HC Deb 18 July 1984 vol 64 cc484-92

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

3.23 am
Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the matter of the proposed transmitter at Bearley. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and to my other hon. Friends for coming to the House to take part in this debate on an important issue, but at an inhospitable hour.

The proposal to site a radio transmitter at Bearley has been put forward by the BBC, acting as agents for the Foreign Office. It is part of a programme to improve the audibility of the external services. The installation will be one of largest and most powerful radio transmitters in Europe, consisting of six 300 Kw units, using 24 masts or more, most of them almost 300 ft high.

I and, to my knowledge, the many people who have objected to the use of the Bearley site hold the external broadcasting services of the BBC in the highest regard. We would wish to see those services further enhanced. But that is not the point at issue. The point at issue is the choice of the Bearley site for the new transmitter.

Bearley is three miles from the centre of Stratford-on-Avon. Within a radius of three miles of Bearley there are also 11 villages. Some 32,000 people live within the three-mile radius. In the past, the area has been the site of a radio receiving station. At present there are three slender masts on the site, less than 100 ft high and altogether inconspicuous. As a receiving station, it has caused no radio interference locally. Environmentally and technically, it is as different from the proposed transmitter as chalk from cheese.

There is a range of important objections to the choice of Bearley for the transmitter. They are the effects of radio frequency interference on households, businesses, and the Royal Shakespeare theatre, the damage to tourism, and the damage to the environment.

A large volume of evidence has been submitted to a public inquiry and there has been sharp disagreement between technical witnesses. Two key conclusions from the evidence presented are, however, beyond dispute.

The first is this. Observation of what actually happens around other existing transmitters shows that a wide variety of electronic equipment is affected by interference to distances of up to three and a half miles. This is so in the vicinity of the relatively new transmitter at Woofferton, as well as around the older one at Daventry. More than 200 complaints a year continue to be made about the effects of the Daventry transmitter. Equipment impaired in its operation includes televisions, radios, video recorders, hi-fi, answer-phones, club amplifiers, church organs, office and factory equipment, audio-visual equipment for conferences and computers.

Secondly, there is the evidence of the tests which were carried out at Stratford as part of the public inquiry. The BBC carried out test transmissions simulating the effect of the Bearley transmitter. The tests bore out the worst fears and demonstrated how devastating the effects of random and unpredictable radio frequency interference would be in the vicinity of the transmitter. At the Royal Shakespeare theatre, two out of 20 items of equipment which were observed under test were seriously affected. The stage lighting console was rendered unusable and three electronic typewriters had their memories erased. On an earlier occasion when tests were made by the theatre, other equipment, including the sound system, was made inoperable. At the Arden hotel, which is adjacent to the theatre, television, radio and hi-fi equipment was similarly affected.

The BBC has disputed the significance of the tests, but there has been no such trouble either before or since at the theatre. It is clear that interference would be liable to impair the operation of computers and other sensitive electronic equipment, whether in the RSC's two theatres or in homes or business premises.

The BBC has argued that screening is possible and claims that modern equipment in perfect working order will not be affected. That argument will not do, as it is unrealistic to suppose that every relevant item of electronic equipment in the area can be of the latest design and maintained in perfect condition or be screened or suppressed. Even if it were possible to achieve that, the disruption and the cost of doing so would be altogether prohibitive. It is not surprising that the BBC has made it clear that it would not be prepared to foot the bill, which for a household might be up to £100, while for the National Vegetable Research Station at Wellesbourne, even at a distance of eight miles from Bearley, it is estimated that a minimum of £30,000 would have to be found—out of research budgets which are already sorely depleted.

There are 11,000 households in the immediate area where the worst effects could be experienced. I want to emphasise the real apprehension and anxiety that exists and the really passionate opposition that there is to the transmitter. The feelings of the villagers of Bearley and Snitterfield, who would live in the very shadow of the construction, may be imagined, but there are very strong feelings throughout Stratford and the surrounding area.

