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RMB Chivenor: Planned Closure

Volume 652: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the planned closure of RMB Chivenor.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the other hon. Members who have taken the time to take part during the busy parliamentary schedule. In the 10 minutes or so for which I intend to speak, I will make the point that we should reverse the announcement originally made in November 2016 to close the Royal Marines base at Chivenor in my constituency.

For those who do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of such things, I will say exactly what we are talking about and why it is important. RMB Chivenor has been a part of the military landscape of North Devon and this country since May 1940. Prior to that, it was a civil airfield, but it was taken over by the RAF as the second world war kicked in. It played a vital role in our air defences during the second world war.

The proud military history of RMB Chivenor has continued ever since. It is now a Royal Marines base, home to a number of vital regiments. It seems to me that, in the world in which we live, which I think most people would agree is an uncertain one, now is not the time to consider the closure of such a vital and historic military base.

RMB Chivenor is home principally to 3 Commando Brigade. It is unique in a number of ways. First, it is home to branches of all three of our armed services. The Royal Marines—the principal force there—and the Commando Logistic Regiment use the unique environment, which I will speak about a bit more, in a way in which no other environment could be used. They use it for training, practice and maintenance, and they are able to do so because of the unique facilities that that location brings. It is also home to 24 Commando Regiment of the Royal Engineers, which carries out an absolutely vital role in the maintenance of the infrastructure and hardware on which our military relies. Completing the link to its historical background, it is home to a significant RAF contingent as well.

The second reason I believe RMB Chivenor is unique is its location. It is on the side of the estuary and contains sand dunes, wide open spaces and, crucially, access to a waterfront. It is a huge space that simply does not exist elsewhere. There is no other space, in my estimation, that would allow the Royal Engineers and particularly the Royal Marines to carry out their vital work.

As I mentioned, in November 2016, as part of the defence establishment’s review, the then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), announced in the House that RMB Chivenor would be closing. The community of North Devon immediately mobilised—as it is so good at doing—effective campaigns to try to reverse the closure decision. I asked a question in the House on that first day as soon as the announcement was made, and have continued to push ever since.

I want to make it clear at an early point in my remarks that this has been a non-political and cross-party campaign. Many local councils, political parties, business organisations, economic groups and residents’ groups right across North Devon have been involved in the campaign to seek to reverse the closure of RMB Chivenor. All the local authorities have played a part: Devon County Council and North Devon Council, which are the principal authorities; and the local councils of Barnstaple Town Council, Braunton Parish Council and Heanton Punchardon Parish Council, which is the small parish in which RMB Chivenor actually sits. All those councils have campaigned hard to reverse this decision, as have many business groups and local residents. However, it is incumbent on me as the MP, with the unique access that gives me to Ministers and Parliament, to be the voice of the North Devon community, which I have done. I believe the Minister bears the scars of that to this day, as do many of his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence.

The campaign immediately swung into action and the then Secretary of State accepted my invitation to visit RMB Chivenor. I convened a roundtable of many of the organisations that I have just mentioned. The then Secretary of State somewhat took us by surprise when he told us that the closure of RMB Chivenor is “not a done deal”. That has given us hope.

However, time is now slipping away. It is now two years and two months since that original closure decision was made. The North Devon community and I feel that it is time to put an end to this uncertainty. The strength of feeling has not gone away in the long period since the original announcement; if anything, it has increased. There are now more people making the argument for reversing the closure of RMB Chivenor and there are a number of arguments as to why it is so important.

I have touched on why in my view, for military reasons, we must preserve the unique environment of RMB Chivenor as a military base. However, I do not seek to advance that argument today—it is an argument for the military, civil servants and Defence Ministers. As North Devon’s representative, I seek to make a very clear argument that the hit to the local economy of North Devon would be very difficult for our local community to accept or stomach.

Quantifying the economic advancement that RMB Chivenor gives North Devon is difficult. Some 1,200 military personnel are based at Chivenor at any one time, but that can fluctuate due to military needs, logistics and whatever operations might be ongoing. It is absolutely clear, however, that the families based at Chivenor play an enormous role in the local community. They send their children to local schools. They spend their money in local shops. They avail themselves of local service industries and businesses. The spouses of military personnel based at RMB Chivenor work in other jobs in the local community.

