HC Deb 25 June 1997 vol 296 cc802-9 12.30 pm
Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech on a topic that is so important to my constituents. My constituency, Warrington, South, is the very centre of the north west, both geographically and economically. It is strategically important for business, being sited at the crossroads of the M6 and M62 motorways, midway between the cities of Manchester and Liverpool and on the route of the west coast main line.

Warrington has been significant as a business and commercial centre since the bronze age; then the Romans came along. They recognised a quality site when they saw it and established a boom town on the banks of the Mersey at Wilderspool in Latchford, the site of the original ford. The Roman ships that came up the Mersey with goods for the north-west began a waterways tradition that is still active in Warrington, South, although the waterways now support the leisure and tourism industry.

We in Warrington, South are innovators: the first canal to be built in Britain—the Sankey—runs through Great Sankey in my constituency. With the Mersey, the Bridgewater and the Manchester Ship canal, it is one of four inland waterways that are significant features and monuments to Warrington's contribution to the industrial revolution.

Cromwell planned his civil war campaign in Warrington, South and, more happily, on dreamy afternoons Lewis Carroll found inspiration in the beautiful Cheshire countryside and wrote "Alice in Wonderland". We in Warrington are fond of our association with "Alice in Wonderland" and I have wondered in the past few weeks whether it is that association which has helped me to feel familiar with the rabbit warren that is the Palace of Westminster. I have certainly seen many hon. Members running down the corridors of power and wonder whether perhaps they were saying, "Oh, my ears and whiskers, I'm late." When learning about the more obscure traditions of this House, I have often wanted to say like Alice, "Curiouser and curiouser!" There is one key difference: we do not have to paint the white roses red in this House—the electorate have already done that for us.

Cheshire and Lancashire meet in Warrington, South, which contains the best of both worlds. We value our traditions and look to the future. We work in partnerships—between business, local government, voluntary organisations and neighbourhood groups—in seeking to build our community for the benefit of the many and not of the privileged few. On 2 May, we knew that we had a Government who were forward-looking and who would value local communities and recognise the need to work in partnership. We have a one-nation Government, and we welcome them.

My constituency is formed from parts of the old Warrington, North and Warrington, South constituencies. My constituents are fortunate in having been represented by two determined Members of Parliament who have promoted their best interests and been excellent ambassadors for the town. Part of my constituency—Howley and Whitecross—was in Warrington, North and was represented by Doug Hoyle. Doug is loved and respected by the people of Warrington, for whom he has been an indomitable voice. He is now continuing his work on their behalf in another place, and I wish him well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), who is sitting to my right, represented the old constituency of Warrington, South for five years and before that he was an excellent leader of the local council. There has been a steady stream of people telling me how effective a Member of Parliament Mike Hall was, and that he will be a hard act to follow. I look forward to that challenge. Mike was a determined voice for his constituents and I wish him and his constituents in Weaver Vale every success.

Burtonwood air base is important to Warrington, South constituents. Mike has represented their interest and concern over the past few years—indeed, he held an Adjournment debate on the subject on 3 May 1995—and I am taking on that mantle in this debate. The air base is a classic example of the Tory Government's attitude to local people and communities. They refused to consult local people about the future use of a large area of land in the middle of their neighbourhood. Had the Tory Government taken the trouble to ask local people about the future use of Burtonwood, they would have avoided the major problems now facing my constituents.

To describe the area, I have to take the House back to 1942, when RAF Burtonwood was a supply depot receiving goods flown in and shipped over from America. Set in the middle of open countryside on the edge of Warrington, it was serviced by a link from the west coast line. There were few movements on local roads and the site had little impact on surrounding countryside. After the cessation of hostilities in 1945, the base became a long-term storage depot for the United States army. The majority of goods movements still took place by rail, with short vehicle movements in and out of the complex. That remained the position until 1992.

The fact that the site retained the name of RAF Burtonwood reflects the Lancashire fondness for keeping place names sometimes centuries after they have ceased to describe a function. No aeroplanes have used the base for at least 50 years, and throughout the entire period the usage has not represented an intrusion to adjoining residents, given the low level of vehicle movements to and from the site.

While RAF Burtonwood experienced the passage of 50 years with only minor changes, the open fields around saw major planned development. The establishment of Warrington new town meant a period of rapid growth in commercial and, most significant to this debate, residential building. Warrington and Runcorn development corporation and, more recently, the Commission for the New Towns, both of which are agencies of the Department of the Environment, have been directly responsible for the extensive building of high-quality residential homes. They have created a leafy suburb to the north, east and west of the Burtonwood side.

