IN spring next year, a final decision over the closure of the Norton Manor Camp will be made.

The Ministry of Defence plans to close the base, in Norton Fitzwarren, moving 40 Commando Royal Marines out of Taunton.

Should the Marines go, a relationship with Taunton and its people stretching back 35 years will go with them.

Since the plan to close the camp was first unveiled, many have been united in opposing the move, with several notable campaigns launched locally.

And today, your County Gazette adds its voice to the calls to keep Norton Manor Camp open - and to keep the town’s relationship with 40 Commando alive.

Here, Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Kevin de Val writes of his relationship with Taunton - and that of his unit - and why he thinks the town should fight to Keep The Camp...

THE decision on the closure of Norton Manor Camp, home to 40 Commando Royal Marines, is imminent.

The Ministry of Defence is due to announce its fate in the spring of 2019, in its bid to ‘rationalise the Defence Estate’.

The decision will have a direct impact on the 700 men of the unit, their families, the Norton Manor Estate, the married quarters at Norton Fitzwarren and the town of Taunton itself.

The town has a long and proud history of hosting regular units of the British armed forces which could end, along with the £10 - £14 million it is estimated the Marines and their families contribute to the local economy.

Taunton should show its support for keeping Norton Manor camp and its unit as part of the community.

I came to Norton Manor Camp in 1983 with 40 Commando, when the Royal Marines first took over the base.

The camp was pretty run down – the accommodation and offices were in wooden post war huts and the married quarters were in need of refurbishment – but the unit was pleased to be in its new base, away from the military conurbation that was Plymouth and in the welcoming County Town of Somerset.

Inevitably, there were initial teething problems, notably in the town’s nightspots. The ranks of an operational Commando unit were a different soldier to the Royal Corps of Transport Junior Leaders that preceded them, but these problems were soon overcome.

During the following decades, major investment was poured into Norton Manor Camp to make it a first class military facility for the unit.

I like to think that Taunton grew proud of its Commando unit, which was reciprocated by the unit.

Many families of the unit, like my own, decided to make Taunton their home.

It was in 2010 that this bond between the town and the unit came into sharp focus.

40 Commando had been deployed to Sangin, described by The Guardian as “the deadliest area in Afghanistan”.

The unit lost 14 dead and nearly 50 wounded during its tour; which took an immense toll on the unit’s families.

Everyone in the unit knew someone who had been killed or wounded and family support was sorely stretched.

The town rallied magnificently; the County Gazette launched the successful ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ campaign and Sean O’Brien, a local businessman, set up the charity ‘Go Commando’ to help the families of military personnel, which is still going today.

In the unit’s eyes, this cemented the close ties between the unit and Taunton.

It is the duty of government to ensure that the scarce resource of taxpayers money is property allocated, with due regard to all the factors.

Should Norton Manor close, 40 Commando and its families and infrastructure will have to move elsewhere.

The camp, specifically designed with extensive military accommodation, will be left empty until a new use is found for it.

If it is developed for more housing, the barracks will have to be knocked down.

It is planned that the unit will move elsewhere in the South West – there is no room in Plymouth. The most likely destination is Chivenor (this is a guess, it has not been announced), which has campaigned effectively to keep its unit.

Wherever it goes, new accommodation and infrastructure will have to be built while the unit still occupies its current location at Norton Manor Camp.

Thus, if the unit is to move (and not be part of defence cuts), it is difficult to see how the taxpayer benefits.

The Defence Estate Strategy announced by the Defence Secretary in November 2016 has been described by the National Audit Office as ‘extremely challenging’; the paper predicates its findings on the number of new houses that can be built on the sites that are closed.

Do we really want more houses to the area west of Taunton? Were the people of Taunton asked?

The Ministry of Defence has made this decision on the basis of savings across the whole defence estate but it is difficult to see how this can be realised by the closing of Norton Manor Camp.

Gideon Amos, our prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Taunton, rightly campaigned against this decision from the beginning and deserves to be supported.

The people of Taunton should not allow this decision to be taken without expressing their view.

KEVIN DE VAL
Lieutenant Colonel Royal Marines (Retd)


This is The West Country:

WHAT'S THE CURRENT SITUATION AND HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED:

PLANS to close Norton Manor Camp in 2028 were announced by then-Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon in November 2016.

The move was part of the Ministry of Defence’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which outlined the MoD’s aim to reduce the size of its estate by 30 per cent before 2040 in a bid to save up to £3 billion.

In November this year, the current Secretary of Defence, Gavin Williamson, confirmed the planned closure in a letter to Taunton Deane MP, Rebecca Pow.

He wrote: “I can confirm that the intent, announced to Parliament in November 2016, is for 40 Commando royal Marines to remain at Norton Manor Camp until 2028. I can also confirm that 40 Commando Royal Marines will remain in the South West in the long term.”

However, a decision over where they will be based is not expected until the spring of next year.

In the meantime, politicians have been backing calls to keep the unit in Taunton, including Somerset County Council and leader of Taunton Deane Borough Council, John Williams who, when the decision was announced, said: “It is extremely disappointing to hear that Taunton will be losing its long association with the Royal Marines. We have enjoyed strong links with 40 Commando over the years and the people of Taunton share our great respect and appreciation of them.”

The unit was given the Freedom of the Borough in 2003.

Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Taunton Deane, Gideon Amos, launched a petition in response to the announcement, which has received thousands of signatures.

You can sign the petition online at www.tdld.co.uk/save-our-royalmarines.