Ground rules set for battle of Otterburn

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The end-game in a bitter dispute over the Army's deployment of its heaviest and most sophisticated artillery pieces in the Northumberland National Park began yesterday with polite verbal fencing at a hearing to establish the ground rules for a full public inquiry.

Of all the conflicts in the national parks, none compares with the battle over the pounds 23m plan for upgrading the Otterburn training area to accommodate the 45-ton AS90 self-propelled gun and the multi-launch rocket system (MLRS).

The road building, hard-standing for guns and support facilities amount to one of the biggest developments ever proposed for a national park. Conservationists regard it as damaging to the wild upland landscape and inimical to the purposes of the park.

But the Army, which has occupied the 58,000-acre training area since 1911, argues that Otterburn is the only practical option for rehearsing vital "shoot and scoot" techniques. And without the upgrading, their big guns would simply sink in the moorland peat.

Countering claims that more use could be made of computer simulations, the Army will tell the inquiry that training on a live firing range in all weathers, night and day, builds esprit de corps and demonstrates to all ranks that command procedures will work in times of stress.

"Lack of confidence, inexperience, distrust of equipment and concern about the ability of others leads to uncertainty, ineffectiveness, unnecessary casualties and defeat," warned the Ministry of Defence in a statement issued at yesterday's pre-inquiry hearing.

By the time the inquiry itself opens on 22 April, the Army's case will be bolstered by the findings of a review of training areas. Conducted on the insistence of the Commons' Public Accounts Committee, it is expected to conclude that withdrawal from Germany and other overseas exercise grounds has left the Army some 80,000 hectares short of its land needs, so more intensive use will have to be made of existing ranges.

The Otterburn range covers 23 per cent of the national park, the least visited and most thinly populated park in England and Wales. Live firing means that for some 300 days a year the public are barred from even its rights of way.

Opposition to the upgrading plan is led jointly by Northumberland County Council and the national park who regard it as unacceptably damaging to the landscape. Graham Taylor, the park's senior officer, accepts the military presence as "a fact of life", but said that the Army's plans represented a "substantial erosion" of the qualities the park was meant to protect.

Amanda Nobbs, of the watchdog Council for National Parks (CNP), said it was the biggest-ever development proposed in a park and one of the most damaging.

The inquiry, at a hotel by Newcastle airport, is expected to last at least 12 weeks. It is, however, essentially a struggle between David and Goliath, with the MoD preparing to spend pounds 2.5m on its case, compared with pounds 150,000 by the two public authorities and only a few thousand by the CNP and its conservation and amenity friends in the National Park Alliance.