HC Deb 05 July 1978 vol 953 cc457-61
Mr. Ridley

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he has now taken a decision on which airfield is to be provided for the KC135 aircraft as requested by the United States Air Force.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

Yes, Sir. After thorough examination of all the many factors involved, I have concluded that RAF Fairford is the right airfield for this task. I have today placed in the Library of the House a detailed memorandum which explains the reasons for this choice. A copy of the memorandum has been sent to the local planning authorities, with which we shall discuss the proposal, which has the agreement of the United States authorities.

Mr. Ridley

That decision will cause grave disappointment to many people in the Cotswolds and to many of my constituents, but will the Secretary of State take it that if he is nevertheless able to persuade people that the location of this base at Fairford is essential in the interests of Western security, I believe that they will accept it, provided that the cost of noise, pollution, disturbance and damage does not fall upon them, since they will not be responsible?

Mr. Mulley

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. The stationing of 15 KC135s is a substantial addition to the capability of the allied air forces in the event of tension or difficulty, and I think it absolutely right that we should act as host for this additional American provision for the security of Europe. I accept that the question of location was difficult, but, as the hon. Gentleman will see from the memorandum which I have provided, Fairford is a fully operational airfield which for many years had already had aircraft of a similar type, the B47, and it has recently been used for Concorde purposes. I think that on balance there will be less, not more, noise and pollution. I regret, though I understand, that many of the protests come from those who would rather not have any airfield there at all. In my view, it will not in any way add to the understandable problems which arise anywhere where we have military airfield installations.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Will my right hon. Friend take it that there are a number of us on his own side of the House who have grave doubts about whether this operation is necessary at all and it is regarded by some of us an undesirable? However, will my right hon. Friend agree that, if it has to come, it would seem to many of us entirely appropriate that it should be established in the constituency of the warlike hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley).

Mr. Mulley

I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that I did not bring into the very full consideration of the problems the personalities of hon. Members in the areas of the various airfields which we examined. I know my hon. Friends' views about NATO, but I must tell him again that I cannot share them. I think it right that the preparedness of NATO in current circumstances should be enhanced by the extra capability, because the possibility of air refuelling substantially multiplies the capability of all aircraft in the alliance.

Mr. Hurd

Will the right hon. Gentle. man take it that most of my constituents affected by the decision will, I believe understand and acknowledge the defence need which he has explained, but, on the other hand, they feel that the matter has been rather clumsily handled and they see little evidence that the Department of the Environment or anyone else has visibly taken account of the environmental factors before the choice was made?

Mr. Mulley

I have, of course, consulted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, although responsibility for the decision is mine and I do not seek to run away from that. The position is that, the United States Air Force having asked for facilities, I can, as it were, veto its choice, but I cannot direct it in any particular direction. I must add, however, that there is something here which I have never understood. Fairford has a distinguished history in providing a home for the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force over most of the past 40 years. This is merely a change of aircraft it is not a change of use. It is an operational airfield, and why anyone thought that it would not remain so still puzzles me.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Although it is quite appropriate to suggest that the base ought to be situated in or near the areas of those hon. Members on the Opposition Benches who are demanding more and more expenditure on defence, will my right hon. Friend take it that the trades council in the area chosen has expressed opposition and that working people there are opposed to having this base used in the way proposed? They are opposed to it simply because they do not believe that it ought to be in this country at all, and I ask my right hon. Friend to accept that, in my view, what he has said so far does not justify its being in this country.

Mr. Mulley

I hope that my hon. Friend will do me the courtesy of reading the memorandum, which sets out at rather greater length than you would permit me to give at this point. Mr. Speaker, the reasons for the decision. Since we have—in my view, rightly—supported all the efforts in the alliance to increase the reinforcement and readiness capability of the alliance, I think that it would be wholly wrong if we were to say to our United States allies that we were not prepared to find facilities for these aircraft in this country. In fact, 15 KC135s have been operating for a considerable time, without any of these suggested hazards, in Mildenhall in the constituency of one hon. Member opposite.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a Private Notice Question. I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side.

Mr. Kershaw

Will the Secretary of State accept that I echo what has been said already by my hon. Friends in saying that in my area we recognise that there should be a capability of this kind in this country and if it has to be at Fairford we shall grin and bear it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Tories against defence."] It is a great relief to find the unofficial opposition on the Government Benches below the Gangway in favour of NATO for once. Will the right hon. Gentleman nevertheless bear in mind that proper compensation will be the environmental quid pro quo for putting up with this thing over many years?

Mr. Motley

Compensation will be subject to the existing legislation. Although, of course, all the cases will be examined, I am bound to tell the hon. Gentleman that, since there is no change of use—it is an operational airfield—I should think it unlikely that there would be a substantial case for additional compensation in this instance.

Mr. William Hamilton

Can my right hon. Friend say whether our American allies are likely to want additional facilities of this kind in the future? If they ask for such facilities, will he consider writing to hon. Members opposite to ask them to volunteer their constituencies for such purposes?

Mr. Mulley

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that suggestion, but the essential factor which I have had to take into account is that one needs a runway long enough for an aircraft to operate from and, in particular, if it is to be a tanker aircraft, one needs fuel pipeline facilities, which has somewhat limited the choice. No doubt, should further occasion arise, my hon. Friend might like to make some inquiries on my behalf.

Mr. Cope

Can the Secretary of State say whether any undertaking was either offered by the United States, or asked for by us, about whether the technical characteristics of these aircraft will be improved in the future so as to minimise the environmental ramifications of the decision?

Mr. Mulley

As to the future, it is likely that more modern aircraft may be employed. But the idea that this aircraft—which is basically a 707, which is the most widely used civil aircraft—is a particularly bad one to have, is totally wrong. Technically, it is not very different from the B47s which actually operated from this very airfield for a very long time without any of this sort of problem. Additionally, of course, there will be further employment in the area as a result of this decision. I am told that there will be expenditure of between £3 million and £5 million a year in that community, which in some quarters will not be unwelcome.

Mr. Swain

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the nearest air force depot to the village in which I live is 30 miles away at Flinningley? Daily aeroplanes are flying from Finningley at an approximate height of 1,000 ft., causing disturbance not only to older people but to people who are on shift work. It also causes environmental disturbance. I have raised this question before by letter with the Ministry of Defence. Nothing has been done. It started with the Queen's Jubilee. On that occasion we were not asleep because we could not go to sleep.

Mr. Mulley

My hon. Friend raises a rather different point. Had he followed the activities of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force as closely as I try to do, he would know that he has been much exercised with the problem of low flying. It is absolutely essential that the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force have facilities for low flying if they are to have the capability of exercising their NATO role. We are seeking arrangements so that the burden can be more widely spread around the countryside. In that endeavour I hope that we shall have my hon. Friend's support.