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Cawdor Barracks

Volume 672: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of Cawdor Barracks, Brawdy.

It is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am pleased to have secured this short debate on Cawdor barracks at Brawdy in my constituency, home to the 14 Signal Regiment, which specialises in electronic warfare. I want to address the continued uncertainty that hangs over the site, arising from a closure plan that has changed several times in recent years under different Ministers at the Ministry of Defence.

I will start by giving a brief history of the barracks, before emphasising their importance to the armed forces in Wales and to the local community in Preseli, Pembrokeshire. Located on the north-west coast of Pembrokeshire, some six miles from St Davids—the UK’s smallest city—the Cawdor barracks site has a long and active military history, stretching back to the second world war. It was officially opened in February 1944, as RAF Brawdy, and was initially a satellite station supporting the heavy bomber aircraft stationed nearby at RAF St Davids.

Following the end of the war, the base was handed over to the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, becoming a royal naval air station that was renamed RNAS Brawdy. From 1963 to 1971, the Brawdy site was home to Fairey Gannet anti-submarine aircraft and to Hawker Hunter fighter jets, demonstrating the base’s importance during the cold war. The Royal Navy left Brawdy in 1971 and the base was allocated to the then Department of the Environment. Three years later the strategic importance of the site was once again brought to the fore when the RAF returned to the base for a second time and D Flight of 22 Squadron took up residence with its Westland Whirlwind search and rescue helicopters.

In 1974 the 229 operational conversion unit, with its Hawker Hunters, relocated to Brawdy from RAF Chivenor in Devon, which was earmarked for closure. In that year the United States and the UK agreed to the construction of a SOSUS sound surveillance system alongside the RAF base at Brawdy, called a naval facilities engineering command. This US naval facility was to prove to be an essential and critical part of the site at Brawdy in the years ahead. Due to Brawdy’s proximity to the sea, it was an ideal location to house a station that monitored a growing number of underwater microphones designed to pinpoint Soviet submarines as they moved out of their waters and into the Atlantic, again underlining the base’s importance during the cold war.

A US military footprint would remain at the base for the next 20 years and, as with the RAF personnel based there, the Americans became a close-knit part of our community in Pembrokeshire during that time. I myself remember that at school, in the early-1980s, the American children in our classrooms were the first people from outside Britain that many of us had come across. The end of the cold war brought large-scale changes to the size and configuration of the armed forces, and that affected Brawdy, along with many other sites. The naval facilities engineering command facility was deactivated in 1995 and the Americans soon left.

Flying from Brawdy ceased in 1992, as part of the rationalisation of advanced and tactical weapons training, but it was a further two years until the remaining small number of RAF personnel and their Westland Sea King helicopters also left the site. In economic terms, the loss of the large number of RAF and US naval personnel and their families at that time had a significant negative impact on the Pembrokeshire economy. I will return to the economic value of the base later, but it is important for the Minister and others to understand the historical context of the decisions that are currently being taken about the future use of the site.

In 1995 the Brawdy site was transferred from the RAF to the British Army, under the name Cawdor barracks, and became a base for the 14th Signal Regiment, which had hitherto been located at various sites across Germany. At the time it was widely understood that the base was intended to be something of a temporary arrangement, with no certainty that it would become a permanent home. People closely involved in the transfer of the regiment to Cawdor barracks would later tell me that it was evident from the outset that the base was less than ideal, despite many positive aspects. The infrastructure on the site had lots of potential but required significant investment.

The main issue that has been raised with me time and again is the location, specifically the sheer distance of Brawdy from the Royal Corps of Signals HQ at Blandford in Dorset, or from the various UK regions from which the officers and soldiers of the regiment are primarily drawn. However, the temporary arrangement has now lasted a quarter of a century. The regiment is no longer seen as a somewhat mysterious outfit, dropped into Brawdy as a stopgap; it has become a deeply embedded and respected part of the local community in Pembrokeshire.

At this point it is worth saying what the 14th Signal Regiment does. It is the Army’s cyber and electronic warfare regiment. It has a unique role in providing a robust and sustainable electronic warfare capability to support deployed armed forces, facilitating operations in the electronic battle space. It is the only regiment in the British Army with these capabilities, and it bridges the gap between strategic cyber operations and tactical electronic warfare.

The soldiers based at Brawdy are at the cutting edge of electronic warfare, an increasingly important aspect of 21st century combat. Because of their unique set of capabilities, they have been used extensively on operations over the past 20 years, including those in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and numerous other locations where their activities, for very good reasons, will never be reported on or discussed openly. They continue to be used in the field even now. Operations Herrick and Telic in Afghanistan and Iraq saw soldiers from the 14th Signal Regiment used heavily. It is common to meet men and women from the regiment who completed two or three tours away from their friends and family during that period.