I have submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary a statement of opposition to the transmitter, signed by 37 representatives of local interests. These include seven local parish councils, Stratford town council, the district and county councils, bodies representing trade unionists, hoteliers and caterers, other businesses and professional partnerships, the District Manufacturers Association and the chamber of trade, the Heart of England tourist board, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Royal Shakespeare theatre, the CPRE, the Friends of the Earth, the Liberal, Labour and Conservative parties, the Bishop of Coventry, the High Sheriff of Warwickshire, the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire, and the Lord Lieutenant of the West Midlands. My hon. Friend may agree that that is a remarkably comprehensive representation of the local community and serves to underline the unique and critical character of this issue.

It will be clear to my hon. Friend that what we are dealing with is not the exaggerated special pleading that is alway liable to be heard from people who object to a development which may mar their environment. We are talking of a genuine threat to the way of life of a community.

I should like to quote from letters written by the chief executives of the two largest employers in Stratford. Mr. Charles Thomas, the managing director of NFU Mutual and Avon Insurance, which is the 12th largest insurance company in Britain, has written: The employment of our 500 staff here in Stratford could be in jeopardy if our computer and associated equipment were to fail because of radio interference. Our headquarters in Stratford houses the main computing centre for the group into which we have recently invested over two and half million pounds in new equipment. We have been unable, however, to obtain guarantees of the continued operation of the equipment installed when transmission takes place. Many of the administrative processes of the group are totally dependent upon the continued operation of computers, and thus interference from this radio transmission station would rapidly bring the company to a standstill. Dr. Howard Hicks, chairman of IDC, a firm of international designers, constructors and engineers, employing 1,000 people, has similarly written: This company, which this year will have a turnover of approximately £60 million, could suffer irreparable damage by failures in computing and data processing equipment. Our computer-aided design and drafting deals with tens of millions of pounds worth of complex project work. These are the testimonies of senior and responsible people who have no interest at all in stirring up trouble or in causing anxiety to their employees and their clients. What they have said is paralleled by evidence from other smaller businesses on the industrial estates which are on the edge of Stratford and in the direction of Bearley. The much-used conference facilities in the hotels in Stratford would similarly be at risk. The blight on businesses and jobs which the transmitter would carry with it is deeply worrying.

The BBC has argued for the Bearley site in preference to the Orfordness site, for which permission was previously given, on the ground that it is cheaper. Cheaper for whom?

The aspect of this matter which has naturally aroused most concern nationally and, indeed, internationally, is the threat to the Royal Shakespeare theatre. The joint artistic directors of the RST, Mr. Trevor Nunn and Mr. Terry Hands, and the general manager of the theatre, Mr. David Brierley, have said publicly and repeatedly that it would not be possible for the theatre to survive in Stratford if the transmitter were built as proposed at Bearley.

Productions in the theatre depend upon computer-controlled lighting and sound systems. The theatre box office also depends upon a computerised system. There is a quantity of other electronic equipment in the theatre which would, as the inquiry tests demonstrated, be vulnerable.

My hon. Friend will recall the Government's positive response to the Priestley report last year. May I remind my hon. Friend of Mr. Priestley's conclusion: My advice is that the Government should now settle the affairs of the Royal Shakespeare Company on a foundation which consolidates its past investment and enables the Royal Shakespeare Company to go on from strength to strength. It would be a bizarre reversal if the Government, having last year rescued the RST financially, were now to countenance a development which would, in the words of the joint artistic director, be "unimaginably destructive". The artistic reputation of the RST is such in this country and abroad that there would be widespread outrage if its survival were even to be put at risk.

My hon. Friend may have noted an early-day motion which is on today's Order Paper and which is supported by no fewer than 133 hon. Members from the Labour and alliance parties in this House as well as the Conservative party. Among the leading signatures are those of the cochairmen of the all-party parliamentary arts and heritage group as well as the chairman and officers of the Conservative party arts and heritage committee.

