HC Deb 19 November 1985 vol 87 cc140-224


3.36 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I bring this Bill before the House because I genuinely believe that it is the right thing to do in the interests of the environment, the people of Okehampton, and the economy of south-west England.

I think that everyone agrees that a bypass of Okehampton is urgently needed. I need only pray in aid The Times of last Wednesday, which said:

The true blight is the endless growling flow of heavy lorries. They wind through at a rate of 1,300 per day, darkening the front rooms, playing havoc with the old coping stones on the Baptist Chapel and threatening at any minute to barge, uninvited, into a hotel bar. It is a miracle that there have been so few accidents. No wonder everyone, from local trades people to Cornish Members of Parliament, is champing at the bit for a bypass. The people of Okehampton have suffered too long from the thunder of heavy traffic and damage to their environment. The economies of west Devon and Cornwall desperately need better communications with the rest of the country. It is necessary now to make a decision. For 17 years we have been arguing about which side of Okehampton the bypass should go. It is becoming a British weakness that we can never make up our minds. I think that most people would agree that the matter should be settled, and none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) who so strongly supports the Bill but who, sadly, will not be here today to advocate it because of his illness. I know that he would like us to remember his great interest in the Bill.

The contention is whether the bypass should go to the north or the south of the town. The Bill is straightforward. It seeks to confirm the compulsory purchase orders for a bypass route to the south of Okehampton. It is introduced under section 6(3) of the Statutory Orders (Special Procedures) Act 1945. That Act provides that, in these circumstances, the Bill requires only a Report and Third Reading in both Houses. Its two schedules are the compulsory purchase orders that require confirmation.

I wish to concentrate my remarks on the environmental aspects of the scheme. I shall leave other hon. Members to cover other policy aspects to which I had to have regard when deciding about this road. They are the desperate and urgent need for west Devon and Cornwall to be linked properly to the national road network which is fundamental to regional development and is an integral part of our national policy for roads, the need for economy in road building and the need to conserve agricultural land.

I emphasise that we are promoting the southern route because we believe on balance it is environmentally superior. It is my firm conviction that, in an area as unique as the countryside round Okehampton, environmental factors must not only have high priority but must be the priority. Despite the 17 years of waiting that Okehampton residents have already suffered, if I had believed that the balance of environmental interest favoured any of the northern alternatives, I would not be here today presenting the Bill. But I do not so believe. I take the responsibility myself. This is not a decision taken by my Department; it is a decision taken by Ministers. I have looked carefully at all the alternative routes with an open mind. I am convinced personally that the southern route is the best option for the environment. I know that these matters are subjective, but I am in good company. My predecessors in this office were so convinced, including those in the last Labour Administration who first made the decision. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have visited the area and I expect that many of them are equally convinced.

The independent landscape advisory committee visited the area on no fewer than six separate occasions. On each occasion it said that a southern route was best. The public were consulted in 1975 on a route to the south and two to the north. The majority preferred a southern route. So did the independent inspector. His report concluded, on balance, that environmental considerations favoured the southern route along with other relevant factors, and that the damage incurred in going north of Okehampton on any of the 13 possible variants of a northern route would be greater. The county councils of Devon and Cornwall, and all the affected local authorities in the area, are similarly convinced.

Why are so many people persuaded of the environmental case? Of course, the idea of driving a major road through Dartmoor national park is, at face value, highly undesirable. People imagine a noisy, ugly scar cutting across the moor. But the southern route does not go on the moor proper; it goes along the lower slopes of the northern escarpment, very near its boundary. The northern boundary of Dartmoor follows the lines of the railway and the old parish boundaries. Despite its incursion into the edge of the national park, a southern route would be better absorbed into the landscape and concealed than any northern route could be because it follows the natural contours. It would not affect the moor proper and people who want to get on to the moor would not have their access to it restricted. We know that the railway line, which our route parallels, is virtually invisible from any distance.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

The Secretary of State talks about the "moor proper." Does he not agree that over the years, with the protection of national parks, there has been a constant problem of edging? In many senses, it is the edge of the moor that is almost the most precious part of it, and the House of Commons is charged with responsibility for looking after and safeguarding the national park as a whole, not concentrating on the moorland or the central part.

