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Middlewick Ranges

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2023

[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

I will call Will Quince to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of Middlewick Ranges.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. This is my first debate since rejoining the Back Benches, which I hope demonstrates how serious this issue is to me personally and to my constituents. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for responding; I have a huge amount of time and respect for him, and I know he will take seriously the points I make.

I have been consistently outspoken about the future of Middlewick Ranges throughout my time as the Member of Parliament for Colchester. I have consistently raised the future of the site with ministerial colleagues in writing, orally in the House and in various meetings since the site was designated for disposal. The Minister will be aware that it was announced in April 2017 that the Ministry of Defence had earmarked the Middlewick Ranges site for sale, because it wanted, for operational reasons, to consolidate on one site in Colchester. Despite Colchester being home to a large garrison, I do understand the rationale and I do not challenge the validity of the argument to invest in one range in the area—Fingringhoe. That is arguably more suited, given the security and exclusion zone requirements for live firing.

As a former reservist addressing a serving reservist, I am conscious of the importance of having ranges available for reserve forces— the Territorial Army, for instance. Will the removal of this range restrict the ability of reserve forces to train and to gain the experience they need?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point, and it does concern me. However, I am not overly concerned, having looked into the detail with those at the garrison. The MOD intends to invest significantly in the Fingringhoe ranges site but, to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I gently suggest to the Minister that, given the size of the garrison and the relatively small capital receipt that could theoretically be achieved, based on a developer being willing to take the site on, it would be prudent at the very least to mothball the ranges or to use them as an alternative training area for reservists or regulars, in case they are needed in future.

After the site was earmarked for sale, Colchester Borough Council, now Colchester City Council, designated it for 1,000 homes and in 2022 it was included in Colchester’s local plan. That was rushed through, despite considerable opposition and the compelling scientific and ecological evidence presented. Last month, the site was released for sale on the open market, which is why I called the debate today. I have raised my significant concern in writing with the Secretary of State for Defence. Although the response from the Minister for Defence Procurement was helpful, in that it clarified the Department’s position on the ecology and the size of the parcel of land for sale, it was none the less disappointing.

By way of background, Middlewick farm was first purchased by the Government in 1857, to be used as a training area and rifle range. For centuries, the Wick has been enjoyed and used by residents of Colchester for walking and leisure. It is a vital green lung for suburban Colchester and it is adjacent to the Roman river valley site of special scientific interest. The site was designated as a wildlife site in the 1990s and was redesignated in 2015.

I hope the Minister knows me well enough, as a near constituency neighbour, to know that I am not a nimby. Colchester has been a high-growth urban centre for decades. I completely understand and get the need for housing, and particularly affordable homes and homes for social rent. It is important to note that Colchester City Council consistently and regularly exceeds its annual housing targets. However, the impact of such a large housing development has to be considered. The infrastructure of any area will inevitably be tested, and my constituents are understandably and rightly worried about the impact this development would have on their access to medical care and schooling and on the local road network.

Rapid growth in the northern part of Colchester has been supported by land set aside for future rapid transit routes, whereas the Middlewick development would almost certainly be car-dependent. Any active travel or rapid transit routes into the centre of Colchester would involve retrofit infrastructure, with its inevitable compromises. The site is, effectively, landlocked by well-established 1950s urban sprawl. Any movement to the centre of Colchester, or even west to the A12, will not be possible by rapid transit or active travel, by nature of the site being, effectively, infill.

The Minister will certainly be aware that Colchester is one of the largest garrisons in the country and is proudly home of 16 Air Assault Brigade, the UK’s rapid reaction force. Should Middlewick be retained, I have no doubt that it could and would be used as a training area. Although I understand the argument for rationalising the estate and consolidating on to one range to serve the garrison, it seems short-sighted for the Ministry of Defence to sell a prime parcel of land that has been a training area for almost 200 years and that serves an established garrison that is likely to grow further.

