Closures of RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 16th October 2018.

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Photo of Karen Lee Karen Lee Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Fire) 4:30 pm, 16th October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the closures of RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am pleased to lead this debate on a vital national and local issue—the closures of RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse. I will focus on Scampton, as its closure has a major impact on my constituency, but other hon. Members may wish to give a more informed assessment of the closure of RAF Linton. I apologise in advance that I will not take too many interventions, but I have quite a lot to raise before I open the debate to other hon. Members.

I am pleased to say that I have a huge amount of local support in opposing Scampton’s closure. I have the backing of the Historic Lincoln Trust, which is chaired by Lord Cormack, and I have collected more than 5,000 signatures for my petition opposing the closure. Other local groups have collected signatures on petitions, and added to the signatures I have collected, that amounts to a huge public outcry against the decision.

There is a lot of local anger in Lincoln at the Ministry of Defence’s decision. There is real concern about the future of the Red Arrows in Lincolnshire and the potential loss of many local jobs. Since the decision, I have campaigned rigorously and gathered local momentum against it. This is one of the best-supported campaigns I have ever been involved in. People have signed my petition, regardless of their age or political persuasion. Never before have I had members of the public queuing down the high street to sign a petition about which they feel such passion. So far, it has reached 5,000 signatures. We are calling, first, for the Red Arrows to stay in Lincolnshire—that is an absolute must—secondly, for the rationale behind the closure and the impact it will have on the UK’s defences to be made public, which I have tried to do; thirdly, for a thorough consultation to be undertaken with all local and national stakeholders; and, finally, for a full impact assessment of the effect that the closure will have on the local economy and workers.

This year, we are celebrating 100 years of the Royal Air Force and 100 years since Air Station Brattleby Cliff was renamed RAF Scampton. The airbase is central to Lincolnshire’s past and present identity. Scampton was home to the legendary Dam Busters, and since 2000 it has housed the world-renowned Red Arrows. For 100 years, Scampton has symbolised our Royal Air Force’s proud history, and it has received a lot of praise for its role. Recently, Air Marshal Sir Michael Graydon referred to it as a “very good base”, and the strategic defence review conducted in 2010 concluded that keeping the Red Arrows at Scampton was the best way to allow them to operate. However, the Ministry of Defence ploughed on and announced that RAF Scampton was to be closed and sold off. Although the MOD made that decision, it is ultimately Government cuts that forced that step to be taken. If budgets are cut, our communities suffer. Cuts have consequences.

Photo of Karen Lee Karen Lee Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Fire)

I will not, I am sorry. I want to go on, because I am aware that we will have votes in the House.

Locally, in bomber county, there is incredulity that the Conservatives are effectively signing the death warrant of our local RAF base and taking away our Red Arrows, especially as, like Labour Members, only a very short time ago they welcomed the RAF to London and enjoyed the fly-past by the wonderful historic planes. The decision to close RAF Scampton has been very badly managed. There has not been a local transparent consultation. Although I am the local MP, I was not informed; I found out through the local and national press coverage when I turned on BBC news in the morning.

Although the Ministry of Defence statement asserted that it would engage with local stakeholders, that has been far from the reality. I have submitted a letter requesting a meeting and a freedom of information request. I acknowledge that this is a sensitive subject, but I submitted my FOI request on 30 July—78 days, or 11 weeks, ago—and, other than two holding replies, I have not had a proper response. The last thing I want to do is publish anything that would put our country’s safety at risk, but my request relates to my petition and to the effect that the closure will have on the surrounding area and the future of the Red Arrows. Rather than withhold the information for an extended length of time, the MOD should publish the impact assessments that informed the decision for the public to see.

From the information available to me locally, I feel confident in saying that the decision is highly flawed. The Minister noted in the initial announcement that

“The disposal of the site would offer better value for money and, crucially, better military capability by relocating the units based there.”

I cannot comment on military capability, as I am not privy to the details, but I dispute the idea that it was an effective “value for money” decision.

