Backlash over MOD super-barracks plan

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THE Ministry of Defence decision to move the army out of Edinburgh and sell off its historic buildings is financially driven, unpopular and gives the impression of "chaos at the top", one of Scotland's most senior former officers has said.

Lieutenant-Colonel Allister Thom told The Scotsman the move made no sense. "I am amazed that the MoD should contemplate giving up excellent facilities at Dreghorn and banish our soldiers and their families to a lonely spot some 12-and-a- half miles from the city," he said.

His intervention was supported by politicians across the board, who said the plan to leave Edinburgh for a new "super barracks" in West Lothian is based on cost rather than military strategy. One MSP is now considering a campaign to convince the MoD to reverse the decision.

The criticism intensified yesterday as it emerged senior officers in Scotland were not consulted and were "stunned" when they were told.

Last night, one serving officer said: "There is a lot of unhappiness about this. The barracks in Edinburgh are so much more convenient for everyone and particularly those with families, as they are close to schools and shops.

"Kirknewton is an old RAF base, and there's not a lot there. It will all have to be built up from scratch and even then it's a long way out from the city centre. People just don't fancy living out there, and if families are not happy, soldiers serving abroad are not happy."

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The proposal was unveiled by Defence Secretary Liam Fox last month as part of the MoD's military bases review.

Criticism has centred on the choice of the old glider airfield at Kirknewton on the edge of West Lothian as a location which senior military figures argue does not have the infrastructure to cope with hundreds of soldiers and families.

It is estimated the new headquarters could cost up to 400 million to build and there are doubts whether this is a good use of money at a time when the MoD has been forced to make 38 billion of cuts, including 11,000 redundancies among military personnel.

The barracks at Dreghorn are said to be very well equipped with sports facilities. Both Dreghorn and Redford barracks are close to training areas.

Col Thom, a former second in command at the army's divisonal headquarters at Craigiehall, pointed out that the Dreghorn barracks were rebuilt in 1993 and were ideally located for ranges and training areas and access to motorway,s as well as public duties at Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

He added: "There is a suitable colony of married quarters and excellent bus services for schoolchildren, wives going to work and soldiers setting out for city entertainment."

He also pointed out that selling off the sites in Edinburgh had been looked at before and Craigiehall, in particular, might not provide much profit.

He said: "I understand that the Whitehall planners hope to make a lot of money by selling the Craigiehall land. They may be surprised because previous researches produced very disappointing results. Developers were put off because of the close proximity to one of the Edinburgh Airport runways."

He went on: "The ink is not dry on the recent controversial defence review and we now have another one. All this gives the impression of chaos at the top."

He also claimed that the loss of the Redford Cavalry barracks will have an impact on the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, because visiting soldiers stay there and train on the parade ground.

Sources say senior figures within the army in Scotland believe they should have been given more warning about an announcement that was going to have such a significant impact on Scottish soldiers.

"The word which describes how they felt is 'stunned'," said a senior source. "They are happy at the proposal in terms of investment, especially with all the cuts which have been going on, but the details, particularly moving out of Edinburgh to Kirknewton, have not gone down well."

Lib Dem Edinburgh West MP Mike Crockart, whose constituency includes Craigiehall, revealed he will be launching a campaign next month to keep the army in Edinburgh and oppose the move to Kirknewton.

He has raised concerns about the impact on communities in Edinburgh, in particular on school rolls and what might happen to the historic buildings.

He went on: "The plans, as outlined by the Defence Secretary, break with 400 years of history between the Royal Scots Borderers and the City of Edinburgh for purely commercial gain.

"The changes will undoubtedly uproot local families and cause severe damage to many areas of our city. I have met the army to discuss the issue and will continue to do all I can to preserve this essential base."

It is understood that the campaign will receive cross-party support, with Edinburgh-based politicians objecting to moving the army out of the city.

SNP defence spokesman and Westminster leader Angus Robertson said: "Decisions over the defence estate and strategic capabilities are better made by military strategists than Whitehall accountants.

"These criticisms from the army confirm fears that the basing review has been driven by cost-cutting rather than practical defence needs.

Across the army and the air force there are growing concerns at the capability gaps that have been created as a result of the cuts being pushed through by Westminster."

Meanwhile, Labour Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray has also voiced opposition to the plans and said he believed the MoD was hoping to "make a fast buck" by squeezing thousands of new homes into the south of the city.

Last night, the MoD insisted that the controversial proposal would go ahead and was in the best interests of the army.

A spokeswoman said: "Senior officers were involved in the consultation stage in looking at different options. Of course, they only knew of the final decision on the day of the announcement, because decisions announced on the Monday were only finalised over the weekend."

She added: "This is about what is best for the army in the 21st century. The question people have to ask is whether they think it is right for the army to remain in old, out-of-date buildings, or be given state-of-the-art modern facilities to live and work in."

She added: "Much of the criticism is coming from people concerned about the impact on Edinburgh and from former officers. They really need to think about what is best for those who are now serving their country."