HC Deb 05 March 1996 vol 273 cc252-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Knapman.]

10.30 pm
Sir Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

I sincerely hope that this will be the last time that I need to trouble any Minister in order to clear the air and obtain an important assurance on the future use of what used to be called central ordnance depot, Chilwell, in my constituency, and was renamed only last year Chetwynd barracks in earnest of the Ministry of Defence's commitment to the area. I am glad to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight), the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who shares, in terms of constituents, an interest in the future of the barracks.

I hope also to put before my hon. Friend the Minister the views of the Army Technical Support Agency unit, which is currently located at Chilwell, in view of the consultation document proposing relocation at Chertsey.

The name Chetwynd dates back to Viscount Chetwynd, who turned a green field site in my constituency into a key munitions factory during the 1914–18 war. At its peak during that period, it employed 10,000 people. Viscount Chetwynd showed great energy in organising the production of vast quantities of munitions when they were desperately needed. Records show that the factory produced 46,725 shells in 24 hours on 1 July 1918. Subsequently, tragedy struck, and there was a massive explosion in which 134 people were killed and 250 injured. But the work force carried on the next day.

It might be of interest to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces especially that a telegram from his grandfather was sent to Chilwell, which read: Please accept my sincere sympathy with you all in the misfortune that has overtaken your fine Factory and in the loss of valuable lives, those who have perished have died at their stations on the field of duty and those who have lost their dear ones should fortify themselves with this thought, the courage and spirit shown by all concerned both men and women command our admiration, and the decision to which you have all come to carry on without a break is worthy of the spirit which animates our soldiers in the field. I trust the injured are receiving every care. At that time, my hon. Friend's grandfather had succeeded Lloyd George as the Minister for Munitions.

I played that bit of history because I wanted to explain how involved the local community is in Chilwell and its fortunes. Since the time of the 1914–18 war, the fortunes of Chilwell improved, but I am sad to say that, during the past 22 years that I have represented the constituency, its fortunes have declined. I do not want to dwell on the closure of COD Chilwell or 38 Reme workshops, or even the recent vehicles supplies division, because, at the end of the day it remains a valuable site with a loyal work force. There is an officers mess, a sergeants mess, and 200 refurbished houses. A security system is in place. It has many assets. As I have already suggested, it is very much part of the local scene. During the process involving the vehicle spares division, my hon. Friend the Minister showed great interest and concern and treated my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash and me with great courtesy. At that time, we discussed the 300 jobs that had been lost and that are being relocated at Telford. After that debate, my hon. Friend the Minister brought about the movement of 200 civilian jobs from Long Marston, reuniting the Royal Engineers military and civilian forces. I understood that the plan was for this site to be used from 1997. That brought new hope to the region that the MOD saw a future in Chetwynd barracks.

Since then, as a result of the consultation over the relocation of the Army Technical Support Agency, some doubt has been cast on whether that will happen. As many as 200 or as few as 10 jobs are the figures that are being bandied about. The Minister has already confirmed by letter to me that 200 jobs will be relocated. I would welcome it if he could reaffirm that position.

Ironically, the reason why, in one paragraph, Chilwell was dismissed in the consultation document as a site for co-location of the ATSA was that the Royal Engineers Resources park would come to Chilwell and not leave enough room. It is difficult to accept that because, if one visits the site—I would be delighted if my hon. Friend the Minister ever could find the time to come to Chilwellone would see that large buildings still stand empty and need redevelopment. The co-location document suggests that Chilwell is remote from its customer base, but I understand that the customer base that Chilwell handles is in the midlands and that meetings are often delayed for staff coming from Chertsey to conduct inspections.

We point out many other features in the submission to my hon. Friend the Minister. May I mention just a few. Chilwell has excellent communications by road, rail and air, with subsequently fewer travel-to-work problems, Staff are not paid extra salaries for working in the outer London area or for having scarce disciplines. Recruitment and retention is easier. Chilwell is accredited to ISO 9002 and will be reassessed to ISO 9001 this month. In past years, that commitment to quality has been paramount and Chertsey does not have that accreditation.

