RAF Biggin Hill (Selection Centre)

– in the House of Commons at 2:18 pm on 16th June 1989.

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

Photo of Mr John Hunt Mr John Hunt , Ravensbourne 2:31 pm, 16th June 1989

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise a matter that is of great concern to my constituents and many people well beyond the boundaries of Bromley. I am particularly pleased to see a number of hon. Members supporting me in the debate, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), my Bromley colleagues, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), who I think is hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am referring to the proposed transfer of the RAF office and air crew selection centre from Biggin Hill to Cranwell. This came as a bolt from the blue last October and immediately aroused a wave of protest and indignation, not only from my constituents but from a wide range of groups associated with the RAF.

For many people in Britain and far beyond, there are strong emotional and historic ties with RAF Biggin Hill. It was, after all, the RAF's most famous war-time base and played a decisive role at a crucial stage in the second world war. As a young schoolboy in south-east London, I can remember the pride and excitement of seeing the Spitfires and Hurricanes valiantly defending our capital from the German bombers. I am told that some 1,600 enemy aircraft were shot down by pilots operating from Biggin Hill. We owe it to those men to ensure that an effective and meaningful RAF presence remains at Biggin Hill, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have noted that I am today wearing the RAF Biggin Hill tie as a mark of my commitment to the cause.

My hon. Friend the Minister has close links with Biggin Hill. He is a former distinguished mayor of the London borough of Bromley and I recall that his parents lived for many years at Leaves Green, just a stone's throw from the airfield. Therefore, like me, he knows of the important role that RAF Biggin Hill plays in the life of the local community. For example, it gives generous help and support to the Spitfire youth club in Biggin Hill and it involves itself in many other community projects within the borough. It is for this reason, among others, that the RAF station was given the freedom of the London borough of Bromley some time ago. It is for this reason also that the proposed closure has caused such distress and dismay in all parts of the borough.

We are told that on cost and service grounds there would be considerable advantages in moving the centre to RAF Cranwell. What are those advantages? I hope, for example, that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to quantify the cost advantages rather more convincingly than he has so far been able to do. His written answers to my questions on 24 January were somewhat vague. Real doubts have been raised about the projected savings of £10 million over 10 years. It seems that that figure would depend in part upon the cost of additional accommodation required at Cranwell. My hon. Friend has provided an estimate of £5·5 million at current prices for that. In four or five years, however, the figure could well be nearer £10 million. We must remember also that the RAF works services budget is already severely over-stretched.

A crucial matter is the capital receipts that are likely to accrue from any disposal of the site. The local Biggin Hill ward representative, Councillor David Haslam, who has considerable professional expertise in such matters, has calculated that the maximum likely to be raised in this way is £16 million, but many think that it would be a substantially smaller sum than that. We must remember that it is a green belt site, so the development potential is necessarily strictly limited.

In his written answer to me on 24 January my hon. Friend the Minister declined to give an estimate of the likely capital receipts, pleading what he called "commercial confidentiality". I hope that he will be a little more forthcoming this afternoon.

What about what are called service grounds? The accessibility of Cranwell is clearly inferior to that of Biggin Hill. My hon. Friend will know that Bromley South station is only a 15-minute train journey from Victoria, and that there is a regular bus service from Bromley to the camp gate at Biggin Hill. Cranwell cannot rival that and by comparison is a remote location.

Currently, 70 civilian personnel are employed at Biggin Hill. In the main, they are locally engaged civil servants who have considerable experience of the special skills that are involved in the selection process. As I understand it, none of them is prepared to move to Cranwell. Is the Minister seriously telling us that suitably experienced replacements will be readily available in Lincolnshire? If not, presumably RAF personnel will have to be recruited to fill the gap, and that means more expenditure. In addition, there will be redundancy payments for the civilians at Biggin Hill.

