A Better Defence Estate

– in the House of Commons at 11:41 pm on 28th February 2019.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 11:41 pm, 28th February 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the progress of our defence estate optimisation programme.

Let me first pay tribute to those who have worn and who wear the uniform as both reservists and regulars, as well as their families and loved ones, who provide them with so much support.

Today marks the start of the countdown for the 100 days leading up to the 75th anniversary of more than 130,000 troops landing in Normandy on D-day—a critical turning point in world war two and a reminder, if ever one was needed, of the importance of co-operation and collaboration with our allies. It also reminds us that Britain should retain its own full-spectrum, hard-power capabilities if we wish to play a continued role as a force for good beyond our shores.

With a forthcoming spending review looming, I make no apologies for raising the issue of defence spending. The world is getting more dangerous and complex, and threats are increasing and diversifying. We now live in a multipolar world with competing powers and diverging views on how the world should look, and we are one of the few nations willing to have the desire and ability to step forward as a force for good.

Discussions about defence spending often focus on equipment, training and operations. I do not deny that these areas require investment, but I would not be doing my job as portfolio holder for defence people if I did not publicly make the case for looking after our armed forces community when they are away from training or the frontline. That means providing them with suitable, modern accommodation and basing requirements that will meet the changing needs of our armed forces community. The defence estate is the rock around which our armed forces revolve. It is the place where our brave men and women work, train and deploy from. It is where they are educated, where they exercise and where they rest.

As I have said in the House before, the defence estate has grown so large over many decades that it now accounts for 2% of the UK’s land mass. This means that it is unwieldy and too expensive to retain in its entirety, and parts of the estate are often in the wrong place so they are no longer fit for purpose. That is why, back in November 2016, this Government launched the defence estate optimisation programme—a long-term plan to modernise our facilities and bring them into the 21st century. It has involved investing £4 billion to create a smaller, more modern and more focused estate. However, the complexities of regrouping air, sea and land assets and upgrading and building new facilities does take time, so this is a 25-year project. This statement provides an update relating to just 30 sites.

Last July, in a written statement, I updated the House on nine sites that had been disposed of. Since then, we have delivered a further three: the Defence Infrastructure Organisation at Aldershot; Fitzwygram House—the Royal Army Veterinary Corps Centre—in Hampshire; and Joint Supply Chain Services in Longmoor. In parallel, our military and infrastructure experts have continued to be busy conducting the necessary site assessments and consulting the local community to support the next phase of delivery and provide greater clarity for the next five years and beyond.

Today I can confirm to the House that over the next five years nearly £1.5 billion will be invested in our estate. This will help us to create regional clusters bringing people and capabilities closer to their training estates in new centres of specialism. In doing so, we will open up fresh opportunities for military families to find work, lay down permanent roots, and organise more stable schooling for their children. I can also confirm the updated status of 33 sites across our establishment. Since time does not permit me to go through the arrangements for each exhaustively, we have placed a table and timeline as an annex to this statement in the Library of the House.

However, hon. Members will note that several significant adjustments have been made to the original programme. First, we have decided that five sites will be part of a phased withdrawal and disposal. They are Prince William of Gloucester Barracks, Venning Barracks, RAF Henlow, Chilwell Station, and RAF Halton. These facilities will now close several years later than originally stated, with, in some cases, units staying in place throughout that period. Next, we have assessed that five further sites originally earmarked for disposal will now be retained. They are Norton Manor Camp; Royal Marines Condor Airfield; Royal Marines Chivenor; MOD Woodbridge—Rock Barracks—and RAF Molesworth, which will continue to be used by United States visiting forces. The Secretary of State will visit Royal Marines Chivenor and Norton Manor Camp later today to meet local personnel. Finally, the closure of HMS Sultan, the home of the Defence School of Marine Engineering and the Royal Naval Air Engineering and Survival School, will now be delayed. These decisions have not been taken lightly but after months of rigorous analysis, and they reflect a clear-eyed assessment of the rapidly changing threats facing our nations.

