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RAF Lyneham

1 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I have not secured the debate to seek to discover the outcome of the study that the Ministry of Defence is undertaking, or to hasten its publication. The Department's officials hope to submit the study to their Ministers by 18 April, and the Ministers hope to produce an outcome based on that report by the summer. That timeframe is acceptable to those of us who live near RAF Lyneham and who seek ways of ensuring that the base remains open, and as profitable and active as it is at the moment.

The purpose of the debate is not to hasten the outcome of the study, but to have some input into it. Wiltshire county council, North Wiltshire district council, and local parish councils such as Calne, Lyneham and Wootton Bassett, are keen to play an active part in consultations during the preparation of the report rather than after its publication.

With regard to that matter, I take great encouragement from a written reply that I recently received from the Minister. I asked what discussions the Ministry of Defence has with other Departments when it considers the closure, partial sale or relocation of a military base. He answered:


So far, that does not seem to have been the case with regard to Wiltshire county council and North Wiltshire district council. A recent meeting that they held at RAF Strike Command led them to form the impression that they would be consulted only after the report had been produced, merely about the effects and consequences of its recommendations.

I wish the Minister to take the opportunity to re-confirm that he will make active use of the expertise of Wiltshire county council and North Wiltshire district council—and of myself—during the remainder of the period for preparing the report, although I accept that that cannot be done with regard to strategic and secret matters. If the Minister states that that will be the case, I will pass on that glad news to my colleagues in Wiltshire.

With the intention of informing the report, an ad hoc committee in my constituency—whose members include several retired RAF officers and representatives of all the local authorities—has composed a detailed and technical report in the past few months. I handed a copy of it to the Minister before the debate. We hope that he will take it fully into consideration when he reaches conclusions on the Department's report.

The ad hoc committee's report sets out the severe economic effects that the closure of RAF Lyneham would have on my constituency; it would do, wouldn't it? There are 2,500 RAF personnel at the base, and 750 civilian employees. Assuming that most of those people have families, it is fair to estimate that about 10,000 people in my constituency owe their livelihoods directly to the RAF—and we must also remember the schools, shops, entertainments, churches and other services and organisations that cater for them.

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Wiltshire county council's economic appraisal study, which is appendix 1 to the report, concludes that the local economy would lose about £75 million per annum if the base were closed. I acknowledge that, if the Hercules fleet were withdrawn, something else of greater economic benefit might replace it. However, one merely needs to glance at similar places where a large military base has closed to see that it might take several years of extreme economic hardship before the area recovers. Corsham in my constituency is a good example of that. After the Army pulled out, it suffered great social deprivation and hardship for approximately 10 years. The economy of the town is now picking up again, partly because the Defence Communications Services Agency is based there. Nobody—including the Minister's hon. Friends who represent the town of Swindon—would want the Corsham experience to be repeated around Lyneham.

We appreciate that, although the Minister wishes to take such economic consequences into account in coming to his conclusions, his role is to address the strategic issues involved in deciding where the plane should be based. The report that I handed to him this morning attempts to do that. There is no point in us simply saying, "If you close our base, it will cost us thousands of jobs," because the response would be, "Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?" Therefore, our report seeks to make a useful and dispassionate contribution to the strategic considerations of the debate.

There are several important strategic issues that the Minister should take into account. He is aware that the airmen and airwomen of RAF Lyneham play an outstanding and crucial role in the defence of the nation. The modern, manoeuvrist expeditionary type of warfare, which was highlighted in the strategic defence review, would not be possible without the unsung heroes of our military transport fleet. They are involved in conflict of every kind, and they pride themselves on being the first in and the last out. We salute them.

We are proud of the eight Hercules planes that are serving in Afghanistan, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that they always have the best possible equipment for such deployments. I am also proud that the first Lyneham airman was recently awarded the DSE for his outstanding heroism.

The new plane—the C130J—is settling in extremely well. Recently, I tried out its simulator. My constituents, including those who live directly under the flight path, are proud of the contribution that they make to the defence of the realm. Every air base is subjected to criticism from a few local people about aircraft noise, but most of my constituents would say, "We are used to the Hercules planes, we are comfortable with the noise that they make, and we are proud that our area is able to make that contribution to the defence of the realm." Remarkably little fuss is made about aircraft noise in the area—even in the village of Bradenstoke, which is directly under the flight path.

