Making sense of another shore establishment closure
On 7th November the MoD published a full list of sites that will close as part of its Plan for ‘A Better Defence Estate’. The biggest surprise from a naval point of view was the announcement that HMS Sultan in Gosport will close in 2025. Most of Sultan’s functions will be transferred to HMS Collingwood in Fareham. The people of Gosport are not amused but many within the navy seem to take a more pragmatic view. Here we will try to asses if this is unmitigated bad news or if there is a silver lining.
The ‘stone frigates’ that provide the training and logistical backbone of the RN appear a lot less less sexy than the ships of the fleet but the quality of these establishments has a direct impact on the frontline. A recent report by the Nation Audit Office shows that general underfunding of the defence estate, together with a privatised support contract has proved a disastrous combination with many facilities in a poor state of repair. Failure to maintain buildings is storing up expensive problems for the future as well as having a negative effect on morale and efficiency. HMS Sultan is not in a particularly poor state but has not had any significant investment since 2007. Cosmetic repairs are not a priority for Capita, the private contractor maintaining much of the MoD’s property while operating with a small budget and trying to make a profit.
There is definitely a need to reduce the vast amount of land owned by the MoD which amounts to more than 1% of the entire UK landmass (It should be noted that the Navy has by far the smallest footprint of the 3 services in terms of land area). More than £1.5Bn or around 4% of the annual defence budget is spent to keep this vast infrastructure going. It is clear that the estate has not been reduced in proportion to the heavy reductions in frontline fighting forces over the last few decades. It would appear that local political opposition tends to make it much harder to close a defence site than, for example, to axe another frigate.
Every single one of the 91 defence sites that government plans to close will attract strong local protest and HMS Sultan is no exception. There are always local jobs, past loyalty and sentiment to consider. The navy itself appears to be fairly unconcerned about the closure but Caroline Dinenage the Gosport MP, generally a good advocate for Navy is determined to fight for its future. The people of Gosport have loyally supported the RN for decades and the area has already suffered the closure of HMS Daedalus (1996), HMS Dolphin (1998) and Haslar Hospital (2007).
“I firmly believe that it would be to the detriment of both Gosport and the Royal Navy to lose the outstanding training at Sultan… I still believe there is a strong business case for keeping the site open” Caroline Dinenage, MP
The phrase “business case” is somewhat vague but the MP plans to engage academics from Portsmouth University to examine the effects of closure in detail. Local economic impact is likely to be the main focus rather than the needs of the navy. HMS Sultan has been no stranger to rumours of closure. A scheme to create a vast tri-service engineering training base at RAF St Athan in South Wales was shelved in 2010. A 2012 plan to move to a joint training establishment with the Royal Engineers also fell by the wayside. Although the new plan will not see Sultan close until 2025, the recent announcement seems to be the best solution on offer and likely to be carried through.
HMS Sultan – a unique site
HMS Sultan is currently home to the Defence School of Marine Engineering (DSMarE). This is the home of all marine engineering training, both general surface and submarine in the RN and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA). It also incorporates the Royal Naval Air Engineering and Survival School (RNAESS) and the Nuclear Department – responsible for the highly specialist and highly technical training of nuclear engineers for the submarine service. There are also civilian lodger units in the form of Network Rail and EDF Energy. All of these units have their own facilities and will now need to find a new homes. The HMS Sultan site comprises two separate camps. A technical side and an accommodation side, connected by the familiar blue bridges running across Military Road in Gosport. The site is unique in that within its perimeter it has two Grade II listed Palmerston forts: Fort Grange to the South of the site and Fort Rowner to the north. Whilst the forts are not used by Sultan directly for training they add to sites uniqueness and charm.
Relocation, relocation, relocation
Moving Sultan’s main engineering training facilities will present an expensive challenge. Large, very noisy and training aids such as diesel generators, gas turbines, pumps, switchboards and simulators will all need relocating to HMS Collingwood. This equipment cannot just be placed in any old building but will require tailor-made housing with noise and heat insulation built on sturdy foundations. They also need a series of separate out-buildings to house the fuel tanks, oil tanks, air compressors and control systems that support the simulation of shipboard operation.
New accommodation and new training facilities will therefore have to be built to effectively conduct Marine Engineering training at Collingwood. As the RN desperately needs to attract and retain the best engineers, a brand new purpose-built 21st Century facility at Collingwood could be very good news in the long-term.
Engineers are renowned for being flamboyant characters, passionate about their branch and history. Engineering training requires getting your hands dirty with large pieces of machinery. This is in contrast the warfare training conducted at Collingwood which is primarily computer-based. Some weapon engineers already conduct training at Collingwood but bringing stokers and dabbers together will create an interesting cross over of branch culture.
Relocating submarine engineer training to Faslane will further consolidate submarine activity in Scotland. When Devonport-based HMS Triumph decommissions in 2022, all submariners can then expect to spend virtually their entire career based north of the border. Undoubtedly an efficient way of operating, but whether this is an incentive to recruiting and retaining submariners is open to question.
The big picture
In an ideal world HMS Sultan would remain open and receive new investment. However there is some logic in reducing the size of the defence estate and it is broadly good news that the most of the civilian jobs will stay in the area, only moving up the road to Fareham. Naval engineers will eventually benefit from brand new purpose built facility at Collingwood but Sultan will have to carry on for another 9 years and will obviously decline in the meantime. The MoD will have to start a major project to plan and move complex facilities. The costs of this will be high so it could be a long time before there is any financial saving from this ‘rationalisation’.
Accountancy-driven schemes for efficiency may make sense at one level, but ultimately the MoD should remember it exists to protect the nation. There are good reasons for physical dispersal of defence sites to provide resilience and options in the face of enemy action or even natural disasters. In time of war training facilities might need to be rapidly expanded, something that cannot be done easily if all spare capacity is gone.
At some point this shrinkage must end and there be no more closures. If we continue to follow the merciless logic of ‘rationalisation’ to its ultimate conclusion, the Navy would have just 1 ship and just 1 giant shore establishment as that would be most “financially efficient”.
Many thanks to contribution made to this article by Jack Paxman (currently serving at HMS Sultan).
- Defence experts stunned by plan to axe Gosport military base (Portsmouth News)
- A better Defence Estate (MoD)
- Dilapidated military bases putting UK armed forces readiness at risk (Guardian)
- Sultan update (Caroline Dinenage MP)