We will continue to work closely with local authorities, the devolved Administrations and Members of Parliament to explore the best ways in which vacated sites may be used. We will do all we can to take into account local plans, infrastructure requirements and the environment. Hon. Members can rest assured that we will continue to keep Parliament fully apprised as our plans mature. At all times, our objective has been to strike the right balance between working with the community, achieving value for money for the taxpayer, and making sure that our armed forces’ operational requirements are met and that they can do their duty to protect our people and advance our prosperity into the future. I believe that the defence estate optimisation programme is getting that balance right and that we are on track to create the world-class bases that our nation needs. With that in mind, I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 11:48 am, 28th February 2019

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. I would like to wish the House and all members of our armed forces a very happy St David’s Day for tomorrow.

We all recognise that as time passes there is a need to modernise and adapt our defence estate to ensure that it is fit for the 21st century. It is now more than two years since the MOD first announced plans to close some 91 sites across the country. While Members in all parts of the House will want to consider today’s update in more detail, this statement does provide some additional clarity.

MOD facilities are not simply places where our armed forces work and train. Many are home to service personnel and their families, and many have proud histories and a special significance in their local area. The visibility that barracks and other sites provide is important in maintaining buy-in from the local populations, who are always immensely proud of their military heritage.

Given that so many sites act as a clear symbol of the armed forces in their local areas, has the Department considered the effect that these closures could have on recruitment? That is particularly true for reservists, who rely on facilities being within a reasonable travelling distance of where they live. Is the Minister concerned that closing sites that host reserves training could cut off opportunities to recruit and retain those personnel?

MOD sites also support local economies and provide employment to a large number of civilian personnel, many of whom have personal circumstances that would not permit them to commute long distances to work. Can the Minister set out what redeployment opportunities exist for civilian personnel who will be affected by these closures and what discussions he has had with the relevant trade unions?

I turn to the disposal of sites. The Government have previously proposed using more public land for affordable housing, and yet their record in that area is incredibly poor. Clearly this will not be an option for every site, but where it is, what discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government?

Has the Department implemented the recommendations made by the Public Accounts Committee, which advised the MOD to avoid

“enabling private sector providers to earn excessive profits”,

when companies such as Capita are involved in this process? What work has the Department undertaken to ensure that public money is not spent paying rent on a large number of empty properties when sites close, as has happened in the past?

Finally, the House will recognise the Minister’s commitment to

“continue to keep Parliament fully apprised as our plans mature.”

Given that the delay in closing sites will cause added uncertainty for many, when does he next expect to update the House?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I welcome the hon. Lady’s tone and her general support in this area. She is right to talk of the bond that exists between any unit, garrison or base and the local community. Many of those bonds go back decades and even centuries. We are very conscious that upheaval will provide change and a little bit of instability and hence needs to be managed.

The hon. Lady touched on the fact that the plan for these 90 sites started two years ago and almost suggested that she wanted answers for the 90 sites in two years. It is a 25-year programme. There are lots of pieces to the jigsaw—for example, troops returning from Germany. When we vacate one location, we move personnel somewhere else. We need to ensure that all those parts are in place, which is why there are sometimes delays, but those delays must be kept to a minimum.

The hon. Lady mentioned the housing targets. She is right to say that our Department can contribute to the challenge of meeting Britain’s housing needs. In many cases, it is not the MOD that is the reason why the right houses are not being built, but the chronology of events. We announce an area to be liberated for housing, but if the local authority has not included that in its housing plan, it takes some time for that to happen. She is right that we should not renege on our duty to expedite this.

I want to stress that we are looking at not simply providing housing but building communities. Wethersfield is a great example. In many of the areas we are looking at, I am encouraging local authorities to look at providing jobs too. It is about a dual purpose—housing as well as areas for businesses, schools or academic facilities. We should not have a knee-jerk reaction and say, “Let’s build houses for the sake of it.” The hon. Lady mentioned the role of trade unions, which are an important part of this. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation works closely with trade unions, along with other stakeholders, to ensure that their voices are heard.

The hon. Lady touched on recruitment and retention. One reason that we are investing £4 billion over this period is to ensure we have places that are attractive to the next generation, who will look at them and say, “That’s the sort of place I want to work, train in and live in.” However, she is right to imply that there have been some challenges. I do not think this debate is so much about Capita itself, but it would be a missed opportunity for her not to mention that, and it has certainly been taken into account.

The hon. Lady touches on the issue, which I can add to, of where reserves will continue to train. Many of our reserve regiments and so forth use the regular facilities for their own purposes—I could add the cadets to that as well. It has very much been at the forefront of our minds to make sure that we do not lose the important asset of our reservist capability and our cadets simply because of the defence estate optimisation programme.