The air base is now completely surrounded by what my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale described in 1995, quoting from a 1987 sales brochure from Fairclough Homes, as: A carefully chosen location with an abundance of trees, bushes and flowers adorning its landscaped gardens and peaceful cul-de-sac approach road, offering a tranquil and idyllic setting for this delightful range of elegant homes". Believe me, that was true.

The Government created that semi-rural setting and my constituents moved in, specifically because it was a quiet suburb in which to bring up their families. They settled into a comfortable village community. Then, on Thursday 21 May 1992, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale received a letter from the Ministry of Defence, informing him that on the following day at 1 pm, the decision to close RAF Burtonwood by summer 1993 would be announced. That announcement was the beginning of radical and unpleasant change for my constituents—change initiated and carried out by the Tory Government. It took place without consultation, and it has resulted in major problems because of inappropriate use of the site.

In his previous incarnation as Member for Warrington, South, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale said: Without consulting local Members of Parliament, Warrington borough council's planning authority or local residents, the MOD unilaterally decided to let the air base as a storage depot for heavy goods vehicles and trailers. It made that decision overnight" —[Official Report, 3 May 1995; Vol. 259, c. 297.] That decision has had a radical impact on the quality of life of my constituents, with hundreds of heavy goods vehicles travelling through residential roads at all hours of the day and night.

Two public inquiries have been held, which considered applications for goods vehicle operators' licences to extend even further the heavy goods vehicle usage of the local residential roads. The statement by the deputy licensing commissioner in his decision of 20 December 1995 gives an impartial view of the unacceptable situation for my constituents. He said: There is considerable adverse environmental effect from noise, fumes, disturbance and visual intrusion occasioned to all residents in the vicinity of R.A.F. Burtonwood on the North, South, East and West boundaries caused by the operation of heavy goods vehicles moving to and from R.A.F. Burtonwood and on parking and manoeuvring at the site at all hours of the day and night. This is because the site has been let off at extremely low rental rates by the M.O.D's agents for warehousing storage purposes without any consultation or consideration of the environmental effects of attracting a very large number of H.G.Vs to service the businesses of distributing the goods from the warehouses. For the past four years, local people, Members of Parliament and Warrington borough council have sought a resolution of this problem from an intractable Tory Government, who have ridden roughshod over the local community. In May 1997, my constituents decided that enough was enough—they voted overwhelmingly to show their confidence in new Labour, turning a Tory majority of nearly 3,000 into a Labour majority of 11,807.

Already that confidence is being justified, as the Labour Government introduce a legislative programme to deliver our election pledges to the people: to reduce class sizes, to introduce faster track punishments for persistent young offenders, to cut NHS waiting lists, to get 250,000 under-25-year-olds off benefit and into work and to set tough rules for Government spending and borrowing.

Those are first steps, but already they are making a real difference to the lives of local people. Already my constituents living around RAF Burtonwood find that they are speaking to a Government who know how to listen to, and take account of, local opinion.

Within the past few days, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has made it clear that the MOD, as landlord of the site, has taken into account the wishes of local people and will not grant approval to Professional Distribution Services (International) Ltd. to park vehicles overnight at RAF Burtonwood, thus ensuring that there is no escalation of HGV activity.

This debate gives me the opportunity to bring to the Minister's attention the long campaign to achieve a satisfactory use for this site and to ask for his support in achieving a resolution.

Once it became clear that the MOD was declaring the site surplus to requirements, the local plan was updated to include a notation for the site which provided for an "urban village" concept, with a mixture of land uses including residential, commercial and open space. RAF Burtonwood is one of three large sites in close proximity which are of strategic importance to the development of Warrington. Each site is managed by a different Government Department or agency. I share with Warrington borough council and local residents the opinion that it would make sense to combine all the public land in the area under a single agency, so that there can be a comprehensive and integrated approach to future development in the area, which can address the concerns and aspirations of residents satisfactorily.

The previous Government failed my constituents when they turned RAF Burtonwood into a commercial storage and distribution depot. With a new Government, we have the opportunity to take a positive way forward, which has been advocated by local people and local elected representatives. With a strategic approach, we can create the urban village that my constituents have good reason to call for, and we can deliver the growth, prosperity and new employment opportunities which the Warrington of the future needs.

12.44 pm
Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) on her maiden speech. It must be rare for the immediate predecessor of the Member who makes a maiden speech to be present in the Chamber to receive such high praise; I thank her for it. As one of her constituents, I am confident that she will do an excellent job representing her entire constituency. Judging from the quality of her maiden speech, we are certain that she will do so. I look forward to many opportunities to debate in the Chamber with my hon. Friend the future of the north-west and the whole country under new Labour and the premiership of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).

