Defence review: Disbelief and anger on a black day for the north

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IT WAS like waiting to hear the pronouncement of a death sentence. And when confirmation finally came, late yesterday afternoon, that RAF Kinloss' days as a front-line air base were over the announcement was greeted with stunned silence across the sprawling Moray air station.

• A Nimrod MR2 lands at RAF Kinloss near Inverness Picture: PA

In the wider Moray community, where a question mark still hangs over the future of the Tornado base at RAF Lossiemouth, there was a mixture of disbelief, anger and a sense of betrayal at the scale of the cuts which will have a cataclysmic impact on the region's economy.

The government's decision to scrap the replacement fleet of the new Nimrod MRA4 aircraft - nine of the aircraft were due to be based at Kinloss - has sealed the station's fate as an air base and with it the service and contract jobs linked to it.

The decision to reduce Britain's Tornado strike force as part of the strategic defence spending review has also left RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Marham in Norfolk in a two-cornered fight to secure a future role as the RAF's sole remaining Tornado base.

Should both Moray bases be axed, it would remove at a stroke 158 million a year from the local economy and mean the loss of the equivalent of about 5,000 full-time jobs in the region - equal to one in every six across the area.

And, further along the Moray Firth coast at Fort George on the outskirts of Inverness there are mounting fears that the army base, currently home to the Black Watch, the 3rd battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, could also be axed.

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The announcement of Kinloss' demise, ending 70 years of RAF history there, was made by Group Captain James Johnston at a special briefing to service personnel shortly after Prime Minister David Cameron had announced that the 3 billion Nimrod replacement programme has been scrapped as part of the defence review.

Speaking outside the base he said: "The reaction was stunned silence - I think almost disbelief." He added: "Clearly there has been a lot of speculation which has been running for the last few days which I have to say, by and large, has been unhelpful but inevitable. But at the end other day the decision has been made and we have to move on."

In Lossiemouth, 15 miles away, many locals gathered in the town football team's social club to hear the Commons announcement. They were joined by Richard Lochhead, the SNP MSP for Moray.

He said: "It is a black day for Moray with the cancellation of the Nimrod contract. It is a devastating blow for thousands of families. RAF Lossiemouth appears to have been challenged by the PM to fight for its life, which adds more torment and torture for the families here." Mr Lochhead added: "I think the enormity of today's announcement will take some time to sink in.

"There are mixed feelings here, but mainly of anger and of uncertainty. The loss of these RAF bases would be an absolute hammer-blow for the local community.Everyone here has some connection with the bases, and Moray is the most defence-dependent community in the UK."

He added: "The MoD has a responsibility to the region, which has served it loyally. For over 70 years the RAF has been an integral part of Moray life and the bond with the local community is extremely strong. That integration is something that it is hard to put a price on but which is impossible to replicate."

A task force, headed by Moray Council, will meet at an Elgin hotel today to begin charting a way forward out of the closure crisis. But local political leaders have warned that it will be a long hard struggle.

Alex Paterson, the chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, underlined the scale of the task. He said: "Moray is heavily reliant on defence, with the RAF bases at Kinloss and Lossiemouth supporting around 5,700 jobs and contributing more than 158m to the local economy every year."

He added: "In particular, we need to know what the timescale is for running down the RAF presence in Kinloss, and what opportunities might exist for alternative uses. We also need more information on the size of reduction planned for the Tornado fleet, particularly if that would affect Lossiemouth"

Councillor George McIntyre, the convener of Moray Council, said: "This announcement is a crushing blow, particularly to the Kinloss and Forres area which has a long association with RAF Kinloss and where the civilian and service communities are closely intertwined.

"However, I can give an absolute assurance that Moray Council will work closely with its partners to ensure that everything possible is done to minimise the impact of the Kinloss decision on the local economy and on the lives of local people."

He added: "There is a sizeable pool of highly skilled people working at the air station and we must do all that we can to retain those skills in the area and consider how they can be put to best use.

"Disappointing though today's news is, it is vital that we remain positive and work together to forge a new way ahead for Moray.

Councillor McIntyre added that the task force would be seeking urgent meetings with ministers, both in London and Edinburgh, to lobby for government support for the Moray economy and to explore opportunities for new investment and employment.

Irene Young, the SNP councillor for Kinloss, said: "The whole community is absolutely devastated. It is absolutely appalling news for the whole area. It is going to impact on the whole economy - on schools, hospitals, local businesses - everything is going to be affected. We are talking about people's lives and people's livelihoods."

Local people, she said, felt betrayed. "We were told a year ago that the new Nimrods were coming to Kinloss and that gave everybody a lot of hope."Today's decision is devastating and we will now have to work hard with as much support as we can get to map out a recovery plan for the area.

"Moray is pretty resilient place but we have never been in situation like this before. I believe we will come through this but it is going to be long hard struggle."

The main ray of hope for the RAF's continued presence in Scotland is RAF Leuchars in Fife, where the future of the fighter base appears assured.

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