Local people would welcome it if the A400M fleet were housed at Lyneham—although that would depend on the German Government being able to sort out the current difficulties about its procurement. We hope that, by the deadline of 31 March, we will hear that we are to buy it—and that the 8,000 or so jobs in the west country that depend upon that are secured.

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If Lyneham were to get the A400M—or whatever might replace it—we would welcome that. We have had detailed consultations with its manufacturers, and other oganisations, and we believe that RAF Lyneham is ideally suited to accommodate the A400M.

Recently, there have been strange briefings that the runways at Lyneham are 10 m or 20 m too short for the A400M. Airbus has assured me that, not only is the main runway entirely suitable for all take-offs and landings under all conditions irrespective of how heavily the plane might be laden, but, crucially, that the second runway at Lyneham is equally strategically usable for the A400M under all circumstances. Lyneham has two runways from which the planes can take off and land, but Brize Norton has only one. Hangar space, married and single accommodation, and other aspects of the infrastructure at Lyneham are also suitable to accommodate the A400M fleet, although they could do with upgrading.

Another strategic consideration is that it would be foolish to locate all our air transport assets at one base. That would present a marvellous target to an enemy state, or to terrorists—about whom we are currently very concerned. If we house all our strategic tanker aircraft, the A400Ms, and the Hercules fleet at Brize Norton, it would become an extraordinarily attractive target. From that point of view, and that of interchangeability with regard to weather conditions, it is sensible to have two transport air bases rather than one.

We are concerned about the environmental impact that would result if Lyneham closed and the planes went to Brize Norton. In recent written answers, the Minister has acknowledged that there is no spare accommodation for either single or married people at Brize Norton. Many Brize Norton airmen are not housed in RAF accommodation. That also applies at Lyneham, where many RAF staff are housed in local private accommodation.

If Lyneham were to close and roughly 10,000 people were redeployed to Brize Norton the effect would be something like a new town being built, presumably on greenfield sites around Brize Norton. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who is the Member of Parliament for the area, would not be happy with that proposal. There would also be a marked increase in road traffic in the narrow lanes around Brize. Road and rail communications to Lyneham are by comparison very good; it is near not only railways but the M4. There would also be a huge increase in aircraft noise around Brize, and aircraft movements would more than double. Currently there are about 33,000 air movements a year from Brize, and about 36,000 from Lyneham. That would make a total of 69,000 air movements a year—230 take-offs and landings a day—from Brize Norton. I am certain that the inhabitants of the area would not be happy about that.

On the financial attractions, the only reason for making such a closure—I do not say that it will take place—is for the Treasury to gain financial benefits from it. The operational savings implied in concentrating two bases in one would be relatively marginal and would

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certainly be offset by the huge capital cost of the move. Building the 2,000 or 3,000 houses needed would cost an enormous amount of money, and it would cost a fortune to move Lyneham's five air simulators. The Army might try to take over the redundant RAF base, in which case there would be no capital gain for the Treasury anyway. There would be huge daily costs for the RAF but no gain. We believe that the financial benefits to the Treasury are largely illusory, or at least extremely marginal. The economic and social impact on my constituency would be huge.

We are as dispassionate as we can be in our report, but we believe that there are powerful strategic and environmental reasons for opposing an amalgamation of our transport fleet and the closure of RAF Lyneham. Of course, I do not expect the Minister to give us any assurances today. It would be wrong for him to do so. I am sure that he will be careful in his response and tell us that he is looking into the matter and that it is extremely interesting. That is as it should be; I do not want to force him into a premature announcement.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on our report—a detailed, careful work in which we have tried to avoid special pleading on behalf of RAF Lyneham. It is intended to be a balanced consideration of all the issues that he will have to think about in the next month or two. I hope that he will consider all my points, and take action to ensure that local people, the local councils and I are fully involved in that consideration.