The onus must plainly be on the BBC to demonstrate beyond any doubt that the sort of damaging effects which I have described would not take place. As it is, the BBC, notwithstanding protestations in various letters to the national press in recent weeks, does not deny that there could be interference. It is offering technical assistance to the theatre and to local businesses, although not to local households, in the event of trouble, but it has quite specifically refused to offer financial compensation—and a matter which the House might look at is the present state of the law, which allows the BBC to create high-tech pollution without financial liability.

A further very important ramification of this affair would be the damage to tourism if the theatre in Stratford were to be seriously disrupted or closed. It is estimated that about 1.5 million visitors, of whom 70 per cent. are foreigners, come to Stratford every year. For an important proportion of them the major attraction is the theatre. They then visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties as well as Ragley hall and the National Trust properties at Charlecote and Coughton.

Not only is the local economy substantially dependent on tourism, but the maintenance of this treasured part of our national heritage depends upon the income received from visitors. I need not elaborate on the significance of tourism to the national economy and the contribution to that that Stratford makes.

Looking at the case more broadly still, the impact of the transmitter upon the environment would also be unacceptable. The proposal, let me say again, is for 24 masts, most of them virtually the height of St. Paul's cathedral, linked by cables. This monstrous cat's cradle would loom not only over Stratford but over an extensive area of countryside greatly valued for its historical associations and natural beauty.

I hope, too, that my hon. Friend will be responsive to the consideration that the proposal is to site the transmitter and the associated plant for repair work in the Warwickshire green belt. Of course, that has been opposed by the local authorities. I know that my hon. Friend will be conscious of the strength of feeling that has been manifested in Parliament on the principle of the green belt. I draw encouragement from the recent statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on 4 July when, annnouncing his new circular, he said that the planning system must maintain established conservation policies, including Green Belts and from the wording of circular 14/84 which says: The essential characteristic of Green Belts is their permanence". It is difficult not to conclude that the choice by the BBC of the Bearley site was hasty and ill considered. The BBC was impatient after being turned down on previous applications for two sites. The evidence of the inquiry contradicts the assertion in a letter to The Times today by Mr. McCrirrick, the BBC director of engineering, that the BBC had made an exhaustive search for alternative sites. When challenged to say what alternative sites it had considered, it took the BBC witnesses a fortnight to come up with a list. As it is, nine other sites have been identified which, it is believed, match the criteria which the BBC claims for Bearley and of those three are in sparsely populated areas and one is on Crown land.

How can such a muddle have arisen? Busy men, impatient to achieve their purposes, advised by officials on a narrow technical basis, are, I suppose, liable to fall into grievous errors. We see two great British institutions, the BBC and the Foreign Office, heads down, lumbering towards disaster. It is difficult to be sure that they can be stopped in their tracks. My hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) received a letter dated only 10 July from the private office of a Foreign Office Minister referring to the likely construction of a transmitter at Bearley. Officials take it for granted that they will get their own way. The task of averting disaster falls on a few people: a band of local opponents working tirelessly and for a long time not very widely heeded and I would very much like to pay a tribute to the Stratford Transmitter Opposition Group, a local Member of Parliament, the inspector, my hon. Friend the Minister, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and the governors of the BBC.

I do not believe for one moment that the BBC authorities would wish to be responsible for snuffing out the Royal Shakespeare theatre and for doing the wider damage that I have described. I note that in his Gwilym James lecture at Southampton university earlier this year the director-general of the BBC, Mr. Alasdair Milne, observed that Public service broadcasting should always be mentor to the muses and that culture is a subtle, tender and complex plant. Quite so. It would be a grotesque irony if the BBC, a great patron of the arts, were to perpetrate such an act of vandalism.

