I must begin by declaring an interest. As well as representing the area, I live next to the northern perimeter fence of the Burtonwood air base, and can therefore speak with real conviction about the problems that face my constituents and me.
Burtonwood air base has an important place in the history of our country, particularly in view of the part that it played in the defence of Britain and the rest of Europe in the second world war. From 1942, it was the depot that received goods flown and shipped in from across the Atlantic; after the cessation of hostilities in 1945, it became a long-term storage depot for the United States army. Another relatively important part of its history was its usefulness during the Berlin airlift, and its immense importance during the cold war.
Until recently, the air base was characterised by its use for long-term storage by the US army, with short vehicle movements into and out of the complex and a good many rail deliveries. That happened for 40 or 50 years, but I should emphasise that no aeroplane has entered the base for at least that time: the term "air base" does not really give an accurate description of what has been going on there.
Over the past 10 years, what has actually evolved at the base is a high-quality residential development. The Warrington and Runcorn development corporation—a direct agent for the Department of the Environment—and, latterly, the Commission for the New Towns, which is also a direct agent for the Department, have granted planning permission to land allocations for residential use to the east, north and west of the base. That completes a residential development around the base—north, south, east and west.
A brochure published in 1987 by Fairclough Homes made it clear that the Warrington and Runcorn development corporation had high expectations for this part of my constituency. The brochure described the area as a
carefully chosen location with an abundance of trees, bushes and flowers adorning its landscaped gardens and peaceful cul-de-sac approach road, Chestnut Grange offers a tranquil and idyllic setting for this delightful range of elegant homes.
Indeed, it persuaded people to come and buy new homes in this village setting.
What has happened since then? In 1992, the US army air force decided that it had no future use for the air base, and would vacate the premises in the summer of 1993. From that moment on, I have attempted to persuade the Ministry of Defence to engage in a sensible planning approach to the future use of the base. On 15 July 1993, I wrote to the Secretary of State about the development in west Warrington—the MOD site at Burtonwood air base and the Property Services Agency site on Burtonwood road, Great Sankey, Warrington, Cheshire.
The letter was succinct. I wrote:
The above two Government sites are in my constituency. The PSA site is identified in the Warrington Local Plan for residential and associated development. The Airbase site will soon be left vacant by the US Army Airforce and decisions as to whether the MOD are to put the site to further domestic military use is expected soon. The two sites cover a massive area in close proximity to the Omega site which is ear-marked for large scale industrial/commercial development.
It is obvious that the current presumptions in favour of development of the PSA site and Omega site, together with a continued military use or further development of the Burtonwood
Airbase site will place an intolerable burden on the infrastructure in this part of my constituency. Likewise, it would have a major impact upon the environment in this rural suburban area which would not only be detrimental to the locality and its residents, it would also adversely affect the economic health of the town of Warrington.
A positive way forward would be for a comprehensive and integrated approach to future development in this part of my constituency. This should include:—
To take this matter forward in a comprehensive manner, a multi-agency approach needs to be adopted that will give equal consideration to the needs of The Department for the Environment, the Ministry of Defence and Warrington Borough Council. Can I suggest that the Commission for New Towns is given a lead role in this matter, to prepare a fully comprehensive planning brief based upon a full environmental/social impact assessment. This, I am sure, offers a positive way forward of dealing with a potentially very complicated and damaging planning situation.
When I wrote those words, I did not know that we would be faced today with a commercial use of the air base that has resulted in a loss of residential amenities for my constituents. I was disappointed to receive a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, dated 11 August 1993, which stated:
it is doubtful if the Ministry of Defence will be able to help significantly with those aims".
Part of the air base that we are discussing is Header house, which contains 1.6 million sq ft of warehouse storage space. In the middle of last year, the land agents for the Ministry of Defence advertised to the commercial world that they would let the building at a rent of £1.50 a square foot. Simple mathematics tell us that if the building is completely occupied—as it is—that will mean some £3.2 million in revenue for the MOD. That is the start of the problem.
Without consulting local Members of Parliament, Warrington borough council's planning authority or local residents, the MOD unilaterally decided to let the air base as a storage depot for heavy goods vehicles and trailers. It made that decision overnight.
I know that the Minister is not responsible for the air base, but I ask him to picture Burtonwood road—a narrow country lane, classified not as an A road or a B road but as a C road. It has no street lights and no footpath; in places, the carriageway, if it can be called that, is only 17 ft wide, not wide enough to allow two HGVs to pass each other. Each week, 5,000 38-tonne juggernauts thunder down Burtonwood road on their journey to and from the air base.
