How the MoD manages land the size of Surrey: The Army is playing up its 'green' credentials and allowing greater public access to its listed buildings, Christopher Bellamy reports

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The Independent Online
THE MINISTRY of Defence owns land equivalent in size to Surrey - 600,000 acres - and more than 700 listed and scheduled buildings. Only the Forestry Commission, the Department of Transport and the National Trust own more land.

Some of the environments are unique, because the military presence has prevented building or farming. The Salisbury Plain artillery range in Wiltshire is Western Europe's largest chalk downland area and makes up 40 per cent of this habitat in Britain. Firing ranges have, ironically, been found to be ideal for conservation projects because access is carefully controlled.

As a large chunk of the Army withdraws from Germany - a reduction from 55,000 in 1991 to 25,000 next year - the MoD will undertake more training in Britain. But until the reduction of the British force in Germany is complete in April 1995 the MoD says its final requirements will not be known. Training will continue in Germany but the biggest training area for heavy armoured forces, Soltau, closed last month. Any surplus land in Britain will be disposed of but MoD sources say new tracts elsewhere may have to be acquired. The need for more training in Britain can be offset by more use of simulators, in which the MoD is investing heavily, but not altogether. And modern weapons are bigger and heavier and fire further. The only place where the British Army can practise large- scale warfare properly is its training unit at Suffield, Alberta, on the Canadian prairie. However, the MoD will resist pressure for more training in Canada on cost grounds.

From 1966, when records for the whole of the MoD started, after Denis Healey's merger of the Admiralty, the War Office and the Air Ministry, until 1987, the amount of land used for military training, airfields, gunnery and bombing ranges was cut from 667,000 to 591,000 acres.

It increased again, to 601,000 acres in 1992, in response to the greater ranges of modern weapons and surveillance equipment, and the resulting increase in the dispersion of troops, and more rigorous safety requirements, and because British forces have been engaged in more active service in Northern Ireland, the Gulf and Bosnia.

On 1 April this year the MoD estate still consisted of 598,000 acres or 242,000 hectares, plus training rights over another 250,000 acres or 101,000 hectares.

The land comprises 3,400 separate sites, including 2,500 service establishments. There are 729 listed and scheduled buildings, whose upkeep is the MoD's responsibility, including treasures that are seldom seen.

At Woolwich Arsenal, there are 18 listed buildings that remained out of the public eye for nearly 300 years. Plans are afoot to open the site, divided between the Royal Artillery Museum and English Heritage, to the public. The Ministry works closely with English Heritage, although it was only recently that it compiled a full register of listed buildings. Not all MoD land is out of bounds to the public. About 100,000 acres are let as agricultural land and 150,000 for grazing - just under half the total. In 1993-94 the MoD received pounds 18.7m from rents, licences and the sale of produce.

The biggest areas such as Otterburn, Salisbury Plain and Sennybridge are still publicly accessible when not in use for firing, and the MoD umbrella has helped to preserve some environments.

Half of Salisbury Plain training area, for example, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area under the EU birds directive.

'We reckon that our record on conservation and public access is second to none and there are very few landowners who put the amount of effort into public access and conservation that we do', said an MoD spokesman yesterday.

MoD sources pointed out that it is in the interest of realistic military training to preserve a variety of habitats and vegetation, rather than a standard 'training area landscape'. At the Otterburn training area, for example, the MoD has replaced areas of pines with deciduous forest for that reason.

The only big reduction in the area of MoD land in the immediate future is likely to be the leasing of 71,000 married quarters to the new MoD housing trust. About 10,000 married quarters are vacant, although 2,000 are being refurbished, 2,000 are up for sale and others are waiting for earmarked families moving back from Germany.

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