HC Deb 09 November 1977 vol 938 cc815-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. Ann Taylor.]

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

The RAF station at Biggin Hill is in my constituency and some of my constituents are affected by its closure. But it is not as a constituency matter that I raise this problem tonight. Indeed, it is one of national importance.

Biggin Hill is the most famous fighter airfield in the world. It was founded in 1917 as a wireless research station, and it guarded the southern approach to London. Before the end of the First World War many enemy aircraft had been shot down by fighters operating from it. By the end of the Second World War no fewer than 1,600 enemy aircraft from Hitler's Luftwaffe were destroyed by Spitfires and Hurricanes operating from what is known as "Biggin on the Bump ".

The greatest aces of the Battle of Britain flew from there—Michael Crossley, "Sailor" Malan, Mungo Park, Alan Deere. Rene Mouchette, Max Aitken lnd Brian Kingcombe, among others.

The Free French Air Force, the United States "Eagle Squadron and the Commonwealth Air Forces all flew from Biggin Hill, and 453 pilots from 11 nations died in sorties undertaken from there.

But it was not only the pilots who made Biggin Hill's reputation. The ground staff worked tirelessly to keep the aircraft airworthy. The Women's Auxiliary Air Force at Biggin Hill won half of all the WAAF military medals won during the Second World War. Local air cadets, drawn from Air Training Corps squadrons from neighbouring villages, gave their efforts, and the local civilian population provided the civilian services and the background and social support which were essential to the efforts of the young men who actually led in the Battle of Britain.

The fame of what was achieved during the Battle of Britain by the Royal Air Force at Biggin Hill is undying. Until this year the Battle of Britain Day at Biggin Hill—the Royal Air Force's Open Day in September—was the greatest event in the annual flying calendar. The flying displays there exceeded the pre-War shows at Hendon, and its attraction for the people of London was such that they flocked to Biggin Hill in their thousands on the RAF Open Day. The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund profited enormously from those events.

Naturally, with the changing needs of our defence strategy, the day had to come when Biggin Hill, so close to metropolitan London, was no longer suitable for use as an operational base for front-line aircraft of the Royal Air Force. When Fighter Command moved out in 1959 the Flying Training Command moved in and erected in 1962 the Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre, within a physical and historical environment which continues to instil into the cadets who seek to enter the Service the high traditions of the Royal Air Force.

The airfield itself passed into civilian hands and is now owned by the London borough of Bromley as a very busy civil airport, but it is still used on occasions by operational aircraft of the Royal Air Force. It has been the base of the Red Arrows when they have had flying engagements elsewhere, and until this year it was taken over completely by the Royal Air Force once a year for the purposes of of the Battle of Britain Day.

The Royal Air Force station continues to occupy almost all the buildings, the hangars and the residential quarters. It also uses the officers' mess and maintains the memorial chapel opposite, which was built entirely by public subscription. The Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre, which occupies the station, has continued since 1962 to do its excellent work, providing the skilful and thorough vetting of candidates that we need if we are to maintain the high quality of Royal Air Force aircrew and officers. The tests are somewhat more sophisticated than those I went through at its predecessor some 35 years ago. The need for a high standard is obvious when one considers the higher technical knowledge and skill that is demanded of all officers—particularly the fighter pilots—and the huge cost of training them. We cannot afford the wastage of any recruits who successfully pass through Biggin Hill.

The Government have hazarded the efficiency of the Royal Air Force by their cuts in defence expenditure. In their arbitrary fashion, heedless of the risk that they were taking with the efficiency and morale of the Forces and paying more regard to their left wing, the Government called for economies within days of their coming to power in 1974.

The Ministry of Defence then demanded of the Royal Air Force Board that the RAF should contribute substantially to the economies. It was decided that this could be achieved by the closure of 12 RAF stations, including Biggin Hill.

One can ask almost any senior serving officer, of whatever branch or rank of the Armed Forces, and he would tell one privately that Government defence cuts have seriously impaired the operational efficiency of the Armed Forces. However, the political masters insisted on cuts, and the three Services have been forced to think up ideas for economies which they hope will do the minimum damage whilst satisfying the requirements of the politicians.

We must not blame the Air Force Board. It thought it had no choice; it simply responded to political pressure. Some operations have been completely closed. In other cases the Board is trying to compress the same number of units into fewer stations.

