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Ministry of Defence (Basing Reforms)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 9th November 2016.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by Keith Brown on the Ministry of Defence basing reforms. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work will take questions at the end of his statement; there should therefore be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Scotland is a society that holds the members of our armed forces in high esteem. We have a long and proud history with the military. Many of our military sites stretch back hundreds of years and are deeply embedded into local communities.

On Monday evening, the Secretary of State for Defence announced his plans to reduce the size of the defence estate. His announcement was long anticipated and followed a period of extreme uncertainty in many communities across Scotland.

The defence secretary announced that the future lay down of the three services in Scotland would be concentrated on existing bases at HM Naval Base Clyde, RAF Lossiemouth and Leuchars barracks. Those were described as “regional hubs”. However, the scale of the cuts in Scotland are much harsher than expected. The defence secretary confirmed eight sites for disposal, reducing the size of the defence estate by almost a fifth.

The proposed sites for disposal are Fort George in Inverness, MOD Caledonia in Rosyth, Glencorse barracks in Penicuik, Meadowforth barracks in Stirling, Craigiehall and both Redford barracks sites in Edinburgh, and RM Condor airfield in Arbroath. The timescales vary, with most sites intended for disposal by 2022 but with longer lead-in times for the Army to vacate Fort George and Glencorse by 2032.

Scotland’s defence footprint has been hollowed out through successive cuts, so the severity of this fresh round of cuts comes as a shock. It also comes just three years after Philip Hammond announced the last army basing plan, billed as offering stability and certainty. Those recent commitments to Scotland have, for the most part, been disregarded.

I will turn to the impact on individual sites. Fort George, which has been a garrison for almost 250 years, will be vacated by the Army by 2032. As well as severing historic ties, that represents a near total removal of the Army from the Highlands, a traditional recruiting ground. Initial estimates by Highlands and Islands Enterprise indicate that more than 700 jobs could be affected directly and indirectly. Highland Council estimates a loss of approximately £20 million from the local economy.

Fort George is an historic property in the care of Scottish ministers, operated by Historic Environment Scotland under a memorandum with the MOD. Despite that direct interest, the MOD failed to keep its promises on consultation. Urgent discussion is needed to establish the financial implications. The Ministry of Defence claims that Fort George is not fit for purpose as a modern garrison—not least because it has failed to invest in it properly over the years and it will now struggle to bridge the gap.

The cuts have also extended to Glencorse barracks, which is a state-of-the-art facility that is home to more than 500 personnel from 2 SCOTS, the Royal Highland Fusiliers. The announcement proposes that the Army vacates the site by 2032. That will be of particular interest to you, Presiding Officer, because the site is in your constituency. As you will know, Glencorse has had a garrison for almost 150 years and a loss on that scale will be a major blow for Midlothian. It is a modern, fit-for-purpose barracks that is popular with the Army. I visited it recently, and I expect serious questions to be levelled at the MOD about the logic of its argument in relation to the facility.

Meadowforth barracks, Stirling, and Redford infantry and cavalry barracks have been listed for disposal by 2022, and there is no clarity on where Army units will go. Interestingly, more than half—the bulk—of the Royal Regiment of Scotland will be changing its location, such is the contempt that the UK has shown for stability and certainty for our armed forces personnel and their families.

The MOD has long struggled to dispose of Craigiehall barracks in Edinburgh, which has been listed for disposal for the third time. That begs the question whether the proposed disposal of the barracks will yield the financial savings that we are told are required, or whether the MOD is simply generating uncertainty for personnel and communities. Incidentally, the barracks at Stirling includes the defence and security vehicle maintenance unit.

In the case of the city-based barracks, and in the case of RM Condor airfield in Arbroath, I encourage the MOD, even at this late stage, to engage with the local authorities and the Scottish Government to discuss the practical impact in a constructive way. It has singularly failed to do that up to this point.

In his remarks to the House of Commons, the defence secretary treated the impact on Fife extremely carelessly. His statement and the accompanying strategy document failed to acknowledge that closure of MOD Caledonia will mark the end of the Royal Navy’s presence in Fife. MOD Caledonia is a mixed site that houses a variety of lodger units, military and civilian personnel, and naval assets such as HMS Scotia. We urgently need clarity on plans for the site. The Royal Navy has had an enduring presence in Fife, which stretches back to the battle of Jutland and beyond. It is extremely sad to see that legacy being cut away and run down in such a discourteous way.