We cannot overestimate the importance to the RAF of a strong and flourishing air training corps. We have the Minister's assurance that the Biggin Hill squadron of the ATC will remain in its present buildings, and we all welcome that. It seems, however, that that misses the point that RAF Biggin Hill provides a support base for about 135 squadrons of the ATC and cadet forces throughout London and the south-east. If RAF Biggin Hill goes, one is bound to ask where they are to be located. I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that the continued existence of the ATC squadrons is vital to continued recruitment for the RAF as a whole. The question of recruitment is directly bound up with the location of the officers and aircrew selection centre. I understand that recruitment to the RAF is becoming progressively more difficult as a result of the declining numbers of school and university leavers. At the same time, the RAF is facing greater competition for the reducing number of available technically qualified youngsters.

As I have shown, the Biggin Hill officers and aircrew selection centre is well located within easy reach of London. Its buildings are tailor-made for its important job. In addition, the buildings are bought and paid for and still have plenty of useful life left in them. Incidentally, those buildings are also used for aircrew testing by the Army and the Navy flying arms to carry out aptitude and medical tests. If that facility is no longer available, the Army and Navy presumably would have to build their own facilities and that would be an additional cost to be placed on the debit side of the Minister's balance sheet.

For those reasons, many of us fail to understand the sense or logic in the Minister's proposal. May I therefore make a special request to the Minister this afternoon: while allowing the planning for the move to continue for the time being, will he also ensure that there is a ministerial review of the costs involved before any irrevocable decision is taken? It would also be greatly appreciated if he could find time to visit RAF Biggin Hill to see the splendid spirit there and the efficiency and effectiveness of the centre.

As the Minister will know, his predecessor visited the centre to announce the transfer proposal last October. In fact, it was his first visit there. My feeling was that he was immensely impressed by what he saw and that if he had come a little earlier he might not quite so readily have endorsed the closure plan.

I fully recognise that the Minister has undertaken to retain the chapel and the gate guardians on the site. That undertaking raises more questions and worries. In his letter to me on 12 October, my hon. Friend the Minister's predecessor said: The Chapel will be retained as a lasting symbol of the Station's historical role in the Battle of Britain and continue to be accessible to the many visitors it attracts.? However, my understanding is that, without an RAF presence, there could be no chapel. Without regular services, I contend that the chapel would soon become a very sad and sorry symbol. I would welcome any reassurances that my hon. Friend can offer on that point.

More than 11 years ago the selection centre was under a similar threat of closure. In November 1977, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), whose constituency at the time included Biggin Hill, initiated an Adjournment debate. In those days, the intention was to transfer the officers and aircrew selection centre from Biggin Hill to the RAF station at Bentley Priory. On reading the record, it is interesting to see that the move was justified on the basis of so-called cost-effective benefits to defence expenditure. Apparently however, those benefits were subsequently in doubt because the transfer plan was eventually abandoned. I hope today that I can match the dramatically successful eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington on that occasion. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister to maintain my local reputation in that respect.

The station crest of RAF Biggin Hill bears a chain with the motto "The Strongest Link." It seems to me that we owe it to the brave fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain, as well as to future RAF generations, to ensure that that link is not broken by a foolish and short-sighted decision aimed at achieving financial savings which, in the end, could prove illusory and highly damaging.

Photo of Mr Ivor Stanbrook Mr Ivor Stanbrook , Orpington 2:44 pm, 16th June 1989

With the leave of my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) and that of the Minister, I rise briefly to support my hon. Friend's powerful plea for the retention of an RAF presence at Biggin Hill.

I must declare a special interest. I am a graduate of the 1942 class of the aircrew selection centre, which was then based at St. John's Wood. It was a great pleasure and honour subsequently to be elected Member for Parliament for the constituency in which Biggin Hill was then sited.

As my hon. Friend has said, we survived an attempt by the Labour Government in 1977 to transfer Biggin Hill on grounds of cost, and I am surprised and ashamed today that a Conservative Government should see fit, on the same grounds, to abandon the RAF presence there. The very name of Biggin Hill evokes the spirit of patriotism and endeavour in the British nation, and I should have thought that when considering such a move the Minister would take into account more carefully than he has in the past the effect that it would have on morale and recruitment.