It may be possible to economise on RAF expenditure by closing down some stations completely once one accepts that our defence capability must accept cuts as do the social services. However, at Biggin Hill the Royal Air Force is doing a job that it must continue to do. The demand for aircrew trainees has recently increased, as I learned from my recent tour of RAF flying training stations.

Briefly, in 1980 the Ministry intends to move the Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre out of its existing purpose-built accommodation at Biggin Hill into already overcrowded premises at RAF Station, Bentley Priory. The Ministry claims that money will be saved by sharing the support services of a bigger station embracing a number of other units. As yet no suitable buildings are available for the centre at Bentley Priory. Money will have to be spent rather than saved by building there and abandoning the excellent accommodation at Biggin Hill.

The present Commandant at Bentley Priory is an excellent officer. We were once fortunate to have him at Biggin Hill. However, even he cannot solve the problem of accommodating the centre and saving money for the Government.

In any event it is short-sighted for the Ministry to move the centre. At Biggin Hill we have a viable RAF station with buildings, hangars and equipment available for use, including a purpose-built unit headquarters. There are 184 married quarters. Some of their occupants do not work at the centre but work at the Ministry of Defence in London. All those people and their families will have to be rehoused if the RAF leaves Biggin Hill and forces those quarters to become empty.

Rather than close Biggin Hill, the RAF could use it more intensively within the existing policy of having more units at one RAF station. If some of the buildings there are not being fully utilised, there are many other Service and quasi-Service organisations geared to use them. There is, for instance, the chaplains school, a small clutch of clerics who we are told are moving to Biggin Hill soon. We shall be glad to welcome them there as soon as possible. But they will be no substitute for a real—that is, a temporal—RAF presence, whatever spiritual assets they may bring.

I suggested to the Minister once that Biggin Hill should be considered with a view to accommodating the RAF Museum at Hendon, with its equipment and exhibits. But he tells me that it does not need a branch south of London. That is a great pity, and it is probably wrong. The facilities available at Biggin Hill are ideal for the purposes of the museum. The fame of the place would draw thousands of pilgrims to a museum there. Hundreds of visitors already come every year from all over the world, eager to catch a glimpse of Biggin Hill's glorious past.

A little imagination and a rearrangement perhaps of the accommodation, and we could have an attraction at Biggin Hill which would stir the hearts of our young people and earn thousands of pounds for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. If the RAF Museum at Hendon will not take on the job, private citizens will, because there is already a Battle of Britain museum housed at Chilham Castle in Kent. It has hundreds of exhibits and momentoes of the battle. They have been contributed by private citizens. They could be much better displayed in a hangar at Biggin Hill, to the great advantage of the Royal Air Force charity. There are also the local Air Training Corps and the RAF Association, both strongly supported as one might think, who are anxious to play a part in maintaining both the physical presence and the spirit and traditions of the Royal Air Force at Biggin Hill.

Finally, there is the petition now being raised locally among the civilian population of Biggin Hill and district asking the Government to keep the RAF there. It has already been signed by more than 1,000 people, and all who see it are eager to sign it.

Yesterday evening in the "Nationwide" programme the BBC gave an account of this affair which almost wholly ignored the case for keeping the RAF at Biggin Hill. I hope that I have impressed upon the Minister this evening not only the false economy in moving it and the desirability of keeping it there and using the site to even better purpose. but the immense strength of local and national feeling against the whole idea.

I have a good deal of personal respect for the Minister. To me he is of good character. His heart, at any rate, is in the right place on Service matters. I have had only one occasion—that was when he flirted with the Troops Out campaign—to suspect his good judgment. We who knew RAF Biggin Hill and its potentialities are putting that judgment to the test. To close down Britain's most famous and glorious RAF station would be an act of pure folly. I implore the Minister not to do it.

10.35 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. James Wellbeloved)

I welcome this opportunity to put on record the facts about the decision regarding Royal Air Force Biggin Hill and to inform the House and the public of our future plans for the station.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) on his success in getting this Adjournment debate, and I recognise the strong feeling in the area of Biggin Hill about the future of the station. That is typified by the rare occurrence this evening of a number of hon. Members who have stayed to hear the hon. Gentleman's speech.

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has reflected his constituents' views quite properly and forcibly. I fully understand the feeling in the area, because, as I have told the House before, as a young boy I witnessed with pride and deep emotion many of the air battles that took place in our skies over metropolitan Kent and South-East London during those grim and dangerous days in 1940. I recall with pride Prime Minister Churchill's tribute to the Few. His words reflected the views of the then national coalition Government and also the views of the united people of this country.