Yesterday, the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister to express her firm opposition to the cuts and to seek clarity on personnel numbers, unit moves and any financial support that will be provided to communities that are affected by closures. She also expressed concern about the MOD’s failure to keep its promises to consult the Scottish Government. I made every effort to meet MOD ministers before decisions were made, but they cancelled meetings on several occasions. No consultation took place, even in the case of Fort George, where the Scottish ministers have a direct interest in the operation of the site. That shows a complete lack of respect for the Scottish Government’s legitimate interests in decisions that have a clear impact on Scotland and the Scottish economy.

The Scottish Government does not accept that Monday’s announcement is the end of the story, and I will work closely with the local authorities that are most directly affected to agree next steps. I have asked officials to establish a working group for that purpose and to campaign against the decisions. I am also keen to work with parliamentarians from all parties, as there is a clear interest throughout the chamber in retaining a strong defence footprint across Scotland.

The announcement contained very little detail on unit moves and personnel numbers. In recent years, the MOD committed to increase the number of regular personnel in Scotland from the current figure of roughly 10,000 to 12,500 as an attempt to remedy the ever-decreasing numbers. However, the announcement made no mention of that figure, and I am very concerned that that commitment will no longer be met. In the midst of the chaos of the defence secretary’s statement, there is a clear risk that Army units will be diminished or quietly moved out of Scotland altogether, and there are other risks on the horizon to the reserves and the training estate, given that further cuts are planned.

As I said, Scotland has long held a strong connection to the military, and we cannot let down areas such as the Highlands, Fife and other strong recruiting grounds where that connection is being torn away. We must unite as a Parliament to sustain a strong defence footprint in Scotland. To that end, I ask for support from members across the chamber.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you very much.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. I keep saying it: the shorter the questions, the more questioners we will get in.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement.

I would like to declare an interest: my father was a soldier, I was a soldier and my son is a soldier. Therefore, I recognise that the recent announcement about the defence estate is the latest step in ensuring that our armed forces have the best facilities not only for training but for their families.

We must accept that the Army has reduced in size from about 150,000 regular soldiers in 1980 to the 82,000 that we have now. Many famous regiments have been lost, including the one that my family and I served in. However, the UK Government’s commitment to an effective defence remains strong. Two new aircraft carriers and eight new frigates are being built in Scotland; the new fleet of P-8 patrol aircraft will be based in Scotland; and £100 million is being invested in Scotland at Lossiemouth. There will be no reduction in Scottish regiments, which form 10 per cent of the armed services and will be based in Scotland. None of those things would have been achieved had Scotland been independent. What we heard on Monday was a gradual and planned reduction in the defence estate that will allow our servicemen and the families who loyally support them to have the best access to training areas and facilities.

Will the Scottish National Party Government now accept the need to support the services in order for them to become, as Michael Matheson said yesterday in relation to another service,

“fit for the ... needs of the future”?—[

Official Report

, 8 November 2016; c 3.]

Secondly, will the Government work with us to find a way of making, where possible, the redundant defence estate an asset for local communities?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I recognise in Edward Mountain’s initial remarks his very direct interest in the armed forces. It led me to hope and expect that we would hear something other than total and unquestioning support for the Conservative Government’s moves and the cuts that have been proposed.

I do not know how many serving members of the armed forces Mr Mountain has spoken to recently, but I am sure that they will tell him that they are sick to the back teeth of the uncertainty that that Government has caused and of the shifting around that happened as a result of the previous basing review, when they were told that they would be going to one place and then to another. How does the member expect members of the armed forces to plan family life around that, put their children into schools and so on? In the school that serves Fort George, half of the pupils are from Fort George. What is going to happen to it?

The member asks whether I will support the services. Of course I will; indeed, that is the very reason why I have made this statement. What I ask him is this: instead of slavishly reading out the latest press release from the Conservative Government, will he get behind the armed forces properly and oppose these cuts?

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I, too, am disappointed at the outcome of these decisions. This is a very difficult time for the communities that depend on these bases, because not only the base jobs but jobs in those communities will go. We have seen in areas where bases have closed the impact on public services, which have suffered from a lack of staff because of the absence of the service personnel partners who had staffed the schools and hospitals in those areas.

