HC Deb 09 November 1949 vol 469 cc1361-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

10.6 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Boles (Wells)

I want to draw the Minister's attention to the threat to Wells which has been brought about by his decision to carry on with the quarrying of the two hills surrounding that city, Dulcote and Milton. In the case of the City of Wells, these two hills are situated on either side, and nestling between them is the City and its Cathedral. I think it is admitted by everybody that this makes one of the most beautiful views in England. As regards Milton Hill, the Minister has allowed quarrying to proceed for a period of 15 years, although he admits that it is at the expense of some amenity and recreational value. That cannot be helped, but when we come to the case of Dulcote Hill we have a different situation because that lovely view is being definitely sabotaged.

The view of Wells City and its Cathedral, looked at from the north with the background of Dulcote Hill behind it—of which the important part is the crest line—undoubtedly forms part of the framework of a most beautiful picture. It is a picture which is looked at by thousands from all over the world in order to obtain spiritual inspiration. It is admitted by all that this view is the object of visits by Americans and people from far overseas, as well as, of course, the Cathedral of Wells and other objects of interest. It is the danger to one of these main objectives of the tourists and of what one might call visitors to the shrine—of which we hold so many in our County of Somerset—to which I wish to draw attention. We in Somerset regard ourselves in a way as the guardians for Britain of some of our oldest and earliest traditions. We have Glastonbury, which has been described as the holiest earth in England, and there are many others.

Dare we, or dare the Government, abrogate and overrule these aesthetic considerations for a mere short-term commercial interest? The quarrying on Dulcote Hill has taken place hitherto on the south side and has not interfered to any great extent with amenities, view or anything else, because Wells lies to the north. The time has now arrived when the Minister has given permission for this skyline, to which we attach so much importance as a background to Wells City and its Cathedral, looking at it from the north, to be quarried through and for the top of the hill to be lowered 100 feet. The Minister based his resistance to our protests on the fact, as he saw it, that there was some special stone in this Dulcote Hill. This now turns out to be untrue and he himself admitted that it was no longer a ground for his decision. The stone, therefore, can be obtained from anywhere in the Mendips, and there are a great many places in the Mendips where the objections which are raised in the case of Dulcote Hill could by no means be raised.

I feel that we, as guardians of these beautiful things in Somerset, these things of spiritual value, should resist this ponderous, materialistic roller which traverses and flattens the aesthetic values which we attach to so many places in Somerset. It should be resisted by us in every possible way and with the greatest justification.

I appeal to the Minister to realise, or to the Parliamentary Secretary to persuade the Minister to realise, that we are very much in earnest in this matter. He may say that these points were not brought out at the local inquiry which was held in 1947, and that is, in fact, the case, but they have been brought out since and there is no reason why he should not consider them now. He should give them the full weight which they undoubtedly deserve and which they should carry in a matter of this sort, where the short-term commercial interest is balanced against these long-term spiritual, aesthetic imponderables which mean so much, in the balance, to our people in Somerset and to the people of England, who look beyond this purely materialistic moment to a future in which they hope to get that same inspiration as they have had in the past from these beautiful objects and considerations which we hold so dear in Somerset.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Hollis (Devizes)

I am very glad indeed that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Colonel Boles) had the luck of the ballot in order to raise this matter. I do not propose to cover the general ground he has so admirably sketched out, but simply to challenge the Minister on two very serious matters in which, in my opinion, he misled the House when he was questioned about this on 25th October. A number of Questions were asked and I think it only fair to myself to state that I told the right hon. Gentleman, the Minister, that I proposed to raise these matters and if he is unable to be here that is his business. I warned him that I proposed to raise them. On 25th October, in a supplementary question, I ask the right hon. Gentleman: Is not the Minister aware that, in point of fact, this decision was taken under the impression that there was a unique value in this particular limestone, and that it now turns out not to be so? The Minister replied: There have been no new circumstances at all. The facts which the hon. Member states were brought out fully at the inquiry. What are he facts? The facts are that when the Minister gave his ruling on 6th April, 1949, he wrote: The Minister is however advised that this area contains only a limited amount of high quality stone, and that a large proportion of that superior stone is located in the northern and western slopes of the hill. Now, Mr. Balch the eminent geologist—perhaps the greatest living authority on the limestone of Somerset, informs me that that is quite untrue. Therefore, when we waited on the Minister on 23rd September in a deputation I asked him about this point, and he then said, "I am making no claim that Dulcote stone is of any special value," and based his case on a quite different ground, the difficulties of housing.