One of the biggest privileges in my time doing this job was in November 2006, when I attended the memorial service held in St Davids cathedral in my constituency for Corporal Peter Thorpe and Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, who were killed earlier that year in an attack by Taliban fighters in Helmand, Afghanistan. Both men had been serving with the 3rd Para Battlegroup but were either part of or attached to the 14th Signal Regiment. It was a privilege to meet members of their families and the Army imam, who participated alongside the dean of the cathedral in the memorial service, because Lance Corporal Hashmi was the first British Muslim soldier to be killed during this era of conflict.

Events such as this and the numerous homecoming parades that have been held in St Davids and in Haverfordwest, for the squadrons returning from tours of duty, have helped to cement a bond of affection and respect between the people of Pembrokeshire and this remarkable regiment. The regiment has been awarded the freedom of both the city of St Davids and the county town of Haverfordwest as testament to its contribution to our community and to our nation. The soldiers play an active part in the community, engaging with local schools, taking part in local Remembrance Day services and through annual charity concerts and open days. Soldiers at Brawdy also play a full part in the sports and social life in our county, competing in local rugby and football teams.

Yesterday we debated the Welsh contribution to the UK armed forces. Several hon. Members made the point that Wales should become home to one of the historic Welsh regiments—the Welsh Guards, the Queen’s Dragoon Guards or the Royal Welsh Regiment. The 14th Signal Regiment is not an historic Welsh regiment, but such is the bond of affection that it has formed with communities in west Wales over the past quarter of a century that it has, in my eyes and the eyes of many in my constituency, become a Welsh regiment.

About 250 Cawdor barracks personnel and their families are based in Pembrokeshire at any one time—the regiment has approximately 600 troops in total. I have heard it said a number of times that some of the officers do not like being based so far west along the M4, in deepest Pembrokeshire, but there is no question in my mind but that the overwhelming majority of the soldiers, and especially their families, have really embraced Pembrokeshire life. The spouses, partners and children of those stationed at Cawdor barracks have become a hugely important part of the local community.

There is also a strong community in Pembrokeshire of veteran families—those who once served at the barracks, or at the RAF base before that, and who have chosen to make Pembrokeshire their permanent home. Local schools have benefited from welcoming in the children of those stationed at Cawdor barracks, with the local authority telling me that about 100 primary school and 25 secondary school pupils from serving families currently attend schools in the county.

I have had the pleasure of visiting the barracks on numerous occasions over the years and speaking to the soldiers stationed there, and what comes across to me is that they genuinely enjoy being based in west Wales. With the particular lifestyle that rural Pembrokeshire offers, the outdoor activities ranging from surfing to mountain biking and climbing, and the friendliness of local people, it is little wonder that those who get stationed at Cawdor barracks through the regiment quickly fall in love with that part of Wales.

That brings me to the plans for closing the facility. In 2009, more than 10 years ago, publication of the MOD’s “Defence Estate Development Plan” kick-started what has proved to be a long drawn-out “on-off, on-off” discussion about closure and relocation of the 14th Signal Regiment. The MOD’s plan set out its framework for the defence estate to 2030; and in the plan, Cawdor barracks was identified as a “retained” site, which the MOD defines as a site

“where the future is not fully assured”.

In the same document, the idea of relocating the regiment was also first mooted, with it joining up with the also relocated 10 Signals in Blandford, Dorset, in a process called “pairing and sharing”.

A few years later, in March 2013, it was announced that the barracks were to close altogether and the 14th Signal Regiment was to be moved on. The then Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, stated that the MOD intended to close Cawdor barracks at Brawdy,

“which is no longer fit for purpose”,

but “not before 2018”. The regiment would be relocated to St Athan, near Cardiff. In the statement to the House, the Secretary of State noted:

“The local communities in each of those areas have been hugely supportive of the military presence over many years. The loss of historic ties will be much regretted”.—[Official Report, 5 March 2013; Vol. 559, c. 847.]

Two years later, in 2015, the MOD confirmed that the regiment would not now be relocating to St Athan. In fact, the former Minister, Mark Lancaster, indicated to me that the closure plan was now off, although there remained a vague long-term intention to relocate the regiment and dispose of Cawdor barracks at some point in the future.

A bit further forward, in November 2016, the then Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, said in a statement that the barracks would remain open to 2024, but with no suggestion of where the 14 Signals would move to. During that statement, I questioned the Secretary of State and made the following point to him. I will read it out for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Minister:

“I am disappointed that the earlier decision to shut the base of the 14th Signal Regiment…in my constituency, which I was told a year ago had been reversed, now seems to be back on the cards. That has all been unsettling for the soldiers at Cawdor barracks and their families, who are a well-loved part of the Pembrokeshire community.”

