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RAF Croughton Expansion: Diplomatic Implications

Volume 678: debated on Thursday 9 July 2020

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

Before I call the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), I should remind all Members—although I perceive that there are no other Members seeking to take part in this debate, but in case anyone should—that the matter of criminal charges against Anne Sacoolas is sub judice under the terms of this House’s resolution. Therefore, reference should not be made to the detail of the alleged offences or the other aspects of the case. I thank the right hon. Member for her courtesy in consulting the Speaker’s office in advance of her debate, and I remind any other Member who seeks to participate in the debate to be equally mindful of the sub judice resolution and matters still before the court.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting this important Adjournment debate today.

RAF Croughton, based in my constituency, was built in 1938 and is home to a United States air force communications station. For many decades, RAF Croughton’s strong links to our local community have been clear. It has regularly held community events and many children of base employees attend local schools. American citizens working at the base have become neighbours and friends of my constituents. In 2015, I was made aware of a US plan to consolidate some of its UK military and communications operations. RAF Croughton was earmarked for expansion, and the then Secretary of State for Defence wrote to me on 8 January 2015, saying:

“approximately 1300 of the 1900 US Service personnel leaving RAF Alconbury and RAF Molesworth are expected to transfer to Croughton, with all the benefits to the local economy at Croughton this should bring.”

As the local MP, I was given a helpful tour of RAF Croughton and its plans to build new facilities, including housing, a school and a new health centre for its staff. I was pleased to support its proposals and its need for temporary direct access for HGVs from the A43, which is a fast-moving dual carriageway that runs through my constituency. However, four years on, and before any of those plans got under way, on 27 August 2019 my 19-year-old constituent Harry Dunn tragically died when a car driven by an American citizen from the base hit his motorbike head-on, because she was unintentionally driving on the wrong side of the road. A few weeks later, she returned to the USA claiming diplomatic immunity. She has since been charged by the Crown Prosecution Service, and our Home Office has made a request to the US for her extradition to face charges and provide some closure for Harry’s family. This has been denied.

Harry’s mother Charlotte, his father Tim, their whole family and a local network of friends remain in shock and are devastated by their loss. Charlotte asked me to share her words with the House: 

“Then on 27th August 2019, I got the worst possible news any parent could get, that no parent should ever receive. I lost my gorgeous 19-year-old son Harry. He was doing what he loved best, riding his motorcycle. As he was approaching RAF Croughton, about 3 miles from where we live, riding perfectly safely, he was struck by a car being driven on the wrong side of the road.

He died an unimaginably slow, painful, agonising and distressing death, having landed on the verge by the side of the road and broken just about every bone in his body. By the time I got to hospital it was too late. He had already passed and I didn’t get to say goodbye to him or to comfort him. That will tear me apart for the rest of my life. I did however promise him that I would get him justice and as his mother I will not let him down.

I know there is nothing I can do to turn the clock back. I won’t see his happy face again walking through the door, get a hug or a text.

Harry was a wonderful young man with all of his life ahead of him.”

Those are very moving words. The fact is, Madam Deputy Speaker, that if you or I unintentionally killed someone by driving on the wrong side of the road, we would face the UK judicial system, one of the best in the world, designed to deliver justice to victims and fairness to perpetrators.

At a recent meeting with senior representatives of RAF Croughton and the US embassy, they made clear to me their deep sense of sympathy and sorrow for Harry’s family and friends. Nevertheless, we are just not making any progress in achieving justice and closure for Harry. It is now six months from the day that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary put in the request for extradition and almost a year that Harry’s family and friends have been trying to deal with their unimaginable loss.

Let me turn now to the point of my Adjournment debate. May I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on behalf of Harry’s family, for permitting the debate? There have recently been planning applications submitted to South Northamptonshire Council on behalf of RAF Croughton, presumably to begin the work on its expansion. One of the applications is to change the entrance to the base—the point at which American citizens leave or arrive by car. It proposes to keep its entrance on a quiet B road. It is not proposing to move the entrance to the A43, which is a busy road with a central reservation that would ensure that all vehicles leave and arrive on the correct side of the road. But speaking frankly, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is unthinkable under the circumstances that any planning applications from the base can be treated as business as usual between two long-standing allies. Many constituents, and other people right across the country and even from the United States itself, have written to me to say, “So if I, or a member of my family, am driving or walking near the base and an American citizen accidentally harms or kills us, that person can simply go back to the United States and there is nothing that the UK can do about it, even though the United States of America is our greatest ally and one half of a special relationship.” It is utterly intolerable.