I would be more than delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this in detail. I do not know when I will next update the House, but I assure her that when the next batch of changes is to take place, I would be delighted to come here and answer questions. I should add that, for right hon. and hon. Members who are affected by today’s events, a letter to them has been placed on the letter board with details of what is happening in their constituencies.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee

May I welcome what the Minister said about the upcoming 75th anniversary of D-day? Are he and right hon. and hon. Members aware that the Royal British Legion is looking for veterans to make a trip to the Normandy beaches in honour of that anniversary? I hope right hon. and hon. Members will alert veterans whom they know to that opportunity.

May I ask the Minister what sort of financial model he anticipates for the development of some of these bases? Questions have rightly been raised in the past about the adequacy of the private finance initiative model. The legendarily close relationship between the Treasury and the MOD should be bringing forth something typically productive, and I wonder how we are doing in that respect.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

First, I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has mentioned the prospect or possibility of veterans returning to Normandy for the 75th anniversary. He obviously does not follow my tweets, because I have promoted this very thing, and the MOD is involved in chartering—[Interruption.] He is not on Twitter.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend does not do social media—very wise. I will send him a pigeon with the information.

Let me take this opportunity, if I may, to say that if there are veterans wishing to participate and to return to Normandy for this incredible anniversary, a facility has been made available by the MOD, working with Royal British Legion, and we very much look forward to it.

My right hon. Friend touches on the financial packages. He is aware that the PFI model is being moved away from. We do seek recognition from the Treasury that, if it is not a financial vehicle that it wants to continue to use, we will need other support, and I hope that will be forthcoming in the spending review.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies)

I agree with the Minister on the D-day landing commemorations. It would be remiss of me if I did not mention yet again during a defence statement the civilians who died in my home town in the Clydebank blitz. It is the 78th anniversary next week, when I will be joining my community at the mass grave in Dalnottar cemetery—one of two.

I am grateful to have had early sight of the statement. I am delighted, as I am sure other Members in the House will be, about the commitment to RM Condor. I know that my colleague Graeme Dey, the Veterans Minister in Scotland, as well as the local MSP, will be delighted as well.

Yet I have to say that we need to look at the recommendations in the National Audit Report, and the statement is less a commitment than an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand, given the complexity of the issues—not only housing and the estate, but the equipment plan—faced by the Ministry of Defence. In reply to the Opposition lead, the Minister mentioned communities, and communities being able to inform the debate on policy is also about being able to hear directly from members of the armed forces.

The issues that the estate has faced are complex, as the Defence Committee knows—the Chair is in their rightful place—because the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces raised these issues before the Select Committee this week. The biggest issue that members of the armed forces face relates to terms and conditions—money and the way in which they live. That is profoundly disappointing, as I know that last week, the Minister stated in response to a question from me that he does not see members of the armed forces as employees. Will he reconsider the Government’s position on the ability of members of the armed forces to engage with the Government, and on whether an armed forces representative body should be set on a statutory footing?

There is grave concern that, although some of these measures are welcome, numbers of armed forces personnel in Scotland are still 25% below the commitment made in 2014. Can the Minister say how this issue will lead to an improvement in the terms and conditions of the armed forces, for example in housing? If housing is to be brought to the fore, I hope that at least in Scotland it will meet the Scottish housing standard. If it does, we might find an improvement across the rest of the UK.

