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Acid test in PM's backyard
The Prime Minister left no one in doubt about his personal commitment to the idea of a new military covenant, even proposing that its key principles should be enshrined into law.
But for all the talk about principles and “proper recognition”, the real measure of the covenant for the services families based in Mr Cameron’s West Oxfordshire constituency will come down to the simple matter of the roofs over their heads.
So says Dawn McCafferty, the chairman of the Royal Air Force Families Federation, who warned future trust in Mr Cameron and his covenant depended on the provision of quality family homes.
With 780 new homes proposed in Carterton — home to hundreds of service families based at RAF Brize Norton — the signs had looked good. But all that changed last week, as news emerged that the new homes figure is to be reduced to 200.
Brize Norton could hardly be a more politically sensitive site, sitting right in the Prime Minister’s Witney constituency, with the state of military homes there previously described as a national scandal.
In 2008, accommodation was criticised after the publication of “appalling and shameful” pictures of raw sewage outside damp-stained living quarters, with the young MP for Witney among the local people and politicians to condemn the state of the living quarters. Four years later, there were reports of families being faced with living surrounded by derelict houses, boarded-up homes and soaring crime rates.
Yet the pressure on military homes in the town is about to significantly increase, with the decision to transfer RAF Lyneham to Brize Norton.
A £250m Future Brize programme was announced to establish Brize Norton as the RAF’s centre for strategic and tactical air transport and air-to-air refuelling operations, allowing significant savings from the closure of RAF Lyneham.
The Ministry of Defence last year confirmed that the plan would involve the demolition of 600 homes within the current RAF Brize Norton Service Families' Accommodation (SFA) area at Carterton, and the building of almost 800 three-bedroomed houses.
The prospect of 580 new service homes being dropped from the plan took the RAF Families Federation by surprise.
“This is the first the RAF Families Federation had heard of this alleged change of plan,” Ms McCafferty told The Oxford Times.
“If it is true it would we disappointing, as we enjoy a good relationship with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation [a branch of the MoD], who try to keep us informed about major projects likely to impact on our families. We are aware that there is an acute shortage of families accommodation in the Brize Norton area, caused by the significant growth in this base and the need to absorb families moving across from Lyneham.
“Clearly, in an ideal world, the federation would press for new-build accommodation over refurbishment of old quarters. But we are also acutely conscious of the financial constraints under which the MoD and DIO are working and if they are confident that alternative provision will deliver the amount of accommodation required to the right standard, some compromise on original plans may be necessary.
“DIO have advised us that the immediate plan is to use 50 new-build houses at Faringdon, over 100 quarters at RAF Fairford and 100 at Shrivenham, some 60 of which will be refurburbished, and 80 Annington homes in Carterton that are brand new, and will be leased for an initial period of 10 years.”
But she feared some families might end up “living in isolation”, not part of the local community and having to live significant distances from Brize Norton.
The uncertainty surrounding the service homes has forced West Oxfordshire District Council to delay agreeing its Local Development Framework, a blueprint for where 4,300 homes will be built across the district until 2026.
About 1,600 homes are earmarked in it for the Carterton area. These had been likely to go either to the west or the east of the town. But the potential availability of the site in the centre of Carterton, which could accommodate hundreds of non-military homes, means there is now uncertainty surrounding the district council’s housing strategy.
Barry Norton, leader of West Oxfordshire District Council, said its homes’ plans had suffered a major setback and looked like to be delayed to June this year.
He said: “This has thrown a huge spanner in the works.”
Chris Hargraves, planning policy manager for West Oxfordshire District Council, added: “It’s most likely to have a direct impact on numbers for Carterton and where the numbers for Carterton go. That’s what we need to look at. Whether the houses will go in the middle of the town, on the edge, or a combination of both.”
Former RAF Flight Lieutenant and ex-West Oxfordshire district councillor for Carterton, Paul Wesson, said putting money into refurbishing Carterton’s large number of pre-fabricated homes would be a “big mistake”.
He said: “The Reema houses were built in the 1960s to last 10 years. They should have been demolished long ago. They are not structurally sound. They will not retain any value at all.”
Mr Wesson said he suspected that scrapping the house-building plans would free up large sites, including Northwood Crescent, which could then be sold to non-military developers.
But he said that it remained to be seen who would actually benefit from the release of land that had been earmarked for military homes because he did not believe that the Ministry of Defence owned it.
He said: “This is the largest RAF base in the country. The idea of not building 500 homes when two bases are being combined seems totally wrong.”
The apparent U-turn was put down by the MoD to wanting to “make the best use of resources”.
Royal British Legion member and former family repatriation officer Steve Radband, whose son Lance Corporal David Radband is in the forces, said: “I’ve been in some of these properties at Carterton and they are disgraceful.
“These young people have families, they are fighting for Queen and country, and they deserve a decent roof over their heads, not living in squalor. I hope what is being proposed isn’t a second-best option.”
A spokesman for the Prime Minister told The Oxford Times last week that Mr Cameron was aware of the issue of military homes in Carterton matter and was in contact with the Ministry of Defence and West Oxfordshire District Council.
But he will be also be aware that claims of ‘his’ covenant being broken are being made in his own backyard. Not only that, they come immediately after national newspaper reports that married servicemen could be forced to leave their homes as part of cuts to trim £318m from the Ministry of Defence’s housing bill.
The chairman of the RAF Families Federation urged families “not to panic,” in response to the stories, whilst recognising that there “is often no smoke without fire”. But the absence of any early warning to the RAF Families Federation about cuts in new military homes in Carterton appears a dangerous strategy.
As for the Government, the mission to rebuild confidence in that heralded military covenant is becoming ever more pressing.