Mr. Ridley

I am coming to national parks policy. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who will reply to the debate, will dwell on it, too. The right hon. Gentleman seems to be unaware that the eastern part of the road takes a section of road out of the national park. Not much credit has been given to us for that.

We are of course planning to do all we can to ensure that the route causes minimum noise, or visual intrusion, for the residents of Okehampton or visitors to Dartmoor. We plan to plant more than 70,000 trees, partly to replace the 1,000 or so that would be lost, but mainly to shield the road. We shall do all possible to get good tree cover as quickly as possible. We plan to build earth embankments to screen parts of the road from the town and its immediate surroundings and provide noise baffles on the viaduct at Fatherford. I am also looking at the possibility of additional tree cover in four areas in Meldon woods, two parts of East Hill and Fatherford, which will further screen the road, especially from higher up the slope. I am sure that we shall obtain the co-operation of the local owners. In short, there would be little evidence of the road from any distance once the tree cover is in place. I should like to make it clear to the House that we are open to any suggestions for further measures to improve the environment of the road within reasonable cost limits. That has always been my position.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

My right hon. Friend has said that the road may be hidden by 70,000 trees—Heaven knows where he will put them all. Does he agree that the uniqueness of this part of Dartmoor is the swinging arc of a valley with a deep river at the bottom, and that the noise from the dual carriageway will have an adverse effect on Dartmoor in the valley and on the high moor to the south? Is it not noise that is the real factor?

Mr. Ridley

If noise is the problem, the noise of the present A30 is appalling. That road is close to the middle of Okehampton and close to the castle as well. The scheme will take the traffic that now uses the A30 much further away. I thought that my hon. Friend would be rooting to get it built as quickly as possible.

Contrast the possible routes to the north of Okehampton. We cannot achieve this degree of concealment in that area. The countryside is different. Any road there would involve conspicuous and ugly 20 ft high embankments. Attempts to conceal these by tree planting would simply accentuate the inevitable scar. The road would be seen from Dartmoor, while the southern road would not. Any northern route involves a 90 ft high viaduct across the Okement river at Knowle—on the very doorstep of the town—twice as high as the viaduct on the southern route and very much more generally visible. That really would be an environmental disaster, especially for the national park.

I therefore conclude that the southern route is the best. But I must deal with the implications for national parks and open space. I concentrated on purely environmental issues first because in the heated debate which has been going on, inside and outside Parliament, the interests of the environment have been presented as being synonymous with maintaining the integrity of the boundaries of the Dartmoor national park. Those who favour the southern route have been dubbed as anti-environment, QED This is simply not true.

As the House knows, the compulsory purchase orders for the southern route were referred to a joint Select Committee, not because the route clipped the edge of the national park, but because the southern bypass would have taken a small amount of land, which was claimed to be public open space land and the exchange land proposals were found by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to be not good enough. There was also an area of land which was claimed to be open space and which the inspector recommended should be treated as such but for which exchange land could not effectively be offered prior to the inspector's view on the point. Opponents of the southern route argued before the Joint Committee—as they had argued at the public inquiry in the 58 days devoted to these issues—that a southern route should not be approved because it makes an incursion, albeit a slight one, into Dartmoor national park. They pointed to the alleged inconsistency between the route and the Government's policy to avoid such incursions unless there is a compelling need which could not be met by any reasonable alternative means"— a quote from the Department of the Environment's policy circular 4/76, which was issued by the previous Labour Government. The objectors failed to convince the inspector but they did convince four out of six members of the Joint Committee.

Mr. Peter Rost (Erewash)

My right hon. Friend has referred to the Joint Select Committee, which I had the dubious privilege to chair. He has spoken of the four to two majority as if that was in some way a denigration of the majority vote. Presumably he would not apply the same criteria to majority votes in the House or in general elections, which are rarely unanimous. Surely he should accept that a majority of four to two, or any other majority, is a mandate.

