Shropshire base flying the flag for military future

Catterick, Colchester, Aldershot, towns which for generations have been steeped in their association with the military.

Shropshire base flying the flag for military future

Now Brigadier Greg Wilson is hoping, that in years to come, the Donnington area of Telford will also be synonymous with its growing military base.

This week, the flag went up at Donnington's Venning Barracks to mark its new role as headquarters to one of the biggest army brigades in Britain. The expanded base will now support around 15,000 soldiers all around the West Midlands.

The 11th Signal Brigade flag is replaced by that of the 11 Signal and West Midlands Brigade

The British Army has four main centres across the county, while the RAF has two stations.

  • Prior to the reorganisation, Copthorne Barracks near Shrewsbury was the headquarters of the 143 (West Midlands) Brigade. While the brigade headquarters has now moved to Donnington, Copthorne still plays a major role in the Army. The Royal Army Medical Corps has a detachment of 202 (Midlands) Field Hospital at the site, which has seen action in Iraq. Also at Copthorne is the E (Rifles) Company, attached the 4th Battalion of the Mercian Regiment.

  • As home of the new 11 Signal and West Midlands Brigade, Donnington is now the main Army headquarters for the whole of the West Midlands. It is the regional Army point of command for soldiers based across Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands.

  • Additionally, it is home to 174 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, which two years ago returned from service in Afghanistan.

  • The Royal Yeomanry is also represented in Telford, with a reserve unit based at Dawley Bank.

  • Clive Barracks at Ternhill, near Market Drayton, is home to the 1 Royal Irish Regiment, which is an air assault infantry battalion in the regular Army which forms part of 16 Air Assault Brigade. Troops from the battalion have recently been deployed to Mali in support of the EU training mission.

  • The RAF also has a significant presence in the county, with stations at both Cosford and Shawbury, near Shrewsbury.

  • RAF Shawbury is the base for the Defence Helicopter Flying School, No 660 Squadron, 705 Naval Air Squadron, No. 60(R) Squadron RAF, and Central Air Traffic Control School.

  • RAF Cosford is the headquarters of the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineering. It is also home to RAF No 1 School of Technical Training; RAF Aerosystems Engineer and Management Training School, RAF No 1 Radio School and Defence School of Photography and RAF School of Physical Training.

The Defence Support Group, part of the operation at Donnington, is now to go into private hands with the announcement that Babcock will take it on and invest in the base. The work it does, the maintenance, repair, overhaul, upgrade and procurement support services for defence equipment, is now safeguarded for years to come and the deal should maintain job security for those involved.

And next month Army top brass are due to announce whether the Donnington base has been successful in its bid to become the national nerve centre for the Army's logistics operation. This announcement is the big one – it is a prize that is worth an estimated £60 million-a-year boost to the local economy and Telford & Wrekin Council is prepared to borrow £120 million from the Government to buy up land that could accommodate the expansion in Donnington.

All this comes as Shropshire continues to enjoy a reputation as a centre of excellence for the Armed Forces, with influential bases in the county and a network of support industries.

Brigadier Wilson has big hopes for Donnington. While the controversial restructuring of the British Army has seen the end of many historic regiments which have been lost after hundreds of years, the brigadier says it will open up an exciting new opportunity for Shropshire.

"We are going to be the face of the British Army in the West Midlands," he says.

"Sadly, the days of county regiments are over, in future, the Army will be about regions.

"The West Midlands, with Birmingham being Britain's second largest city, is certainly a very important one, and the new headquarters at Donnington will be at the heart of the operation."

The expansion at Donnington comes as a result of the controversial Army 2020 programme, first announced in 2012 by former defence secretary Philip Hammond. The plan is to make financial savings by reducing the number of regular soldiers from more than 100,000 to 82,500, and integrating it with a larger and more frequently used reserve force, which will see its numbers swell from 19,000 to 30,000.

As part of the scheme, the 11 Signal Brigade, which was already based at Telford, has merged with the 143 (West Midlands) Brigade, which was previously at Copthorne Barracks in Shrewsbury. They will be replaced by the newly formed 11 Signal and West Midlands Brigade, which will now have direct control over a total of seven regular regiments, and four reserve regiments, accounting for a total of nearly 7,000 troops. However it will also provide support for a further 8,000 army personnel across the region, including all the Army Reserve units across Shropshire, Staffordshire, and the Black Country.

The proposals to cut the regular army, with reservists filling the gap, has attracted criticism from not just Labour MPs, but some Conservative backbenchers as well.

However, Brigadier Wilson says the new reservists often bring with them outside skills, which career soldiers are not always able to provide.

"We have made good progress in the recruitment of the Army Reserve," he says.

"A reservist can bring a special skill which a soldier might not have, such as a technical specialist which would be a big asset to the army."

The new brigade will also command more than 1,000 extra soldiers who are being relocated from Germany to Beacon Barracks in Stafford.

An aerial view of MoD Donnington

If Donnington does manage to beat off Bicester in Oxfordshire to become the logistics base, it would indeed be a big coup for Shropshire.

Not only would it become a centre of national strategic importance for the military, it would deliver a huge economic boost to the county safeguarding 1,000 jobs. It would also create 700 new jobs in the supply chain.

It the bid is successful, the Army will take over an extra 56 acres of land next to the base, where it would house a 875,000 sq ft distribution centre, a 200,000 sq ft warehouse, and a 30,000 sq ft office block. The base would be used to distribute kit to Army personnel across the UK.

One of the key aces up Donnington's sleeve in the bidding process is likely to be its excellent transport links, and Brig Wilson says this was crucial to the decision to make it the headquarters for the new West Midlands brigade.

"One of the reasons for moving to Telford from Shrewsbury was that we will be running large operations from here," he says.

The bid being backed by MP for The Wrekin Mark Pritchard, who recently met with Defence Secretary Michael Fallon to make the case for Donnington.

"I am confident the base's best days are ahead of it,"he said.

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