HC Deb 03 December 1973 vol 865 cc1048-60

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards (Pembroke)

The Leader of the House has said that there will in due course be a debate on the report of the Defence Lands Committee, but that it will take place after the Government have reached their conclusions. That is entirely wrong. Surely the right course is for the Government to take hon. Members' views into account before reaching decisions. That is why I am raising tonight the major recommendation of the committee, the proposal to transfer the RAC range from Lulworth to Castlemartin.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Major-General Jack d'Avigdor Goldsmid) has already discussed in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill some of the military implications of the recommendations, and has presented a forceful case for rejecting them. I shall try to show that the social and environmental arguments are equally powerful.

I have the impression that, as it approached the end of its labours, the committee suddenly realised to its horror that it was unlikely to recommend the release of any significant site. Fearing a public outcry, and taking note of a long-sustained campaign by amenity groups for the lease of Lulworth, in desperation it came up with the ill-considered proposal to transfer the RAC range.

Whether my impression is right or not, what seems to be beyond argument is that it failed at this point to perform one fundamental public duty ; it totally and completely neglected to consult those who would be most affected, or even to inform them of what it had in mind. Beguiled perhaps by the fact that the status quo at Castlemartin is reluctantly accepted by the people of Pembrokeshire, the committee did not even discuss the proposals with the county council or the national park committee. No one in the area was given even the slightest hint that a massive extension of military activity might be proposed.

The Tyneham Action Group is, therefore, incorrect when it claims that the recommendation was reached after a very careful and detailed examination of the evidence, and that … it may be assumed that a wise and impartial judgment has been arrived at. The truth is that the committee listened to the views of those who were to be relieved of the burden and that it did not even speak to those whom it now wishes to shoulder it.

Fortunately, the committee's failure has been redeemed by the Government, who have willingly received representations from a large number of local organisations and others. The Government have been doing the job that the committee neglected to do. But, even then, if they were to accept the recommendation, there would have to be a public inquiry—although I trust that we will not get to that point, because the objections to the proposal are formidable.

First, there is the loss to agriculture—I am glad to see the Minister of State, Welsh Office, who is responsible for agriculture in Wales, present—of the favourable winter grazing for sheep, which is not something to be treated lightly. This is a critical and indispensable element in the country's agricultural structure. Each autumn, about 12,000 to 15,000 sheep arrive on the ranges, and after lambing a much larger number are transferred to the high uplands of the Prescelly Hills. In addition, a considerable number of store cattle graze on the ranges. At Castlemartin we are already being deprived of the full use of some of the best agricultural land in Britain. This further loss would have serious consequences for the farmers in the Prescelly Hills and those in the immediate area. It might well drive more off the land altogether.

Then there is the fact that it will be necessary to close public access to what has been described as some of the finest coastal scenery anywhere in the world. Unlike Lulworth, all of it lies within a national park. It includes the incomparable Stack Rocks and the finest breeding colony of sea birds accessible to the public on the mainland of Britain and visited by thousands of people each year. All this would be shut off although "improved access for the public" was included as one of the main objectives in the terms of reference given by the Government to the committee. It is ironic that the committee recommended expenditure of £100,000 a year to improve access at Lulworth in the years prior to closure while putting forward a scheme which would totally shut off the coastal part in this national park.

There will, if the move takes place, be an intolerable increase in the burden of noise falling on people living in the neighbouring villages and the towns of Pembroke, Pembroke Dock and Milford. Because of the lie of the land, the nuisance is far worse than at Lulworth. These Pembrokeshire towns all lie close by, in the prevailing wind off the range, and the town of Milford Haven, because of the geology and the open water of the Haven is particularly vulnerable to noise and vibration. A population of 30,000 is, therefore, affected by these proposals.

At present no firing takes place in winter, during two weeks in August, at weekends, generally after 4.30 in the afternoon and never after midnight. In future it will be necessary to fire the whole year round, with greater concentration and frequently at night.

