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Otterburn Inquiry: New Issues

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 17 February 1999

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3.8 p.m.

Why the public inquiry into the continuing military use of the artillery firing range at Otterburn has been re-opened.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Secretary of State considers that a number of new issues, which have arisen since the closure of the original inquiry into MoD proposals for development at Otterburn need to be aired before he takes a final decision. These include issues raised by the recent Strategic Defence Review. These issues are identified in the Government Office's letter to parties dated 17th December 1998, a copy of which has been placed in the Library.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that the Army possessed the range 30 years before the national park was created and that the land would otherwise have become a vast Forestry Commission plantation of conifers? Does not the Army need the range for its latest, very effective guns in the same way that I was able to calibrate my 25-pounders in the Second World War before I took my battery abroad?

My Lords, the Army and the MoD do ineed require training facilities on the site. That is not the issue. The issue is whether the infrastructure improvements proposed by the MoD would impact on the national park as a whole or on the A.696. It is not a question of whether or not the MoD should continue to occupy the site.

My Lords, if the SDR indicates that there should be a reduction in the amount of artillery training at Otterburn, can the Minister say whether there will be an increase in the amount of dry training which takes place there, bearing in mind the importance of dry training on the local economy? It will also be a great deal quieter for those of us who live just off the edge of the training area and have to hear the 25-pounders and the AS90.

My Lords, as has already become evident, there are a number of conflicting concerns involved. In the first instance, these are matters for the inspector at the re-opened inquiry and then for the Secretary of State. However, I am not in a position to comment further.

My Lords, despite the bangs that may take place around an artillery firing area, is the Minister aware that those areas are extremely suitable for the preservation of wildlife of all kinds?

Indeed, my Lords, that is one of the considerations the Northumberland National Park is putting to the inspector, along with other issues raised by noble Lords.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the inquiry will take into account the fact that Otterburn is probably the only place within the United Kingdom where the AS90 can be tested?

My Lords, in its initial evidence the MoD put those points to the inspector, and will no doubt do so in its subsequent evidence to the inquiry.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Army has gone to very considerable lengths to minimise the environmental impact of its proposals for Otterburn? Surely we would do well to bear in mind the point made by my noble friend Lord Campbell. It is the stewardship by the Army of Otterburn over a period of 80 years or so that has preserved its natural features that we know and value today.

My Lords, I recognise the importance of that both in terms of the environment and in terms of the local economy. Nevertheless, there are other considerations which must be taken into account; for example, the impact on the national park as a whole and the impact on the rest of the infrastructure which might be affected by the MoD proposals. Those factors will all be considered by the re-opened inquiry.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this sort of thing causes considerable unease in military circles? The Army today is small enough. It may be more technically proficient than it ever has been, but the requirement for training areas is paramount. In fact, those of the green and various other environmental organisations could learn a good lesson in Otterburn if they were to see how the wildlife and the flora and fauna are better kept than is the case in many parts of the woodlands and forests of Britain.

My Lords, the contribution by the MoD to the management of its rural estates, including Otterburn, is widely recognised. Nevertheless, intensified use of such sites has an impact on the area surrounding the site itself. It is that which is being taken into account in this inquiry.

My Lords, can the Minister say who reopened this public inquiry, and exactly why?

My Lords, it was the Secretary of State in response to further representations made. The position was that the inspector completed the formal part of the inquiry at the end of 1997 and was in a position to deliver a report in the autumn of last year. However, in between we had the Strategic Defence Review and various parties raised the question with the department as to whether that changed the position. Therefore, between the end of the inquiry and the delivery of the report, conditions were claimed to have changed. It is that factor which the inspector is now considering.