HC Deb 17 March 1955 vol 538 cc1591-606

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

9.39 p.m.

Mr. Tudor Watkins (Brecon and Radnor)

I have listened for some time to the debate on the Army Estimates, and I apologise for taking advantage of the Adjournment in order to raise another matter with the War Office.

Since 1947, there has been the problem of gun sites in my constituency and in the county of Brecon in particular. I should like to say at the outset that I am raising this as a matter of protest against the War Office, and I am supported in my protest by such bodies as the Breconshire County Council, the Brecknock Rural District Council, and the Brecon and Radnor National Farmers' Union which has also contacted its headquarters in Bedford Square and is itself in touch with the War Office.

A large number of other local and national bodies in Wales are also interested. Incidentally, the first site which was chosen for a gun site in this area is now the reservoir which, I hope, Her Majesty the Queen will open in August next. It can, therefore, be seen how difficult it is to get a proper gun site, if such a site is required at all, in the county of Brecon. In addition to all these protests, which have been going on since 1947, there have been important conferences of interested parties in the county of Brecon at which national organisations have been represented. There have also been local meetings of the farmers concerned.

All this has to do with agriculture and food production. These local meetings of farmers and others interested in agriculture right from the commencement have said "No" to the War Office; and right up to last night they said they would not negotiate for these gun sites at all and would not allow firing rights to be exercised over the intervening land.

In this country there are not a great number of examples of inland gun sites, but in this locality it is proposed to have guns from the gun sites firing heavy shells over occupied agricultural land. That is a problem. The farmers protest, for they are opposed to the gun sites because of the experience which they have had of a gun site in the same locality. They refuse to negotiate because that is the only way in which they can bring their protest to the notice of the War Office. Although the area of the gun sites itself is not very large, the area of the land intervening between the gun sites and the large Sennybridge range is vast. The farmers refuse to participate or to sanction rights to fire over the intervening land.

The two gun sites, the problems of which I want to raise, are Llanfianghel Nantbran, which has been a temporary gun site since 1940, and Trecastle, which is a new proposal altogether. The farmers in that locality are concerned about the Trecastle gunsite, although they are interested in the first which I mentioned. Later I will give to the House information about what has happened as a result of shells falling short from the first gun site which I mentioned.

In 1950 there was a local public inquiry, not only about these gun sites but also about large areas of land in Breconshire which the War Office required. Ever since I entered the House, in 1945, I have taken a definite stand about Service land requirements in Wales, and particularly in my constituency. In 1952 the then Minister for Welsh Affairs, now Lord Kilmuir, intervened on behalf of the present Government and sent his Joint Under-Secretary of State to Wales. I walked the site with him. As a result of his intervention, there was a suspension of the acquisition of this land for over 18 months. If it was suspended for 18 months, my plea to the War Office is to suspend it altogether. In view of the discussions which we have had in recent weeks about nuclear weapons, what is the use of a 25-pounder gun in the Trecastle gun site for the next war?

At the end of 1954, when everybody thought the War Office had abandoned the gun sites altogether, like a shot out of the blue I was informed by the Secretary of State that the decision had been reached by the War Office compulsorily to acquire the land which was to be used for the gun sites themselves. That was disastrous. The compulsory powers are to be taken under the Defence Acts. Our people were immediately concerned about what is to happen to the intervening land. That is where the question really arises.

The War Office has been told, not once but a few times, that there is a case for non-participation in regard to the intervening land. I have asked Questions as to when powers have been taken by the War Office to have firing rights under the Military Lands Act, 1892, and failed to get information as to when that Act has been invoked. We are not raising this question purely to put that Act into operation, but as a last means of saying to the War Office that we do not want it to take firing rights on this intervening land.