The first question I asked the Parliamentary Secretary is then, that being so, by what right does the right hon. Gentleman say there have been no new circumstances at all—when he has, quite confessedly contradicted himself, and has entirely changed his ground?

The second point is this. The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) asked a couple of supplementary questions on that occasion, and the second was: Has the Minister looked into the possibility of this quarrying being carried out in the Mendips and the necessary material coming from those hills, by abandoning this project altogether? The Minister replied: I have looked into the question of an alternative site, but I am quite satisfied that wherever one goes there will be objections like the one made by hon. Members today."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th October, 1949; Vol. 468, c. 1129 and 1130.] That answer, as it stands, is so self evidently ridiculous that it would be an abuse of the time of the House to delay upon it. Nobody could conceivably pretend that objections to other projects are like the objections to the Dulcote project. There are in fact 10 alternative sites—Watership near Shepton Mallet, Moon near Shepton Mallet, Downhead near Frome, Emborough, Binegar, Sandford, Cheddar, Mells, Vouster and Whatley, where the limestone is of exactly the same quality. Whatever objection there may be to the 10 alternative sites—I am not aware of any—there cannot be the same objections as there are to the Dulcote project, because there is no question of an aesthetic view being interfered with at all.

Without delaying upon the verbal point I come to the substantial point. In his ruling on the Milton project. On 18th August, 1949, the Minister said: The Minister considers that the question whether a suitable alternative source of supply is available in an area of less amenity and recreational value than Milton Hill should be explored during the intervening period provided by the present permission. That is to say, in the next 15 years. He considers the examination of this question can best be dealt with by examination of the mineral resources of the country and the location of deposits suitable for supplying that need, which is now being carried out by this Ministry. That is to say, in August the right hon. Gentleman took the line that he could not possibly find an alternative site until the geological survey was complete; in September he took quite a different line, that he was not concerned with alternative sites but with the housing question; and in October, in spite of the fact that the geological survey had not reported, he said he had looked into alternative sites. As he was unable to decide about alternative sites in August without the report of the geological survey how was he able to do it in October though the geographical survey has not yet reported? Then, what is the precise meaning of this phrase, "looking into"? It is certainly not true in a physical, literal sense, because we know that neither the Parliamentary Secretary nor the right hon. Gentleman has been anywhere near the site.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning (Mr. King)

Perhaps, the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to withdraw that remark forthwith because it is quite untrue.

Mr. Hollis

Has the hon. Gentleman been there?

Mr. King

I have been there.

Mr. Hollis

If the hon. Gentleman says he has been there, I will, so far as he is concerned.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman said that neither the Minister nor the Parliamentary Secretary had been near the place. In point of fact I have been there.

Mr. Hollis

I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I understood that my hon. Friend invited the Parliamentary Secretary down and that he said that he had not been there. If he says he has been, I withdraw entirely. But the Minister himself told us the other day that he had not been there, and it was the Minister who said, "I have looked into" the matter. I would say that he has not in any physical sense looked into it. Nor has he looked into it on the basis of the geological survey. What is the precise meaning of those words "I have looked into" it?

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

I think the weakness of the Minister's case has been adequately exposed by the two hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House who have so far spoken. This is a matter of national importance. I therefore make no apology to the House for butting in on the affairs of a constituency other than my own. No other cathedral in England, and possibly none in the whole of Great Britain, unless it be St. David's Cathedral in Wales, has a natural setting of such beauty as Wells Cathedral. In itself that cathedral is a gem of medieval architecture, started in 1220 and finished, I think, about 1224, and it is one which, as the hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Colonel Boles) has said, has considerable interest for people who come to this country from America and elsewhere overseas.

To mutilate the hills around this cathedral by altering their contour is not only to insult good taste but is to desecrate a scene of charm and splendour which is part of the heritage of the British people. That such a sacrifice should be made, or asked for, for a purely totalitarian or commercial purpose shows, as the hon. and gallant Member for Wells has already pointed out, how far the imponderables—I would even say the spiritual values of this country—are left out of account today.

