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Defence Estate

Volume 776: debated on Monday 7 November 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, “A Better Defence Estate”. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on our strategy for a better defence estate. Our defence estate is where our people work, live and train, where advanced equipment is maintained and where cutting-edge research is undertaken. It is the place where major exercises are conducted and major operations launched.

Our estate is vital, but it is also vast. We control almost 2% of the United Kingdom’s land mass, an area almost three times the size of Greater London. Yet bigger does not mean better. While the size and structure of our forces have changed to meet different threats, our estate has failed to adapt. It is too inefficient. It costs £2.5 billion a year to maintain, with 40% of our built assets more than 50 years old. And it often fails to meet the needs of our Armed Forces and their families, with capabilities spread across old, small, remote sites, often removed from population centres and job opportunities.

Last year’s strategic defence and security review committed to increase the defence budget in real terms every year of this Parliament, with a £178 billion equipment plan to create a world-class Joint Force 2025, but an ambitious joint force needs an estate to match, so today I set out a long-term strategy to achieve that ambition.

First, we will transform an estate built for previous generations of war-fighting into one that better supports military capability and the needs of our Armed Forces. It will help deliver Joint Force 2025 by bringing people and capabilities into new centres of specialism and clustering units closer to their training estates. Since the beginning of this year, I have announced plans to dispose of 35 of our most costly sites. Today, based on advice from the Chiefs of Staff, we are going further by freeing up a further 56 sites by 2040 and bringing the total of sites released to 91.

I now turn to what this means in practice. It means that the Royal Navy will continue focusing on operating bases and training establishments around port areas and naval stations, with surface ships in Portsmouth and Devonport; all the UK’s submarines on the Clyde; an amphibious centre of specialisation in the south-west, based around Devonport; and helicopters based at Yeovilton and Culdrose. It means the Army having specialised infantry in Aldershot; mechanised, wheeled capability, including two of our new strike brigades, in Catterick; air assault forces in Colchester; armoured and tracked capability around Salisbury Plain; medical services in the West Midlands; and hubs of light infantry battalions in London, Edinburgh, Lisburn, St Athan, Blackpool and Cottesmore. It means the RAF building on its centres of specialism with combat air in Coningsby, Marham and Lossiemouth; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at Waddington; air transport at Brize Norton; force protection at Honington; and support enablers at Wittering and Leeming. Fuller details are published in the strategy, which will be available in the Vote Office.

Secondly, this strategy will deliver a better estate for service families. Over the next decade, we will invest £4 billion in improving our infrastructure and modernising our accommodation, including funding from disposable receipts and the £1 billion secured at the spending review. All savings from running costs will be recycled back into defence. By consolidating our estate and locating our service men and women together with capability, we will provide better employment opportunities for their partners, provide more stable schooling for their families and increase their ability to buy their own home. We have purposely focused on sites that will support recruitment and retention, giving our personnel and their partners greater certainty and confidence to put down roots in local communities.

Finally, a better defence estate will deliver better value for money for taxpayers. By releasing sites we no longer need, we can help build the houses that we do need. I can confirm the MoD has firm plans to achieve its target to release sufficient land to build up to 55,000 houses in this Parliament. My department will now work with industry, local authorities and devolved Administrations, as well as with our personnel, to deliver this—supporting construction and infrastructure jobs and boosting local economies.

This is a strategy that looks ahead to 2040 to provide the defence estate we need to keep Britain safe and promote our prosperity. As we implement it, we will seek to minimise any disruption to the Armed Forces as well as to service personnel, civilians and their families. We will give our people as much notice as possible over planned redeployments, ensuring all are well provided for. As well as the built estate, I am determined to widen our focus and seek better value from our training and reserve establishments as well. We will update Parliament on our progress in our first annual report next October.

