HC Deb 31 July 1978 vol 955 cc220-8

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

12.28 a.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for being here at a late hour to consider the problems of Stonehenge. I wish that it had been possible to spare him. But, as he knows, the difficulties arising from the annual solstice celebrations have not abated. It is the Government alone who can improve matters.

In March I wrote to Lady Birk, who has responsibility for ancient monuments, asking her whether I would be on my feet, yet again, in this Chamber after this year's summer solstice. I asked her whether there were any grounds for believing that what had happened in three-successive years would not recur. In the event, troubles did recur. I cannot speak too highly of the Wiltshire police—of their patience, humanity and efficiency.

Despite the efforts of the police, at dawn on 16th June the same padlocked gate was forced and the same farmer has suffered heavy damage to field and fencing. When I took a look at the situation the following day, I found that the illegal army of festival-goers had already dug in—vehicles, tents, stage, the lot.

The Minister will not be surprised if am critical. His Department owns the monument—and the monument acts as a magnet. Young people are attracted to it from all over the country and the Continent. They know that the main axis of the monument is aligned to the midsummer sunrise at 4.59 a.m. on 21st June. They know that Stonehenge is steeped in mystery and legend. They seek to get as close to it as possible, and that much is not difficult to understand.

Their number runs into thousands. I am told that the invasion is planned and publicised by two communes in Muswell Hill. They arrive for a fortnight, and the Minister knows that there is no sanitation, no water, no firewood, no provision of any kind. The Minister is rightly concerned with the safety of the monument itself. He rings it with dannert wire, a necessity which both he and I regret. But the direct result is that the invading army, unable to penetrate the Minister's defences, denied the chance to pitch camp within the stone circle, turns off the road a few hundred yards short of but in sight of the monument itself.

The Minister then washes his hands of the whole business. It is, according to Lady Birk's letter to me, a matter for the police and the owners and occupiers of the land. Yet, all too correctly, she points out: the legal remedies open to owners and occupiers in the case of mass trespass are difficult to bring to bear in time to prevent the trespass from taking place. Neither we nor the police know the identity of the organisers and there is accordingly little prospect of obtaining an injunction to restrain them. Even if one were obtained against some individuals, and served upon them, others would be likely to take their place in promoting the festival. Precisely. To put it another way, the law is inadequate. This is an ignoble posture for Government. The Minister rings his own plot with dannert wire, and with all the resources of the State. He then tells the National Trust and its farming tenants to fend for themselves, and in the same breath accepts the total absence of legal remedy available to them.

So the first thing I ask the Minister for tonight is compensation for the farmer who has suffered. The Department's receipts from the monument exceed £150,000 a year, and I am talking about 1 per cent. of that figure. These are unique circumstances. There is no danger of creating precedents, for there is only one Stonehenge, and its problems are peculiar, not general.

I suggest that the Department should consider claims on an ex gratia basis. I suggest that the ability to claim should be confined solely to farming tenants of National Trust land surrounding the monument. I expect the Minister to accede to this request.

If he tells me that he can find no way of doing so, I shall ask myself what calibre of Ministers are being appointed to the Department today. If a Minister cannot find £2,000 to ensure the good name of his Department, something is seriously wrong.

A year ago the Minister spoke of football crowds doing damage to shops and houses on their way to football grounds, in which cases the owners of the grounds cannot be expected to compensate all in the area for something a third party does."—[Official Report, 27th July, 1977; Vol. 936, c. 905.] With respect, this is a wholly false analogy, and the Minister knows it.

At Stonehenge the invaders have only one wish—to pitch their tents at the monument and the Minister's dannert wire prevents them from doing so. His Department is on record as saying, We realise, of course, that action to deter trespass on our land may deflect the festival on to other land nearby. I have a second proposal. I suggest that in future the Minister should receive the invaders on his own land. He has a lease of some 30 acres, so there is plenty of room. The police will be happy about that. Archaeologically the dangers are no greater than at present. The National Trust is greatly troubled by the whole business, but it would be prepared to agree that one site is less objectionable than others. The great advantage would be that damage to private property would cease.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. Either he receives the tents and vehicles himself, or he assists those who carry the burden instead. His present stance is equivocal, and it does him no credit.

I start from the premise that we cannot go on as we are. I accept that no alternative course is perfect, and I realise that the Minister's 30 acres are cheek-by-jowl with the monument. This means that for a fortnight visitors will be horrified by the clutter of vehicles and tents close by. I repeat that no alternative course is perfect.

However, I suspect that there is another reason why the Minister shies away from admitting the festival on to his own land. The festival is illegal—it is mass trespass. He cannot condone illegality. To me, that argument is valid the first year. It is less valid the second year. In the third year illegality becomes a recognised feature. After four years the argument about not condoning illegality becomes academic and hypocritical.

Of course I deplore non-observance of the law, but I believe that we must face reality and cannot go on as we are. I believe that the Minister's attitude, safely behind his barbed wire, is the regrettable attitude of "I'm all right, Jack." If plans have to be made to hold in reserve and readiness water carts, firewood and what are called "Portaloos", so be it.

Finally, action is needed here in Parliament. The law is inadequate, yet the Department is silent. I believe that a Bill —the Night Assemblies Bill—would have helped. Surely that measure contained much that was constructive. Was it not regrettable that that Bill should have been talked out at a late stage by some of the Minister's less responsible colleagues?