Mr. Ridley

I do not accept that I used the words "four to two" in any derogatory sense. I can assure my hon. Friend that I entirely respect the majority. If, at the end of the process, the Bill receives the support of the majority of both Houses of Parliament, I am sure that he, equally, will respect that majority. It is this place and another place which jointly have the responsibility to come to a final verdict on the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

On which previous occasion have a Government sought to overrule a majority finding of a Select Committee which was set up under the procedure that has been described? Is there a precedent for the Government's reaction to a Committee of both Houses'? What does the right hon. Gentleman cite as his authority for doing what he seeks to do?

Mr. Ridley

I am coming to the constitutional point and I shall give the precedent. The hon. Gentleman could have saved the House's time by asking the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), who I am sure would have put him right, as would many others.

The DOE circular 4/76 on national parks was a statement of the policy of the then Labour Government. It is also this Government's policy. Its publication in 1976 preceded the Government's announcement of their preferred route for the Okehampton bypass through the edge of the Dartmoor national park, by eight months. The then Labour Government clearly saw no discrepancy between their national parks policy and their preferred route for the Okehampton bypass. The circular provided for exceptions and Okehampton is just such an exception where, and I quote again,

there is a compelling need which could not be met by any reasonable alternative means". I know that there is a fear that even if the southern route is better environmentally, it may create some sort of precedent because it infringes the outskirts of a national park. People think, that if it goes ahead, a future Government may have no qualms about driving roads through national parks. I assure the House that it does not create such a precedent. We stand by the national parks policy of DOE circular 4/76. There are examples of major roads where we have deliberately sought to avoid national park boundaries, even where it would have been cheaper and more convenient to cross a national park. Indeed, to the east of Okehampton, the new route for the third stage of the Exeter to Okehampton A30 route was deliberately re-designed to take the road out of the national park altogether. Okehampton by pass, however, is an exception—an exception allowed for in the policy—which the Labour Government provided for.

I must also mention open space. It was, after all, open space and not national parks issues which prompted the setting up of the Joint Committee. We are always concerned to find land as replacement open space to exchange for the land we are taking. We have, of course, already offered four acres in Meldon woods for the two required for the road to cross it. Furthermore, I am now more than hopeful that we could acquire two significant pieces of land for public use—both of which are within easier reach of Okehampton and Dartmoor users than Meldon woods and total almost 30 acres. One plot is near the castle, the other on the lower slopes of East hill. All this would mean a total of well over 30 acres compared with approximately 22 acres of land now used by the public and needed for the road. This is, of course, in addition to the extra land we might get agreement on for landscaping purposes, which totals another eight acres or more. If Parliament approves this Bill, my Department will negotiate with the owners, who are, I understand, willing in principle to sell.

So it is on environmental grounds that I recommend this Bill to the House. I hope that what I have said so far will reassure hon. Members that this is the right solution and that we are doing all we can to accommodate people's concerns.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the swap of open spaces. Does he agree that part of the attraction of open space is that it is relatively quiet for people to go out in? Is there not a danger of much of the land that he is offering in exchange suffering considerably from noise pollution because of the motorway?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman clearly has not been there. If he tried to penetrate Meldon woods, as I have, he would find no conceivable way of getting more than two yards into it. It is a thicket. It may be quiet, but there is no point having a quiet place into which one cannot get. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) agrees that the exchange land that we are offering is infinitely more desirable than much of the land that has been taken.

Mr. Steen

I am sure that the House will be interested in the swap of open space because, as my right hon. Friend knows, the offer has been made only in the past couple of weeks. The Department took it upon itself to consider the matter only in July after my right hon. Friend's statement, when I raised it with him. The 10 national environmental and conservation bodies involved spent more than £50,000 petitioning the Joint Committee about open space. My right hon. Friend has subsequently found open space—whether it is comparable is another matter. Does he agree that those national environmental and conservation organisations should be repaid the £50,000 that they have spent on representing to the Joint Select Committee a point that they need not have made had the open space been offered before the Joint Select Committee was convened?