Important as all of the above is, I want to spend the rest of my speech focusing on one critical argument against the sale and development. Ecologists have told me that developing the site would go down as one of the worst cases of eco-vandalism that our country has ever seen. Middlewick is a site of huge ecological significance. It is one of the few remaining areas in England that contains rare acid grassland, which is a UK biodiversity action plan habitat. The Essex Wildlife Trust has previously stated:

“Middlewick Ranges is one of the most important and valuable Local Wildlife Sites in the Colchester borough. It is exceptionally valuable for its areas of acid grassland habitat and diverse invertebrate populations, which include a substantial number of rare and threatened species.”

I hear colleagues say various things when they oppose developments, but let me be absolutely clear: over 1,400 invertebrate species rely on the site, including 167 with conservation status. That includes red list species such as the necklace ground beetle, the fastest declining beetle in the UK. In terms of invertebrates, the site is one of the most valuable in the country. This rare acid grassland has up to 25 plant species per square metre, and the habitat has in part been developed because of the site’s use as ranges and because the public have not had access with dogs, vehicles and other things.

I want to quote Stephen Falk, an experienced entomologist and ecologist. He is one of Britain’s leading experts on pollinators and their identification, ecology conservation and management. It is a long quote, but a valuable one:

“I am astonished and disturbed by the claims that high quality acid grassland can be recreated on unsuitable soils elsewhere simply by adding Sulphur. I would suggest there is a basic misunderstanding of what acid grassland actually is! It is not ‘acidic’ grassland, or ‘acidified’ grassland (i.e. any grassland treated with acid to produce a lower pH). Acid grassland is a complex ecological ‘community’ of plants, insects and fungal communities, often of great antiquity. It is a grassland that often features a long historic continuity of key microhabitats (such as bare, sandy ground and boggy ground) and unusual plant assemblages. The invisible soil profiles of acid grassland (hidden from the eye but formed over many centuries if not millennia by rainwater leaching) cannot be recreated by simply adding Sulphur. But those rare and precious soil profiles (mostly now lost by modern farming practices or development) are the vital foundation for all that lives above. To suggest that simply adding Sulphur can recreate an ancient soil profile, an ancient seed bank, or ancient (and isolated) plant, invertebrate and fungal communities, is one of the most controversial claims I’ve encountered during my many years working in nature conservation. It should be treated with the utmost suspicion”.

I stress that rare acid grassland has never been recreated anywhere else. The idea that it can be is based on one study, based on arable sandy land. In the opinion of experts, it is practically impossible, and any theory that it can be done is based on bad science. I am told that the concept of replacing irreplaceable habitats that are hundreds of years old, such as this, is deeply flawed.

Let us be clear what the proposed sale and development actually means. It means replacing the rare acid grassland on adjacent or alternative land. That means taking the current rich, tall grassland, ploughing it up and adding sulphur in what will be one of the UK’s biggest ever science experiments—an experiment that, I need not remind the House and the Minister, is at the expense of a priority habitat and that is displacing 1,400-plus invertebrate species, 167 of which have conservation status. We are fooling ourselves if we think that, once this grassland is built on, it will ever be recreated. This will mean a huge loss to the ecology of not just my constituency but the entire country.

Hon. Members should not just take my word for it. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds carried out a study at its Minsmere reserve in Suffolk, which was a strict habitat creation project with a conservation objective to create suitable habitat from farmland of low biodiversity value for breeding. This is where it gets interesting. That single case study has been used in the ecological evidence base report by Stantec to justify the compensation or mitigation proposals for the Middlewick Ranges site, but the RSPB feels so strongly that this work is not theoretically possible that it recently wrote to Colchester City Council to advise that it does not wish its work at Minsmere to be used in any way to legitimise or justify the destruction of the rare acid grassland or heathland—both priority habitats—at Middlewick. The RSPB says that it is not comparable or analogous and that it does not consider that any mitigation or compensation could be suitably bespoke, deliverable or effective.

