our maritime history, which is so well funded in, say, Portsmouth. This is not a matter of just handing over control and saying, “Here—it’s your problem now.” We are lucky to have a wonderful group called Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire, which is a partnership between the county council, the military, the commercial sector and volunteer heritage centres and museums, spread across 19 sites. The groups and entities that combine as members of Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire do an amazing job of preserving this important aspect of our county’s history—bomber county—and provide incredible value for money. Ministers should tell us how they can better facilitate the work of these groups, especially the Heritage Centre at Scampton. If the MOD is serious about ensuring a proper, sympathetic and ethical transition for RAF Scampton, this should include a funding formula for preserving the history of the base.

We have to think about the future. A young constituent wrote to me to say that growing up and seeing the Red Arrows at Scampton was

“one of the main reasons that I am now studying aerospace engineering at university.”

If the RAF leaves, she suggests that we consider turning Scampton into a large-scale aviation attraction. She writes:

“It is vital that young people are encouraged into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers, and a STEM zone should be incorporated into the museum to help inspire the next generation of pilots and engineers.”

She suggests that the recent announcement that Retford Gamston Airport in nearby Nottinghamshire is to close means that there will be strong demand for an airfield devoted to general aviation. Scampton’s runway is nearly 9,000 feet long and gives a fantastic strategic advantage to air shows and heritage aviation, as we have seen in recent years. By comparison, the Imperial War Museum in Duxford has a runway of only 5,000 feet.

More broadly, we need to know how many jobs will be lost. How many roles will be transferred elsewhere, and what will be the impact on the local secondary economy? The Ministry of Defence does not exist in a bubble; in Lincolnshire, we fund it with taxpayers’ money. If its savings will mean losses to the wider community, the MOD needs to outline realistic plans to compensate for those losses and soften the impact of shutting down Scampton. If the base is to shut, the MOD needs to consult all key stakeholders who know Scampton well and have creative ideas that unleash the full potential of the site.

West Lindsey is under constant pressure from the Government to build more houses. Given the size of our schools, the location of our medical practices and the state of our local road network, that is easier said than done. There is great resistance to any more large-scale housing in the villages north of Lincoln, including places such as Cherry Willingham, Nettleham, Saxby and Welton. Should the base close, which we oppose, there will be an opportunity for relocating projected or desired housing numbers from existing villages to a large, new village in Scampton. In order for that to work, proper facilities will have to be created and the surrounding roads upgraded. The MOD must play its part and pledge—today or soon—to do that.

In addition to the historic, economic and social impact, there is a human consideration. Many people in the Royal Air Force community have made Scampton their home over the past century, and many ex-service personnel continue to live all across Lincolnshire. RAF Scampton is not just a facility; it has been a home and community where people have formed bonds and where memories persist. Lives have been lived at Scampton, and many lives have been lost in serving the nation. I would particularly like to remember Corporal Jonathan Bayliss, whose step-brother contacted me in advance of this debate. Corporal Bayliss was the engineer with the Red Arrows who died tragically last year in an accident. He is memorialised at Scampton just outside the offices of the Red Arrows, alongside the two pilots who died in 2011. The bar has been renamed JB’s Bar in Corporal Bayliss’s memory.

Last year, second world war veteran John “Snogger” Watkins volunteered to grab a rifle and stand guard at RAF Scampton in order to keep the base open. He is 94 years old and was seconded to the Dambusters squadron in 1943, just in time for its famous raid. There is so much to celebrate at RAF Scampton—the services that have been rendered and the sacrifices that have been there. There is a strong case for keeping this base open and in operation. The last review was done only a few years ago and concluded that it was well worth completely resurfacing the runway. It also concluded that Scampton was the best place to keep the Red Arrows. What has changed?

To the bureaucrats, shutting Scampton looks great on paper. Perhaps closure would be an acceptable argument if this was only about reducing costs and saving money, but there is so much more involved. In terms of serving the local community in Scampton and Lincolnshire and maintaining our flexibility in the defence of our realm, the best option is to keep the base open.

The debate can last until 4.30 pm, so the Minister has just over 12 minutes to perform loop-the-loops, barrel rolls or whatever he chooses.

I will do my best to impress, Mr Hollobone. As is normal practice in these debates, I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for his very kind words in recognising the issues I have to deal with—providing the news and dealing with the real estate—and for his courtesy in our discourse about this very delicate matter.

I also take this opportunity to welcome back the Tornado pilots who have returned from their duties in Iraq and Syria for the last time. The Tornado is an incredible aircraft, which came into service in 1979. It has now returned to RAF Marham and will be replaced by the F35 and the Typhoon. That demonstrates the advancement of our incredible capabilities, which were reflected across the nation in the 100th anniversary last year. I think that was a welcome reminder to the nation of just how important our armed forces are. We as a nation step forward when perhaps other countries do not. That is part of our desire and appetite to help to shape the world around us, as a force for good. The RAF has played, and continues to play, an important role in that.

Before I discuss RAF Scampton in detail, I want to put into context the wider picture of defence real estate optimisation that we face. My right hon. Friend touched on that a number of times in his speech. We must recognise that a base or a garrison is not just an operational locality; it is also a place for families and friends, where children grow up. It is part of a community and forms a bond with the society in which it is embedded.

We must also recognise that because of decades—indeed, centuries—of development of the armed forces real estate, the country is peppered with little localities, from Dad’s Army operations to huge bases. Some 3% of the UK is MOD land. Owing to the reduction in the size of all three services, some of that is surplus to requirement, and that means that we must make tough decisions.

I am sure the Minister will agree that the presence of the Red Arrows makes Scampton more important, because they are such an iconic institution in the United Kingdom. We associate them with the commemoration of important events and anniversaries, and particularly the 100th anniversary of the RAF. We have an important event coming up on 29 March this year. Does the Minister think it might be possible to arrange for the Red Arrows to fly over Parliament so we can properly celebrate that important historic event?