The argument for closing RAF Scampton is that the land can be sold and used for housing. That case has been proposed twice before—in 1994 and 2000. On both occasions, the financial case was flawed. The value of the land, particularly the assumed capital receipt and the expected value of the land per hectare, was overestimated. The previous decisions, and most likely this one, were based on an unrealistic view of land values. Other MOD site disposals were used as comparisons, but variations across the country were not considered. On that basis, I asked the Minister to release the forecast pricing of the land, as it has been miscalculated twice previously.

The land in question is also very likely contaminated, and any decision must take into account the cost of land remediation to ensure that it is of the necessary standard for residential development. I have been advised locally that there is an extensive underground fuel system, which is likely to have leaked over the years, leading to hydrocarbon contamination, so a major clean-up would be required before the land could be considered suitable for residential use. The environmental factors, alongside the cost of removing RAF infrastructure, may reduce the value of the land and result in a loss if it were sold. Will the Minister explain in detail the expected savings from closing Scampton, factoring in the cost of remediation work?

It is not just the cost of the land that means that Scampton should not be closed. It is what it and the Red Arrows provide to the local economy. Not only does Scampton provide 600 jobs, which enables spending in Lincoln and thus increases productivity in the local economy—we hear a lot from the Conservative Government about jobs—but Lincolnshire has a rich military history, and Scampton epitomises that and attracts tourists. I work closely with Visit Lincoln, which has stressed to me on numerous occasions the importance of the base and the Red Arrows. The heritage centre at Scampton is housed in one of the original world war two hangars. It holds more than 1,000 artefacts and contains the original office of Guy Gibson, commanding officer of 617 Squadron—the Dam Busters. The Red Arrows are world renowned. Even though they tour the world, between November and March the public can visit them at Scampton. It is an exciting opportunity to visit the impressive Arrows up close. Aviation enthusiasts travel across the UK and from abroad to visit Scampton, but possibly not for much longer.

The selling of Scampton not only deprives the local economy and costs us jobs but wipes out the history of those who bravely fought against the fascist threat during world war two. Did the Minister and the Ministry of Defence consider the effect that the closure would have on the local economy when they decided to close Scampton and relocate the Arrows? Has the Ministry of Defence honestly given any consideration to the future of the heritage centre?

The leader of the Labour party has committed to save Scampton—I went straight up and bent his ear, and he agreed to that. He recognises its immense local and national significance, but the Prime Minister continues with an unpopular, short-sighted and misinformed policy. I have had more requests about this issue in the 16 months I have been an MP than about anything else—it is so vital locally in Lincoln.

I began this debate by asking the Minister questions about land value and the local economy. I hope that I get some kind of reply, because I have had nothing from the MOD. I would now like to open the debate to other Members.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton 4:38 pm, 16th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank Karen Lee for securing this very important debate.

In my constituency, I have the historic RAF base of Linton-on-Ouse, and I quite understand that the Minister has a difficult job. No one wants their local base to close. Bases are not just about bricks and mortar, tarmac and concrete. They are places of heroic deeds, great endeavours and often the ultimate sacrifice.

Linton-on-Ouse has a proud history. It was first formed in 1937, in the lead-up to the second world war. The No. 4 Group RAF was based there, and it undertook some heroic bombing raids on Norway, the Netherlands and into Germany. Linton-on-Ouse was also host to the No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force. In some of the pubs in my area there are lots of photos of those days—of Canadian airmen and British aircrew together, looking valiant and invincible. Of course, many of those people never returned from their bombing raids. Indeed, in 1941, the base at Linton was bombed by the Luftwaffe, with a loss of 13 men, including the station commander. All my life, RAF Linton-on-Ouse has been part of the local community. I remember playing darts in the officers’ mess there as a young man, and I also went to a very extravagant, formal military wedding there. As a young boy, my son Charlie was first shown how to fly a plane on the flight simulator there by a very good friend of ours, Flight Lieutenant Rod Leigh—a great man who is sadly no longer with us.