I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for allowing me to speak briefly in the debate. I shall not detain the House long.

I am delighted that there is now a prospect of a better use for the RAF Burtonwood site. I declare an interest, as a resident of the picturesque village aptly described by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South.

I am certain that the Under-Secretary can give assurances on several matters. First, we need a planned way forward for the development of the site, which meets the approval of, not only the local planning authority, but local residents. Secondly, we need an environmental audit into the deficiencies in the area so that whatever happens at RAF Burtonwood will help to make the position better, not worse. Thirdly, in the short term, we need to consider what is happening on the site now, to minimise the impact on residents who live around RAF Burtonwood.

I am confident that, when the Under-Secretary addresses the House shortly, he will give us assurances.

Finally, I place on record my pleasure at hearing the news that the MOD will not, as landlord, give its approval to the vehicle operator's licence of Professional Distribution Services (International) Ltd. That is welcome news indeed. I look forward to the Minister's speech.

12.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)

Just before this debate started, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) raised the issue of attendance in the Chamber. I think it pertinent, therefore, to point out the lack of attendance—even on the Front Bench—of any Conservative Member for this important debate. It shows the Conservatives' lack of interest in the north-west and shows how right the north-west was to reject them totally on 1 May.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) on her success in obtaining the debate. Obviously, it is a matter of great importance to her constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), who spoke briefly. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South on an excellent speech, in which she spoke movingly about her constituency and forcefully argued the case for her constituents, as I am sure that she will continue to do for many years to come.

The disposal of the former United States Army base at Burtonwood near Warrington has, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South said, generated considerable public interest. I believe, therefore, that, before I address the detailed points that she raised, a brief resume of the issue would be helpful, to give a greater understanding of the background.

The size of the defence estate has been reducing more or less since the end of the second world war. With the ending of the cold war, a large amount of surplus defence property was identified and disposal of most of it is in hand or completed. Moreover, the problem of how effectively to dispose of large, complex military sites is currently facing a number of allies.

In the United Kingdom, we are committed to continuing the process of identifying surplus assets, and that will be a feature of our recently announced strategic defence review. Whenever possible, we work closely with local authorities in determining what long-term alternative uses might be suitable for such sites, and we shall try to ensure that disposals are managed in a way that will allow the land to be returned to non-defence use as soon as possible.

RAF Burtonwood was used by the United States Army until August 1993, when it vacated the site as a result of the general withdrawal of US forces from Europe following the end of the cold war. Following that withdrawal, the Ministry of Defence considered whether the site could be used for alternative defence purposes. After much detailed consideration, it was concluded that it would not be practicable to use the site for UK defence purposes. Accordingly, a decision was taken to proceed with plans to dispose of the site, adopting an open-market strategy. I recognise that it took the Department some time to reach this conclusion, but that may be a reflection of changing assumptions at the time of the "Front Line First" study and also of the considerable efforts made to identify alternative defence uses.

RAF Burtonwood comprises some 20 hectares of covered warehousing under one roof, known as Header house, and is reputedly the largest building of its kind in Europe. The base, in its current configuration, was developed in the early 1950s for use by the United States army as a storage depot, to provide logistic support for American operations in Germany. It provided 30 warehouses, each extending to 5,000 sq m. Overall, therefore, the site provides 150,000 sq m of covered storage.

Government policy on disposal is to secure the best price that can reasonably be obtained for surplus property. Treasury guidance recognises, however, that this approach needs to be in accord with the local planning framework; and that there may also be circumstances—for instance, to do with historic buildings—in which it would be reasonable to consider wider issues. The Government's aim is also to work with local authorities and others to ensure that protecting the interests of the taxpayer does not conflict with meeting our wider employment and environmental objectives, or with local planning and social considerations.

We must recognise that any empty site such as RAF Burtonwood is a substantial burden on resources. The costs incurred in maintaining and securing empty sites are significant and ways must be found of meeting them. The early disposal of surplus property is and will continue to be a high priority. But until such time as disposal is secured, these running costs, which fall on my Department, must be considered.

In other words, there is a further element in this difficult and complex equation: the taxpayers' interest, as they have to meet these costs—in this case through the Ministry of Defence and RAF Strike Command, which is the top-level budget holder responsible for the site. My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that the costs of maintaining the site are about £16,000 a week, or over £850,000 a year.