Those who have the misfortune to live in or off Burtonwood road are prisoners in their own homes. They must now constantly suffer the noise, vibration, diesel emissions and exhaust pollutants—all the disturbance produced by vehicle movements past their front windows 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My constituents' sleep is regularly disturbed, and local doctors have confirmed to me in writing that the volume of traffic in the road is causing them ill health. Those residents, and people living adjacent to the air base, have lost much of the value of their properties.
Not only must the residents put up with all that; lorries now drive over their front gardens. I am quite sure that those houses will suffer structural damage in the years to come. Local residents who live in properties adjacent to the air base have had what was an enjoyable, tranquil and rural life style completely changed, and their lives have been turned into misery. They have suffered a severe loss of residential amenity as a direct result of the uncaring and insensitive actions of the Government.
The activities on the base are just as bad. Local residents who live all around the base must contend with HGVs revving their engines on the site, the constant gear-crunching which goes with the manoeuvres of the vehicles, the reverse sirens wailing, the air brakes hissing and trailers being dumped to the ground. The diesel exhaust fumes from all the vehicles are building up a public health problem in the area for years to come. Warrington has an above average incidence of asthma, and the fumes will make that problem worse.
A further problem is that the base is a real fire hazard. It is a powder keg waiting to blow—an accident waiting to happen. The chief fire officer of Cheshire fire brigade wrote to me to say that in the event of a serious fire at the base, local residents would be in danger of airborne pollutants outside acceptable levels. He was unable to give me a categorical assurance that the fire measures in place give the most appropriate protection against a likely fire hazard associated with the current use of the premises.
I have been told now that smoke detectors on the site warehouses in Header house have been switched off because the fumes from the HGVs and fork-lift trucks set off the fire alarms. The building does not have a sprinkler system, nor does it have any fire walls within it. Some 30,000 litres of diesel are stored on the site, and liquid propane gas is stored there inappropriately. With the smoke alarms turned off and the current storage of dry consumable goods, the potential for a serious fire is very high. The consequences for local residents of such a fire do not bear thinking about.
Confirmation of the problem has come from two independent sources. First, the north west traffic commissioner adjudicated on an application by TDG to run an operating licence from Burtonwood air base. Commenting on the evidence from local people, the commissioner stated that they all gave evidence of daily disturbance from noise, vibration and fumes—particularly at night.
The commissioner quoted evidence from Mr. P. Woods, the environmental protection officer for Warrington borough council, whose detailed report confirmed that the noise from TDG's night operations exceeded statutory limits. Even TDG's noise experts agreed that there was a problem. It is not surprising that J. H. Levin, on behalf of the deputy licensing authority, concluded that he was
satisfied that the operations at present carried out under the interim authority are causing such adverse environmental problems that the application for a full licence should be refused.
He said that Warrington council was of the opinion that the activities on the air base were in contravention of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
To make matters worse, the matter has been brought to a head by the Government's intransigence and their refusal to act to protect the interests of local residents, taxpayers and voters. Until now, the Government have refused to engage in a joint planning exercise to determine an acceptable future use for Burtonwood air base. They failed to consult local Members of Parliament, Warrington borough council or the local residents before turning Burtonwood air base into a commercial lorry and trailer park, with the attendant problems that I have described.
On 28 March 1995, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) and I met the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Henley, to bring attention to the severe loss of residential amenity suffered by neighbours of Burtonwood air base. I followed that meeting with a letter to seek action from the Government to put a stop to the totally unacceptable use of the air base. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Defence refused. Likewise, my request for a weekend and night-time curfew on lorry movement to and from the base was refused.
Even the request from Warrington borough council for a copy of the report on noise prevention measures compiled by the land agents for the Ministry of Defence was refused. I might add that noise attenuation measures on the base will not solve the problem, nor will moving the problem around the base by using other entrances and exits. All that that would do would be to spread the problem to other areas in my constituency, which would suffer if alternative arrangements for traffic on the site were made.
The only solution is to stop the traffic altogether. The excuse given by the Ministry of Defence for the refusals is that it is in dispute with Warrington council as to whether the current commercial activities at the base are covered by the existing planning permission. The Ministry of Defence believes that it has existing permission to allow the current commercial use at the base. The problem is not the planning permission itself, but it is a clear sign that the MOD is using the planning issue to resolve the dispute in its favour.
If that is the case and the MOD is deemed to have planning permission, it will continue the present use of the base and will sell it on the open market to the highest bidder as a storage facility. That will ensure that the purgatory that has been experienced by my constituents becomes permanent. That is simply not acceptable.
We would like to hear today from the Ministry of Defence that it recognises that it was the Government who brought people to live in this area, and that the Warrington and Runcorn development corporation and the Commission for the New Towns also encouraged people to live there. The Government are directly responsible for the creation of the residential development which now surrounds Burtonwood air base, and are also responsible for changing the nature of that high-quality residential neighbourhood.
