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30 Nov 1999 : Column 24WH

RAF Fairford (Road Access)

11.29 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful to you, Mr. Chairman, and to Madam Speaker for affording me the opportunity to initiate the second of the Adjournment debates in this alternative Chamber. I am also grateful to the Under-Secretary for being present and agreeing to reply. I am glad to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), whose constituency adjoins mine and who therefore has part responsibility for this problem.

Mr. Chairman, one of the main reasons--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. "Mr. Deputy Speaker" is the order of address to the Chair in this parallel Chamber in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker--no discourtesy was meant. The newness of this procedure is the reason for that slip of the tongue.

One of the main reasons for requesting the debate is to establish which Department will take a lead role in this matter; that, at least, is now clarified. In order to set the problem in context, I should point out that RAF Fairford is one of the main strategic NATO bases in this country. It has one of the longest runways, which straddles the Wiltshire-Gloucestershire border, and is one of the few bases in this country where the massive American C117 Galaxy transport planes can land.

I am sure that you will be interested to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that RAF Fairford was used during the invasion of Libya and in the Gulf and Kosovo conflicts as the launch base for American B52 bombers. Furthermore, it has also become the home of the three-day international air tattoo. The result of all that activity is that the main runway needs to be completely refurbished at a cost of more than £60 million. Most important, it is estimated that that will involve some 60,000 heavy goods vehicle movements. It is that aspect which causes my constituents concern.

I should say straight away that my constituents welcome the base and all the associated business that it brings. I understand, therefore, that Cotswold district council, which will take the lead in this matter, is not likely to object to the planning application for the project. Nevertheless, it is also concerned about the 60,000 heavy goods vehicle movements, which will come from either the A417 at Fairford or the A419 from Latton via the C124. The latter is a minor public road which is in places single track. There are two single-track bridges on it which form an S-bend. Until recently, they had no traffic control at all, but I am glad to say that they now at least have some traffic lights.

It has been agreed that approximately £1 million will be generated by the lorry movements levy as a result of the 60,000 movements. However, that is sufficient to carry out only comparatively minor road works such as strengthening traffic lights signing. That is inadequate. Clearly, my constituents' lives are going to be put at risk by huge, heavily loaded juggernauts going up and down single-track roads with deep drainage ditches on either side. Imagine what will happen when a cyclist meets one of those lorries on a dark and icy winter's night, and indeed, when the lorry tries to pull up in time to avoid the cyclist.

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In addition to that huge civil engineering product, tens of thousands of car and lorry movements are generated over the three days of the international air tattoo, which will become an annual event once the runways are refurbished.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that, although most of the traffic problems that he described will affect his constituency, during the air tattoo and also because of the refurbishing of the airstrip there will be a significant increase in traffic through Ashton Keynes and other villages in my constituency?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The problem is complicated because it involves several Westminster constituencies and several local authorities. Indeed, the mere fact that the base is bisected by the Gloucestershire-Wiltshire border makes it doubly complicated.

It cannot make any sense for a major NATO base to be served by such a minor, public, single-track road. One can imagine all sorts of reasons for vehicles having to move rapidly in and out of the base--for example, with casualties, ordnance, fuel and other stores required by such a large base. They could be transported in and out by air, but that may not always be possible due to weather and other circumstances. It may not be cost-effective to move heavy goods in and out of the base by air. The most cost-effective way is by road.

It is not my function today to provide specific, costed proposals to solve the problem. That is for experts from the Gloucestershire and Wiltshire highways authorities and other planning authorities such as Cotswold district council, North Wiltshire district council and Thamesdown borough council--now the unitary authority of Swindon--which also have responsibility in the matter. Those authorities are all working with the Highways Agency and the Government office for the south west to provide a satisfactory solution for a safe access road to the base.

The Minister may say that it is for the highways authorities of the two county councils to put in a bid for the road scheme to be considered, but that would be an inadequate reply. The situation is unique. Due to its huge refurbishment, the base has a new lease of life and, judging from the number of confidential letters that I receive from the Ministry of Defence about one huge NATO exercise after another, it is clear that it will be used more and more. Its servicing and the enormous increase in local traffic compared with when the base was originally used, and even in recent years, mean that current road access is totally inadequate.

