Hoon's costly dilemma: how to pay for training exercises

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* After being given one of last year's least enviable tasks - disbanding several army regiments in order to save money - the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, is to be left counting the cost of another political hot potato: the Government's recent ban on fox hunting.

* After being given one of last year's least enviable tasks - disbanding several army regiments in order to save money - the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, is to be left counting the cost of another political hot potato: the Government's recent ban on fox hunting.

As a result of the new legislation, dozens of landowners intend to withdraw permission for the army to carry out training exercises on their land.

Although Hoon has (until now) played down fears about this protest, documents obtained by Pandora show that he's been forced to consider a costly move to start paying landowners for access to their rolling acres.

According to a report released under the Freedom of Information Act, the Ministry of Defence's land department has completed a detailed study into the proposed "formalisation" of agreements to allow them to train on private land.

Currently, the army pays £610,000 each year to carry out such exercises. Should they be forced to enter into a commercial arrangement, the cost could run to tens of millions of pounds.

The report was completed before Christmas. But with the landowners' protest on hold until the election, the MoD says its recommendations are "on the back burner".

Not everyone's convinced, though. Lord Astor, a Tory Defence spokesman, tells me he intends to table a series of questions on the matter.

* SAFFRON BURROWS is returning to the stage. She has agreed to co-star with Friends actor David Schwimmer in his forthcoming West End debut.

Their play, Some Girls, is by Neil LaBute, one of the most popular playwrights in the US, who intends to watch rehearsals.

"Schwimmer and I are old friends and had a private read-through of our own scenes in LA recently," says Burrows, left.

"When it comes to the real rehearsals, Neil will sit in, as he always does with the first productions of his plays. Neil loves to get the responses of actors first hand, though he's not precious about it."

Burrows and Schwimmer begin rehearsals in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, fans can catch her speaking at the opening of a new exhibition of tsunami pictures by the photographer Carlos Reyes-Manzo, at Foyles bookshop tomorrow.

* JEREMY IRONS is like a breath of fresh air through the entertainment industry's dreary corridors of power.

In an interview with Empire magazine to discuss his new fantasy flick Kingdom of Heaven ,Irons takesan unprovoked pop at George Lucas, the Star Wars creator.

He suggests (heaven forbid!) that Lucas neglects character development in favour of special effects. "Computers are now working so seamlessly with action and you have characters that you care about," he says.

"So we've been through that age - hopefully, George Lucas - where all you care about are the computer images and don't give a fuck about the story."

* THE LATEST stern critics of Kevin Spacey's reign at the Old Vic come from within our trade union movement.

On Thursday, the Transport and General Workers' Union will picket Spacey's theatre (and leaflet its customers) as part of its ongoing campaign to increase the salaries paid to office cleaners in the City.

Apparently, they've picked on the Old Vic because the corporate behemoth Morgan Stanley is sponsoring its current play, National Anthems .

"They are giving the Old Vic £500,000, which ought to have gone to helping cleaners earn a living wage of £6.70 an hour," says the T&G.

"We have asked Mr Spacey to meet our members, and hope that, as a good Democrat, he'll agree."

* The annual massacre of the Brits at Wimbledon is several months away, but the Lawn Tennis Association is already facing a minor disaster.

Work on its new £30m HQ at Roehampton has been disrupted by a family of badgers, who have taken up residence at the entrance to the building site.

"They've built an enormous sett," I'm told. "Goodness knows what can be done, since badgers are strictly protected."

Over to the LTA. "Before planning permission was granted, we had a voluntary environmental impact assessment," says a spokesman. "Specific areas have been put in place for badger setts, and areas for badgers to move around the site."

pandora@independent.co.uk

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