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Mr. Ingram: I would like to give the hon. Gentleman a better answer, and I am grateful for his compliments, but a number of options are available, and we must balance what is right for defence. A decision might develop that is right for the RAF, but the Army might come up with a different solution, so we must then consider which will provide the best efficiency gain and the best delivery of what we seek. We are not yet at a mature enough stage to say what is happening. He might find that hairdressers in his constituency are picking up rumours about what is happening. Once we reach a point of relative maturity, I shall inform hon. Members, and if the matter is of sufficient weight, I shall inform the House through an oral statement.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Minister's announcement in relation to concentrating certain operations on certain airfields applies to my constituents, because the decision on RAF Lyneham, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has referred, will mean a concentration of flying at RAF Brize Norton and consequent knock-on effects at RAF Fairford. All the other announcements today have the same effect in terms of aircraft noise, however. Will the Minister consider two things? First, wherever possible, ought not the maximum amount of training be done on simulators to reduce aircraft noise? Secondly, with all the changes, will he undertake to do the maximum amount of liaison with local democratically elected bodiesdistrict councils, borough councils and parish councils?
Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman will be only too well aware that a lot of simulation takes place, and as the technology for that advances, the capacity and quality of output also increases. People cannot be trained to fly on simulators alone, however, especially if they are training to fly fast jets. I am not an expert, but I know that the people who need to get those planes into the sky need to be familiar with all their characteristics and to put the physical machine under test as well as themselves as flyers. We try to marry all that up.
On local interests in relation to environmental issues such as noise pollution, we deal with that. We have a very good relationship with the communities around our airfields. If a community suddenly became very negative about an airfield, however, and no one wanted it, that would also have to be taken into account. Those who make the comments have to be clear about what they want, rather than just nipping away on the sidelines about it. Do they want an airfield there; are they going to be good neighbours? They have been and I pay tribute to them for all the support that they have given us in the past.
The JCA is a noisy aircraft and will not be without impact on RAF Lossiemouth and the community. A number of houses and farms will have to be moved if the footprint is as we anticipate. There will be some adverse impact that will have to be attended to, but the community of Moray is very keen to get the aircraft and I am grateful that they are.
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Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I cannot say how important this announcement is for my constituency and, indeed, for the whole of Cornwall. The Minister is aware that I have sought a meeting with him for some timein fact, since the general election. I was promised a meeting this morning and three representatives of civilian employees at St. Mawgan came to the Ministry of Defence to attend at 9.30 this morning, only to be told that the meeting was not taking place. I thus seek the Minister's assurance that he will work in close consultation with service personnel and especially civilian personnel at St. Mawgan whose jobs are now at stake. About 500 jobs are involved.
Will the Minister also assure the House that he will work with other Departments, local government and other partners to ensure that, if the station is to close in future, any transfer to civilian use has maximum support from the Ministry of Defence? It must be done sensitively to ensure that the transition creates more jobs and protects the fragile Cornish economy.
Mr. Ingram: I apologise for the mix-up about this morning's meeting. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, in any case, I could not have spoken to him about the detail of what was happening in his area in advance of my statement today. It was truly a mix-up for which I apologise, particularly to those who travelled, but it was for good and sensible reasons. If the hon. Gentleman had risen in his place to say that he had had a meeting with me this morning, I can only imagine what would have happened.
I am too well aware of the impact of the closure. That is why I announced that changes would be likely up to 2010 in respect of the other two lodger units there. It is a significant development for St. Mawgan airfield and the wider area. I give the hon. Gentleman my absolute assurance that, within the limits of what we can do, we will work with all agencies. I hope that he will not ask in future for the MOD to spend money when it is not for defence purposes. We cannot do that. If developments have to take place elsewhere, other Government agencies, local authority interests and perhaps commercial interests will be involved.
As to the disposal of the airfield, I hope that the hon. Gentleman understandsI would have told him this morningthat we have to look at alternative defence uses. That is our first priority. That is what we have done at RAF Lyneham, RAF Leeming and elsewhere. The indications are that such use is unlikely, but we still have to go through the process. Defence Estates will get ownership and then offer it round to see whether others are interested. It will have to take a quick decision; disposal through the appropriate mechanisms will then have to take place. That is where we will work sensitively with local interests to ensure that it is best handled. We can then make a transition to a commercial airfield, if that is what is to happen, and help the local economy in that part of the country.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con):
The joint combat aircraft is obviously fundamental to our country's defence future. However, both the Minister and his ministerial colleagues have always promoted the JCA on the basis that two airfields would be required. Today's statement is good news for Lossiemouth. Given that I represent west Norfolk and
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that RAF Marham is a huge employer in the region, I would like the second base to go there. Whether it is indeed located there or at RAF Cottesmore, it is vital that we have a decision on that second base. The Minister said in his statement that we are still a number of years away from taking that decision, but why? Why cannot he tell us much sooner where that second base will be?
Mr. Ingram: Because I do not have the information that would allow me to take that decision. There will be a phased introduction of the new aircraft, but we are a considerable number of years away from the first trancheif that is how it is to be definedperhaps in 201314. Whenever that first tranche is introduced, it will then take time for it to build up to full strength. If I were to take a decision now, in 2005, on something that will happen 15 years away, it would not serve any useful purpose, because so many things could change over that period. We may have more or fewer of those aircraft; there may be a new aircraft type, for example. I cannot look that far ahead.
What we have done is put down costing indicators for both Marham and Cottesmore, so that we can say to the other two stations under consideration that they are ruled out for whatever reasons are decided. The Ministry could then progressively look forward towards the best and most cost-effective solution.
As to the idea that at some time in the future, there will be free resources sitting in the Ministry of Defence so that it can spend money at will and not have to take difficult decisions, that is not likely to happen for many millennia ahead. I believe that all future Governments will have to live within big demand processes for new platforms and that aspirations will always outstrip what will be available from central resources. We have to balance all the different aspects and that is what we are doing. We are about to have a debate in which we can discuss that matter in greater detail.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): In his review, has the Minister considered the relationship between military airfields and general aviation? While military air controllers consistently offer a superlative service to general aviation, is the Minister aware that, on occasion, general aviation pilots are forced to pay a colossal amount for approved landings at defence airfields? I do not expect the Minister to be apprised of the details of that matter now, so would he be willing to discuss it outside the Chamber in order better to understand this simple but serious issue and find any potential solutions to the problem?
Mr. Ingram: We have discussions in the Corridors about a whole range of important issues. I am not aware of the actual costing threshold, but if the hon. Gentleman is saying that we should charge commercial interests less, whereby the defence resource goes down, I would not be up for that.
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