Army firing range for redundant rocket 'would ruin national park'

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The Independent Online

The Ministry of Defence's plans to fire long-distance training rockets in one of Britain's most beautiful national parks are doomed to failure ­ because the Army is running out of the rockets.

The MoD wants to spend £25m building roads, gun emplacements and parking areas for weapons and heavy artillery at Otterburn, an area which covers 60,000 acres (22 per cent) of Northumberland National Park.

The firing range must be developed there, says the MoD, because Otterburn is the only range long enough to test-fire M28 Multi-Launch Rocket System (MLRS). But latest MoD figures, passed on to the Independent on Sunday, show that there are ­ at most ­ just 251 training rockets left in stockpiles and no budget to procure further ones.

"The damage to one of our most remote and unspoilt national parks would be catastrophic and does not need to happen," said Sir Chris Bonington, the mountain climber turned leading campaigner against the MoD development.

Sir Chris, who is vice-president of the Council for National Parks, a charity, added: "These plans should be turned down, and modern plans to meet today's military training need to be drawn up, which don't desecrate this country's most beautiful landscapes."

The battle for Otterburn has been running for the best part of a decade. The dispute has prompted a two-part public inquiry at a cost of £2.5m. The decision on its future will rest with the Government but the council is threatening legal action. It claims that the MoD's plans are "unlawful" because the training rockets are obsolete.

At stake, say environmentalists, are 11 sites of special scientific interest, two national nature reserves and 26 scheduled ancient monuments. They are horrified by the prospect of miles of tarmac being laid across fragile peat bog.

The resilience of the objectors has proved a thorn in the side of the MoD. The plan was first mooted back in 1992 under the last Conservative government, but a series of protests and legal actions means that the expanded firing ranges would not now be ready, according to some reports, until 2004 at the earliest. By then, says the council, the Army will have run out of its long-range training missiles, and the whole point of the development would become pointless.

"The plan was justified on the basis of a short-term weapons system which is now redundant," said Sir Chris. "The supply of rockets left would last about two years and would probably run out before the roads and other developments were built. Yet this damaging development would remain, allowing training with other, even more damaging weapons systems."

Major David Cummings, Army spokesman, said he would not comment on the issue while the report was with the Department of the Environment. "We are awaiting the decision and it would not be appropriate to comment," he said.

But last year, in a written parliamentary reply, the defence minister John Spellar described the Otterburn development as essential and said that delays would lead to soldiers being sent on missions with insufficient experience. "This remains an absolute requirement that cannot occur anywhere else in the UK," said Mr Spellar.

Dr David Gardner-Medwin, of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, whose organisation has opposed the development, said: "We think it is very inappropriate. The Army's argument is there is nowhere else to go, but we say 'that's your problem'. They certainly shouldn't wreck a national park in such an unnecessary way."

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