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Living in Civilian Society

The Future Accommodation Model helps to prepare many better for life after Service, but makes traditional methods of maintaining trust and comradeship more difficult.

In part as recognition of the challenges that Service personnel, their families and those in transition face, the MOD are encouraging them to buy their own homes and put down roots whilst still serving. Rather than confine everyone to living “behind the wire”, this new approach to accommodation offers greater choice and flexibility, including the option to live in rented properties, or buy a home with loan support from the MOD. It is currently the subject of a three-year pilot across all three Services. Interest in the initiative is high, “I think this is the biggest impact on our Armed Forces – it’s a totally different way of living.”

Although we heard support for this initiative, we also heard caution. On one level, the separation and asymmetry between the Armed Forces Community and the rest of society will be reduced, and this will likely assist in allowing them to build deeper community links which inevitably help with transition. On another, there was concern that domestic disbursement would mean a loss of comradeship, key to fostering trust among serving men and women. As one put it, “The same thing that builds the really strong camaraderie, particularly the Army’s more paternalistic approach, is the very thing that makes it hard to transition. It’s a wrench to lose it. By breaking people up and making them live among the community, I can see why there is resistance, but in the long run it will make it easier for them to assimilate back into civilian society”.

Here perhaps more so than in other aspects, the culture and ethos of the three Services have an enduring impact. The Royal Navy has for many centuries separated and deployed its serving personnel for extended periods whilst families live and are fully integrated into civilian communities; camaraderie can be built at sea. The British Army, however, has taken a different approach, and includes families almost as a constituent part of the force. The Royal Air Force had tended towards this ‘garrison’ model, but private home ownership has gradually accelerated as mobility has reduced. Compare the Cold War laydown, where approaching 100,000 serving members of British Forces Germany were outnumbered by their dependants (families) living alongside them, with that of the Royal Navy’s nuclear deterrent submarine force, where families had little direct interaction with other members of the Armed Forces. The Service as a whole still has the longest limit on separation at 660 days in three years, compared to under 500 for the Army and Royal Air Force. It is unsurprising that Naval families have the lowest rate of living on base, or in Service Families Accommodation. Unaccompanied expeditionary warfare akin to that operated over the last decade from a UK firm base is also seen as the future profile, which together with initiatives such as the Future Accommodation Model suggests that there will be continued movement towards greater stable civilian community living, and an acceptance of adverse impact on the moral component of fighting power.

Stable accommodation is certainly one of the issues that makes it difficult for the partners of serving personnel to establish themselves and build a career. However, it seems that, although they will be encouraged to rent or buy housing from civilian stock, little will be done to address the challenge of short-term postings. Many we spoke to saw this as one of the key problems for families. The disruption is not therefore solely based on accommodation issues, rather it is the length of time in a posting. Sometimes, families have to make the choice to either stay together as a unit or face separation, in order to build a career or ensure a stable education for children. One suggestion we heard to counter this problem was to have more government support to attract large employers to areas in which military bases are located.

Looking ahead, it seems likely that the Future Accommodation Model will be rolled out more extensively, not least because it allows the Armed Forces to address the shortfalls in its current accommodation stock. But not all we spoke to were confident that the current pilot will be a resounding success. “There is a move for people to shift out. But I wonder if before too long the pendulum will swing back the other way – as accommodation gets more expensive, as we rediscover that what binds units together and makes them effective on operations is the shared experience of living together in a community. We should reflect the communities from which we come – but those in the Armed Forces are different – these individuals are being asked metaphorically to stick bayonets in the Queen’s enemies”.

Example Implication: Reducing the length of postings enables personnel to more easily maintain family relationships and establish community roots, but this also jeopardises the strong bonds between colleagues which are vital when working under pressure.

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