The announcement that the base would close in 2020 has shocked the entire community because of the part that it has played in people’s lives. It employs many people—as the hon. Member for Lincoln said, these bases employ many people directly—and many people work in the base’s supply chain too. Many jobs will be at risk because of the closure and, of course, the local community is very proud of the base’s historic contribution to our previous fights against tyranny. The Minister has a very difficult job because he is responsible for taxpayer’s money—it is not Government money—and he has got to make sure that all the resources he has are used in the most cost-effective way possible. I understand that maintaining the military estate costs £2.5 billion per annum. The closure of the base at Linton will save £140 million by the end of the decade, and will contribute to a significant investment of £4 billion in our infrastructure and military bases going forward. It is hugely important that our military bases and forces are fit for purpose and can do us proud when they are needed in the future.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his speech, which is very effective. Does he agree that another of the problems that we face is the need to keep the capacity to flex and to expand our capability in the event of threat? With Russian submarines off our coast, Russian aircraft coming very close to our airspace and ships also coming into our waters, is this not a time when our capacity to expand is central to our defence not only in the future but now?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

The hon. Lady makes some excellent points. The international threat that she outlines—particularly from Russia—is greater now than it was for many years, so it is absolutely right that we have a military that is fit for purpose.

The Minister will acknowledge that we have corresponded many times over this closure, including with senior officers from the RAF, to challenge them on whether closing the base is the right thing to do, or if it is a false economy. I understand that it makes sense to aggregate all training needs in a single place—they are being moved to RAF Valley on Anglesey—but I have written to the Minister on a number of occasions about some concerns we have, which were first raised by the Public Accounts Committee during a session on military flying training in October 2015. The Committee raised concerns about the prospect of all training being moved from Linton to RAF Valley, and it noted in its December 2015 report that the full implementation of the new training system for military air crew had been delayed by a number of years and that only 151 students had graduated, at a cost of £143 million to the taxpayer—that shows how expensive it is to train pilots—when we were aiming for an annual figure of around 320 students.

On top of this, part of our capacity will be used to train other nations. The RAF is a world leader in its field, so many nations come to it for training, which we should be very proud of. However, there are concerns about how those providing the training will manage with only one simulator when there are currently three at Linton-on-Ouse. It is calculated that the number of flying hours required to make sure that we have the extra capacity has increased by 20 to 25%.

I have a number of concerns—I know the Minister has addressed them before and given me every assurance—along the same lines as those expressed by Mrs Moon. Is this going to mean that we have the capacity when needed in the future, particularly in extra training needs both for our nation and for services that we provide to other nations?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

On that point, I was lucky enough to visit Linton-on-Ouse with some colleagues in the armed forces parliamentary scheme just a couple of weeks ago. There is a problem with capacity: at the minute, wannabe pilots are joining the RAF and spending up to 18 months to two years in holding, as they await the training to become fighter jet pilots. Does he agree that moving the training to Anglesey will only exacerbate that problem; that young men and women joining up now to fly fast jets will be prevented from doing so; and that this is doing nothing to encourage people to join the armed forces to do the job that they want to do?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which was also made to me by one of the training officers at RAF Linton who is retiring and has no axe to grind. He made exactly the same point about making sure that we have the capacity to train people on the base. I would like the Minister to make sure that we have got that capacity and that the airbase will not be needed, and to consider the points that we have raised. If he decides ultimately that the base will be closed, I ask him to support us in the planning work that we will have to carry out to find the best possible future uses for the base—yes, housing is one potential use, but there could be many employment uses as well. We want to make sure, if the closure goes ahead, that on that sad day, the employment prospects created as a result at least make up for some of the jobs lost in the locality, and that we provide opportunities for local people who have such a long connection with and have relied so much on that base for their community and for jobs both at the base and in the local supply chain.

