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19 Mar 2002 : Column 50WH

Dunkeswell Airfield

12.30 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): High up in the Blackdown hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty in my constituency, Dunkeswell airfield, which was built during the second world war, is still used today by light aircraft. It has a small museum that is funded and supported by local people. I pay tribute to the museum chairman, Mr. Claude Caple, and many local residents for their tireless support. For the past few years, the museum trust has been trying to acquire some of the remaining buildings on the site, so that the museum can be extended to include the important buildings that are part of its history.

The anti-submarine operations centre at Dunkeswell played a pivotal role in the second world war during one of the momentous events in European history. It was the only United States navy administration base and anti-submarine bomber command centre in the United Kingdom. It kept open the vital sea lanes to England, protecting the convoys from attack by Hitler's U-boats during the dark days of the war. Today, the historic operations centre is testimony to the valour of the airmen of the US navy fleet air wing 7 who were stationed at the former Royal Air Force airfield, which became known as Air Facility Dunkeswell, US Atlantic fleet. Those airmen flew 6,424 hazardous bomber missions, day and night, far out into the Atlantic ocean, between September 1942 and June 1945.

In recent years, there has been concern about the future of the buildings, particularly the operations block. I have sought the support of Defence Ministers, who have been very helpful. However, we seem to be at an impasse. Genuine concern is felt in my constituency that Defence Estates is running out of patience. It needs to dispose of land assets. It is waiting for English Heritage to decide whether to list some of the buildings on the site and has said that some of them may not be safe on the grounds of health and safety. My worry is that the bulldozers will roll in and deprive the museum of its opportunity to create a permanent visitor centre, which will be of historical and educational benefit to United Kingdom citizens, as well as a fitting tribute to the many United States veterans and their relatives who visit or contact the museum each year.

I wish to outline some of the key points in my correspondence with Ministers at the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in recent years. In 1996, a report by Paul Francis, entitled "The Blackdown Hills Airfield Survey", was produced for Devon county council and East Devon district council, which commended the retention of, among others, the operations block. The report is substantive and its high quality is still relevant today. In February 1998, the museum's trustees alerted me to the possible threat to the buildings on the site. I telephoned the Ministry of Defence and was informed that the buildings were considered unsafe under health and safety rules. I raised with Ministers the request on behalf of the museum's trustees to pass the title of the buildings to the museum trust, a registered charity. The then Under-Secretary of State for Defence, now the Minister for Transport, sent me a helpful letter dated 18 March 1998 inviting me to outline the museum's concerns.

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At the request of the MOD, the museum set about producing a feasibility study on how the buildings would be used as part of the museum site. The Minister agreed to a site meeting with officials from both the Ministry of Defence and English Heritage.

The meeting, which I attended, was held on 6 July 1998 and it was very positive. The principal conservation architect for Defence Estates explained that a national military aviation thematic study was being carried out, and, at the time, I understood that about 150 sites would be considered for preservation as part of the study. That was part of English Heritage's monuments protection programme and it was scheduled for completion by the end of 1998.

Following the site meeting, Mr. Lake of English Heritage, who had not seen the buildings before, wrote:

By 14 December 1998, a representative of Defence Estates had written to the museum saying:

I confirm that the museum had not only my support, but that of Devon county council, East Devon district council, the Blackdown hills joint advisory committee, Dunkeswell parish council and, of course, the many veterans who are in contact with the museum. Over 500 of them are alive today and receive regularly the FAW7 newsletter.

By 7 January 1999, Tony Whitehead, the principal conservation architect, had written to the museum saying:

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On 12 January 1999, Jeremy Lake of English Heritage wrote:

He continued:

On 15 February 1999, the museum alerted me to the fact that the marines from Lympstone, who had operational access to the site, were inspecting it for future demolition. Again, a different Minister was in charge at the time—I was on to my second Ministry of Defence Minister about the matter. Late one Saturday night, a telephone call to the duty officer, who was based in Belfast at the time, prevented the demolition and the museum set up an appeal fund to acquire the buildings. Admiral William Crowe, the former US ambassador who had attended the site meeting with us, became the patron.

On 11 June 1999, the Minister wrote to me saying:

So, from what had started in hope, especially following that useful, important and constructive site meeting, things were again going wrong and there were constant worries that the buildings were somehow going to be removed. The need to list the buildings and the thematic review seemed to slip down the timetable. I realise that a different Government Department is now dealing with the issue, but one would hope that different Departments talk to each other. As I wrote to MOD Ministers, I automatically copied my correspondence to the DCMS. It wrote and told me that the thematic review would not end until the end of 2001 when the listing would be considered.

In the meantime, Defence Estates in Plymouth pressed the case that it wished to dispose of the site. The reply that I received from DCMS on 17 September 2001 was not terribly helpful. At one stage, Baroness Blackstone, the Minister, explained that she could not understand why the museum trust could not start an appeal for new money to buy the buildings. Obviously, it is difficult to raise public funds without a commitment that the buildings can be bought. There is a lot of interest in supporting an appeal, especially in the US, but there must be some recognition that the trust would be able to acquire the buildings in the first place.

