Michael McNair-Wilson – 1978 Speech on RAF Greenham Common

Below is the text of the speech made by Michael McNair-Wilson, the then Conservative MP for Newbury, in the House of Commons on 26 May 1978.

Before I start my speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I have your guidance? I am listed on the Order Paper as starting the debate at 2 p.m. You have allowed the debate on unemployment in West Belfast to go on for a further eight minutes after 2 p.m. May I hope that you will allow me the same leniency, so that my debate will not be foreshortened, as clearly the Order Paper requires that it should not?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

I quite understand the concern of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I can put his mind at rest. The matter is entirely in the discretion of the Chair. Although the previous debate overran, and I know that two other hon. Members, as well as the Minister, desire to intervene in the hon. Member’s debate, it is conceivable that I shall show latitude there as well. I hope—piously, perhaps—that in later debates the time may be made up in other ways. The hon. Gentleman does not need to worry unduly.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I am most grateful for your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and most grateful to have the opportunity this afternoon to debate the future of RAF Greenham Common in my constituency. As you may be aware, the future of the base and whether it is to become fully operational again has been exercising my mind and the minds of many of my constituents since February of this year, when I was informed that the United States authorities had requested the reactivation of Greenham Common as a fully operational air station from which to operate 15 KC135 tanker aircraft.

The KC135 is generally acknowledged to be one of the noisiest, if not the noisiest, four-engined jet aircraft flying anywhere in the world today. It was the forerunner of the Boeing 707 airliner. Because it is a military aircraft, it has none of the sophistication in terms of noise suppression machinery which might be found in existing marks of the 707. Fully laden with 27,000 gallons of aviation fuel, the KC135 has a long, low take-off and climb, during which it emits a very high level of jet noise, which has been described as a shattering roar. Local officials in my constituency estimate that operating these aircraft from Greenham will mean that literally tens of thousands of people living along an 18-mile by 2-mile-wide corridor through West Berkshire from the end of the runway will be subjected to noise levels of not less than 100 pndB, a level which will be extremely intrusive and disturbing. Those living close to the base and immediately below the flight path will be subjected to noise levels as high as 135 pndB, a level which outside their houses could cause physical pain.

As well as the thousands of houses around the base, there are also 12 schools and two hospitals, one of which is for geriatric and maternity cases and lies directly under the flight path. On take-off the KC135 emits a large quantity of dark smoke and unburnt kerosene which causes an odour and fall-out nuisance. By anybody’s standards, it is a very unsocial aircraft. Yet if Greenham is reactivated that is what my constituents will have to live with, plus the danger of one of these aircraft being involved in an accident and falling on parts of Newbury, Thatcham, Greenham, Brimpton or, conceivably, even Aldermaston, with consequences which could be catastrophic.

That is the nature of the threat to those living around Greenham and in West Berkshire. At least, that is what we suppose it to be. In fact, since the United States proposal was put in at the beginning of this year nobody, either from the United States Air Force or the Ministry of Defence, has proffered any details as to exactly what we should expect.

Such details as I may myself have gleaned I owe in part at least to a visit paid to me by an American general in 1977, at the instigation of the Minister of Defence, when he gave me certain facts and figures on a confidential basis and until the proposal was put in. Those are all that I or my constituents have had to go on. We are at least grateful to General Rosencrans for his candour and responsibility in telling us what he thought we might have to put up with. I therefore hope that this afternoon the Minister will show the same candour and responsibility. I hope that he will break the wall of silence and tear away the veil of secrecy which surrounds the American proposal.

Before asking a number of key questions with regard to the American proposal, it might be helpful if I explain the genesis of RAF Greenham Common and show how we have come to the situation in 1978 that this non-operational air base is now threatened with reactivation.

Greenham Common was first requisitioned in 1939 by the Air Ministry and was used as an airfield by the RAF until the end of the war. It was then partially derequisitioned, so that by 1950 part of it had been returned to agriculture and several of the air base buildings had been demolished. In 1951 it was requisitioned again, this time for the use of the United States Air Force, which operated from it until 1964, when it was closed. It was closed in such a definite way that in 1964 a civil servant in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government wrote to the Berkshire County Council that

“The Ministry of Defence no longer has any interest in the use of this airfield for flying purposes.”

