Access campaign salvo at MoD rocket plan

The Ministry of Defence may be forced into a humiliating climbdown over public access to Britain's wildest National Park after research exposed serious safety concerns about a rocket type it uses for military training.

The Ministry of Defence may be forced into a humiliating climbdown over public access to Britain's wildest National Park after research exposed serious safety concerns about a rocket type it uses for military training.

The MoD has applied to enlarge its 60,000-acre training area at Otterburn in Northumberland to practise with Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) using the M28 rocket. Environmental groups and campaigners for greater access say Army use is already at saturation point and Otterburn's peat bogs are unsuited to heavy vehicles.

Otterburn has 11 sites of special scientific interest, two national nature reserves and 26 scheduled ancient monuments. The dispute prompted two public inquiries that cost £2.5m. A decision is expected by the end of the year. But opponents told the inquiry last week that the M28 is too powerful for the park and a misfire could endanger walkers on the Pennine Way, and even land over the border in Scotland.

A local protester had obtained US military information of the range and "safety trace" - the margin for error - which showed a misfiring M28 could travel much further than the MoD claimed. To use the M28 safely, the MoD would have to extend the danger area well beyond the boundaries of the National Park. The revelation may jeopardise the MoD's plans, says a leading opponent, the Council for National Parks, the charity that works to protect them. Vicki Elcoate, the director, said extending the range was unnecessary because the rockets will be obsolete by 2004.

A MoD spokeswoman said: "It is an absolute requirement that the MLRS is able to operate at Otterburn because there is nowhere else suitable in the UK. All aspects of the MLRS fall within the guidelines and boundaries set out."

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