I know that the Minister will address those points either now or on a later occasion, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:47 pm, 16th October 2018

As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Karen Lee on securing this timely and important debate. It is also a pleasure to follow Kevin Hollinrake. Recently, I had the privilege to be on a parliamentary armed forces visit, and I take this opportunity to thank everyone at RAF Linton-on-Ouse for making us so welcome and giving us such an instructive, informative and excellent visit.

I want to focus in particular on RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey, which was closed in 2013. It is in my constituency. There is still an association with RAF Scampton in so far as there are assets in Kirton-in-Lindsey still being used by the Scampton base. The closure of RAF Scampton will have an impact on Kirton-in-Lindsey. Those are the assets that I am concerned about.

I have always found the military personnel—from the RAF and all the armed services—with whom I have come into contact to be excellent, but I found that dealing with the MOD was less than excellent when it was disposing of the site in Kirton-in-Lindsey. The MOD’s attitude of mind is very much focused on disposal and simple numbers. However, the impact on cost is not about simple numbers from a disposal—the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton touched on this, in some ways—but about community value and community assets.

In Lincolnshire—“bomber county”, as my colleague said—the disposal of assets has a history of being done in a way that has actually cost the public purse. The disposal might have got a little cash for the MOD at the time, but the cost to the public purse has been a lot more, because the disposal was not done effectively: the maintenance and support of often derelict sites has frequently fallen back on other parts of the public purse.

My plea is that the disposals of RAF Linton-on-Ouse and RAF Scampton are done in a way that engages fully with the local community and that looks for full community value, not simple pennies in the pot. That will much better serve the nation and the communities in which the bases have served for such a long while, giving better value for money to the public purse.

I return to Kirton-in-Lindsey, to read from the letter sent to me by the town council. It reminded me:

“Previously Kirton in Lindsey Town Council have submitted requests to North Lincolnshire Council for the registering of the tennis courts, gymnasium and surrounding leisure land off York Road, Kirton in Lindsey, as assets of community value which are now listed as such”— under legislation brought in by the coalition Government, which is rightly being used by communities to benefit community interest. The letter continues:

“The Town Council has also proactively written to the MOD requesting that they consider selling the leisure land at RAF Kirton in Lindsey to the Town Council for the good of the community.”

I very much support the town council. Those are assets of community value that can benefit a significant community—or they can be sold to a slightly higher bidder for a bit of cash that would probably be spent fairly quickly by the Red Arrows and would not have the same community and public benefit of the more intelligent approach.

I hope that the Minister will do everything he can to look at the assets in the Kirton-in-Lindsey base and to ensure that the community interest is explored and delivered to the maximum extent possible. It is interesting that in the disposal of the base, North Lincolnshire Council, which is Conservative controlled—sadly, still Conservative controlled—put in a bid for the base land. I think that the numbers were probably fairly close to those of the successful bidder, but by now the council would have developed the base further than has been done.

Instead, the development of the base has been stalled, typically, although I hope it is now moving forward. With the best will in the world, a private developer, even though developing the base for very good business interests, is not making the same progress that might otherwise have been made. I hope that lessons have been learned to benefit both Linton-on-Ouse and Scampton, and that there is an opportunity to put the community value back into the community through the appropriate disposal of the community value assets that Kirton-in-Lindsey Town Council identified and registered—appropriately—with the Ministry of Defence and with North Lincolnshire Council. That is my plea. I cannot make that plea big enough, because this is a moment in time when the public good can be better delivered. If the opportunity is missed, the future will not benefit.

I cannot finish without mentioning the historic nature of the Scampton site. As everyone knows, it was the host of 617 Squadron, otherwise known as the Dambusters. That is rich within our heritage, and always will be—one of the big emblematic and triumphant missions of the second world war, to which we all owe a huge debt. In the 100th anniversary year of the RAF, it is something that we commemorate and remember. The Red Arrows maintain that historical tradition by flying out of RAF Scampton. Often, when I drive to Newark to catch a train down to London on a Monday morning, I see the Red Arrows above, in the Lincolnshire skies, doing their stuff. It is a sight to be seen—awesome, frankly. I share the feeling of my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln that it would be appropriate, if the changes go ahead, for the Red Arrows to remain in Lincolnshire, flying across the Lincolnshire skies.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed 4:55 pm, 16th October 2018

I may be cut off by the Division bell, but many might be grateful for that.

