Retreating Army targets national park for big-gun training

A £24m plan to upgrade a Northumberland exercise area follows the withdrawal from Germany, writes Christopher Bellamy
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The Ministry of Defence yesterday submitted plans for a £24m development of the Otterburn training area in the Northumberland National Park so the Army can train with its newest and biggest weapons.

Much of the Army has withdrawn from Germany and elements remaining there are under increasing pressure from environmental groups.

The MoD says that its plans for Otterburn are necessary to preserve the local environment, protect wildlife and the landscape and preserve public access. Some local groups disagree and the Council for National Parks is fighting for a public inquiry. As a government department, the MoD is not bound by normal planning regulations but in practice follows Department of the Environment guidelines which are similar to procedures for a non- government applicant.

Normally, it would take about eight weeks for an application to be approved, but because of their complexity, the MoD's proposals will take nearer 16 weeks. If the National Park Committee of Northumberland County Council raises objections, the MoD will try to resolve them but in extremis it will refer the matter to the Secretary of State for the Environment for a decision.

By the end of the year, 72 per cent of the British Army will be based in Britain. Military equipment has got bigger and fires further. Although the Army trains six armoured battle groups a year in Canada and is looking at the possibility of training in eastern Europe now that the Cold War is over, these solutions are very expensive.

There are only two training areas in Britain - Salisbury Plain and Otterburn - which can accommodate large-scale military exercises and only at Otterburn can the massive Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) used in the 1991 Gulf war fire its rockets safely. Even at Otterburn they can only fire for about half of their maximum range, up to 17km (10 miles).

In June last year Viscount Cranborne, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, said that new developments were needed to train with the 40-ton AS-90 self-propelled howitzer, which can fire 24km (15 miles) and the 22-ton MLRS which can fire its rockets up to 40km (25 miles).

Pat Combes, the head of the MoD's Defence Land Service, said yesterday that the ministry had "significantly reduced" its requirements. However, the MoD plans still envisage strengthening and widening 32 miles of existing track to five metres, with hard shoulders; three miles of new track, able to take 30-ton Warrior fighting vehicles, able to observe and direct the fire; 22 new "gun spurs" - hard standing for the guns and rocket launchers to fire from, and strengthening 24 old ones; building a new maintenance facility at Redesdale or Otterburn and accommodation for another 120 soldiers.

Another £1m will be spent on measures to mitigate the effect of the increased use of the training area, which occupies 23 per cent of the national park. Computer predictions of the noise from the guns or rocket launchers will be improved, and if noise levels of more than 130 decibels threaten to spill outside the training area, firing will be stopped or the charges reduced.

The Army said yesterday it did not intend to increase the number of days on which firing took place beyond the present level of 94 days a year. On other days, people can go into the "impact area", but are warned not to touch anything. While firing is taking place, public access is carefully controlled.

Mike Walker, of the Council for National Parks, an independent body based in London, said: "We are pleased the MoD seems to have taken very serious consideration of the environmental impact of its proposals. Now it is of paramount importance that the the impacts are examined in public."