I asked:

“Will my right hon. Friend provide a bit more detail of the timeframe for the closure of the base, if it is indeed to happen? Will he give an assurance that there will not be any freeze of investment and that the base will be maintained to an acceptable standard as we approach the closure date?”

Michael Fallon responded:

“I am certainly happy to discuss continuing investment in the facilities… The estimated disposal date for Cawdor barracks is 2024, so I hope that that gives some more certainty to those who support the Signal Regiment there. We are shortly to confirm where the 14th Signal Regiment will be re-provided for.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2016; Vol. 616, c. 1295.]

That decision was reinforced in 2018, when a Defence Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), confirmed to the all-party parliamentary group on general aviation that Brawdy was one of 15 airfields across the UK being sold off by the MOD, as they were “surplus to military requirements.”

Clearly the whole saga has been very unsettling for the soldiers and their families, for the 30 civilians who work at the base, for the county council, which has a responsibility to try to plan sensibly for the future, and of course for the local communities affected. It is important to bear in mind that, for my constituency, losing such a facility will certainly result in an economic hit for the area. In 2015, in a review commissioned by Pembrokeshire County Council and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, the economic effects of the closure of Cawdor barracks on the county were estimated at between £26 million and £30 million. That is a very significant amount for a rural community such as Pembrokeshire, where there are very few employers of any significant size. The local economy is dominated by agriculture and seasonal tourism and hospitality.

There is of course the important question of what the potential alternative uses might be for this site, with its large runway, hangars, sports facilities and other buildings, all located close to the national park. As interesting as all those elements of the site are, the truth, unless this Minister can inform me otherwise, is that over the past five years there have been very few prospective buyers coming forward and offering any alternative ideas for the site. Therefore, we need to be realistic: whatever use to which the site is eventually put will in all likelihood not fill the economic gap left by the closure.

What if the barracks were to close? I understand that the land is subject to the Crichel Down rules. That could see Brawdy offered back to its original owners for agricultural use. Although agriculture is very important in my constituency, returning the base to farmland would, I believe, not mitigate the loss of between £26 million and £30 million from the local economy.

Pembrokeshire County Council’s current local development plan, which is out for consultation, includes a proposal for an 11-hectare solar array for the Brawdy site that would be producing up to 5 MW. However, the size of any solar array is likely to be severely limited by the existing grid connections in west Wales and the substantial cost of increasing the grid capacity, so that does not look particularly hopeful as it stands.

In purely economic terms for my constituency, continued use of the site as a base for the regiment is the optimal outcome, which is why I am asking the Minister, in the first instance, if he will consider not pressing ahead with any closure plan but will instead recognise the value of what has been created in Pembrokeshire over the last 25 years in providing a home for the 14 Signals.

I totally understand that this matter is not purely about economics; it is first and foremost about what works best for the British Army in the years and decades ahead. However, I will draw attention to the importance of the armed forces footprint in Wales. The Brawdy site, like RAF Valley in north Wales, is one of those facilities that enables the MOD to claim that it has a genuine Wales-wide footprint. I know that the term “footprint” gets defined ever more broadly to cover all kinds of things, including suppliers to the armed forces, but if we are to use the term in its most meaningful way, we need to be thinking about those elements that constitute a real presence on the ground, which create bonds of respect and affection with local communities, where the personnel are part of those communities. Cawdor barracks, out there in far west Wales, provides for exactly that.

I hope that this afternoon I have been able to explain to you, Mr Sharma, and to the Minister the importance of Cawdor barracks and to make a case for retaining the facility in my constituency. That is my first ask of the Minister—to end the cloud of uncertainty that has been hanging over the barracks for the last 10 years and halt the closure plan, which has in any case shifted and changed over the years and sown seeds of confusion.

My second ask is for the Minister to look again at the potential of the site and pursue a strategy of making it fit for the future. Part of the reason why people will say that it is no longer fit for purpose is that it has had nothing like the investment that such a critical and sensitive part of the Army requires. A closure plan that has dragged on for 10 years already has resulted in the site being starved of sensible investment.

I have some further questions. If the Minister cannot fully satisfy me on the first two requests, will he confirm that, in the event of closure, the MOD will work closely with Pembrokeshire County Council to ensure that specific actions are taken to mitigate the economic impact? Will he commit to ensuring that those 30 or more civilians employed at Cawdor barracks will be re-employed before the base closes?

Can the Minister explain how he thinks the Crichel Down rules will work in the case of Cawdor barracks and whether the requirement to offer the site back to the original owners may act as an impediment to investment proposals? The local authority has been looking at numerous economic opportunities should the base close, but, as I said a few moments ago, very few serious concrete proposals have come forward.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to listen to my argument. He and I have discussed this issue before; he is very familiar with that part of west Wales and knows the community very well. He is also familiar with the work that the 14 Signals do. I thank him for the opportunity to set out a case for bringing this long-running saga to an end, to provide some greater certainty for the soldiers and the forces family connected to the 14th Signal Regiment, and hopefully for retaining an important part of the armed forces footprint in west Wales.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for securing this debate. Quite apart from his position as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee and his former role as Secretary of State, he has an understandable interest in the future of this long-established defence site, located in his beautiful Preseli constituency.

