6 Jan 2010 : Column 69WH

6 Jan 2010 : Column 69WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 January 2010

[Mr. George Howarth in the Chair]

RAF Lyneham (Strategic Defence)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(David Wright.)

9.30 am

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I will begin by saying how pleased I am to have the opportunity to debate a matter of key concern to my constituency, as RAF Lyneham is based in North Wiltshire. I should say at the outset, however, that the debate is not about RAF Lyneham or North Wiltshire, although I hope that a side effect of what I will say might be a rethinking of the plan to close the base. The debate is about the strategic defence of the realm, the way in which the air transport fleet as a whole has been developed over recent years and current plans for its future change.

It would be wrong to start the debate without paying due tribute to the airmen and airwomen of RAF Lyneham who play such a central role in armed conflicts around the world. "First in, last out" is their great claim, to supply, to save, and to provide everything that the Army, Air Force and Royal Navy need on the ground. That all comes from RAF Lyneham in the magnificent Hercules C-130Ks and C-130Js. They have done a superb job for the nation and I pay tribute to all that they do.

They also play a central role in the repatriation of military bodies through RAF Lyneham. I know that the Minister will be as concerned as I am by the ridiculous notion expressed by Mr. Choudary that he might lead some kind of counter-protest through the streets of Wootton Bassett. I know that the Government, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others are totally opposed to any such nonsense. I mention, in passing, that I was surprised by Sir Hugh Orde's remarks on the front page of The Daily Telegraph this morning, as he believes that Mr. Choudary's procession down Wootton Bassett high street should go ahead. That seems an odd remark for Sir Hugh to have made, as he has no possible connection with policing in Wiltshire. I am glad that the Government are determined, as am I, to prevent any such protest.

The debate is not about RAF Lyneham, but about the air transport fleet more widely and a series of decisions made in recent years which seem to be wrong-headed, incorrect and internally inconsistent and which seem to have got the whole question of how we spend our defence budgets on air transport wrong. That relates in part to how the procurements have been run, most notably for the A400M, which I will return to in a moment. The debate is partly about the basing study, which concluded that all our air transport should be brought together in RAF Brize Norton. It seems to me that that started on the wrong premise, was written with the wrong arguments and included some questionable accounting. In general, it is well worthy of revisiting.

The Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats-in the event that they form a Government-are committed to a strategic defence review after the general election. As a result of our discussions
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this morning, therefore, we should at least be ready to think that all those questions about air transport should be re-examined on a fundamental and strategic level in the SDR that will follow the general election. I have mentioned two aspects, but other areas to be considered include cargo, passengers and air-to-air refuelling. In the meantime, other decisions and actions that might prevent that re-examination in the SDR should be stopped. That is the main thrust of what I am seeking to achieve in the debate.

The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and other hon. Members will know of the various plans currently afoot for the air transport fleet. We will run down the remaining 16 C-130Ks by 2012 and move the 24 C-130Js to RAF Brize Norton. I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement just before Christmas that we will buy a further C-17, taking that fleet to seven. Theoretically, at least we are going to buy 25 A400M airframes, and I will return to that point later. It is claimed that those will be in service from 2015, but we have no idea when the first plane will come or how long it will take for the rest to come into service after that. We are going to buy a total of 14 A330 tankers-a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot will expand on in a moment. We are also going to retire the VC10s and TriStars. All of that will be brought together at RAF Brize Norton, with RAF Lyneham closing by December 2012. All of that is known.

I have put together a little dossier, a copy of which I have given to the Minister, and copies are available for other Members and interested parties. It brings together all those facts, figures and thoughts in one easy place, and I should be grateful if the Minister would ask officials to respond to it in detail after the debate.

Central to all that has been planned for the air transport fleet is the notion that the A400M, together with the tankers and the C-130Js, will supply all our air transport needs, now and in all known or potential future conflicts. Central to those plans is the notion that that mix of C-130Js and the A400M could fill a smaller strategic footprint and, therefore, could all be crammed together at RAF Brize Norton. Behind that lies the notion that closing RAF Lyneham will save sufficient money to make possible the necessary upgrade at Brize Norton. I will briefly examine all those presumptions.