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I have seen a letter dated 10 February 2002 to the DCMS from Defence Estates, south-west region, that concludes, among other things, that

I understand that partial demolition means taking the buildings down to a height of 3 ft.

That sounds to me, as it does to the people in Dunkeswell, as though a photographic record of what was there is suggested. However, there is a clear indication that unless matters are quickly resolved, there is a deadline of 1 April, only a fortnight away, when action and authorisation may be taken for the buildings to disappear altogether.

As the Minister will be aware, the site and the museum epitomise all that was best about those who served there more than half a century ago. Today, people in the local community of Dunkeswell, many of whom never met those brave young men, have given of their efforts to ensure that Dunkeswell is remembered. All too often in political life, bureaucracy, delay and poor communications between Departments mean that things fall through the net. With the 1 April deadline just round the corner, I ask the Minister to use this opportunity to ensure that good progress can be made. If there is a political will, that can be achieved. As the newsletter of the veterans states:

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie) : First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on securing the debate. For reasons that I shall explain later, I welcome the chance to talk on the subject. There is no doubt that Dunkeswell airfield is an important part of our heritage from the second world war and the defence of the Atlantic seaways. One of my great regrets about my job is that although I am responsible for defence estates, I do not get the chance to visit as many sites as I would like to.

Mrs. Browning : I cannot resist. I must offer the Minister a personal invitation to come and see Dunkeswell airfield for himself. A visit to the airfield is a lovely day out.

Dr. Moonie : I had a feeling that I was leading with my chin on that one. I hesitate to say that I will come in the very near future, but I promise the hon. Lady that, given the opportunity, I shall attempt to visit the airfield and see it for myself.

The hon. Lady raised concerns about proposed work that is to be carried out at Dunkeswell airfield. We have exchanged correspondence on the subject in the past; indeed, as she recognises in her speech, she has exchanged extensive correspondence with quite a few

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defence Ministers and others on this matter. I hope that my remarks will serve to reassure her that it remains the case that nothing will be done on the airfield without continued, close and careful liaison with all the interested parties.

We in the Ministry of Defence take our responsibilities for historic and heritage properties seriously. My Department has responsibility for more such sites than any other Department. We have in excess of 650 statutorily protected historic buildings on our estate. That number includes both listed buildings and scheduled monuments. We strive to maintain those to the highest standards that we can, and to build on Government-wide good practice. The "2001 Annual Report on Historic Buildings" published late last year illustrates that commitment. To that end, we maintain close contact with English Heritage and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

When buildings are retained, we try to devise ways of using them that are both sympathetic and practical. If there are no other practical options and we have to dispose of buildings, we work closely with public and voluntary organisations to try to ensure that their future is secure. I have spoken of the strong partnership and liaison that exists between my Department and others and the statutory bodies concerned. When we can, we go further than that, and take into account as far as possible the interests of more general stakeholders. I fully recognise how much an airfield like Dunkeswell means to a wide range of people who live locally or have served on the base.

As the hon. Lady said, the airfield, near Honiton, was constructed during the last war, and was used as a base from which coastal-command aircraft could counter the submarine threat. In 1943 it was transferred to the United States air force and then to the US navy fleet air wing before flying operations ceased in 1946, although we used it as a satellite for RAF Merryfield until 1955. Most of the airfield, including the majority of its runways, was sold in the 1980s. Private aircraft operate from a section of the old runway and several industrial units have been constructed on what was the technical site. The retained area, known as the Dunkeswell airfield training area, is now surplus to requirements, and is being prepared for disposal. The Dunkeswell Memorial museum resides in a temporary building at the entrance to the airfield, and I understand the concerns of the museum's chairman, Mr. Claude Caple, for the future of the site, and his wish to preserve as much as possible of the historical environment. Indeed, the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that I am supportive of the museum's aspiration to acquire some of the buildings.

The site also forms part of the military aviation thematic study by English Heritage, which commenced several years ago. We await a decision from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on two groups of buildings that were proposed for listing—the control tower complex and the operations block.

Defence Estates has formally expressed concern about the operations block, and its potential for sustained use in the future. I can tell the hon. Lady that the Dunkeswell case was discussed by Defence Estates—the Ministry of Defence agency that is responsible for the defence estate—and English Heritage at a liaison meeting as recently as 12 March. I also understand that officials of the Department for Culture, Media and

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Sport are currently considering whether a listing decision is required on the control tower complex and the operations block in advance of the final report of English Heritage on the military aviation thematic study.

I understand that the Dunkeswell buildings are being considered as part of a nationwide review of similar sites, and I accept the difficulties that that poses for determining a particular case in advance of the main review, unless there is an immediate threat to the buildings.

Mrs. Browning : I understand that when this review started there was consideration of 150 airfields, and that that has been reduced to 100 as a result not of what is on the airfields, but of the necessity to dispose of more of them.

Is it true that there is pressure from the Treasury? I do not suppose that the Minister will give me a clear answer to that, but if he were to wink or nod, that would be good enough for me. Have they reduced the number from 150 to 100, and if that is the case, does that put a question mark against Dunkeswell? When we talked about it three years ago, we were not so concerned that it might be at risk.

