Already facing severe criticism from the heritage world over the apparent commercialisation of the wreck of HMS Victory 1744, UK Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon is facing another heritage related row which is likely to further damage the reputation of the Government and MoD in an Election year. In a spending cut which probably represents the cost of one rivet, or a case of gin for the officers mess on the eye wateringly expensive new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, [which thanks to another MoD management triumph currently do not have any aircraft] the Ministry of Defence has decided that the £50k per year cost of maintaining the listed St George’s Chapel at the historic Battle of Britain airfield at Biggin Hill in Kent, is no longer appropriate use of the department’s money. However, in a development which might well concentrate the minds of the Government’s PR minders, it seems that the almost 20,000 people who have signed the on-line petition on the Government website, protesting at the cut, disagree [http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/73191].
Attempting to justify the cut which would see the chapel, which was built as a memorial with the personal support of Sir Winston Churchill and opened in 1951, closed in the Spring of 2016 unless a benefactor can be found to pay the running costs, a spokesperson for the MoD told the Daily Mail ‘In order to ensure that the defence budget is spent in the most appropriate way the MoD will look to relinquish ownership of St George’s Chapel by March 2016. However, given its importance, we are exploring options that will ensure the heritage of the chapel is preserved.’
Defence Minister Anna Soubry took on the human shield role on behalf of the Government adding that, because Biggin Hill “…no longer provides support to an operational RAF station and as the number of serving RAF personnel using the chapel is very low, continued support to the chapel would be an inappropriate use of defence resources. My officials… have met with the local chaplaincy council to discuss the closure of the site’.
Observers of the Ministry of Defence’s attitude to its heritage responsibilities are divided as to what the move to close the chapel actually represents. Some cynics would argue this may be a carefully calculated ideological move to save money, privatise another former Government function and gain some good press as a benefactor is announced to step in and save the site, which contains a unique set of memorials and a roll of honour, in time for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain this Autumn. Indeed there are suggestions that Biggin Hill Airport Ltd which operates the airport may underwrite the costs. On the other hand, so low is the confidence of some in the wider heritage community in the quality of the advice and decision making at MoD Main Building in Whitehall that the decision to allow the Chapel to close in such a significant and emotive anniversary year may simply be yet another MoD heritage cock up born of the Department’s ignorance of heritage issues and the way they play with the professional heritage community and the wider public.
Supporting that interpretation is the failure of the MoD over many years to invest in maintaining other historic buildings on land and the repeated failure to take any active steps to protect historic Royal Navy wrecks which the public regard as war graves, including HMS Cressy, Hogue and Aboukir off the coast of Holland and HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya. An attitude which reached its nadir in October 2014 with Secretary of State Michael Fallon’s announcement that HMS Victory 1744 could be salvaged by Odyssey Marine Exploration under a contract which independent legal advice suggests will lead inevitably to non Crown Property, that is the crew’s personal belongings, being sold for private profit.
Whatever happens over the Biggin Hill Chapel, it is likely that the announcement will lead to further calls for the MOD to be stripped of its functions relating to the UK’s defence heritage which critics suggest it is neither capable nor willing to undertake with any sense of ethical responsibility or professionalism. Of course, commercial sponsorship which such a policy might lead to also has its risks. Lufthansa to sponsor the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight anyone? Many would argue that £50,000 is a small price for the Government to pay on behalf of the taxpayer to remember permanently the RAF personnel who flew from, or died at, Biggin Hill and who helped ensure they still had a sovereign Parliament to sit in.