The first test flight of the A400M occurred recently, but everyone in this Chamber and outside knows that large questions remain over whether it will be ready in time-it almost certainly will not. We have no idea at all how much it will cost. Reuters reported this week that the chairman of EADS, the manufacturing company, said that unless substantially more money is pumped into the A400M, it will not want to go ahead with it. The Germans are busy touring the middle east trying to find new partners in the project.

I know that the former, and very much lamented, Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), in the week or two before he stood down from that post, and after being prompted by the RAF at a senior level, announced to the Department that he would cancel the A400M. That decision was overturned more recently, and it will be being considered within the Ministry of Defence, but I am reliably informed that he had decided to cancel the A400M for the reasons I shall describe.

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In any case, no one believes that the gap between the end of the C-130Ks and the incoming A400Ms will be bridged. There is an undeniable gap in our strategic and tactical air transport fleet, and anyone who knows anything about these things is extremely worried about that gap. In a recent briefing here in the House of Commons, the Chief of the Air Staff commented on how the C-17s are burning up:

He said that there is a major problem with the C-17 fleet, that he knows that there is a major problem with the C-130Ks and that the A400Ms will not fit that gap.

Even if the A400M is ready, is it really what we want? It is not big enough for the future rapid effect system project, which is now on the back burner at least, and possibly cancelled, and it is not big enough for the Mastiff. Helicopters, which are now so important in theatres such as Afghanistan, even when dismantled to a relatively sensible level, cannot be put in the A400M, but they could be put in the C-17. Many people in the RAF are not at all certain that the A400M is what they want or that it is fit for purpose. Many people in the RAF and the MOD are increasingly coming to the view that a better fleet would be a mixture of C-17s and C-130Js. I am told that it would be possible to purchase more of both from Boeing, were the Government to make that decision reasonably swiftly.

Such a decision would, of course, have industrial consequences, not least in my constituency. The wings for the A400M are made in Filton in Bristol, so I am conscious that there would be industrial consequences if they were to be cancelled. None the less, surely the SDR and what we are considering this morning should not be about jobs or industry, but about the proper defence of the realm. If we identify a gap in our defences, and I believe that the air transport fleet is such a gap, surely it is not right to allow it to continue because jobs depend on it. Surely we want to do what is right for the air transport fleet, irrespective of the sad fact that cancelling the A400M might have consequences for jobs in Bristol. After all, closing RAF Lyneham would have huge consequences, as some 10,000 people in my constituency altogether, including spouses, owe their livelihoods to it. The Government have decided to close it despite the devastating consequences that that would have on the economy of my constituency. We have to take decisions that are right for the defence of the realm, irrespective of the economic consequences-in this case, for Bristol.

The Government's conclusion that everything should be brought together at RAF Brize Norton through Project CATARA-centralised air transport and air-to-air refuelling assets-is wrong for a wide variety of reasons. This is a direct quote from what an extremely senior RAF officer said to me the other day:

A serving RAF officer who knows exactly what he is talking about is delighted that he will have left the RAF by the time Project CATARA is completed. Others will have to live with the mess.

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In the main, I want to touch on what that mess will be. It is fairly obvious that Project CATARA will put all our air transport eggs in one basket. It is very neat to take all our air transport and bung it in one place. Of course, there is only one runway at Brize Norton, compared with the three that we have at present: two at Lyneham and one at Brize Norton. Bung everything into one place at Brize Norton-what an invitation to an enemy, a terrorist or adverse weather conditions. Brize Norton is subject to flooding and fog, and if the runway is closed incessantly because of weather or-I shudder to say it-a dirty bomb on the one runway, we would remove our entire air transport capabilities for days or weeks.

