HC Deb 31 March 1960 vol 620 cc1655-68

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)

On 23rd March, I asked the Secretary of State for Air why Chalgrove Airfield had been sold to the present occupiers, the Martin Baker Aircraft Company, Limited, and not offered back to the original owners. In reply, my right hon. Friend made three points. First, he said that although Chalgrove Airfield was surplus to the requirements of the Royal Air Force, it was, nevertheless, essential to the important work that was being carried out by Martin Baker Company. The second point was that the former owner, who was still interested in the purchase of her land, was activated only by sentimental family reasons. The third point was that the sale did not offend against the policy enunciated by the then Minister of Agriculture during the Crichel Down debate.

This answer seemed to me, in the main, to be contrary to the facts as I knew them. For that reason, I felt it important that there should be an opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding so that the former owners of Chalgrove land which had been compulsorily purchased might be reassured, or, if the misunderstanding lies with the Government, that action could be taken to protect the former owners before it was too late.

Before I tabled my Question, I consulted my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, in whose constituency Chalgrove Airfield lies and who has worked hard and long in this matter for the benefit of his constituents. I should like to thank him very much for the help which he has given me.

It would be difficult to compress the long and complicated story of Chalgrove Airfield into fifteen minutes, and, in confining myself to the main points, I am bound to omit many other matters which would strengthen the case.

Briefly, the facts are these. Chalgrove Airfield, comprising 640 acres of good farm land, was requisitioned by the Air Ministry early in the last war. After the war, when the Royal Air Force had no longer a use for it, instead of handing it back to the original owners, it leased it early in 1946 to the Martin Baker Aircraft Company Limited for research and development work on ejector seats. That private company has remained in occupation until the present day.

After the Martin Baker Company had taken over, the Air Ministry began negotiations for compulsory purchase. Those negotiations were completed between 1950 and 1953, the company remaining as tenants. After the Crichel Down case, which hon. Members will remember was debated in this House on 28th July, 1954, the former owners of Chalgrove land thought that there might be some hope in time that they might get their land back if and when the Air Ministry was prepared to sell it. When the Air Ministry was considering the sale of the airfield to the Martin Baker Company early last year, the Ministry wrote to the former owners asking them if they wished to repurchase their land should the Ministry decide to sell. That indicates to me that at that time, at least, the Ministry accepted that the Crichel Down principles applied to this case.

I am informed that the replies to the Ministry's letter of inquiry were emphatically in the affirmative. The answers, however, were not really what the Ministry wanted. Accordingly, first, officials from the then Ministry of Supply and the Air Ministry visited the owners and pointed out to them the essential work that Martin Baker's were doing and the need to sell the airfield to them. As those officials' efforts to persuade the former owners to change their minds were not conspicuously successful, a meeting was convened at Chalgrove on 9th July last at which my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport took the chair and at which my hon. Friend the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply, now Under-Secretary of State for Air, who is to reply to this debate tonight, was present. It seems to me that it was following that meeting that the impression got around that most of the former owners were prepared to abandon their claim to repurchase their old land. I shall, therefore, state the position as I know it to be at this date.

Of the original six owners or their successors, those with the very small holdings were not interested in repurchasing. Two of the former owners, Mrs. Gale and Mr. Fleming, who between them account for between 400–500 acres, wish to repurchase. I have letters which they have written to me only a day or two ago. Mrs. Gale states in her letter: I have always said that I wish to repurchase my land on the Chalgrove Airfield. I have said this from the first time I was approached on the matter and I have never given anyone any reason to believe otherwise. Mr. Fleming states: From the reply given to you by the Secretary of State for Air] gather that it is implied that I am 'now perfectly happy with the proposed arrangement'. This is not so. He goes on to say that he wishes to repurchase his land and, to use his actual words: In short, I wish to repurchase my land. Two others of the six consider themselves successors within the terms of the Crichel Down statement, namely, Mr. Wallis and Mr. Fitchett.