Only yesterday I had a reply to my letter of 26th January in which the Under-Secretary of State for War said that the War Office would allow a public local inquiry into the operations of that Act of Parliament, which allows a local public inquiry to be held. We do not want an inquiry into the gun sites, but into the use of the intervening land. I should like the Under-Secretary to give an assurance so that my constituents may read in HANSARD that a local inquiry into the use of intervening land required will be allowed by the War Office.

In his letter to me the Under-Secretary said that the War Office is not certain and is not yet able to define the actual area of the land required, whereas the Minister of Agriculture, in reply to me, gave the number of farms in the intervening land. I can understand the War Office being uncertain about it—as the Under-Secretary will agree, his letter says so—but how can the War Office proceed with a local inquiry unless the area is defined by the War Office? The object of holding an inquiry would be to allow objections to be made. One cannot make objections without knowing the land to be taken.

The first thing the War Office must do is to define the actual area of land required. That is essential to those who are to make objections. The Minister of Agriculture has tried to define the land, but has given the names of farms which are not involved. I know the area from personal knowledge and from the knowledge of the county secretary of the National Farmers' Union. There is a farm called Bwysfafach which has nothing to do with the intervening land; it is not near it. Therefore, the Minister of Agriculture is wrong in his definition of the land involved.

In reply to a Question the Minister of Agriculture gave to me the acreage of land. If the Under-Secretary will look at the numbers of the farms and compare them with the evidence given by the vicar of Llywel he will find that the vicar says there are 22 farms. The vicar ought to know which of his parishioners will come under fire. The vicar tells me that there are 1,525 more acres involved than the Minister of Agriculture gave in his reply in this House.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

Is the hon. Member referring to the intervening land when he says that the area has not been defined? He is not referring to the area of the range?

Mr. Watkins

I am referring to the intervening land. There is not much quarrel about the gun sites, because we know that the acreage there is 188 and 390 acres. I want to stress that our people are so hard pressed and are really conscientious in their protest that they are thinking of bringing an injunction against the War Office and against the right to fire over the intervening land. That is the reaction which has been suggested to me as their Member of Parliament.

Breconshire has made a notable contribution to Service land requirements. In 1940 no less than 28,149 acres of good agricultural land were taken compulsorily by the War Office and 70 to 80 farmers left their farms. There is no sense or reason in asking for additional land and land which would be affected by firing rights in addition to that area.

Not only that, but we have in Breconshire quite a number of areas, altogether outside these ranges, which were given over as a result of the public local inquiry in 1950. But the War Office has not used the range at Sennybridge as fully as people imagined when it was required in 1940 during time of war. The War Office has even let a great part of the land to the Forestry Commission to plant trees. Why has the War Office not kept that area instead of looking for another gun site? It might be that the land is not suitable for a gun site. At any rate, that is the feeling locally.

When the Royal Air Force, through the War Office, required the Sennybridge range for a change of user—for bombing practice—only the other day, there was no opposition whatever from local people, in the hope that the gun site would be dispensed with.

Then there is the important question, on the intervening land between the gun site at Trecastle and the range, of firing over a trunk road. I wonder what other instances the War Office has of firing over a main trunk road, such as this one from London to West Wales, during the daytime. The Minister of Transport told me in answer to a Question that 1,100 vehicles use the road every day and that 10 children are either conveyed or walk to school—when the shells are whizzing over if the gun sites are being used. That is the anxiety of the people.

Despite the opposition of the county council, which acts as agent to the Minister of Transport, the Minister of Transport gave clearance for firing over the road. Despite the opposition of the county agricultural committee in Brecon, the Minister of Agriculture gave clearance for agricultural land to be used for these gun sites and for the intervening land, I suggest that at this stage there should be some recognition of local opinion.

The main opposition by the local residents is based on the effect of firing on farming operations and the physical danger to human life and livestock, which are important factors, and also because of their experience with the existing gun-site at Llanfianghel Nantbran. In a letter to me only last week, following Questions I had put in the House, the Minister of Agriculture said that the War Office, in the firing from the gun site at Trecastle to the range, would not interfere with farming operations; whereas had the Ministry cared to make inquiries, it would have ascertained the result of firing from the gun site not very far away.

