Marham’s future virtually assured
RAF Marham's future as a Tornado base seems virtually assured after new information was given to Norfolk MPs at a meeting with a defence minister.
They also came away from the talks with Nick Harvey with increased confidence that the Norfolk base can look forward to being a home of top strike aircraft well beyond the early 2020s when the Tornadoes are due to reach the end of their lives.
The key new fact given by Mr Harvey to SW Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss and five other MPs from the county was that basing of the Joint Strike Fighter scheduled to come into service in 2020 will not be a factor in the decision - due to be announced in the summer - whether Marham remains a Tornado base or loses out to Lossiemouth in Scotland.
A concern for Ms Truss was that the Labour government made an initial decision in 2005 that Lossiemouth should become the home of the Joint Strike Fighter, which is also known as the Joint Combat Aircraft.
She feared that the government would not wish to close it as an RAF base - possibly turning it into an Army base - if it was resolved to locate the JSF there, and that it would therefore decide to keep Tornadoes there in the meantime.
Mr Harvey told the Norfolk MPs, however, that the 2005 decision was no longer relevant, and that 'the slate has been wiped clean'. A decision on basing the JSF would not be taken until the end of the decade, he said, and as the JSF the coalition government is committed to is a variant on the one studied in 2005, different basing considerations will apply.
Specifically, the new version is quieter, and is therefore more suitable than its predecessor for an inland base like Marham. An element in the decision in favour of Lossiemouth, which is close to the sea, is that the noise generated by the plane would disturb fewer people. Marham was 'not ruled out completely' in 2005, and it was part of the decision that 'should a second base be required', it would be considered.
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Mr Harvey's words yesterday raised hopes not only that Marham will be saved as a Tornado base, but that it will then start a further chapter as a home to the JSF. The minister also suggested that the Tornadoes would continue in operation until 2025 rather than 2020.
The Norfolk MPs were further encouraged by the fact that Mr Harvey - a Liberal Democrat member of the government - himself referred to some of the advantages that Marham has in its battle for survival.
These included: Its contribution to the current military action over Libya; its being part of a network of military facilities, including the US base at Lakenheath, in East Anglia; the estimated �50m cost of relocating highly specialised engineering and servicing facilities from it; and the fact that unemployment is higher in the local area than it is around Lossiemouth.
One of the Norfolk MPs present was foreign office minister Henry Belllingham, and he said afterwards that he was feeling 'confident'. Ms Truss also said she was 'hopeful'. And Lib Dem MPs Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) and Simon Wright (Norwich South) both expressed satisfaction with a 'constructive' meeting.
Broadland MP Keith Simpson - an aide to foreign secretary William Hague - said there would not be a stand-alone announcement about Marham and that it would form part of a much larger package. The meeting had been 'very informative and encouraging in a subtle way', he continued.
He also emphasised that Norfolk's coalition MPs had 'hunted in a pack' over Marham 'as we did over the completion of the A11 dualling'.
Mr Harvey made it clear that the announcement would almost certainly come between the Scottish elections on May 5 and the start of the Commons recess in late-July.