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10.43 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing the debate and thank him for providing me with the opportunity to speak to him on this issue before this evening’s debate. I should also like to pay tribute to his tireless efforts to ensure that his constituents’ interests are fully represented as we go through the process of determining the future defence presence on the Stafford site and in the west midlands area more generally. Once again, he has set out his case cogently and well.

I also echo my hon. Friend’s generous words about my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram)— [Interruption.] There we are, it should sound like “Lesmahagal”, as I am advised by Mr. Speaker! It seems that my predecessor dealt with my hon. Friend in the same way as he dealt with others—in an honest and straightforward manner, which was appreciated by most of those who met him.

My hon. Friend will recall that my predecessor outlined the position regarding what was known as RAF Stafford during an Adjournment debate in early 2006. I welcome the opportunity today to bring the House up to date on the current position.

The defence estate supports the provision of defence capability. That means that its usage must be kept under review to ensure that it is the right size and quality to meet future requirements. That constant process of review has had particular implications for the Stafford site in recent years.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Stafford site’s history is closely linked with the RAF. Following the departure of the RAF logistics units in early 2006, however, direct RAF interest in the Stafford site ceased. That left the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency and the Tactical Supply Wing, a joint helicopter command unit that supports deployed helicopter operations, as the primary users of the site.

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As announced by the previous Secretary of State for Defence in July 2005, planned improvements in the way that we manage the defence supply chain mean that we can reduce our storage and distribution capacity, while saving money and becoming more effective. As part of those changes, the storage and distribution centre at Stafford will close at the end of the year. As my predecessor told my hon. Friend previously, there is no chance of revisiting or reversing that decision.

The centre is one of three storage and distribution centres that will close around the country by 2009. Given the consequences for staff, the decision to close the three centres was a difficult one, and we are committed to supporting those affected. An early release scheme has already been run across the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency as a whole, and staff who applied were offered early release by May 2007. At Stafford, a follow-up early release scheme commenced on 18 June 2007 for staff in the travel-to-work area. Through those measures, we are confident that there will be minimal redundancies as a result of the closure of the storage and distribution centre.

Another aspect of the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency’s activities at the site is Stafford Engineering Wing—now renamed Engineering Services. The future of that function was determined in November 2006. Work not related to product storage, such as in-depth repair work, will remain at Stafford, with responsibility transferring to the Army Base Repair Organisation. Work related to product storage will transfer to Donnington with other Defence Storage and Distribution Agency functions.

The changes to Engineering Services take effect on 1 October 2007. We are fully engaged with the trade unions with the aim of minimising the impact on the individuals affected. Every effort is being made to minimise compulsory redundancies through a number of measures, including redeployment elsewhere in the Ministry of Defence and voluntary early release.

As my hon. Friend is aware, in parallel with the reductions in storage and distribution activity, we have been working towards establishing a permanent Army presence at Stafford. In April 2007, 22 Signal Regiment formed at Stafford, with the necessary infrastructure improvements completed on time. In February 2007, 248 Gurkha Signal Squadron and 222 Signal Squadron moved from their previous units to Stafford and began to settle in. 217 Signal Squadron is now formed and growing steadily, and, together with the support squadron, there are now some 450 soldiers in the regiment and some 200 Army families living in the Stafford and Donnington area.

The regiment has already deployed on operations and has supported a number of events in the borough. I am pleased to say that soldiers and their families have been made to feel very welcome by the local community. I believe that my hon. Friend will be at its official formation parade later this month. The regiment is expected to be more than 500 strong by the end of the year and, together with a small formation of station headquarters staff, Army recruiting teams and the Tactical Supply Wing, we will have more than 800 regular military personnel at the Stafford site.

To complete the current picture, Stafford also provides headquarters for 12 Signal Group, a Territorial Army Signal unit that carries out signals
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training for the Army across the country, and there is also a cadet company headquarters at the site.

Looking ahead, we are examining a number of possible options that would result in the consolidation of the Army's presence at the site. There are plans for the relocation of other cadet units to Stafford, and we are considering the feasibility of making Stafford home to 35 Signal Regiment, a TA unit affiliated to 22 Signal Regiment. We are also considering Stafford as a temporary location for vehicle storage as facilities at Ashchurch are redeveloped. However, I am not in a position to confirm those moves today.

As my predecessor announced on 24 July last year, a study team is examining the long-term basing requirements for elements of the UK's Germany-based forces, particularly the headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, 1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistic Brigade. Stafford is one of three sites being considered as potential bases for elements of 102 Logistic Brigade and 1 Signal Brigade who may return from Germany to the UK. Although a final decision on the future basing of HQ ARRC may be announced before the end of the year, we do not expect to be in a position to announce our final decision on the future basing of 1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistic Brigade before next year at the earliest. Owing to the relative immaturity of our proposals, no discussions have yet been held with local authorities in any of the shortlisted locations for 1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistic Brigade, but we hope to be in a position to start the process soon.

As for the long-term aspirations for Stafford, my hon. Friend is already aware that over the next 30 years the Army aspires to base its people in what, as he knows, are called super-garrisons. The Army is developing its policy in that regard, but the benefits might lead to a smaller number of larger sites, providing a better quality of life and more facilities for Army families. Progress on super-garrisons will depend upon a range of factors including the availability of resources, but there is no doubt that the west midlands is one of the areas with the potential to develop a super-garrison. Partly with that in mind, we currently have no intention of disposing of any land, at Stafford for housing or any other use, in order to retain that flexibility.

I assure my hon. Friend, as has my predecessor, that we understand the need to engage with all relevant Departments, regional bodies and local authorities as we develop our super-garrison proposals. Indeed, officials
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from Defence Estates are already engaged with the west midlands regional spatial strategy, and a marker will be placed for the possible development of a west midlands super-garrison demonstrating the MOD's intentions for the area.

My hon. Friend said that he would appreciate an update on the renaming of MOD Stafford. As he is aware, we have held informal discussions with various stakeholders, units, local dignitaries and the Stafford taskforce to find the right name. MOD Stafford is located in the Beaconside area, as he said, which is so-named because of its use for signalling beacons since Tudor times. Against that background, my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the name “Beacon barracks” emerged as the strong favourite, given that it has strong local connections and is also relevant to the Royal Signals. I am therefore delighted to announce that the barracks should now be known as Beacon barracks.

Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for signalling that future name for the base. I was not urging him to flog off pieces of land for housing, but rather to engage with the planners to defend the possibility of there being a reconfiguration of the site in the future that would enable some of the land to be used to create a capital receipt or a contractual obligation in order to get more accommodation built. It is the planning that now needs to be done, not the selling off of the land. May I also ask my right hon. Friend to write to me about the Stafford Lancers, which I mentioned?

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, I will write to my hon. Friend on that second point. On the first point, I hope that he accepts that we must maintain flexibility if we are to be able to accommodate super-garrisons—if that is where we go. Such decisions cannot be taken at present. We will look at whether or not it is too early to engage with the local authority on planning, because I am told from within the Department that my hon. Friend is concerned that we seize any local opportunities.

Our requirements for land at Beacon barracks have changed, but our need for the estate has not. I can assure my hon. Friend that Beacon barracks feature very much in our plans for the future. We will continue to work closely with the local community and other interested parties as our plans mature.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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