Dr. Moonie : I am happy to say that I have no great wish that the Ministry of Defence should retain ownership of land for which we have no need. It is up to English Heritage to recognise which of the historic sites associated with the second world war are worth preserving. I do not think that there should, a priori, be an assumption that because something is of historical interest it should be preserved for all time, but a full and representative sample of those sites should be preserved, and, from what I know of the Dunkeswell site, it would appear to fit that category. That is a personal view.

Such sites are being considered as part of the nationwide survey, and as the hon. Lady knows, national surveys can take an inordinately long time to deal properly with matters. That is not meant to imply any criticism of colleagues in other Departments. It is simply the case that such surveys take a long time to resolve matters, and that is why I am happy that the Dunkeswell case is being looked at as a matter of urgency.

I turn to recent communications from Defence Estates about our intentions with regard to the site. I can assure the hon. Lady that we have no intention of demolishing the control tower. What is proposed is that certain dangerous structures associated with the operations block should be removed to permit explosive ordnance clearance to be carried out. At the moment, health and safety concerns prevent the relevant experts from entering the block to carry out that work, which is essential if we are to be able to dispose of the site. Ironically, because we cannot give an assurance that the block is clear of explosive ordnance, even contractors employed to make the block safe would have to work from the outside. That clearly indicates the problem that we have.

Mrs. Browning : I am particularly pleased to hear that the control tower is safe, because I said that I would

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chain myself to it if I did not get a satisfactory answer, as the Minister knows. I understand that a certificate is needed for explosive ordnance clearance in the operations block and that other health and safety matters must be tackled. When those issues are dealt with, however, will it be necessary to demolish just one wall or will the whole building be razed to just 3ft above the ground, which is virtually the same as demolishing it?

Dr. Moonie : If I can proceed, I believe that I shall refer to that. If I do not, I shall certainly give the hon. Lady a detailed response later.

We are sensitive to the issues involved and have refrained from taking action until the views of all stakeholders have been taken into account. That does not, of course, mean that action is not urgently required. My officials have made representations to DCMS, highlighting the precarious state of the operations block and the fact that an early decision is required on whether it is to be listed. The museum has been kept fully informed about that correspondence and about developments that might affect its interests.

None of the parties involved has objected to our proposals to date, but despite the passage of time, we are still not in a position to move forward. For that reason—and because we are conscious of our health and safety responsibilities, which cannot be taken any less lightly than our responsibility for preserving heritage—my officials proposed a reasonable time scale within which they believed action needed to be taken. They gave 1 April as the date on which we would commence contractual procedures to effect vital health and safety work.

Health and safety considerations and our duty of care to members of the public who visit the airfield mean that we must consider the future of several other buildings and structures, which are not included in the thematic study. The hon. Lady will appreciate that those were put up in haste during the second world war and that their construction is very basic. Those temporary structures were intended for the duration of the conflict and have, consequently, declined to a very poor state of repair; indeed, some of them can be described only as dangerous.

I regret any undue alarm to which our proposals may have given rise, but I cannot apologise for seeking to resolve a difficult issue. Doing nothing is not an option that we can sustain for much longer. We could put up fences around the dangerous structures, but our experience elsewhere shows that they cannot be guaranteed to keep out the inquisitive. Sadly, such an approach would not discharge my Department's heath and safety responsibilities or significantly reduce the risk to the public, including trespassers. Nevertheless, I assure the hon. Lady that it was never our intention to take unilateral action on the commencement of demolition. I am therefore happy to confirm that no action will be taken until all interested parties, including the hon. Lady, have had the opportunity to attend an on-site briefing, at which my officials will explain the proposals and demonstrate why they are necessary.

I recognise that it is not easy to strike a balance between heritage and health and safety, but if my Department is to act responsibly, it must consider how

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such a balance is to be struck. Were an accident to happen, it would hardly be excusable to say we were waiting for guidance. Equally, we cannot sell or transfer the site and its heritage buildings to another owner until the essential explosive ordnance checks have been carried out, which cannot be done while the current risks exist. We are in contact with DCMS and English Heritage on those important issues, and I hope that we can move rapidly to resolve the issues that affect Dunkeswell.

As the hon. Lady confirmed in her speech, my Department has striven over the past three or four years to meet the various demands that have been put on it as regards Dunkeswell. We have involved all the key Departments, bodies and parties that have an interest, we have taken active steps to keep the museum aware of how matters were developing and we have tried to be sympathetic to all the aspirations that have been expressed. We have, however, also had to recognise and meet our obligations as regards health and safety and explosive ordnance clearance. That said, I give an assurance that we will take no action on demolition until I am satisfied that it is the correct approach. It is, however, essential that action is taken soon, because the present position cannot be maintained indefinitely, and the risks mount with each passing day.

I will take a personal interest in the issue, and I shall be happy to speak to the hon. Lady again if she wants to raise concerns with me. I welcome this debate and very much hope that it will be the catalyst that allows us to make speedy progress at Dunkeswell.

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