The barracks has been a feature of the Pembrokeshire coast since 1944 and, as my right hon. Friend set out, it has the unusual distinction of having served all three of our armed services. It first served as an operational airfield for the RAF, which operated Liberator heavy bombers there during the second world war, as he set out. It then served as a station for Royal Navy airborne early warning craft during the cold war. Finally, it has served as the home of the Army’s electronic warfare unit since the 1990s. The barracks has therefore played an important role in the military history of Pembrokeshire as well as that of Wales more generally.

My right hon. Friend brought us up to date by eloquently describing the links between the community and the service personnel of the 14th Signal Regiment, and the respect and affection in which they are held. I recognise that both they and the base’s civilian employees are important to the local economy. I therefore wholly understand his concern about the effects of the November 2016 announcement of Cawdor’s closure. I also understand that this has been a long story. The base’s closure was announced in November 2016, and I sympathise with his point that this has been a period of uncertainty for the community.

However, I must tell my right hon. Friend, with regret, that the intent to dispose of the barracks remains. The armed forces are now 30% smaller than at the end of the last century, but the defence estate has not yet been proportionately reduced in size. In many areas we use our defence estate efficiently, but overall it is too big, too expensive and has too many sites to maintain. That is why in the 2015 strategic defence and security review we committed to investing in a smaller, but optimised and efficient, defence estate. Military capability outputs have been at the heart of our defence estate strategy, and we are taking a transformational approach to better support the future requirements of our armed forces by generating special centres of specialisation and capability clusters.

Consolidating the defence estate enables the Ministry of Defence to concentrate its assets, investing in significantly better facilities to support the men and women of our armed forces. The Cawdor site, designed for the needs of the second world war and the cold war that followed, is sadly no longer fit for the vital and increasingly central purposes of electronic and cyber-warfare in the 21st century. Nor does the unit’s geographic location provide the easy synergies that the regiment needs with the units and organisations that it supports. We must ensure that the regiment can maximise its operational capabilities.

The Government understand the strength of feeling in those local communities impacted by the relocation of military units, here and elsewhere, and the deep-rooted histories and ties that are thereby sadly broken. I can reassure my right hon. Friend that careful consideration is being given to alternative uses for the site, with the aim of increasing the commercial use, driving regeneration and creating local jobs. We have a little time, given that the earliest date for closure is anticipated to be 2024, and I absolutely commit that my Department will work closely with Pembrokeshire County Council on potential future uses.

I am very interested in everything the Minister is saying. Can he give me a commitment this afternoon that in his new ministerial capacity—he is doing a great job in the Department, by the way—he will take the opportunity to visit the Cawdor Barracks site in the near future and perhaps come and see the site for himself, but also take a moment with me to meet Pembrokeshire County Council, to talk about the plans for closing the site and what steps need to be taken in the years ahead, to ensure that that transfer happens with minimal impact on my constituents and in the most productive and useful way possible?

I can absolutely commit to meeting my right hon. Friend here at Westminster. I would like to take the opportunity to visit the site and talk to the county council, but I cannot commit wholly to that—he will appreciate the pressures on diaries right at the start of one’s time in post. I would like to visit, and I will certainly make myself available in Westminster to speak to him about the application.

I would also like to talk to my right hon. Friend about the Crichel Down rules. Those rules normally apply only where sites are undeveloped, but that is something that we can take up and talk about in the context of this site, if that is helpful. As I have just outlined, we will work with the county council and that work will inform the engagement that we will also have with the Welsh Government, with the office of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and others on the potential alternative uses of the site.

The decision to close Cawdor barracks is an operational one, driven by the needs of the armed services, but it is no reflection on the Government’s strong commitment to maximising the contribution of Wales to the defence of the UK and maximising the benefits of the defence sector there. On the contrary, as my right hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and I, along with many other hon. Members, discussed in yesterday’s debate, Wales has made a first-rate contribution to the defence of the realm, and we are determined to maximise the benefits of the defence sector there.

To conclude, closures of established military bases inevitably have consequences for local communities, and my right hon. Friend has drawn that to our attention. Over recent years the Government have had to make a number of such difficult decisions in respect of bases around the UK. Our armed forces need facilities and accommodation that fully meet their operational needs. However, we recognise that the closure of this long-established site will inevitably have impacts on Pembrokeshire beyond the defence community. That is why my Department is working actively with the local authority and others to identify the most beneficial future use of the site. I commit myself to continuing to do so, with the help and assistance of my right hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.