Recently, a Vulcan was in the air, and a TriStar had a blowout on the runway at Brize Norton. The Vulcan had to divert to RAF Lyneham-thank goodness it was still there-and the plane landed with just enough fuel left. The other day, an emergency helicopter requested permission to land at Brize Norton and was told that it could not because there was not room on the runway. What a foretaste of things to come-we are putting all our air transport eggs in one basket.

I tabled a parliamentary question the other day, asking what would happen if the Brize Norton runway were to be closed for some reason or other. The Minister responded that in the event of the Brize runway being closed, civilian airports would be used in an emergency. By contrast, the day after I got that response, I had breakfast here, thanks to the excellent all-party Royal Air Force group, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot. The Chief of the Air Staff was there, and I asked him what would happen if all our air transport eggs were in one basket at Brize Norton, and it were closed for some reason. He said, "We would have to use other airports." I said, "That is very interesting, Chief. Which other airports have you in mind?" He said, "I think Bournemouth." There we have it: Bournemouth. RAF Lyneham is closed, RAF Brize Norton is out of operation because of weather or a terrorist bomb, and we have dangerous cargoes, weapons, and, sadly, perhaps dead bodies being returned to Bournemouth airport. Does this Parliament really want Bournemouth airport to be used as an alternative to our RAF bases? I am sure that we do not.

Anyway, Brize Norton is fantastically crammed already. It is a much smaller airport than Lyneham, and there simply is not enough room for the 6,000 servicemen and their aircraft that will be based there. There will be 65 planes altogether, but there are only 62 parking slots, so it is too small for the planes themselves. There is no room at all for training. The Government are talking about reactivating Keevil airport for training purposes. Keevil has been used only by gliders for some years now. They are talking about closing Lyneham and bringing Keevil back.

There are not nearly enough married quarters at Brize Norton, so we have two options. We could bus all the airmen down from Lyneham to Brize Norton-they have already been told that that will take two hours each day off their shifts, thereby restricting the length of their shifts. Alternatively, the Government are looking into whether they could buy the married quarters at Faringdon. They are going to close the married quarters at Lyneham and buy Faringdon. The cost of buying the married quarters at Faringdon is £200 million. What complete and utter nonsense that is.

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By contrast, of course, Lyneham has everything that could possibly be wanted. It has huge ramp and hangar capacity and plenty of married accommodation. Its simulators are state of the art. The C-130J simulator is widely known to be absolutely the best in the business. It will be torn down by big cranes and £10 million will be spent on building a new one at Brize Norton-another £10 million wasted.

The people around RAF Lyneham are not noise-averse-they are wholly supportive of the RAF. I am not certain that the people of Carterton in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, would necessarily be all that pleased about having all the planes in one place.

One particular thing worries me enormously. The House has been concerned in recent weeks about accidents of one kind and another that have occurred because of cost-paring in the MOD budget. There are some worrying air traffic control implications with all the planes operating from Brize Norton under Project CATARA. I have expanded on that in detail in the dossier that I have given the Minister, but there are three important aspects.

First, Lyneham and Brize Norton are at very different altitudes, and the runways go in different directions. Basically, they are at right angles to each other. Lyneham has two runways, and Brize Norton has one, which is often closed by fog or snow. They are ideal alternative airports to each other. Planes can easily divert from Lyneham to Brize Norton and vice versa. Of course, that safety arrangement would be lost if Lyneham were closed.

Secondly, a recently retired RAF air traffic controller said to me:


He went on to say that there was a real likelihood of accidents occurring as a result of the absence of that safety valve.

In a parliamentary question, I asked the Minister what consideration had been given to the air traffic control implications of Project CATARA, and what he was doing about the safety aspects. He replied that

The Minister had not yet considered whether there were air traffic control or safety implications in Project CATARA. The Government do not know. Putting everything at Brize Norton may actually make life more dangerous and result in accidents, but the MOD has not yet looked into it-it is considering the matter. I find it absolutely astonishing that we as a country will spend hundreds of millions of pounds to bring all the planes together in one place, but we have not looked into whether that may make our air transport more dangerous, and result in more accidents.

