HC Deb 22 January 2004 vol 416 cc1558-66

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

6 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)

We move from one subject of crucial importance to servicemen and women and their families to another that is crucial to service families in Northumberland and to the whole community there. I refer to the future of RAF Boulmer.

RAF Boulmer has been part of the life of Northumberland, much cherished and supported by the local community for 50 years. It began even earlier as a wartime dummy airfield providing a decoy for RAF Acklington in my constituency—long since closed, but still warmly remembered. Boulmer, on the other hand, grew to be a very significant station and now has a fourfold mission: maintaining a core air defence capacity; supporting a deployable air command and control system; providing a school of fighter control training; and continuing the search and rescue activities of 202 Squadron.

Those tasks, which everyone acknowledges are carried out to the highest standards, involve more than 600 RAF personnel and nearly 200 civilians, generating about £20 million a year in income to the local economy. The station has massive support from the local community and many of its personnel devote their time to community, sporting, youth and voluntary organisations in the area. The possibility of the base closing was thus greeted with dismay when it emerged as one of the potential outcomes of the future basing study that is being carried out as part of the strategic defence review. That has been unsettling for service families and the local community, a fact that the Secretary of State acknowledged when he replied to me in the defence debate on 11 September last year.

The final proposals emerging from the review, dealing with four RAF stations with support roles, will soon land on the Minister's desk. I appreciate that at this stage he cannot anticipate decisions or give assurances about a report that he has not yet considered, but now is the moment to make sure that he understands why any outcome involving closure of RAF Boulmer would be a dreadful and very expensive mistake that would also have disastrous consequences for the local economy in Northumberland.

Two of the options presented in the review would close RAF Boulmer by 2012. Each would require very heavy capital expenditure to re-provide Boulmer's facilities elsewhere for no measurable gain in operating efficiency or revenue expenditure. That has to be bad news for any Secretary of State for Defence who is trying to ensure that money is used efficiently to equip and support our forces, and is not wasted. The investment that would have to be re-provided includes nearly £5 million-worth of recent investment, currently being completed in the fighter control school and the control and reporting centre.

Clearly, the first priority has to be the RAF's operational requirements. Only if they can continue to be met effectively at a given site can the benefits to the local economy of staying there become a factor to be considered; but there is absolutely no doubt that RAF Boulmer can fulfil its mission effectively at its present location.

I shall examine the various aspects in turn—first, the helicopters of 202 search and rescue Squadron. They are the well known public face of the RAF in the region—and rightly so, because of the exceptionally courageous and dedicated rescue work that they do, as well as their particularly close links with the community. They can regularly be seen at community events throughout the area, but are just as frequently to be seen flying on crucial rescue missions over sea and land. I recently had the privilege of presenting the Queen's commendation for bravery to a crew member for his amazing work in a rescue in appalling sea conditions at Amble. Those men are heroes to the local and seafaring communities.

It seems clear that, whatever else happens, the search and rescue operation will need to remain at Boulmer for the foreseeable future. Its location is dictated by the operating range of the Sea King helicopters, which need to be where they are to cover the area for which they are responsible. Until the Sea Kings are replaced—and I am not sure that a replacement is even on the drawing board—there will have to be a station at Boulmer with basic services, though it would be a very small station, if that were all it had. It therefore makes sense to continue to locate other activities there if that can be done efficiently.

That brings me to the traditional function of the station—air defence in the form of the command-and-control system. That does not have the high profile that it did in the cold war, but it is still essential to the protection of our citizens. That, and the suitability of the Boulmer site for it, have just been recognised by the investment of £1.5 million in upgrading the bunker from which it operates. Despite this investment, the basing study canvasses the idea that we should move away from fixed bunkers to above-ground facilities. "Get away from the bunker environment" is the phrase that it uses. It is difficult to see any significant advantage in that, and there is a further disadvantage. Given the known threat of terrorist attack, the bunker is far easier to defend and far more capable of withstanding attack than any above-ground or mobile facility.

The further argument for moving the control and reporting centre to a flying station is to increase informal contact between controllers and air crew. That can be achieved in other ways and it is, at best, only a marginal benefit to be set against very large costs. Moreover, the Minister will be aware that No. 1 Air Control Centre—a deployable facility that is housed at RAF Boulmer—performed magnificently in Iraq without the need for any prior co-location with a flying base. By its mobile nature, it could obviously be housed on another station and might have the advantage of being closer to its departure airfield or port, but location was clearly not a problem in effective deployment in Iraq. In the time scale required for the kind of operation for which it would be needed, there would be ample time to move the facility to its embarkation point.

