HC Deb 19 December 1947 vol 445 cc2052-62

12.39 p.m.

Mr. Gunter (Essex, South Eastern)

I want to raise very briefly a question of very great importance to the inhabitants of the ancient and historic garrison town of Shoeburyness, in my constituency. For over a century the War Department has gradually but with remorseless purpose embraced practically the whole of this south-eastern tip of Essex, and today practically 7,500 acres have come into the possession of various Government Departments. Sweeping right round from Foulness Island into the Borough of Southend, there is an area enclosed and restricted from which the ancient rights and privileges of the people of that area have been withdrawn. All this has been done in the interests of the defence of the Realm. It is not my argument to dispute that much of this acquisition of land has been necessary. Not a single inhabitant of the township of Shoeburyness would dispute that. Nor would anyone dispute that it means a diminution of the rights and freedoms of the people and of their right of access to land taken over by the Government.

There is now contemplated in this area a final assault on the fragment of foreshore left to the people of Shoeburyness. In this barricaded realm of 7,500 acres there is a spot of 45 acres of privately-owned land to which courting couples can go and people can take their kiddies to play. These 45 acres, we are told, are essential for the development of an experimental station at Shoeburyness. Apparently, this development cannot take place within the confines of the 7,500 acres. We are told that it must occur on this very special bit of land. We may, perhaps, be forgiven our suspicions that the planners, administrators and technicians looked up their maps and blueprints, discovered that this untidy bit of 45 acres is not within their empire, and decided that it had better be tidied up. Therefore, this last bit of the ancient rights of Shoeburyness is to be taken into the possession of the Government.

In view of the sacrifices that have been made by the people of Shoeburyness, and as these 45 acres are almost the last bit of land left to them on which they can go with complete freedom, I submit to the House that every alternative should be explored before this injustice is imposed upon the people of Shoeburyness. These 45 acres should go only if it can he proved beyond all shadow of doubt that the land is essential in the defence of the Realm; and it must be proved to the satisfaction of the people of Shoeburyness. The Ministry itself should not be judge and jury in this matter.

These 45 acres of disputed territory are privately-owned land. The late owner, Miss Edith Knapping in her will, wrote chat the trustees should have regard, in the first place, to the interest and development of the town of Shoebury, and when arranging sales or granting leases the trustees' primary concern should be what, in their opinion, was most calculated to benefit the town. In view of that expression of desire by the owner of the land, I confess that I am not a little astonished that the trustees should now apparently, freely negotiate the whole of the land to the Ministry, knowing that it must inevitably be a further restriction on the people whom the late owner desired to benefit.

This land, although privately owned, has always, apart from the war years, when it was under requisition, been open to the public. Even in long past years, when, I understand, there was a brick field there, there were no restrictions on the people who came and went as they desired. The people, therefore, came to regard it as their own. I believe that the late owner desired that. Therefore, I ask the Minister not to argue about its being privately-owned land; and to say there can be no objection to a change of ownership which is freely made. I am not concerned with any of these technical arguments. What I am asking is that there shall be a sane, healthy balancing of the rights of the people of Shoeburyness in this matter. I ask that the Borough of Southend shall, in fact, be allowed possession of these 45 acres of land, that they may develop it in the interest and to the benefit of the people of Shoeburyness. I have no doubt that there must be minor restrictions because of its geographical position, but I am convinced that the people of Shoeburyness have a right to this last remnant of land which has been left to them.

I know that the Minister, in his reply, will tell me that the negotiations have already taken place in this matter. He will tell me certain things of which I am already well aware. He will tell me that in October, 1945, he met a deputation from the Borough of Southend. He will tell me that a compromise was reached on the proposed purchase of the land. He will tell me that this compromise took place in a most friendly atmosphere. He will tell me that out of the 45 acres his Ministry propose to purchase, 10 acres after purchase are to be permitted, at a peppercorn rent, to go to the Southend Corporation. He will tell me that the foreshore running in front of the 45 acres is to be open to the public, apart from the times of firing. I know that this acceptance by the deputation from the borough provides the Minister with a very strong and powerful argument. But I ask him today to look at the facts of the situation as they were in October, 1945, the time when these negotiations were taking place.

