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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I welcome this opportunity to debate this important subject, which has an immediate impact on my constituents and those of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), as well as a broader impact across the whole of Norfolk.
Norfolk has been living with the prospect of the closure of RAF Coltishall since 1998, when it emerged that it was likely that the Jaguar aircraft deployed there would be withdrawn within a decade. Therefore, the formal announcement in July last year, as part of the defence White Paper, that by December 2006 all RAF operations would cease at Coltishall and that the RAF would have no further use for the base did not come as a complete surprise to me or my constituents.
Nevertheless, there was a lot of local anxiety about the future, as the local catchment area that is affected covers a wide area of north and mid-Norfolk where there are scattered communities and areas of local economic and social deprivation. The closure has an immediate impact on villages within my constituency such as Horstead, Wroxham, Buxton, as well as Coltishall itself. It also has an impact on a town the size of Aylsham, and it has a similar impact in north Norfolk.
On 1 November 2004, an RAF Coltishall task group was established, led by Norfolk county council. Its membership included myself and the hon. Member for North Norfolk, representatives of parish councils, North Norfolk district council and Broadland district council, RAF Coltishall, Defence Estates, Business Link, the East of England Development Agency and others. The short-term issue was to address immediately problems of redundancy and economic loss of income by local communities. The medium-term strategy, as identified by the task group, was to establish whether the Ministry of Defence or any other Department might have a use for the base and to prepare for the eventuality of RAF Coltishall being declared surplus to all Government requirements.
Since 1 November, the task group has met regularly and has taken forward a number of practical issues such as a comprehensive study prepared under the auspices of Norfolk county council and EEDA, which provided factual information about the immediate impact of the closure of both RAF Coltishall and RAF Neatishead. I wish to emphasise that RAF Neatishead is in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Norfolk, and that its closure, along with that of RAF Coltishall, delivers, to a certain extent, a double whammy to the local economy.
Much good work has been done, and I wish to put on record my appreciation of the contributions made by Squadron Leader Paul Robins, the project officer at RAF Coltishall, who has been as open and constructive as possible from the perspective of RAF Coltishall, and Mr. Barry Sygrove, the area manager east of Defence Estates, who also brings a lot of practical experience to the issues that we have been addressing.
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There are many specific questions to address, such as environmental degradation of the base, the future of the married quarters, and what residual RAF use might continue after December 2006. The key question for the local community and the task group was whether the Ministry of Defence or any other Department might have a further use for the base. At the first meeting of our task group in November 2004, we were informed that the MOD had yet to declare the base surplus to its requirements, but that a decision on other possible military uses would be made by April 2005. If no MOD requirement were found, other Departments would be consulted through English Partnerships. Only after the exercise carried out within the MOD and other Departments drew a blank would the base be declared surplus to requirements. In November 2004, it was thought that the whole exercise would be completed by April 2005, giving a period of 18 months between potentially being declared surplus and disposal. That is key for consideration of planning uses other than those by a Department. The Minister will appreciate that although the task group has had to conduct a lot of forward thinking and planning on the assumption that the base would be surplus to all Government requirements, the lack of a clear decision has inhibited the work and creates uncertainty in the local communities most affected.
I appreciate that, from March onwards, the expected decision by the MOD was postponed because of the general election. However, I was somewhat disappointed by the reply that I received from the Minister to a letter that I wrote on 23 May seeking clarification about the MOD's possible further requirements for RAF Coltishall. I learned that I had achieved this debate last Wednesday and, lo and behold, on Thursday I received a reply from the Minister. I am sure that hon. Members will see that purely as a coincidence, but who says that parliamentary debate and pressure do not achieve at least some results? He wrote:
"I can confirm that this Department has not yet reached a decision as to whether there is any alternative defence use for the site. Indeed, we intend that the simulator at Coltishall will remain on the site until the Jaguar goes out of service. It is possible that some of the living accommodation may be used after 2006. I understand that in order to progress further you would wish to know the outcome of our studies. We do not expect to complete our investigations before the autumn of 2005."
Even keeping to that decision, the timing will have slipped by six months. Can the Minister say whether autumn means September or December? If it is the back end of December, that means that we have only about one year before most of the RAF functions cease at Coltishall. If the MOD has no further use but other Departments are to be trawled, could that mean that a final Government decision might slip further into 2006? I know that the Minister may not have control over responses from other Departments, but clarification would be welcome.
