SOUTH Somerset could be in line for a huge economic boost after a new £271 million deal to produce and maintain helicopters in the district was approved.

That was the view of local leaders in Chard, following the announcement the Ministry of Defence signed the new deal with Leonardo Helicopters, which is based in nearby Yeovil and Yeovilton.

The move will secure 500 jobs at the plants, plus a further 100 within the local supply chain.

It brings a period of uncertainty surrounding the helicopter plant and its future to an end, after a previous deal with Boeing fell through.

Minister for Defence Procurement, Harriett Baldwin, said: “This Wildcat deal delivers a key capability for the Royal Navy and Army, and supports vital high-skilled jobs in Somerset, where there’s a proud tradition of supporting UK helicopter operations.

“Wildcat is one of the world’s most advanced helicopters and an important part of the Government’s 10-year, £178 billion plan to provide our Armed Forces with the equipment they deserve.”

The Royal Navy’s maritime Wildcat forms the core of the UK’s Frigate and Destroyer aviation capability and performs tasks including Anti-Surface and Submarine Warfare, force protection, transport and the vital information, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) role.

The Army variant performs reconnaissance, command and control, force protection, and transport roles in a wide variety of environments.

The five-year deal will deliver a range of support and training services for the UK’s entire fleet of 62 AW159 Wildcat helicopters, currently in service with the Royal Navy and Army Air Corps.

Wildcat operators include 825 and 847 Naval Air Squadron and 652 and 661 Squadron Army Air Corps.

The two plants have garnered an impressive reputation for the highly-skilled manufacture of the helicopter.

The new deal has been welcomed by leaders in Chard, after a campaign spearheaded by South Somerset and Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh and the region's former MP, Lord Paddy Ashdown, to secure the deal.

Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil and South Somerset, said: “I’m working closely with the Government and Leonardo to secure the long-term future of the aerospace industry in Yeovil and this £271 million deal is part of that commitment.

“It will protect 400 highly-skilled jobs locally and is evidence of the MOD’s ongoing relationship with Leonardo and Somerset’s aerospace industry.

“It was fantastic to welcome Harriett Baldwin to our town to sign this deal, to highlight Yeovil’s proud tradition of supporting the helicopter industry and discuss further ways of safeguarding its future.”

Chard's mayor Cllr Dave Bulmer praised the deal, and said he hoped it would bring a boost for the local economy.

He said: "Obviously this announcement is very good news for the area.

"I am sure there are people in Chard and the surrounding area that work there, and we are quite fortunate that we have quite a low unemployment rate anyway, and this is great news for that.

"It offers people who work there some long-term security, and the simple fact is that if jobs are secure then people are more likely to go out and spend money, because they know they have the funds to.

"This money is then spent in the local economy, at local shops and restaurants, it's like a circle really and keeps it in the local area, which is good.

"All in all it's great news for the area."

Cllr Amanda Broom said: "The additional jobs this will provide is a great boost for South Somerset, and as the second largest town in the area, it is hoped to have a knock on effect for Chard businesses as well.

"The retail industry is important for all local towns, but manufacturing is equally essential, and any additional employment is welcomed. Whilst it is too late for GKN I hope it is not too late for some of their employees. This is a positive start to 2017, and I hope local Chard industries can prosper on the back of this."