What discussions has the Scottish Government had with the MOD on safeguarding those communities and assets? Has it set up a partnership action for continuing employment team in each of the affected areas, and has it invited the MOD to be part of those partnerships to mitigate, as far as possible, the negative impacts of the closures on Scotland?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I thank Rhoda Grant for her question and agree with much of what she has said about the impact of these proposals on local communities.

With regard to PACE, we have already been in contact with the local authorities that are affected, and we intend to take that further by, as I have said, putting in place a working group to establish how we work through these proposals. I have had direct discussions with two of the local authorities but, of course, we did not know where the cuts were going to be felt. Because we have not been taken into the confidence of the MOD or the Westminster Government, we have not had the contact with the MOD that we had asked for. In my meeting with Mark Lancaster some months ago when the basing review was first announced, I asked for proper consultation.

There is not a single recorded instance in the past nine years of the Scottish Government being taken into the confidence of the UK Government and then betraying it by making things public, and I offered that private space to see whether we could discuss how some of these challenges might be met. However, my offer was not taken up. Instead, there was a series of farcical attempts to hold meetings with the relevant minister, and we had the First Minister sending a letter to the secretary of state to get a meeting off the ground. Eventually, we received a courtesy call after the announcement, and that prevented some of the discussions that Rhoda Grant has rightly said should be taking place.

That said, I intend to ensure that any approach is as inclusive as possible, and if there are Conservative members who are not willing just to slavishly toe the line and who wish to challenge some of these things, that would be useful. All parties should be involved in this, but I give my commitment that the Scottish Government will engage with local authorities and offer PACE assistance where necessary. I also hope that we get continuing support from Labour members for these activities.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

The UK Government’s announcement that Fort George will close means that the Black Watch will no longer have a permanent presence in the Highlands of Scotland. The armed forces will, of course, continue to visit for training exercises and to use the bombing ranges, and the controversial Trident nuclear submarines will continue their presence in our waters.

The announcement will result in the loss of £20 million a year to the Highlands economy, more than 700 jobs—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am sorry, Ms Todd, but I want short questions. I know that your heart is in this, but other members want to ask questions.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

In a part of the country that has suffered depopulation—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No—I want a question.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

Will the Scottish Government join me in asking again that the UK Government honour its commitment to permanently base the Black Watch at Fort George? Should the closure go ahead, what can the Scottish Government do to mitigate the potential social and economic impacts?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I assure the member that we have already made the point that Fort George should continue, not least because of the historic connection, and we will continue to make that case. That was part of the purpose behind the establishment of the working group.

We have met Highland Council and made a joint statement about the need to avoid exactly the outcome to which the member refers. I can never remember a time in previous strategic defence and security reviews when a base has been scheduled for closure in 16 years and has been perhaps two or three SDSRs away from the effect of that. The real issue, of course, is when the personnel will move away from the base.

I assure the member that, in concert with Highland Council, I will take up those issues with the MOD and UK ministers, if we eventually manage to get a meeting with them.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The cabinet secretary did not utter the word “Kinloss” once in his statement. That is a shameful omission.

In August, the BBC reported:

The SNP has raised concerns about the future of Kinloss Barracks in Moray.

Moray MP Angus Robertson says he has been told by an ‘impeccable source’ at the Ministry of Defence ... the former air station could be closed.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I would like a question, please, Mr Ross.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

Does the cabinet secretary accept that the reckless tweet from Angus Robertson for political motives has caused unnecessary anxiety among military personnel, their families and the local community, and that, on reflection, that MP should have had far more respect for the armed forces and the people of Moray?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

The question—I think that it was a question—that has just been asked demonstrates how far removed Douglas Ross was from the interests of the campaign group, the local authority and the other elected members who took up the issue. [

Interruption

.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You have had your question, Mr Ross.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

In fact, Douglas Ross deserted the field when the rest of us stayed to ensure that Kinloss would be saved. He let down the people in that community, and we helped to save it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

When I said that you had had your question, I meant it.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Does the cabinet secretary share my concern and sadness about the closure of Meadowforth barracks and the Forthside vehicle maintenance depot in Stirling, which will bring to an end a long and historic direct connection between Stirling and the military? Does he agree that the decision to dispose of Forthside, together with the recent job losses that were announced by HSBC, strengthen the case for the go-ahead of the transformational Stirling and Clackmannanshire city deal, which can help to redevelop and reinvigorate the Forthside site?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I share the member’s sadness. As Stirling forms part of my constituency, I am, of course, well aware of the very long connections with it, not least through the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. There is a huge connection with the armed forces in the Stirling area, and there will be great sadness around the area because of the closure, and the closure of some of the other functions that are currently carried out there, which the member mentioned.