Another important factor in regard to agriculture is the effect upon food production. The Minister of Agriculture recognises that these are typical upland farms engaged in the production of store cattle and sheep. He says: They are fully utilised for food production. If that is so, why should there be this firing over good agricultural land? I have seen the local farmers and their work and I understand that they have increased their production threefold in comparison with pre-war; and their intention is to utilise more of the upland farms and to supply still more of the country's requirements of food.

I am very impressed by the evidence which has been given to me on the effect that the firing will have upon farming operations. Some of this evidence was given at the local inquiry at Brecon in 1950, and I should like to give one or two illustrations. David Jones, one of the farmers concerned, of Dorallt Farm, says, "Whilst guns are firing, it is impossible to work my horses."

It is impossible to shepherd the sheep because once the dogs hear the guns firing they go back to the farm and the sheep are scattered all over the place. In the lambing season especially the sheep are worried. What farmers will stay in that locality to try to rear sheep against the handicap of the firing of those guns?

Mr. J. R. Price, of Rhulan Farm, Llan-fianghel Nantbran, who has been under the guns on intervening land, writes: It is dangerous to try to make horses work. They cannot properly shepherd the sheep, as they scatter, and the sheep dogs go home. The sheep are distressed and worried. Not only that, but calves are born prematurely in that locality. If any evidence of the premature birth of calves is required the veterinary surgeon of the locality will be glad to supply it.

In 1942 a shell dropped 200 yards from a farmer working in his own yard, and another shell dropped only eight yards from another farmer and his workman, who was badly shaken. In 1943 a shell splinter went through a farmer's roof on Blaendyrin farm. In 1950 two shells exploded within 300 yards of the same farm, and a little boy of four was so terrified that they have had trouble with him ever since. Houses and walls are damaged, and woodwork inside the parish church has suffered. Six shells have burst in the locality through having fallen wide or short.

Imagine the effect of this firing near a school with 20 little children. Imagine the effect on farm workers. They are difficult to find nowadays, when there is such a demand for them, and no farm worker will go to work on a farm where he may be exposed to danger, or where he knows that he will have to work while shells are whistling overhead.

I have had letters from farmers who are wondering what will be the value of their farms, who are wondering whether it is worth while continuing to farm there at all. They wonder whether they will get compensation for the fall in value of their farms. They will not. I know the War Office will say, "If anything happens to them we shall pay them compensation." However, that is of no comfort to anyone who may be hurt by any of these shells.

These farms will cease to be worked as they are now. They will be ranched as they were before the war, instead of being used fully for food production.

The only access to the Trecastle gun site is by the old Roman road. Whatever may be said about the Romans, their roads in Wales are straight, they have no hair-pin bends, and they have hard surfaces. The War Office, of all people, have taken over the only access to that mountain. If, as was said at the inquiry, there are to be 24 guns on one site, or even 16, what hope has a farmer there of harvesting his crops while all that firing is going on? How are these people to take their stock to market? How are they to convey fertiliser to their holdings? This is the only access some of them have to their holdings—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Watkins

Twenty-one farmers use the access road to the Trecastle gun site. No suggestions have been made to the local people about how they can utilise the mountain land, how they can take their sheep there and bring them away, how they can look after the land and how they can convey fertilisers to their holdings. Transport facilities are curtailed greatly by the closing of the road when firing takes place.

If the War Office is determined to take these gun sites and the intervening land and has said its last word about it, I shall use every Parliamentary method I can to have it stopped, even if it means approaching the Prime Minister. I shall call upon my colleagues in the Welsh Parliamentary Party to support me. The War Office ought to send responsible representatives of Western Command, in whom I have every faith, to discuss the matters on which the people require assurance. The Welsh Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and the local agents of the Ministry of Transport should be called in so that exactly what is going on may be known.