In fact, the base has remained non-operational ever since, although in 1968 it was designated as a standby deployment base for the United States Air Force in the event of an emergency.

In 1976 it was used by the United States Air Force for its F111 strike aircraft while the runway at Upper Heyford was being resurfaced. The noise of those aircraft brought me literally shoals of letters demanding to know whether the Americans were remaining at Greenham for only the three months which they promised or whether their temporary stay would become something rather more ​ permanent. I have passed many of those letters on to the Minister. He may remember that on 16th December 1976 he was able to write to me, and I was able to write to my constituents that the Minister had said:

“There is no intention to alter the standby status of RAF Greenham Common and consequently, of course, no plans to station any aircraft there permanently.”

The Minister’s assurance set the minds of my constituents at ease, and mine with them.

Since the F111s had flown away and peace had been restored to Greenham Common, we thought that that was the end of the matter. But, of course, the Minister’s assurance was just one more assurance along the line since 1964. It was his assurance and assurances like it which prompted local authorities in Berkshire to allow so many houses to be built near the air base. It must have been that sort of assurance that the Department of the Environment was working on in 1975 when, on appeal, it consented to allow the construction of 81 houses in Russell Road, very close to the air base. Then, emboldened by that decision, and no doubt by its conversations with the Ministry of Defence, the Department of the Environment gave consent on appeal in 1976 for 620 houses to be built at Thatcham, again extremely close to the base.

I remind the Minister that that was far closer than the advice which the Government gave to local authorities in their White Paper on airports policy earlier this year, when they stated:

“New housing developments should not be permitted in areas close to major airports seriously affected by aircraft noise.”

The White Paper acknowledged that

“Of all the problems associated with airports, the disturbance caused by aircraft noise remains the most serious.”

Yet those consents were given although the local authority had originally turned down the requests.

Today we have around Greenham many thousands of houses which will be very seriously affected if the base is reopened. Many hundreds of people have bought those houses on mortgages and have used their life savings. Since February of this year, when the American proposal went in, they have seen the value of their houses ​ plummet. It is estimated that £1 million has been wiped off the value of houses in and around the Greenham air base.

The Minister will know that I have asked him what compensation the Ministry of Defence is prepared to give to those people if it is decided to let the Americans use Greenham. What sort of grant is the Ministry prepared to give to all those other people whose lives, from the moment of reactivation, will be intruded upon by excessive noise which will spoil the quiet existence which they are now enjoying? I remind the Minister that if Greenham were a civil airport both the compensation and the noise insulation grants would be given as a matter of course. It would be less than justice if my constituents could not enjoy the same privilege.

I have outlined the American proposal and how we believe it will affect us if Greenham is reopened. I have traced the history of the base to the present day. I should now like to ask the Minister to spell out the details which so far no one has given us. Will he tell me just exactly what the American proposal involves? Will he tell me whether the 15 KC135s are all the aircraft that will be stationed at the base, or are they just the thin end of a very much bigger wedge? Will he say how long the Americans intend to keep the base open if he gives them consent to use it?

Will the Minister say what are the most up-to-date noise levels of the KC135 and what sort of noise footprint they will create around the base and in West Berkshire? Will he tell me what noise suppression procedures American military pilots are required to follow? Will he say how many American service men will be stationed at Greenham? Will he say what sort of build-up in road traffic we should expect? Will he tell us that the MOD and the USAF are working out compensation plans for householders whose properties have been blighted and that they are prepared to give noise insulation grants? Will he perhaps tell me that a decision has been made whether it is to be Greenham?

My constituents and I believe that Greenham is the wrong place for the tanker aircraft, for some of the reasons that I have tried to explain. If anyone seeks to tell me that it is the cheapest ​ of the alternatives available, I think that I can and will reply that perhaps it is cheapest in physical terms, but what about the cost in terms of human suffering from excessive noise, what about the blight on house values and what about a despoiled rural environment? These, too, have a cost, and they have to be put in the balance before any decision is made.

We all recognise that NATO needs strengthening. We recognise that new air bases may be required and may have to be reopened because the existing ones are utilised fully—if they are. I submit, however, that Greenham is not the only air base standing vacant and that the problems surrounding its reactivation outside an emergency or war-time situation require that it should remain on standby and nothing more for as far ahead as anyone can see.