I noted that the Minister made no commitment about Fort George, and there was a lack of commitment to Rosyth, as well as the continued diminution of the RAF footprint in the highlands. Why are the Government opposed to an armed forces representative body that would assist them in understanding the terms and conditions that the ombudsman highlighted in the Defence Committee? Will the Minister guarantee the future of the RAF footprint in the highlands and Fort George as well as in Rosyth, and will he commit, as I asked earlier, to ensuring that housing for the armed forces in Scotland meets the 2015 Scottish housing quality standard ?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s questions and his party’s interest in these matters—perhaps we could meet and discuss them in more detail. He raised issues of representation that he has raised before, and our views on that issue have not changed. I will say that Scotland fares well from our defence posture as a representative nation. Our fast jets will continue to operate from RAF Lossiemouth, and the P-8As are being moved there as well. The Army is well represented at Leuchars Station, and there is Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde—the hon. Gentleman will be thrilled to know that our nuclear deterrent continues to be operated from that neck of the woods, and indeed, all submarines will be moving to those quarters. He welcomes the continuation of 45 Commando at Condor, and if my hon. Friend Kirstene Hair is able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that she will give her views on that. She has campaigned hard on that issue, and it was a huge pleasure to visit the marines there, and to see the real estate and its importance. I am pleased that we are able to retain that asset for the Royal Marines.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all the money released from the disposal of any defence estates will be reinvested in the defence budget? At the beginning of his statement he mentioned the spending review and defence spending. On the off-chance that the Treasury is listening, what message would he send it?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am sure that Treasury Ministers are glued to the monitors as we speak. My hon. Friend is right—everybody knows that I am very much in favour of collective responsibility and not speaking outside my brief, but I would not be doing my job in the forthcoming defence spending review if I did not mention the pressures on defence spending. The first line of the strategic defence and security review states that our economic security is dependent on our defence, and if we do not get our defence right we will have no economy or future prosperity. It is important that we continue to invest in security for air, sea and land, as well as in the new dimension of space and cyber-security.

Photo of Ruth Smeeth Ruth Smeeth Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

The Minister knows that I have grave reservations about the consolidation of the estate, not least because it could take a military family away from other communities across the country. That presents challenges in recruitment and in the general understanding of the military. How is the Minister engaging with communities and the wider military family, given that we have delayed some of these proposals yet again and are just providing more uncertainty?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the detail and energy with which she pursues these matters. It is important that we scrutinise these issues carefully. As I have said, there is huge engagement, not just with unions and so forth, but with other stakeholders, including the families federations. Operational requirements are hugely important, but we must also recognise the impact on local communities. We are moving towards more of a hub perspective so that we can consolidate our assets, save funds and liberate spaces for the necessary housing commitments, but we should not lose sight of what we are offering and of the need to ensure that it is practical and welcoming so that it encourages the next generation to step forward. I was privileged to speak in front of her all-party group on the armed forces covenant a few days ago, and I would be delighted to sit down with her and discuss these matters in more detail.

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus

I warmly welcome the announcement from my right hon. Friend that RM Condor will remain an integral part of the defence estate. Securing its long-term future was one of my election campaign promises, so I am especially delighted with this result. When he replied to my recent Westminster Hall debate, he hinted that this might be the outcome, and it has been received incredibly warmly by both my constituents and the armed forces personnel at RM Condor. Will he commit to coming back up to Angus to hear about that positive result and to see the day-to-day work that goes on within the base, and may I encourage him to invest further in the base?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the energy and determination that she has put into retaining this asset. It was a huge pleasure to visit Condor a couple of months ago. If I was not here making this statement, I would be there with her to celebrate the news that we are keeping this important asset in Scotland. If there is an invitation there, I would be delighted to take her up on it.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

In my debate on 9 January on the long-term basing of the Royal Marines, I called for certainty for the Royal Marines in Plymouth—not only certainty for after the Government close Stonehouse barracks, the spiritual home of the Royal Marines, but certainty around where and when the new super-base for the Royal Marines will be built. Now we are not having that super-base in Plymouth, can the Minister set out why more uncertainty for the Royal Marines in Plymouth is a good idea, and when will he tell us when the new base will be built, where it will be built and what units will be based there?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the Royal Marines as a whole—we have had a series of debates on these matters—but I should make it clear that there is certainty around where the 40, 42 and 45 Commandos will be. He is focusing on 3 Commando Brigade. I can assure him that it will remain in the Plymouth area—detailed analysis is being done on where—but I am conscious that it cannot remain in Stonehouse, which, as he appreciates, is no longer fit for purpose, much as there is a historical connection to the first purpose-built garrison headquarters in Britain. Its departure is a sad moment, but a decision has been made, and it is partly operational. I can give him a commitment, however, as I can to my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, that 3 Commando Brigade will remain in the Plymouth area.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester

I very much welcome the fact that the sale of Middlewick Ranges will be delayed by at least 12 months. Will the Minister commit to working with me and local stakeholders to see if, alongside some housing, an innovative approach that secures a significant part of Middlewick Ranges for a new country park could be explored?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is right to highlight, as I did earlier, that this is not just about housing—I saw the Housing Minister here earlier; it is important to remember that we are building communities, rather than simply houses. There has been a delay—I appreciate his understanding—because we need to keep the ranges open for operational reasons, but it is only for one year. I would be more than delighted to meet him to see what more we can do to help him realise the vision of securing the proper offering that his community seeks.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

I echo the Minister’s praise of armed forces personnel and their families. Does the estates strategy go beyond the United Kingdom to look at bases such Cyprus, which clearly, with Brexit, is particularly affected? Would he be willing to comment on that? Closer to home—I am briefly wearing my invisible House of Commons Commission hat now—is he aware of the issue of the MOD car park and the important role it might play in relation to restoration and renewal? We are quite keen to get our hands on it.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I will resist the temptation to reopen the Brexit debate again, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to raise concerns about future confirmation of what is happening to our sovereign bases in Cyprus—I could add Gibraltar to that, as well. I served in both localities and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that all the necessary details have been addressed to make sure that they are not affected by any outcome of Brexit.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

I note the Minister’s statement that the programme will allow the MOD to maximise the amount of land that could be used to build more homes and help more people on to the housing ladder. As the Minister is aware, the REEMA sites in Carterton already provide land for hundreds of homes.

I also note the Minister’s comment that in some areas local authorities are the block to development; that is certainly not the case in West Oxfordshire, where planning permission for these sites was given some 10 years ago. What is awaited is the money for the MOD to redevelop those sites. Can the Minister tell me whether West Oxfordshire, Carterton and the Royal Air Force can look forward to some of the proceeds from this announcement being invested into the REEMA sites in Carterton or whether there is a blockage elsewhere in the system that I need to explore?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

First, I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in liaising with the local authorities and in representing Brize Norton, one of the most significant RAF garrisons across the country and dealing with the heavy lift. He is absolutely right to point out various plans to build extra housing. That has been delayed—not because of the MOD, but because the money was taken away from us given changes to the private finance initiative. That is why I was surreptitiously hinting that I hoped that in the spending review another solution would be provided that allows any PFI project that has been removed to be put back in place, so that we can build the houses that my hon. Friend wants.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport)

Although it is welcome that the closure of Towthorpe and the state of the art medical training facility have been delayed and also Strensall because of the Natural England report saying that the site is not suitable for development, it is disappointing that Imphal barracks is not on the list. That will have a major impact on the local economy in York; it is due to close in 2031. Will the Minister set out what steps he is taking to ensure that there is a proper economic assessment of the impact of the closure of the barracks?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I have had the pleasure of visiting the units in the Yorkshire area. I visited 1st Division and the 4th Infantry Brigade. There will continue to be a huge military footprint in the area that the hon. Lady speaks of. She also mentioned the long-term plan—something that is going to happen a decade away. There is a reason for that: if they are to be moved, those assets need to be housed elsewhere. If that other place has yet to be built, or confirmed, there is a knock-on process. I hear what she says about wanting to expedite the process. [Interruption.] Whatever her long-term view is, I will be more than happy to meet her and discuss the issue in more detail.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

My constituents will be sad and disappointed that our friends the 30 Signal Regiment and the Queen’s Gurkha Signals will move from Gamecock barracks to Stafford. But equally, they will very much welcome the Royal Engineers and a number of medical regiments that are coming to the barracks. Will my right hon. Friend say more about what we are doing to improve accommodation for our armed forces personnel? When significantly more people are stationed at barracks, what more can we do to support local areas with provision such as school places?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend touches on two issues. First, there are the complex movement patterns when some assets move from one location and others move in. I am pleased that the overall position is neutral. He also touches on the standard of accommodation that is now expected. One of the reasons why recruitment will improve is that we are building accommodation that youngsters today expect. When I joined the armed forces, someone could end up in a place with eight or 20 people in one room; now people want their own accommodation, cooking facilities and wi-fi. They expect those sorts of things: if they are not there, they will not sign up. That is the standard accommodation that we are now building for our armed forces.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the Minister for the information about the updated disposal date for Redford cavalry and infantry barracks in my constituency. I also join my hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes in commemorating the imminent anniversary of the Clydebank blitz.