My constituents believe that, as the Americans are paying a large proportion of the cost of the refurbishment through their NATO contributions, they should make the major contribution to the local road system, which they use. I emphasise again that my constituents are pleased to see the Americans and welcome them. Many friendships have been made between Americans and local people and my constituents enjoy the benefits of the spin-off from the base, but they fear the danger posed by the road.

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If the Government are not prepared to approach NATO or the Americans, a Government Department must provide the funds. I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary here today because my constituents believe that the MOD should provide the funds in this unique situation. If the MOD cannot, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions must. Either it must fund a Highways Agency project to build a proper access road or, as the final alternative, it must fund a joint county council bid for the county highways authority to build the road. That is the least attractive method of funding the road, because it would have to compete with all the other badly needed road schemes in both counties and that would be unacceptable.

I am grateful to the Minister for coming to listen to the problem this morning. I have no idea what his response will be, but I hope that it will be sympathetic because the current position is unsatisfactory not only for the base but, above all, for the quality of life of my constituents and those in the adjoining constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire and the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who join me today in pressing the Government to find a solution.

I hope that it will not take a fatality or other serious accident to persuade the Government to sit up and take notice of the problem. There is a straightforward and constructive way forward. It is a relatively simple road to build and will not require a huge amount of money. It needs to be a fairly straight, two-way road. It does not need to be an A or B road. An example has already been set in the western part of the water park by the western spine road--a straightforward road which was built from gravel money. If we could have a similar road in the eastern part, the problem would be solved. I look forward to the Minister's response.

11.39 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle ): It is not the first time that I have laboured under your adjudication, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although it is the first time in this Room, and it is a novel experience.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on securing this Adjournment debate in this new setting. Clearly, road access to RAF Fairford has generated considerable public interest and is a matter of great importance to his constituents. He is evidently concerned about the project on two counts. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has expressed similar concerns. The first count is the construction activity over the next two years--the project is scheduled to finish in about November 2001--and the second is the impact on the C124 road.

It may be helpful if I briefly put the project into its historical context. After the second world war, the United States corps of engineers extended RAF Fairford to its present size between 1949 and 1956. It was designed for the aircraft of the time, notably types B47 and KC97--the type of aircraft that you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, assembled in the form of Airfix models when we were boys. Since that time, no major surfacing work has been carried out, apart from a contract in 1977 to overlay the main runway and taxiways with asphalt. Over most of the airfield, the concrete and asphalt surfacing is very old and has deteriorated to the point at

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which major reconstruction is needed to maintain the integrity of the runway and provide a safe operating base for visiting aircraft.

It is, therefore, necessary to undertake a major reconstruction project to bring the airfield infrastructure back to a safe and satisfactory standard. At the same time, the runway and pavements will be redesigned to cater for the size and weight of modern military aircraft. The overall estimated cost of the project is slightly more than £60 million, to which the hon. Member for Cotswold referred. It is about £65 million, and construction is programmed over 21 months from spring 2000. The contract will also encourage the contractor to re-use excavated material and local resources whenever possible, to minimise the transporting of material to and from the site.

Nevertheless, it is recognised that the construction work will generate a considerable amount of lorry traffic in and out of RAF Fairford. The current estimate is that 120,000 lorry movements could be required. Therefore, a decision was made in June 1998 to have early consultations with the planning and highway authorities. Extensive consultation and discussion was undertaken with the highway authorities of the two county councils concerned, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, and with representatives of the local councils, the results of which determined that access to the base for construction traffic will be from the A419 via a minor road, the C124.

The highway authorities have stipulated that the installation of traffic lights, road strengthening and a degree of repair work should be undertaken to ensure the continued safety of the road, as part of the enabling works before any base construction work begins. All this additional work is to be carried out by my Department at a cost of about £640,000.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister in what is proving to be an extremely constructive and useful reply. My constituents are worried about whether one-way traffic from the A419 at Latton--rather than access to the base from the A417 at Fairford--will be rigorously enforced by the MOD, or whatever body is to be in charge of this huge contract. In that case, at least there would be traffic into the base from only one way, rather than two ways.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I am not in a position to speak for the agencies that are charged with the enforcement of traffic law and regulation. Those are matters beyond my competence, and certainly beyond my wit.