Such points are not legalistic debating points. They have a real impact on the contingency planning being carried out by the RAF Coltishall task group, which is spending EEDA money and Norfolk county council
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money, as well as MOD money, and they affect the morale of local communities, which feel that a lot of time has passed without a big decision being made.
The local community overwhelmingly supports the RAF presence at Coltishall. Many people are sad that the RAF is leaving Coltishall and they are aware that that presence goes back to the late 1930s. RAF Coltishall is the last battle of Britain RAF base still in use operationally and there is a lot of local good feeling. I recognise the fact that some local people will welcome the end of flying, but the majority, even those directly affected, are sad to see the RAF going and appreciate the work that it did in maintaining our freedom, not only during the second world war but in the long watch of the cold war. Many RAF personnel have decided that they will live in our community when they leave the services and have married local people. There is a strong link.
As far as I can ascertain from talking to local people, there would be a positive reaction if an alternative MOD requirement were found for the future of RAF Coltishall. A similar thing happened at what had been RAF Swanton Morley in my constituency nearly a decade ago. The RAF had no further use, but the Army found that it had a requirement and moved in an armoured regiment. That has worked well in terms of community relationships and the impact on the local economy. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that, even if local communities cannot agree on possible alternatives, they are certain that they do not want RAF Coltishall to be an asylum centre.
The Minister should be aware that the closure of RAF Coltishall is the equivalent of the loss of a steelworks or a car factory in terms of the impact on the local economy and jobs. A recent provisional report by EEDA and Norfolk county council on the effect on the local economy suggests that it would be in the region of £19 million per annum and 400 jobs. That is a major impact for an area such as mid and north Norfolk. I recognise that the Ministry of Defence is not just a job creator and economic bolster for the area, but the Minister should bear that impact in mind.
The MOD owes the local community of mid and north Norfolk and must get the decision right from the point of view of local people. Also, RAF Coltishall is one of the first two RAF bases flagged up for closure in what I suspect will be a continuing round of closures of other MOD bases rolled out over the next two or three years. Is it not in the MOD's interests to get it right in this case so that, when other bases are closed, Ministers can turn to people worried in other parts of the United Kingdom and say, "Look what happened with RAF Coltishall. We got it right. You can go and talk to the local MPs and representatives and they are relatively happy"? The alternative would not be a good precedent.
Finally, local people are apprehensive that, if the MOD ceases RAF use of Coltishall but there is an administrative hiatus before disposal, the site will deteriorate and the married quarters might be vandalised. Will the Minister assure me that that will not happen and that effective measures will be taken to secure RAF Coltishall against the kind of vandalism that has taken place at other former RAF and Army sites?
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Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this debate and also thank him for allowing me time to contribute to it? We were both members of the task group and took the view that it is important that everyone works together for the interests of this part of north-east Norfolk. The RAF Coltishall base straddles the border between our two constituencies, so we both have a central interest in the outcome of the considerations.
May I also join the hon. Gentleman in expressing sadness at the closure of RAF Coltishall? It seems that the RAF is unlikely to have a continuing use for the base, which has been part of the country's post-war history. I should also mention RAF Neatishead in my constituency, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned and which is also being scaled down. That base played a central role during the post-war and cold war periods in safeguarding the interests of this country and western Europe.
The first concern that I and others have is the impact on the local economy. As the hon. Gentleman already mentioned, some 400 jobs will be lost. It is a low-wage economy with poor communications, so the impact of the loss of that number of jobs will be significant. It has already been estimated that the total impact on the local economy will be £19 million to £20 million.
It is also important to stress the risk of inertia and indecision. I have frequently made the comparison with what happened at RAF West Raynham, where the base was closed some four years ago and was allowed to fall into dereliction with no decision made for a decade. That had a real impact not only on the local economy, but on local communities. Thankfully, the properties at RAF West Raynham have been released and we can, I hope, get them back into use.
When I met the Minister responsible for the armed forces to talk about the scaling down of RAF Neatishead, he insisted that lessons had been learned from West Raynham and other places and that the Ministry of Defence was determined to be a good neighbour. That is important. Defence Estates has played a very constructive role in relation to the taskforce, attending all the meetings and offering to contribute to the cost of planning analysis of what the site could be used for and so on, but it is important that decisions are made on a timely basis and that we do not have drift and, ultimately, decay.
