HL Deb 30 October 1919 vol 37 cc121-8

THE EARL OF WEMYSS had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government whether they can explain the reasons which have decided the Government to do away with the East Fortune Air Station; whether they can explain the advantages possessed by the Yorkshire site to which it has been decided to transfer the East Fortune Air Station; whether they can give the total amount of public money which has been spent on this station since its inception; and further, whether they will state what proportion of the expenditure has been incurred since the Armistice, and at what date the last payment was made or liability incurred for work of any kind on this station; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I do not think it is necessary for me to make a speech in asking these Questions, as they explain themselves; but there are, perhaps, one or two points which I might ask the noble Marquess to answer as clearly as he can. I am sure that he will be able to prove to his own satisfaction (if to no one else's) that it is in the public interest that the Howden Aerodrome should take the place of the East Fortune Aerodrome; but I should particularly like to know whether or not it was ever intended that the Air Station at East Fortune should be a permanent one, because I think his own officials seem to differ on that point. I have here a copy of a letter written to the Harrington County Council, in which the Air Minister says that there was never any question of retaining East Fortune. That is a very clear statement. I turn to another statement made by Mr. Bacon, the Treasury Valuer and Inspector of Rates, who says— I may say, with regard to the Air Station at East Fortune, that the regard and buildings are merely temporary for the present war, and in all such cases the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury have, after special consideration, decided to make contributions in lieu of rates on the valuation of the land only as standing prior to the Crown occupation, and not on the temporary buildings at all. There is no variation on this practice in any part of the United Kingdom. This seems to bear out exactly the statement of the other official whom I quoted. But before the ink was dry on that letter the Government took over the East Fortune Aerodrome. They went on building and, within six months of the writing of that letter, they agreed to be assessed on the buildings for the financial year 1918–19 at an assessment of £2,100, and for the year 1919–20 they have agreed to an assessment of £2,600, thereby proving that there was no possible exception to their rule that they regarded these buildings as permanent.

I really must leave my noble friend to disentangle himself from the knot in which these two officials have tied him. It seems to me absolutely idle to pretend, or to suppose, that these buildings at East Fortune were not at some time or another meant to be permanent. Wooden huts have been turned into brick buildings not only for the men's quarters but for the officers' messes, the sergeants' mess, and for all the buildings in the place; a most perfect system of drainage has been established; four miles of roads have been made inside the place; and a railway of three-quarters of a mile has been laid out. All these things surely prove that a permanency was intended. I had meant to compare the East Fortune Aerodrome with the Howden Aerodrome, but I do not think that is necessary.

What I wish to say is this—that even supposing the noble Marquess proves to the satisfaction of your Lordships that it is in the cause of public economy and public advantage that the aerodrome at East Fortune should be superseded by the one at Howden, he is still faced with the yet greater difficulty of justifying the expenditure that has taken place on the East Fortune Aerodrome since the Armistice. Surely when the Armistice took place, and when it was known that the Germans were going to give up their air plant altogether, it must have been obvious to the simplest intelligence that two Air Stations on the North-east coast of Scotland were absolutely unnecessary. Therefore, as soon as that was understood, it would have been the duty of the Government to have done what they could to cut down expenditure by suspending any outlay on either of these aerodromes until it was settled which one the Government were going to adopt and keep as the permanent one. As a matter of fact, they went on spending money on the East Fortune Aerodrome, building houses up to the beginning of August, and I venture to say that no more unjustifiable expenditure than this could be conceived.

We have all heard the story of how, after the Armistice, in order to find employment, certain workmen engaged at an air factory were kept busy destroying the work which the other half had done, but it seems to me that the expenditure at East Fortune is more blameable. It has not even the excuse of trying to find employment. You had men engaged at a time when every builder whose services could possibly be obtained was of vital importance to employers of labour and to people who wished to build all over the country. Yet you had men building houses at an air station which the Government must have known it was extremely improbable anybody would ever live in. I think that this unnecessary expenditure requires some explanation. I will not detain your Lordships longer, as the Questions which I have placed on the Paper explain themselves.


Do I understand the noble Earl to move for Papers?