Biggin Hill is of great importance to both the RAF and the surrounding population, and I plead earnestly with the Minister not to take this action.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside 2:46 pm, 16th June 1989

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) for giving me the opportunity to speak. The House is aware of my interest in the Royal Air Force, and I will not go into that. Let me simply say that my hon. Friend the Minister should remember that Biggin Hill is the centre of excellence in selection. The world at large talks about Biggin Hill; it does not talk about the Royal Air Force officer and aircrew selection centre.

Biggin Hill is the brand name of excellence, and no commercial organisation would throw that away. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and to throw away the brand name of excellence in the run-up to that anniversary would make no sense to me or to many others who have spent a lifetime supporting the RAF.

Photo of Mr Michael Neubert Mr Michael Neubert , Romford 2:47 pm, 16th June 1989

It is a mark of the characteristic zeal of my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) that he should raise the question of Biggin Hill. I know that he has been seeking the opportunity to do so for a long time, and I congratulate him on his success in initiating this short debate. I have known him for longer than anyone else in politics, and I can say that his reputation as a campaigning constituency Member of Parliament is unrivalled and thoroughly deserved.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne for raising this issue today. The name of RAF Biggin Hill occupies a lasting and memorable place in the annals of our recent history, reflecting the brave spirit of defiance shown by members of the Royal Air Force who, facing great odds, fought and won for us the Battle of Britain in the dark days of 1940. I know that many people in my hon. Friend's constituency, Members of the House and former service men from both this country and abroad who have been in one way or another associated with RAF Biggin Hill, feel a great deal of sadness that the station is finally to close as an active Royal Air Force location, particularly—as my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) mentioned—as we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain next year.

As a former mayor of Bromley and leader of the council, and having spent my boyhood at Leaves Green very close to RAF Biggin Hill, I share those feelings of regret, but it is important that we look to the future as well as the past. I am grateful for the opportunity to set out, in response to the excellent case made by my hon. Friend, some of the reasons why the RAF officer and air crew selection centre is to move—in about four years' time—from Biggin Hill to RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire.

It would be helpful, to put the matter in full perspective, if I were to give the House some of the wider history of RAF Biggin Hill. This really began in 1917 when it was established as part of the inner patrol zone of the London defence area. During both world wars it played a major part in the defence of London. Originally the station was a base for Bristol fighters which operated at night against German air raids in the last year of the first world war. During 1918, the station was used for experimental work on wireless communication between the ground and aircraft in flight, and by the end of the war movements of the home defence squadrons in the air were being controlled through the transmitter at Biggin Hill.

In 1938, the station was again used for experimental work, in connection with the interception of hostile aircraft, under the direction of Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and Professor Watson Watt. At the outbreak of the second world war, Biggin Hill was home to Nos. 32 and 79 squadrons, both equipped with Hurricanes, and No. 601 squadron equipped with Blenheims. On 29 November 1939, aircraft from 601 squadron, together with others from 25 squadrons, attacked the Borkum seaplane base. However, it was during the Battle of Britain, when its squadrons were engaged in some of the fiercest fighting of those critical three months, that the name of the station became famous. It shared with RAF Hornchurch the doubtful distinction of being the most frequently bombed airfield in Fighter Command.

Most famous squadrons operated from Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britain. Amongst the many famous pilots who flew with them were Group Captain Rankin, Group Captain Green, Wing Commander Kent, Wing Commander Stanford Tuck and Squadron Leader Neville Duke, later to become the well-known test pilot. In 1944, squadrons in the Biggin Hill sector began to escort light bombers of the Tactical Air Force to bomb the French railway system in preparation for the forthcoming landings in Normandy. Later that year, Spitfires of different squadrons provided air cover for Lancasters bombing the dykes on Walcheren Island, the key to the port of Antwerp.