We do not pretend that we do not want the Minister to conclude that the A400M should be based at RAF Lyneham. If he does not come to that conclusion, we hope that he will at the very least decide that the remaining C130J fleet should continue to be based there. We want him to agree that there is strategic importance in having two tactical transport air bases, and that having one would be a huge strategic error. We hope that he will listen to what local people have to say in the report, and that when he considers the matter in the next month or two, he will conclude that, setting aside the economic consequences for my constituency if the base were to close, there are overwhelmingly important strategic reasons for keeping both bases open and basing the A400M at Lyneham. We accept that the strategic tanker aircraft will be based at Brize. We hope that he will decide that the nation should have two transport air bases. By that means, it can avoid setting an obvious target for enemies of the state, including terrorists.

1.14 pm

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram) : I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing a debate on a matter that is of considerable importance to the community around Lyneham. I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the station and to set out in more detail the background to, and the way forward on, the strategic review on the future use of three airfields, RAF Lyneham, RAF Brize Norton and RAF St. Mawgan.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about RAF Lyneham's current role and join him in paying tribute to the station. RAF Lyneham has a long and illustrious history and was established in May 1940. There is little doubt that the units at RAF Lyneham

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make a considerable contribution today. It is currently home to the entire RAF Hercules force, which presently comprises five squadrons, 54 aircraft and approximately 2,500 service and 760 civilian personnel. Lyneham is also the base of the Hercules reserve aircrew, No. 47 Air Despatch Squadron of the Royal Logistic Corps, the United Kingdom Mobile Air Movements Squadron, No. 4626 Aeromedical Evacuation Royal Auxiliary Squadron, and the tactical medical wing, which provides primary medical and dental care to deployed RAF units.

My colleagues and I are aware of the contribution that the station makes to the defence of the country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence visited Lyneham last month to meet the personnel who work there. He was impressed by all that he saw. I know that the station is held in high regard by the local community and, in turn, greatly appreciates the support that it receives in the area. However, life moves on, and if we are to deliver the best defence available within our resources we must constantly review and revalidate our assumptions and change when necessary to reflect new situations. The strategic review on the future roles of RAF stations Lyneham, Brize Norton and St. Mawgan, which I announced on 9 November, is one strand of that approach.

The RAF is undergoing its most comprehensive aircraft re-equipment programme for decades. Some 25 Hercules C130J aircraft have been introduced at RAF Lyneham in recent years, and in the next 10 years the future strategic tanker aircraft, the Nimrod MRA4, the Eurofighter Typhoon, airborne stand-off radar—ASTOR—and the A400M, which has already been mentioned, will be introduced into service.

As I announced at the time, the strategic review is driven by the anticipated arrival of new aircraft for the air-to-air refuelling and air transport fleets. At the end of the decade, the VC10 and TriStar based at Brize Norton are due to be replaced by the future strategic tanker aircraft private finance initiative service. The Hercules C130K based at RAF Lyneham and the C17, also based at Brize Norton, are due to be replaced by the A400M. In both cases, the introduction of the new aircraft will result in smaller but more capable fleets, and modern best practice maintenance arrangements mean that fewer ground crew will be required. It makes sense for us to review our present arrangements, given that changing profile. St. Mawgan has been included in the review because it has spare capacity and it is appropriate for us to consider that at the same time.

Let me lay a couple of ghosts to rest. Contrary to what some people may claim, the review is not a Treasury-driven cost-cutting exercise, although I appreciate that that was not the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument; nor are we seeking to identify the most expensive base to close it down. We are ensuring that the basing arrangements for the arrival of the new aircraft make the best and most cost-effective use of available resources. The House would expect no less and all colleagues who have an interest in the delivery of the defence of the realm will recognise that that is the way forward. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged the need for that approach.

As I said in November, the strategic review will take into account the decision that I announced earlier this month to base a future strategic tanker aircraft at RAF

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Brize Norton. To put that in context, both bidders for the prospective private finance initiative programme proposed the continued use of RAF Brize Norton as a main operating base for the FSTA. On this occasion, my Department accepts the industry's best commercial judgment. Brize Norton has the appropriate facilities including, uniquely, a fuel hydrant system, which is essential to run an efficient air-to-air refuelling operation, and the appropriate expertise in the field.

