Julian Brazier: The threat to our Armed Forces Covenant
Good quality, subsidised accommodation for service families is crucial. Anything less harms their morale – and our defence
The government’s commitment to 2% defence spending is welcome news, but this is still the lowest proportion of GDP since the 1930s. Paying for equipment has stripped resources from personnel. At the same time as greatly reducing numbers, substantial savings were also introduced in people’s terms of service. Pay restraint and reductions in pensions reflect wider public service belt-tightening but, on top of that, service personnel have suffered rising rents, a deterioration in service accommodation and reduced access to allowances. Now there is a new plan for the housing which enables them to serve with their families. This mostly affects the army and RAF.
It matters. The regular army is shrinking – currently 79,000, that’s 3,600 below target – despite retaining growing numbers of unfit soldiers. Particularly worrying is the exodus of bright young officers, who are leaving before taking up critical sub-unit commands. The regular RAF is 1,800 short and pilot numbers are at their lowest ever. This is containable; recruiting of pilots – indeed officers across all services – is going well but, given the huge cost of training, retention is critical.
What has gone wrong? Surveys show that the most common reason for leaving is the impact of service life on family and personal life. A recent report from the National Audit Office highlighted accommodation as an area of critical risk: “There is a significant risk that the poor condition of the estate will affect the department’s ability to provide the defence capability needed ... poor accommodation for service families is affecting the morale and the recruitment and retention of service personnel.”
It identifies two large holes in MoD funding: the shortfall in lifecycle funding on MoD properties, and the expected increase in payments to Annington Homes from 2021 – the unhappy legacy of the ‘sale and leaseback’ in 1996.
Against this difficult background, the MoD has conducted a major survey of service personnel, consulting on a housing policy called the Future Accommodation Model (FAM). Where conditions allow, families would be given an allowance and moved into owner-occupation or private rental. Instead of homes at each base, where rents are subsidised at a level which recognises the drawbacks of service life, service personnel would be increasingly expected to settle their families.
For many years, much of the Royal Navy has chosen settled families and owner-occupation and the navy has managed to stem the net outflow of personnel. So this approach has obvious attractions. It only works, however, because of the navy’s geographic concentration; its two largest bases, Plymouth and Portsmouth, offer affordable housing and good employment opportunities for spouses. That the navy is weathering a punishing operational tempo and faces the tightest budget of all three services and yet has largely stemmed the outflow is to that service’s great credit. Nevertheless, geography prevents the other two services using the same approach.
Army and RAF families face two big disadvantages compared with civilians: the difficulty in owning a home, and the greatly diminished career prospects of spouses. The majority of today’s army garrisons and RAF stations are not near major towns with plentiful affordable housing to buy or rent. They are spread up and down the full length of Britain and, even after leaving Germany, there will be many soldiers and airmen posted in Ulster, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kenya and Brunei. Yet most of the best staff jobs, plus most arms schools and all staff training, are in southern England. So officers and many non-commissioned officers – the people whose retention is most critical for both military and financial reasons – will have to continue to move.
For these crucial people, home ownership can only be achieved through buying and letting, with families living in MoD accommodation for much of their subsequent career. This is the route many have gone down. Yet the Help to Buy scheme is specifically aimed at owner-occupation, and introduces restrictions in letting the property. Worse, service personnel have been given no exemption from the income tax penalty on landlords introduced in 2015.
The ‘Patch’, as it is affectionately called, is important in maintaining a supportive environment for vulnerable service families while units are on operations or long exercises. Service families are often based a long way from their original roots. Good quality, subsidised accommodation for the families of most soldiers and airmen, whether homeowners or not, is crucial, and reducing it will further weaken the offer to families; ironically it is proposed at a time when the maintenance of service homes – a major grievance in recent years – is at last beginning to improve. Published results of the FAM survey – which contained some loaded questions – suggested it was popular because 73% wanted better housing, but nowhere did it tell people that, even if adequate, affordable civilian housing is available in their area, they would lose their ability to appeal to the chain of command if problems emerge.
Unlike civilians, service personnel have no public voice. The very group of people who the country asks to do the most difficult and dangerous tasks are the least able to defend themselves and their families. This imposes a wider duty on us all to look after their interests. The Armed Forces Covenant recognises this. But the heart of that covenant, for most army and RAF families, is now under threat as the MoD consults on moving away from service family accommodation.
It is about justice, but not just about justice. One of the most unwise features of all the options is that the new allowance, replacing service housing, would be wholly based on family size. This would greatly diminish the offer to officers at the critical rank of Major or Squadron Leader and to the first career ‘break point’ for pilots, who may have no children or have only just started families, and so would qualify only for a small allowance.
FAM is pointing in the wrong direction. The MoD must rebalance its budget to cover the shortfall in housing funds, not pursue fanciful alternatives. We need to spend more on defence in this very dangerous world but – whether we do so or not – the worst option is to blind ourselves to financial reality and try to keep larger forces than resources allow. We must sort out the unfair tax on service ‘landlords’ and the perverse incentives in Forces Help to Buy.
If we get this wrong, the exodus of the brightest and the best will accelerate. Without them, there is little point in buying new equipment.
Sir Julian Brazier is Conservative MP for Canterbury and Whitstable and a former defence minister. The Centre for Social Justice's pamphlet, Homes Fit for Heroes, can be found HERE.