Although I am glad to get an updated date for Redford, I have written to the Government a number of times about the consequences of the disposal of Redford barracks. I was pleased to hear the Minister talk about consulting local communities. Will he meet me to discuss the need to release the land at Redford to the local authority for community benefit?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I have written to the hon. and learned Lady and other hon. Members as well—there are letters on the letter board—but I will be more than delighted to meet her. She is absolutely right that there is a delay of three years in the disposal of Redford cavalry and infantry barracks. That has been to do with the complex sequencing and plotting that we are doing. There have also been some local planning issues.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

I commend the Minister for his comprehensive statement this morning and his handling of this whole defence review. It is absolutely right that we should have a defence review, get good value for the taxpayer and have an estate fit for purpose for our armed forces.

My right hon. Friend will not be surprised that I am going to thank him in particular for his change of mind in keeping open Norton Manor camp in Taunton, home to 40 Commando, and for listening to the case that I have put, with others, in changing his mind. That means a very great deal to the whole community of Taunton, who are celebrating as we speak. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all those involved but particularly 40 Commando for all the great work they do in keeping us safe? What they need to do that is the best facilities for themselves and their families. Keeping the camp open should help to do that.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. I am really pleased that 40 Commando will remain in the locality. I pay tribute to her hard work and dedication and the campaign that she has put forward as well. If the community are celebrating now, I hope she will soon be on a train to go down and join them. The Secretary of State is heading that way as well, to see what more needs to be done.

The camp needs some work, so I make clear my hope that the necessary funds will be provided to upgrade the camp. When diplomacy fails, we count on our elite forces such as our Royal Marines. We need to look after them, and that is why it is good that the camp is being invested in.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Opposition Whip (Commons)

Bearing in mind the concerns of the communities who are losing these facilities, will the Minister assure us that the closures are operationally led rather than cost-cutting as a result of the Treasury’s handing the MOD a pensions bill that the Library estimates at £3 billion over the next spending period?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I did mention that the closures were operationally led, but there are cost savings to be made. The huge pressures on the defence budget mean that we have to find better ways to make efficiencies. As I said before, 2% of UK land is owned by the MOD. Much of that is surplus to requirements: we do not need it. We have duplicate assets in different places. It is best to try to bring those together and hub them, but without losing sight of the fact that in some places assets need to be kept for reservist and cadet functions.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

May I ask for a meeting with my right hon. Friend to discuss the release of the MOD land at Forthside in Stirling, earlier than the planned 2022? My right hon. Friend will be aware that the land is of absolutely vital importance to the Stirling city deal for development, both commercial and residential. Would he consider, for example, releasing the decontaminated land in parcels?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I will be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend. I should stress that the future use of any land is not for the MOD to determine. That is first handed to the local authorities, but there is a desire and certainly support from the MOD to make sure that whatever use is made is in the interests of the local authorities themselves and also governmental intentions in building housing.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The Minister is absolutely right to talk about the importance of links between local communities and their service personnel. Nowhere is that more true than in Chester. I welcome the delay in the proposed closure of Dale barracks. Will the Minister use that time to bear in mind the facts about Dale barracks in Chester: retention rates are higher; accommodation is of a higher quality: social infrastructure—for example, schools—is well built up to support our service personnel; and the operational footprint in the north-west needs to be maintained to maintain operational efficiency? Will he bear those in mind and see whether we can perhaps push that date back even further?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman, quite rightly and eloquently, describes the pieces of the jigsaw that make a successful garrison or Army unit in any locality: links with the community, operational purpose, and recruitment and retention. If we have areas that are high in those across the country, we certainly need to leverage that.

Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

We very much value the presence of three regiments, the Royal Signals, the RAF’s tactical supply wing in Stafford and other units. I have not yet seen the details, as the letter about further changes has not reached me, but can the Minister assure me that the Ministry of Defence will work very closely, as it has done very well in the past, with Stafford Borough Council and Staffordshire County Council to ensure that the integration of any new units is conducted in the best possible manner?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I can provide that assurance. My hon. Friend underlines the importance of a strong bond between Defence Infrastructure Organisation and local authorities dealing with what can be the quite challenging changes we are introducing.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for his statement and for his very clear commitment to addressing many of the issues facing service personnel, including accommodation and finding work. I put on record my thanks to the service personnel of all three services for all they do. The Minister stated that employment for personnel and their spouses will be offered. We have had the opportunity over the past few years to speak to some of those families, so we know what the issues are. There are only so many job opportunities, however. Will personnel families be given priority? Will those jobs be in MOD camps or in local communities? Will there be local government involvement? Will efforts be made to place them where their camp can benefit both themselves and their local community?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about what happens in succession and the support we need to provide. I can write to him in detail on what we are doing in Northern Ireland. He is aware that I have visited Northern Ireland on a number of occasions to ensure that the more nuanced approach we have to take there, because of the sensitivities, is conducted carefully as it continues to have an important military footprint with Aldergrove, Palace and Thiepval barracks, and 38 Brigade, which I know he supports.

