A fierce war of words has erupted between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Scottish government over plans to expand a big bombing range at Cape Wrath in the far northwest of Scotland.
Internal emails obtained by the Sunday Herald reveal that the MoD has not abandoned its ambitions to buy more land at the cape, despite a competing bid from the local community. Its attitude has been condemned as “laughable” and “arrogant” by the Scottish environment and rural affairs minister, Richard Lochhead MSP.
The MoD announced publicly on 13 May that it had decided “not to proceed” with the purchase of land around the cape’s famous lighthouse, built in 1828 by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather. But a private MoD memo the same month makes clear that the Royal Navy is still “interested” in buying the land.
If the local community bid fails, officials suggest that the MoD’s interest could be “rekindled” and it could try again. One email on 4 July notes that that the MoD may have the “political clout” to fight the Scottish government for the purchase “on grounds of national security needs”.
But Lochhead yesterday derided the MoD's stance. “It’s beyond belief that the MoD think that the local community becoming owners of the land at Cape Wrath is a threat to national security,” he said.
“Perhaps they might like to explain if it’s tourists enjoying the views, locals having tea and cakes in the café, or walkers completing the Scottish National Trail that pose the greatest threat. It’s this sort of arrogant Whitehall attitude which could have stopped the community getting the chance to buy the land at Cape Wrath.”
Over 300 pages of documents released by the MoD under freedom of information law reveal that extending the MoD’s 9000-hectare bombing range at Cape Wrath is seen as “critical for future military operations”. The range is used twice a year for major NATO Joint Warrior exercises on land and at sea, and is the largest live-firing range in Europe.
In 2011 the Northern Lighthouse Board offered to sell the MoD over 40 hectares of land at the northwest tip of the range. The land surrounds a café and the historic Cape Wrath lighthouse, which is visited by thousands of people every year, including walkers completing the 470-mile Scottish National Trail from Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders.
The MoD launched a major bid to buy the land, which it secretly valued at £55,000. As well as improving its firing range, it was anxious to prevent “a hostile neighbour owning the land which could see future military exercises being interrupted”.
But the bid was dogged by “significant wrangling” between the navy and the MoD’s property division over costs. One official warned on 13 November 2012 that pulling out would be an “embarrassment factor” for the MoD and create “fraught” relations with the lighthouse board.
Then in December 2012, the bid hit a major public relations problem. A storm of public protest erupted after the MoD said that if it bought the land “access by the local community would be precluded”.
According to a senior MoD environmental adviser, that “created a huge amount of bad feeling towards the MoD and its interest in Cape Wrath”. Access is currently restricted for up to 120 days a year during military exercises.
Another MoD adviser warned that the row could have boosted the local community’s chances of acquiring the land. “It is inevitable that this badly worded statement will have damaged the MoD’s relationship with many recreation and access groups as well as individuals from the local community,” the adviser said.
When the MoD publicly withdrew its bid in May, it was widely praised. But an internal memo from Navy Command expressed concern about “potential issues” from the proposed community buy-out, and said that it would be “interested” if the MoD property division decided to support “further development of the range area”.
In June the Scottish government approved the local community bid to buy the land, giving them five years to raise enough money. This would bring “more benefits for the local area rather than more land for bombing,” said the First Minister, Alex Salmond.
But in an email exchange on 4 July, two MoD officials discussed how to respond to the Scottish government’s move. “It may be that MoD feels it has the political clout to contest such a decision on grounds of national security needs,” said one.
He pointed out, though, that this would make relations with the local community “very difficult”. The other official suggested that the MoD would have to wait and see if the local community bid failed before trying again.
The MoD’s behaviour was condemned as “despicable” by the SNP MSP for the area, Rob Gibson, who backs the local community bid. “They are obviously interested in having a monopoly in the area, and we have to fight that,” he said.
Ramblers Scotland was “delighted” when the MoD appeared to abandon its purchase plans in May, following protests. “These latest revelations, however, will send alarm bells ringing throughout the outdoor recreation movement,” said the group’s director, Dave Morris.
Durness Development Group, which is steering the local community’s bid for the land, has promised that it would not be a “hostile neighbour”. It wants to work in partnership with the MoD, and says there should be no risk to military exercises continuing within their existing scope.
“If it is the case that the MoD is still interested in acquiring the land then that comes as no surprise,” said local development officer, Kevin Arrowsmith. The MoD would be “unacceptably heavy-handed” if it attempted to exercise powers of compulsory purchase, he warned.
The MoD reiterated that it had withdrawn its application to acquire additional training land at Cape Wrath. “There are currently no plans to purchase land at the site,” said an MoD spokeswoman.
Scans of a selection of the paper documents released by the Ministry of Defence can be downloaded here (1.1MB pdf).