The effect on the local economy of North Devon, although difficult to quantify, undoubtedly would be serious. I am afraid to say that the uncertainty that we have had to put up with since November 2016 is only adding to that sense of uncertainty. It is time to put a stop to that. It is time to ensure that we keep RMB Chivenor open to ensure the long-term good of the area’s economy, the military personnel based there and the community in which they play such a major role and, I believe, the long-term military good of the job that RMB Chivenor does.

I gave my hon. Friend notice that I would intervene. I could not reiterate more strongly the points he is making. The same applies as strongly if not more strongly to Norton Manor Camp in Taunton, where 40 Commando is based. Economy-wise, society-wise and location-wise, there is a strong case for that camp remaining. It has been there for more than 23 years and has had significant investment from this and other Governments. It plays a huge part in our local economy. A new welfare centre, which cost up to £1 million, is about to open. We also have a new rehab and gym centre, which is well positioned for the Marines.

We need to look closely at why we would ever consider closing that camp, which also has the sword of Damocles hanging over it—it may close in 2028. Talking of swords, it is being awarded the Firmin sword of peace, which shows how revered those professional teams of people are.

I could not have said it better myself—and I would not dare to. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many of the arguments that she advances for her base, as strongly as she always has, apply precisely to RMB Chivenor.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. This is a day of talking about the Royal Marines. The uncertainty that he spoke about is important. Does he agree that it is a cancer for morale not only in Taunton and Chivenor, but in Stonehouse Barracks and across the south-west? That is why we need certainty from the Minister about the future long-term basing arrangements for the superb Royal Marines.

As always, the hon. Gentleman speaks passionately for his constituency, which I completely understand and which I seek to do for my constituency as well. The two are intimately linked, because the original plan put forward by the Ministry of Defence would move some of the work done in Chivenor in my constituency, and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), to his in Plymouth. There might be a slight conflict of interest between us, but we want the same thing: an end to the uncertainty. I suspect what that looks like is slightly different for us, but I want an end to the uncertainty, as does he, and as does my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, because that is causing the damage. We need a final decision, which should be that RMB Chivenor is saved.

The base provides employment not only for the military personnel based there but for people from the local community, so it is a significant boost to the local economy in terms of direct spending, the supply chain and local employment. Local public services such as the school I mentioned where many of the children of service personnel are educated would suffer a significant hit given the formula for per pupil funding.

We must look at the military and international situation. The world is becoming a less certain place. There are challenges to the foundations that have kept the peace, by and large, in the post-war period. Rivals are pushing us further. In such a climate, the Royal Marines are vital. Their flexibility and expertise are invaluable and must be preserved.

It is said that amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. RMB Chivenor is home to the Commando Logistic Regiment and 24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers, which are vital in any combat scenario. Again, RMB Chivenor provides them with a unique environment as a training ground. The landing beaches, the dunes and the estuary provide a unique combination of facilities for practising seaborne landings.

I want to give the Minister ample time to respond, so there are three key questions we need to ask. First, given the relatively small amount that the base costs to run, does it make financial sense to close it? Secondly, given the unique environment that it provides for all the work that is undertaken there, does it make logistical sense to close it? Thirdly, given the role it plays in the defence of our country, does it make military sense to close it? I believe the answers are clear.

I have raised the issue in the House on many occasions. Until now, the answer from the Ministry of Defence has been a pretty straight bat. A statement was issued by the MOD to the BBC on 3 January, in which an MOD spokesperson said:

“It remains the intention to continue with the release of sites set out in the Better Defence Estate Strategy announcement in Autumn 2016.”

In other words, the plan is for the closure to go ahead. I thank the Minister and say to him that it is time to put a stop to this. It is time to reverse the closure decision, end the uncertainty and save RMB Chivenor.