The fourth objection is that it will be necessary to construct a large new camp, installations and married quarters, in the national park. The present camp is quite small and relatively unobtrusive. The new and much larger camp would represent a major development in a place where it would never otherwise be permitted. This part of the park is maintained as a designated remote area, in which any form of development is severely restricted and from which coast-side caravan sites have been removed. A development of the kind now proposed would make a mockery of the work of the National Parks Commission

I must draw the attention of the House to the likely conflict between the needs of the Army for concentrated range use and the requirements of the port of Mil-ford Haven. It is extraordinary that the committee should make its recommendation without any reference to those who run the port, and even more extraordinary that, having laid down the condition that the site must be clear of main shipping lanes and have minimum interference from coastal shipping, fishing and yachting", it should then propose the increased use of a range whose danger area lies directly across the entrance to the country's greatest oil port. It is also a fishing port and the centre of Celtic Sea oil exploration.

The Conservancy Board in a letter to the Department of the Environment said : It will be seen from the enclosed chart that the full range danger area completely dominates the approaches to the port. Since shipping has priority, it has been found in practice that military personnel have frequently had to stand idly by their guns for periods while ships pass through the danger zone, and in the past successive Commandants of the range have repeatedly sought our assistance in persuading masters of vessels to avoid the danger area, while they have themselves restricted charges so as to reduce the extent of the danger area and thus permit firing to be less interrupted. The board goes on to say that it : does not readily accept the statement in … the report that tankers do not cause a serious problem. It has grave fears that in future shipping will not be given the absolute precedence it should clearly have in entering a great port. Its fears are reinforced by the reference in paragraph 89 to byelaws needed to prevent unacceptable interruption to training.

There is the problem of communication and road congestion. Once again the committee fails to comply with its own conditions that ready access by rail and road must be available. No attempt is made to explain how troops are to travel from Bovington to Castlemartin. If the journey is made by road, they may well find themselves in the position of the German general on a recent visit to the ranges who spent three and a half hours one Saturday morning on the road from Castlemartin to Carmarthen. Visitors to demonstrations on the ranges, and I understand there are many of them, will find the journey far more difficult than to Lulworth. Troop and ammunition transports will inevitably add to the existing congestion on inadequate roads.

There are the enormous military difficulties spelled out in the report, including the problem of arriving at satisfactory arrangements with the German Army, with which there is a particularly happy relationship in Pembrokeshire. Those arrangements, I believe, are important to the British Army, too. I do not intend to elaborate on the case already ably deployed by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth or on what the committee itself describes as the "formidable weight of military evidence". I can only say that not one soldier I have spoken to believes that the proposals can be made to work.

Finally, there is the question of cost. At a time when there are overwhelming economic arguments for a reduction in public expenditure and when the defence budget is being cut back by £50 million, it seems to me almost insane to contemplate the expenditure of more than £14 million on building new installations when perfectly good ones exist already. In any case, I believe that the estimate will prove—as estimates are prone to prove—wildly optimistic. It does not, for example, include the cost of building schools, and yet I am assured that the existing schools could not possibly absorb the added burden and, indeed, that the move would leave perfectly good schools in Lulworth standing vacant.

I may be told that the scheme would provide jobs in an area of unemployment. It would do so only at the expense of jobs in Dorset, and in any case it is questionable whether those who have been employed for high wages in constructing refineries will switch easily to the kind of employment which would be provided by the range and at a time when developments in the Celtic Sea are likely to provide new opportunities.

In conclusion, I must draw attention to one remarkable fact which I think may well be confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King). While nobody in Pembrokeshire wants the Army to come from Lulworth, practically no one from Dorset wants it to leave. Of course, there is a pressure group, but, as the report said, A majority of representations favoured continued military presence at Bovington and Lulworth and sought no changes in the present arrangements. The Bishop of Portsmouth reported in a letter in The Times that a public meeting and opinion poll at Lulworth showed an overwhelming majority in favour of no change. I have here a copy of the Bournemouth Evening Echo, which, under the heading Big support to let Army stay", says that 97 per cent. support for their campaign to keep the Army in Lulworth is being claimed by the village committee fighting the Nugent recommendations to close the gunnery range and Dorset Planning Committee decided yesterday they would like the Army to stay.' In Pembrokeshire opposition has been expressed by every local authority, new and old, by all the political parties, unanimously at public meetings, by the farmers' unions, by the women's institutes, by the National Park Committee, by the Milford Haven Conservancy Board, by the Wales Tourist Board, by the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales and by a host of individuals and organisations throughout Wales and beyond Wales. There is total unanimity in the opposition. The case for rejecting these ill-considered plans—and, incidentally, I hope that the matter will not be left entirely to the Ministry of Defence, because other Departments are deeply involved—appears to me to be overwhelming. It is time that the Government rejected them.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Nicholas Edwards) has presented on behalf of his constituents a cogent case which I am sure has impressed the House and which I hope has impressed the Minister. I must briefly say something for Dorset.