I am tempted to say so many things. My hon. Friend, for whom I have huge respect, knows that we were on different sides of the argument. To be clear, where we are is not where I would want to be. However, I am committed to democracy and I recognise the process that we have undergone, so I respect the fact that, if there is a deal, we will depart from the European Union on 29 March. I hope he will forgive me for saying that although 17 million people may be shouting for joy on that day and may demand that the Red Arrows participate, the nation as a whole—43 million voters—must come together, put aside their polarised views and the gridlock we have faced, and move forward.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough touched on the challenges we face, including what Russia is doing. China is tasking us in another void. We must work with our European partners to meet the threats and challenges we face in a diverse, very complex, changing and threatening world. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) will understand if I do not jump at the opportunity to stand with him on the point that he made.

I return to the subject of the debate. To conclude my point about the defence real estate optimisation programme, we must reduce the size of the footprint of the estate and drive down the running costs.

I will finish this point.

We must invest heavily in the core sites where our personnel will be based. That is the focal point. As we reduce the size of all three services of our armed forces, we are building up super-garrisons where we can invest in the long term to improve the accommodation and training facilities, but that means that we must take difficult decisions to close bases.

Has the MOD had any discussions with other Departments about whether it should be funding the cost of the Red Arrows, given that their great value is not to war fighting and defence, but to UK plc’s influence around the globe? Scampton is now a historic education centre, and that is not the MOD’s core business.

No. We are jumping into discussing one of the assets that is based at RAF Scampton. Given the time, I might as well throw away my speech and just go for it, because I will not be able to get through the points. The RAF Red Arrows are critical to our capabilities in a number of ways. They allow our pilots to develop skillsets that they would not get in any other forums. They do much to promote Britain’s activity, soft power and so forth. They do outreach—for example, at Scampton and the Bournemouth air show. They reach out to youngsters and invigorate them to think about potentially serving in the armed forces, or at least to support and have reverence and respect for what our armed forces do.

There is no threat to the Red Arrows, but we must ask two questions. First, where can they be based? The RAF itself must make a judgment call on that operational decision.

I will finish this point, if I may.

Secondly, where do the Red Arrows train? They spend some of their time training, and some of their time doing display work. The training area is not necessarily right on the doorstep of where they are based, but the training must be done with the permission of the Civil Aviation Authority, so there are many factors that must be taken into account when allocating where the Red Arrows will be. The Red Arrows have moved regularly since they were created. They have never been in one place for any huge length of time.

My understanding is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, the Red Arrows have been in Lincolnshire since 1983. I was a hospital doctor before I came to Parliament, and I remember the joy that many local patients would get from watching the Red Arrows practise outside the window.

I wonder whether the Minister has given consideration to a couple of points. First, RAF Cranwell will soon have a special G-force training facility, which the RAF Red Arrows will use—they are, obviously, local. Secondly, has he had any discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about contributing to the Red Arrows?

Thirdly, what discussions has the Minister had with the Civil Aviation Authority about the special piece of airspace that the Red Arrows have for practising in? My understanding is that that is terribly difficult to replicate elsewhere.

I will not answer those questions here because, with respect, this is the debate of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) with the answers.

On the Red Arrows and Lincolnshire, I have had the good fortune to visit many of the bases. I was in RAF Marham on Thursday, which is to be the home of the new 617 Squadron in tribute to the Dambusters, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough mentioned. Lincolnshire does incredibly well, given that ever fewer runways and airbases from the second world war survive. It is the home of the RAF. I have mentioned Marham, and Coningsby is also based there, with our quick reaction force. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham mentioned Cranwell, where officer training takes place. She is right that there is a new state-of-the-art facility there for F-35 training, which involves a simulator that allows pilots to experience not just taking off and landing, but other moves; it gives them the exact experience of being in the aircraft. Then there is Digby, and not least Waddington, where our star capability is. As a county, Lincolnshire does incredibly well.

I will not give way again. I literally have two and a half minutes left, and I am on page 2 of my speech. I might as well give up.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said, some of the assets at RAF Scampton—the bases and buildings—are exactly the same as they were in the second world war. We have not invested in the site for some time. The runway itself requires huge investment because of the weight of the aircraft, the distance and the runway systems. The cost of bringing all that up to the standards we expect would be prohibitive. There is huge recognition of the history of that important site, given the role of the Dambusters, which my right hon. Friend touched on. We do not want to lose sight of that. I am pleased to hear that the museum is going well. In our private conversations, I have said that I would like to speak to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to see what more we can to do invest in that site.

I make it very clear that we do not take these decisions lightly. Through the full scoping of the RAF real estate, we must make tough judgments about where we will invest in the long term. I am very sorry that Scampton was not one of the sites chosen, but we need to work with those who will be based there to ensure that, as the relocation takes place, they and their families are looked after.

Ultimately, this is an operational decision made by the RAF itself. I promise my right hon. Friend that Lincolnshire will continue to play the most significant part in the air contribution to our military capability.

I thank the Minister for meeting me about the future of the assets at RAF Kirton in Lindsey. I hope he will ensure, as he deals with the transfer at Scampton, that there continues to be proper engagement with local people in relation to the assets at Kirton in Lindsey.

In conclusion, I simply say that I understand hon. Members’ passion. It is important that MPs come here to support their communities and recognise the value that RAF personnel and their families bring. I recognise that, and I recognise the difficult decisions that must be made. I stand here as a pilot and as somebody who served in the armed forces. It is important, given the complexities and challenges we face, that the RAF continues to advance. We will continue to invest in the people, the real estate, the training and the airbases.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).