Royal Marines Stonehouse barracks gets the axe

The MoD has just announced another piece of the family silver is to be sold off. The oldest barracks in England, RM Stonehouse, ‘spiritual home to Royal Marines’ since 1756 is to be put up for sale.

Around 750 people are based at the barracks which is home to the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade and other units including 30 Commando IX Group and Commander United Kingdom Task Group (COMUKTG). The site is old, grand and holds historic value and artefacts. Maintaining the site is more costly than a purpose-built modern alternative but it is perfectly fit for purpose and its imposing facade is keeping with the Royal Marines more than 350 years of outstanding service to the nation.

The MoD is in the midst of its Orwellian sounding “Estate Optimisation Strategy Programme” which of course is just another round of closures, from which the Treasury hopes to make £1Bn from land sales. It has the laudable aim to reduce waste in the defence estate where there is over-capacity or inefficient use of facilities. There is a temptation to have a knee-jerk response against any reductions, but in many cases the plans are sensible and either the sites are entirely surplus, or the work can be done elsewhere.

Stonehouse’s demise has been rumoured since before the SDSR but as the marines emerged unscathed in October 2015 this possibility was overlooked for a time. Just one of 13 sites on the newly released list of closures it is clearly the odd one out. The other sites all belong to the Army or RAF, both of which have suffered significant cuts and continue to reduce in strength. One of the many good decisions of the 2015 SDSR was not to cut the strength of the Royal Marines. 3 Commando Brigade headquartered at Stonehouse and arguably Britain’s single most potent fighting formation is to remain in tact.

Government has quite reasonably justified yet further reduction in the defence estate as an opportunity to release brown-field sites for badly needed new housing. Plymouth estate agents are already salivating at the prospect of another luxury housing development close to the waterfront. Only time will tell if the redevelopment of Stonehouse benefits the whole city or just an affluent minority.

Although local MPs may not see it that way, it is ultimately not the responsibility of the MoD to prop up the Plymouth economy or subsidise preservation of historic buildings. However there is a bigger picture to consider. The building and surroundings that a military unit inhabits impacts its ethos, imparting a sense of history, pride and self confidence. It would be quite possible to dump the Royal Marines in cheap bog-standard modern buildings on some industrial estate but something significant would be lost. There is also the need for resilience and spare capacity. Stonehouse may have some excess space but that is exactly what might be needed in time of war when extra accommodation is required for people and equipment in transit, to house expanding units or recalled reserves.

The creeping peacetime-only mentality that is entirely driven by accountancy undermines the credibility of our whole defence. The bare-minimum, most financially efficient facilities will be totally inadequate in emergencies.

As a city distanced from the UK’s main economic powerhouses, Plymouth has relied heavily on the income from hosting naval forces over the centuries. But it is a two-way relationship, the people of Plymouth have supported the navy and marines in peacetime and shared their hardships in wartime. This is another blow to the city and the MoD should consider the impact that closures have on local communities that are deeply entwined with the military on their doorstep. The size of the defence estate across Britain has been in decline for the last 40 years but nowhere is this more noticeable than in Plymouth. In the square mile around RM Stonehouse, the Royal William Yard closed 1992, the Naval Hospital RNH Stonehouse closed 1995, Mount Wise Naval HQ closed 2004 and large chunks of Devonport South Yard have been sold off and are being redeveloped. (Not far away the gunners of 29 Cdo have managed to keep their their base in the Hoe Citadel but, it too has been under threat of closure). Shutting these facilities makes some sense (only if we accept that a much reduced navy makes sense) and these prime sites have been attractively redeveloped. However the end of Stonehouse is one closure too many and cannot be properly justified when the Royal Marines corps strength and structure is unchanged.

It is not immediately obvious where the 750 Marines and supporting staff will be relocated. There has been some recent investment in a the new base at RM Tamar at the north end of Devonport Naval Base, now home to the 300 personnel and boats of 1 Assault Group. Whether there is space to expand RM Tamar as a new HQ seems unlikely although there is probably enough vacant space for a new facility elsewhere within the naval base which is now somewhat under utilised. Other local sites that have the potential for a new HQ would be HMS Raleigh, RM Bickleigh or the Hoe Citadel, either way if HQ 3 Cdo Brigade is to remain in the Plymouth area then it will probably require investment in new buildings to house them.  Alternatively they could be relocated away from Plymouth to RM Chivenor (North Devon), RM Lympstone (South Devon), or even a defunct Army barracks in another part of the country.

Main image: Medals Parade, RM Stonehouse, 2009 Rob Gillies via Flickr