These reforms provide a vision of a better defence estate: an estate that supports a more efficient and effective military capability; an estate that gives our Armed Forces a world-class base from which to work; and an estate that helps defence play its part in securing our security and prosperity. I commend it to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which is an opportunity to pave the way for a more efficiently and better-run defence estate. When I served as Minister with responsibility for the estate, it was worth £15 billion. I understand it is now worth £31 billion. Our first requirement in maintaining a defence estate is to meet the needs of our Armed Forces for bases, for training, for headquarters and operations, and of course for accommodation for service men and women and their families.

In an Answer to a Question in the other place on 12 January this year, the Defence Minister, Mr Lancaster, confirmed that the estate included,

“11 operating golf courses, one pitch and putt centre and one driving range”.

I am not sure how these facilities contribute to our defences but they should at least be earning money for the defence estate, or alternatively be sold off. Perhaps the Minister might have something to say about that. My key point is that the defence estate should be managed by a commercial team of professionals tasked with a duty to meet the demands of the military in the way I have already set out, but also a duty to generate income by the sale of surplus land and facilities or derive an income from them where it is appropriate to do so.

There have been three separate announcements by the Ministry of Defence over the past year regarding the release of more sites where homes can be built. On 18 January, the Defence Minister, Mr Lancaster, said:

“The income generated from the sales will be ploughed back into defence”.

On 24 March he said that,

“every penny generated from the disposal”,

will be,

“ploughed back into defence spending”.

On 6 September, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, said that,

“all of the money generated from land sales will be invested back into meeting the needs of the Armed Forces”.

Today’s Statement does not mention this in the same way, so can the Minister confirm that all money generated by the sale of MoD land will be invested in defence and not taken back by the Treasury? Can the Minister say how much will be raised from the disposal of the surplus sites listed today?

On 18 January, we were told the sale of land would provide 15,000 homes and generate £500 million for defence. On 24 March, we learned that the sale of land would provide 7,000 homes and generate £140 million for defence. On 6 September, the Government said the sale of land would provide 17,000 homes and generate £290 million for defence. In total, the Ministry of Defence has freed up land for 39,000 homes, generating £930 million for defence. Can the Minister say what the £930 million from the sale of MoD land will be spent on? Is there a plan to use this money? If the £930 million is to contribute to funding the SDSR, how does the MoD plan to contribute the same amount next year when there may be no more MoD land to sell? His department has committed in its statements to,

“generating £1 billion through land sales during this parliament”,

and providing land for “up to 55,000 homes”.

The amount of land made available so far is sufficient to build 39,000 homes and will raise £930 million. This leaves a shortfall of 16,000 homes and £70 million. How do the Government intend to fill this shortfall?

Today’s Statement locates the places where there will be Ministry of Defence facility closures. The closing of bases affects people’s livelihoods. How many service men and women and their families will be required to move? What civilian staff will face redeployment? Can the Minister say what help and support will be given to civilian employees who are not able to move? How will his department be consulting with all stakeholders concerned? The Government’s Statement indicated that they would seek to minimise disruption by giving,

“as much notice as possible over planned redeployments”.

Where there are intended closures, how do the Government plan on minimising the disruption to those in the Armed Forces, their families and civilians? The Statement tells us that the defence estate,

“costs £2.5bn a year to maintain, with 40 per cent of our built assets more than 50 years old. And it often fails to meet the needs of our Armed Forces and their families, with capabilities spread across small, remote sites, often far removed from population centres and job opportunities”.

One reason for the sale of this land, however, is to contribute to the Government’s target of 160,000 new homes by 2020. Can the Minister explain why they want to build new homes on land that has been described as “small, remote” and “far removed” from population centres and job opportunities?

Finally, the timeframe in this Statement takes us up to 2040. Would it not be a good idea to have a regular review of this policy—say, at least every five years—as circumstances might make changes necessary?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The MoD’s aim is to reduce waste from overcapacity or inefficient use of facilities. That has to be welcomed, but as yet we have not seen the list of estates—if it has been released, I have not yet seen it. We welcome the general thrust of what the MoD wishes to achieve, but, as with all things, the devil is in the detail. The opportunity to improve accommodation for service personnel is long overdue, and their families will welcome that investment.