The borough council have now freely admitted that there was, to put it as mildly as possible, an error of judgment. They have asked the Minister to reopen the whole matter and discuss it again with them. They have asked him to receive a further deputation. The Minister may argue that the council should rot have made an error of judgment, but he knows, as well as I do, that at that time, only a few months after the cessation of hostilities the area was almost wholly a defence area. Times were quite abnormal. The borough was practically evacuated, this disputed land had been requisitioned throughout the war, and local government was not back in full swing in such areas.

There was probably no vivid awareness of what was actually involved. I know that the Minister cannot be blamed for that, but it is true to say that on the deputation there was no representative of the people of Shoeburyness. By a very understandable and almost justifiable error, if I may put it that way, the Member of Parliament for the constituency of which Shoeburyness is a part was not invited to take part in that deputation. I make no complaint about that, but I still say that it was not a truly representative deputation of the borough. The people of Shoeburyness were in almost complete ignorance of what was going on for about 18 months after October, 1945. When they did become aware of it, a terrible storm broke that must have confused the Borough Council of Southend.

I make an appeal to the Minister not to stand coldly and adamantly behind the tentative agreement arrived at in 1945, and to appreciate that it is in the interests of the people, who have made great sacrifices in this respect, that they should not be penalised for any unfortunate circumstances that arose in abnormal times. I beg of him, even now at this very late hour, to consider the real merits of this case and to understand the disproportionate burden of sacrifice which the people of Shoeburyness are being called upon to bear in this matter by having to give up this land on the foreshore, and to give up their amenities.

I have no doubt that the Minister will say, with some justification, that his Ministry have pursued their plans in conformity with the agreement that was arrived at in 1945, but he knows that no stone has been moved and no timber has been shifted. He knows that there has been no change in physical circumstances. I have no doubt that plans have been drawn up and surveys have been made, but, without any great sacrifice, those plans could be revised and new plans be made to provide for the development of this precious bit of land. I repeat, as vigorously as I can, to the Minister, that, if inconvenience has to be suffered in this matter it is time that the Government Department suffered it. They should not expect the people of Shoeburyness to have further restrictions placed upon them.

Now I will look at the agreement—the unfortunate and unhappy agreement—of 1945, and see what it was. It proposed that the full 45 acres should be purchased by the Ministry of Supply. It is strange that whenever there is talk of the Government buying any land in the Shoeburyness area, suspicions arise of a most justifiable character. It has happened many times before that the Government have bought land in that area. When they did so, privileges have always been afforded to the inhabitants of Shoeburyness. When the purchases took place public feeling has been calmed down, as it were. The public have been assured that they would have access, apart from the times of firing, to stretches of the foreshore and of the land. Somehow, however, the flag that denotes the firing seems to come down with far less frequency as the years go by and, in the end, the so-called privileges have disappeared altogether.

A standing example of this fact is the foreshore to the west of the now disputed territory. Not very long ago the public had full access to the beach, apart from times of firing, notwithstanding the fact that this was Government-owned land. They were allowed to take their kiddies there. Then, some scintillating wit of the Department found that the troops were able to break from barracks by going along the beach and up into the town, and therefore he decided to put up a fence, which has had the effect of keeping the public out. That is how the privilege, once granted, was taken away. One result is that the older inhabitants of Shoeburyness can now have the pleasure of gazing over the fence upon summer evenings and seeing officers, N.C.O's and their ladies, and certain privileged burgesses of Shoeburyness, enjoying themselves in, as it were, uncontaminated isolation. That is part of the experience of the people of Shoeburyness. The Government Department have taken complete possession of that land. That is how our privileges have always tended to disappear.

During the negotiation of the agreement of 1945, it was agreed that 10 acres out of the 45 acres should go to the borough. The 10 acres have a very curious feature. During conversations which I have had with different people on this matter, I have found out that the proposed plans for the 45 acres are shrouded in great mystery. There has always been an air of complete mystery about what the Minister proposes to do with the 45 acres. It appears to be so mysterious and hush-hush that we can never speak about it except with bated breath and without invoking the Official Secrets Act, the Defence of the Realm Act, and the Military Land Act. We only need Sexton Blake and Olga Polowski on the beach at Shoeburyness to have the whole drama quite complete. Then, although there are such secret purposes about the 45 acres, right in the middle of that area, the Ministry is conceeding 10 acres. I do not believe that if there were a development of such a secret character in prospect the Minister could have allowed the public freedom to move in the 10 acres, right inside the larger area.