The Government have a moral responsibility to ensure that the people who now live in that modern village setting do not suffer a loss of residential amenity as a result of the Government's actions. Clearly, the Ministry of Defence can now ensure that the use of the air base is determined in such a way that local residents can continue to enjoy the quality of life that they have enjoyed since they first moved into the area. To do anything else would represent a severe breach of faith on the Government's part.
It is worth remembering that we celebrate VE day this week. Burtonwood air base played a major part in bringing peace to Europe. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will now play a major part in bringing peace to my constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) for giving me the opportunity to take part in the debate, as half the base is in my constituency. I also thank the Minister of State for Defence Procurement for being here to listen and to reply.
I hope that the Minister will not hide behind the question whether the Ministry of Defence has planning permission. We realise that Burtonwood was once the largest ordnance depot for the United States army in Europe, but at that time—as my hon. Friend explained—many of the movements were made by rail. Local residents are now experiencing unacceptable lorry movements on the site.
I hope that the Minister takes that fact on board, as the Under-Secretary of State did not do so when my hon. Friend and I met him recently. The Minister should go for an integrated plan with Warrington borough council and the Commission for the New Towns which involves the residents. Life for local people has become intolerable, as we are talking about 5,000 vehicle movements on a road that—by any stretch of the imagination—is not suitable. How much worse will it get if the Ministry of Defence carries on with what appears to be its present plan, and sells the site on the open market as a storage depot? Will the 5,000 movements become 10,000 or 20,000?
Already, life is intolerable for people who, following an agreement with the Warrington and Runcorn development corporation, bought houses in what was a residential area. I never have sympathy for those who buy houses next to a site and then start to complain about what is going on at the site. The area has been completely altered, and I ask the Minister to approach the matter in a spirit of co-operation, and not confrontation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) on his success in debating this motion today. Clearly, it is a matter of great importance to his constituents and to those of his hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle).
I recall visiting RAF Burtonwood when I was Under-Secretary of State responsible for the armed forces between 1986 and 1988—I cannot recall which year. The impression that I received was of an enormous facility in a leafy area of Warrington. Peace and quiet prevailed because, frankly, it was used for storing items in preparation for conflict, which fortunately never occurred. Clearly, a solution to the problem has to be found and it has to involve Warrington borough council—that is as plain as a pikestaff.
Following the withdrawal of the United States army in 1993, and in the usual way, we considered whether the site could be used for alternative defence purposes. The hon. Member for Warrington, South referred to the apparent delay between the withdrawal of the American army and where we are today. Use of the site as a base for the long-term storage of army vehicles was one of a number of potential uses. After much careful consideration, however, it was concluded that the site could not sensibly be used for defence purposes and was surplus to Ministry of Defence requirements.
I recognise that the Department took some time to reach that conclusion, but that was due to the need to reflect the changing assumptions of the "Front Line First" study at the time and the considerable care that we took to identify alternative defence uses. That is the first step when disposing of defence sites, as the hon. Member for Warrington, South will recognise. We want to find out whether there could be, first, another defence use and, secondly, another public sector use. Finally, we consider disposal, but with the co-operation and involvement of the local authority.
My noble Friend Lord Henley wrote to the hon. Member for Warrington, South on 21 March to advise him of our conclusions and that we intended to dispose of the site on the open market. I must stress that an empty site such as RAF Burtonwood is a substantial burden on our resources. The costs incurred in maintaining and securing empty sites are significant. The early disposal of surplus property is, therefore, a real priority. In the meantime, ways of alleviating the running costs, which now fall to the MOD, but certainly did not previously do so in their entirety, must be considered. In other words, there is another element in this difficult equation—the taxpayers' interests, as they have to pay, through the Ministry of Defence and RAF Strike Command, which is the top-level budget holder responsible for the site.
My Department believes that, under town and country planning legislation, the current permitted use of RAF Burtonwood is for storage and distribution, which in planning terms is referred to as B8 use. On that basis, pending a final decision on the future of the site, and to defray the cost of maintaining and policing the establishment which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is about £400,000 a year, the defence land agent negotiated a number of short-term lettings. I believe that he was right to do so because, as a Minister accountable to this House, with my noble Friend Lord Henley in another place, I have responsibility for accounting for, mitigating and reducing the taxpayer's expenditure. So, the defence land agent was perfectly correct in what he did.
Although we regard the exact income that we are generating from present activities at RAF Burtonwood as commercially confidential, I can advise the hon. Member for Warrington, South that it is in excess of the running costs of the site. I am sure that he will appreciate that that not only removes a not insignificant burden on the defence budget but is of benefit to the taxpayer.