The function that the Minister has to fulfil is to marry environment plans with military efficiency. I understand his difficulty. It is proposed that three areas should be upset : first, that the occupants of Castlemartin shall, against their will, have military use upon their land increased ; secondly, that the population of Lulworth and Tyneham shall have something inflicted upon them against their will ; thirdly, that the inhabitants of Hohne, which has armoured regiments stationed in the neighbourhood, should have something done to them against their will, involving international repercussions.

I speak for Dorset only. I have represented Dorset, South for some time. I recall no instance in which there has been such unanimity against what Lord Nugent and his committee suggest. Dorset County Council is against the proposal by 97 to three. In the village of West Lulworth, which is nearest to the range, 97 per cent. of the population are against it, as is Wareham Rural District Council, Swanage Rural District Council, Wareham Urban District Council, every parish council in the neighbourhood, the National Farmers' Union, two trade unions and the Labour and Conservative candidates in the area. I should be interested to hear of greater unanimity on any issue than that.

In Hohne, which by courtesy of the Minister I was permitted to visit by helicopter a month or two ago, a German organisation—and Germany is not now an imperial fief—similar to those in Pembrokeshire and Dorset is equally determined to preserve its environmental heritage. So there is this curious game of military dominoes in which Dorset, Castlemartin and Hohne in Germany are all upset. To what end?

The cost is to be £14 million as at today's prices, which must mean £30 million in five years' time. It is not a reasonable proposal. I hope that the Minister, in consultation with his right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, will reject it, as it should be rejected.

I do not disregard altogether the claims of the amenity groups. Lord Nugent suggested a compromise. Instead of this huge expenditure, for £100,000 a year reasonable access could be given to Lulworth, and that would satisfy most parties.

10.53 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Peter Blaker)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Nicholas Edwards) on his success in obtaining this Adjournment debate on a subject which I know is dear to his heart. Ever since the publication of the committee's report he has left my Department in no doubt of his great interest in and concern for the constituency he represents, which I know from my visit to the area last April has in it some of the most beautiful scenery in the country and one of the most important army training areas.

I pay tribute, also, to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King). Since the report was published, he, too, has taken an active and vigorous interest in the matter. He has consulted the views of his constituents and led a deputation to see me which presented, with great cogency and clarity, a case for the Army staying in Lulworth. I note that both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke are tonight singing in harmony.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke criticised the Nugent Committee. I am sure all hon. Members, whether or not they agree with the committee's recommendations, agree that in producing its report the committee performed a valuable service. The committee took a long time, and did a great deal of intense work in the preparation of the report.

I know that my hon. Friends would like me to give a definite answer tonight, but I do not imagine that they are really expecting me to do so. As they know, the Government are still considering this recommendation, as well as other recommendations that the committee made. Nevertheless, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 16th October, the Government hope to announce their conclusions early in the new year. The House will recall that, when the report was published, the Government stated in the accompanying White Paper that they wished to allow a period for public consideration, and I think it only right, given the very difficult decisions which have to be reached, that this period should be fairly long.

Mr. Evelyn King

I understand that the Government allow the public to comment, but is it not also reasonable to allow this House to comment before a decision is taken?

Mr. Blaker

That is a point for my right hon. Friend, and no doubt he will note what my hon. Friend has said. As I was saying, I think it right that the period for consideration should be fairly long so that there is adequate time for anyone who has views to formulate them.

The recommendation was that the Castlemartin site should be retained and that greater use should be made of it in order to facilitate the move of the RAC Gunnery School from Lulworth. The main function of the school is to train officers and NCOs of the Royal Armoured Corps as gunnery instructors who will subsequently be responsible for the supervision of all aspects of gunnery training within their regiments, the greater part of which are in the British Army of the Rhine.

