RMB Chivenor: Planned Closure

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:15 am on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 11:15 am, 9th January 2019

I will not get into a debate about various aspects of the estate. The south-west does very well from the Royal Marines’ perspective and indeed from the armed forces’ perspective as well. I go back to the point that we have to make these difficult decisions on the basis of what is best for the armed forces, as well as for the wider communities. However, I have heard my hon. Friend’s point, and no doubt we will discuss it further in tonight’s Adjournment debate in the main Chamber.

Before I turn to the base at Chivenor itself, as I did in yesterday’s debate about RM Condor I will first pay tribute to the Royal Marines as a whole, because I would like to acknowledge their critical—indeed, unique—role, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon also acknowledged, in the wider spectrum of the armed forces’ capability.

The Royal Marines were formed in the reign of Charles II in 1664; they will celebrate their 355th birthday this year and they have much to be proud of. They played a vital role in Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar; earlier, in 1704, they had secured and defended the Rock of Gibraltar. Of course, there was also the infamous raid on Zeebrugge in 1918, in which two Royal Marines earned the Victoria Cross; and they were there at the D-Day landings, when 17,500 Royal Marines took part in the largest amphibious operation in history. More recently, in 1982 they were essential in the recapture of the Falkland Islands.

Today, the Royal Marines are the UK’s specialised commando force, our elite unit that is held at very high readiness and trained for worldwide rapid response. They are able to deal with a wide spectrum of threats and security challenges, and often operate in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances, from amphibious operations to littoral strikes to humanitarian operations, as well as being specialists in mountain and cold weather warfare, and jungle insurgency. When diplomacy fails, it is the Royal Marines that provide the UK with a wide spectrum of hard power options with which we can respond. On behalf of a grateful nation, I say to all the Royal Marines who have earned that coveted green beret, “Thank you.”

Looking to the future, the strategic defence and security review 2015 mapped out our commitment to the Royal Marines themselves, and I am pleased to say that, following the recent modernising defence programme, the future of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, which have been the subject of many Westminster Hall debates, has now been confirmed; the Royal Marines’ winter deployment programmes in Norway will continue, as will their training with their US counterparts; and shortly we will see women joining the ranks of the Royal Marines in close-combat ground roles for the very first time.

RMB Chivenor is located—as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said—on the beautiful north Devon coastline between the town of Barnstaple and the village of Braunton. It started life as a civilian airfield in the 1930s. It then became RAF Chivenor in 1940 and was used as a coastal command station. After the war, the station was largely used for training, and that training role continued until the 1960s. In 1974, the RAF formed 2 Tactical Weapons Unit, flying BAE Hawks from Chivenor until 1994, when the airfield was handed over to the Royal Marines, although the RAF presence continued for a number of years, as RMB Chivenor was also the base for search and rescue flights.

As my hon. Friend also highlighted, today RMB Chivenor is home to over 1,200 personnel from all three services, who make up the Commando Logistic Regiment Royal Marines. It is also home to 24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers. Those based at Chivenor provide the second-line combat support to the force, which is a critical role. They provide invaluable support—the constant re-supply chain that is needed for any final phase of an operation. For the initial 30 days of any operation, they are able to provide essential supplies for the frontline commando units by the transfer of stores from ship to shore, making the force totally self-sufficient. That is what is so unique about 3 Commando Brigade. It is widely acknowledged that a force’s combat capability and ability to achieve its commander’s objectives is defined by its ability to support itself logistically on operations. That is exactly what the base achieves.

At RMB Chivenor, we have been studying how best to ensure that the base is able to continue to have access to the facilities that the personnel there require to live, work and train. However, we have also been investigating the opportunities to make best use of the Royal Marines bases and Royal Navy bases across the south-west, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned earlier, to ensure that we make the most of our facilities to create the best possible future for base laydown for the Royal Marines across the country. Our intent remains to rationalise the number of Royal Marines barracks that we have in the south-west, but we recognise that the Ministry of Defence does not exist in isolation. As we continue with our plans, we will engage with relevant stakeholders at every level to ensure that sites are considered for use in a way that benefits defence and the surrounding local communities.

With regard to RMB Chivenor, we recognise the benefits of retaining a Royal Marines presence there. I make it very, very clear that RMB Chivenor will continue to have a role to play. However, I invite my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon to listen to the next oral statement on the MOD’s defence estate plans, which is coming round the corner very soon.

I know that my hon. Friend wants answers, as do Luke Pollard and, no doubt, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, the Chair of the Defence Committee. However, I ask him to appreciate the process that we must go through in the MOD as part of the wider rationalisation of over 90 sites, to ensure that we are able to move assets around the country, and so that we know which assets are best to continue and which are best to close, which are best to endorse and which are best to amalgamate. These are very tough decisions indeed. Although my hon. Friend has said that in more than two years no answer has been given, we need to get this process right and we must ensure that the right decisions are made. I hope that he can read between the lines of what I am saying, but I can no provide further details today. I simply say now that more details will be coming in the next few weeks.

I will end by underlining a point that has been made a couple of times in this short debate. Our world is getting more dangerous and more complex, and ever fewer nations have the ability and desire to help to shape the world on the international stage. When it comes to hard power, it is the people in our armed forces who allow our Government to step forward and stand up to those who wish us harm. Critical to that is the role of the Royal Marines, and critical to the work of the Royal Marines is their logistical capability. I hope that my hon. Friend is as satisfied as he can be at this stage by the response that I have given him today. Again, I invite him to listen to the next oral statement on the defence real estate, when I will be able to expand in more detail on the formal future of RMB Chivenor, an important asset to Britain.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.