Times have changed. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, referred to golf courses and pitch and putts, and I have to confess that over 40 years ago, the father of our best man was known as SHAGO—Security, Horse and Golf Officer—for one of the golf courses and Navy bases near Portsmouth. But several serious issues arise from the Statement.

There are the revenues from the sales, the impact on local communities and the opportunity to rationalise the functions of our Armed Forces geographically. Is this just a short-term attempt to plug the gap in defence accounts? We get capital from this money only once, so why is now the time to sell? Are there buyers for these sites? Will the income from the sales go into MoD or Treasury coffers?

In the Statement the Minister said:

“I can confirm MoD has firm plans to achieve its target to release sufficient land to build up to 55,000 houses in this Parliament”.

This makes no mention of whether the houses are affordable homes, for which there is a very clear need; whether it is housing that will benefit the local communities, meeting their needs; or whether the houses will be expected to have green standards—all of which is the least that a community should expect, given that it will feel it is losing quite a lot. Has any impact assessment been done of the effect on local communities of losing jobs? There is no point in building houses in these places if there are no jobs to attract people.

I ask the House to excuse me: I am not going to refer to the Army or RAF issues as I have not had time to do the research. I know rather more about the Navy, so I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify some issues surrounding the Devonport naval base and the area around it. Would he confirm that the Trafalgar class submarine will move from Devonport to Faslane? Will he comment on whether the rehousing of the Royal Marines from Royal Marines Stonehouse to Royal Marines Tamar is a possibility? The closure and sale of Stonehouse was announced in the previous Statement amid much local sorrow and anguish but it was not clear, and I do not think it is clear yet, where the Marines and their capability and functions will move.

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their questions and comments. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, began with a statement with which I wholly agree. This programme has been built around the needs of the Armed Forces; that is the first requirement that we should always consider. I hope the fact that the Chief of the Defence Staff has put his name to the document alongside that of the Secretary of State demonstrates that the strategy is based closely on advice from front-line command. This is about enabling an infrastructure that better supports military capability and the needs of a modern fighting force. That is its starting point. It will see the defence estate consolidated into fewer centres of gravity and specialisation, with better support capability.

He asked about golf courses, which I can cover quite quickly. The department currently has 11 operational golf courses, five of which are contained in today’s announcement: Molesworth, Abercorn, Condor, Henlow and North Luffenham. While we do not resent our personnel enjoying the odd round of golf, there is perhaps a happy limit to the number of courses that it is proper for the ministry to maintain.

The noble Lord asked an important question about disposal receipts and whether they would be reinvested into defence. I can give him that assurance. It is not a statement that was included in the words that I repeated, but it applies as much to these disposals as those that we have previously announced.

The noble Lord asked how much would be raised. In the nature of this programme, that is not a question that I can answer because we are looking at a disposal programme over the next 25 years. These are sites that we are now signalling our intention to dispose of, but many of them will in fact not be sold for a number of years, for reasons that I will come on to. But I can say that the disposals will contribute significantly towards the MoD’s £1 billion target for land release sales, as set out in last year’s spending review. The money raised will be reinvested in the defence estate, where it is most needed. The strategy will also generate savings of more than £140 million in running costs over 10 years, rising to nearly £3 billion by 2040. Again, all that can be reinvested in defence.

The noble Lord asked how many service families would be required to move. We are closely reviewing how to offer service personnel more choice in their accommodation options in future, and by consolidating the defence estate around capability in regional clusters we are able to provide additional stability to service personnel. We recognise the vital contribution made by the families of our personnel and it is our intention to provide better employment opportunities, particularly spousal employment opportunities, for those who often make great personal sacrifices to support the careers of the men and women of our Armed Forces.