I have discussed this issue at length with the leader of South Northamptonshire Council. He has taken every possible step to ensure improvements to signage and road markings near the base in order to prevent any other tragedy in the future. He quite rightly points out that our local council is permitted to take only a planning decision based on planning law. However, he has also pointed out to me that, whereas the powers of a local planning authority are limited, the Secretary of State is able to call in any applications under the rules that are permitted on applications that

“could have significant effects beyond their immediate locality; give rise to substantial regional or national controversy…or may involve the interests of national security or of foreign Governments.”

In my view and in the view of many residents of South Northamptonshire, it is essential that the Secretary of State calls in all planning applications that could leave my constituents vulnerable to future tragedies.

When Harry’s parents, Charlotte and Tim, came to see me for the first time, in October 2019, it was an emotional meeting, and I assured them that I would do everything possible to achieve justice for Harry and to ensure that the tragedy that happened to their family will not happen to another. Since then, I have worked with my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Attorney General, the Health Secretary and the Transport Secretary, as well as the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and crime commissioner for Northamptonshire, the US embassy and the base commander at RAF Croughton. At every stage, the focus has been on achieving justice for Harry and making sure that this tragedy is never repeated. And yet, I am sorry to say, despite all the local efforts to improve signage, the efforts at the base to improve driver training, and the efforts of Northamptonshire police to enforce and follow up all incidents in recent months, we continue to see near misses. Just last week, two young men recorded a car travelling towards them on their side of the road, just near the base. Who knows if this was another American citizen forgetting to drive on the left? Is it not terrible that so many of my constituents are now fearful of the base?

I know that my colleagues in Government share my desire for justice to be done and to prevent any repeat of this terrible tragedy. It seems to me that for any potential expansion or changes to be agreed at RAF Croughton, we need our greatest allies, the United States of America, to demonstrate their empathy for this devastated family by allowing justice to be done for Harry. RAF Croughton is a key part of the 501st combat support wing, whose vision includes the phrase, “Focused on strong communities where families thrive”. If they do not live their vision, they cannot expect the residents of Brackley, Croughton and the surrounding villages to support the prospect of hundreds more US citizens moving to the base.

I have three requests of the Government. First, they should make it very clear to the US Government that they, as our key ally, should not be denying justice to Harry’s family, and that we will never accept this treatment of a UK citizen. Secondly, any expansion at RAF Croughton should not be permitted while this issue remains unresolved. The Secretary of State should call in every application from the base to consider it from a national perspective, as well as to protect UK citizens from future tragedies. Thirdly, the Secretary of State should consider requiring the base to move its access point to the A43, which has a central reservation. That would ensure that RAF Croughton’s personnel drive on the correct side of the road, which could prevent tragedies like the death of Harry Dunn from happening again.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this debate and bringing it to the House, and on raising this issue as she has. I pay tribute to her for her constant and consistent work to support the family of Harry Dunn and the whole community across Croughton and the surrounding towns and villages. This is clearly a hugely emotive issue, as she illustrated clearly with the passionate and powerful quote from Harry Dunn’s parents. I pay tribute also to the people of Croughton for the determined way they have raised this matter and highlighted their concerns about an issue that is important to the whole community.

I hope my right hon. Friend understands that I am unable to comment on any of the events surrounding the tragic death of Harry Dunn, because it is subject to a judicial review, but I am able to address the concerns about expansion at RAF Croughton and road safety. I should also state on the record that the Secretary of State uses his call-in powers for planning applications very selectively. Each case that comes before him is decided on the basis of the individual facts, and I cannot this evening provide a judgment on where or whether he is likely to exercise his powers in the cases we are discussing. As an application may come before the Secretary of State at some stage, I must be careful not to prejudice the process. However, I will use this opportunity to update my right hon. Friend and the House on the status of the current planning proposals for RAF Croughton and set out where the Government may have a role in the process.

I will be clear from the start that there are no plans to increase the number of personnel on site at RAF Croughton. The decisions taken under the previous US Administration in 2015 have now been reversed. The previous proposals, set out in a written statement at the time and described in the letter to my right hon. Friend, stated a desire to expand the base substantially in order to incorporate the building of a new joint intelligence analysis centre, which was anticipated to increase the number of staff on the base by over 1,200, as my right hon. Friend described. The plans were later placed on hold and have subsequently been reversed.

Consequently, there are no plans for the US to expand personnel at RAF Croughton. The number of personnel at the base has not increased since that original written statement and the letter she received, and there are no plans for such expansion. Any new US proposals to expand at RAF Croughton would require the agreement of the UK Government, and we would of course engage with my right hon. Friend in her role as the constituency Member of Parliament. There are two proposals to update some infrastructure on the site, including upgrading the main gate and renewing technical equipment within the current base perimeter, both of which the US has stated it deems necessary, regardless of the future strategic plans for the base.