My Lords, I certainly have no cause to quarrel with the noble Earl for asking the Question which he has put to me to-day, and I only hope that in my reply I shall be able to satisfy him in respect of the information which he desires. it is quite right that the noble Earl should draw attention to a matter of this description if it appears to him that there has been a waste of public money, and I can assure him that those with whom I have the honour to work at the Air Ministry are as fully alive to the necessities of economy as he is himself. But when he asks this Question I venture to suggest to him that he should consider the immense difficulties with which every one is confronted in all these matters, and also the atmosphere which prevailed a year ago—it was a very uncertain atmosphere—during the time when the Peace Conference was coming to a decision; and when the noble Earl practically says that on November 11 it was possible to take firm and accurate decisions, I disagree with him.

I would ask him to realise that on all these questions there may be a number of proposals with which the Government were faced. There were many plans before them; there were manifold requirements which they had to fulfil; over and above that, there came—and rightly came—the great cry for economy. Consequently many of these programmes which it was considered it would be possible to undertake have had to be cut down to the lowest possible figures. I think the noble Earl will realise that in this process the programme of the Air Ministry has been most rigidly cut down. In the question of airships, perhaps, the cutting down has been of a more ruthless character than he has realised.

On the Question, divided into five points, which he has placed on the Paper, I hope I shall be able to give the noble Earl all the information that he wants. I think he is aware that, following on a Cabinet decision that the airships would be transferred from the Admiralty to the Air Ministry—they were under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty all the time, and, as a matter of fact, were handed over on October 22—there was a meeting of the Admiralty at the end of last session, at which the First Lord of the Admiralty, the First Sea Lord, Major-General Seely (representing the Air Ministry) and Air Marshal Sir H. M. Trenchard were present, together with officials, and the Admiralty stated that their requirements were one rigid airship immediately and one of the newest type, then building, to be completed. It is obvious that it was a much smaller programme than it was possible to contemplate at the earlier date.

At the date of the Armistice there were sixteen airship stations in the United Kingdom. Your Lordships will remember the frame of mind the country was in when we were plunged in the war. The question of cost was not paramount in the mind of any one, and it was quite right that it should not be paramount. It was impossible, at that date, to know exactly what our requirements with regard to airships would be, but there were sixteen airship stations throughout the United Kingdom which were suitable, some for rigid and non-rigid airships, and some for non-rigid airships only. Rigid airships are larger than non-rigid airships and require more accommodation. Consequently it is obvious that when the number of stations had to be reduced only those stations capable of accommodating rigid airships could be retained.

The Admiralty intended originally to retain four rigid airship stations, but in view of the necessity for reducing the original programme it was decided that one station only should be retained. Of the five stations which were possible—East Fortune, Howden, Cranwell, Pulham, and Kingsnorth—Howden, with its existing accommodation, will accommodate two ships of the R 38 type, which is the newest type of airship in existence at this moment, and one of the R 34 type; whereas East Fortune can accommodate only one ship of the R 38 typo, or one ship of the R 34 type. At this moment there is the R 34 itself at East Fortune. East Fortune, theoretically, can house two ships of the R 34 type, but it has already been decided, for operational purposes, that not more than one ship of this class can be accommodated in the existing shed. It means that East Fortune can only accommodate one airship, whereas Howden can accommodate two airships of the R 38 type and one of the R 34 type.

I pass to the advantages possessed by Howden over East Fortune. The sheds at Howden lend themselves more readily to expansion in the future. The reason for this is that the sheds at East Fortune are of a less height than the sheds at Howden; consequently for airships which, without being unduly imaginative, we are entitled to contemplate in the future, the sheds in existence at Howden at the moment, owing to their height, are more suitable for future expansion than those at East Fortune.

With regard to the weather conditions at East Fortune, the wind barrage which is often encountered in the mouth of the Forth is a serious difficulty to navigation. The meteorological experts would convince the noble Earl on that point. Moreover, when there is a fog in the Forth the high ground in the vicinity of East Fortune known as North Berwick Law constitutes a serious danger to an airship coming low in order to find the aerodrome; and I am sure the noble Earl, who may or may not have been up in an airship, knows the immense difficulties of landing when the atmospheric conditions are not as clear as one would like them to be. In view of the great difficulties which accompany the safe landing of immense airships, it is most important that the conformation of the surrounding country should be carefully considered; certainly in all cases where there is a question of one locality against another.

Possibly some of the criticisms have their origin in the fact that there are at East Fortune a large number of permanent brick buildings—what the noble Earl, perhaps, alluded to in his speech. It is quite true that there are a number of excellent brick buildings at East Fortune, and on the question he raises, as to whether it was intended that East Fortune should be a permanent station, I will say a few words later on. I did not gather from his speech that he makes any indictment of the buildings being of a permanent character.


