FEARS that the Ministry of Defence could shut down a key North Yorkshire helicopter base and switch its operation to Somerset have prompted growing protests.

Dishforth airfield, near Ripon, is a key base for army helicopters as part of the Ministry of Defence's joint helicopter command.

Although no final decision has been taken, the MP for the Vale of York, Miss Anne McIntosh, has already raised her concerns over Dishforth's future with the armed forces minister.

Residents say millions have been spent on improving Dishforth in recent years and expressed shock and surprise that the station could be axed.

Coun Chris Brown, who represents the area on Harrogate Borough Council, said local people had understood that new helicopters would be based there following a major presentation to residents.

"With all the improvements that have been made, the possibility of closure seems to be putting the cart before the horse, a sort of upside down approach," said Coun Brown.

"There is a good relationship between the base and local people. There is no animosity and they are good neighbours. But their presence means a lot to the economy and we thought all the money being spent was an investment for the future. It would be very bad news if the decision was taken to close it."

Miss McIntosh said: "I am very sad that they are looking at rationalisation. There has been an army presence there for some time now. This base makes a huge contribution to the economy and community.

"Although no decision has been taken, I have already taken this up at the top level, expressing my concern. I think it would be an unnecessary move and I would certainly speak out and object if they finally did want to close Dishforth."

The future of Dishforth is being reconsidered as part of the government's strategic defence review, which has moved ahead from its initial stage to consider detailed costings and potential options.

One option would be to redeploy all helicopters and manpower at the 9 Regiment Army Air Corps at Dishforth to the Somerset Royal Naval air station in Yeovilton from 2004. This would follow departure from there of the Sea Harrier force.

Concern that Dishforth airfield would then be handed over to the Ministry of Defence Estates has sparked fears the site could be sold for development or other use.

The current review is not expected to be completed until later this year and information leaked to the media says it is too early to say what the outcome would be and whether any closures would mean civilian job losses.

Coun Brown said he was amazed to hear that a threat hung over the base, particularly after such an upbeat presentation on its future to a public meeting in Dishforth only last year. "I'm just shocked that this is now being considered after all the money that has been poured in there," he said.