I hope that the Minister will say a brief word tonight about his intentions in this respect. I have not time now to deal with the important questions of crowd control and all the rest of it. That must wait. We are deeply proud in Wiltshire to have this great monument, but it is an inheritance which brings practical problems in its train. I hope that the Minister will help.

12.42 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I wish to thank the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) for his unfailing courtesy in his dealings with my Department about solstice events at Stonehenge —one of our most important monuments, if not the most important monument—and for his generally understanding attitude to the difficulties that face us all—government, local authorities, the police and local people—in this matter. Although the hon. Gentleman has spoken strongly tonight, I agree that he is justified in so doing.

Last year's debate on Stonehenge ended at 5 a.m. This debate will end at about 1 a.m. Perhaps tonight we should have invited the druids and the festival folk to come to listen to this debate and then to go on to the Terrace to watch the sun rise between the stones of County Hall and St. Thomas's Hospital.

In my speech almost exactly a year ago I said: I should like to make it clear, to avoid misunderstanding, that the Department has neither encouraged nor condoned the free festival at Stonehenge. It is unauthorised and entirely unwelcome."—[Official Report, 27th July 1978; Vol. 936, c. 903–4.] That is still the case, but I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about the need to try to improve the position.

Let me try to summarise what happened this year. The Department erected a dannert wire triangle around the monument of Stonehenge. The Wiltshire police guarded the monument from 16th June until 27th June. The vanguard of the festival people arrived on 16th June and again encamped in a field to the east of the Fargo Plantation owned by the National Trust and farmed by Mr. Wort. Most of the time it was wet and rather chilly. This probably kept the attendance this year to about 2,000.

The site of the encampment is of archaeological importance as there are burial mounds there and it forms part of the "cursus". Less damage was done to farm and woodland than in 1977—the National Trust suggest approximately £1,000 worth. The Trust has promised to provide a detailed costing in a few weeks' time. The Stonehenge circle was open and free to all on the day following the summer solstice; the druids held a midday ceremony there and this was followed by a gathering attended by about 250 festival folk. All passed off uneventfully. Probably because the larger recumbent stones were covered with tarpaulin, negligible damage appears to have been done to the monument. By 27th June only a handful of festival folk were left and the dannert wire around the main site was removed on 28th June.

Although the free festival can be said to have passed off without damage to the monument or to life and limb, no one who was involved with events there can be entirely satisfied. Certainly not my Department, which had to spend thousands of pounds for police services and on the erection of dannert wire which made the immediate area look like a concentration camp; not the general public, who saw all this; not the police, who had to deploy precious manpower day after day on patrolling trespassers; not those attending the festival, who claim that, against their will, they had to squat illegally in insanitary conditions; not the National Trust, which saw its property damaged; and finally, but by no means least, not the tenant, Mr. Wort, whose farming was again disrupted for three weeks and who bore the brunt of the damage.

The hon. Member for Salisbury suggested an ex gratia payment to the tenants of the Trust whose land was invaded, in particular Mr. Wort. I have every sympathy with Mr. Wort and others whose property was damaged. As I sought to make clear last year, my Department is under no legal obligation to them and to make payments to them raises issues of considerable importance. Nevertheless, I accept the hon. Member's argument that there are very special circumstances in this case and although I can give no firm commitment about it—there will have to be a number of negotiations—I shall certainly consider very carefully with my noble Friend Lady Birk what he has said and shall do all I can. I can go no further at present, but I hope to receive a detailed costing from the National Trust soon.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested that we should let these people on to the Department's land. We considered this carefully, and this year we did not fence all the Department's land, but the festival folk still did not go on it. There are problems. There is no water, though I expect that that could be dealt with. It is archaeologically very sensitive and is very close to the monument.

The hon. Gentleman has also suggested that a form of licensing system is the answer to the problems, but that was not the view of the majority of members of the working group on pop festivals in their second report published in January. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State told the House on 19th January that the Government share that view.

This sort of trouble is so rare nowadays that it would be inappropriate to use the Night Assemblies Bill to which the hon. Gentleman referred. That could have repercussions on many other peaceful events throughout the country.

I said that the Department's land is archaeologically sensitive, but so is the land on which the festival folk camped. Miss Mellor of the Festival Welfare Services, to which the Home Office has given a grant, through the National Council of Social Services, distributed maps showing the various barrows and processional routes. These, together with notes urging people to have consideration for the sites, were helpful and, as far as I know, there was no damage to any site.

There would appear to be three options for future years. The first would be to seek to mount a really massive police exercise in the hope of breaking the habit of annual festivals at Stonehenge. I do not think that such an exercise would be feasible or successful and I think this course must be rejected out of hand. The second is for my Department to continue to safeguard its land as in the past. Obviously, Stonehenge must be protected, not only from these festivals, but from all the other visitors. But as I have already acknowledged, the effect of doing this is less than satisfactory to all the parties involved.

The third option—and it is the one that I and my colleague propose to adopt—is to seek further discussions with the Trust and the local authorities, including the police, to see whether other arrangements for accommodating the festival can be made. Exactly how and where I honestly do not know. We shall, however, seek genuinely to find a solution.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

Before the debate is called to a close, I wish to put on record how deeply I appreciate what the Minister has said.

Mr. Marks

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I realise that he has raised the problem again more in sorrow than in anger. I share his sentiments and I hope that it will not be necessary to debate the problem a third time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to One o'clock.