The noble Lord asked about regular reviews of this programme, perhaps every five years. I hope I can reassure him even more firmly than that: where plans are required to change we will inform our personnel and we will update Parliament every year on our progress. This is a matter of continual review, not just review every five years. The annual update that we give to Parliament will include updates to reprovision on a rolling five-year basis.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, asked why now was the time to sell. As I have indicated, we do not anticipate selling these sites now or even next year, but some will be disposed of in this Parliament and some in the next Parliament and the Parliament after that. The key point here is that this is an imperative. We have to grip this. The estate is too large, the cost of maintaining it is spread too thinly and we need to configure the estate, as the Statement makes clear, in accordance with the needs of the Armed Forces and their capabilities.

The noble Baroness asked about affordable homes and green standards. Those are discussions that will need to be had with the relevant local authorities as time goes forward. The whole issue of the disruption to local communities, and indeed the enhancement to some local communities, along with the jobs that will be lost and created will be part of those discussions. Again, though, the important point is that we are giving ourselves enough time to have those discussions with local authorities, and I hope that they will welcome that.

On Devonport and the removal of submarines to Faslane, I can confirm that the plan is to base all our submarines in due course at Faslane. I will have to get back to her about the other question she asked about the rehousing of the Royal Marines, if she will allow.

My Lords, the place for the Royal Navy is at sea, and for that you need ships and submarines. I welcome this rationalisation, but can the Minister confirm that this new money, particularly the capital side of it, will be used to run on ships that have already been refitted, as we have discussed in this House, and maybe to buy new ships, and that it will not be used to disguise what is actually a systematic underfunding of defence for Joint Force 2025 because there is insufficient money there to achieve that?

My Lords, I can confirm that. One of the plus points of the strategic defence and security review, if I can put it that way, was an agreement from Her Majesty’s Treasury that by creating these efficiencies—for that is what they are—we can plough the money back into defence. Some of the money will go back into the defence estate, but in the round it will enable our money to go further. Additionally, we have the promise that during this Parliament the defence budget as a whole will increase by 0.5% in real terms every year. So this is not a plan to somehow secrete money away into areas other than the front line; it will in fact boost the front line.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the single largest and most valuable site which could—and, I would argue, should—be released for sale for housing, which would probably meet the £1 billion target on its own, is RAF Northolt? Is that being considered?

Northolt is not being considered at the current time. It is a very valuable facility for the RAF, as well as for the services generally—it is located close to the centre of London—so it is not on the MoD’s list at present. However, I recognise the point that my noble friend makes: it is clearly a valuable site.

Can the noble Earl say a little more about the centres of gravity as they affect the Army in Scotland? He mentioned the position of the light infantry battalion in Edinburgh—3 Rifles is presently stationed there and has been for some time. It is widely rumoured that one place that is to be disposed of is Fort George in Inverness-shire, where one of the battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland—the Black Watch—is stationed. That raises a question: if Fort George is closed down, will there be any place for a battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland to be stationed in Scotland? If not, what is proposed? There is something to be said for having at least one of the Scottish battalions stationed within Scotland, not some distance south of the border.

I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord. Fort George is a site of historical importance to the Army; there is no question about that. It is home to the Black Watch, but it has many minus points. It is an isolated site; it is not good for retention for the Army; it is a long way from the training estate; and it costs £1.6 million a year to run. It is therefore on our disposals list, but we are clear that 3 Scots will relocate to an alternative location in Scotland. After all, the origins of 42 Regiment Foot, which is how Black Watch originated, were from the Tay. Although I cannot say that it will move back to the Tay, the fact that it is in Fort George is perhaps a product of history more than anything else. We will engage with the Scottish Government and the local authority to identify the most appropriate combination of development types to maximise the opportunity that Fort George presents. We now have time to engage with local authorities generally about how this is to be managed.

My Lords, will Crichel Down issues apply in the case of selling off of much of the land? Also, in the case of sites contaminated by former MoD activity, will proper evaluation be made of the cost of decontamination to ensure that when they are ultimately sold, they are not sold at deflated prices? Are MoD officials—civil servants—well aware that the National Audit Office will pore over the sales at some stage in future?