A member of the BBC's engineering staff actually al one point volunteered the suggestion that if interference caused any trouble theatre staff would only have to ring up the staff at the transmitter and ask them to stop transmitting. On another occasion a BBC official suggested to me that the transmitter would be a positive embellishment to the Stratford skyline. It is hard to credit that things so fatuous could have been said, but they were.

Happily, more sense and more sensitivity are likely to prevail in the higher reaches of the BBC. Sir William Rees-Mogg, who is both chairman of the Arts Council and vice-chairman of the governors of the BBC, has, I am pleased to say, expressed his own concern about the environmental aspect and given me his assurance that, even if the BBC is successful in the inquiry, the matter will again come before the governors and, if there is a likelihood of serious damage to the Royal Shakespeare theatre or to local businesses, the BBC will reconsider the whole question of the Bearley transmitter.

I believe that the inspector will be bound to recommend against the use of the Bearley site. I urge Ministers, however, to be ready, whatever the outcome of the inquiry, to insist that Stratford is not violated.

3.40 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) has raised a subject which is important to him and his constituents. No doubt his words will be widely read over the next few days. His constituents have every reason to be grateful for what he has done on their behalf.

In view of the concern being expressed by my hon. Friend, other Members of both Houses and others outside Parliament, I am grateful for the opportunity to explain both the present position on this matter and the procedures being used to reach a decision.

Perhaps I may first recap on the history. The current proposal for a transmitter at Bearley dates from September 1983. It is in the form of a notice of proposed development, because it is Crown development and is, therefore, being handled under the procedures laid down in circular 7/77, "Development by Government Departments".

In view of the objections received, the Secretary of State directed that a public local inquiry should be held to enable arguments about the proposed development to be heard and considered by an inspector.

Although it was a non-statutory inquiry, the normal provisions of the inquiries procedure rules have been followed. Since many of the objections concerned the possibility of interference from the proposed transmitter with electrical, radio, computer and other such installations, a technically qualified assessor was appointed to advise on those interference aspects.

The public local inquiry took place in three stages—from 8 November to 2 December 1983 at the shire hall, Warwick; from 6 to 9 December 1983 at the town hall, Stratford-on-Avon; and from 20 to 22 March 1984 at the shire hall, Warwick.

Between 16 and 19 January this year, the BBC arranged for trial transmissions to be undertaken locally, so that tests could be made of the potential interference effects. The results of those tests were reported to the public local inquiry when it re-opened in March.

Although the inspector has not yet submitted his report, I understand that all the aspects of the proposal that concern my hon. Friend were fully ventilated at the public inquiry. I assure him in particular that the Royal Shakespeare theatre was represented at the inquiry and submitted evidence to the inspector. Indeed, I believe that more time was allocated at the inquiry to the Royal Shakespeare theatre's objections than to any other single objector. I am, therefore, satisfied that the matters that so concern my hon. Friend and others have had a full airing at a public local inquiry. Moreover, I have no reason to believe that circumstances have changed in any way since that inquiry took place.

The Secretary of State for the Environment directed that such an inquiry should be held. The public local inquiry procedure is designed for just this type of situation. It enables a planning proposal to be discussed in detail, for objections to be heard and for the proposers and objectors to cross-examine and to challenge each other's evidence. I do not, therefore, see what more could have been done to arrange a fuller, or more open consideration of the important issues raised by the proposal.

On the general policy about BBC world service transmissions, the Government attach considerable importance to the BBC external services which this year have a budget of £78 million. My hon. Friend was graphic in his approval of the role of the external services and their reputation. I agree with him. Britain has an external broadcasting service which is without equal in the world and which contributes greatly to our international reputation. However, in many parts of the world the BBC's signal is less strong than it should be and I know that the BBC is anxious to remedy that situation. In 1981 a programme was announced totalling £102 million to be spent over a 10-year period, to improve the BBC's reception round the world.

The proposed transmitting station at Bearley is a major component of that programme. It is intended to benefit listeners in several parts of the world, but perhaps most importantly it will benefit those people in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe who, despite considerable difficulties, continue to rely on the BBC for the honest and unbiased account of world affairs that they are denied by their own media.