I should like to take the case of Mr, Wallis, because the Minister has been contending that when the former Minister of Agriculture referred in the Crichel Down case to offering land back to a former owner or successor, he really meant "heir" and not "successor in title". Perhaps the best comment I can make on this is to quote Mr. Wallis's letter on the point. He states: The Government has quibbled over the meaning of the word 'successor'. To my simple mind, it seems to me that when one purchases a farm one is a successor to the previous owner and as such I claim that I should be given the opportunity of repurchasing this land. I confess that to my simple mind it seems also that he is a successor and a successor in title.

However, even if, by distorting the dictionary meaning of the word "successor", these two gentlemen—Mr. Wallis and Mr. Fitchett—are excluded from consideration, we are still left with the highly inconvenient fact that there are two major landowners accounting for the greater part of the land who have expressed quite firmly and without any room for misunderstanding their desire to repurchase their own land.

Not deterred, however, the Ministry convened another meeting at Chalgrove on 7th September, 1959, at which it announced the intention of selling the airfield to Martin Baker's. That was rather curious in view of the fact that on 7th December my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation said that the future of the airfield was still under consideration and that consultations were still taking place with all the interests concerned. It would be interesting to know what consultations have taken place since 7th December with the former owners.

At the meeting on 7th September, it was further announced that Martin Baker's would require the airfield only for a limited time and would then offer it back to the former owners at market value. From that, there naturally arises the question of why, if the airfield was likely to be needed for only a short time, the company was not content with a lease and wanted to buy it.

To understand this, one must examine the terms of the planning permission under which the company now operates. Early in 1957 the Ministry of Supply applied to the Oxford County Council for planning permission to enable Martin Baker to continue the same kind of work that it had been doing up to that time. Counsel to the Ministry pointed out that the company could not contemplate the heavy expenditure on reconstruction and the reconditioning of the runways and so on unless it could be assured that what it was doing complied with planning control.

Permission was at first refused, but later it was given, and I should like to quote the last paragraph of the letter from the clerk to Oxford County Council addressed to the chairman of the Chalgrove Parish Council in which he says: I think you know that the County Council, as the planning authority, were not at all keen on the idea, but in fact had to give way to Government pressure.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

Would the hon. Member give the date of that letter?

Mr. Hall

It was 1st October, 1959.

However, the planning permission is tightly drawn and should Martin Baker no longer require the airfield and buildings for the purpose for which they had permission, they are required to remove the buildings and, other than concrete bases, runways, hard standings and the like, to clear the land. It is therefore all the more difficult to understand why the company is not prepared to lease the airfield but wants to sink its own money into capital works which it will apparently not recover unless it stays for a longer time than it appears to be the intention, or unless a future Oxford County Council planning committee changes its mind about the future development of Chalgrove Airfield.

Summarising the position, it would Seem that, despite the fact that by taking the lease the company could get all the security of tenure that it requires, and despite the fact that former owners of the greater part of the land have expressed a desire to repurchase the land, and despite the assurance given by the Government in the Crichel Down debate, the Government have nevertheless decided to sell the land to a private company.

I know my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State for Air too well to believe that he would support such a decision without sincerely believing that it was the right decision, but I would suggest that there has been some misunderstanding on two points. First, there has been a failure to appreciate the real desire of the former owners to recover their land, and secondly an incorrect interpretation of the pledges given by the Government on the occasion of the Crichel Down debate. As the case seems to hang on an interpretation of those pledges perhaps I could summarise the relevant parts of them from a speech given by the then Minister of Agriculture on 28th July, 1954.

Mr. Philip Bell (Bolton, East)

What was the condition of the planning permission? Was it given for a limited time or for ever?

Mr. Hall

If my hon. and learned Friend will forgive me, I will not deal with that because I have a very short time to get through a great deal.

The then Minister of Agriculture said that agricultural land acquired com-pulsorily and no longer wanted by the acquiring Department and not immediately wanted by any other Government Department possessing compulsory purchase powers would be sold. To this pledged policy there is one exception. Agricultural land may have been so substantially altered while in the possession of a Government Department that if it were sold it could not be used for agriculture in the same way as when originally acquired. The obvious example is an airfield with concrete runways, hangars and other buildings. In such a case the land may need to be retained in public ownership, at any rate while being rehabilitated, and would be transferred for management to the agricultural department concerned.

