Mike Crockart: Army’s march towards closures must be stopped

Mike Crockart
Mike Crockart
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The plan to close the city’s barracks is ill thought out from a financial and organisational point of view, says Mike Crockart

Two months ago, Defence Secretary Liam Fox announced that Redford and Dreghorn Barracks as well as the base at Craigiehall were to close. No-one expected the Strategic Defence Review would leave Scotland’s military bases untouched. But it was a decision which came out of the blue.

The basis for the ministry’s proposal is financial. It believes the sell-off of the bases for prime residential development will produce attractive capital receipts and a superbarracks will be more cost effective in the long term. When finances are tight it is laudable to aim for such efficiency, but given the MoD’s track record in this I’m extremely dubious this plan has been properly prepared.

Over the last eight weeks, I have asked Liam Fox fifty parliamentary questions to try to understand the financial reasoning behind the decision. But, it is clear the ministry has no concrete figures. Not one answer has given details of likely costs nor possible capital receipts from disposal of the Edinburgh estate.

Liam Fox was “not able to provide a cost estimate” for building new barracks at Kirknewton, despite £400-500 million being a commonly quoted figure. Running costs for the base seem equally unclear as his answer was, “until. . . further detail is known about the size and type of units that will move to Kirknewton, it is not possible to confirm budgetary requirements or allocations”.

How then is it possible to do a comparison with the costs of the undoubted modernisation work needed at Dreghorn and Redford? Especially since a question on that subject has revealed that no audit seems to have been carried out to establish those costs.

What then of the hoped for capital receipts? I asked the ministry what value they had placed on Craigiehall especially given its position so close to the airport flight path. The answer indicates that no recent valuation of this or the other sites has actually been carried out.

As well as a lack of financial detail, there has been no thorough consideration of an array of other important factors. Liam Fox cannot tell me what transport infrastructure is needed in and around Kirknewton or the effects on schools, transport, housing and health services for army personnel to be based there, though thankfully “planning work is now under way”.

The closure of Craigiehall in my constituency also confirmed in spite of a 3500 increase in army numbers and a major restructuring exercise taking place, Scotland will be losing its command headquarters. The post currently held by Major General David Shaw will be handed to a general at the army’s base in Aldershot, Hampshire.

The loss of this HQ raises questions about who will undertake the ceremonial duties which at present are carried out by Major General Shaw. Are we seriously suggesting that the Governor of Edinburgh Castle will be based in England? Or that the army’s involvement in the Tattoo will be coordinated from London?

There is too, of course, a very human aspect to the closures, for army families and residents alike. The changes will uproot families and damage many areas of the city. The bases are employers to many civilians and help boost the local economy. It is a consideration which the ministry has paid lip service to at best.

But a particularly worrying aspect is the period from 2014 when Redford and Dreghorn close through to 2017, the likely point at which Kirknewton could become operational. Even if service families continue to be based in the present family accommodation post 2017 – by no means guaranteed – what transitional help will be available to local schools, businesses and communities to see them through these difficult years?

At a meeting hosted by the Army Families Federation recently it was clear just how much distress this uncertainty and lack of answers is causing. This is no way to treat our army families.

So I am calling on the government to postpone the closures until a convincing financial case can be made. At that time, and only then, should a decision be made on the future of the army estate in Edinburgh, taking into account all of the issues.

* Mike Crockart is Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West