I want to emphasise that this is such an important issue. I am lucky because some of the air traffic control personnel in RAF Scampton at present will move up to RAF Boulmer in my constituency as a result of RAF decisions. The reality is, however, that the one group of people who are not ever able to speak for themselves, and who indeed colleagues have perhaps not mentioned much, is those in the RAF itself. This is very much their decision.

As ever, the RAF is in a state of continuous change and, although this year we have commemorated in extraordinary ways the RAF 100 and the exploits, bravery, and extraordinary and impossible challenges of our incredible airmen and women over the past 100 years, the reality is that those in the RAF look forward. While respecting history, we must allow those who are planning for the future—with technology and aircraft that are out of this world in terms of a normal human’s comprehension—to be in places that necessarily work for the RAF. We must respect the RAF’s decisions.

I completely respect the position of Karen Lee on the community, however, and I hope very much that the Minister and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, which will be charged with finding new uses for the site, are mindful of history and the need to maintain the location whence extraordinary deeds were done.

I am no shrinking violet when it comes to criticising the way the DIO has managed housing challenges: the MOD was set the challenge of finding a huge amount of land to build housing on, as part of the Government’s big housing strategy, and I led the Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into how that was going. I continue to say that much more needs to be done. I commend colleagues on encouraging the Minister to ensure that that relationship is stronger than it has been so that communities know the MOD understands the value of a community. This is not just about taking a piece of land and building houses on it.

We must remember that the RAF wants to move forward. It has a budget—everyone has a budget—and it wants its technological abilities to be honed in the right places. Mrs Moon mentioned the Russian threat, but the MOD’s investment in Lossiemouth, where the P-8 is coming in, will enable it to do so much more. Technology is constantly moving forward, and the RAF wants those centres of excellence and those training and base centres.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

The point I was making was not about meeting current capability; it was about having the capability to flex and expand. Once we build on an aerodrome, it is gone. We have to have the capacity to keep things operational, so that should the bases be needed, we can make them so.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed

I entirely agree. During the second world war, we built hundreds of airfields in a hurry, so that we could move those brave young men in and out of the country to defend our shores, but they have not been used since. We always have to look forward. The reality is that we have no idea what the future warfare space might look like. The RAF is telling constantly us that it wants those centres of excellence where it can have the investment.

I am an east coast MP too, and we have long seen our potential enemies as coming from the east—that is why most of those airfields that are now redundant are on that side of the country. However, we must always look forward and support RAF decisions.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed 5:25 pm, 16th October 2018

I was given a great deal of leeway before the Division bell went, and I will not abuse the privilege.

One more thing I wanted to raise with the Minister was the value of our pilots. The RAF is making decisions that I entirely understand are difficult for those in the Lincolnshire area—in moving how it does training, and indeed in finding a new home for the Red Arrows. I know that RAF Leeming and the north of England would welcome them with open arms. It would be lovely to have a northern point where we have planes in Boulmer—we look after the air traffic control, but we do not have anything that flies.

Notwithstanding that, the key point is that these pilots are extraordinary people and one of the nation’s great assets—not only because of their own human endeavour and great bravery, but because we invest millions of pounds in each of them. It is so important that we consider them an asset rather than a cost. There is the wrap-around that goes with the pilots, and indeed the teams who work with them, and the pilots and their families need to be looked after. We come back to housing and how we invest the money in the MOD budget to ensure that we are not accidently failing to invest properly in the whole family around our pilots, with us losing the huge investment made by the MOD and the RAF through lack of consideration of that wider family support. I leave that for the Minister to consider.