The largest recent investment at RAF Boulmer is the extension of the fighter control school where £3.3 million is being spent. It is obviously sensible to co-locate that with the control and reporting centre. To move the whole thing lock, stock and barrel to RAF Scampton, which has been closed for 10 years, would mean spending not only another £3 million but millions more. It is not only capital costs that are involved. I see no prospect of savings on current expenditure from such a move, especially when one takes into account the fact that RAF Boulmer has been relatively successful among larger bases in achieving low maintenance costs as a proportion of total site budget.

In my discussions with the review team, it was pointed out that £6 million of capital expenditure for new single airmen's accommodation would be needed if Boulmer remained in use. However, when I pressed the team, it admitted that a similar amount would have to be spent for the same purpose at any other station to which Boulmer's activities were moved. It is in no way a factor in the argument either way, and I hope that the Minister will note that.

The removal of RAF Boulmer's activities would be a massively expensive and hugely wasteful commitment of scarce resources for a minimal—not even measurable—operational benefit, and perhaps no benefit at all. It would be entirely contrary to Ministers' declared objective of achieving value for money; it would be in conflict with the Secretary of State's declared views about the importance of the defence footprint needing to be present in different parts of the United Kingdom; and it would be in conflict with Government regeneration policies for the north-east. It is impossible to think of regeneration measures that would be adequate to fill the gap left if RAF Boulmer closed. Indeed, if there were such policies, I presume that the Government would already be pursuing them to deal with the existing weaknesses of the economy in Northumberland.

Northumberland county council commissioned a study from the centre for urban and regional development studies at the university of Newcastle upon Tyne. I hope the Minister will give me an assurance that he will study its conclusions carefully when he considers the review proposals. If he has not got a copy, I have a spare one with me that I can easily let him have. The study points out that RAF Boulmer is easily the largest single employer in the Alnwick and Amble travel-tow-work area. If RAF Boulmer were to close, it would cause severe and sustained damage to what the study calls a relatively isolated, small and fragile local economy. The results that it identifies from closure include the loss of 800 jobs, including 184 civilian posts; the loss of £18 million of local income in salaries; the loss of a £1 million a year maintenance budget of which the overwhelming majority is thought to be locally spent; and the loss of £500,000 capital expenditure each year, of which a significant proportion is spent on the wages of locally based construction workers. It would also shrink the local economy with the loss of an estimated 195 further jobs. The scale of the potential job loss would be equivalent to 10 per cent. of all jobs in the local travel-to-work area.

The study describes the site as being in a relatively isolated, low-productivity and low-wage area of Northumberland—itself a peripheral county with an exceptionally weak economy and low levels of wealth generation. Those facts are well known to the Government Departments involved in regeneration work in the area and, I hope, to the Ministry of Defence as well. The travel-to-work area also has comparatively high levels of employment in agriculture and tourism, as well as being dependent on RAF employment. Many of the vacancies in the local economy are part-time, short term or seasonal. As a result, the ability of the wider local economy to absorb job losses is exceptionally weak. Disposing of the site for a civilian purpose would be most unlikely to create anything like the number of jobs that would be lost.

Closure could have other significant negative effects on the community of Longhoughton and the wider district. They include a likely reduction in the population—particularly of full-time resident families, with family homes likely to be occupied by smaller households; the closure of local shops, personal services and other affected businesses; the closure of social, community and welfare services associated with the base—including potentially the health centre, sports hall, squash courts, community centre and crèche; and a threat to the future viability of the village school at Longhoughton, which draws 75 per cent. of its pupils from base families.

I had the pleasure recently of opening a nursery facility alongside the school at Longhoughton, which is much used by RAF and local families. Its viability depends on the shared involvement of the RAF in the local community. There would be a reduction in demand for local services in the surrounding area, including the town of Alnwick.

We all recognise that the Minister's first consideration must be the operational effectiveness of the RAF but there is no question but that that can be fully maintained by keeping RAF Boulmer and that little or no operational benefit could be gained from moving and re-providing its facilities elsewhere. The Minister must also consider value for money. The best value for money would be to gain from the investment already made at Boulmer, rather than throwing it away to repeat it elsewhere. It would certainly not be joined-up government to land other Departments, regional bodies and local authorities with a crisis to which they have no available solution by taking hundreds of jobs and £20 million of income out of the local economy.