Mr. Ridley

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is now castigating me for having found, admittedly at a late stage, the open space land that he seeks. That cannot be a cause of criticism, because had such land not been found he would presumably have been disappointed. I do not think that I can accept the principle that those who fight cases before the courts, at public inquiries or before parliamentary Committees should be recompensed whether they win or lose. I am sure he would agree that such a principle could lead to the disbursement of public money on causes, some of which he might not be very keen on.

I should like to mention two other secondary but important issues. Opponents of a southern route claim that a route to the north of Okehampton could be built very quickly and would take only five years as opposed to the three years needed to complete the route to the south. That is wrong. It would take at least nine years before we could get any northern route built. That estimate is the best we could achieve. It assumes that work on other national roads in the west country would be delayed while further effort is diverted to Okehampton.

On average, it takes 13 years to plan and build a new road. The so-called expert opinion, which believes that a northern route could be built in five years makes a number of assumptions about the way in which a northern route could he progressed that are simply not real. I regret as much as anyone the time it takes to implement roads schemes, but I find it inconsistent that some of the very people who most prize their rights to object and delay at public inquiries should suddenly believe that we should deny these rights to others, for that is effectively what a shorter time scale would involve.

It is as if the objectors to the southern route mattered while their opponents did not. Any material reduction in the time needed for this statutory process would mean that those against a northern route would have to lose their rights to be consulted and to object—rights which the objectors to the southern route have exercised to the full. Any northern route would be bitterly contested. No public inquiry could be reduced to the mere formality that seems to be implied by their timetable.

We would also have to cut corners in the design process. There is no ready prepared northern route waiting to be brought off the shelf and dusted off for public consideration. Furthermore, if the inspector did not accept the Department's proposal, and rejected any northern route on environmental grounds and recommended a southern route instead, we are back again to square one and more endless delays.

The second issue is the question of the constitutional propriety of a Government asking Parliament to override in a confirming Bill the report and recommendations of a Joint Committee that the compulsory purchase orders should not be approved. Some in this House and in another place have suggested that any challenge to the Joint Committee would be without constitutional precedent and wrong. I have to say again that the facts do not bear this out. No Committee of Parliament makes decisions; it makes recommendations to Parliament as a whole. The Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945 provided that, if a Joint Committee turned down compulsory purchase orders in this way, either the orders would fall or the Government would bring forward a confirming Bill. Indeed, that possibility is expressly provided for by the confirming Bill procedure laid down in the Act. There is a precedent for the confirming Bill procedure. It was used in 1949 to reverse two amendments reported by a Joint Committee which were regarded as issues of principle in the Mid-Northamptonshire Water Board Order. It was certainly the intention of the Government which introduced the legislation in 1945 that, where matters of policy or principle were concerned, they reserved the right to have the matter decided by Parliament as a whole.

The then Lord Privy Seal, Arthur Greenwood, said during the passage of the Bill: We hope to get on to the Floor of the House discussions which go to the root of Ministerial Orders … instead of allowing them to be conducted in Committee upstairs".—[Official Report, 14 November 1945; Vol. 415, c. 2181.] This is such a case and the only way of achieving discussion on the Floor of the House, following consideration by a Joint Committee, is through introducing a confirming Bill. We are following exactly the procedure provided for in that Act.

The measure is desirable on environmental grounds, vital for the economy of the south-west of England, and essential for the quality of life of the residents of Okehampton and, dare I say it, their sanity. I hope that the House will give it a Third Reading.

4.1 pm

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

There will, of course, be many contentious issues argued in the debate, but perhaps I should begin with one or two points on which there is common ground.

I join the Secretary of State in wishing the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) a speedy recovery to complete health. May I suggest to him, as I am sure that he will read today's Hansard very closely, that he might like to read Tom Sharpe's comic novel "Blott on the Landscape", which deals in a hilarious way with a situation not dissimilar to that which we are discussing today.

