MOD planning major training area in the Scottish Borders

52
2050

By Russell Bruce

PART 1

Over the last few weeks, snippets of information have slipped out about MOD deliberations on establishing an MOD multi-role training area, including tank training, in the Borders countryside.

What would be a further major land grab by Defence Estates in Scotland has been more than overshadowed by the controversy over the sale of Dreghorn and Redford Barracks in Edinburgh and the building of new facilities at Kirknewton, west of Edinburgh.

With typical MOD information management obscuration, the array of proposals for a reconfiguration of the Defence Estate in Scotland does not stack up and appear full of contradictions and vagueness as to what will be located where, at what time and for what purpose.

The Background

The Army is to re-role into five multi-role brigades as a result of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Three of the brigades will be centred around Catterick and Salisbury, the fourth around Cottesmore in the east of England and the fifth in Scotland centred on Kirknewton, south-west of Edinburgh.

The Army’s presence in Germany is coming to an end and all UK forces are due to vacate facilities in Germany by 2020.

Half of the remaining forces in Germany (approximately 20,000 Service personnel in total) will return to the UK by 2015, with the aim of withdrawing all forces by 2020. (SDSR)

The Germany facilities include a tank training area. The Army, in addition to the German tank training site, also uses Salisbury Plain (38,000 hectares or 150 square miles) and The British Army Training Area at Suffield in Canada (25,900 hectares or 100 square miles).

The NATO military training area used by the Army for tank training in Germany is based at Bergen-Hohne in Lower Saxony. Established by the Wehrmacht in 1935 it was taken over by the British occupying forces at the end of the war.

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards are part of the Army based there and use the facility for live tank firing. The site is 28,328 hectares or 110 square miles which is 3 times the size of the estimated ‘initial requirement’ replacement facility being talked about for the Scottish Borders.

The proposal for a tank training area in the Borders ‘would be intended to supplement the use of Salisbury Plain and Canada, in lieu of the training estate in Germany’ according to a Freedom of Information reply received from Headquarters Land Forces in Andover.

The same letter states that the multi-role brigade based in Scotland “will require a new training area and positive discussions are now being taken forward with the Scottish Government.”

Defence Estates land holdings in Scotland

Army use accounts for 66% of all land held by Defence Estates. One third (33%) of Defence Estates land holdings are in Scotland and 78% of all holdings (UK) comprise training areas and ranges.

Defence Estates are the second largest landowner in the UK and the total estate is equal to 1% of the UK land mass. The total land owned and leased amounts to 238,000 hectares. Defence Estate has rights and claims over a further 133,000 hectares.

Out of a total of 77 land and property holdings in Scotland, the following is a list of Training Areas and Ranges of c1000 hectares and above.

  • Kinglochleven Training Area, Highland, 11668 hectares
  • Tain Weapons Range (RAF), Highland, 1196 hectares
  • West Freugh, Range Dumfries and Galloway, 1185 hectares
  • Ardgarten Training Area, Argyll & Bute, 17603 hectares
  • Barry Budden Training Centre, Dundee, 1174 hectares
  • Loch Ewe Training Area, Highland, 27915 hectares
  • Dundrennan Tank Range, Dumfries & Galloway, 1989 hectares
  • Galloway Training Area, Dumfries & Galloway, 69787 hectares
  • Garelochhead Training Area, Argyll & Bute, 3339 hectares
  • Tighnablair Training Area, Perth & Kinross, 2057 hectares
  • Wyvis Training Area, Highland, 8213 hectares
  • Cape Wrath Bombing Range, Sutherland, 5973 hectares
  • Applecross, Sea bed testing area, Highland, 2802 hectares
  • DE Hebrides, Range, Western Isles, 929 hectares

(Source: Defence Estates Development Plan (DEDP), Annex B, July 2009 and Andy Wightman)

The total composite land used for Training Areas in Scotland comes to a staggering 140,582 hectares and for Ranges 15,248 hectares, and remember I am only counting these specific holdings that are c1000 hectares and above.

If all the training area land is owned or leased, those 140,582 hectares would account for 59% of the UK total of 238,000 hectares.

The combined total of Training Areas and Ranges comes to 155,830 hectares the equivalent of 601.66 square miles or 2% of Scotland’s entire land mass.

Given that the size of the Army is being cut by 20%, the argument for increasing training area provision yet further seems a doubtful proposition particularly against the background of defence budget cuts and the need for the MOD to try balancing the books for a change.

