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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 January 2007, 19:29 GMT
Q&A: Military housing
As the government accepts that housing for servicemen and women in the UK armed forces is "not perfect", BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams explains where the problems lie.

What are the soldiers complaining about?

This is all about accommodation. Soldiers are not slow to complain about aspects of military life, but the poor standard of their living quarters is one that just will not go away.

Bicester barracks
A serving soldier sent this picture of his family's accommodation

Since the BBC first aired this story, our website has been inundated with e-mails, many from serving soldiers or family members, highlighting problems with single living accommodation (barracks) and service family accommodation.

The complaints cover a host of problems, from cracked walls and broken pipes to mildew and even rats.

Has this always been a problem or has the situation worsened recently?

It's certainly a long-term problem and there's no particular evidence that it's worsened recently. Numerous reports in the past have highlighted the issue.

In 2004, in the wake of the concerns raised by the unexplained deaths of recruits at the Deepcut barracks in Surrey, the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) was commissioned by the Ministry of Defence to look at the way training was conducted.

Gen Sir Richard Dannatt
Gen Sir Richard Dannatt voiced his concerns

The ALI's report, the following March, found that living quarters were sometimes "dilapidated, dreary and depressing".

The report spoke of "sparse and shabby" furnishings and "run-down lavatories and shower facilities".

The ALI's latest findings suggest that the situation in training barracks has improved dramatically over the past two years. Its follow-up report will be published later this year.

In 2003, the MoD's own Directorate of Operational Capability was ordered by the vice-chief of defence staff to conduct its own survey of initial training.

Some of its findings also made sober reading. It found the accommodation at three large sites to be "squalid and depressing, with persistently unserviceable facilities and decaying fabric and unreliable ablutions".

Significantly, the report said it was "clear that top-level direction" was required to "kick-start change programmes".

Why have figures within the British army appeared to be more outspoken about problems recently?

We live in a culture where complaints are more readily registered because there are more avenues through which they can be heard. The media, in particular, encourages comment from its audience.

But these latest complaints also come at a time when the British military is heavily engaged in two "wars of choice" abroad - in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since neither campaign enjoys universal support - something soldiers are aware of - they are perhaps more inclined to voice their concerns than they would be otherwise.

Thirdly, when the Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff, spoke candidly to a daily newspaper about his fears that the "military covenant" between the nation and its armed forces was in jeopardy, it seemed that something of a taboo had been broken.

It's highly unusual for serving officers to voice their feelings in this way, but others have followed suit.

Finally, the fact that some senior officers have added their voices to the chorus of criticism could represent an element of special pleading at a time when the defence budget is under strain, with costly high-tech programmes and two continuing conflicts gobbling up cash.

To a certain extent, the military is able to spend its own money, but that's always subject to priorities set by ministers.

You often hear military chiefs talking about "cutting our cloth", making day-to-day adjustments according to available funds and government priorities.

And when it comes to cutting cloth, as one officer put it to me, it's easier to tell families to wait for their houses to be fixed than it is to postpone a big-ticket equipment programme.


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