Let me take each proposal in turn. The first is to upgrade communications equipment at the base. South Northamptonshire Council has received a full application from the Ministry of Defence for the construction of two fixed-antenna satellite communications earth terminals, including foundations, the construction of two new radomes, including foundations, and the installation of new security system components. The US authorities consider that the existing antenna and radomes on the base are no longer supportable and exceed the standard 15 to 20-year lifespan. They have stated that the proposed replacement is required to maintain their communications capabilities at RAF Croughton. South Northamptonshire Council received this application only recently and—I checked this morning—it has a target date of 12 August for its determination.

The second proposal is, as was described, a new entrance on to the B4031 and is currently at a much earlier stage in the process. At this stage, there is not yet a planning application, but the proposal itself includes the development of a main gate comprising four new buildings, a visitor centre, a large vehicle inspection site, and a commercial vehicle inspection building, guardhouse and overwatch. It also includes utilities, limited parking provision at each of the four new buildings, and roads linking the control entry points at the B4031 to the new buildings. It includes security features, including fencing, CCTV additional lighting, and some junction alterations to the B4031. The proposed new entrance will be an additional installation and has been described by the Ministry of Defence as a mechanism to ensure that the base can continue to meet US security standards, while also addressing the queuing capacity for vehicles.

When the new entrance is completed, I understand that the current entrance would become emergency-only access, which would be used only when required. I also understand that the design has been amended to enhance road safety features at the request of numerous local stakeholders, and that the base recently took part in several Zoom calls with the local parish councils, first with Croughton parish council on 8 June and subsequently with Evenley parish council on 15 June, to talk through the early initial proposals.

My right hon. Friend is aware that there is a request for a screening opinion, which has been made to the council, and the purpose of that screening is to decide whether the proposal will require a full environmental impact assessment. If it does, the assessment will provide detailed information about a range of matters to inform the subsequent planning application, including—crucially to the safety of my right hon. Friend’s constituents—safety and road safety in the area. The council was due to decide that on or by 15 July, which is next Wednesday, so that decision will be made shortly. To ensure that the proposal receives the unbiased and impartial treatment that it requires through the planning system, it is reasonable to give the council the discretion to continue to follow due process and to form its own independent view on whether that environmental impact assessment is required.

If no environmental impact assessment is included after that point, my right hon. Friend can write to the Secretary of State, should she wish, setting out the case against the verdict and requesting that he issue a screening direction in order that he gives due consideration to making that assessment a requirement. If a substantive decision on a planning application has not been issued by a council, there is the opportunity for the Secretary of State, as has been alluded to, to intervene by calling in that application for decision. Should any requests be received by the Secretary of State from my right hon. Friend, they would be considered in the usual way, based on consideration of the facts before him at the time. I certainly reassure my right hon. Friend that whether that application, if it is forthcoming, is decided by the Secretary of State or by the local planning authority, all the planning considerations, including those on road safety, will apply regardless of who it is determined by.

I just want to take a moment to reflect on some of the road safety issues that I know are very close to the heart of my right hon. Friend and her constituents. It has already been acknowledged that the council has put in place some improvements in response to the collision. Driver training safety programmes have been expanded and the additional signage has been put in place. I also understand that the Secretary of State for Transport has instigated a safety review of the roads around the 10 US visiting forces bases in England in association with Highways England and the respective local authorities, including, in this case, South Northamptonshire Council.

Officials from across Whitehall will continue to work in conjunction with the US, RAF Croughton and the community to address the extremely important outstanding concerns that have been expressed. I know that, as part of the planning process, my right hon. Friend and the community she represents will be looking carefully and closely at the proposal that is currently submitted and at any forthcoming proposals to assess the impact they could have on road safety and all the other measures.

I would also like to reassure my right hon. Friend and the community in Croughton that the safety of our highways road network is a key part of our planning system. Planning decision makers at all levels of the process can and do take the safety evidence into account when reaching their decisions. For example, our national planning policy framework states that planning permission may be refused when there is an unacceptable impact on highway safety. Of course, that applies whether the decision is taken by the Secretary of State or by the local planning authority. We are certainly confident that the concerns of local people and any evidence of risks will be fully taken into account in the consideration of any current or future planning applications.

I completely understand how sensitive, emotive and important this issue is for such a large number of my right hon. Friend’s constituents. It is a hugely emotive matter and we are certainly determined, as I know she is, to make every effort to find a way through to the right resolution. I know how passionately and strongly the community feels about this issue. Although the previous US proposals sought to increase substantially the personnel situated at RAF Croughton, the reversal of those plans means that the numbers of staff present will not increase in the way that was previously suggested.

I am always happy to discuss the planning system with my right hon. Friend, and I hope that I have helped to reassure her and the community in Croughton that the proposed expansion will not take place. I look forward to working with her and colleagues to answer any questions about this hugely important matter in the coming weeks and months.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.