The Minister will know that the Government recognise the importance of biodiversity and have published guidance on how to comply with biodiversity duties. The guidance states that public authorities in England must consider what they can do to conserve and enhance biodiversity. The Minister’s Department has the opportunity to put a stop to this, and I hope I have gone some way to making that case.

I want to send a clear message to the following people, who I hope are also listening. To the leadership of Colchester City Council, I say this. The local plan is currently being reviewed, with a call for sites. That is an opportunity to correct the mistake that has been made and to remove Middlewick Ranges from the local plan. If that cannot be done now, the council can signal its intention to do it when the plan is reviewed, which I understand must be done no later than early 2026. The council has the power to stop this act of eco-vandalism.

To any developers that are considering making an offer for the site, I want to be absolutely clear that, should they obtain planning permission, my constituents and I will hold them to account, and indeed the Ministry of Defence, to ensure that they deliver against all—every single one—of the ecological and financial conditions placed on them, no ifs, no buts.

To come back to the Minister, I am not one to make an ask without positive, practical alternative suggestions. He can retain the land as an MOD training area or mothball the site for future use by an expanding garrison. He can explore the potential for biodiversity credits. He can look into partnerships with local authorities to deliver a country park with revenue-raising potential. Building on the Wick is not something that my constituents or I ever want to see, and it is not too late to save this beautiful Army training area and ecological system. I strongly urge my friend the Minister to listen and act.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. It is a particular pleasure to respond to my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince). I congratulate him on not only calling this debate, but particularly, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, on commissioning out from Sandhurst as a captain in the Adjutant General’s Corps. That is a great achievement for a sitting, serving MP, and one who works so hard.

Let me also add a personal note, as my hon. Friend is standing down. No one knows what the future holds for any of us, but I was elected alongside him, and he has been the best of the best in this place. He was a brilliant Minister. I had the criminal Bar strikes as a Justice Minister, and I know how hard things were for him as a Health Minister. However, he has worked particularly hard as a constituency MP, and he has shown that again today. Above all, has always had compassion at the core of everything he has done. He is a credit to his constituents, and I wish him well, whatever happens.

Turning to the subject of today’s debate, my hon. Friend rightly said that Colchester has a long and proud military history. The town is the home of some of the most highly trained, high-readiness forces in the world. Our premier airborne forces have launched from Essex to respond to some of the most hostile environments in the world, all in the name of protecting our national security and upholding our commitments around the world.

We are here to discuss my hon. Friend’s valid concerns about the disposal of Middlewick Ranges, with a rebalancing of the defence estate to more modern and efficient facilities at Fingringhoe that will help to keep the forces in the east of England at their very best and most lethal and ready to defend our nation at a moment’s notice. We have proudly run ranges from the site for many years, but it no longer offers us the optimum environment for our training needs. We have, however, been committed to seeing the site released to support local need, and have therefore worked with the local authority since 2016, as my hon. Friend correctly pointed out.

First, it is important to stress that the Ministry of Defence’s reason for selling the site, in the simplest terms, is that it has become surplus to the requirements of a modern armed force. At a time when families across the nation are feeling the pinch, it is right that each Government Department looks at all its outgoings and ensures that, where we are spending large amounts of public money, we are delivering services in the most cost-efficient way. Bringing Middlewick Ranges up to a usable standard would require significant amounts of public money when we have similar and more efficient facilities literally down the road.

Value for money for the taxpayer and ordinary families across the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester is at the core of this decision. The enhanced facilities at Fingringhoe will offer modern, electronically operated targets that provide better training for our armed forces. They can also offer training for an additional 20,000 troops a year above what is currently available in the Colchester area. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just departed, but I was about to address the point about mothballing and the hon. Member’s concern about the use of the site by the reserves. To be clear, we believe that we are more than supporting effective training in the area by using this new site.