I do not for one moment accept the assertion that the limestone produced by extending the quarry at Dulcote Hill cannot be obtained elsewhere. The claim is made that if it was obtained elsewhere similar objections would be raised. That, I think, is nonsense. The objections in this case are overwhelming; elsewhere that cannot possibly be so. I want to make an emphatic protest against what would amount to blasphemy in stone if this project is insisted upon, and I ask my hon. Friend to deal sympathetically with the case which has been put forward tonight.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. Collins (Taunton)

While I do not want to indulge in quite the strong language which my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) indulged in, I support in as emphatic a manner as possible the plea made by the hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Colonel Boles). My hon. Friend said that this was something which belonged to the nation. We in Somerset feel that it is something which belongs peculiarly to Somerset and is, indeed, part of the whole spiritual life of the county. The word "amenity" does not really describe how we feel about this matter.

I have studied for some time the correspondence and Ministers' statements on this matter. On one occasion, I think that the reply was that only a small portion would be cut off the top of the hill. I assure my hon. Friend that we in Somer- set will be much incensed if he tells us that all he wants is a little bit off the top. That will certainly not do at all. We have had evidence which I think is indisputable that the claims of commerce cannot be regarded as paramount in this matter because there are alternative sites and in yesterday's "Times" a public inquiry held by the Minister in Dorset almost exactly describes the position that has arisen at Wells. The Dorchester rural district council have refused to extend sand and gravel workings at Blagdon because it was held that the landscape would be damaged. I do not think that there is any justification for proceeding with this matter at Dulcote and I hope my hon. Friend will have regard to the plea which has been put forward.

10.24 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning (Mr. King)

The first parts of the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Colonel Boles) were wholly delightful and I am sure the House enjoyed them as they did about one-quarter of each of the other speeches to which we have listened. Most of them were graceful and pleasant tributes to the beauties of the English countryside in which we would all join, but a few of the speeches made specific accusations as to the damage which it is suggested we are going to do.

I cannot help wondering how many hon. Members in this House who have listened to these four speeches have realised that if all these horrors which we have heard spoken about at Wells are done, there will not from Wells be any visible quarrying of any kind whatever. Few people have realised that. It is true that no mis-statement has been made about it, but that is the fact, and that is the kind of misconception which I very much fear has got about widely, both in the House and in the newspapers.

Mr. Henry Strauss (Combined English Universities)

When the hon. Gentleman says that there will be no visible quarrying, does he mean that people will not see that the height of the hill has been lowered?

Mr. King

What I said was quite clear. From Wells itself no sign of any quarrying will be visible. I am coming to the point about the hill very shortly. I am dealing with one point at a time.

What precisely are the charges made against us? Why are we being attacked? I want to go back into history a little. We passed into law the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947; we are implementing its provisions; and in particular we are implementing decisions to preserve the beauty of Dulcote Hill and the City of Wells. Those decisions have been violently attacked by the Opposition. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] Indeed, I understand from their recent conference that they are anxious to repeal the Town and Country Planning Act altogether, and inevitably therefore to repeal any decisions of this character which might have been taken under it.

The Dulcote Hill quarry has been in existence just on 70 years, and throughout that time no Government—mainly Governments supported by hon. Members opposite—has taken the least interest in preventing spoliation which might be going on there, or indeed in any of the other quarries in the country.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that in the course of the last 70 years any suggestion was even made, or in fact any work ever done, to remove the top of the hill. This is an entirely new project.

Mr. King

I was taking a very much wider instance than that in referring to the vast vandalism created by quarrying throughout the country.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

Get to the point.

Mr. King

I am coming to the point, which I am glad to note the hon. Gentleman wants to hear.

Under the Town and Country Planning Act we recently held a public inquiry, from which these facts emerged. The site at Dulcote runs to 80 acres; the plant is impressive—it is modern, clean, and ideally situated on the south side of the hill. That is, the side remote from Wells; it is well served by road and by rail; the cost of the plant there installed was £110,000, exclusive of railway sidings; the capacity is 80,000 tons a year; and from that quarry and the plant we derive material for agriculture, railways, roads and buil- dings. We have to bear in mind, as does the House, having regard to the economic crisis in which we stand, that there is a countrywide shortage of limestone; we want two million tons more per year than we have, even if we develop every existing quarry we can find. That is particularly true of the South-West of England. For example, there is none at all in Cornwall.

Mr. Nicholson

Why not pull down Wells Cathedral and have done with it?

Mr. King

That is precisely what could have happened under a Tory Government.