In order to defray costs in the short term, the Department has arranged a number of short-term lettings to reduce the taxpayers' expenditure. Although, as my hon. Friend will understand, we regard the exact income that we are generating from tenants at RAF Burtonwood as commercially confidential, I can advise her that it comes to a total of nearly £1 million a year, net of costs. She will appreciate, I am sure, that that removes a not insignificant burden on the defence budget, and is ultimately of benefit to the taxpayer, too. In addition to these returns, there are about 300 people working on the site.

The current situation has come about as a result of the original disposal strategy under the previous Administration, which was to build up the commercial use of the site by completing new tenancies of three and five years' duration and then selling the site as a going concern with the benefit of good, short-term income, thereby allowing prospective purchasers to plan in the longer term for its redevelopment. It was felt then that that presented an opportunity to dispose of the site quickly while—because of the generated cash flow—meeting our obligation to maximise the return to the taxpayer.

I must stress, however, that my Department never considered that the site would be used for storage and distribution in the long term. On the contrary, it was envisaged as becoming part of the sustainable redevelopment which, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, is taking place in the Great Sankey area in general and the adjoining repair depot—the BRD site—in particular.

The local defence land agent met the Commission for the New Towns and PACE—Property Advisers to the Civil Estate—in late 1995 and early 1996 to review the strategy for the sale of Government land assets in the Burtonwood area of Warrington. As a result of those meetings, the Commission for the New Towns appointed consultants to produce a report, the Westbrook study, on the matter; it identified various benefits to be had from these public bodies co-operating in their local disposal strategies.

However, there were difficulties in progressing the study's immediate recommendations. These included problems over access arrangements to the site through the land owned by the Commission for the New Towns, and it is a matter of regret that no agreement was reached on that. As a result, PACE, which had already secured a residential planning consent, decided to proceed with the first phase of the disposal of its own site—but this action does not compromise any of the Westbrook study recommendations.

We fully recognise that the original disposal strategy led to a problem with short-term use. Considerable residential development has been taking place in the vicinity of RAF Burtonwood in recent years, and the amount of commercial use, especially the increase in HGV movements, has given rise to a considerable number of justifiable complaints from local residents about nuisance and noise, particularly at night.

It was clear that our commercial tenants created more HGV movements than those generated by the US army, whose activities primarily involved the long-term storage of war reserves and so generated relatively few vehicle movements and little on-site activity—especially as a great deal was accomplished by rail. So I understand the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend on behalf of local residents.

In May 1995, the then Minister for Defence Procurement, Roger Freeman, assured the House that there would be no intensification of activity at RAF Burtonwood, and I understand that positive steps have been taken to minimise the disturbance caused by current activities. The local defence land agent, in conjunction with the site's managing agents, has introduced a series of mitigating measures and controls. They include the imposition of stringent site rules, limiting site operating hours, night patrolling, driver training and direction of traffic flow.

We believe that these arrangements have to some extent been successful in getting rid of the worst problems. We understand that Warrington borough council has recently acknowledged that there is no current breach of environmental legislation. We are, however, fully aware that some properties in Burtonwood road still suffer some environmental impact from tenants' HGV movements.

Indeed, as my hon. Friend said, two tenants' applications for operator's licences have been refused on appeal by the north-west traffic commissioner, and another application is pending. We shall not allow any intensification of use; accordingly, we have not given, and will not give, our consent to the site being so used. I have written to my hon. Friend to confirm that, because she rightly drew my attention to the current application.

The Department has continued to examine the various disposal options, and it decided in April to appoint a firm of consultants quickly to review again the avenues available to us. They have reviewed the work undertaken and the progress made to date. They have met all the key players, including representatives of the borough council, PACE, the Commission for the New Towns and two residents' action groups. I am pleased to say that the new study is largely complete and will be presented to RAF Strike Command, the site owner, early next month.

It would be premature at this stage to prejudge the report's recommendations—but they will cover all the various options, including continuing the present B8 use and also the long-term phased development of the site for residential purposes, possibly via a development partnership between the MOD and the Commission for the New Towns or another developer. The report's recommendations will guide me when deciding what the best future disposal strategy might be, bearing in mind the need for more urgency which both my hon. Friends have stressed in today's debate. That is why I wrote to my hon. Friend on 11 June assuring her that the Department and I will consult her and other interested parties before a final decision is made.

I assure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members representing the area that we are very much aware of their concerns and those of local residents regarding the commercial activities at RAF Burtonwood. While the current permitted use of the site is for storage and distribution, it is not envisaged that that will be long-term, given the nature of development on the surrounding sites. We look forward to discussing the future of the site further once we have the new report to hand, which I hope will be in the near future.