HC Deb 16 July 1974 vol 877 cc408-18

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing time for this Adjournment debate even at this late hour.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister who is to answer the debate does not appear to be in his place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

That is not a matter for me.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I shall proceed with my speech, although it is difficult to know how the Minister will be able to reply to it, as he is not present.

At a time like this, when so many problems are besetting our nation, it may seem to some that the question where a county's boundary is drawn is not a matter on which I should delay the House, yet I believe that one of Parliament's functions is to right wrongs, no matter how great or how small, and that as the county boundary is now drawn between Berkshire and Oxfordshire a wrong has been committed.

Tonight I shall ask the Minister—who is now present—to reconsider the decision of the boundary commissioners, who ruled four important monuments out of Berkshire and in what we in Berkshire describe as "New Oxfordshire". I seek the return of the White Horse to Berkshire.

I ask the Minister to agree that the boundary line shall be redrawn in such a way that the White Horse and three other monuments that have been within Berkshire for a thousand years shall once again be within the royal county. The monuments to which I refer, apart from the White Horse, are part of the Ridgeway, Dragon Hill, Wayland Smith's Cave, and the Blowing Stone. All these monuments lie within an area of 3½ square miles and are about three miles from the county boundary, which came into existence on 1st April. In other words, a boundary change which would encompass about 10 square miles of the new county of Oxfordshire would satisfy the desires of my constituents and of many people living throughout Berkshire.

It may be wondered why the change of a county line matters so much, why more than 10,000 people signed a petition which was presented to Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle in June, or why the well-known archaeologist, Miss Jacquetta Hawkes—the wife of J. B. Priestley, the novelist—should have written in The Times recently, about the boundary commissioners' decision to leave the White Horse out of Berkshire: This disregard of people's feelings and the power of symbols to give meaning and identity is slowly destroying us. It is because Berkshire and the White Horse have had a relationship which has gone back more than a thousand years. After a thousand years each of us should wonder whether this is the moment to turn his back on the history of an important part of our country.

I admit that the White Horse is far older than the county boundary of Berkshire as it was up to 1st April. The White Horse symbol is thought to have been cut perhaps 2,000 years ago by a British tribe, the Atrebates. It so happened that their territory corresponded to what was the old County of Berkshire, so perhaps when they cut that rough design on the down-land they were setting a seal upon an area which until 1st April was the Royal County of Berkshire.

Nearby is a hill, called Dragon Hill. By popular myth or history—have it as you will—it is believed that on that hill St. George slew the dragon. If one doubts this, one should look at the hill and see the marks on the chalk where the dragon's blood ran down and where, even to this day, no grass will grow. Close by is Wayland Smith's Cave, which has been described as the most legendary long barrow in England and which featured in Sir Walter Scott's great novel, "Kenilworth".

These are some of the historical monuments of this small area which once were in the county and which now are excluded. Over them, standing as it has always stood, is the Ridgeway, the path that cuts across the centre of England and has been a route of commerce for so many centuries that no one really knows when it first started. It, too, was in the county of Berkshire and it, too, was excluded by the Boundary Commission's decision.

These, then, are the treasures which once were Berkshire's, and always there is the White Horse. Once—until this year—the White Horse was a symbol of the county's coat of arms. It is still part of Hungerford's coat of arms. It was the cap badge of the Berkshire Yeomanry in two world wars. The headstones of the members of that regiment, whose bodies lie in this country and abroad bear the White Horse symbol to show where they came from, and the regiment to which they belonged. It is the badge even to this day of the Berkshire Signals Squadron of the Territorial Army. It is the emblem of the Berkshire Federation of Women's Institutes. It is the badge of one of the halls of Reading University. It is the trade mark of local companies, in particular, one company which sells widely overseas—Lambourn Engineering.

Yet the White Horse—and the symbols of the White Horse in each of the ways I have described—is no longer Berkshire's. It belongs to Oxfordshire. All those people who once believed that it was part of the county's traditions now have to dismiss it from their thoughts, and they wonder why this has to be—why the stroke of a civil servant's pen can end 1,000 years of history, and of historical connection. For anyone who cares about tradition, this is a tragedy, and something which must make us all wonder how a boundary change—a line on a map—can be drawn so arbitrarily as to end so many historical links.

Nor are the arguments against changing the boundary really worth more than a cursory glance. Since I took up the cudgels to have the White Horse returned to Berkshire, I have received 105 letters and postcards, mainly from people living in and around Uffington, telling me they would prefer the White Horse to stay in their parish. I set this against the 10,000 names on the petition, and this shows clearly that the argument is overwhelmingly in favour of the people of Berkshire.

Of course, I admit the link between the White Horse and Uffington, and, as we are told so often in our history books, how they scoured the chalk and kept the horse in order. I feel for them, that they, too, should have been taken out of the royal county, but that is no reason to deprive the county of its traditional symbol.