Where the land is to be sold in accordance with this policy, the Government recognise that former owners or their successors may fairly claim that they should be given a special opportunity to buy back such land. There may be cases where this cannot be done, but Chalgrove is not such a case. Except in times of emergency, should there be any objection to the transfer of such land on the part of the former owners or other persons interested, it was thought that provision should be made for some form of public inquiry.

It should be noted that the Minister said nothing that would justify the Government in selling compulsorily purchased land to industry without an option of repurchase to the former owners. I am sure that the Government think that Chalgrove Airfield is covered by one of the exceptions I have mentioned, though apparently the Ministry's officials did not think so when they first wrote to the owners asking whether they wished to repurchase. The exceptions are not unqualified. It was said that in such circumstances the land may be retained in public ownership at any rate whilst being rehabilitated. No suggestion was made that because the land had been turned into an airfield the rights of the previous owners should be ignored. The other class of exception covered land so built over that it could no longer be restored for the purposes of agriculture, and that is admitted not to apply in the case of Chalgrove.

It seems to me that this case is covered by the Crichel Down policy. Even if the Minister could find some paragraph in the speech of the previous Minister of Agriculture which provides an escape, surely there should have been a public inquiry. Further, if the former owners had no case at all, why were they approached in the first place?

Perhaps my hon. Friend will answer these brief questions. Why was there no public inquiry? Was the Ministry prepared to offer the company a lease and, if so, why would it not accept it? What guarantee is there that the company will give the former owners an opportunity to repurchase their land within reasonable time? What guarantee is there that if some future planning committee removes existing planning restrictions that land will be offered back as agricultural land and not at a price reflecting value as a site with industrial or house building potentialities?

My final question is this. Every citizen of good will will see his land go in time of emergency for Government requirements. When that purpose is exhausted, when that need is past, what is wrong on any consideration of morality or justice, in allowing the person from whom the land was taken to have the chance of getting it back? Those words are not mine, but the words of the then Sir David Maxwell Fyfe in winding up the Crichel Down debate on 20th July, 1954. This is not a time of emergency. The Government do not want the land themselves. What is wrong, therefore, with giving the owners a chance of getting their own land back?

In my constituency of Wycombe at Great Hampden, the body of John Hampden lies. Three hundred and seventeen years ago that great Parliamentarian, fighting against a power he thought was threatening the rights and liberties of the people, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chalgrove Field. Nevertheless, his cause triumphed. I hope that this second battle of Chalgrove Field will also triumph, although without the same unfortunate consequences to myself.

10.27 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. W. J. Taylor)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) has not left me quite as much time as I thought he might in which to reply to the debate. I am grateful to him for raising the matter on the Adjournment because it gives me an opportunity of clearing up misunderstandings about Chalgrove Airfield. This debate, although it concerns but a single airfield, has raised an important aspect of Government policy and the proper application of that policy in several directions.

In his speech, my hon. Friend has asked for information about points that had been made on several occasions in correspondence and in the Press, and I welcome this opportunity to deal with them. The points which have been made can, I suggest, be categorised into two main groups. The first, I would call the principles—how does the action taken over Chalgrove fit into Government policy; and the second group, points of detailed fact. These latter are, of course, important, but I should like to deal with the principles first, because it is from a clear understanding of these that other things follow.

The fundamental question is whether the sale of this airfield to Martin Baker Aircraft Company, Limited, is in accord with published Government policy. Policy on the disposal of agricultural land acquired by Government Departments either compulsorily or under the threat of compulsion—and it is not in question either that the land was agricultural or that it was acquired compulsorily—was stated by the Minister of Agriculture on 20th July, 1954. My hon. Friend has reminded the House of some of the significant paragraphs of that statement.