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate. As is customary, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) on securing the debate in Westminster Hall and on what he has done to represent his constituents and the armed forces by passionately making a case, lobbying and campaigning to get answers and discover what will happen to an important asset for our defence posture. He will be aware that the base sits in a wider frame of more than 90 sites that are being considered, and that there is a programme—a timetable—for us to release the news, for understandable commercial reasons. I will expand on that later. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work and I thank him for the invitation to visit Chivenor. I was hugely impressed by what I saw there and that has very much influenced the decisions that I hope to expand on later.

My hon. Friend spoke about the role that military bases have, not just as important defence assets but as sizeable communities that provide homes, jobs and a way of life, and whose supply chains link with the local economy. They are a living organism that has a symbiotic relationship with the wider community. The base—the garrison or whichever military establishment it sits in—develops a bond with the local community, as is the case with Chivenor, as he described.

Many of our military establishments have been in a place for so long that they help to define the area and add to its reputation, so it is always with some trepidation that any Defence Minister would try to tamper with or affect the size or longevity of a garrison, fully appreciating the strength of feeling and pride that local communities have for our military. A local bond is developed with service personnel and it is understandable that hon. Members would wish to ensure the long-term future of military bases in their constituencies, but hon. Members will also be aware of the wider need to rationalise our defence real estate.

The MOD owns 3% of the UK. We need to spend our limited defence budget—as much as I would like it to rise—wisely. It is simply not possible to retain in perpetuity that huge defence real estate, which is a legacy of the sea, land and air assets required to fight two world wars. We have been advised to conduct a wide-ranging study into MOD land, with a view to transforming our estate into one that better supports the future needs of our armed forces. With that comes more bespoke investment. We will be investing more than £4 billion in the next 10 years to create smaller, more modern and capability-focused bases and garrisons. I hope that hon. Members understand that it is important for such studies to be led by the armed forces, taking into account the issues and views of stakeholders.

The Minister has done more than most to flag up the need for more investment in defence. Can he assure us that, where contraction takes place for the reasons that he has explained, contingency plans are in place so that, if this country should regrettably ever find itself involved in a major conflict, expansion could equally easily occur?

My right hon. Friend, who is the Chair of the Defence Committee, makes such an important point. That is why Chivenor is interesting, because it has an airstrip, which is built on a flood plain. Do we want to lose that asset? We saw what happened at Heathrow yesterday. If things actually go in the direction that he suggests, it is important that we choose wisely which parts of our real estate that we close down and which parts we might need in the near or long-term future.

I am conscious of time and I have a lot to get through; I will give way for a very brief intervention.

I will be very brief. One of the reasons the bases are really important in the south-west, and it is a reason they should not all be moved to Plymouth, is in attracting personnel to work for the Royal Marines. In Taunton and Chivenor, we draw from the midlands region, and much as we think Plymouth is a great base, is it potentially too far away and may therefore detract?

I will not get into a debate about various aspects of the estate. The south-west does very well from the Royal Marines’ perspective and indeed from the armed forces’ perspective as well. I go back to the point that we have to make these difficult decisions on the basis of what is best for the armed forces, as well as for the wider communities. However, I have heard my hon. Friend’s point, and no doubt we will discuss it further in tonight’s Adjournment debate in the main Chamber.

Before I turn to the base at Chivenor itself, as I did in yesterday’s debate about RM Condor I will first pay tribute to the Royal Marines as a whole, because I would like to acknowledge their critical—indeed, unique—role, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon also acknowledged, in the wider spectrum of the armed forces’ capability.

The Royal Marines were formed in the reign of Charles II in 1664; they will celebrate their 355th birthday this year and they have much to be proud of. They played a vital role in Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar; earlier, in 1704, they had secured and defended the Rock of Gibraltar. Of course, there was also the infamous raid on Zeebrugge in 1918, in which two Royal Marines earned the Victoria Cross; and the Royal Marines were there at the D-Day landings, when 17,500 Royal Marines took part in the largest amphibious operation in history. More recently, in 1982 they were essential in the recapture of the Falkland Islands.

