Devonport and the Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:49 pm on 5th March 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton 7:49 pm, 5th March 2008

Last week, Plymouth was awash with rumours that our naval base was to close within five years, that our dockyard was in danger, and that the Royal Navy was being run down and let down. Some found this bizarre and bemusing, but others were worried, and, for those who were worried, I was angry because it was all so unnecessary. I was even more concerned to hear of one person, who was set to move their home from up north to Devonport, bringing with them valuable skills, who was nearly put off doing so.

I want to start by looking at the role of the Royal Navy in the 21st century, and at the threats that it is being configured to face. Understanding those factors is crucial to understanding the future for Devonport. Opportunities, as well as challenges, arise from the revolution in British military capabilities and, as ever, there will be a central role for the Royal Navy, which our city has such a proud record in supporting.

In the cold war, the Navy existed principally to counter the threat of Soviet submarines in the Greenland-Faroes-Iceland gap. It does not take a strategic genius to realise that that threat has pretty much gone. There might be concerns about Russia, but they are now of a very different character and scale. The cold war gave rise to the need for large numbers of anti-submarine frigates, small aircraft carriers carrying anti-submarine helicopters, and deep-water minesweepers optimised for the cold north Atlantic.

The threats of today and tomorrow arise from international terrorism and from rogue or failing states. These in turn are intertwined with a series of other issues, such as the rise of piracy, the trafficking of drugs and people, and humanitarian disasters. It is perhaps more difficult to articulate the threat now than it was during the cold war or in the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, the uncertainty that now exists in the world is in many ways the danger itself.

Today, the deployment of our armed services most often takes place in coalition alongside the US and others. Forty other countries are involved in the NATO international security assistance force mission in Afghanistan, and more than 20 are involved in Iraq. As the years go by, a European coalition might become an increasingly likely basis for deploying a joint capability. It is against that background that the announcement about the 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers needs to be viewed.

Britain is one of a handful of NATO countries that has largely got to grips with making changes to ensure that our armed forces, and their equipment, are relevant to the challenges that we face today and the threats that we may face tomorrow, and that they are interoperable with those of key allies. For the Royal Navy, that has meant a transformation from a cold war force to a versatile, multifaceted fleet with a range of capabilities. Out have gone the large numbers of escorts optimised for anti-submarine warfare, and in their place have come larger aircraft carriers, new amphibious ships, better kit for the Royal Marines—as well as more Royal Marines—a new generation of nuclear submarines, and the maritime airborne surveillance and control aircraft, which will provide general situational awareness and be able to control the carriers' aircraft. There will also be a fleet of more flexible and agile vessels, in the shape of the future surface combatant.

Today's Navy is making a significant contribution to the present conflicts, in the form of landing forces, artillery bombardment in support of ground forces, the minesweepers that clear Iraqi ports, and naval auxiliaries delivering humanitarian supplies, to name but a few. Even in landlocked Afghanistan, huge numbers of naval personnel—including reservists—are involved. The Royal Navy is unique among the three services in operating not only at sea, but on the land and in the air. Many people outside communities such as Plymouth fail to realise that the Royal Marines, who have been fighting with such intensity in Afghanistan and Iraq are, in fact, part of the Navy. Likewise, many of the aircraft so vital to operations in those countries are naval aircraft flown by naval pilots.

This country needs a strong Royal Navy as much now as it ever has. In no way is it being sidelined, but it must be tailored to the needs of today and tomorrow. We need large carriers that can deploy significant numbers of aircraft anywhere in the world they are needed, so as to avoid relying on foreign airfields and the diplomatic implications and restrictions that that can bring. We need submarines armed with missiles that can strike deep inland with pinpoint accuracy, that can gather intelligence, or that can land special forces. That is why the Government have equipped all our fleet submarines with Tomahawk and are building a new generation of Astute class submarines.

We need amphibious ships that can carry troops and their equipment and that can deploy them ashore by landing craft, by helicopter or directly onside—or, conversely, evacuate British nationals or foreign civilians from harm's way, as we saw happening two summers ago in Lebanon. The helicopter carriers, assault ships and landing ships represent a complete modernisation of our entire amphibious flotilla. We need sealift vessels and support ships that can support forces ashore for extended periods of time. That is why the Government will renew the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service through the military afloat reach and sustainability project.

I sometimes wonder whether the Opposition have cottoned on to the importance and the nature of those changes. So much of what they say seems to be rooted in cold war thinking, just as their economic policy is in Thatcherism and their social policy is in Victorian thinking. Certainly, they seem very preoccupied with ship numbers rather than appreciating that what is really important is having a wide, balanced and flexible range of capabilities.

The Navy has a very positive future, as central to UK defence policy as the other services. The transformation of capabilities to meet modern threats is covered in an excellent article by Dr. Eric Grove in the February 2008 edition of the parliamentary briefing, "Tomorrow's Royal Navy for Tomorrow's World". He concludes that when all of this change has worked through:

"It would be hard to deny that such a capability did not make the UK a world power of significance, as one would expect from a country with one of the largest defence budgets in the world. Observers might well then be looking back at the Brown years as those when the seeds were finally laid for a renaissance of British Maritime power and global presence."

As my noble Friend the Minister with responsibility for defence equipment and support said loud and clear in an article for Plymouth's The Herald last week, Devonport, its naval base and its dockyard are central to that future.

