The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been condemned by a Westminster committee for failing to release land for 55,000 new homes as part of UK Government plans to ease the housing crisis.
The committee accused the MoD of not having a “coherent strategy” to reform its estate, adding it was “very concerned” over the lack of progress. In reply the MoD said it was about to launch a new strategy.
The MoD is one of Scotland’s largest landowners – with 153,000 hectares of land used for training, accommodation and operational planning, according to a 2020 report. This is around two per cent of Scotland’s total land mass.
In 2016, Michael Fallon, then defence secretary, said the MoD would sell off nearly a tenth of its sites in an attempt to provide land for 55,000 homes.
More than 32,500 acres of defence land was earmarked for release, including 10 airfields and five golf courses. They included sites at Fort George, Ardersier, and Redford Army Barracks, Edinburgh. The disposal date for Redford Barracks was initially 2022 but it has been pushed back until 2025. Edinburgh City Council has plans to build 800 new homes on the site.
Announcing its findings, the committee said it had been more than four years since it last examined the MoD’s plans to reduce its estate. Valued at £36bn, the defence estate covers around 1.5 per cent of the UK landmass and it was costing over £2.5bn a year to maintain. The sale of land for new homes was part of the MoD’s overall plan to reduce costs. The committee said the defence estate is still too large, however, adding that “little progress” has been made since 2015.
It said the department missed two targets set six years ago – to release land for 55,000 new homes by March 2020 and raise £1bn from the sale of land by March 2021. The report said: “It raised £538m and released land for just 9,200 houses, having never thought it could meet the target. The department did not seek to update its targets to reflect changing circumstances, such as the decision of the United States to retain three large airfields in East Anglia that the department had planned to sell.”
The report added: “Since 2016 the department has shifted emphasis from primarily identifying land to sell to ‘optimising’ its estate, which renders a target to reduce the estate’s size less relevant. The department now forecasts its estate will shrink by only 16 per cent and has just abandoned its one remaining target to reduce the built estate by 30 per cent by 2040.”
Politicians commenting on the report included Labour’s shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray MP, who highlighted the housing crisis. He said: “This report lays bare just how painfully slow progress has been in modernising the MoD estate. Not only are there better ways to use this land, especially with a social housing crisis in Scotland – but there are also better ways to use vital defence budgets. The status quo isn’t working for anyone.
“We need a real strategy with realistic targets to deliver a MoD estate that is fit for purpose in the modern world and to use excess land for the benefit of the Scottish people.”
Scottish Greens MSP Gillian Mackay agreed the MoD could play an important role in tackling the housing crisis, adding it was “extremely disappointing” the department had not met its target. “It’s clear that the defence secretary needs to urgently develop a coherent strategy as the committee suggests,” she said.
“Improved engagement with local authorities is also essential so appropriate land can be identified and quickly turned round in areas where housing supply is most acutely required.”
Paul McGarry MSP, Scottish Lib Dems’ housing spokesperson, also expressed disappointment at the MoD and said the UK is “desperately in need of more housing”. He added: “This report highlights real dysfunction and a chronic lack of ambition among the leadership of this programme. Officials and ministers need to set out how they will deliver the long-promised land.”
An MoD spokesperson told The Ferret it had “successfully disposed of over 200 surplus sites since 2016 and supported the taxpayer with over £1.02bn of capital receipts (cash flows) since the financial year 2015-16”.
Earlier this year The Ferret reported concerns that MoD land sales were negatively impacting communities. The PCS union – which has 200,000 members and represents civil servants – told The Ferret that by selling off its properties, the MoD “contradicts” a promise to invest in communities. In reply, the MoD argued that it still holds “sufficient homes in Scotland” and any “surplus” properties were ”often sublet to civilian tenants” to benefit taxpayers.
Featured photograph thanks to iStock and William Barton