The Battle of Britain is without doubt a major battle honour for the Royal Air Force. Only yesterday I attended the launching of the appeal fund for the Battle of Britain Museum at which Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader spoke. He reminded the audience that it was the whole of the RAF which won that battle: Bomber Command, in its valiant efforts to destroy the barges being assembled for the invasion of Britain ; the Observer Corps, which plotted the enemy air forces coming into this country ; the ground crews at Biggin Hill and other historic stations, who kept those aircraft flying in a combat condition, despite the vicious and heavy attacks that were made upon airfields ; and, of course, the women in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, who displayed such gallantry in all their efforts.

It is worth drawing the attention of the House to the sentiments expressed by Douglas Bader. Those heroic weeks in the history of our nation were fought, and the battle was won, by the blood and the guts and the dedication of the men and women of the Royal Air Force. We seek to honour that dedication and sacrifice for all time by the establishment of the Battle of Britain Museum. This week the appeal fund has been launched to provide at Hendon, adjacent to the existing RAF Museum, a new building capable of holding a representative collection of the aircraft that fought in that battle and to bring together a collection of Service equipment, of relics, of medals, of documents, of uniforms and works of art associated with that period.

The trustees of the RAF Museum have set up an appeal committee. under the chairmanship of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, composed of distinguished men and women. I am particularly glad to see in the House tonight my hon. Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Williams), who is a member of that appeal committee and the representative of a constituency which housed another very famous RAF station during the Battle of Britain—RAF Hornchurch —from which, in 1940, Spitfires were flying and engaging the enemy in the same manner as those which flew from RAF Biggin Hill. Indeed, Group Captain Bader flew from Hornchurch and fought in that battle.

The appeal committee seeks to raise £2 million. It is my view that this appeal provides an opportunity for the people of this country to express in a practical manner their thanks for the deliverance that was made possible by the heroic action of the RAF in the Battle of Britain.

I owe it to the hon. Member for Orpington to reply to some of the points that he made in the debate. The Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre is to move to RAF Bentley Priory, which is also a station of considerable historic importance. It was the headquarters of Fighter Command during the Second World War. In addition to the OASC, other elements will be located there, including the directorate of recruiting and the inspectorate of recruiting. These changes of location will carry cost-effective benefits for defence expenditure and for the organisation, selection and recruitment of airmen generally.

The Air Force Board is aware of the problem of maintaining manpower levels when the RAF requires several thousand recruits a year. The high standard of professionalism in the RAF requires an equally high standard of recruit. Great care is exercised in the selection of aircrew in an endeavour to ensure that young men coming into the RAF have the motivation and ability to respond to the intensive training requirements for the operation of a complex modern aircraft and weapons system.

I can assure hon. Members that the Board is fully alive to this task and is constantly reviewing and improving methods of selection and training. Young men, perhaps inspired by the history of the Battle of Britain, who seek a worthwhile career and an honourable and exciting profession will find it in the RAF, and the location of the OASC does not detract from that.

Biggin Hill's link with the RAF will be retained. The area containing the officers' mess and the memorial chapel will be retained, as will the Spitfire and the Hurricane that guard the station's gates. The RAF Chaplains School will be moved to Biggin Hill, and this will enable the memorial chapel to be looked after in a proper fashion.

The decision on Biggin Hill has not been easy, and much careful thought has been given to all the factors involved. The part that the station played in the development of the RAF and particularly its valiant place in the history of the Battle of Britain cannot be forgotten, but military aviation is a living and changing environment.

The sophistication of aircraft equipment, the skills and knowledge required by pilots, the technical expertise of ground support personnel, the selection and the training of personnel, let alone the basic rúles of the RAF, can all change as the RAF develops to meet the changing threat presented by potential enemies and the challenges that rapid technological advances present to a modern air force.

The traditions of professional dedication and courage of succeeding generations of men and women who have served this country in the RAF are a sure foundation upon which the RAF can build. We remember and honour the men and women who fought and died with the squadrons from Biggin Hill and, indeed, all RAF stations, but history must be an inspiration to, and not a brake on, the development and progress of our Fighting Services and it is right that we should continue to pursue decisions that are the result of such long and careful consideration and are in the long-term interests of the RAF and the defence of this country.

We shall maintain a presence at Biggin Hill, and it is right and proper that it should have a continuing link with the RAF. That is the spirit in which I reply to the debate. I commend the Air Force Board's proposals for relocation in the knowledge that they are in the best interests of the RAF.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.