Monday, 24 July 2017

A Right Regimental Rumble

News in the papers this weekend focused on the alleged proposal by the Army to try to close down and merge various ‘Regimental HQs’ (RHQs) and instead collocate their function into one single super site at Andover. This has caused complaints that it will weaken the relationship between the regiment and the local area, that it will harm welfare for soldiers and that it is damaging for recruitment.

Humphrey finds this sort of story fascinating as it encapsulates many of the challenges that the Army faces today in remaining relevant and showing it is meeting tight budget targets. For the uninitiated, the RHQ is essentially the administration hub for Regiments within the British Army – but confusingly as far as Humphrey can make out, not all units or cap badges in the Army have an RHQ due to their different structure (although they may have some kind of equivalent at different levels such as a Corps HQ).

Its role is providing support to the Regiment, primarily on welfare, community links and elements of recruitment. In the past this made a great deal of sense – a local HQ would be able to keep in contact with society, know where its soldiers were and help with pension issues or older veterans and also help look at recruiting to identify the right soldiers and officers. It helped build the ethos of the Regimental system as an extended family. In many ways it is still a vital function in areas without good communications – for instance in Nepal where the Brigade of Gurkhas maintains a strong welfare presence across the country to look after the many Nepalese veterans and their families.

But, is this an idea that has passed its prime? Several factors would seem to suggest that scrapping RHQs as they currently stand may not be as bad an idea as some think it is. Firstly, the sheer number of veterans requiring support is diminishing, as the last of the WW2 generation slowly pass on, and we see the end of the days when a large number of the population have served.  There are far fewer veterans needing welfare, and those that do are often dispersed far more widely geographically.

The days when former soldiers lived locally to the Regiment, and could retain those local links have almost completely gone. Does the RHQ function need then to be carried out in a regional area (e.g. the Regiments historical recruiting grounds) or can it be carried out centrally? If your target welfare audience lives outside the area, then its physical location is almost irrelevant as you’ll need to travel or use the phone to speak to someone anyway.

The next challenge is whether the purported links to the local area are as important as some maintain. It is clear that historically ancient reguments have long links to certain parts of the country and recruit from it. But the days of unmerged regiments having a history without amalgamation with another unit is long gone - other than perhaps the Guards and Paras, there are realistically no infantry or cavalry units out there that have not gone through some form of amalgamation in recent years.

The case for geographical ties is important for a regiment whose history dates back hundreds of years to one location. For a regiment formed as an amalgamation in the 00s from two units who in turn were formed from the 1990 review, which turn merged units that came about from the 1960s, then its rather harder to work out whether there is a genuine case for geographic ties, or is it merely an instant 'tradition'?

In times of total war the Army proves itself to be remarkably unfussy about where its manpower is allocated – you only have to read Tommy, by the late Richard Holmes to realise that by 1916 the Army was allocating people regardless of origin to line units as required.

Today the Army struggles with recruitment in part because elements of it seem to have a strong desire for some kind of regional recruitment policy. This is fine when you are turning recruits away due to overwhelming numbers, but it is hard to imagine that Thomas Atkins aged 18 will not join the Army simply because the RHQ of a unit he has never heard of and has no emotional loyalty or ties too is no longer located in the same wider geographic region. People join for vastly different reasons, and the location of an RHQ is practically an irrelevance to them.

Probably more likely to aid recruitment than keeping an RHQ would?

Humphrey personally feels the argument in favour of geographic recruiting is often undermined by the way that the Army has been happy to take on large numbers of Commonwealth recruits to pad out its numbers (for instance the manner in which Scottish units are traditionally reliant allegedly on Fijian soldiers among others). Perhaps clinging to this tie is holding back recruitment, and it is time to move to a more centralised model where recruits are allocated to units as manpower needs dictate, not by the area the recruit comes from. By all means allow both unit and recruit to express preferences, but surely having a properly manned army is more important than the ideological purity of its recruits home location for some (but not all) units?

The wider issue too is how does the Army engage with the public today and what role does the RHQ play in this? It makes sense to have a local team if your unit only recruits from a tiny area and knows it intimately, but when RHQ covers maybe four or five (if not more) counties, how much local knowledge does it really have about where to go, who to engage with and what to do? There is a risk of overplaying how much influence an RHQ can have in an area where it has little to no real physical presence.

The last challenge is how do we take care of our veterans and does this require a ‘local’ HQ? Given the breadth of locations of retired service persons, from those who have just left to those who are in their 90s, surely what is needed is the ability to reach out to them via phone, email, physical visits and letters – in other words work that can be run from anywhere. Just because Welfare work is co-ordinated in a physically different location to before does not change the ability of veterans to access it.

Similarly there is usually a lot of Regimental Associations and other support networks available to veterans – changing the format of the RHQ from multiple buildings to one site should not impact on this relationship – frankly if a relationship breaks down because of an address change then that raises deeper worries about how badly the relationship has been maintained in the first place.

Estate Downsizing
Perhaps the biggest issue here is that this issue shows the challenge facing the MOD to shrink its estate over the coming decades. There are some very challenging targets to be met in order to reduce the estate, and to dispose of legacy buildings. Arguably this move helps show how the MOD is moving towards meeting that target, by disposing of older buildings and helping free up resources.

The challenge the MOD faces is one of having to manage a diverse estate with many elderly and listed buildings. Frankly the state of many of them is appalling and they need a lot of maintenance and support to keep them usable. Given this, surely it is better to use these as low hanging fruit, easy to offload as office space, compared to other sites which may be contaminated or require extensive changes and work to be sold. By selling these sites, it helps meet savings targets and reduces the need to sell off land used for operational purposes. It also reduces the bill for building maintenance, freeing up resources which can be used elsewhere instead.