The key point is that the world is becoming increasingly volatile. If we are asking our armed forces to respond to global crises, it is right that we, as the MOD, invest in their skills and the facilities we use to train them. Our service personnel make huge sacrifices to serve King and country, and it is our duty to make sure they are adequately prepared to respond to the most demanding circumstances. That is why these new facilities are part of a £5.1 billion investment in a more modern, green and sustainable defence estate that can meet the demands of our ever-busier armed forces.

It is commendable that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester made positive alternative suggestions. From a practical perspective, we have found that the site is becoming difficult and increasingly impractical to use due to its proximity to residential properties and public footpaths. Incursions have been occurring and became a risk to those operating the ranges. There were simply too many people from the local community walking across live firing exercises—so much so that we were unable to conduct training safely. With no firing at the range since 2021, it would take a significant amount of public funds to make the perimeter safe for the people of Colchester and for our armed forces training there. My hon. Friend said the site should be mothballed and it is, in effect, currently mothballed.

That all being said, I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns around any new development that could be proposed following the sale of this land. New housing causes great consternation to communities up and down the country, and particularly where it impacts on our beautiful habitat—I know that as an MP for a rural constituency near my hon. Friend’s. Equally, however, there will be people in my hon. Friend’s constituency who cannot afford to get on the housing ladder, and I am sure that is true in your constituency too, Sir Charles.

The release of this land can also be seen as a great opportunity for the local community, who can develop it to meet their needs and, at the same time, encourage the local authority to place suitable protections on any environmental considerations. My hon. Friend says that he is not a nimby, and I put on record that he absolutely is not. Colchester has seen huge growth, but the reality is that new housing has to be allocated somewhere.

I remind my hon. Friend that it is, of course, not the MOD that will decide the future use of the site. That decision is for the local authority, its planning department, the future owner, and the local community as part of any public consultation process that forms part of any ultimate planning process. Such a process will consider and balance the need for housing with the requirement to deliver biodiversity net gain measures that protect and enhance the fascinating ecology of the site.

Of course, in looking at those concerns, the local authority will also have to consider the transport issues my hon. Friend referred to, which are always a consideration with new developments. We have the same issues in my constituency of South Suffolk; where new developments are proposed, there are concerns about pressure on roads and so on. However, that is fundamentally for the local authority to consider.

My hon. Friend is rightly concerned and speaks passionately about the lowland acid grassland found at the site. That is precisely why the MOD has invested significant funds on ecology studies over a three-year period to inform our understanding before the disposal of the site and to inform the MOD concept plan on how the site could be developed sympathetically. The concept plan, or master plan—to give it the real name for those familiar with the matter—recommended that more than 63% of the allocated land for development is kept as green space, while the disposal area includes another 44 hectares of green open space for recreational use and ecological enrichment. The plan also suggested leaving the most ecologically valuable habitats untouched and advocated avoiding and protecting the woodland at Birch Brook. That is just one way any potential new development could be approached, and the future owner and the local authority will no doubt have other, equally exciting ideas that will bring new opportunities and enrichment to the area. However, there is one thing I know for certain: my hon. Friend, as a brilliant constituency MP, will hold them to account on that, as he clearly stated.

The Ministry of Defence is, and always has been, committed to seeing this land used in a way that benefits the local community and environment, and we make that clear to potential future bidders for the site as part of tours of the site and the marketing literature we have released. While we are, of course, not able to impose those conditions, we are doing our best to make them clear to the local authority and any interested bidders looking at the marketing materials for the site.

My hon. Friend’s commitment to the site, and indeed to his whole constituency, has been abundantly evident today, and I applaud him for raising this matter. I fully appreciate his need to ensure that the area is developed in a way that protects the site’s ecological value and, at the same time, benefits the community in a meaningful and sustainable way, such as in relation to transport and other matters. I hope that I have been able to set out the main drivers behind the MOD’s decision to sell the site, which are the public interest at a time of economic challenge, when public finances are under intense scrutiny, and the need to support our military requirements. It is vital that we can train our armed forces to the very best of our ability, so that they can protect and defend our national security. [Interruption.]

Sitting suspended.