HL Deb 06 March 1995 vol 562 cc6-9

2.53 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there is a need to extend military training areas and artillery ranges within the United Kingdom to replace the facilities which have hitherto been available abroad.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the drawdown of forces from Germany and the introduction of new weapons systems are placing significant demands on existing training areas. Some must be used more intensively and others developed to provide new infrastructure. While we have no plans at present to extend significantly the size of our military training areas, we will nevertheless consider any proposals to acquire additional or reallocate existing land on an opportunity basis.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. While it is essential to have adequate ranges and training areas, especially for our latest artillery weapons, which I understand are of high quality, does my noble friend agree that only the minimum of land should be retained or designated and that the process for deciding that should be explained fully to the public?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is right to stress that we should keep only the minimum amount of land. I can give my noble friend an assurance that the department is committed to keeping the minimal requirement necessary to train our forces to the appropriate standard. It would be a false economy to dispose of land which we still need for training our forces to the required standards so that they can perform their duties. As .regards whether we have adequately explained those processes to the public, I suspect that in the past we have not got the message over as well as we might. However, I give an assurance to my noble friend that we shall continue to seek to get over as well as we can the message explaining the absolutely vital necessity for military training in the United Kingdom.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that with the acquisition in future of the attack helicopter by the air regiments there will be a demand for air space to conduct three dimensional air warfare training? That will be in addition to ground training facilities. Can he say whether air space will be available for that purpose in the United Kingdom?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we shall always find the appropriate necessary air space or for that matter land to train our forces to the appropriate standard, whether the equipment be attack helicopters or whatever. I assure my noble friend that where possible we shall look abroad, to Canada and eastern Europe, to see whether some of the pressure on our own systems of intensive training in this country can be alleviated. There would be little point in acquiring the new attack helicopters if we could not train with them to the appropriate standard.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, given the Government's intention to reduce the Armed Forces by a large number—over one-third—is there any correlation between that and the reduction in training in this country, including low flying, making use where necessary of overseas training facilities, for example, in Canada or in eastern Europe, to make good any shortfall?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I regret to say to the noble and gallant Lord that that factor is unlikely to lead to a reduction in the amount of training in this country for the reasons that I gave in my first Answer. There is considerable drawdown in forces from Germany and fewer available lands in Germany to train our forces there. It appears that we shall have to intensify training, in particular with armoured vehicles and artillery, in this country by a quite considerable factor. As I indicated earlier, we shall seek to increase the amount of training undertaken in eastern Europe, in particular with regard to training our forces remaining in Germany for as long as that is cost efficient. We shall also continue to make use of the training grounds in Canada, again so far as possible within the environmental constraints imposed by the Canadian Government and the obvious cost constraints.

Lord Glenamara:

My Lords, if the Government wish for further training areas in the north of England, will the noble Lord bear in mind that an extension of the Otterburn training area would command almost universal local support but that an extension of the training area on the north Pennines to the east, which was recently designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, would be widely opposed?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am aware of virtual universal support within the Otterburn area of Northumberland for our proposals for developing the Otterburn training area. I can confirm that at present there are no other plans for further increases in the size of training areas in that part of the world. The noble Lord is probably referring to the Warcop training area. Developments are under way to enhance facilities there. However, as I understand it, there are no plans to increase its size. It will still be necessary to provide infantry training for forces at Catterick.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the increase in training in tracked vehicles—my noble friend says that that is made necessary by changes abroad—will greatly increase the pressures on the environment and the archaeological heritage of Salisbury Plain where much of the training will take place. Can the noble Lord assure us that the concordat reached between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Defence for the management of those heritages will be strictly adhered to and monitored?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the situation on Salisbury Plain. We hope to see considerable intensification of training there. However, I hope that by the various measures we propose to take, and the spending of quite a considerable amount of money, we shall not cause any damage either to the natural environment or to the archaeological environment to which my noble friend refers. I can confirm that there are something of the order of 2,000 archaeological sites of considerable interest on Salisbury Plain. In similar parts of the world where the Ministry of Defence has not been present for a number of years many such sites have long since been lost to the plough.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, it is not just a matter of Salisbury Plain. Did I understand the Minister to say that there would be no new area apart from the seven major training areas we have at the moment? I believe he said that the emphasis would be on more intensive use of those areas. Does he therefore accept that the ambient noise arising from training is an environmental problem, not only for Salisbury Plain but also for mid-Wales?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that noise can be a considerable problem. As regards whether there may be a new area, I think that we must wait until the full effects of the drawdown have been assessed to see what we need. At the moment it seems that there will be some intensification of use of all our major training areas in the United Kingdom.

I understand that there have been considerable complaints about noise recently, particularly on Salisbury Plain, resulting very much from in-service testing of the new gun, the AS90. A much higher charge has been used than is normally the case in training; I understand that it is referred to as charge 8. Normally, one trains with up to charge 5 or charge 6, producing a much lower noise threshold.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, will the Government continue the benign policy which has had the effect of creating places of special environmental interest within the training areas, allowing plant and wildlife to flourish undisturbed despite the shelling and use of heavy tracked vehicles?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the benign policy which the department has pursued. The shelling and the use of tracked vehicles can have a beneficial effect on occasions. I give two examples. The shelling on Salisbury Plain has done much, I understand, to improve the habitat of the Stone curlew, a species of bird of which there are few left. The birds are mostly to be found on Salisbury Plain. The shelling provides them with a habitat. I can also confirm that the tank tracks and the water that collects in them on Salisbury Plain have done much to assist development of the Fairy Shrimp.