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Mars landing: Uttlesford District Council in controversial £35m investment deal for new UK HQ for American global arms company that helped to land space rover Perserverance

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Oxfam has condemned Uttlesford District Council (UDC) for its controversial £35m investment deal with an American global arms company which helped to put space rover Perserverance on Mars.

Moog Inc. Space and Defence Group designed, built and tested several components that were essential for the exploratory mission and landing of the NASA spacecraft on the Red Planet on February 18.

On its website Moog hails its "pivotal role", but concerns over its links to the arms trade have brought it to the public's attention – along with condemnation by international charity Oxfam of UDC's conduct.

Space rover Perseverance landed on Mars with help from aerospace and defence company Moog
Space rover Perseverance landed on Mars with help from aerospace and defence company Moog

The global organisation said it was "appalled" by the council's involvement with Moog and urged it to abandon its investment deal immediately.

A deal is believed to have been struck between UDC – which is controlled by the Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) party – and Moog to fund development of the company's new state-of-the-art UK headquarters in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. It was exposed by Stansted parish councillor Daniel Brett, who has been keeping a close eye on the council's £300m investment programme.

In a statement on Tuesday (Feb 23), Martin Butcher, Oxfam's policy advisor on international humanitarian law, conflict and arms, said: "I can only hope that they (UDC) were unaware that this company is presumably looking to export arms from the UK now that the US has announced an end to all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.

Artist's impression of global arms company Moog's planned HQ in Gloucestershire (44560613)
Artist's impression of global arms company Moog's planned HQ in Gloucestershire (44560613)

"We know that Moog provide 'sustainment services' for the F15 bomber aircraft, and Saudi Arabia has a large fleet of F15s that carry out air strikes in Yemen that often hit civilian houses, farms, health centres and water supplies.

"By allowing new licences for £1.36 billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, the UK government has acted immorally – now Uttlesford is following their reprehensible path.

"I hope that Uttlesford, and all councils, would adopt an ethical investment policy that would preclude this kind of deal, investing instead in companies and projects that improve life, not end it.”

UDC was meeting on Tuesday evening for a debate that "will make Handforth Parish Council look like a hippy love-in", according to Cllr Brett, referring to the parish council's online meeting that became an internet sensation after it descended into chaos as councillors traded insults and were then booted off the Zoom call by the parish clerk.

Stansted parish councillor Daniel Brett (44566293)
Stansted parish councillor Daniel Brett (44566293)

R4U has remained tight-lipped since news of the deal broke last week. Despite several requests from the Indie to comment, it has declined on the grounds that an investigation is under way regarding a formal complaint by Cllr Brett over accusations that he used leaked information to expose the deal – a claim he denies as the investment is referred to in council minutes.

He is demanding an apology from council and R4U group leader Cllr John Lodge (Saffron Walden Shire) and fellow R4U members Cllr Neil Reeve (Broad Oak and the Hallingburys) and Cllr Neil Hargreaves (Newport) following their accusations. Cllr Lodge has also not responded to the Indie's questions on the matter.

Cllr Brett said the council's silence was "typical of its lack of transparency" and served only to erode public faith in the administration.

From left, R4U councillors Neil Reeve, leader John Lodge and Neil Hargreaves (44566329)
From left, R4U councillors Neil Reeve, leader John Lodge and Neil Hargreaves (44566329)

"The council is faced with multiple challenges – a police investigation, managing the impact of the pandemic, the potential outcome of the Stansted Airport appeal, a rise in speculative planning applications, the need to develop a local plan in a limited amount of time etc.

"This is not the time to retreat into the bunker. When there are criticisms, the council should respond in a reasonable and responsible manner.

"When people are angry at decisions, councillors should take it on the chin as part and parcel of running public services with democratic accountability instead of responding with rudeness, hostility and lies.

"The current UDC administration, for all its talk of 'residents', forgets why it is in power and believes local politics should be less controversial than a Mothers' Union bake-off. The real world doesn't work like that. R4U need to put on their big boy pants, instead of spitting out their dummies and raging at people like me for asking difficult questions.

"I was able to identify the investment target myself after some research and gave my conclusions to the Bishop's Stortford Independent in order to generate wider publicity and interest than my parish council blog.

"When news broke, there was widespread disgust at the investment. Few buy the idea that being the funding partner in an arms company's headquarters is purely a real estate investment and not a direct investment in the capacity of this arms producer."

Mr Brett added: "Aside from the ethical issues, many people are very anxious about the scale of council borrowing, which is now 20 times its annual turnover, and the lack of investment in job creation in or around this district that could offset job losses at the airport and diversify the economy.

"Only the Chesterford Research Park [a decision by UDC's previous Conservative administration] is a direct investment in local jobs, whereas the Weston Homes HQ in Takeley is an acquisition of a freehold from an existing business – it creates no new jobs.

"There is confusion about why the council is so mute on this issue and is not prepared to communicate what it is doing and why. In December I wrote to Cllr Hargreaves suggesting quarterly public reports on investment performance and commercial risk in order to improve transparency and accountability, but he has not responded to that point."

The Liberal Democrats and Green Party tabled a motion for tonight's meeting calling on UDC to establish an investment protocol to "reflect the highest ethical standards and values" and to demonstrate that commitment by not including "the purchase of any commercial assets which are directly or indirectly associated with issues of human rights, environment or social harms".

The motion has since been amended by Cllrs Reeve and Hargreaves to remove any reference to human rights issues.

Saffron Walden Conservative MP Kemi Badenoch also refused to be drawn on the issue this week.

In a statement, a spokeswoman said: "As this is in relation to Uttlesford District Council directly, this is a matter for officers and councillors to comment. Our office would need to raise any concerns from residents with the chief executive, and until we have a better understanding it would not be appropriate to comment."

Moog is a New York-based worldwide designer and manufacturer of precision control components and control systems for applications in missiles, military and commercial aircraft, satellites, space vehicles, launch vehicles, automated industrial machinery and marine and medical equipment. It has sales, engineering and manufacturing facilities in 26 countries.

Its space products played a critical role in the landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars. During the final descent, Moog throttle valve assemblies controlled the entry spacecraft’s engines.

Moog also played a pivotal role in launching the rover to the Red Planet from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 30, 2020. Moog actuators steered the launch vehicle out of Earth’s atmosphere. Moog rocket engines were used to steer the spacecraft on its 350-million-mile, seven-month journey carrying Perseverance, ensuring it stayed on course while travelling at 55,000mph.

With the rover now on Mars, Moog technology will continue to support the mission. Moog valves and filters will help keep the rover’s drill clean while digging for samples over the course of one Mars year, which is 687 Earth days.

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