We have been advised throughout to work on the basis that it is unlikely that there will be another military or Government use, so the taskforce has gone about its work on that basis. However, there are now strong rumours of a potential Army use. A constituent has just told me about this. The suggestion made to me, which I am told is from an impeccable source, is that there is a plan for a super-garrison based at Colchester but with self-supporting satellite units, including Coltishall. The appeal of Coltishall is said to be that it is located on the east coast, has a large amount of land available, provides good accommodation and has an airstrip.
Is there any truth in that rumour? If so, how many personnel could be involved and what are the time scales for decision? As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, autumn is a vague concept. I should mention that I have
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a remarkably similarly worded letter to his. It arrived last week, just after we discovered that he had secured the debate. What is the likely time scale for making decisions? I think that the local community would welcome that alternative military use. It would have a very beneficial impact on the local economy if we did not lose the number of personnel who currently work on the site. Will the Minister provide clarity? Above all else, drift and delay are what must be avoided for the benefit of this part of north-east Norfolk.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig) : I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for his kind comments about my appointment to the Ministry of Defence. It is a challenging job. I know that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) thinks that it is one of the best jobs in the Government. I certainly intend to make it one of the best jobs. It is very people-focused, and the issues that hon. Members have raised today are about the effect that our decisions have on people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk on securing the debate. As far as I am aware, there was no connection between his securing the debate and my letters arriving, but it is an opportune debate, because the closure and reuse of defence sites is an important subject and worthy of discussion. He and the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) have taken a keen and consistent interest in the future of RAF Coltishall. I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk for his kind comments about the personnel who have been working, through the task group, to secure a decision on its future.
I am grateful that both hon. Gentlemen gave me notice of the points that they wanted to raise, and I hope that I can respond constructively to them. This is my first opportunity since becoming a Minister in the Ministry of Defence to take part in a debate on the defence estate. The debate surrounding the rationalisation of our estate and the disposal of sites that have become surplus is important. Before I turn to specific points about Coltishall, I shall make one or two general points.
First, we do not take decisions on the closure of sites lightly. The decision-making process is complex and lengthy. It involves the consideration of many options and requires a good deal of consultation. It is, however, something that we have to go through if we are to attain our goal of achieving an estate that is of the right size and fit for the demands of today. We must take account of the better quality of life and better working conditions for servicemen and women and others in the Department, and we seek to ensure that we obtain the best value for money from the estate. Secondly, we have a good story to tell about bringing surplus defence sites back into renewed economic use, whether for employment or residential use, as quickly as possible.
I am grateful for the opportunity that the debate affords me to pay tribute to the work of the personnel at RAF Coltishall. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, the base has a long and illustrious history. It was built in 1939 for Bomber Command and, while it was being used by Fighter Command, an aircraft from the base claimed the first enemy aircraft to be shot down during the battle of Britain on 10 July 1940.
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Until March this year, RAF Coltishall was the home of four Jaguar squadrons, at which point two were disbanded. Of the remaining two, 41 Squadron will be disbanded by 1 April 2006. At the same time, 6 Squadron, the last remaining, will move to RAF Coningsby. The airfield at RAF Coltishall will close later that year, although, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk knows, the simulator will remain until the Jaguar goes out of service in 2007. It is also possible that some of the living accommodation on the site may be used after 2006.
It is against that background that we need to ascertain whether the site can be put to alternative defence use. Consideration is being given to potential reuse by the Royal Air Force, within the context of our long-term service estate plans. However, if no such defence use emerges, the site will be disposed of. The hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned a strong rumour that the Army would be interested in taking over the base or that it is seeking to do so. I can say only that I am not aware of any formal proposal that would lead me to believe that that is the case, but, as I have made clear, we are in discussions throughout the Ministry of Defence about future use of the base for defence needs.
Norman Lamb : Is it not right that the Minister should be aware of the issue of potential Army use and that it is being discussed? The proposal may not be formal, but I think that he is aware that something is being discussed.
Mr. Simpson : Will the Minister just go back a little? Did I hear him say that Ministry of Defence discussions include the possibility that the site might have another use by the Royal Air Force? Did I hear him correctly?
Mr. Touhig : The hon. Gentleman certainly heard me correctly, but I should clarify the position. What I should have said is that consideration is being given to potential reuse of the RAF base at Coltishallnot use by the RAF. I beg his pardon and am grateful that he pointed that out.