The local people are at the moment getting official letters from Birdcage Walk, London, which mean nothing to them. The letters suggest that they should get solicitors and surveyors. The Welsh farmers are not familiar with solicitors. They ought to be given the information they want instead of being told to get solicitors and surveyors.

I carry from my constituents a final protest to the Mother of Parliaments. I sincerely hope the War Office will reconsider the matter. I have had a considerable amount to do with the War Office, and I take this opportunity of thanking it, Western Command and the Officers of the Sennybridge Artillery Range for their assistance and courtesy, but I appeal to the War Office to give up the gun sites and let us farm in peace in our own way, for I am certain that food production will then increase.

10.4 p.m.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydfil)

Knowing something about the history of the War Office in relation to battle training areas and gun sites in Wales, I find it impossible to allow the occasion to pass without adding my protest to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins), who has put his case admirably and, I hope, with effective detail.

This sort of thing is nothing new to us in Wales. I urge the War Office once again to reconsider its attitude towards Wales. This sort of thing means, and will continue to mean, more rural depopulation in Wales. It is awful that this decision should be taken against all wishes and desires of the people, with an apparent contemptuous disregard for life and limb in that beautiful county bordering upon my constituency.

It would be very interesting if the Parliamentary Secretary were to tell us the proportion of the total area of Wales being used by the War Office. We have fairly long and most unhappy memories about the War Office in our country. We remember that without consulting a single organisation, a single local government unit in Wales, the War Office claimed nearly 10 per cent. of our little country and of course claimed the parts of its own choice.

I hope that we shall not return to that state of things. As my hon. Friend has already said, and he has stated the obvious, we shall resist it. We are only too conscious of the pathetically unbalanced kind of economy which we have in our country. The War Office has substantially contributed to that unbalance and to the depopulation of rural Wales. I add my appeal to that of my hon. Friend that the War Office should take a more humane view in this latest proposal.

If my figures are correct, the War Office already has about 28,000 acres in that area. Nearby there are some bird sanctuaries, and the last time we went into this as a Welsh Parliamentary Party one of the things we succeeded in doing was saving these sanctuaries. I make this appeal not only as a Member of this House but as a Welshman. We Welsh people are not ashamed to admit that we have a jealous regard to our country. The War Office has taken more than enough of Breconshire for its battle training areas and for the use of guns. I hope that my appeal will find a kindly echo in the heart of the War Office so that the War Office in this case will leave us alone.

10.9 p.m

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) has spoken of the numerous protests which he has made about this whole question of ranges since 1947. Of course, nobody particularly likes having artillery ranges in their part of the country. Nobody realises that better than my right hon. Friend and myself, because we get similar reactions to that of the hon. Member from other parts of the country as well.

It is a little unfair of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies) to say that we treat these protests contemptuously, and I think that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor will bear that out. I have given the matter very careful and very sympathetic consideration indeed. Wherever possible, we prefer to acquire amicably the land which we have to acquire for these purposes, and not use compulsory powers. Only if it is inevitable do we use them. But when we get a mass refusal to co-operate, as has been described by the hon. Members, we are put in a difficult and invidious situation.

We need these artillery ranges, because the artillery must train somewhere. It is necessary to practise long-range firing, which means firing over considerable areas of country. Naturally, we choose sparsely-populated areas as far as possible, and we try to avoid good agricultural areas. Where we are obliged to take powers to use land we try to use it intermittently, so as to interfere as little as possible with farming. Both hon. Members have suggested that we have been hard on Wales, but I would tell them that, proportionately, the land in Wales used for military purposes is less than that so used in England, so that in that respect they are better off than the rest of the country.

Mr. Percy Morris (Swansea, West)

It is a proportion of one horse, one rabbit, when the hon. Gentleman refers to percentages, having regard to the size of Wales and the size of England.

Mr. Maclean

I said proportionately. If the hon. Member wishes, I will write to him and give him the exact figures.

