To many, RAF Leuchars is nothing more than the distant sound of plane engines. Nevertheless, it is a rumble that is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.
Due to the Ministry of Defence spending cuts, outlined in the Strategic Defense Review, the Royal Air Force has already announced its plans to close Kinloss on 31 July 2011, one of four remaining RAF bases in Scotland. It is set to lose one of its three other locations in Scotland- either Leuchars or Lossiemouth. Both the local and international implications of the base’s closure would be monumental. It will affect everything from how students travel to St Andrews to national security, never mind the economic impact on Leuchars itself.
The concerns are so prevalent that the RAF Leuchars Task Force – comprised of politicians, business leaders and the local community -has been set up to save the air base. Tim Brett, Liberal Democrat councillor for the Taybridgehead Ward and representative of the Task Force, gave The Saint insight into the dramatic consequences of closing Leuchars, both for students and the wider society.
Perhaps the most emotive case for saving Leuchars is its status as one of the chief defenders of United Kingdom airspace. The base is the second main Typhoon operating base in Britain. From March 2011, Typhoons will make up the ‘Quick Reaction Alert’ service for Britain, a service that will respond to any immediate threats perceived in British air. As a Typhoon operating base, Leuchars is a key tool in the country’s national defence.
Its close proximity to largely populated areas is more of a reason to prevent its closure, argues Brett: RAF Leuchars is within 80 miles of four million people, whereas Lossiemouth is more remote.
However, it is not only the fate of Scotland’s Central Belt that must be taken into account. This particular set of Typhoons are used to defend areas as far south as Newcastle. The councillor argues that Leuchars’ convenient location and status as a Typhoon base is vital in protecting national security from international threats, and we must “check we are alive to that.”
In addition, the RAF has recently invested heavily in the future of Leuchars with over £20 million spent modernising the runway alone in 2008. Thanks to this investment, the runway has a lifespan of another 25 years. “You could argue, why do that, then close it down?” says Brett. This point seems particularly valid considering the MoD’s claims that it may have to close the base for financial reasons. From a military standpoint, losing Leuchars would certainly bring with it many challenges in terms of national defence and financial loss.
However, there also exists a much more human side to the closure of the Leuchars base. Since Curtis Fine Papers closed, the RAF has been one of the town’s major sources of employment, providing jobs for over 1900 people. “If these people were to leave, Leuchars Primary School could lose up to 65% of its pupils,” Brett projects. This could cause a drastic change to the way the local education system is run, and the RAF Task Force’s dossier estimates that 11% of Madras College pupils in St Andrews have parents working for the RAF. The results of this would undoubtedly affect class sizes and possibly even the number of teachers employed.
Despite this, there are many ways in which Leuchars could be converted, should it close as an airbase. The 700 homes currently housing RAF employees could be taken over by the council to provide cheaper housing in the area. This is a contentious issue, as many would welcome less expensive housing, especially so close to a costly St Andrews. The dossier does state that Fife house prices are lower than the national average. As a result, other sellers would be forced to lower their prices in order to compete, an issue that raises as much ire as approval in the local community.
However, those on the RAF base may not have cause to despair quite yet. The MoD’s commitment to ceasing its presence in Germany means that some 45,000 people – mainly servicemen and women and their families – still need to be brought back to Britain, and this is something that Leuchars’ facilities would be ideal for.
Rumours that Leuchars may be turned into a commercial airport have long been circulating around Fife. In fact, Ryanair and Easyjet have both expressed interest in the past, and “the base already receives flights from golfers travelling to St Andrews,” explains Brett. Does this hint at a new future for Leuchars? “We must take into consideration whether the local infrastructure could cope with this, especially the roads around Fife,” he says. While this path would bring more visitors to the region and could even bring students directly to St Andrews, Fife is still a network of small communities joined by often winding roads. Before any changes are made, one must question the community’s ability to cope with the deluge of budget travellers and the inevitable rent-a-cars a new airport would bring.
St Andrews is renowned for its large international community, but even the students have their doubts about how useful an airport would be. Wisconsinite Tess Wynn comments that, “although I would love a commercial airport at Leuchars…I suspect it would be more expensive than flying to Edinburgh or Glasgow.” On the other hand, fellow American Alex Babinchak, argues, “if Leuchars was a commercially viable airport, the huge hassle of travel to Edinburgh or Glasgow would be eliminated. It would be of huge commercial and tourist benefit and it would save a lot of jobs in the area [that] the closure of the base would take away.” Yet again, Leuchars’ closure presents another controversial possibility.
While politicians and students debate the future of Leuchars, it is the people of the base who will be truly affected. As the planes keep flying, it is the people of the community – whose children attend the local school and who are currently earning a living in limbo – who wait with bated breath. A little further along the coast we may grumble at the roar of the aircrafts, but their silences may be even more worrying.
Click here for more information on RAF Leuchars and plans for it’s closure.