As to the last point, yes, we are all too well aware of that. We are anxious at all times to achieve best value for the taxpayer. Crichel Down considerations can and do arise where former owners come forward to claim title. Of course, due process is followed. It is being followed in the case of Southwick Park, for example, which I think was announced as one of our intended disposals in September.

Decontamination is also a live issue on many of the sites. There is no question of disguising contamination where it occurs: environmental assessments always have to be made and are done openly and transparently with potential purchasers.

The noble Earl is quite right to say that the Black Watch traditionally came from north of the Tay—and south, as well—because it has traditionally recruited in Angus, Perthshire and Fife. My question is whether any impact on Reserve units in all three services arises from the Statement he has made today.

There may well be some impact on Reserve units, in so far as where they train and are based when they are called up, but I cannot supply the noble Lord with any detail on that. If I am able to after this, I will happily write to him.

My Lords, I follow that question precisely. My noble friend’s Statement is very welcome, but he knows that in future forces, the Reserve Forces will play an enhanced and important part, so their ability to train on mobilisation is very important. Can he say a bit more about how capacity for their training can be supplied? In particular, Bassingbourn Barracks in my former constituency has lain idle for more than two years, is brilliantly situated and well-equipped to provide Reserve Forces mobilisation training.

I am grateful to my noble friend. In a sense, considerations for the Reserve Forces cannot be separated from those for Regular Forces because, with the whole force concept, training is now taking place with regulars and reservists side by side, which is entirely appropriate. I am aware that Bassingbourn’s future use has been the subject of a great deal of speculation, but I cannot inform my noble friend in detail about the site. Again, if I can enlighten him in writing I am happy to do so.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the welcome announcement about the development of an infantry centre in Edinburgh, the improvements at Lossiemouth, his earlier announcement on the Royal Regiment of Scotland and the announcement made last week about the frigates on the Clyde are all possible only because the people of Scotland two years ago rejected separation, and that it is part of the welcome union dividend?

The noble Lord makes a very good point, and I agree. It enables us as a department to commit to an enduring defence presence in Scotland through a number of programmes. As he is aware, we have now committed to building eight type-26 global combat ships on the Clyde. We are investing more than £500 million in the infrastructure and capability of the naval base at Clyde as it becomes the home of all Royal Navy submarines by 2020. We are investing in the expansion of RAF Lossiemouth, so that it will be home to at least one additional Typhoon squadron, as well as the maritime patrol aircraft. We are investing in concentrating some Army capabilities in Leuchars Station. That will improve access to suitable training areas. Across a whole range of projects, Scotland will benefit.

My Lords, I have a couple of questions for the noble Earl. Generally, I welcome the Statement, but in repositioning units and so on considerable capital expenditure is incurred. Is it reasonable to expect that the amount of money from sales will be adequate to meet that expenditure as it occurs, and not fall to the Ministry of Defence to find additional funds early on in the hope of jam tomorrow? Secondly, runways are of course vital to the Royal Air Force and to any flying unit. With the reduction in the number of airfields, will there be sufficient runway availability when some runways have to be repaired and flying from that unit will have to stop? Finally, this presumably refers only to MoD holdings in this country, and not to holdings overseas.

I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord. I can confirm that this applies only to holdings in this country. As regards runway availability, I will have to write to him as I do not have it in my brief. He makes an important point on the cost of reprovision, but again I come back to what I said earlier: this is being driven primarily by the needs of the Armed Forces. While we may find in some cases that the net receipt from a disposal is of a fairly de minimis nature, nevertheless the reprovision will be the right thing to do for that particular unit or part of the service.

My Lords, we have already heard about the National Audit Office and questions about value for money for the taxpayer. That has so far been on the receipts side, but can the noble Earl tell us what work is being done to ensure that the defence procurement contracts to deliver the better estate for service families, which will be most welcome, and the maintenance contracts for accommodation for services will also deliver value for money for the taxpayer and the best possible outcome for service families?