There are two quite separate sections to the Dugdale statement. There has been a lot of confusion about which section is relevant to the Chalgrove case. The first section is not relevant. It deals with the transfer of land from a Department with compulsory powers to another which does not exercise such powers in order that the land can continue to be managed for agricultural purposes by the State. That section is relevant to Crichel Down.

The second section deals with the sale of land and is relevant to the case of Chalgrove. But in reading this section one must look at the whole of it and not at isolated examples. Let me read the whole of the relevant passage. I quote: Where land is to be sold in accordance with the general policy I have just outlined "— these are the words of Sir Thomas Dugdale— the Government have considered what attitude to adopt towards claims by former owners or their successors to buy it back. The Government recognise that the former owner or certain of his successors may fairly claim that they should be given special opportunity to buy such land. There may be cases where this cannot be done. The whole character of the land may have been altered, for instance, by the erection on it of buildings other than agricultural buildings, or, as I have already said, by the laying down of concrete runways on an airfield, in such a way as to make it impracticable to restore the former boundaries; or it may have been oompulsorily acquired under the Agriculture Act, 1947; or, again, there may be small parcels of land left over from land acquired for, say, trunk roads or forestry which may not be suitable for resale to the former owners. There are also cases where Departments have statutory powers of acquisition for the purpose of ensuring that land is used in a particular way, and in order to ensure such use they may have to sell it for special purposes. This is true, for instance, of acquisitions by the Board of Trade under the Distribution of Industry Act, 1945. These are only some examples of the circumstances which may relate to a parcel of land and so make any rigid rule impracticable. It will also sometimes be a matter of difficulty to decide whether the successor in title has a special personal claim. Nevertheless, the Government will in future consider each case on its merits with the desire that, where circumstances show that the land can properly be offered to a former owner or his successor who can establish his claim, this will be done at a price assessed by the District Valuer as being the current market price. This procedure cannot be applied retrospectively; it can only apply to future disposals. That is the end of the quotation from Sir Thomas Dugdale.

Now what does that statement say? I know it is dangerous to summarise, but I suggest that it lays down two main principles.

Firstly, a strong emphasis should be placed by Government Departments on giving former owners the opportunity to buy back their land.

Secondly, there may have to be exceptions to this general principle and it is not possible to categorise comprehensively what would constitute an exception. Let me just remind hon. Members again of two sections of the statement: These are only some examples of the circumstances which may relate to a parcel of land and so make any rigid rule impracticable. and, secondly, Nevertheless the Government will in future consider each case on its merits". Before I turn to Chalgrove itself, it might help to put this case in perspective if I were briefly to analyse what has happened in the period of nearly six years since that statement was made. During that period the Air Ministry have disposed of 72 airfields, exluding Chalgrove.

Mr. de Freitas

Surely this debate is on Chalgrove, not on the other things which the Ministry has done.

Mr. Taylor

I was illustrating that the policy pursued by my Department and by the Government generally has been in accordance with the statement of 1954. If the hon. Gentleman objects to that description, I turn to Chalgrove itself.

Chalgrove was, like probably the majority of the airfields in this country, constructed during the last war. It was subsequently retained as an airfield but because there was no immediate R.A.F. flying requirement for it the Martin Baker Aircraft Co. was allowed to use it from 1947. But that is not to say that it was bought for, or indeed kept, for the company. Indeed, during the immediate post-Korean expansion of the R.A.F. in the early 1950s it was very nearly brought back into R.A.F. flying use. It is only two or three years ago that, in the light of the changing military requirements, the number of airfields to be retained in Government ownership was drastically reduced and it was decided that Chalgrove could be declared as surplus and ready for disposal. It was only at this stage that the method of disposal to be adopted was considered and it was finally decided that it should be offered on sale to Martin Baker, Ltd., after the views of former owners had been obtained.

What are the grounds on which it was considered that Chalgrove should be made one of the exceptions permitted within the disposal policy? Martin Baker, Ltd. is the firm which manufactures all the ejector seats used in aircraft now in squadron service in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. Any interruption to its work would have a most serious effect upon the defence programme. Its work is of the greatest value to the country as a whole and several hundred pilots owe their lives to the ejector seats made by this firm.