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Conservative, Hazel Grove

May I say how refreshing it is to hear my right hon. Friend speak so knowledgeably to his own brief and say how genuinely pleased I am that he is remaining in government, because, without a dose of sarcasm, Madam Deputy Speaker, he is an excellent Minister and I want him to stay in post to do the valuable work he is doing? How does this strategy tie in with the need to provide affordable housing to our veterans?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I hear the message first, but my hon. Friend raises an important aspect of looking after our veterans. I hope the whole House will join me in paying tribute to those who have worn uniform. Our duty of care does not simply end when they depart. We must make sure that they are looked after for the rest of their lives. There are charities and there are initiatives being looked at to see whether the new batches of housing coming online because of areas being liberated can be focused on providing housing for veterans. I think that that is well worth pursuing.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Labour, Portsmouth South

May I first say how much I welcome the Minister’s comments with regard to the 75th anniversary of D-day? It is fantastic that Portsmouth will be the national home of those commemorations. I am especially proud that my grandfather was a veteran from Portsmouth and left Southsea on his 17th birthday for Operation Overlord. The MOD’s recently published quarterly personnel statistics reveal a further decline in personnel numbers of all services for the eighth consecutive year. Can the Minister be more specific about how he is looking at the impact of the closures on recruitment?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

First, on the hon. Gentleman’s particular area, I think the whole House supports the fantastic events that will take place in 100 days’ time, and I join him in saying that Portsmouth can be very proud of the role it played in putting together such a fleet that participated in the event itself. On HMS Nelson wardroom, which affects his constituency, there are some issues to do with the masterplan for the Portsmouth naval base which we hope will be resolved. I hope that he will welcome that update. He talks about recruitment. We must conduct these changes with recruitment in mind. As I have stressed, we must make the kind of 21st century high-standard accommodation that youngsters expect. When they go to university, they see the sort of environment they expect to live in. We need to provide them with that. Luke Pollard is no longer in his place, but in Stonehouse, for example, we still have British marines living in eight-man accommodation with a very lousy shower. That is not acceptable in today’s modern age.

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Youth affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Children and Families), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

May I, too, associate myself with the Minister’s comments about the service of uniformed personnel and with the comments made by my hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes on the anniversary of the Clydebank blitz?

The Defence Secretary stated that Russian submarine activity in the north Atlantic has increased tenfold in recent years. It currently takes 24 hours for a ship to be scrambled to Scottish waters, which account for approximately 60% of UK waters. Will the Minister therefore commit to opening a permanent surface vessel base in Scotland, particularly given the increasing importance of north Atlantic security?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Lady is right to touch on the activities of Russia. It is investing hugely in all three arenas of operations, air, sea and land, but especially submarines. By investing in submarines, there is far greater submarine activity. We do not monitor the north Atlantic on our own; we do it as part of the NATO alliance. She is right, however, that we need the correct assets, which is one reason why our P-8 maritime patrol aircraft will be based at RAF Lossiemouth. I hear her call, and I would be delighted to meet her to discuss her ideas further.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

More than 4,000 of my constituents signed a petition opposing the closure of Woolwich barracks, evidence of precisely the bond that the Minister and other hon. Members have mentioned. The Minister knows that the decision to dispose of the site was finely balanced. In the light of the decisions he has announced in his statement today, may I urge him to consider another adjustment and revisit the decision to sell off Woolwich barracks?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I understand the hon. Gentleman is making a strong plea, and I would expect that from the constituency MP. I visited the barracks many, many times and know its history. It is not a part of today’s announcement in any sense, but again I would be happy to meet him to discuss his thoughts.