While the UK Government seems content to hollow out our armed forces, the Scottish Government will work towards trying to achieve a city deal with Stirling and

Clackmannanshire in order that we can help to rebuild, perhaps fill the hole from some of that economic loss and do the constructive thing. We will do what the UK Government has not done: we will consult with it on how to go about doing that.

Conservative members constantly ask us to work with the UK Government, and we have tried to do that. However, they have nothing to say when their Government refuses to do that.

Photo of David Stewart David Stewart Labour

What assessment has the Scottish Government made of the economic and social effects of the closure of Fort George? What forward strategy has the tenant, Historic Environment Scotland, developed to keep Fort George open as a tourist icon post 2032? Finally—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No—that is sufficient.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

We sought to discuss those very issues with the MOD and UK ministers, but we have been unable to do that. If the member wants me to, I will happily provide him with the different requests that we have made for meetings to try to discuss them.

We have had some discussions with Highland Council, which is equally concerned. I mentioned the school in particular, but the member is right to say that there will be a huge economic impact in the area. We will certainly pass on to the member any further information that we can get as we try to have some consultation or discussion with the MOD. Of course, the local council will continue to be involved.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I thank the cabinet secretary for the advance copy of his statement. The cabinet secretary has made reference to Leuchars station, which is in my constituency. If the Fort George announcement proceeds, the Black Watch will be looking for a new headquarters. Will he meet me to consider the possibility of headquartering the Black Watch in Leuchars in Fife, its traditional recruiting ground?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I am happy to meet the member, of course, to discuss the general implications of the announcement. However, if it is the case that Fort George is closed, the Black Watch will, essentially, be evicted from its traditional home and looking for somewhere else to go. That is scandalous treatment of the Black Watch, given its historic position and its location in the Highlands. The implication of Fort George closing is that more than half of the Royal Regiment of Scotland will have to get on the move, about three years after we were told that the review that was announced at that time would provide certainty for our armed forces.

I am more than happy to meet the member on the specific point that he makes.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

The announcement on Monday by the MOD that both the Redford cavalry and infantry barracks were to close by 2022 will have a massive impact on local businesses, shops, schools and services in and around the Colinton area of my constituency.

In the run-up to the independence referendum, the UK Government highlighted that a defence presence generates economic benefits for communities throughout Scotland through jobs, contracts and requirements for support services—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No—ask your question, please.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

Given the potential economic impact that the announcement will have in my constituency, does the cabinet secretary agree that it is not acceptable that the UK Government had no discussions with the Scottish Government prior to the announcement?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I agree with the member, and it seems that everyone apart from the Conservative members in the chamber agrees that it is a scandal that there was no consultation. Of course there will be an impact in that part of Edinburgh. I grew up in Edinburgh, where everyone knows about the Redford barracks; they have been there for many years. Their closure—if that can be achieved, given what has or has not happened yet in relation to Craigiehall—will be very damaging. That is all the more reason why there should have been that discussion, and why that discussion should take place now.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

In recognising the sincerity of the minister’s interest in the armed forces, can I ask what specific experience or expertise the Scottish Government has to determine either the defence estate required or the actual defence needs of the United Kingdom? Given that that expertise will be at best limited, what is the ultimate objective of his statement today?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

It would appear from that question that Jackson Carlaw sees no role for the Scottish Government in the review, despite the impact on local communities and the economic dislocation. Given what he said, he must also assume that the Scottish Government or any member of the Scottish Parliament should take no interest in the welfare and the interests of serving members of the armed forces.

That is a terrible indictment of the limited approach of the Conservatives in this Parliament. We will continue to be concerned, and we will continue to try to work with the UK Government, which is very difficult when it refuses to even talk. Perhaps it would have been better if Jackson Carlaw had condemned that total lack of consultation and prior discussion, rather than trying to make some puerile point.