Disposals

The argument put forward by the MOD is that acquisitions will be funded by land and property disposals. As part of the Defence Estates review of July 2009, around 30 holdings were earmarked for disposal in England, 2 in Northern Ireland and 1 each in Wales and Scotland. The solitary Scottish site was the former airbase at Machrihanish in Kintyre.

The Defence Basing Review, issued by the House of Commons on 19th July 2011, identified Craigiehall Camp, Redford and Dreghorn Barracks in Edinburgh as being added to the disposal list.

Glencorse Barracks at Penicuik and the Castlelaw Ranges (773 hectares) remain on the retained list.

Just over the Border

An additional Freedom of Information request to the MOD on whether any existing training areas will be downsized or disposed off because of a new Borders based Training Area for the Scottish Brigade is awaiting a response.

Of particular interest is the Training Area just over the Border at Otterburn. The Otterburn Training Area extends to over 60,000 acres (25,000 hectares) and is located in the Northumberland National Park

According to the MOD the soft peat land at Otterburn is not suitable as a tank training site. 30,000 solders use Otterburn every year and there is hutted accommodation for up to 1600 visiting troops at anyone time.

Where the process is at

The MOD is at pains to point out that the Scottish Borders site is only one of the options being considered. Significantly not a word has escaped about where else they might be looking and the Scottish Borders is known to be their preferred site.

It is also on public record that discussions have taken place with both the Scottish Government and Scottish Borders Council as the planning authority.

These discussions, like any other pre-planning application, are confidential. The problem with this is that by the time a detailed plan is made public we are well down the road of a very powerful organisation having committed serious time and money to the process.

It is just not the same as not knowing about the new house next door until your neighbour notification drops through your letterbox.

What we know about the proposed Scottish Borders Training Area

The identified area is the Lauder to Charterhall corridor, a distance of some 14 miles.

According to the information supplied to me by Headquarters Land Forces, “It is planned to scope a potential area to allow low level local training for a multi role brigade, if one were to be based in Scotland. It would supplement Salisbury Plain and Canada.”

In answer to my questions on a) size, b) use and c) precise location, I was informed that the initial draft feasibility study is based on an initial requirement to support a number of companies/squadrons training simultaneously in low level tactical manoeuvre; an area of c10,000 hectares is the norm for such activity, but will be dependent on environmental conditions as well as training requirements.

Given the size of training areas elsewhere it is probable that a Scottish Borders Training Area would be considerably larger given the acknowledgement that this is ‘an initial requirement’ and a replacement for Germany.

And how do you describe tank manoeuvres as being ‘low level tactical’ activity?

A letter from Nick Harvey MP, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, to Joan McAlpine, SNP MSP for the South of Scotland is almost identical to the one I received but does contain some useful additional information.

The Minister refers in his opening comment to Joan McAlpine to ‘the possibility of a training area ‘around the village of Lauder.”

He also states detailed planning work will now be undertaken with the Army and the Royal Air Force. So we have the army, armoured vehicles, tanks and the Air Force in the frame.

He goes on to talk about an assessment of local infrastructure such as school provision and school transport which suggests a requirement to base significant numbers of personnel in the area.

At no time during the announcements about re-siting barracks and military families in Edinburgh or Kirknewton has mention been made of married quarters /housing in the Borders.

Stuart Crawford, who knows a thing or two about tanks as a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Tank Regiment, identified the village of Greenlaw as the centre for the intended tank training site in an article in the Caledonian Mercury a few weeks ago.

Stuart Crawford has described the plan to sell Redford and Dreghorn with their recently upgraded facilities and surrounding military facilities and the relocation to Kirknewton as ‘bonkers’.

He also correctly draws attention to the fact that the road infrastructure from Kirknewton to Greenlaw in the south-east of the Lauder/Charterhall corridor is not suitable for the movement of military convoys and heavy equipment.

10,000 hectares is 38 square miles so the area could stretch the entire length of the Lauder/Charterhall corridor or may be shorter and wider depending on final MOD assessments.

Either way it is a very big area and comes with the ‘initial requirement’ prefix.

In Part 2, I will be reporting on the serious logistical issues and the environmental and economic impacts of this proposal.

Photograph: Royal Scots Dragon Guards, Challenger II, main battle tank fires its main gun on a target during a training exercise Nov. 17, 2008, in Basra, Iraq. This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. (Wikimedia Commons)