On main battle tanks, one of the reasons for Chertsey's selection is that all the roads around the Chilwell site were constructed to accommodate heavy "A" vehicles. Also, refuelling facilities are available and armoured vehicles are regularly in transit between various sites.

From my reading of the document, the most important fact seems to involve not the ATSA, but the need to maintain the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency on a site that is too big and is rented from Surrey county council and in which the ATSA section is a welcome lodger. The range of costs over 25 years is less relevant than the overall business case for the most efficient operation. The range of costs varies from £312 million at the lowest—the document's suggestion of the Chertsey cost—to £340 million, the highest. The cost for Old Dalby, another valuable site close to my constituency, is estimated at £324 million. Old Dalby is surely a runner if Chilwell cannot be re-examined.

Will the Minister carefully reconsider the case made, bearing it in mind that Chertsey is an expensive place for people to move to? Often, the people at Chilwell have already made as many as two or three moves. Many of them are committed to the region. It is difficult for anyone from the east midlands, with the price of property there, to move to a region such as Chertsey, where the opposite is the case. People who sell a property in Chertsey can buy a more attractive property if they move to the east midlands.

One should use the real interest in using sites owned by the MOD. There is a permanent interest in sites that it already owns. The track record of Chilwell and Old Dalby is excellent. The borough council is anxious to work alongside the MOD to secure the best possible use of this valuable asset, and I should like, if possible, to bring an all-party group representing the council and the planners to meet the Minister, at his convenience.

Already, parts of the site that have been available for the personal and domestic use of the community have shown how valuable it is. The old testing site on the far side of the Chilwell road now has a very attractive hotel and leisure centre and many shopping complexes, and it has always been very easy to sell houses built on the bits of the central ordnance depot site that have been released to the public. The site clearly has an alternative use, but, in view of all that I have said, it seems ironic that a site of 200 acres, containing all the valuable properties to which I have referred, should not be used in the way in which it has always been used—as a base for the MOD.

Over the years in which I have argued the case for Chilwell, there seems to have been an inexorable move to the south—regardless, I sometimes suspect, of best judgment. That was certainly true of 38 Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers workshops. Perhaps an independent audit by the National Audit Office might be worth while in regard to some of the figures involved in the overall business case.

I would welcome reassurance from my hon. Friend about the value of Chetwynd barracks, so that we can pledge to work for its maximum use in the context of the service that it gives our fighting forces and civilian jobs in an area that has been involved in the MOD since 1915.

10.41 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester) on securing an Adjournment debate on the future of Chetwynd barracks in his constituency. It is obvious to all who know him well, as I do, how deeply and genuinely he cares about the county of Nottinghamshire, where he was born and educated, in which his roots lie and whose people whom he represents so ably. This is not the first occasion on which my hon. Friend has made representations on behalf of Chilwell, and I applaud his tenancious advocacy of his constituency interests.

I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) is present. She, too, has been an extremely doughty campaigner for the interests of Chilwell and the wider area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe knows from my discussions with him that I am fully aware of recent proposals affecting Chilwell. I have every sympathy with the vigour with which he argues his case, and his real desire to ensure that his constituents are not disadvantaged by decisions of this nature. Indeed, he and I met last month—together with our hon. Friend the Member for Erewash—to discuss proposals affecting Chilwell. I hope that he will forgive me if I set out again, for the benefit of other hon. Members, the background against which tonight's debate must be set.

Given the nature of the business that we conduct, my Department must constantly try to improve its efficiency and cost-effectiveness. We are wholly committed to obtaining the best value for money from the defence budget, and to maximising the capability of the front line. My hon. Friend knows very well that the only way in which we shall be able to protect, extend and preserve the front line is by maintaining downward pressure on our costs. He will recall that that is what the defence costs study was all about.