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

If the UK Government decides to forge ahead with the base closures, will those sites transfer to the Crown Estate after being declared surplus? If so, will they then, under the new devolved powers, become the responsibility of the Scottish Government?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I thank Mark Griffin for his question, but I am afraid that I have to say the same as I said to a previous member: we have not had that discussion. We have no idea what is in the mind of the MOD or UK ministers. There has not been the courtesy of a single meeting to try to explore those issues, including the one that Mark Griffin rightly raises.

We have a very legitimate interest in some of the sites, such as Fort George, where the Scottish Government has an interest through Historic Environment Scotland. We have an interest in other areas, too. I made a plea to Mark Lancaster all those months ago, saying that there may be an interest in securing land that has been made surplus to requirements for the provision of veterans’ housing. Again, there was no consultation on the matter.

I can assure the member that as we get more information—if we get more information—I will be more than happy to pass it to him.

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. Given that sites such as Redford and Glencorse cover extensive areas and given the pressing need for affordable housing, will the Scottish Government urge the MOD to do what is already happening in England, where it plans to transfer five large sites to the Homes and Communities Agency, and seek from the UK Government a commitment that the ownership of Redford and other sites will be transferred to Scottish ministers, who will then seek to develop them for wider community benefit in partnership with local authorities?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I certainly made the point to defence ministers, as I have just mentioned, that transferring land or buildings to the Scottish Government in some cases would enable us to provide housing. However, we should not forget the listed nature of some of the buildings at Redford, and economic dislocation is also an issue. Given the number of people who are paying into the local economy and helping local services, there will be a massive loss whether or not we are subsequently able to produce additional housing.

I have made the member’s point to the UK ministers and I will continue to do so.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Will the cabinet secretary join me in paying tribute to the Moray economic partnership—which I attended, as did Highlands and Islands Conservative Douglas Ross MSP on occasion, albeit that he clearly covered his ears—for the role that it played in saving the Kinloss barracks? Will he now ask his officials to liaise with the MOD to find ways in which the spare capacity that has been available on the Kinloss site since the RAF base was closed by the Tories can be used for job creation and local or new businesses?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Yes—we will look into that question and come back to the member on progress. I thank the member and the other elected members in the area who were actually willing to fight for the future of Kinloss. To question whether it was right and raise this as an issue, Richard Lochhead must have been aware—that is why he was concerned—of a senior MOD official briefing the chief executive of Moray Council that Kinloss was at risk. Obviously Douglas Ross was unaware of that, because he was so disengaged from the campaign and he deserted the field at the very moment when people in Kinloss were looking to elected members to try to save Kinloss—which we did, and which he ran away from.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Can the cabinet secretary inform the Parliament, under his plans, how many major army bases there would be in Scotland if we left the United Kingdom?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Perhaps it is worth reminding the member that we are discussing the UK Government’s commitment to cut the armed forces. It would be useful if he asked a question that was genuinely about that. Obviously, he has no genuine interest in any of those issues. This is about a UK Government, three years after a review of the disposition of forces in Scotland, going further and cutting that back once again. The member has not a word of concern to say about that, which is deeply unfortunate, so it may rest with the Scottish Government and other members who are genuinely interested in our armed forces to take those issues forward.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The plans to dispose of the airfield at Condor will do nothing to address the long-held concerns locally that 45 Commando is destined eventually to move to the south of England—something that was actually intended to happen in 2013. Given the cabinet secretary’s close personal connection to the marines, does he share those concerns? Does he, like me, wonder who might want to buy an airfield within a marine base given the likely security restrictions?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

That is a good point. Anybody who is familiar with 45 Commando and the airfield there will wonder what the rationale is behind that move, as they will wonder about Fort George. I cannot see a huge potential receipt for Fort George anytime soon, not least given the restrictions that will apply there—not security restrictions of the type that the member mentioned, but architectural restrictions.

I have no idea what the MOD’s thinking was—because it refused to discuss the matter—about selling off the airfield at Condor but keeping 45 Commando there. However, I am willing to commit to the member that we will try to find out what the purpose is, whether there is any likelihood of a receipt and whether there is any likelihood of this absurd decision being reversed.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you. That concludes questions on the cabinet secretary’s statement. I know that I was quite hard on members, but that meant that everyone who wanted to ask a question got to do so—something of a record in here.