Mike Crockart: Who is defending our army families?

Picture: Jon Savage
Picture: Jon Savage
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WHEN former defence secretary Liam Fox announced the initial findings of his review of army bases, I described the plan to break Edinburgh’s army links as “historical vandalism”.

From the very start, the financial case for the sweeping changes – including building a “super-barracks” to house 2000 soldiers in West Lothian – did not stack up. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) believed that the sell-off of Edinburgh army bases at Dreghorn, Redford and Craigiehall for prime residential development would result in extra capital.

The MoD also felt that a super-barracks would be more cost effective in the long term, saving taxpayers’ money and boosting Treasury funds. But, of the nearly 100 parliamentary questions I have asked about the cost of relocation, the estimated value of the Edinburgh sites and the expected value for their sale, the defence secretary would give me no detail. The idea was ill-prepared and ill thought-out.

It was painfully clear that the plans were the panicked reaction of a secretary of state desperate merely to have a plan – any plan – so as to limit the reduction in his department’s budget.

I had hoped that Dr Fox’s successor, Philip Hammond, would have a serious rethink and that common sense would win out. While he has indeed had a rethink, there has, sadly, been no break with absurdity in the final plan.

His reaction to my charge of “historical vandalism” seems to be to save some of the bricks and mortar. I’m afraid Mr Hammond simply doesn’t get it: the history, the tradition, the long family and community links Edinburgh has are with our regiments and the people in them. His decision to move the Royal Scots hasn’t lessened the vandalism, it’s increased it.

The point of the Army 2020 review and its Firm Base policy is to give our troops a stronger, more stable link to the communities where they are posted. This is meant to be a huge step away from the old-fashioned army where families are uprooted every three years and transported around the world.

It is somewhat perverse, then, to begin the process by taking away the regiment with the strongest links to Edinburgh.

The expected result of the move of the Royal Scots Borderers to Belfast is a reduction of between 400 and 500 personnel in the Capital. Local primary schools will be ravaged by the loss of children already in their classes. Colinton Primary’s roll is made up of nearly 90 per cent army families, but Pentlands, Oxgangs and St Mark’s primaries would also be seriously affected.

Businesses, too, will face a serious reduction in their trade. The loss of the army will hit the local economy hard at what is an already economically challenging time. These arguments are ones I have been making to the defence secretary for the last year-and-a-half. When I asked what assessment had been made of the likely effect of the closures on the local economy, businesses and infrastructure I got the response “we recognise that defence decisions have broader regional, economic and social consequences”.

We seem to have regressed – families contacting me have said that they have been given only three days to decide on their futures. For many hit by this news, they are unable to sit and talk it over with one of their number on active service in Afghanistan. This is, quite simply, unacceptable.

The families based in Edinburgh have been facing uncertainty for some time and to put them in a position to decide their futures in three days adds insult to injury. It is no way to treat the men and women of our regiments.

The announcement means that Scotland will have a smaller presence than was promised in 2011. That promise was a worthless delusion, In much the same way as the SNP’s plans are complete fantasy, but to propose that only 637 extra troops are based in Scotland when 16,000 troops are returning from Germany is an insult. The figures equate to around four per cent – if Mr Hammond expects that to be regarded as fair or reasonable then he, too, is pretty deluded.

• Mike Crockart is Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West and has campaigned against the closure of the Edinburgh Army Estate for the past year and a half.

SPOUSES AND CHILDREN ON FRONTLINE

HUNDREDS of forces’ families are facing the upheaval of moving to Belfast after the latest shake-up ended the Royal Scots’ centuries-old link with Edinburgh.

A review of military bases announced by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond will see the 600-strong 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland – otherwise known as the Royal Scots Borderers – leave Dreghorn barracks next year and move to Northern Ireland.

The move breaks the ties between the city and the 380-year-old Royal Scots regiment and the shake-up will mean a 40 per cent cut in the number of troops based in Edinburgh. Soldiers serving in Afghanistan were given three days to decide on their futures and were told they had to decide whether to make the move or apply to stay in the Capital by last Friday.

Claire McIntosh, 28, whose husband Barry is serving in Afghanistan, said she was “gutted” when she learned. She has been married for three years and wanted to bring up their son Keir, four, in Edinburgh.

Claire, from Dalkeith, said: “I just don’t want to bring my wee one up in a different country. I wanted to bring my son up in Edinburgh but we don’t have an option.”