I emphasise that the work on this construction project is absolutely necessary to ensure that the essential facilities at Fairford, which have deteriorated over the past 20 years or so, are brought up to the standard that is needed to guarantee its continued use as an essential operating base in times of crisis. That role was aptly demonstrated and reinforced during our recent operations in Iraq and Kosovo. I point out to the hon. Member for Cotswold, in the kindest possible way, that it was not an invasion of Libya but a bombing expedition that was mounted from Fairford, which is

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not quite the same thing. I should point out to him that Fairford is not an operational base except in times of crisis. The base's normal staffing comprises about 400 souls. A comparison with RAF Lyneham, which has about 5,000 people, puts Fairford's level of use into perspective. However, it remains an essential staging post.

The hon. Member for Cotswold mentioned the number of letters that he receives from the MOD about exercises constantly taking place. I take that as a backhanded compliment, in that we keep local Members well informed about our intentions. In reality, however, NATO exercises involving Fairford take place only once a year. It is not regularly used in the way in which they, perhaps inadvertently, suggested.

Mr. Gray : The Minister is right to say that RAF Lyneham, which is in my constitutency, has 5,000 service personnel--plus a further 5,000 spouses, which takes the total number of people to 10,000. However, Lyneham, the town that is associated with the base, is well served by major roads. The problem with Fairford is that, by contrast, a tiny single-track road with a small bridge will take the hundreds of thousands of lorries that the Minister described. Is £640,000 rather a modest sum for the repair of a road that will be under such immense pressure?

Mr. Kilfoyle : That sum has been computed as being appropriate to the demands that will be made of the road. I remind the hon. Gentleman that extensive consultation with both of the relevant district and county councils has taken place. It was in that spirit of partnership that the proposal was agreed.

I am aware that for many years, the district and parish councils have been trying to get the C124 upgraded. I do not dispute the fact that that is a long-standing local bone of contention that existed before we made our proposals on undertaking these works. However, although the road has been designated as the eastern spine road for the future of gravel extraction in the area and the development of the Cotswold water park, I understand that the highway authorities have given it no priority for upgrading. The locus for comments on upgrading belongs with those authorities rather than the MOD. We are talking about a completely ad hoc use of the road for specific periods and the amount of money that has been agreed will allow for the remediation of that road. The upgrading will include not only the installation of traffic lights but kerbing, channelling and other necessary improvements.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I am not sure that the Minister is entirely correct. I know that high-level meetings have taken place between his Department, the Government office for the south west and the Highways Agency to try to solve the problem. Would he and his senior officials be prepared to meet a delegation from the relevant councils, perhaps attended by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire and me?

Mr. Kilfoyle : We could have pre-empted this debate if such a meeting--which has, I believe, been arranged--had already taken place. I am always glad to meet relevant local authorities where the matter is of local interest. However, local councils and some residents, at

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least, will perhaps have regarded news of the proposed refurbishment of the Fairford base as a blessing in disguise. Although the subject of today's debate is the disruption and inconvenience caused by the construction traffic, which is recognised by all parties, there is an opportunity to upgrade the C124, and largely at someone else's expense.

I should make it absolutely plain that this is not a decision for the Ministry of Defence. The role of RAF Fairford is unchanged and the project will not generate an increase in traffic in the long term. As such, the MOD sees no requirement permanently to upgrade the road, and will take only such measures as are required by the highways authorities of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire county councils. Therefore, works are limited to those measures that are designed to meet the temporary increase in construction traffic.

I should also disabuse the hon. Member for Cotswold of the notion that we have in some way established that we are the lead Department for road upgrading in the area; we are not. That remains wholly within the remit of the highways agencies. Our concern is ensuring that, during the Fairford refurbishment programme, all appropriate steps are taken to ensure the road's integrity and safety, and its refurbishment to the required standard.