Today, the Royal Marines are the UK’s specialised commando force, our elite unit that is held at very high readiness and trained for worldwide rapid response. They are able to deal with a wide spectrum of threats and security challenges, and often operate in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances, from amphibious operations to littoral strikes to humanitarian operations, as well as being specialists in mountain and cold weather warfare, and jungle insurgency. When diplomacy fails, it is the Royal Marines that provide the UK with a wide spectrum of hard power options with which we can respond. On behalf of a grateful nation, I say to all the Royal Marines who have earned that coveted green beret, “Thank you.”

Looking to the future, the strategic defence and security review 2015 mapped out our commitment to the Royal Marines themselves, and I am pleased to say that, following the recent modernising defence programme, the future of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, which have been the subject of many Westminster Hall debates, has now been confirmed; the Royal Marines’ winter deployment programmes in Norway will continue, as will their training with their US counterparts; and shortly we will see women joining the ranks of the Royal Marines in close-combat ground roles for the very first time.

RMB Chivenor is located—as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said—on the beautiful north Devon coastline between the town of Barnstaple and the village of Braunton. It started life as a civilian airfield in the 1930s. It then became RAF Chivenor in 1940 and was used as a coastal command station. After the war, the station was largely used for training, and that training role continued until the 1960s. In 1974, the RAF formed 2 Tactical Weapons Unit, flying BAE Hawks from Chivenor until 1994, when the airfield was handed over to the Royal Marines, although the RAF presence continued for a number of years, as RMB Chivenor was also the base for search and rescue flights.

As my hon. Friend also highlighted, today RMB Chivenor is home to over 1,200 personnel from all three services, who make up the Commando Logistic Regiment Royal Marines. It is also home to 24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers. Those based at Chivenor provide the second-line combat support to the force, which is a critical role. They provide invaluable support—the constant re-supply chain that is needed for any final phase of an operation. For the initial 30 days of any operation, they are able to provide essential supplies for the frontline commando units by the transfer of stores from ship to shore, making the force totally self-sufficient. That is what is so unique about 3 Commando Brigade. It is widely acknowledged that a force’s combat capability and ability to achieve its commander’s objectives are defined by its ability to support itself logistically on operations. That is exactly what the base achieves.

At RMB Chivenor, we have been studying how best to ensure that the base is able to continue to have access to the facilities that the personnel there require to live, work and train. However, we have also been investigating the opportunities to make best use of the Royal Marines bases and Royal Navy bases across the south-west, which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, to ensure that we make the most of our facilities to create the best possible future for base laydown for the Royal Marines across the country. Our intent remains to rationalise the number of Royal Marines barracks that we have in the south-west, but we recognise that the Ministry of Defence does not exist in isolation. As we continue with our plans, we will engage with relevant stakeholders at every level to ensure that sites are considered for use in a way that benefits defence and the surrounding local communities.

With regard to RMB Chivenor, we recognise the benefits of retaining a Royal Marines presence there. I make it very, very clear that RMB Chivenor will continue to have a role to play. However, I invite my hon. Friend to listen to the next oral statement on the MOD’s defence estate plans, which is coming round the corner very soon.

I know that my hon. Friend wants answers, as do the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and, no doubt, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee. However, I ask him to appreciate the process that we must go through in the MOD as part of the wider rationalisation of over 90 sites, to ensure that we are able to move assets around the country, and so that we know which assets are best to continue and which are best to close, which are best to endorse and which are best to amalgamate. These are very tough decisions indeed.

Although my hon. Friend has said that in more than two years no answer has been given, we need to get this process right and we must ensure that the right decisions are made. I hope that he can read between the lines of what I am saying, but I can provide no further details today. I simply say now that more details will be coming in the next few weeks.

I will end by underlining a point that has been made a couple of times in this short debate. Our world is getting more dangerous and more complex, and ever fewer nations have the ability and desire to help to shape the world on the international stage. When it comes to hard power, it is the people in our armed forces who allow our Government to step forward and stand up to those who wish us harm. Critical to that is the role of the Royal Marines, and critical to the work of the Royal Marines is their logistical capability. I hope that my hon. Friend is as satisfied as he can be at this stage by the response that I have given him today. Again, I invite him to listen to the next oral statement on the defence real estate, when I will be able to expand in more detail on the formal future of RMB Chivenor, an important asset to Britain.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.