Inevitably, there have been reductions in both service and civilian manpower in recent years, following both "Options for Change" and the defence costs study. Those reductions have been felt nationwide. Rationalisation has involved very painful decisions—decisions which, I acknowledge, bring immense disappointment to the areas affected.

But the process has brought long-term benefit in terms of increased efficiency and better value for money. In turn, that leaves our armed forces leaner and more capable. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that no finer compliment could be paid to the structure, organisation and effectiveness of the British armed forces than that the restructuring of the French armed forces is being conducted very much along the lines on which we have run our own.

I deal now with the points made by my hon. Friend. I am very mindful of Chilwell's traditional and historic association with the armed forces, which, as he rightly said, goes back some 80 years, to when the site housed the national shell-filling factory. I am grateful to him for telling me of the telegram that my grandfather sent to the factory after the appalling accident in 1918. I know that there is still a garden of remembrance there in memory of that terrible day.

Since then, the site has been used as a stores depot and, for 50 years, as a vehicle workshop. Given that proud and distinguished history of service, I naturally truly regret the reduction in staffing at Chilwell which my hon. Friend has outlined. None of these decisions has been taken lightly.

In December last year, I announced our proposals—subject to consultation—to collocate the five land divisions of the recently formed Army Technical Support Agency at a site, shared with the Defence Research and Evaluation Agency, in Chertsey in Surrey. ATSA, a mixed civilian/military manned agency which provides the Army with essential technical and engineering support, is currently located at sites in Chertsey, Malvern, Woolwich and Chilwell.

The collocation proposal arose as a result of follow-on work commissioned after a study in 1993. It concentrated principally on the business and organisational aspects of what were then the Director General Equipment Support (Army)' s technical branches and authorities, now part of the Army Technical Support Agency. It concluded that there was a compelling business case for collocation, and that it would result in a much more efficient operation, which would better serve the front line.

As a result, a very detailed appraisal has been carried out, which deals in greater depth with the business case and the building and works implications of collocating the divisions on to a single site. It concluded that an integrated ATSA located mainly on one site would enable the chief executive to make the best use of modern logistic support and management techniques and provide the optimum organisation to promote the most efficient delivery of technical support. An equally important consideration is, of course, the achievement of best value for money through rationalisation and standardisation. My hon. Friend knows that we can but pursue these options with great vigour.

ATSA must meet the needs of its customers in an efficient manner. The Army's equipments are becoming increasingly more technically complex and all key battle-winning weapons systems embody electronic as well as mechanical elements. Support for these essential items of equipment can best be provided by an integrated engineering team. The achievement of the agency's demanding efficiency targets, which have been agreed with the Treasury, assumes collocation of the land systems element of ATSA on a single site.

We have examined some 17 options for the future location of ATSA, 11 of which have been subjected to extremely close and detailed scrutiny. Doing the minimum, although the least disruptive to staff, is a non-starter. It would fail to realise the established advantages of collocation, and is one of the most expensive options.

The option of collocating ATSA at Chilwell was, as my hon. Friend knows, fully considered in the investment appraisal undertaken in support of the collocation study. After much careful thought, however, it was concluded that it was not a viable option. The costs associated with the requirement for a new build office block, the relocation of larger numbers of staff from other sites at Chertsey and Malvern and the remoteness from ATSA's customer base all counted against Chilwell being a suitable solution.

I assure my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash, that in the light of the representations made tonight, we shall re-examine thoroughly the figures for Chilwell.

Collocation at Chertsey, as well as being the most cost-effective solution, is by far the most attractive from a business point of view. The agency's owner and major customers are at Andover, it is already geared to large armoured fighting vehicle support, and it has the best support facilities of any ATSA site. Neither, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe inferred, can we ignore the wider MOD interest in retaining the Chertsey site, for if ATSA were to leave Chertsey, the position of DERA there might be jeopardised.