This type of development demands good and convenient testing facilities, and the firm needs an airfield conveniently situated to its research factory which is at Denham. Chalgrove is some twenty-five miles away from Denham. We have, however, considered whether this testing work could be done at any other airfield. The suggestion was made, not in this debate, that the firm could go to Langford Lodge in Northern Ireland. But, quite apart from its unacceptable distance from Denham, Langford Lodge is too close to Aldergrove, which is to be the main civil airfield for Belfast. We have, however, looked at all the airfields within seventy miles of Denham. This type of testing work, involving the dropping of objects from the air and all the preparations that have to go with it, is not really compatible with frequent active flying by other people, and has, therefore, ruled out any sharing of an airfield. Moreover, the aircraft which the firm are now testing require good and reasonably long runways. We were unable to find any acceptable alternative to Chalgrove.

I have tried to show so far how the decision to sell Chalgrove to Martin Baker is justified in the public interest and in conformity with the 1954 statement.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)


Mr. Taylor

Several other points have been raised and I shall try to deal with as many as I can in the few minutes left to me. I am sorry that I cannot give way, but I have been asked questions and I must try to reply to them in Che short time available.

First, there is the position of the former owners, about which there has been a lot of concern. It has been suggested that if the Government had throughout considered that the firm must continue at the airfield, it was hypocritical to approach them to ascertain their interests in the land. I do not accept this at all. The approach was made out of a genuine desire to know their views. It could have been that none was interested in repurchase; we have known that in the case of many other airfields. As it became clear that there was some interest, the Government decided to ask the firm to give the former owners the first opportunity to repurchase the land.

I should point out here, as my hon. Friend has questioned my right hon. Friend's statement of 23rd March, that the question of exactly how many former owners were anxious to repurchase does not affect the position basically, although I can assure him that the position was that as described by my right hon. Friend at the time to which he referred. This opportunity of ultimate repurchase is surely an important qualification, fully justifying the approach last summer to the former owners. I must say that I deplore the scepticism that I have read about the value of this qualification. We have clear undertakings in writing from the firm, and I am entirely confident that these will be honoured.

The other useful result of the consultation with former owners was that it has been found possible to remove causes of local disturbance which were brought to light during the consultation. Restrictions have been imposed on other users of the airfield. One very small category of test flights—the high-speed low-level flights—will be done elsewhere in the future. It has been possible to arrange this simply because flights of this nature are so occasional.

On the question of lease rather than sale, I should first say that I do not accept any suggestion that the firm's use of the airfield is likely to be limited to five years and that consequently a lease is the obvious answer. Who can say how long we will need ejector seats?

The other arguments in favour of a lease are that it would better secure the position of the former owners and it would ensure stricter control on the activities carried out on the airfield. I have already dealt with the position of the former owners. As for unauthorised activities, such as private use by motor cyclists at weekends and so on, I believe that control can better be exercised by the firm on the spot if it owns the land rather than shares it with other lessees.

I am advised that any change in the planning permission which has been mentioned would be subject, ultimately, to the confirmation of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The planning per- mission granted to Martin Baker by the county council is very narrowly and precisely defined, and restricts it to ejector seat testing by that firm. The present planning permission would not allow the firm to erect a factory at Chal-grove or to use the airfield for production work. In any case, the firm has itself confirmed to my Ministry that it has no intention of seeking to erect a factory at Chalgrove and it plans to continue to use the airfield only for testing purposes, as at present. I can, therefore, see no substance in any of the arguments in favour of the lease.

My hon. Friend has mentioned a public inquiry. The Government see no need for that. There is no statutory requirement, and the correct position on this point and, indeed, on the 1954 policy as a whole was made clear at two meetings held last year with the former owners. I say this with conviction because I myself was present at the first meeting. I am, therefore, satisfied that the decision to sell Chalgrove to the firm was in line with Government policy and that all the facts which have been mentioned here tonight which might bear on this decision were taken into account.

The Question having been proposed after 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 nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.