The third point on air traffic control is that the concentration of aircraft at Brize will result in some real problems on the ground. I put some maps in my dossier, but, in simple terms, at Brize Norton there is no taxiway parallel to the runway to the north. There is only a
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taxiway to the south. What has to be done in such circumstances is rather like what is done at Heathrow, which has a one-way system.

However, having no taxiway to the north, which, incidentally, is where the passenger terminal and the operations base are, means that all the planes have to cross the runway to get where they are going. There are already substantial delays at RAF Brize Norton. A pilot tells me that one can wait for up to half an hour. One VC10 on the runway would mean that other planes would have to wait for half an hour to get across the runway. It is widely presumed that one cannot achieve a satisfactory operation with no taxiway to the north of the runway. Those details are laid out more carefully in the paper that I have given the Minister. There are very real problems: we are talking about the potential for huge congestion at RAF Brize Norton, which will obviously curtail our capabilities overseas.

Those problems and all the others that I have mentioned could, of course, be sorted out if the Government were to spend a sufficient amount of money on Project CATARA. Clearly, if they chucked a lot of money at it, they could build a second taxiway, reorganise the officers' mess, which I gather is in the way, sort out the married quarters and the simulators and so on. Therefore, I would like to take a quick look at a rather obscure area of MOD accounting. I shall try not to bore the House too much with the detail, which, again, I have laid out with some care in my paper.

Originally, this project was budgeted to cost £360 million: the Government were going to spend £360 million on bringing all the planes together at RAF Brize Norton. However, I hear that that has already been slashed to £180 million to help pay for Operation Herrick in Afghanistan. Imagine any project's budget being cut in half; either the budget was vastly too great in the first place or we are cutting corners to a significant extent today to achieve other things in the MOD budget. I should be interested to know whether that is so.

I have also been told that the way the MOD have worked the accounting on this project means that it is concealing quite a large amount of the infrastructure costs of Brize Norton, not under Project CATARA but under the A400M project. It is covering up the actual cost of rebuilding Brize Norton by putting the money invisibly into the A400M project. The Minister looks surprised by that, but it is simple. Perhaps he would care to lay out for me-I will happily table a parliamentary question to this effect-in words of one syllable the total infrastructure costs of rebuilding RAF Brize Norton. I have asked a number of parliamentary questions and been fobbed off. If the Minister denies that this is so, I will happily table a parliamentary question today and I expect him to reply by laying out in minute detail precisely what all the infrastructure costs are at Brize Norton. I suspect that they are much higher than he is currently prepared to admit.

The second area of dodgy accounting that I would like the Minister to look into is the annual saving from the closure of Lyneham that is talked about. At the moment there is a £44 million budget, but of course most of that will go across to Brize Norton. I am told that the net saving from closing Lyneham is round about £6 million a year: absolute peanuts. So it will cost us hundreds of millions of pounds to move to Brize Norton and we are saving £6 million a year. The MOD's
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brave claim that this will all pay for itself within a few years is exposed as nonsense. I suspect that it will take at least 50 years to repay it, and probably even longer.

Perhaps we will make a lot of money out of selling the RAF Lyneham site. If we can make hundreds of millions out of that, we can use the money to pay for CATARA. I have looked carefully into that, too, and have noticed a couple of things. First, the so-called Crichel Down rules will apply to the sale of RAF Brize Norton. In other words, it has to be offered back to the original owners from whom it was requisitioned in 1938. A Member of the House of Lords, the noble Lord who occupies Corsham manor nearby, is the original owner. I suspect that that Liberal Democrat noble Lord will lay hands on it and say, "Thank you very much indeed. I'll have the land back at the original price." Anyhow, local planning rules mean that the site could not be used for extensive building, although there might be some light house building.

More importantly, it seems likely that the cost of decontaminating the site, as required under the Crichel Down rules, would be enormous. I asked the Minister how much he has budgeted to decontaminate the site of RAF Lyneham and here is his answer:

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