The case is clear. I hope that Ministers and senior officials are now fully aware of it. I do not expect the Minister to make judgments tonight about a study that he is supposed to be approaching with an open mind but it would be helpful if he could indicate how long the process is expected to take and when we are likely to get a result in order to remove the anxieties felt in both the RAF and the local community. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate that he will keep the factors that I have described in mind and that he fully appreciates the value of RAF Boulmer, its effectiveness and the value-for-money aspects of the case that I have put.

6.13 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this debate on an issue of great importance to him and his constituents. I am grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the personnel of RAF Boulmer. I notice that the right hon. Gentleman pronounced it "Boomer". I understand that in other parts of the region it is pronounced "Bulmer" but I will use the right hon. Gentleman's pronunciation.

Mr. Beith

My experience is that throughout the RAF it is known as RAF "Bulmer" but throughout the local community it is known as RAF "Boomer". That is the only difference I am conscious of between the RAF and the local community.

Mr. Ingram

I am not going to pursue the matter but, in the spirit of accommodating the right hon. Gentleman as far as I can this evening, I shall use the pronunciation that he recommends. However, I am pleased to have the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the personnel at the station, and at the other air surveillance and control system units. The ASACS community plays a vital role in the air defence of the UK and in the control of our aircraft on operations, but this role is not perhaps recognised as often as it might be.

As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed pointed out, RAF Boulmer, with a strength of some 600 service personnel and nearly 200 civilians, hosts a number of units. First, it is the home of the school of fighter control, where all RAF fighter controllers learn their craft. The school runs more than 40 different courses and, on average, trains some 850 students each year.

Secondly, the station is the garrison home of No. 1 Air Control Centre, which stands ready to deploy, at short notice, anywhere in the world. No. 1 ACC is currently in the process of withdrawing from Iraq. It has spent eight strenuous but highly successful months policing the airspace over Iraq and providing an air traffic control service for the area. I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to the professionalism and dedication of its men and women.

RAF Boulmer is also base to A flight of 202 Squadron, which has been based at the station since 1978. The flight performs a vital search-and-rescue role that I know is greatly valued in the local area. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned the importance of that function. Last year, the unit was involved in the rescue of 194 people. Already this year, a further seven people have been rescued.

In May 2000, my predecessor as Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), announced that Boulmer, along with RAF Neatishead, would become one of two control and reporting centres. Their role is to maintain a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year watch on UK airspace.

As a consequence of this decision, RAF Buchan will draw down to a remote radar head, starting in November this year. This change was brought about by greatly improved technology that means that we no longer need three centres to protect UK airspace. As part of that process, RAF Boulmer is currently being updated to this new standard. The station is expected to become operational using the new equipment by around the middle of this year.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the MOD could be accused of wasting money by installing new equipment in RAF Boulmer, even though it might be closed. It is important to point out that the new equipment is essential to maintaining the station's current operational capability until the enhanced NATO air command and control system is available. The timetable for that has been delayed, and we need to install new equipment in the meantime to ensure operational effectiveness. The aim of the update is to maintain operational capability for the next five or six years. If Boulmer is to be closed, it will not happen until after the end of that period.

However, time—and technology—moves on. As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, my Department keeps its requirements under constant review, in order to ensure that we operate in the most efficient and effective way possible, both operationally and financially. The House will recall, for example, the strategic review of RAF Brize Norton, RAF Lyneham and RAF St. Mawgan, the results of which I announced in July last year.

As part of that continuing process, I announced on 14 August 2003 that my Department would conduct a review of the future location of the air combat service support units based at a number of locations throughout the UK. The review also encompasses the ASACS units located at RAF Boulmer and RAF Neatishead, and a number of other minor units. The particular units at RAF Boulmer included in the review are the control and reporting centre, the school of fighter control and No. 1 ACC.

The role of the air combat service support units is to support deployed and joint operations, for example through the provision of logistics and communications facilities. For those units, the need for a review was driven by the move to expeditionary operations, which has highlighted the need for them to work and train both together and with other parts of the RAF.

In the case of the ASACS units, work carried out by the military experts at RAF strike command suggested that there would be benefit in bringing personnel on to the RAF's main operating bases. There were two principal reasons behind that recommendation. The first was that, given the increasingly expeditionary nature of modern warfare, in any conflict the fighter controllers manning the control and reporting centres were likely to find themselves operating above ground, in conditions quite different from those to be found in a bunker. That was, for example, the case during Operation Telic in Iraq. It therefore makes sense that they should operate, as far as possible, in a similar environment in the UK. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there were any dangers associated with that. The best advice, on the basis of a military assessment, is that no insurmountable security problems would be linked to locating ACRC outside a bunker.

