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Tory MSP in clash over fort closure

By Donna MacAllister

Edward Mountain at the fort
Edward Mountain at the fort

The planned closure of Fort George as a military base is “sad but inevitable”, according to a Tory politician and former soldier.

Edward Mountain, Highlands and Islands MSP, met soldiers including high-ranking officers at the barracks near Ardersier following the UK government’s announcement that the base will shut in 2032.

It comes after Inverness MP Drew Hendry revealed last week that he would make another attempt to safeguard Fort George after a National Audit report found serious weaknesses in the UK government’s moth-balling strategy.

Currently home to the Black Watch Battalion, the 18th century fort is one of 56 UK military sites – including eight in Scotland – which have been earmarked for closure under plans to cut the defence estate by 20 per cent.

Mr Mountain, who served in the army for 12 years and whose son serves in the Blues and Royals regiment, maintained the move would ensure soldiers had better facilities elsewhere and would no longer have to travel long distances for suitable training ground.

“As a father of a soldier, if you asked me would I rather my son spent time travelling around the country going training, rather than actually doing the training, I’d rather he did the training,” he said.

But his comments have been disputed by Highland Council’s armed forces and veterans’ champion Roddy Balfour, who called for money to be spent on bringing Fort George up to modern-day standards.

Mr Mountain visited the base in the wake of this month’s announcement by defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who said the defence estate was vital but too vast and too inefficient and that the closures would help to deliver better value for money.

Service personnel at Fort George were in a positive frame of mind following the news, Mr Mountain believed.

“I think they are fairly philosophical,” he said. “They’re saying 16 years is a long time, they have time to adapt and look for alternative accommodation.”

“They’re like farmers – they’ve got a can-do attitude. They know what’s happening and they can work towards it.”

He said the move would result in better facilities.

“Soldiers at Fort George often had to travel for hours to alternative ranges and training areas to develop their skills and battle readiness – hours that could be better spent training,” he said.

“We need to make sure that they have the best facilities not only to live in but the best facilities to train in.”

“We are asking those soldiers to deploy on tours which could put their lives on the line and we need to make sure that they have the best facilities not only to live in but the best facilities to train in and that they are fully recruited.”

Mr Mountain said many army families living in and around Inverness may well be coming to the end of their service in 16 years.

“So that means they will be staying in Inverness because they’ve bought houses in Inverness and that’s good news,” he said.

He had been given an assurance the regiment would continue to develop the facilities between now and 2032. He also wants to set up a joint -working group with the council to work on getting the best return from fort George after 2032. He said, for example, there were opportunities for water activities if the ranges closed.

But critics have condemned the proposed closure amid fears it could cost the Highland economy up to £20 million a year.

Cllr Balfour, also the Independent representative on the council for Culloden and Ardersier, took issue with Mr Mountain's views and called for money to be spent on upgrading Fort George.

“I don’t think closure is inevitable,” he said. “I think it is unwise. I think the alternatives are not in the interests of a satisfactory plan for the defence of the UK.”

He estimated it would cost about £20 million to bring the barracks up to standard, which he maintained in military terms was not a huge amount.

“I think the main problem at Fort George is that the living accommodation for the troops is not up to modern standards but that could easily be rectified,” he said.

Cllr Balfour said the closure of the barracks as a military base would not only impact on single soldiers but also those who were married with families.

“Many of the wives get jobs at places like Raigmore Hospital, Highland Council and shops in Inverness,” he said. “The children go to good schools. Fort George is a good posting apart from the accommodation at the barracks and that can be rectified.”

He was also doubtful about possible future uses if the barracks were to close.

"Fort George is a listed building and people are saying we could use it for this, that and the other,” he said. “But you cannot get a bus into Fort George, you cannot get anything more than a four-tonne truck into it so it would be difficult to do anything with it.”

Last week, Mr Hendry said it was not too late for the UK government to pull a U-turn on the “ill thought-out” closure plan.

But the MoD said it remained committed to delivering “a better defence estate”.

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