Orders of the Day — Bombing Ranges, Pembrey, Dyfed

– in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 9th November 1979.

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Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacGregor.]

Photo of Mr Roger Thomas Mr Roger Thomas , Carmarthen 4:01 pm, 9th November 1979

When Neville Chamberlain stepped down from his plane at Croydon in 1938 waving a white piece of paper stating "Peace in our time", it was evident that for the people of Kidwelly in South Wales the next two or three generations would be a time of continuous noise.

The bombing range at Kidwelly came into existence in 1938, but it was not used until the commencement of the Second World War, and it has been in almost continuous use since then. Immediately after the war the range was not allowed to function because, strange though it may seem, the objections of the South Wales fisheries committee were upheld. Fish seemed to have succeeded then where human beings have failed in 1979.

In the summer of 1950, after a public inquiry, the bombing range was allowed to reopen for a further period of eight years. The physical effects of the war came to an end for the vast majority in 1945, with demobilisation and a return to civilian work, but not for the people of this small locality. For us the war eventually came to an end in 1958–13 years late, but nevertheless very welcome.

The respite was to be temporary, however. Hardly had the 'fifties given way to the 'sixties when, although rumour was rife that the land was to be used for a sizeable iron and steel development, low-flying aircraft won the day.

Back in the days of the early 'sixties—1962 to be exact—when the Welsh Office was in existence, though it had not been given a Cabinet Minister exclusively devoted to its affairs, following a local public inquiry a Ministry of Housing and Local Government inspectorate approved the reopening of Pembrey range.

This relatively small, historically turbulent, rectangular peninsula lies between the much silted Bury inlet to the east and the estuaries of two rivers, the small and large Gwnendreath, to the west. The then Carmarthen county council objected, emphasising the safety aspect. The proposed operations were described as essential but possessing a high margin of error. The local council was by now convinced that any sizeable iron and steel development would not materialise. Its hopes that the disused airfield and its adjacent ammunition factory could be the site of much-needed light and more diverse industry also fell by the way. Above all, the county authority objected on the ground of continuous daytime noise and general disturbance affecting the town of Kidwelly and its hinterland villages. The coastline was also beginning to flourish as a caravan, chalet and holiday centre.

There was a unanimous decision by all local authorities, at all levels, to object to the reopening of the range. It would bring no employment. It would be an economic and developmental deterrent of the first magnitude. This function it has continued to perform 100 per cent. In the early 1960s, however, the presence of the Royal Navy at Brawdy in West Pembrokeshire, which had been of great significance economically to that county, came to an end, and it would have had disastrous economic sequelae if that had not been seen to. The Welsh Office made serious and successful representations to the Ministry of Defence. As a result, the Royal Air Force technical weapons unit was established. As the years have progressed, Brawdy and Pembrey have become inexorably entwined, Brawdy bringing economic and financial gain to one part of the new county of Dyfed and the Pembrey bombing range acting as an economic and financial deterrent to the other.

The prevailing weather over Kidwelly at about 8 am is of great significance from Monday to Friday. It is the deciding factor whether the population is to be subjected to eight hours of low-level bomb, rocket or cannon attacks. It is little wonder that the people who reside along a coastline comparable in beauty with South Devon or Cornwall break into a chorus of thanksgiving as, on some days, the Atlantic Gulf Stream brings them fog and drizzle. Such inclement weather conditions invariably mean that they will have a quiet, peaceful day, un-shattered by the roar of low-level jets. If one wishes to take advantage of solar energy in Kidwelly, one has to pay a considerable price—the price of intolerable, intractable and inescapable noise that frightens young and old, animals as well as humans. Over the past 18 years the average annual flying time has varied between 750 and 1,000 hours per year. The future does not hold any promise of lessening. There is the reality of more low-level flying to be faced and to be suffered.

The Royal Air Force base at Chivenor, 60 km south across the Bristol Channel, is being refurbished in great style for use by more modern aircraft. As a direct result, from next year Kidwelly's bomb, rocket and cannon range will have to be used on an increasing scale. After 18 years of intolerable interference with their style, standards and quality of life, the people of the locality have set up an action group. Their main aim is to force the Ministry of Defence to take pressure off this small area and to plead even to so impersonal and monolithic a phenomenon as the Ministry of Defence that their intolerable burden must be shared by other parts of the United Kingdom.

So far reason and rationality are holding sway, but lately there has been increasing talk of organising and of taking direct measures to disrupt military flying in the area. As the recently elected Member of Parliament, I still take the view that we should adhere to argument and legal constitutional measures. Those are our potent weapons, but I cannot say for how long. When I and many others have channelled our complaints, we have been reciprocated by an odd mixture of sympathy and incredulity. Why should we be bothering these persons with comparative trifles when in reality they have the defence and well-being of the country as a whole to contend with? I have to admit that when deputations met Ministers from my own party before the last general election the reception was civil, but oh so terribly unresponsive and niggardly insensitive.