The second principal reason is that, for very good reasons, the control and reporting stations were originally constructed near the coast, away from airfields. As a result, aircrew rarely meet the air traffic controllers and the fighter controllers based there whose responsibility it is to guide aircrew. That is clearly not ideal in terms of achieving a close understanding and team spirit between the aircrew and controllers, something that is vital in operational conditions.

The advent of robust communication links now allows the RAF to place its fighter controllers wherever they can be most effective. In the light of that, the review team was tasked with looking at the possibility of moving personnel on to other RAF sites. That work is consistent with the implementation of the Department's estate strategy, launched in 2000, which seeks to rationalise the defence estate as a corporate whole in accordance with the requirements of the armed forces.

Mr. Beith

Modern communications also enable contact between flying personnel and controllers, and familiarity with each other could be achieved in a variety of ways. The high cost of moving one base to another has to be set against the benefit, which could be achieved in other ways.

Mr. Ingram

I shall come to the issue of the investment appraisal approach. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would accept that the co-location concept, with people working together as a team, is preferable to remote relationships, because of the interdependence of the work.

The review of the defence estate has been conducted in an open manner. All hon. Members with stations in their constituencies that may be affected have been offered briefings on the study. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has taken up this offer and was briefed last month by my officials on options being considered by the review team.

The options that impact on RAF Boulmer include two options whereby the ASACS units would remain at RAF Boulmer, one that would move them to RAF Scampton and another that would move the control and reporting centre and the school of fighter control to RAF Waddington and No. 1 ACC to RAF Wittering. The right hon. Gentleman will have noted that one of the options has changed slightly since he was briefed in December. The study team had previously considered Coningsby as a possible base for much of what is currently at Boulmer. That was subsequently changed in favour of Scampton, as he mentioned. Under all the options it has been assumed that the search and rescue flight would remain at Boulmer along with the radar head, and I must stress that it is likely that RAF Boulmer will remain until the end of the decade at least.

As the House would expect, the military impact of each of the options under consideration will be a key factor in any decision, as the right hon. Gentleman recognised. It is, however, very far from being the only one. The paper that will be presented to me will include a socio-economic assessment of the regional impact of the recommended option and the results of an environmental impact assessment. It will also include the outcome of a detailed investment appraisal. I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about the cost of relocating the school of fighter control and single living accommodation, but both of those issues will be taken into account in the investment appraisal that will accompany the study. An intensive analysis will be made of those points. Last, and by no means least, it will include the views of the local authorities whose areas are likely to be affected. I am conscious of the report by the local authority in the area that the right hon. Gentleman represents, and it will genuinely be taken into consideration.

In conducting the study, my officials have consulted widely. Trade unions have been consulted informally and my decision, once made, will be subject to formal consultation with them. A briefing was also held for all affected local authorities at RAF Strike Command last September and that was followed up by individual briefings for those councils that wanted them. All local authorities were invited to submit comments on the options. The purpose of the consultation is to ensure that the impact of each option on the affected local areas is known so that I can take it into consideration in reaching my decision. The report will be brought to my attention and I shall consider it as part of my overall assessment of the balance of the argument.

As part of the consultation process, a public meeting was held at Alnwick in November 2003. The meeting was attended by local councillors and by members of the public and was, I understand, widely reported in the local press. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the anxiety that was generated by the announcement, and I know that some of the reporting suggested that the closure of Boulmer was a foregone conclusion. I am grateful for this opportunity to reassure the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents that that is not the case. I have yet to see the study recommendations, but when I do so I will consider carefully all the points made to me, including those he made during the debate. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, the MOD is constantly criticised for not doing things efficiently and effectively—it is the current mantra. However, as a Department, we undertake reviews to ensure that we are using our resources, people and money in the best way. It simply is not possible to do things better without change and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that when the decisions are taken, they will not be taken lightly. The flavour of his contribution to the debate shows that he understands that, and I am grateful for his recognition of the fact that the review was carried out carefully and responsibly.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the time scale for the review. His best guess is that it is imminent, but I cannot give him the time scale at present. Given the nature and scope of the study, the cost implications and the need for them to be considered in the investment appraisal, it will take some time. When dealing with such reviews, I take the view that I should consider only the mature conclusions. It is better for me to have the best answers on which to base my decisions. Even when conclusions are reached, I may not necessarily decide in favour of them. I may bring other judgments to bear. That is how I try to carry out my ministerial functions.

I am grateful for the contribution that the right hon. Gentleman has made to the debate, and assure him that everything he said will be fully taken into account.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Six o'clock.