Leader comment: Defence cuts go deep but there is time to plan

Major General Alastair Dickinson. Director Army Basing and Infrastructure. spells out the changes to Scottish military bases to come over the next 15 years.
Major General Alastair Dickinson. Director Army Basing and Infrastructure. spells out the changes to Scottish military bases to come over the next 15 years.
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Fort George may have been built on the orders of King George II to fend off possible Jacobite uprisings, but it is in recent years that the military stronghold has endured its toughest battles.

The threat of closure has hung over the Inverness barracks ever since controversial Army restructuring paved the way for the creation of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. That process was a painful one, as many communities bemoaned the loss of vital ties to the military.

With yesterday evening’s announcement by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon that Fort George is among a raft of Scottish military facilities to close, the pain will be intensified in Inverness.

For close to a quarter of a millennium, the base has been an integral part of the Army’s presence in Scotland, a working barracks that has had a long and storied active military role. But having escaped the scythe of previous defence review cuts, its fate is now sealed. Under the Ministry of Defence’s plans, the base will close as a barracks in 2032.

If the symbolic loss of Fort George will be keenly felt, its aftershocks will be considerable, given its links to local businesses and hundreds of families. Margaret Davidson, the leader of Highland Council, has said the withdrawal of the Army from the site would result in the local economy taking a £20 million hit.

There can be doubt that the region is facing a difficult time, but the longstanding threat to Fort George and the MoD’s decision to reduce the size of its estate by 30 per cent before 2040 means that this was always a likelihood.

The grim nature of defence reviews is that there will always be facilities – and communities around them – that are winners or losers. While Kinloss Barracks in Moray was spared the worst in the most recent round, Fort George has not been so fortunate. The regrettable reality it is that, for all the splendour of the 18th century site, it is no longer fit for purpose.

It is not alone. Mr Fallon confirmed that a further seven sites in Scotland and 48 across the rest of the UK will close as part of the MoD review. The depth of these cuts will pose challenges for communities up and down Scotland. The pending demise of Glencorse barracks, for example, will bring to an end a 150-year history and hit Penicuik’s economy.

These cuts go deeper than previously feared and give rise to concerns about Army numbers in Scotland. Deputy First Minister John Swinney has described the announcement as “brutal”. That it most certainly will be. But the focus now must be twofold: pressing the MoD to ensure the Army’s presence in Scotland does not shrink further, and developing plans to assist communities left reeling.

In Inverness, that means the government, Highland Council and the Moray Firth Partnership must forge a masterplan aimed at minimising the damage caused by Fort George’s closure. There will be suffering ahead, but the goal now is ensure it is kept to a minimum. The fight is not over.