The Minister ought, therefore, to concede that the proposed de- velopments should not take place, possibly with some inconvenience to his Department, upon the present holding. There is the strongest suspicion in Shoeburyness that the real desire of the authorities is to run a road to connect the borough with the 45 acres. The Ministry have taken very much of this area and the people of Shoeburyness have made a sacrifice by giving up thousands of acres. For the little bit which is now offered to them, I suppose they ought to be thankful, but I feel that the Minister should reconsider this tawdry gesture. Indeed, to the people of Shoeburyness it is an insult which is entirely undeserved, in the light of those past sacrifices.

The Minister has agreed, in pursuance of the agreement, that the foreshore of the 45 acres shall be open to the public, apart from the times of firing. I do not propose to deal with the restrictions in regard to firing, because we all know that the whole area could be closed for scores of years under the Military Land Act. Does the Minister realise, however, what is going to happen? He has previously argued that there is really no restriction on this foreshore but he must have forgotten completely the paddling experiences of his own innocent childhood. Even though the Government own the foreshore, the tide will still come in. The Minister will appreciate that, the beach being somewhat steep, the people and the kiddies upon it will have no opportunity to retreat from the tide. What is to happen? They must evacuate the foreshore completely. That is a very considerable restriction upon our people. They will be unable to take their picnic baskets, buckets and spades on to the foreshore. They must needs get off it when the tide is high. Surely the Minister will concede that that is a serious restriction. There is a further point. From time immemorial the fishermen of Shoeburyness have put their boats during the winter months upon the land abutting upon the foreshore to which the Minister will claim that he has given free access. What are they to do with their boats now? That is a further restriction upon the ancient privileges of the people of Shoeburyness.

I therefore ask the Minister to reconsider this whole matter in order to balance his requirements with the justifiable claims of the people of Shoeburyness. I ask him to reopen the whole matter. I ask him to go back upon his decision of a fortnight ago and to receive a deputation from the borough, as was virtually promised by his predecessor in office. I speak today for the whole of the people of Shoeburyness—for the churches, the political parties, all the amenity societies. It is our earnest hope that, despite the lateness of the hour and the unfortunate circumstances, the Minister will try to satisfy our justifiable desires.

I cannot conclude without thanking the Minister for his courtesy and kindliness during the whole of the discussions that he has had with me on this matter. I ask him to extend that kindliness and courtesy to his consideration of the problem I have put before him, so that the people I represent in Shoeburyness can be relieved of what they consider to be an insulting proposal.

1.0 p.m.

Mr. Channon (Southend-on-Sea)

I endorse what the hon. Member for South-Eastern Essex (Mr. Gunter) has said about the apprehensions of the inhabitants of Shoeburyness over this proposition which has long hung fire and caused great heartburning. It is also felt with some indignation that the wishes of the testator have been completely ignored throughout the negotiations. I hope the Minister is aware that, lying next to Shoeburyness—important as Shoeburyness is—is the large and thriving town of Southend, which has a very much larger population. This proposition is equally important to the borough I represent. The people of Southend, particularly in the eastern portion of the constituency, use this foreshore as much as the people of Shoeburyness and look upon it as their own. They share the indignation of the Shoeburyness people and the view that the few remaining amenities are now seriously threatened and that even the suggested compromise does not go very far towards solving the problem.

I hope the Minister will see his way to reconsider the problem. Unfortunately, it came to a head during the war, and the meeting referred to took place very shortly afterwards. In the light of peacetime conditions the Ministry might lend a more indulgent ear to the representations which have already been made. The feeling in the borough of Southend is that this land, which was left by Miss knapping, ought to be lent, leased or sold to the borough of Southend. The corporation itself would make the necessary arrangements. I hope the Minister will be able to promise concessions in addition to those originally indicated two years ago.

1.2 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. John Freeman)

I should express gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for South-Eastern Essex (Mr. Gunter) for having raised this matter, if for no other reason than that I believe that it will be kinder both to him and to his constituents in the long run if I say quite frankly that, with great regret, I am unable to reconsider this matter. My hon. Friend began by suggesting that the Government's need for this land was not genuine and that the claims to it arose out of the desire of some officious civil servant to tidy up an irregularity in the large area of land which the Government own in that part of the world. Later he taunted us by saying that, having staked our claim on the land, we took sufficient account of the desires and wishes of the people of Shoeburyness to carve out of it an area of 10 acres which they might enjoy in perpetuity, I should have thought that that effectively frustrated the idea of any desire to tidy up which might have been the mainspring of the original decision.