I understand that there was some discussion at the public local inquiry about alternative sites for the proposed transmitter. Finding a site for a relay station such as this is no easy matter. It involves finding a site which is physically suitable for the propagation of a strong signal in the desired direction. And it must be close to the necessary services, including telecommunications and power.

In its search for a suitable site for the new high frequency transmitting station the BBC drew up a list of 21 criteria which needed to be satisfied. I am informed that a total of 21 possible sites were then examined in detail and that, after careful assessment, the BBC concluded that the site at Bearley came closest to satisfying all the criteria for this important and expensive investment. I understand that in the BBC's opinion the site at Bearley meets more of its requirements than any other of the sites considered in its exercise. The proposal has however raised considerable concern locally in view of both the size and visual impact of the aerials that it is proposed to construct and the fears that a high-powered transmitter would cause interference with electrical and other apparatus including in particular, various installations at the Royal Shakespeare theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. It was because of these various objections that the Secretary of State decided to set up a public local inquiry and to appoint a technically qualified assessor to advise on interference questions.

I would now like to deal with the request of my hon. Friend and of other Members of both Houses, who have signed an early-day motion and called for a debate on this matter before the Secretary of State announces his decision. I am sure that hon. Members will understand that the Secretary of State for the Environment's responsibility in cases like this require him to consider the planning merits of a proposal, in the light of evidence submitted by the local planning authority, the developing department and other interested parties. The inspector's role at a public local inquiry is to report to the Secretary of State on the evidence given both for and against the proposed development and on his conclusions and recommendations.

I have no reason to doubt that the inspector will provide such a report in this case. If any fresh evidence comes forward after the inquiry which the Secretary of State regards as relevant to the decision, and this includes evidence arising from a parliamentary debate, he must provide an opportunity for all parties to comment on it and they may ask for the inquiry to be re-opened.

Before issuing his decision the Secretary of State has a duty to satisfy himself that the inspector has dealt satisfactorily with the evidence, that the findings of fact flow from that evidence and that the conclusions and recommendations are soundly based.

Sometimes circumstances change after the conclusion of an inquiry, and it is thought necessary to give the parties the opportunity to make further representations. I am not aware of any such change of circumstance in this case. I am satisfied that all the matters of current concern were fully ventilated at the public local inquiry.

In case my hon. Friend was thinking of the arrangements in Scotland, perhaps I should explain that although the parties there are given the opportunity to comment on the accuracy of the factual part of the inspector's report, his conclusions and recommendations are not published in advance of the decision.

In conclusion, while recognising the breadth and depth of anxiety which this proposal has provoked, I would like to assure my hon. Friend that a full, thorough and open public local inquiry has been held. I am confident that the inspector will provide the Secretary of State with a report that will enable him to reach a balanced, reasoned decision. While I cannot at this stage comment on the planning merits of the proposal, I can assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State will certainly have regard to the many points because they were fully aired at the inquiry.

If, however, hon. Members or others have any new material which they think the Secretary of State should take into account in reaching his decision they are, of course, free to bring such material to my attention. I must, emphasise to hon. Members and others that any new evidence produced now which has a material impact on the decision will have to be copied to the parties and this may lead to a re-opening of the inquiry.

Although the Secretary of State is anxious to ensure that he has all the material in front of him needed for his decision, we do have to strike a balance between extending discussion and bringing the matter to the point of decision. Hon. Members will know the importance that the Government attach to processing planning proposals expeditiously.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the procedures adopted in this case have enabled the issues involved to be thoroughly evaluated. The Secretary of State awaits the inspector's report and I can assure my hon. Friend that, when we receive it, the Secretary of State will proceed to a decision as soon as possible. I shall of course inform my hon. Friend and others direct of the Secretary of State's eventual decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Four o'clock am.