The move of the Gunnery School to Castlemartin would mean that the range there would have to be used for 12 months of the year, as opposed to the more restricted use at present, which leaves the area free for sheep and cattle grazing during the winter. There would be more firing at weekends and at night. The report fully recognised that the recommendation posed a number of difficult problems, and, not surprisingly, we have received a large number of representations since the report was published, not only from my hon. Friends, but from many others concerned with Castlemartin. We have been examining the problem very carefully in the light of all the representations which we have received.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke rightly pointed out, one of the most difficult of the problems is the question of the training facilities which we have provided for the use of the Army of the Federal Republic of Germany at Castlemartin since 1961. At present it has exclusive use of the range for five months a year, and sends its armoured units to carry out tank gunnery practice. The Federal Republic particularly values the excellent battle-run at Castlemartin. The committee, in proposing that the Gunnery School should move to Castle-martin, recommended that consultation should take place with the Federal German authorities on how best their future tank training requirements could be met. The Government have assured the Federal Government that there will be adequate consultation with them before any decision is taken. Consultation is well in hand, and certain detailed studies have been made.

I should like to turn now to some of the representations which have been made to us about Castlemartin in more detail. We have received 57 letters so far, including 26 from private individuals, 13 from local authorities and 18 from national or regional bodies or societies concerned with conservation and the environment. All but five of these have been against the proposal made by the Nugent Committee and none has been positively in favour.

In addition, as my hon. Friend knows, a deputation from the Castlemartin Action Group came to the Ministry of Defence on 19th September. Its members were ably led by Mr. John Bennion, the chairman of the South Pembrokeshire District Council. They set out their arguments in a reasonable and cogent manner, drawing special attention, as my hon. Friend has done, to the amenity value of the Pembrokeshire National park, the dependence of the area on tourism and agriculture, the present good relations between the Army and the local community, and the strains which they feared might be put on the local services by an influx of additional resident population. Their comments will be fully taken into account before a decision is reached.

I should comment here on the view which my hon. Friend has expressed about the adequacy of the Nugent Committee's study of the effects of its proposals. The deputation also made this point. Lord Nugent's committee was an independent one, but a reading of its report, in particular pages 154, 157 and 345 to 348 shows that it was very conscious of the problems that its suggestion for greater use of Castlemartin would present.

The members of the committee visited Castlemartin itself and examined those areas which had been the subject of evidence from the public. They accepted that the greater use of the area which they proposed would, for example reduce the opportunity for grazing sheep and cattle there. They also make clear that they investigated in depth the possibility of increasing training activities at Castlemartin, and they took advice from the Welsh Office and noted that such increased activity would reduce the possibility of giving greater public access to the coastal path and St. Govan's Head. They recognised that their proposals would be resisted but nevertheless concluded unanimously that, taking all the factors into account, environmental and otherwise, their recommendations were right. My hon. Friend made particular reference to some of these factors, and they are all very relevant points.

Though I cannot speak for the members of the committee, I should be surprised if they were not conscious of the majority of the points which my hon. Friend has made. But, in any event, I assure him that they will all be weighed very carefully in the balance by the Government before a decision is reached.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards

The committee deals with the difficulties for Castlemartin in a few short paragraphs but devotes several pages of the report to the detailed evidence given by a wide range of bodies in Dorset. I have in my hand a letter from the county council informing me that at no time did it receive an invitation to meet the committee or to discuss the proposals that it would be putting forward. I know that the Committee spent less than a day looking at the site.

Mr. Blaker

I note what my hon. Friend has to say. The committee received evidence from the county council, though it may be true that it did not discuss the matter with the council—although it was an independent committee and it is not my job to assess how it acted. Whether or not the committee acted correctly, it is my job to listen to the representations made to me and to the Government by my hon. Friends and those coming from other sources.

In conclusion, I thank both my hon. Friends for the way that they have put their case. Whatever decision the Government finally come to, it is hardly likely to meet with universal approbation. But my hon. Friends can rest assured that all the points they have made will be most carefully examined.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Eleven o'clock.