Uffington, I suppose, must stay in Oxfordshire, but I want the White Horse back in Berkshire. Since when have parish boundaries—the boundaries which the people of Uffington claim embrace the White Horse, and so make it theirs rather than Berkshire's—taken precedence over county boundaries? Here, surely, is a case where the parish boundary might encompass the White Horse and the county boundary of Berkshire do the same? There are no more than perhaps 20 people involved in what I am talking about as a boundary change. It is a line on a map, something that will give back to Berkshire a thing that matters so much to her.

To those who have argued "Why should Berkshire care about the White Horse? Although it stands high on the Berkshire downland, nobody in Berkshire can see it, but only the people below in Oxfordshire as they look up", I reply that if that argument is to have any validity we should give the White Cliffs of Dover to the French—the only people who can see them. Which hon. Member would stand by such an argument? It is palpable nonsense. Our White Horse, standing on our downland, reminds all the people below that they are coming to the royal county of Berkshire, and they had better look to their laurels before crossing our county boundary. At least, that was the position before 1st April, but, alas, is no more.

Some people are undoubtedly intoxicated by the effectiveness of a certain whisky advertisement, which tells us that we can take a White Horse anywhere. To them I retort, "You can't take the White Horse from Berkshire. You may draw your line for the moment so that it is not in the county, but the traditions are there; the headstones lie in foreign fields the coats of arms are there for all to see."

I appeal to the Minister to do justice to the royal county by—in Miss Jacquetta Hawke's words—restoring the White Horse and the chalk beneath its hooves to their original owners. I urge the Minister to say that he will lend the weight of his Department to ask the Boundary Commission to bring forward its review of Berkshire's boundaries from 1979 to the present day, and to remember the 10,000 names on the petition, and the tiny opposition that I have received.

If my words have failed to persuade the hon. Gentleman that he should lend the weight of his Department to that, may I ask him to consider the possibility of a referendum in the counties of Berkshire and Oxfordshire to decide where the White Horse should be. I promise him that if we have such a referendum, we in Berkshire will not fight whatever decision the people make, for we believe that the people want the White Horse back in the royal county of Berkshire.

11.59 p.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

As the White Horse is in my constituency, I am grateful to have a few minutes to say something about the position of my constituents in the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has made a most eloquent plea for the return of the White Horse to Berkshire. I should like to put one or two points about that plea. First, affection for the White Horse is not confined to the county of Berkshire. Many people revere this ancient monument. I live quite close to it, and I know the feelings of my constituents about the matter. There is no tiny opposition to the restoration of the White Horse to new Berkshire.

The campaign to keep the White Horse in Berkshire did not begin until after thepassing of the Local Government Act. There was hardly a clause or schedule in that Bill which was not contested hotly and scrutinised by hon. Members. That was not so in this case. No representations were ever made to the Local Government Boundary Commission about it.

As we know, the campaign has continued since. But the Vale of White Horse District Council has only just been set up and has only just started work. To divorce the White Horse from the new district which bears its name would seem to be absurd. I make no criticism of my hon. Friend, but it is rather extraordinary that since the boundary changes took effect, neither the Vale of White Horse District Council nor the Oxfordshire County Council has been consulted by those responsible for this agitation.

Since ancient times, this monument has been in the parish of Uffington. No doubt the Local Government Boundary Commission, realising that the limits of that parish were 1½ miles south of White Horse Hill, framed its recommendations on that basis.

Unfortunately for my hon. Friend's eloquent argument, the Vale of White Horse district is on the north side of the hill, invisible from the new Berkshire and dominating the vale itself. It would be wrong, in those circumstances, to alter the ancient parish boundaries either of Uffington or in relation to the other monuments my hon. Friend mentioned—the Blowing Stone and Wayland Smith's Smithy. It is the people of Uffington who scoured the White Horse, which has no connection with Lambourn parish, and the White Horse is only a mile from the village of Uffington itself.

Then there is the effect on the Vale of White Horse and the new district council. Since April, it has been settling down to its work, and it has been irritated, to say the least, by the suggestion that the White Horse should be removed from it as it forms an integral part of the vale from which it takes its title. It has been known that the reorganisation has been proceeding for two and a half years.

All boundary changes arouse controversy, and I have had many representations in opposite terms to those received by my hon. Friend. Many of my constituents wished to remain in Berkshire. There was considerable feeling about it. But I have heard from all political parties—Abingdon Labour Party, the Liberal Association and my own party. All have written strongly supporting what I have been saying. So have most of the parish councils in the Ridgeway area, and a mass of my constituents have written to me. I have had only two letters supporting my hon. Friend's point of view.

Many people feel with me that this famous and much admired memorial is not owned by Berkshire or Oxfordshire. It does not belong to counties, and it should not be the subject of boundary disputes. It belongs to the nation, and it is in the care of the Secretary of State for the Environment. I made this point in a letter to The Times in reply to Miss Jacquetta Hawkes. Everyone has access to the White Horse, and it is the property of the nation.