The RAF can never speak for itself, and it is a great challenge for those who serve that their voice is silenced, but we can thank them for their extraordinary work on our behalf in defending us and our nation, while remembering that their decisions are made looking forwards to the fight that we do not yet know exists—preparing for the unknown and thinking strategically, so as to be able to adapt to whatever the future threats might be. I hope very much that the Minister will consider carefully how we look after all these pilots and engineers as we find a new home for them.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 5:27 pm, 16th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Karen Lee on securing the debate and the informative and passionate speech she made, outlining the impact and effect of any proposed closure for RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse.

We all recognise that the requirements of the defence estate will change over time and that there is a need to modernise to reflect that. However, any restructuring of the estate must enhance our military capability and deliver value for money for the British taxpayer while providing flexibility, as highlighted by my hon. Friend Mrs Moon. These two proposed closures are particularly disappointing, coming as they do in the RAF’s centenary year. The closure of either site would have a significant impact on the livelihoods of a large number of people, as we have heard: we know that 600 personnel are working at RAF Scampton and just under 300 at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. If those sites were to close, servicemen and women and their families would be required to move, and civilian staff would face redeployment.

Those closures would also affect the wider community. As Members are aware, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln and others highlighted, MOD sites are important to the local economies in which they are situated as well as the wider supply chains that support the work of the bases. In that vein, I ask the Minister what assessment the Department has made of the economic impact of closing the two sites. Will he also set out in as much detail as possible the discussions that have taken place with personnel at those bases and the options that have been made available to civilian staff? What help and support will be given to civilian employees who are unable to move?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed

I know that the shadow Minister is passionate about his defence brief and we have spoken many times. Is there a Labour position on what would be done at RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse?

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

I will address that later in my contribution.

It is important that we look at civilian employees who are not able to move and the impact any closure would have on them. They may have restrictions that perhaps Air Force personnel do not have.

RAF Scampton is known to many as the base for the world-famous Red Arrows, as well as having historic links to the Dambusters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe has highlighted, there are historic links to RAF Scampton that we must consider. I ask the Minister to assure the House that any decision about the future of the site would take full account of those historic links.

To address the hon. Lady’s intervention, the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that we want to see RAF Scampton continue as the home for the Red Arrows, for many years to come. It is a case of prioritising and taking into consideration my points about the links it has, as well as the economic impact of closures, not just on the RAF but on the wider economy and community.

Can the Minister outline what consideration has been given to preserving the heritage sector at RAF Scampton? We understand that the Government are considering other potential defence uses for the site at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, ahead of any potential closure. Can the Minister set out what possible uses there may be and what the timescale is for exploring those options? It is important, as we have said, to look at the wider impact and the community value of the sites.

The announcement of these two closures will undoubtedly raise concerns about other possible cuts and efficiencies that may come about as a result of the modernising defence programme. In light of this, can the Minister take the opportunity to update the House on the progress of that programme and, crucially, when he expects to be reporting on it?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 5:32 pm, 16th October 2018

It is a pleasure to respond to this debate, and I join the others in congratulating Karen Lee on securing it.

I begin with a declaration of interest. I am a private pilot and I am pleased to say that the last plane I flew was a Typhoon out of RAF Coningsby, which I took through the sound barrier. That is an example of what Mrs Moon—who is no longer in her place—mentioned earlier of dealing with threats, as clearly my presence in the air over the east of England pushed away any Russian threats that day. RAF Coningsby is a fantastic example of what the county of Lincolnshire offers the RAF. We should be very proud of what happens at that base and at all the other bases across the county, and indeed across the country.

Before we discuss the individual basing decisions, it would be remiss of me not to briefly acknowledge, as others have done, the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, a merger of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service created the first independent air force in the world. At the time, General Haig commented that he hoped that no one would be so foolish as to think that planes would be usefully employed in the objectives of reconnaissance for the purposes of war. He was a cavalry man who thought that the only way of gaining intelligence on the battlefield was on the back of a horse. We now know that the Air Force would become a significant component in our military capability. Indeed, it was our superior air power during the battle of Britain that led to the cancellation of Operation Sea Lion, the planned Nazi invasion of England.

