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St Athan military college moves forward

A four-week inquiry into the £12 billion privatised military training establishment due to be based at St Athan, Vale of Glamorgan in Wales, ended in early February 2010. The case for compulsory purchase of land in the area to enable the defence technical college to go ahead was presented by senior ministry of defence (MoD) figures and Welsh assembly government civil servants. They were backed by representatives of the Metrix consortium of private companies that successfully bid for the proposal.

The plans envisage a 2013 opening for the college, which will train British army, navy and air force personnel, alongside an aerospace business park on the site. Local residents raised questions about proposed new roads, re-located firing ranges, a powerful radar system, and accommodation blocks on green field sites. These will be the most obvious physical manifestations of a huge scheme.

Environmental and peace campaigners, however, concentrated their concerns on issues relating to the wider picture behind this biggest-ever UK private finance initiative (PFI). For them, the bona fides of companies that form part of Metrix – such as arms manufacturer Raytheon and military research specialist QinetiQ – are crucial.

The environmental assessments undertaken thus far are limited to local perspectives only. At no point have the real sustainability issues involved in training people for warfare, or in encouraging military and civilian aerospace firms to expand here, been considered seriously by the proposing governmental authorities. Both the UK and Welsh governments have low carbon targets that should demand consideration in this regard.

The inspector’s report was expected in late March. It will be a further step in the process of reaching a final, signed agreement between the MoD and Metrix for this 30-year contract. But there remain more hurdles for the process later in the year. The UK general election is one, since all three major UK parties are committed to undertaking a strategic defence review straight after it.

With pressures on government finance in all departments, and significant cuts already announced by armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth in recent weeks, the viability of the technical college at its current scale will be questioned.

What most worries campaigners, though, is that spare training capacity at the college may be sold by Metrix to military personnel from overseas regimes with dubious human rights records, as a means of ensuring that its business case for the enterprise does not falter.

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