I think it would make things clearer if I dealt in order with the different areas under discussion. There is, first, the main artillery range which was bought, by agreement, by the War Office during the war, I think in 1940. The next area, for fear of mispronouncing its name, I would prefer to call the Druids Way extension. That is being used intermittently at present under Defence Regulation 52. It is used intermittently so as to allow farming in the area to proceed when firing is not actually in progress.

The hon. Member suggested that the War Office had committed a breach of faith regarding this area. We said that we would return it to the owners as soon as various preparations, in particular the building of a road, had been completed. But that may take a considerable time. It involves a large expenditure, because it is quite a large project. But we have said that once that has been done we will hand back this land. It is suggested that because we are now forced to buy that area compulsorily, instead of holding it under Defence Regulation 52 or by agreement, we are disregarding our pledge. That is not the case. Our pledge still stands.

As soon as we have this road, so that we can move our self-propelled guns inside the actual range, we are prepared to sell back the area which we are now to take over, and which is known as the Druids Way extension. Therefore, the fact that we are buying it does not alter the pledge which we have given one way or the other.

Mr. Watkins

Can the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the first chance of buying it back will be given to those people, and that we shall not have another Crichel Down?

Mr. Maclean

I think that I can give that assurance.

The next area with which I wish to deal is the Trecastle gun site. Here, again, we should prefer to negotiate a voluntary lease, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows very well, we have recently met with a non-co-operative attitude on the part of those who own the land. We are, therefore, put under the unfortunate necessity of having to purchase the land under the Defence Acts. However, should any of the hon. Gentleman's constituents change their mind, we shall be only too glad to negotiate a voluntary lease.

Finally, there remains the thorniest problem of all, which is that of the intervening land. The hon. Gentleman asked what our reaction would be to the proposal that his constituents should take legal action against us in the matter. That is a point on which I do not feel that I should offer any advice. It is a matter which the hon. Gentleman's constituents must decide for themselves, and see how they get on. I do not think that it would be proper for me to go any further than to say that I am advised that firing over land does not, as far as can be seen, involve any trespass.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the road which runs between the Trecastle gun site and the main range. He probably knows the area much better than I do, because, unfortunately, I have not yet been able to go there. However, I hope to do so before very long, and I have looked very carefully at the map. The whole question of roads is dealt with in the White Paper published by the Labour Government in 1947.

Paragraph 38 of that White Paper Cmd. 7278, states: Economy in the extent of training areas required can be brought about if firing across road is allowed and the proposals take account of this expedient. The Government are satisfied that, subject to certain safeguards, it can be authorised without danger to passing traffic.

Mr. S. O. Davies

Does not that imply that every case should be looked at and judged on its merits, and that the Minister should not work on a generalisation, as, apparently, he is doing in these cases?

Mr. Maclean

I am just coming to that point.

The hon. Gentleman speaks about a generalisation, but I was asked how we regarded it. I thought that I would first quote the general authority which derives from this White Paper, and then go on to explain the situation of this road. I understand that there are hills on either side of the road, and that, in fact, the firing is from hilltop to hilltop. The result is that the shells pass over the road at the absolute minimum height of 1,600 feet, which is considerable.

It has been said that some unfortunate cases have occurred where shells have fallen short, but I think I am right in saying—it is certainly borne out by the cases quoted by the hon. Member—that all these incidents occurred during the war or between 1945 and the date of the public inquiry in 1950. Since then, I do not think that there have been any further cases of shells falling short on the intervening land. Perhaps I should explain the reason for that.

All the shells which are now fired burst upon impact, and are not fused. I understand that accidents occurred before because inexperienced officers, during or immediately after the war, put the wrong fuses into the shells, with the result that they burst too soon. Now they can burst only when they strike. I am not an expert in ballistics, but it would appear to me that, so far as anything human can be said to be bound to happen, the shells are now bound to fall inside the target area, which is abundantly hedged round by precautions to make it safe.

