Army homing in on the Borders

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THE prospect of the Borders being home to a new army training ground to be used by several thousand soldiers returning from Germany as part of the restructuring of the army took a step closer this week.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox told the House of Commons on Monday that a new ‘super barracks’ army facility would be built at Kirknewton, south of Edinburgh, as part of the plans to house one of the UK’s five new mobile multi-role brigades being set up.

The move will see the closure and sale of three historic military bases in Edinburgh under the UK’s controversial defence shake-up. The decision by Ministry of Defence chiefs heralds the end the of army’s long association with barracks at Craigiehall, Redford and Dreghorn.

But, as reported in TheSouthern on June 30, this region is in the frame as the possible location for the training facility that the Kirknewton-based soldiers will need.

Stuart Crawford, a former army tank officer who now works as an independent consultant specialising in Scottish public affairs, security issues and media communications, told TheSouthern that “sources close to the Scottish Government” had told him that a training area in the Borders was now a distinct probability.

“If we are, as Dr Fox says, to have a mobile brigade based in Scotland then it makes sense to have somewhere for it to train,” said Mr Crawford. “I understand that negotiations with the appropriate authorities have been initiated and that an area has been identified. But I don’t know where it is – yet.”

Scottish Borders Council convener Alasdair Hutton – another former army officer – said if a barracks is built at Kirknewton it was unlikely the MoD would be planning for those troops to travel too far afield for training.

“If I was to make an intelligent guess, as a former soldier, I would say they will be looking for somewhere south of Edinburgh – perhaps along the lines of a mini-Otterburn,” he said, referring to the military ranges in Northumberland.

Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire Conservative MSP John Lamont said although details are still to be confirmed, he understood the Borders was well placed to be chosen as the favoured site by military planners.

He told us: “This could be a very significant development for the Borders, as a new training base would bring considerable investment to the region and provide a major boost to local businesses and jobs. However, it is important that a suitable site is found that recognises the needs of local communities as well as the MoD.

“Clearly a training base such as this would lead to an increase in traffic on Borders roads and that would be an issue that would need to be addressed.”.

The leader of the Borders Party, Councillor Nicholas Watson, also welcomed the prospect of a major military facility for the region.

“Not only is there an admirable military tradition here which would get more recognition, it would also give a glimpse of the Borders to lots more people,” he said.

However, there will also be sadness in many quarters over the closure and sale of the three historic Edinburgh barracks which have enjoyed long links with the Borders and local troops.

Redford Barracks was constructed in 1909, while Dreghorn was opened in 1939. The Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, Mike Crockart, says the measures announced by Dr Fox mean a break with nearly 400 years of history between the Royal Scots Borderers – comprising the Royal Scots and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers – and the capital for purely commercial gain.

“For them to have been announced it in such an underhand manner in the last week of parliament is indefensible and amounts to nothing short of historical vandalism,” he said.

Former KOSB commanding officer, Brigadier Allan Alstead, said he did not think soldiers will be happy to be based so far out of Edinburgh.

He said: “I think their families will feel the same as this will affect jobs, child care and many other family aspects. My personal view is that getting rid of a perfectly functional barracks like Dreghorn in an economic downturn does not seem sensible.”

He also issued a warning that the plans to increase the number of TA soldiers to make up for some of the near 20,000 regular soldiers to be axed would mean the part-time troops training at Kirknewton.

And he stressed: “It will be almost impossible to recruit for any Territorial unit being based out at Kirknewton. The present state of Territorial recruiting in southern Scotland is abysmal.”

And former KOSB officer and campaigner Donald Fairgrieve, from St Boswells, added: “A purpose-built barracks at Kirknewton will be expensive to build and will, like the trams and Scottish Parliament, run well over budget.

“It will be good for the building industry, however, and knowing the ability of the MoD to make a mess of things will probably be contracted to an English or German firm.

“The proposal to substantially increase part-time soldiering, leaving us with two aircraft carriers with no planes to put on them, and our defence dependent on the TA, which has been sadly neglected, may come back to bite Dr Fox and make him wish he had concentrated on removing tonsils in Edinburgh.”