The wider perspective is that the Army has been saying for many years that it is short of funds and needs extra resources. But its hard to make a compelling case for this when parts of the Army continue to act in an incredibly inefficient manner – can you imagine the uproar if it was revealed that the Civil Service maintained dozens of offices around the UK  purely for the welfare of a few hundred former civil servants each and to play a role in local liaison and influence recruiting of new civil servants? There would be uproar and rightly so, and demands for it to be centralised and made more efficient.

Cuts Sir - millions of pounds of them!

But by clinging to the view that somehow the Regimental System is above change and above efficiency, it makes it much harder to push for extra resources for the Army. Can you imagine the conversation with the Treasury – likely to go something like this:

Army: We require extra money because we don’t have enough to meet our current commitments.

HMT: Okay – you have delegated authority to spend money as you want – as a small starter, have you tried rationalising your multiple RHQs to maybe one central point? Have you tried moving to a single series of Army uniforms? Have you tried a single series of badges for each rank? You know, save some money internally and reallocate it to fund things that you REALLY need.

Army: Errrrm, but, well former retired officers and the media tell us its about ‘TRADITION’ and if we change and scrap this sort of thing then that’s the end of the UK as we know it. We can’t possibly do that – we need more money instead.

HMT: So why in a time of stretched public finances should you get money that could instead be used to help schools, hospitals, welfare, reduction of cuts to local services, tax cuts etc, when you are unwilling to make real efficiencies in your budget and make genuinely tough choices. Show me the quantifiable evidence you’ve obviously commissioned that sets out how multiple RHQS make a difference to recruiting, welfare and how if you don’t keep the structure exactly as it is now, then the Army will collapse? You know the RN and RAF manage without it and they seem to be doing okay?

Army: Errrrm, I have an email somewhere around here about the etiquette of eating sandwiches if that helps. Would you like a party biscuit while I find it?

This may sound flippant, but its an important point to make. The power to find extra resources lies in the hands of the single services if they want to make tough calls to their budget. Scrapping the RHQ system as it stands is a good way to do this without directly impacting on the front line.

If the military want to make a credible case for additional money beyond what they have now, then they need to be able to show an utter ruthlessness to cutting anything that isn’t directly linked to meeting the tasks set out for them in the SDSR. They need to they have scrapped all the nice to haves, they’ve taken the low hanging fruit and worked out ways to squeeze every pound of cash in Defence towards generating front line capability. Until that point, it is arguably hard to see a compelling case for extra funding if every step to rationalise existing funding hasn’t been taken.

This isn’t easy to listen to – people don’t like the thought that parts of Defence that have been taken for granted for decades may need to be done differently. But the problem is that if every time a vaguely tough decision happens, and people start moaning to the press, this actually harms the Army. It makes it harder to free resources up, it makes it harder to get rid of estate that needs to be disposed of and wastes money on repairing old buildings that could be spent on more pressing needs. Bluntly put, there is a lot of scope in Defence to make genuine real and lasting change that may not be pretty, and may upset traditionalists, but would be a great way to free up cash for long term investment instead.

So, as we look at this story, ask yourself what is actually at risk here? The truth is it’s about the MOD reducing its estate to a more manageable size and reducing infrastructure costs too. It’s about rationalising headcount to get rid of duplicate admin and support posts that could be merged without impacting on Army capability. It’s about trying to do things more efficiently with an Army that has long ceased to be an enormous organisation with a large footprint of retired soldiers needing to be looked after.

The challenge for the Army is to ensure that this move does not threaten the most important link of all – namely ensuring that those veterans who need it have access to welfare if it is sought. In an age where people are mobile, Humphrey does not think that the physical location of an RHQ for a unit matters as much as being able to communicate and be contactable to all who need its help when they need it.

Finally, as a mild aside it was depressing to see that some commentators suggest that former soldiers will be unable to cope if the RHQ moves in some form. Frankly this is a depressingly patronising viewpoint, that seems to stereotype all former soldiers as simple souls, unable to cope with the idea that they may need to ring a different phone number than before. It is frustrating to see this continued attitude permeate many commentators, who seem to assume former soldiers are idiots, unable to cope with the real world and that they need to be handled with kid gloves and special care.

The UK absolutely has a duty of care to its veterans, but you don’t seem to hear the same arguments being made for former RAF and RN personnel, who have a much more streamlined welfare and support system and for the most part seem to have no problems with it.

Some former service personnel naturally do struggle, and it is right that help is there for them. But it is equally important to stop perpetuating the stereotype of all former service members being unable to cope with the very simple task of ringing up a new phone number. It demeans those who have served, and helps reinforce negative impressions of them by society. We owe our veterans more than just writing them off as simple souls unable to cope with the world outside the Barracks walls.


  1. The army has got to bite the bullet and accept the end of the regimental system. Keep the names but accept that people are infantry etc, not a 'Blankshire'. It is ridiculuous that an other rank or officer should spend his/her career in one regiment. Bring on a Corps of infantry

    1. Or perhaps - Rationalise on
      5 Guards (UK wide - but keep titles)
      3 Para (UK Wide)
      4 Battalions Scots Irish
      5 Rifles
      5 Fusiliers (England Wales)
      7 Royal Regiment Of England (Battalions titled by old Anglo Saxon Kingdoms (Wessex Northumbria Mercia etc - Companies could use county titles - espirit De Corps but greater flexibility of movement.

    2. Solutions
      1. Make all batallions belong to the Foot Guards. The Danes I think did something similar
      2. One up number of battalions in a national Infantry regiment. Allocate pre Cardwell i.e. not local, traditions as per the numbers