The hon. Member suggested that another public inquiry might be held. I am afraid that we cannot agree to that because, although the inquiry in 1950 was nominally limited in scope, the whole question was fully gone into, including the matter of the intervening land, which is obviously closely linked with the question of the Trecastle site.

Mr. Watkins

In his letter, the hon. Member says that a public local inquiry will be held into the question of the intervening land under the Military Lands Act, 1892. He said that in his letter, and now he contradicts it.

Mr. Maclean

The hon. Member must have misunderstood what was said about that. It is true that the Act of 1892 does provide for a public inquiry, where that Act is applied, but it is not at present my right hon. Friend's intention to apply that Act. We do not feel that there is any need for an independent public inquiry, unconnected with the Act, because the whole question was gone into very thoroughly in 1950.

The hon. Member also mentioned the question of food production. If the letter has reached him, he will now have heard from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture that firing upon this range over the intervening land should have no harmful effect upon food production. If the hon. Member or his constituents can bring to my attention any cases in which firing has definitely affected food production—if, for instance, horses were caused to run away—we should be prepared to consider such cases carefully, in conjunction with the Minister of Agriculture. I am advised that there should be no reason for harmful effects on food production, and still less any danger to life or limb of human beings using the road or farming in the area.

Finally, I emphasise that we are not holding on to this range, or indeed to any other land in Wales or anywhere else, simply for the fun of holding on to it. It is an extremely important range, which is in almost constant use. I understand that it is used for at least half the weeks in the year, and particularly during the summer, when it is used intensively for the training of Territorials in particular.

We thoroughly sympathise with the civilian population who are disturbed or inconvenienced by these artillery ranges, which nobody likes to have near them, but which, unfortunately, we need. We choose areas where they will cause the least inconvenience, and we much prefer to come to amicable arrangements rather than use compulsory powers. I hope that the constituents of the hon. Gentleman will reconsider their position and not force us to use the compulsory powers that we possess.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Percy Morris (Swansea, West)

I am sorry to detain you, Mr. Speaker, at this very late hour. Some years ago the Under-Secretary of State published an interesting book "Eastern Approaches," which was informative, interesting and very convincing. It was much more convincing than his totally unsatisfactory reply tonight.

He has not replied to a single specific charge which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins). He made no reference at all to the danger to the school population, and gave no explanation of the confusion in figures between the Ministry of Agriculture and his own Department. My hon. Friend quoted figures of an estimate of the number of farms that were included in the various sites. The Minister has not given us the distance between the target site and the particular land. The fact of the matter is that he has generalised on a brief given to him by his Department. I do not complain about that.

The Minister has not made the slightest satisfactory reply to the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor. If the claim of the War Department is so strong, what objection has it to a public inquiry? Is the Department fearful that it will meet with the same result as on the last occasion? In view of the development of nuclear weapons, and the oft-repeated claim that we shall have to recast our approaches in case of war, is there any urgency about this matter? Why not wait upon these people and reason with them and, if we can, produce the necessary evidence? I am certain that the people of Brecon and Radnor will be willing to co-operate.

The Minister may wonder why I should intervene. I happen to represent a neighbouring constituency which owes a tremendous lot to the Brecon and Radnor people for enabling us to have a supply of pure water. A greater proportion of land is taken in Wales by the War Department than is the case in England. If the actual acreage were examined, I think we should all be satisfied that an injustice had been done to Wales in this matter.

We ask the Minister to go back to his Department, with the request that it should examine the point made so convincingly and in such a restrained manner by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor, and that, in response to his appeal, somebody of high rank should go down and discuss the matter with the people on the spot. Only in that way can we get any co-operation. A disgruntled and disappointed farming community is a very bad thing for this country, especially at this juncture. Hill farming has its own difficulties, as everybody knows. It is nothing less than a tragedy if a Department like the War Office is to say to these people—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.