What I did lay stress upon was that these brick buildings were erected in August.


I will deal with that later when I explain what was in the mind of the authorities at the time. The accommodation at Howden is of a semi-permanent character. The huts are comfortable and are built on proper foundations. Were it necessary immediately to replace the accommodation at Howden by permanent structures it would cost £60,000, whereas if it were contemplated to remove the airship sheds from Howden to East Fortune it would cost £250,000. The noble Earl will therefore realise that, in the interests of economy, it is more advantageous to take the course which will cost £60,000 and obviate a cost of £250,000.

The total amount of public money spent on this station—I am referring to East Fortune—since its inception in August, 1916, up to September 30, 1919, is £567,700 —namely, on works, buildings, land, etc., £447,700; and on machinery and plant £120,000. There are still outstanding liabilities in connection with contractors' claims and balances of accounts not yet dealt with. The estimate of that amount is £35,000. I feel sure the noble Earl will realise that in all these undertakings with contractors a great deal of the difficulty which the Air Ministry (and other Ministries) has been faced with is the ending of contracts, the liquidation of contracts; bringing to a close, with the best possible advantage to the State, all those contracts to which we were committed when the Armistice was signed. These claims and balances of accounts are being closely considered, and it is anticipated with confidence that they will be brought to a close at a comparatively early date.

Of the total sum expended, £77,330 has been paid since the Armistice—the noble Earl will realise that a certain amount of that payment was due on commitments before the Armistice which it was impossible to evade or escape—namely, on works, buildings, lands, etc., £43,330; on machinery and plant, £34,000 —a total of £77,330. This sum is included in the total which I have given of £567,700. It has not been possible in the time available to obtain an exact analysis of this expenditure—it will be forthcoming—or to say how much was used in the completion of contracts, the cancellation of which would have saved only a small sum, while causing a large reduction in the disposal value of the buildings. That touches a question to which the noble Earl alluded—namely, that all these aerodromes have a potential value for liquidation purposes, and it is impossible to say that any one can lay rigidly down that East Fortune will never be required as an aerodrome. It is quite true that as regards service requirements at this present moment the only aerodrome which is required is Howden, but I am not sure that I or anybody else call say definitely that none of these aerodromes will be made use of in the future for the purpose of commercial aviation and undertakings of that description. If the noble Earl will carry that in his mind, and remember that it is no cheaper to give up a contract, because compensation has to be paid, whereas by the carrying out of the contract there is a possibility of an additional value being given to the undertaking for the purposes of the Disposal Board, I think he will see that the expenditure on East Fortune can certainly be said to have been justified.

The date on which the last payment was made was, I am informed, August 5, and the decision, to which I have drawn the noble Earl's attention, which was come to that Howden would be selected rather than East Fortune, was arrived at on August 19. The liability incurred on August 5, 1919, was for an amount of £831, for lime store and meter house in connection with the extension of hydrogen plant. I feel sure that the noble Earl will realise that R 34 is at this moment at East Fortune and cannot be said to be altogether completed. If it is necessary to shut down these works in the immediate future it means that large SUMS for additional labour will have to be expended on R 34. I trust that in my answers to the noble Earl I have given him a reply to all the questions which he has put, and I sincerely hope that I have given him a satisfactory reply to his desire for knowledge on this subject.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Marquess for the very full and fair way in which he has answered my questions, and I am bound to say that I personally, and I think a great many other people, will be very much relieved as well as surprised to hear that the expenditure on East Fortune Aerodrome has not amounted to more than half-a-million pounds. We certainly thought it was a great deal more, and I am extremely glad to hear that it is not. I think the noble Marquess has made out a case for Howden in some ways, but as a native of the county in which East Fortune is situated I must enter a protest against his description of my county as being a foggy place. I venture to say that it is considerably freer from fogs than any part of Yorkshire. Of course, we have sea fogs. I should also like to know whether there has ever been an accident to any airship, large or small, when landing in the aerodrome at East Fortune. I think I should have heard of it had there been. I spared your Lordships the reading of this letter which I hold in my hand, which gives a most gloomy account of Howden, as a place situated in a swamp and as being altogether unpleasant. I do not know whether that account is true, because I have not had it authenticated. I will not, however, dwell upon it. In conclusion I thank the noble Marquess once more, and ask leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.