Kidwelly is not without a track record of obstinacy and tenacity. In the late 1960s, when plans were afoot for a third London estuary airport, there were quite far advanced plans to bring the Shoeburyness gunnery range to the exact locality of the Pembrey range itself. Back in the late 1960s there was obviously an available alternative site. Now we are told that no alternative site is available. The situations do not tally, and there is a strange evasiveness whenever we try to press home this highly relevant point.

It now appears that, with regard to the low-level bombing range, planes of all countries other than those of the Iron Curtain are welcome. Let me hasten to tell the Minister that 2,500 people have signed a petition asking for a full and high-level inquiry into the seeking and finding of an alternative site. Those 2,500 people represent 90 per cent, of the population of the locality.

We are certainly not without a high sense of realisation that a high degree of preparedness of our air forces is essential. It is simply the case that burdens of this nature, affecting the daily lives of thousands of people, must be shared fairly and not inflicted upon comparatively small pockets of population, hoping that they will accept it with good grace or trusting that we shall continue to be a tolerant lot and that we can be taken for granted.

Teachers at local schools complain that lessons are being interrupted continually. The elderly will simply not go out of doors on fine days. Houses shake to their foundations as the noise reverberates from the hills that lie about three or four miles behind the shoreline. When we complain that pilots do not always strictly follow their planned quadrangular course, this, as it were, adding insult to injury by overflying even more densely populated areas, those who have the stamina and the determination to complain are made to feel fools, imbeciles or downright unpatriotic.

I have not dwelt upon the safety record of the hundreds of planes that have flown low over this locality over the past 30 or 40 years. I need not draw the Minister's attention to the fact that there have been serious accidents in other parts of the Principality. We in this part of Dyfed are wondering for how long our luck will hold out. I beg the Ministry of Defence to look afresh at the problem and give the people of Kidwelly the respite that they richly deserve.

4.14. pm

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Pattie Mr Geoffrey Pattie , Chertsey and Walton

The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Dr. Thomas) for raising this most important matter. Whatever may be the appearance from the outside, the Ministry of Defence is not impersonal or monolithic. We are always happy to do what we can to help within the limits of the task with which we are charged.

I hope that the hon. Member for Carmarthen will bear with me if I say that a large part of my job is concerned with noise and accident problems and bombing ranges. I am extremely aware of the intensity of feeling that he has described. No one in my Department who is charged with the responsibility of fielding those complaints considers people who complain as fools, imbeciles or in any way unpatriotic. The hon. Gentleman will discover that there is a high degree of sensitivity to what people have to put up with, and there is a properly constituted claims machinery to handle damage that may be caused by low-flying aircraft, noise and other disturbances of that sort. He may also be aware that teams of senior RAF personnel are available and frequently in action around the country to liaise with local communities which suffer a variety of different levels of noise from training bases, low-flying aircraft or bombing ranges—and I accept that bombing ranges pose a particular problem.

I fear that I am unlikely to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman much that he has not already heard at the meeting on 1 November of officials of the Ministry of Defence, the Dyfed county planning committee and six other district planning councils in Carmarthen. I realise that the hon. Gentleman probably requested the debate not knowing when that meeting might occur.

The Pembrey range is one of eight air-to-ground weapon ranges used by the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom, and it is the only range that it has in the South-West. It is in close proximity to RAF Brawdy and Chivenor, and that is important because it is essential that the tactical weapons unit is able to operate from a base and out to a range within 50 miles of that base.

When I was preparing my speech, I noted that the hon. Gentleman said that Brawdy and Pembrey are inextricably interlinked, and that is a key element in the problem. In the Ministry of Defence we accept that it is a joint problem. We want to do anything that we can within the limits of the task that we are set to help the hon. Gentleman's constituents. I fully accept that it is a common problem and not something that can be contained by the people of Kidwelly and its immediate environs. That is why teams are visiting the range and why we monitor, from time to time, on an unannounced basis, the way in which the pilots fly that range. We make certain at all times that we know the sort of missions that they are flying.

A considerable part of the course at RAF Brawdy is devoted to the theory and practice of operational weapons systems. The instruction there must be supplemented with intensive training in the use of the systems in the air to the point at which the weapon would be released. I was pleased and grateful for the assurance of the hon. Member for Carmarthen that he and the local community recognise the role and mission for which these pilots are being trained.

There is no substitute for the type of flying that has to be carried out. The hon. Gentleman was perfectly fair when he pointed out that the Royal Navy participation at Brawdy ended. He mentioned Shoeburyness and the proposal that was being considered in earlier discussions about the third London airport. Indeed, it is fascinating to notice the recurrence of that theme. The planners have the problem of grappling with it yet again.