My hon. Friend covered most of the background facts and therefore relieved me of the need to make a very long speech. I should like to recapitulate some of the facts and put the whole matter in focus. This is, of course, not some capricious whimsy on the part of a civil servant or Government Department. My hon. Friend knows perfectly well that the establishment located at Shoeburyness is an experimental establishment of the highest importance to our national security and, in certain respects, of a high degree of secrecy. It has become necessary, as a result of the work which that establishment carries out, to acquire this area of 45 acres of land at the southwest end of what are called "the new ranges".

We are perfectly well aware that the acquisition of that land, which my Department regards as essential, is a hardship to the people of Shoeburyness, and the Southend Corporation, which is the responsible local authority, represented to us as long ago as 1945 that we should, if possible, modify or abandon our project. We had discussions with them, and a deputation led by the hon. Member for Southend-on-Sea (Mr. Channon) and the Mayor of Southend attended upon my right hon. Friend's predecessor in October, 1945, and an agreement was reached. As with any other compromise, I do not doubt that neither party to that agreement was wholly satisfied by what they got out of it, but at any rate it was a compromise which both parties accepted and which led to the Ministry of Supply agreeing to carve out of the 45 acres which they required Io acres which it was felt could legitimately be dispensed with and to reserve them in perpetuity for the people of Shoeburyness.

In the light of that fact and that sort of treatment on the part of my Department, I naturally resent the suggestion that no consideration has been given to the needs of the people. My hon. Friend asked for a sane and healthy balancing of the rights of the people of Shoeburyness. What does he call an agreement and compromise of that kind but an attempt to balance as sanely and healthily as we can the rights and needs of the people of Shoeburyness?

Mr. Gunter

The balance at which I would like my hon. Friend to look is that between the over-all acreage and the 10 acres.

Mr. Freeman

I have no doubt of this, hut the balance at which I would like my hon. Friend to look is whether the rights and needs of the people of Shoeburyness can rightly be taken into account in this matter. It is an exceptional situation to get an experimental station of this kind. I or any other Member of the Government must put the needs of national defence in this respect before any local sectarian needs which might conflict with them. The people of Shoeburyness would be the first to resent it if we pursued an irresponsible policy in that respect.

The reason I deprecate to some extent the fact that my hon. Friend has seen fit to raise this today is that he knows as well as I do that neither the Ministry of Supply nor the War Office, nor any other individual Government Department, is the final arbiter in a matter of this kind. The Government have made it plain again and again that when conflicts of interest of this nature arise there is machinery in existence whereby the representations of the parties who consider themselves to be injured can be ventilated and heard. My hon. Friend is well aware that the Inter-Departmental Committee which examines the requirements for Service land has this matter before it at the present moment. My hon. Friend has himself made representations to it, and so have some of his constituents. In the circumstances he will realise that it is quite impossible for me to say either "Yea" or "Nay."

In so far as he wants me to modify the claims of my Department, I have to tell him, with the greatest sense of responsibility that I can, that it is quite out of the question for us to do so. The need for his piece of land is acute, and it is required for specific purposes which it would not be in the public interest to discuss in this House, but which I am perfectly prepared to discuss in a general way with him outside. I must, however, maintain our claim. Whether or not we shall be successful in that claim depends on what weight is attached by the Inter-Departmental Committee to the representations made to it. I feel certain that the real reason why the Southend Corporation agreed in the first place to the compromise suggested to them was that they realised that when we put a serious matter of national defence against a local consideration of this kind, ultimately it is in the interest of everybody, including the local inhabitants, that national defence should carry the day. I commend that view to my hon. Friend who has, I know, examined this matter with a sense of responsibility and is actuated only by a desire to help his constituents.

Mr. Gunter

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that after reflection over the past 12 months the borough council have an entirely different view?

Mr. Freeman

The Minister has no means of knowing what the borough council have been reflecting on over the past 12 months. I am certainly impressed by the fact that, as the volume of local protest has grown, so the borough council have become less and less enthusiastic about the original compromise. No doubt the hon. Member for Southend shares that waning enthusiasm. The fact remains that the thing was put to them, and as responsible men they accepted the compromise. I have very little doubt that if the matter were again put to them in the same way they would again accept it. We have played fair by the people of Shoeburyness, and I must ask the House to accept that my Department cannot on this occasion withdraw its claim.