On current views, we expect a final decision around autumn this year. I regret that I cannot be precise about the date, but current expectations are that it will be earlier rather than later. Knowing the concern and interest of the hon. Gentlemen, and because I also particularly want to bring the matters to an early conclusion, I shall press for that to happen as quickly as possible. I shall undertake to keep both hon. Gentlemen fully informed.
Norman Lamb : We had been told, on the task group, that a decision was likely to be announced at Easter. We are now told that it will be announced in the autumn. Is there a particular reason for the delay?
Mr. Touhig : I understand how frustrating it can be for the hon. Gentlemen and the communities that they
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represent that the site appears to be caught in limbo for the present. That creates uncertainty in the community. However, I hope that the hon. Gentlemen and their constituents will understand that several factors must be taken into account, and that it would make no sense financially, or in management terms, to sell the base only to have to acquire another to meet future requirements.
I am aware that the long hiatus that occurred in deciding whether the site at West Raynham, which the hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned, would be retained or disposed of was a real problem. West Raynham was potentially suitable for several alternative defence uses, and the issues involved were complex. That case was exceptional, I believe, and lessons were learned. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall make every effort to ensure that RAF Coltishall does not languish in the same way.
Housing was an issue at West Raynham. As the hon. Gentleman will recall from his attendance at task group meetings, the housing at RAF Coltishall is subject to the Annington Homes long lease agreement. Consequently, it will be for Annington Homes to decide on the future use of the housing should the MOD declare the site to be surplus. Of course, if further defence use of the site is identified, housing may be required.
I note the concerns over site security and vandalism if the site is vacated. The best way to avoid damage is to pass the site to a new owner as quickly as possible. We find that if there is a hiatus, temporary lettings of buildings on site can be an effective deterrent to vandals, but our usual practice is to employ civilian guards to patrol the site. That would be likely at Coltishall.
It is to avoid delay, should the site eventually be put up for sale, that we are progressing consideration of alternative defence uses and initial preparations for disposal in parallel. Since October 2004, the MOD has been fully engaged with the task group attended by principal stakeholders, which will seek to mitigate or minimise the impact of the proposed closure. I am aware of the recent report that suggested that there would be a £20 million loss to the local economy if the base were closed.
The hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk and for North Norfolk are members of the task group, as are representatives of the county and district councils and the East of England Development Agency. The task group has openly discussed potential future uses of the site should it be declared to be surplus. That is an excellent demonstration of the proper approach to consultation and partnership so that everyone is involved in the decision making.
On 18 February, the group agreed that North Norfolk district council would draw up terms and specifications for a planning document covering the whole site. That will ensure that the planning potential of the site is fully known should it be declared to be surplus. I take this opportunity to urge the planning authorities to be as innovative and flexible as possible in considering alternative uses for the site. We also need to ensure that decisions are made as quickly as possible if the site is not to be left unused for a period, and deteriorate.
It may be helpful if I explain what will happen should Coltishall be declared surplus, and how we will progress with its disposal. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk
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asked if we had ascertained whether any other Department had an interest in the site. The answer is, simply, not yet, but should the site be confirmed as surplus to our requirements, it will be included in the English Partnerships register of surplus public sector land for 40 working days.
Mr. Touhig : I hope that we will progress as speedily as possible, but I cannot give an undertaking regarding the time frame. I reiterate that the land available will be on the register for 40 days to see whether any other Departments have a particular interest. The MOD has a close working relationship with English Partnerships, which has been hugely beneficial and important in ensuring that brownfield and other sites that are suitable for affordable housing developments are identified and used.
I return to the disposal process that we are likely to use. If RAF Coltishall is declared to be surplus, we will consider, as we are required to, whether the land has to be returned to its former owners or their successors under the Crichel Down rules. At this stage, we do not know whether we will be required to offer it back. If there is no wider Government interest and former owner rules do not apply, the site will be disposed of on the open market.
To draw the threads of the debate together, I should say that the closure and disposal of the site is a complex process, and that we need to balance possible defence requirements with the wish to get the site back into productive alternative use as quickly as possible. That is what we will try to achieve at RAF Coltishall.
I appreciate that there is a degree of uncertainty in the community, which I hope my remarks have gone some way towards allaying. If the hon. Gentlemen will work closely with me, we will do the best that we possibly can, with the task group, to ensure that if the site is declared to be surplus, it gets back into productive use to the benefit of the people whom they represent.
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