The Fight for Leuchars

In the aftermath of the Strategic Defence Review, the MOD took the decision to shut two of Scotland’s three air bases. First to go was RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth appeared to be next in line. But stunned by the spirited campaign mounted by activists in Moray to save the latter base, the MOD began to consider the alternative closure of RAF Leuchars as of December. Months of uncertainty ensued, amidst which this was written, ending in the final decision in late July to convert RAF Leuchars into an army base and transfer its Typhoons to Lossiemouth.

The First Minister came this Friday to Leuchars to meet local councillors and community groups, the latest in a series of personal interventions by senior political figures in the campaign to save RAF Leuchars. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Tornados were scrambled to intercept Russian military aircraft over the North Sea, again underlining, as if defiantly, the strategic importance of a base which has been threatened by the Strategic Defence Review. The fate of Leuchars has become a political battleground, exemplifying the individual difficulties of implementing the Coalition’s spending cuts, its resolution remaining uncertain for months to come.

Ever since December, when the Ministry of Defence retreated from initial plans to close RAF Lossiemouth as part of its spending cuts, it has been widely speculated that RAF Leuchars will become the next airbase to be shut after RAF Kinloss. Previously confident that the base would be spared, Fife and Scottish politicians were stung by the news. Led by the likes of Sir Menzies Campbell MP and Iain Smith MSP, and enjoying cross-party support within the Scottish Parliament, a campaign to save Leuchars was hastily assembled, highlighting its significance for national defence and benefits for the local economy. It has since emerged that Leuchars’ is a straight fight for survival with Lossiemouth, one of two bases that will be forced to close in a decision taken by the MOD after the Scottish elections.

Closing the airbase, as outlined in the “RAF Leuchars Economic and Defence Case” submitted to the Defence Secretary Liam Fox, would have grave consequences for the local area. Aside from depriving us of the melodic roars of overflying Tornados and Typhoons heard on a daily basis, the decision would hit Fife hard, an area already suffering from the highest regional rate of unemployment in Scotland. The base generates roughly £60m for the Fife economy and directly or indirectly supports over 1,900 jobs. The immediate area around Leuchars, still reeling from having recently lost two significant employers in Curtis Fine Papers and Torith, may not afford a further economic blow, the local population, businesses and schools bound to suffer as a result. With an economy heavily reliant on squeezed public services, the loss of Leuchars would be a most untimely one for Fife.

Alas, it appears as if this will be the case. Had it not been for the spirited campaign of Moray residents, the MOD may well have already shut Lossiemouth.  The campaign successfully highlighted the potentially more devastating repercussions of the loss of Lossiemouth, which in conjunction with the already doomed Kinloss, contributes an estimated £158 million to the Moray economy and supports over 5700 jobs. It also drew upon enormous local support in the form of protests and even a battle bus to Westminster, an enthusiasm much less obvious in Leuchars’ fight for survival. The possibility of closing Leuchars came as a shock to its local community, and the efforts to save it, while commendable, may have arrived too late in the game. The MOD decision, regardless of the strategic arguments for maintaining either base, is likely to be a political and economic one, thus favouring Lossiemouth. While suggestions of converting Leuchars into a Ryanair hub or a point of return for soldiers stationed in Germany are at this stage wildly premature, the future of our local airbase is engulfed in uncertainty and probable misfortune for an area undeserving of further pain from the government austerity measures.

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