The strategic review has a long way to go before any final decisions are reached, probably early in the summer. In that context, it would be helpful if I set out the review's terms of reference, so that they are well understood. The review is being carried out by RAF Strike Command, which is looking at the optimum basing solution for the A400M aircraft and for the Hercules C130J that will remain in service alongside the new transport aircraft. It will examine the provision of collective training for deployed operations currently based at RAF St. Mawgan and the benefits of wider commercialisation at all three stations. It will also look at the best location to base the search and rescue force headquarters, currently sited at RAF St. Mawgan. Finally, following from that work, the review will make a recommendation on whether there is a continuing need for all three stations. I state categorically that it does not follow that RAF Lyneham's future is in doubt just because a decision has been taken to base the future strategic tanker aircraft at Brize Norton.

The review is divided into two phases. The first phase involves collecting information on the current tasks undertaken at each station and their associated costs; establishing the irreducible or other spare capacity that might exist; looking at the current planned future use for each base; identifying the potential commercial interest in each site and establishing the optimum base for the A400M.

Phase two comprises the analysis of the data gathered in phase one, taking into account the decision taken to base the future strategic tanker aircraft at RAF Brize Norton and whatever recommendation the review may reach on the basing of the A400M aircraft. Phase two will seek to identify the most cost-effective basing solution for the Hercules C130J fleet, the benefits of wider commercialisation at each station and the future roles of each unit. The study began on 15 November 2001. I hope that phase one will be completed within the next few weeks, with the final report due in early summer.

To inform the review, full economic and investment appraisals are being undertaken. They will identify the economic situation around the unit, assess, as closely as possible, the amount of income the unit provides to the local economy and, in the case of the investment appraisal, look at the current and probable future costs of the options available. Before the debate, the hon. Gentleman passed me a copy of a detailed report published by local interests, for which I am grateful, as the analysis will help the assessment that is being undertaken.

The three options before the review apply equally to any of the three stations, the first being to maximise the military use of the station. If a station is adjudged to have, or to be likely to have, spare capacity, it would involve the relocation of units from other bases with the possible disposal of all or part of another site. However,

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there is always a case for keeping a judicious amount of spare capacity available somewhere in the defence estate to provide flexibility for contingency operations.

The second option is commercial exploitation. The irreducible spare capacity, essentially the spare capacity to which I referred, can be marketed either by direct contacts with organisations or through a strategic partnership. The aim would be to maximise revenue to the benefit of the public purse while retaining primacy over the airfield, so that civil activity could be suspended to allow full military use if necessary. The third option, which is very much last on the list, is disposal of all parts of a site. Such a move would follow only a full review of the options for the site, including the possibility of use by another service.

I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that what I have outlined represents a substantial piece of work. He is right to say that it would be wrong to expect me to give him an answer today; this is not the forum in which that is normally done. It would also be wrong of me to prejudge conclusions on the basis of our short examination of the subject today. However, I want to make it clear that we are a long way from making a decision to close a station. A decision has not yet been taken on where the A400M will be based, but even if that were not RAF Lyneham, it would not automatically follow that Lyneham would close. As I outlined, many other factors would have to come into play before such a conclusion was reached.

Understandably, there has been much public interest in the study that we are undertaking. The report reflects that. That is why the Department is committed to engage stakeholders in the review, including local

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authorities, civilian and military station personnel, and the trade unions that represent civilian personnel at a station. That consultation is well under way. In the past fortnight, personnel from RAF Strike Command who are charged with undertaking the review have visited all three units to talk to station personnel and trade union representatives. Those events were well attended.

The hon. Gentleman talked about consulting wider interests. On 29 January, review team members met local authority and regional development agency representatives from all three areas where the stations are sited. The aim of that consultation was to allow local authorities to highlight any issues or concerns about the review. If authorities have suggestions for a station's future use, including opportunities for commercial exploitation, they will be most welcome with regard to our assessment of the way forward. A further round of consultations with local councils will take place next month.

I was a little perplexed when the hon. Gentleman said that councils and other interests felt that they were out of the loop or pushed aside when it came to the early determinations. I hope that I have reassured him that we are taking a detailed consultative approach. I will take on board his concerns and ensure that what I am saying marries up with what is happening on the ground.

We do not underestimate the review's importance to communities around the stations, including Lyneham. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that the review will take full account of the representations that have been made, not least those set out in the report that he passed to me. We plan to continue the review in a spirit of openness and in that spirit I am grateful for the opportunity that this debate has afforded me to set out the Department's position. It is a strategic review, which it is right to have at this time.

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