Let me deal specifically with Devonport's role. I am pleased to see in her place on the Front Bench my hon. Friend Alison Seabeck in her role as Whip. Devonport will be the only yard in the UK with the capability to undertake important work on nuclear submarines. I am certain that our prudent Prime Minister and our Chancellor of the Exchequer are not going to replicate the £1 billion investment in the infrastructure that was made in the D154 dock any time soon. The dockyard has two more refuelling refits on the Vanguard class submarines, Vigilant and Vengeance. Thereafter, there will probably be two, if not three, life extension refits on the Vanguard boats, pending introduction of the new deterrent, for which Parliament gave the go-ahead for the design stage last year. That equates to 12 to 14 years' work for a Babcock Devonport work force of more than 2,500 people.

In parallel, the yard's unique facilities mean that the dockyard will be there to carry out deep maintenance periods on the Trafalgar class—wherever they are based—because of the docking constraints at Faslane. There is also the de-fuelling programme, so it is nonsense to talk of our dockyard being in danger under current Government policy, as the contracts in hand amount to more than £1 billion over the next 10 years.

Of course, deep maintenance work on surface ships will be essential to help with the peaks and troughs of the submarine work load. Irrespective of base-porting issues, as it moves to complete the terms of the business agreement with Babcock for the purchase of the dockyard during the course of this year and as it seeks to agree these matters with the other major marine companies through the surface ship support alliance, Ministry of Defence commercial arrangements will need to recognise that. As the new carriers are built, Rosyth's capacity will be fully occupied, allowing further surface ship refits to be allocated to Devonport—an issue to which I will return.

We are, of course, already home to the Navy's biggest amphibious ships, Albion and Bulwark. Plans are under way to move Royal Marine assets into the south yard. With that, the naval base can become a centre of excellence for amphibious warfare. We are also home to the Navy's hydrographic surveying squadron—five ships that do vital work in charting the world's oceans. With the Met Office in Exeter, the Hydrographic Office in Taunton—both MOD agencies—and the fast developing, world-class marine science partnership based in Plymouth itself, our region has a cluster of complementary activities in marine science and engineering that can only grow with climate change, which is such a strongly emerging challenge. We are bidding strongly to become the home for the new marine management organisation, which will come with the marine Bill.

Since the Conservatives closed Portland naval base in the 1990s, we have been home to Flag Officer Sea Training and its staff. As First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band says:

"It is the quality of our people that underpin all that the Royal Navy does: dedicated; motivated; well trained; and loyal. Their determination, courage and selfless attitude has been displayed time and again."

FOST is what gives focus to that. It puts through their paces not just British warships, but foreign warships from numerous navies. Plymouth's hosting of scores of warships each year from every corner of the globe is a hugely valuable asset. However, if Devonport is to continue to provide its excellent service to the Navy, key considerations must be respected. I have made them clear in countless meetings with Ministers at both the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury, and I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that the messages have sunk in.

First, there is the constant need to ensure that the strategically important nuclear work force is maintained. Skills, expertise and experience must not be allowed to atrophy, or to be lost in the periods between submarine refits. As I said, it is vital for Devonport to secure sufficient maintenance and refit work on surface ships.

Secondly, there is the importance of respecting our nuclear covenant. Devonport is currently home to operational nuclear submarines, to those undergoing refit and to those awaiting disposal. The people of Plymouth have always been supportive and understanding of that, but they will not tolerate Devonport without a broader thriving defence sector. Stripping out the fleet base-porting and warship refit work and leaving only submarine work is not acceptable. Apart from the need for such work to maintain the skills base, we must gain positive benefit and local economic prosperity through a broad base of surface ship work.

Thirdly, Plymouth must remain an operational base for the Royal Navy. Refits and maintenance are not enough. In 1997 I inherited from my Conservative predecessor a constituency that contained the poorest ward in England, which was not unrelated to the careless way in which the Tories had allowed the dockyard to be run down in the 1990s.

I think the message has been received that the MOD must play its part in removing jobs from the overheated south-east, which includes Portsmouth. I know that the MOD is delivering on its targets, but I know from my work in the Select Committee on Defence that it could do more.

As I have said, I am grateful for the countless meetings to which my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues have agreed, but I am sure he will not be surprised to hear that I have a list of questions to put to him. Satisfactory answers to those questions would help us to chart the way forward for Devonport in the immediate future.

First, following the naval base review we need assurances that all possible help will be forthcoming to enable surplus land to be released quickly, along with the support and investment that will be necessary to deal with its decontamination. For decades we have complained that the MOD is slow when it comes to dealing with land release. On this occasion Project Roundel has been introduced in double-quick time, but we need to know that it will continue to proceed rapidly, and in a way that maximises benefit to the local economy beyond the term of the current base commander, Commodore Simon Lister, who has done so much to make this happen.

Secondly, assurances have been given by the naval base review team leader to the Devonport task force group, which I chair—and at the recent meeting between my right hon. Friend, Plymouth Members of Parliament and trade union leaders—that work will continue to be done to assess socio-economic issues associated with the follow-through from the naval base review, and any issues arising from the base-porting of ships.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that detailed information will be available to enable a full and transparent assessment to be made of any socio-economic impact that arises from any of the changes? How near are we to knowing where we are on base-porting issues? Is the date days, weeks or months away? Can he scotch the rumour unleashed among others last week that FOST will be moved from Plymouth?

My final question—for now—concerns the future surface combatant. I know that it is still at the very early initial-concept stage. Can my right hon. Friend tell us something about the role of those vessels, and will he ensure that serious consideration can be given to a role for Devonport in leading in-service support for them?

Plymouth's defence sector remains vital to our local economy, and as a city we need to be on the front foot to ensure that it remains vibrant. I believe that, as Babcock Marine has established its headquarters in Plymouth, we have every reason to be confident not just about naval base activity and our traditional role in submarines but about new as well as traditional ways of supporting the Royal Navy, and the many activities associated with its surface ships of today and tomorrow.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to present those issues to the Minister, and I look forward to hearing his response.

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website