The size of the RAF has fluctuated. Before the war it was around 31,000; at the height of the war it was 264,000; today it is around 30,000. Such were its requirements that much of the country, especially in the eastern counties, was peppered with bases, landing strips, early warning systems and the factories that made the aircraft, all gearing to support the war effort. Today, thanks to technological advances and changing threats and tactics, our air power footprint is very different indeed. We have a leaner, more versatile and more capable fighting force than we have ever had.

However, we find ourselves responsible for a legacy estate that owns 2% to 3% of UK land, and we realise we cannot afford to keep that going. A significant amount of that land is surplus to requirement. As a result, the MOD undertook a wide-ranging study of the entire estate, culminating in what was known as the better defence announcement in November 2016. That study identified many areas that could be used more efficiently, but stated that overall the estate was too big and expensive, with too many sites in the wrong location. We therefore embarked on a transformation of our estate. We will invest £4 billion over the next 10 years to upgrade key sites—and, yes, we will reduce our footprint elsewhere.

We have a total of 91 sites across the defence estate. Painful though it is, those will have to be reconciled. I hope that that results in a more modern and capability-focused estate. That approach will provide the modern facilities that the RAF needs and give personnel better employment opportunities for their partners and, with fewer movements during an RAF career, the ability to put down roots in their local community, which my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan mentioned. Crucially, that work is being done not by a central body—not by the MOD or the Defence Infrastructure Organisation—but by the armed forces and, in this case, the RAF, which is best placed to understand what it requires to support the delivery of defence in the United Kingdom.

That takes us to the sites that are the subject of the debate. First, as was said, RAF Scampton is steeped in history, but it is of course most famous for 617 Squadron and its daring Dambuster raid on 16 May 1943. As I mentioned, Lincolnshire is blessed with a number of other RAF bases, including Waddington and Cranwell, which I visited recently, and Lossiemouth. RAF Scampton is not in good condition. Some buildings have changed little since world war two. The station is in a poor state of repair, as indeed is the runway. I make it very clear, difficult though it is to hear, that it would require significant investment to restore the base to a suitable standard for the aircraft we use today.

I absolutely recognise the passion—that was illustrated in the powerful speech by Karen Lee—and the sense of nostalgia about the tough choices concerning the future of RAF Scampton. It simply would not be an efficient use of public money for the Royal Air Force to retain that site purely for heritage reasons. Instead, it will continue to concentrate its resources on active sites that contribute to the defence outputs that will shape the future. Fortunately, as I said, many of those sites are based in Lincolnshire, so we will not remove that county’s important relationship with the RAF.

The Royal Air Force, the MOD and I, as a Minister, are not indifferent to the heroic contributions of those who served at Scampton—not least the Dambusters. I can think of no more fitting tribute than the newly re-formed 617 Squadron, which will be based at RAF Marham with the world’s most advanced jets in the form of the F-35 Lightning.

It is those difficult factors that led me to conclude in my announcement to Parliament on 24 July 2018 that RAF Scampton needed to close. We have ensured that our personnel are fully aware of the plans for the future of the site and we can begin to work with interest to prepare the long-term locations for the units, including the famous Red Arrows as well as No. 1 Air Control Centre and the Mobile Meteorological Unit.

I heard the passion that was expressed about the connectivity between Scampton and the Red Arrows, but I would argue that they are a national asset. I think the hon. Lady knows that they have not only been based in Scampton, although there is a current bond there. They spend a fair bit of time in Bournemouth, dare I say it, when they are doing the air shows down in the south of the country. They move around, doing 60 air shows a year not only in this country but elsewhere, and they have moved in the time since they came into existence in 1965. They have been at Fairford, where another international air show takes place, they have been at Kemble and they were at Scampton before moving to Cranwell and then back to Scampton—and yes, they now need to move again.

