D&S column: great work by Catterick-based soldiers

THE vital importance of the British military was underlined in recent weeks by the contribution made by servicemen and women to flood relief efforts.

Last week I visited The Light Dragoons at their Gaza Barracks base at Catterick and spoke to the soldiers who had cut short their Christmas holidays to help out in South and West Yorkshire.

I was very impressed to hear how within 12 hours of leaving their loved ones the day after Boxing Day, they were dealing with the devastating impact of the worst flooding to hit that part of God’s own county in living memory.

As well as helping flooded-out families with the clear up operations in the Calder Valley towns of Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd, they were also responsible for protecting a key emergency services communications base from flood waters, filling and stacking hundred of sandbags to do so.

I thanked them for their sterling efforts while most of us were still enjoying Christmas - and after my visit, I reflected on how we might sometimes take for granted what our servicemen and women do for us, not just in theatres of war but also emergencies like the floods.

However, the Government’s commitment to our Armed Forces is clear and I was delighted that we have kept the NATO pledge to spend two per cent of national income on defence for the remainder of this decade.  Further, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) budget will increase in real terms every year up to 2020/21.

That money will be spent ensuring we have better defence in a more dangerous world. Troop numbers will be maintained and there will be £265bn invested in military hardware and equipment over the next decade – such as nine new maritime patrol boats and new aircraft carriers. There will also be extra resources for combatting terrorism, including cyber terrorism.

In all my contacts with the Army since becoming an MP I have been mightily impressed by the quality of the officers and soldiers who serve us. It is widely acknowledged that British soldiers are among the best trained in the world. The British Army punches way above its weight in terms of skill and capability – proven in many very different situations over the last 40 years from Bosnia to Northern Ireland, the Falklands to Iraq and most recently Afghanistan.

The quality of that training is down to the skills of the officers and NCOs, the infantry training centre at Catterick, and the military ranges there. For the British Army to “be the best” it needs the best places to train and the thousands of acres at Catterick and Bellerby provide ideal terrain for soldiers to learn their fieldcraft and military skills and keep them at operational standard.

Managing the ranges for the benefit of the military, the farm tenants and the wider environment isn’t easy but on a visit just before Christmas I learnt how the Defence Infrastructure Organisation does this to reconcile the various interests.

The relationship with the 26 farm tenants is particularly important and I was pleased hear from one, Bob Dixon, of Halfpenny House Farm on the Bellerby live firing ranges, about how his family have farmed there for three generations and the MoD was a good landlord.

The ranges are also a great refuge for wildlife and include Foxglove Covert, the first nature reserve to be created on MoD land. Endangered species including black grouse, long-eared bats, nightjars and the green hairstreak butterfly are protected under the MoD’s custodianship.