Mr. Nicholson

Be sensible.

Mr. King

That is perfectly true; it could have happened until the Town and Country Planning Act was passed.

In the Dulcote Hill quarry the quality of the stone varies. It is better in the west and in the north. Here I want to refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis), who referred to the word "unique." The hon. Gentleman saw my right hon. Friend when I was not present, and I cannot know what was said, but my impression is that the Minister has never used the word "unique."

Mr. Hollis

I did not say he did. I used the word "unique" when referring to a quotation.

Mr. King

I think the word was used by a questioner and not by the Minister. The fact is, the stone is of high quality, and I do not think my right hon. Friend has ever claimed any more than that it is of high quality.

Mr. Hollis

It was said to be of superior quality.

Mr. King

The difference between "superior quality" and "high quality" is not very substantial.

Mr. Hollis

There is all the difference in the world.

Mr. King

Let me turn for a moment to the inquiry itself. It is true that there were some objectors, but they were few in number, and the number of persons from Wells who objected was small. Most of the objection was stimulated by one person—and he was perfectly entitled to stimulate it—a Mr. Tarbat, who got something like six articles in the newspapers and got a B.B.C. feature. But that is not based, we feel, on deep opposition in Wells itself. Indeed, I think that most of those who were at the inquiry came away with the impression that a compromise solution would have been satisfactory to most of those present.

The local authorities, it is true, were opposed to unrestricted consent, but it was the general view that a compromise, if possible, could be brought in. Nor is it a fact that Dulcote Hill is essentially a popular walk. Indeed, the mayor himself confessed that he had never been there until he was accompanied there by an official of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. It is asked why not quarry only the south of the hill. The point was that the stone on the south side is of inferior quality. In the decision we have taken our objective was to guard the amenities of Wells. We have said that quarrying operations shall go so far and no further. We have avoided any quarrying which would show from Wells. We have preserved the hill as a hill. It is true that the skyline will gradually, within 30 years, fall a few feet; but the difference is small, and I do not believe it will be noticeable.

Quarrying on the western spur is prohibited entirely. On the northern face it is prohibited below the 300-ft. contour. It is required that trees shall be planted, that when the excavation is over the plant will be taken away and the waste disposed of within the quarry itself. The decision is, in fact, in favour of a limited amount of quarrying in the northern quarter because the stone is of high quality. These limitations we have imposed. The most important point of all is that we have already sterilised one million tons. That is our contribution to the aesthetic side.

We have sterilised already, I repeat, one million tons to satisfy the views of hon. Members who have spoken. I suggest that that is no mean contribution towards that amenity which we, in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning value as highly as anybody; and, perhaps more than some hon. Gentlemen opposite appear to think. If we were to sterilise, in addition, the stone in the north, we should then sterilise another 2½ million tons and that is not a reasonable thing to be asked to do, especially when it would not preserve the aesthetic qualities of this part. I would emphasise that no quarrying will be visible from the City of Wells, nor from the Wells-Shepton Mallet road.

Sometimes I do not know what hon. Gentlemen opposite want; they do not understand the functions of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. To sterilise—and that means to waste—mineral wealth, unless by so doing there is a real contribution to amenity, cannot be in the national interest at this hour. Then, some hon. Members say, "Go somewhere else." Where can we go? There are similar objections wherever one goes—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Quarrying takes place in that position where quarries now are, not by chance, but for definite reasons; and those are four—because of the quality of the material quarried; because of the lie of the land, because of means of transport, road or rail—and here there are both—and because it is suitably situated having regard to its market. These reasons all obtain on this site. Before hon. Members suggest it, let me say that if they have the Mendips in mind, they were classed as a conservation area in the Hobhouse Report; equal objection would be taken to that.

Finally, it may be appropriate to remind ourselves that we have, ultimately, very limited natural resources; first, of agricultural land, secondly, of mineral wealth and thirdly, of water power; and it is of the utmost importance that the best use be made of these resources. We have in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning to have regard to each. We value beauty and aesthetics perhaps more than some hon. Members of this House and I suggest that we have done more to safeguard beauty in these last few years than has ever been done before in the history of this House. Previously there was no power to act, but we have these powers now, and it is because of the 1947 Act and the action which has been taken by my right hon. Friend that Dulcote Hill has been saved from destruction.

Mr. H. Strauss

Miserable: disgraceful.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-four Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.