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David Wood: The saving of Norton Manor and Chivenor is 'the day many never thought would come'

For decades Royal Marines have been based at the Norton Manor Camp in Taunton and RM Chivenor in North Devon, but back in the autumn of 2016 the then Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, announced both bases would be closed as part of a review into the Defence estate.

Neither base was set to close until well into the 2020's, but today Sir Fallon's replacement, Gavin Williamson, has announced a U-turn and the bases will stay open.

The Royal Marine bases in Norton Manor and Chivenor are heavily supported by the local community. Credit: PA

The announcement comes after a couple of years of uncertainty for the base and the troops based there, and long campaigns fought by the the local MPs and wider local communities of North Devon and Taunton.

In recent months ministers have acknowledged the facilities that RMB Chivenor offered - including for aircraft - which gave a hint that they were changing their minds about the base in North Devon.

The Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in a letter to local MP Peter Heaton-Jones, "the decision will offer better value for money and better supports military capability". In response the North Devon MP says:

This is fantastic news. We had known for many months that the original decision to close the Base, announced in November 2016, was being reviewed, but we kept waiting for a firm decision and a formal announcement. Today, we’ve got what North Devon wanted.

It’s come after a brilliant cross-community campaign, involving many councils, businesses, organisations and individuals. I would personally like to thank the nearly 5,000 residents who responded to my call to write to the Defence Secretary demanding an end to the uncertainty. He has listened, and I am delighted with the outcome.

– Peter Heaton-Jones MP
Credit: PA

The decision to keep Norton Manor open seems to be a much more recent decision.

Earlier in February the Defence Secretary made a visit to the camp and the hint he was giving to us was that the plans hadn't changed in relation to move the Royal Marines, but there was a hint that ministers were looking at other ways to keep the base open. Today though that's all changed and the Royal Marines already at the Norton Manor Camp will stay there.

It is not yet clear exactly why his mind was changed, but it seems local campaigners had a major effect as did his recent visit. I understand that the Royal Marines based there made clear their preference to stay at the base and how they can be very quickly deployed from their Taunton site.

Local MP Rebecca Pow who campaigned to keep the base open.

I am absolutely thrilled that the Secretary of State has taken heed of the comprehensive case I made to keep the base open, backed up by the local community, the Council and the Marines themselves.

– Rebecca Pow MP, Taunton Deane
MP Rebecca Pow tours Norton Manor camp with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson

This, however, means a rumoured 'super-base' in Plymouth is unlikely to go ahead, and suggests that months of uncertainty for the Royal Marines based across the West Country was not needed.

The Conservative Government has come in for a lot of criticism from a number of its own MPs in the West Country about the way it is treating Servicemen and women, especially the Royal Marines.

This is after the speculation Plymouth based ships HMS Albion and Bulwark could be scrapped, as well as the plan to close a number of RM bases in our part of the world.

Both decisions have been reversed by the current Defence Secretary, who is slowly winning back support from his colleagues who have been fighting for years to keep the Marines and the ships where they are.

It is still unclear what will happen to the bases in Plymouth for the Royal Marines and whether any new facilities will be built in the city, but for those campaigning to keep Norton Manor and RMB Chivenor open, today is a day of celebration and one they never thought would come.

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