After several days of increasingly bloody headlines for the Ministry of Defence in newspapers ranging from the Guardian [no surprise there] to the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail [seriously worrying for the Cameron Coalition] the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon has been able to execute what former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie used to call a “Reverse Ferret”, with the media being encouraged to announce that St George’s Chapel at Biggin Hill has been “saved” from closure. However, as is always the case in issues where the Government faces embarrassment and seeks to spin its way out of it, the true situation is far from clear. All that has actually been announced is that Biggin Hill Airport Ltd, on whose site the chapel stands, will consult with the MoD, and the London Borough of Bromley regarding underwriting the costs of keeping the chapel open after March 2016. There is no actual undertaking to keep the chapel open at all.
The original “ferret down the trousers” was the announcement from the Ministry of Defence, backed up by a clumsy intervention from Defence Minister Anna Soubry, that the listed memorial chapel to lost RAF personnel who were based at the famous Battle of Britain airfield, would be closed as a cost cutting measure in March 2016, just months after the 75th Anniversary commemorations for Britains “finest hour”in 1940. The news was greeted with dismay and anger by many veterans, heritage and RAF groups as well as the twenty four thousand plus signatories of an on-line petition against the supposed closure.
Will Curtis, the Managing Director of Biggin Hill Airport is now reported in the Daily Telegraph as saying “We want to properly secure the future of this historic chapel, which is in keeping with its role of playing an active part in the local community as an important heritage site,” adding “We will consult with the Ministry of Defence and the London Borough of Bromley as to how we can best achieve this goal.”
However, while the Government’s immediate presentational problem may have been solved two things remain unclear.
Firstly what would happen to the chapel if Biggin Hill airport becomes unable or unwilling to support the cost of sustaining access to the chapel at some point in the future? The airport is currently understood to be operating significantly below capacity and has faced repeated safety and environmental questions. Situated as it is on the edge of London a large “brownfield” site such as Biggin Hill is a prime candidate for redevelopment. Especially when both London City and Gatwick Airports and their controlled airspace, are so close and arguably are better able to serve the business market that Biggin Hill primarily serves. Perhaps most importantly in economic terms, both London City and Gatwick also have much better road and rail communications. Meanwhile the London Borough of Bromley, cited by the airport as a potential partner in supporting the chapel, faces making cuts of £60 million because of the Government’s austerity programme and has refused to rule out cuts to the borough’s existing museum service.
Secondly, 10 Downing Street will be asking itself how the Ministry of Defence was ever allowed to get into such a presentational disaster in the first place. The Department has allowed itself and a senior Minister of State, Ms Soubry, to appear as if they did not care about one of the major national memorials to men and women who died during one of the most iconic moments in modern British History. All for the sake of what is, for the MoD at least, scarcely even petty cash. After all, what is £50,000 when the cost overrun on the Aircraft Carrier programme is currently £2.2 billion and counting?