Of course it is dramatic when the Red Arrows move, but we must bear in mind the costs of keeping that runway and its facilities open and making the best use of the limited budget that we have. This is a tough decision to make, but we must provide them with a home that is fit for purpose. There are now detailed discussions; I know that the hon. Lady wants to know more information about them, but this is subject to discussions with the Civil Aviation Authority and there are difficulties with sharing absolutely everything. If I can agree to meet her one on one, we can have a further discussion about this, which I hope will be of help to her. We have already identified a number of options to ensure there is a home fit for the Red Arrows.

If I may turn to RAF Linton-on-Ouse, again, we heard a powerful but measured understanding of what needs to be put forward for the future of this base from my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake. As he is well aware, and I think touched on in his contribution, the Tucano aircraft used by No. 1 Flying Training School, the main users of the site, will go out of service in October 2019. The essential Basic Fast Jet training will also move to RAF Valley, as has also been mentioned, using the Texan aircraft type.

With the main occupants due to leave in 2019, the Royal Air Force assessed that there was no requirement to maintain the station in the long term. The remaining units are due to be moved to existing sites, further consolidating the Royal Air Force into core locations up and down the country. Like RAF Scampton, this is an example of how we are driving down our running costs and consolidating our people and our investment into fewer sites but ones that are better maintained.

Understanding the realisation of the defence estate is difficult, and some painful decisions must be made. As it was, it no longer represented the modern-day armed forces it was meant to serve. It was too large, and both our people and our investment were spread too thinly across the entire United Kingdom.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

Will the Minister touch on the issue of capacity? There were concerns raised by people who, I think, had no vested interest here, but were concerned that a single base could not deliver the level of pilot training required for our future needs and some of the contracts we have for other nations. Can we guarantee today that RAF Valley will be able to meet that need?

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

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I visited RAF Cranwell only a couple of weeks ago and had a full briefing on the progression of the pilots, depending on which aircraft they will eventually use. He also touched on something else. The expertise that we have in this country is phenomenal. We not only train our pilots to an exemplary standard but train pilots for other nations too. That is important for the soft power relationships that we build with other nations.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

Before the Minister finishes, could he address the points that I raised about the community assets at the Kirton-in-Lindsey site, which will be disposed of as part of the disposal of RAF Scampton? Will he commit to ensuring that the Ministry of Defence engages fully and proactively with the town council and others who have community interests?

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

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about what happens once a decision is made, and the importance of having a strategy, working with the local authorities and with the devolved Administrations in some cases, to take best advantage of the estate that is being provided. Discussions happen with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation on that very front. The air base that he mentioned was not part of the subject matter for this particular debate, which was focused on these two RAF bases, but I would be more than delighted to meet him to be apprised of what is happening and to discuss that in further detail.

I am sure hon. Members will agree that the men and women of our Armed Forces, who do so much for our country, deserve to work and train at sites with modern facilities, and that the civil servants and contractors who support them in delivering their outputs need the certainty that the establishment of core sites provides. Let us also not forget the families around the serving personnel, who must be able to benefit from the necessary schooling for their children and be able to buy their homes, put down roots and be part of local communities.

The world is becoming a more complex and dangerous place. We are very fortunate with the history of the RAF, what it has gone through and how it has helped to shape the world and who we are today. I simply make the case, as we head toward the next Budget, that we must keep investing in all our armed forces and in our bases to ensure that we continue to have a place and a voice at the international top table.

Photo of Karen Lee Karen Lee Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Fire) 5:46 pm, 16th October 2018

I thank all hon. Members, the shadow Minister and the Minister for attending the debate and for speaking, especially on such an important subject. I thank the Minister for the offer of a meeting, which I genuinely appreciate. I want to make one final plea from the people of Lincoln to let us keep our Red Arrows in Lincolnshire—although I think we all know that it probably will not be my final one. I thank you, Mr Pritchard, for your excellent chairing, and I thank my hon. Friend Nic Dakin, who has been wonderful. This is the first time I have led a debate, and I will certainly remember it.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having led her first debate so ably.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the closures of RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse.

Sitting adjourned.