After the second world war RAF Biggin Hill continued as a fighter station, and Nos. 600 and 615 Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons, and later a regular squadron, No. 41 squadron, operated from there. But in January 1958 RAF Biggin Hill became non-operational, although the University of London Air Squadron remained there, and No. 61 Group Communications Flight moved there in March 1958. However, on 7 February 1959, more than 30 years ago, all Royal Air Force flying from the station finally ceased.

While the RAF retained some working and domestic accommodation, the actual airfield at RAF Biggin Hill was transferred from the RAF to the Ministry of Aviation in 1964, and later sold to the London borough of Bromley in 1974. I remember, as mayor, presiding over the council meeting which decided to purchase Biggin Hill. Since then, civil flying has continued very successfully from the airfield, and this weekend the annual international air show, which has become a prominent part of flying activities from Biggin Hill, is to be held, with the planned participation of the RAF's Red Arrows. I am sure that this important and prestigious event will once again prove to be a resounding success, and will continue well into the future, keeping the name of Biggin Hill before an appreciative public.

In April 1959 with the cessation of flying operations the Ground Officers Selection Centre was transferred to Biggin Hill from Uxbridge, and in April 1962 the officers and aircrew selection centre formed at RAF Biggin Hill and took on the tasks previously performed by the ground officers' selection centre at Biggin Hill and the aircrew selection centre at RAF Hornchurch, thus illustrating the nature of change over the years. Since it was established, the selection centre has done an excellent job in helping the Royal Air Force to choose young men and women to join its ranks, and I would like to pay tribute to all those who have worked and continue to work at the OASC. However, after more than 20 years it has become increasingly apparent that with the changes which the Royal Air Force is facing to keep abreast of modern developments, and the introduction of major new aircraft types such as Tornado and the European fighter aircraft, the centre not only needs to be part of a larger establishment than Biggin Hill can provide, but also needs to share in the spirit and atmosphere of the modern Air Force, to provide potential recruits with a realistic flavour of life in the service today. We have therefore decided that it should move to RAF Cranwell, where it will become a part of the wider activities of the RAF college in an environment that is well suited to its task, alongside an active military airfield.

Various alternative locations for the selection centre were considered before RAF Cranwell was chosen as the most appropriate new site. Apart from financial aspects, a range of other factors was taken into account, including accessibility and ease of travel to the centre for candidates. Examination of the points of origin of candidates showed that a more northerly location than Biggin Hill would be fully justified, and good transport links to Cranwell, which is easily reached by road, bus or train, will make travelling to the centre after relocation simple and convenient. The RAF is prepared to provide a transport service to the nearest railway station, at Grantham. There are of course already many visitors to the RAF college at Cranwell.

This decision has been taken as part of a wider and continuing initiative to keep under review the estate holdings and deployment of the Royal Air Force, and to ensure that the most cost-effective use is made of the resources available to the service. The selection centre is now the only unit based at Biggin Hill, and to maintain its presence it requires a considerable administrative "tail" in supporting functions such as catering, motor transport and supply. By transferring the selection centre to the much larger station at RAF Cranwell, where the administration wing alone is larger than Biggin Hill's total complement, we shall reap economies of scale to correct that imbalance. Cranwell will be able to absorb the OASC with only a small increase in its own support establishment. We will thus be able to save about 113 service and 19 civilian posts and secure running cost savings of more than £2 million a year once the move is complete. Some new building will be required at RAF Cranwell, but income from disposing of most of the existing real estate at Biggin Hill, including a large number of married quarters, will be more than adequate to compensate for the new facilities needed. I shall keep these factors under review in the years ahead, but I can offer my hon. Friends no prospect of the equation changing in their favour. Indeed, we expect an ample margin of funds from disposal to be available for investment elsewhere, assisting in the process of adjusting the size and shape of the defence estate to meet the challenges that the services must face into the next century.