It was suggested that, if Brawdy was to be closed at the same time, the tactical weapons unit could be located somewhere else. There are eight RAF air-to-ground weapons ranges throughout the United Kingdom, of which Pembrey is one. All the ranges are reasonably close to the limits of Royal Air Force stations. Therefore, it was proposed to move the tactical weapons unit to another Royal Air Force station, adjacent to an existing range. The Ministry of Defence felt the full weight of the economic lobby of that part of Wales and it was decided, after all, to reopen Brawdy and deploy the tactical weapons unit into it. Of course, there has been considerable benefit to the local community, to the tune of about £6 million per year. There has also been the direct employment of about 300 people.

Once the decision was taken, it follows that the tactical weapons unit, its main raison d'etre being to carry out the operational weapons training, has to use the Pembrey range. The hon. Gentleman should address his campaigning to the district councils and people in the hinterland of Brawdy. He should point out that he is campaigning for something that is of concern to his constituents and which would almost inevitably result in the closure of the airfield on which the local economy largely depends. He should ask those people how they feel about the matter.

If the hon. Gentleman is able to suggest to me suitable alternative sites for the bombing ranges and suitable Royal Air Force stations that are sufficiently close to those bombing ranges, I would seriously consider it.

If we examine the logic of the situation, we must recognise that we live in a modern and dangerous world and we must have the ability to defend ourselves. The hon. Gentleman has reaffirmed his support for that. If we are to defend ourselves properly and to make a proper contribution to the Alliance, we must be ready to support and pay for an air force. If we are to have an air force, we must give it the best possible operational training, and an essential feature of that training is proper weapons practice.

If we are to have proper weapons practice, we must have bombing ranges on which to carry out that practice. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that we use ranges in Sardinia, Cyprus and North America, which have considerable attractions, not only for the crews who are deployer there but because they do not suffer from 8 am drizzle and fog as often as does Kidwelly.

We deploy to bombing ranges outside the United Kingdom in order to vary the operational diet as well as to provide some respite, however small, to the populations within the environs of the eight ranges in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr Roger Thomas Mr Roger Thomas , Carmarthen

As I said, hitherto Brawdy and Pembrey have been intertwined. With the development of Chivenor, will it be nearer the truth in future to say that Chivenor and Pembrey are to be intertwined? There is a fear in South Wales that since Brawdy has seen better days, Chivenor will be the dominant partner in future.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Pattie Mr Geoffrey Pattie , Chertsey and Walton

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that matter. I mean that; I am not using the phrase in the parliamentary way in which it is sometimes used. I can give him a categoric assurance that Brawdy's future is in no doubt. We are to have the triumvirate of Chivenor, Brawdy and Pembrey. Chivenor is being activated, though not in "the grand manner", as the hon. Gentleman suggested. That may have been a touch of Welsh rhetoric.

Photo of Mr Roger Thomas Mr Roger Thomas , Carmarthen

If we have a tripartite arrangement, with two bases supplying the planes and one bombing range, does that not mean that the amount of practice bombing at Pembrey could increase appreciably in the next year or so?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Pattie Mr Geoffrey Pattie , Chertsey and Walton

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. We are working together splendidly. I can give him a further absolute assurance that not only is Brawdy's future in no doubt but that, although Chivenor is to come in by about August 1980, with Hawk aircraft—which Brawdy is also receiving—I endorse without equivocation the assurance of my predecessor that the combined usage will not exceed the 1971 level of 1,025 hours.

I should like to continue the process of logic that I started a few moments ago. I have outlined the Ministry's desire to use suitable ranges abroad. There is, of course, a reasonable cost penalty, because we have to provide tanker aircraft and transport our aircraft over considerable distances.

There is no point in trying to pretend that I can hold out hope that we shall do anything to vary the existing arrangements at Pembrey. The right approach is one that I have adopted in other parts of the country, namely, not to try to shift the burden elsewhere. However, my offer to the hon. Gentleman is genuine and remains. If he can find an alternative site and an RAF station to go with it, I shall be happy to talk to him about it.

I believe that we should make as certain as possible that the rules, such as whether aircraft keep to the western side of the railway, are strictly adhered to. That is important.

The aircraft using Chivenor will be Hawk aircraft and not the Hunters that the hon. Gentleman sees operating from Brawdy. The Hawks will also be phased in at Brawdy. They are quieter aircraft and, although that may seem a minor consolation, I hope that even a minor improvement will be well received.

I shall be happy to consider any detailed matters that the hon. Gentleman or the local councils wish to raise with me, but I regret that, in the light of the task placed upon us to prepare properly for the defence of this country, we must have a capability of operational weapons training and ranges on which to carry it out. Therefore, we shall have to continue to use the range at Pembrey.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.