I welcome the opportunity to make it clear that, as a responsible Department, the MOD has acted within the letter and spirit of the relevant planning laws, and has also taken fully into account the various local issues that have arisen. I can assure the hon. Members for North Wiltshire and for Cotswold that it will continue to do so. I should also place on record the MOD's gratitude for the constructive co-operation shown by local council authorities in helping to resolve planning issues at RAF Fairford and permitting a major NATO project to proceed on schedule. However, the MOD is not a regeneration agency and cannot carry out public road improvements.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The Minister has been very generous in giving way. He seems to be saying that the MOD wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants to upgrade the base, but that will disrupt local people who, at the moment, are showing considerable good will. If the MOD is not prepared to fulfil its responsibilities by ensuring my constituents' safety, some of that good will might rapidly ebb away.

Mr. Kilfoyle : It is difficult to substantiate that charge; indeed, I would argue the reverse. In fact, the MOD has shown a willingness to consult and negotiate with all those involved--county and district councils--that is above and beyond the call of duty. We have not merely met but exceeded our obligations to upgrade the road. The hon. Member for Cotswold shakes his head, but he cannot expect me to accept on the MOD's behalf the responsibilities of other Government agencies in this regard. As I have said, we are doing all that we can to restore the true integrity of the Fairford base and to cater as far as is possible for the difficulties that will arise in respect of the C124.

Mr. Gray : We have a little time in hand, so perhaps the Minister will not mind giving way for a second time. The point that he makes--that maintenance of RAF

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Fairford is a matter for the MOD, but maintenance of the road is a matter for the local highway authority--is probably a good one, and may well be correct in terms of the machinery of government. However, does he accept that the standard spending assessment and the revenue support grant settlements for Wiltshire have been reduced substantially in recent years, and are ill-equipped to provide the extra money for upgrading the road to which he refers? Will he write to the Deputy Prime Minister to encourage him to increase the revenue support grant for Wiltshire to take account of the extra cost that we have discussed?

Mr. Kilfoyle : I am tempted to write to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister about many matters, but the SSA for Wiltshire is not among them--although I might be tempted to write to him about the SSA for my local authority.

I told the hon. Member for Cotswold that we had gone beyond the call of duty. One of our more innovative steps involved the levy that he mentioned. Placing a £5 levy on every movement will inhibit the excessive use by vehicles of that road. When the contract goes out to tender, it will be difficult for anyone to meet the tender criteria and submit a successful bid unless they maximise the use of vehicles and minimise the number of lorry runs along the road. We are trying to be as innovative as possible and minimise disruption on the road.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : To be honest, the levy is peanuts. It would fund slapping a bit of tarmac in some potholes, but that would come out when the first heavy goods vehicle went over it. More money is needed to build a proper road that provides access to and from the base.

Mr. Kilfoyle : I can only ask the hon. Gentleman to re-examine our proposal, which involves widening stretches of the road, kerbing and channelling, installing traffic lights and upgrading the road. Yes, potholes will be filled in, but every constituency in the land has potholes that need to be filled in. We are trying to do the best that we can to minimise disruption.

Before I gave way for the umpteenth time, I was saying--I do not mean this to be harsh--that self-evidently the MOD is not a regeneration agency. We cannot carry out public road improvements other than those that arise as a consequence of our obligations to meet operational objectives within the established planning processes. I am sure that no hon. Member who has spoken would argue that we have not made sure that the district and county authorities were fully cognisant of all of our intentions and moves. Moreover, we have taken those authorities on board with us.

With the exception of the construction, access and traffic management that is associated with the Fairford project, the status of the C124 is properly the responsibility of other Departments and of the Highways Agency. I am not trying to divorce my Department from its responsibilities--quite the reverse. We have taken on board responsibilities that technically and legally we could have argued were not ours. However, we did not argue that because of the spirit of

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partnership with local councils and out of consideration for the people who will be disrupted by the necessary work at RAF Fairford.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I had thought that I was going to have to suspend this first sitting in Westminster Hall, but the Minister and the initiator of the next debate are now both present, and we can move on to it.

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