Indeed, our intended disposal strategy was to build up the commercial usage of the site by completing new tenancies of three and five years and to sell the site as a going concern with the benefit of good short-term income, allowing a purchaser time to plan in the longer term for its redevelopment. That strategy presented the opportunity to dispose of the site quickly because of the generated cash flow, while meeting our obligation to maximise the return to the taxpayer. I must stress, however, that we never considered that the site would be used for storage and distribution in the long term. On the contrary, we envisage it becoming part of the sustainable redevelopment that is taking place within the Great Sankey area.
As the hon. Member for Warrington, South said, the problem is the short-term use, as we do not envisage such a long-term use given the road system, which is inadequate by any standards—as I recall, the site is not exactly served directly by dual carriageway or motorway-standard roads. Residential development has been taking place in the vicinity of RAF Burtonwood in recent years, however, and the present level of commercial usage—especially the increase in HGV movement—has given rise to complaints from local residents concerning nuisance and noise, especially at night.
The hon. Member for Warrington, North was frank and correct in saying that, if one buys a house close to a railway station, railway line, road or former RAF-owned but American-operated storage depot, one cannot assume that the usage that existed when one bought it will continue for ever. Although that is a correct and absolute statement, one has to use common sense to ensure that its conversion, certainly within the public sector, is carried out as sensitively as possible.
My Department acknowledges that our commercial tenants have created greater HGV movement than that generated by use by the United States army, which primarily involved the long-term storage of war reserves and hence generated relatively few vehicle movements and little on-site activity. I fully understand the concern of local residents. We have taken positive steps to minimise the disturbance caused by present activities and the local defence land agent has appointed a firm of environmental consultants to advise on possible short-term and long-term solutions to the noise and traffic problems.
The suggested short-term solutions have been passed to Warrington borough council and, although the hon. Member for Warrington, South was somewhat dismissive, include driver training, the introduction of stringent site rules, night patrolling and direction of traffic flow. The longer-term proposals will be available shortly and are expected to include such measures as the provision of sound-absorbing fencing, bunds and landscaping and also the introduction of new access arrangements. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that merely re-routing the same volume of noisy traffic does not necessarily solve the problem, but it is important to consider new access arrangements to find out whether the problems can be alleviated. We are very willing to put our suggested long-term solutions to Warrington borough council, but as yet we have had no response to our short-term proposals.
I hope, therefore, that the next step will be a joint meeting between my officials and Warrington borough council. I am sure that the hon. Member for Warrington, South, as a former leader of the council, and the hon. Member for Warrington, North would be welcome at such a meeting so that their views can be included.
We had intended to enter into discussions with Warrington borough council on the future use of RAF Burtonwood and to try to resolve the present dispute about the existing planning use of the site. Wherever possible, it is our policy to work closely with local authorities and my noble Friend Lord Henley has stressed our preparedness to enter into substantive discussions with Warrington borough council at his recent meeting with the hon. Gentlemen.
Warrington borough council recently sought the consent of the Crown to the issue of enforcement notices against the occupiers of the site. The council believes that the current use represents a breach of planning control, on the basis that there is no legal right to use the site for storage and distribution. As the hon. Gentlemen may be aware, when the Crown has an interest in land, enforcement notices cannot be served without the consent of the Secretary of State. We very much hope that, until the long-term future is established, agreement about use of the site can be reached through discussions among affected parties.
As I said, the Department believes that the established and current use of RAF Burtonwood is for storage and distribution. Nevertheless, in view of Warrington borough council's request that the Secretary of State should give his consent to the issue of enforcement notices against the present occupiers, we felt it appropriate to seek the advice of leading counsel, which we have just received. I can advise the hon. Gentlemen that counsel supports our view that the current established use of the site is for storage and distribution and that that use may be continued by occupants other than the Ministry of Defence.
At this stage, we would not wish to comment further on enforcement notices. I hope that it does not come to that because, as the hon. Member for Warrington, North rightly said, the issue should be solved sensibly, after negotiation and certainly after meetings, and we should not be involved simply in a legal dispute over planning. Rather, we propose to enter into substantive discussions with Warrington borough council on the future use of the site with a view to finding a solution with which all parties are content. In the first instance, I asked my officials to contact Warrington borough council to arrange an early meeting, and a meeting has now been set for 18 May.
In the meantime, and in view of the current level of local concern, we shall ensure that there is no intensification of the current activities at RAF Burtonwood. In addition, we are taking measures to terminate the occupation of those users who have proved to be unsuitable. As the hon. Members for Warrington, North and for Warrington, South know, one of the major occupiers is currently seeking alternative accommodation. Notwithstanding that, we shall also undertake a stringent review to ensure that all tenants comply with the terms of their lease.
I hope that that and other measures, which I shall ask the defence land agent to propose in his meeting with Warrington borough council, will go at least some way towards satisfying the hon. Gentlemen's concerns.
It being half-past Two o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, pursuant to order [19 December].