To revert to this century and the earlier history of the station, to commemorate all the aircrew who died while serving in the Biggin Hill sector during the war, St. George's chapel of remembrance was established at the station. The present chapel is the second on the site, the first having been dedicated on 19 September 1943, some months after the sector had received confirmation of the destruction of its 1,000th enemy aircraft. Unfortunately, the first chapel was completely destroyed by fire in 1946. An appeal was then launched with the endorsement of Sir Winston Churchill to erect a permanent shrine of remembrance at the station. Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding laid the foundation stone of a new building in July 1951, and the Lord Bishop of Rochester dedicated the chapel on 10 November 1951, since when it has been in full use as a Royal Air Force church.

In recognition of the historical importance of Biggin Hill, we intend to retain and maintain, as a Royal Air Force responsibility, St. George's memorial chapel, along with Hurricane and Spitfire gate guardians, which reflect the past activities of the station. Arrangements will be made to ensure the chapel will be accessible to members of the public, and available for services as appropriate. This will ensure that a lasting memorial of the distinguished history of the station and the famous part it played in the Battle of Britain remains available both to those with a personal memory of, or connection with, those events and to subsequent generations, for whom that epic struggle would otherwise be only a formal entry in their history books.

Photo of Mr John Hunt Mr John Hunt , Ravensbourne

Can my hon. Friend add to that by giving an assurance that a chaplain will be appointed?

Photo of Mr Michael Neubert Mr Michael Neubert , Romford

I shall certainly consider that point in response to my hon. Friend's plea.

I refer now to discussions with Bromley borough council concerning disposal of that part of the site that we shall not retain. Consultants have been appointed to undertake planning. My officials will continue to work closely with the borough council over the future use of Biggin Hill, and we shall be prepared to consider any suggestions for possible development, including aviation use.

The selection centre employs 89 service and 40 civilian personnel. For those civilians without an obligation to move with the centre, every endeavour will be made between now and the time that the move takes place to find them alternative employment, whether in the Ministry of Defence or in other Government Departments. However, at this stage the possibility of some redundancies cannot be ruled out. All staff in both mobile and non-mobile grades will be interviewed at an appropriate time by civilian management authorities to consider the possibility of future employment. Should redundancies eventually prove necessary, I shall ensure that all staff involved are given appropriate periods of notice. As to recruiting new staff needed at Cranwell, our studies have shown that the relatively small numbers involved will not present any difficulty.

As my hon. Friend said, there is an active and thriving air training corps squadron at Biggin Hill, and my predecessor, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), made it clear that that squadron will be able to continue providing training for local young people, which fosters a practical interest in aviation and develops qualities of leadership and of good citizenship. A planning group is currently considering in detail how the squadron's needs will best be met following the move of the selection centre. I assure the House that we consider it very important to preserve the ability of the squadron to discharge its constructive and worthwhile task and that appropriate arrangements will be made to ensure that that continues.

Biggin Hill also provides support or parenting to a number of other ATC squadrons and combined cadet force sections in the south-east. That function will be transferred to other RAF stations in the area, and arrangements are already in hand for RAF Uxbridge to take responsibility for CCF sections.

In addition to selection procedures for potential RAF officer and aircrew recruits, the centre undertakes aptitude testing of aircrew candidates for the two other services and medical examinations of Army candidates. Following the centre's transfer, facilities will continue to be offered to the other two services who have been fully involved in preparations for the move.

As I said, I personally feel deeply the regret shared by many others that RAF Biggin Hill is soon to close after such an illustrious history, but there have been many far-reaching changes since those early days of 1917. Today, the RAF operates aircraft that would be unrecognisable to pioneers of military aviation. I am sure that the officer and aircrew selection centre will continue to uphold the very best traditions of the RAF following its move—and what better place than the Royal Air Force college, Cranwell, the home and heart of the RAF, for it to carry on its work. Similarly, I am sure that the name Biggin Hill—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Three o'clock.