In reply to the debate, I hope that the Under-Secretary will support the decisions of the Boundary Commission and the views of my constituents.

12.4 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)

I am grateful to both the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) for their contributions, which have displayed the eloquent force of the arguments with regard to both counties over this unique archæological feature of the British Isles which is obviously held dear by both counties.

We know from the advertisement to which reference has been made that "You can take a White Horse anywhere". The hon. Member for Newbury refutes that argument by saying that this White Horse cannot be taken anywhere.

As the hon. Member for Abingdon said, the Local Government Bill of 1972 was one of the most fiercely debated and contested Bills ever to come before this House. Never once—during Second Reading, in Committee, lasting day and night, on Report, again lasting day and night—was the question of the boundaries of Berkshire and Oxfordshire debated in relation to the White Horse. It is true that the people in this part of Berkshire are not objecting to the fact that they have been transferred to the county of Oxfordshire. It is the county symbol, as the hon. Member describes it, which finds itself across the boundary in another county.

The hon. Member for Abingdon pointed out with force that the monument faces north. It is approached by roads from the north and significantly gives its name to that part of Oxfordshire which it overlooks. It is a most charming name for the district—the Vale of White Horse. That is the district in which it is now situated.

All the signs, for a considerable time, have been that the parish has maintained this horse. It is referred to as the Uffington Horse. I do not think that is a fair description, because this horse has far more than a parish, county or, indeed, national significance. I appear tonight as the Minister concerned with local government, and as the groom—because the Department of the Environment has, since 1856, been responsible for the scouring of the White Horse. This is a charming ceremony, which went on originally from the parish of Uffington. Every year there was an annual scouring fair, when the horse was scoured, its boundaries maintained in pristine whiteness, and cheeses were rolled down the Manger sides for the villagers to eat. That was a charming British ceremony.

Now it is not so glamorous. The useful and essential work is carried on by the Department's Ancient Monuments section. The White Horse still remains a magnificent figure on the landscape for the people of the area and the country to enjoy.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

The Minister used the expression "a charming British custom". I think he has the wrong words. Surely he meant "a charming Berkshire custom".

Mr. Oakes

I did not mean a charming Berkshire custom. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. One of the hon. Gentleman's supporters is the Poet Laureate, who wrote in support of this horse's remaining in the Royal County of Berkshire. I refer the hon. Gentleman and the Poet Laureate to some lines by G. K. Chesterton about this horse: Before the gods that made the gods Had seen their sunrise pass The white horse of the White Horse Vale Was cut out of the grass". The White Horse was cut out 2,000 years ago. It was maintained long before the parish came into existence. It was probably maintained even during Roman times. It is truly an ancient British monument.

I can understand the feeling in Berkshire about this monument because of its symbolic significance. Many hon. Members who may not have had quite so symbolic or ancient a monument in their constituencies as the White Horse had to part company with things which were dear to their hearts as a result of the Local Government Act 1972. They found that they were in a different county, with different traditions, in different company. Most of them are now—some reluctantly—learning to adapt to their new county.

We, as a Government did not fully support all that was behind the Local Government Act 1972. As a Government we are indeed reluctant to disturb the whole pattern of that measure because of the trauma that local government suffered. We have no objection to this boundary adjustment. Indeed, the Redcliffe-Maud Committee supported the idea that this part or Berkshire should go into Oxfordshire. It did not refer to the White Horse. It accepted that this part of the county of Berkshire should go into Oxfordshire. We in the Opposition concurred, and the then Government concurred. Not one voice was raised in this House against the proposal, neither on behalf of people of the parish nor in respect of the symbol. There are few areas, few boundaries, few parish boundaries that one can say that about in respect of the passage of the Local Government Act.

Both hon. Gentlemen lay claim to the horse. The horse looks to the north. The Boundary Commission will deal with this matter in 1984—because this is a country boundary matter—10 years from the coming into operation of the Act. That commission will be open to receive representations from both hon. Gentlemen. I hope that both hon. Gentlemen will be here in 1984 to make those representations, and that their constituents, likewise, will make representations to the commission. The commission will decide between the two on the question of the county boundary.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument that few people are involved in this matter. This is downland, in a most attractive area—both physically and archeologically—in the county.

I endorse what the hon. Member for Abingdon said, both in his speech tonight and in his letter. This treasured ancient monument is not the property of the county of Berkshire; it is not the property of the county of Oxfordshire; it is not the property of the country of England. It has been there for 2,000 years. Before the Romans came the White Horse was in the hills—a symbol similar to that on the coins which existed in Grecian times. This is not a county matter, a parish matter or even a country matter. It is not a Berkshire symbol, an Oxfordshire symbol or an English symbol. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will appreciate that it belongs to us all. This is a British monument and symbol.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, having heard the reply to the debate, will realise that the treasure that Berkshire has given up has been given to the British nation. The treasure that Oxfordshire now has is a trust on behalf of the whole British nation—indeed, of the civilised Western world.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.