The Department's preference for Chertsey would mean the loss of a further 102 civilian jobs in the directorate of technical services at Chetwynd barracks. As my hon. Friends the Members for Erewash and for Broxtowe know, I fully understand the anxiety felt by staff during the decision-making process. We have tried at all times to keep them as well informed as possible and I am very sympathetic to their concerns.

All ATSA's staff—whether at Chilwell or elsewhere—have provided first-class support to the armed forces, and we shall do all we can to find alternative MOD employment for those affected. There will inevitably be some redundancies, but we will ensure that they are handled as sensitively as possible.

I should make it clear that no final decision has yet been taken. We are carefully considering the many points made to us—not least by my hon. Friends the Member for Broxtowe and for Erewash tonight—during the consultation process. I will, of course, be happy to receive my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe—and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash, if she wishes to come, too—with a delegation from the borough council if they would care to see me. I should be grateful if he could arrange that as soon as possible.

I turn to our plans to collocate the engineer resources organisation, which is located at Long Marston in Warwickshire, with the military work force at Chetwynd barracks. The engineer resources organisation includes a planning headquarters and the central engineer park, which stores large engineering equipment and plant that the organisation supplies in support of the Army and the RAF, and sometimes to other Government Departments.

The military work force at Chilwell occupies an area within Chetwynd barracks, and employs 154 military and 27 civilian staff who are responsible for providing military construction engineering support to the three armed services and other Government Departments, principally the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The decision to collocate the two units was taken because they have common areas of interest and some related responsibilities that will greatly benefit from closer co-operation and shared workplaces. Although much of the detailed work is highly specialised and unique to each organisation, they both usually deal with the same customer units or staff branches. In both operational and training deployments, they often contribute to the same construction projects and they have similar command and control arrangements.

As a result of the collocation at Chetwynd barracks, my Department will make substantial savings through the disposal of the Long Marston site and from sharing infrastructure overheads at Chilwell such as security, catering, grounds maintenance, and so on.

When the two units were scheduled to remain at their current locations, a study was started to examine the scope for in-house efficiencies and the feasibility of market testing the activities carried out by engineer resources. The military work force discharges a core military function, including potential front-line deployment, and for that reason was excluded from market testing. The move to Chilwell will postpone the market test of the engineer resources to allow it three years in its new location in which to work up an effective in-house bid.

The move of engineer resources to Chilwell followed the promise I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, at the time of the announcement of the move of the vehicle spares division to Telford, to make every effort to find an alternative defence use for the Chilwell site.

In the debate, and in discussions with me, my hon. Friend has mentioned rumours, which inevitably circulate at such times, about a reduction in the number of new jobs that will be created at Chilwell following collocation. I have recently written to him to confirm that, although it is difficult to be precise about exact numbers at this stage, we are planning a probable increase of about 200 new civilian jobs for the area by the end of 1998. I know that he will welcome that further reassurance.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe knows, we must make every effort to ensure that the use of our scarce defence resources is focused on the business of preserving, enhancing and fortifying the front line. He will also understand that this reflects the general reduction in the area of support infrastructure in line with the policies following on from "Options for Change" and, more recently, from "Front Line First".

Chetwynd barracks has an assured future. In particular, the headquarters of 49 (Eastern) Brigade has a long-term future there, and, following the planned devolution and delegation of budgetary responsibility, we expect to see an increase of some 20 civilian jobs in the headquarters in the next 12 months. In addition, the collocation of engineer resources with the existing military work force—together with the associated headquarters of Chilwell station—will, I am happy to say, ensure that there continues to be a significant Army presence in Chilwell in the years ahead.

I want my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe and for Erewash to know that I am aware of the anxiety felt by their constituents about the moves, and we will study carefully the representations that have been made to us, as we always do in these cases. No decision will be made without the most detailed appreciation of all the facts.

Having dealt with such cases for nigh on two years following the defence cost studies, I know that no two colleagues could have done more than my hon. Friends to defend the interests of their constituents. Chilwell has given noble and distinguished service to the world of defence for many years, and it is assured of a bright future. It will be a changed future, but a bright one.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.