My Lords, the department takes the provision of good service family accommodation very seriously. We are continuing to manage the improvement of the performance in this area of CarillionAmey, which is the contractor as the noble Baroness knows. At the end of May 2016, following what was called a “Get Well Plan”, CarillionAmey effectively passed with a performance that was markedly better than it had achieved previously: in the next generation estate contract, 29 of 30 KPIs met performance targets; in the national housing prime, six of seven key performance indicators met performance targets. We will continue to monitor closely the company’s delivery performance, working collaboratively with it, of course, to sustain and improve its performance. But the noble Baroness is absolutely right that we need to achieve value for money in this area. I believe that now we are nearly there, but CarillionAmey is under no illusions that it must maintain this rate of improvement.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, I too was responsible for the defence estate for a time in the previous Parliament. My question concerns not golf courses but the growing disconnect between the Armed Forces and the people of this country whom they defend. With the reducing footprint that my noble friend the Minister has mentioned, the Armed Forces have a tendency to retreat back into their barracks and away from the people they defend, so there comes a greater disconnect. Can my noble friend reassure me that this will not lead to the civilian population regarding the Armed Forces as a race apart?

My noble friend makes an extremely important point—one that has been very much in our minds as we have taken these ideas forward. I will be quite open with him: it is a risk. The more that personnel are concentrated in fewer centres, the more that the population as a whole will feel disconnected from the armed services. Ways must be found, therefore, to prevent that happening. We can see routes through events such as Remembrance Sunday and the commemorations around that. We can see it through the charitable work of organisations such as Help for Heroes, and so on. It is something that we need to bear in mind as we go forward. As Minister with responsibility for community engagement, I can tell my noble friend that I receive regular advice on this very topic.

My Lords, I follow the point made by the previous noble Lord by asking about recruitment. I notice that Dale Barracks in Chester are on the hit list. That has been a centre of recruitment for the Cheshire regiment over the years. It is hardly a small and remote site, as referred to in the report. Now the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment is pretty much based there. How is recruitment to the Armed Forces likely to be affected by this withdrawal from a large number of sites, where the association with the Army—or the Navy or Air Force, for that matter—goes back a very long way?

The concentration of sites that I have been talking about plays into recruitment in the round because the more stable and confident armed services personnel and their families feel about their roots and where they are, the more we are likely to see a better performance in recruitment and retention. The problem with some of these sites—I do not necessarily include the one referred to by the right reverend Prelate—is that they are remote, do not play into the recruitment agenda very easily, and certainly not the retention agenda, and they are not conducive to spousal employment either. We want a better deal for families in the round, and I hope that over the next few years, as this programme rolls out, the personnel of our Armed Forces will see it in the same way.

My Lords, as there will continue to be an enduring defence presence in Northern Ireland, can the Minister confirm that Ballykinler in County Down will be disposed of, and has Drumadd Barracks in Armagh city already been disposed of?

My Lords, Ballykinler will continue to provide valuable training assets for both the Regular and Reserve forces within Northern Ireland. There are no plans at this stage to reduce the training facilities in either location. I apologise to the noble Lord—he mentioned a second site.

My Lords, anything which improves the morale and efficiency of the Armed Forces is to be welcomed in the face of the rising Russian menace. In that context, and relevant to it, can my noble friend say at some time, if not now, what number of hostile probes there have been in NATO by Russian naval ships and by the Russian air force?

I shall again need to write to my noble friend as this is slightly off the theme of the Statement, but I recognise the importance of the point he raises.

My Lords, will the vital monitoring of our skies against hostile incursions continue to be carried out from RAF Boulmer in Northumberland, bearing in mind that, the last time there was a proposal to move it, the proposal got short shrift from the National Audit Office?

I was slightly dreading that I would get questions on the detail of these sites. Again, I hope that the noble Lord will allow me to write to him on that point.