I think that there is common ground that Okehampton needs a bypass and that such a provision is long overdue for the residents of Okehamptein, for the heavy goods vehicle and commercial vehicle drivers, for the tourist trade, and to develop the industry and commerce of the south-west of England. I suspect that on the matter of the Okehampton bypass and also on new roads generally there is a degree of common ground and common concern at the time that such matters take to reach a conclusion.

When I was in local government, before I came to this House, I was frequently impatient and often irritated by the seemingly interminable delays which took place and the endless objections to projects which I thought worth while and urgent. However, I was counselled by more experienced colleagues not to let impatience cloud my judgment and that irritation should not be allowed to override the rights of individuals. I suggest that, to some extent at least, impatience and irritation have a lot to do with the Secretary of State's decision to invoke the exceptionally rare method of proceedings of a confirmation Bill.

Before turning to that question in some detail, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he has yet responded to a letter of 8 November from Susan Hoyle of Transport 2000? Jonathan Roberts of Transport 2000 was refused admission to the Department of Transport press conference on the Okehampton bypass on 8 November. It was apparently on the ground that the Department of Transport feared that someone would damage the bypass exhibition. Although the Department has only once invited Transport 2000 to a press conference, it has never been refused access to a press conference.

Transport 2000 is an eminently respectable organisation. The Secretary of State may find some of its opinions incompatible with his own and he may feel discomfited at some of the criticism that it makes of him, but surely that is no reason for withholding the right of access to his press conferences. I trust that he will send his apologies to Susan Hoyle for that regrettable episode, and give a categorical asssurance that in future invitations will be sent to Transport 2000.

With regard to the procedure adopted by the Minister to overturn the decision of the Joint Committee which recommended a northern route, in his statement of 26 July this year, and again today, the Secretary of State drew attention, I think with some relish, to the precedent of the Mid-Northamptonshire Water Board Bill. He said that it was done by the Labour Government and that there was nothing unique or unconstitutional about what the Government are now doing. The Secretary of State was making what he thought to be a perfectly fair debating point, but he neglected to tell the House, either on the earlier occasion or today, of the reaction of Conservative Members to the procedure. Lieutenant-Colonel Elliot, Mr. Charles Williams, Mr. On-Ewing, Mr. Manningham-Buller and others all savagely attacked the use of procedure.

Lieutenant-Colonel Elliot said: here is a decision of a Joint Committee of both Houses which the Minister in this Bill seeks to overturn. I suggest first of all that this is the use of the veto in circumstances to which it is quite inappropriate to apply it and to which it was never expected it would be applied."—[Official Report, 4 May 1949; Vol. 464, c. 1045.] I also take that view.

The Secretary of State may very well say that circumstances were different, but they were different in two ways. First, they were Tories complaining bitterly at the actions of Labour Ministers. Secondly, in addition to the passage from the Official Report that the Secretary of State quoted, I remind him that Mr. Arthur Greenwood gave a pledge that the Act would not be used to beat down opposition. Mr. Greenwood said: I give the most specific assurance that we do not regard this Bill as a weapon with which to beat down opposition or to carry proposals through without due regard to all the interests who ought to be considered."—[Official Report, 14 November 1945; Vol. 415, c. 2180.] We all understand the constitutional dictum that one Government cannot bind another Government, and the Secretary of State may very well say that he is not bound by such a pledge. Given his own cavalier disregard for the law, we could not expect him to be bound by such a pledge. His claim that he is acting according to precedent has a rather hollow ring to it.

The Joint Committee looked into the issues with very serious deliberation. The Ministry should not disregard that consideration and seek to make short cuts in parliamentary procedure. Although everyone is in agreement on the need for a bypass, there is profound disagreement on the merits of the southern route as compared with the northern route. We have a straightforward conflict of interests between the protection of the environment and the national park on the one hand, and the defence of farming land on the other. [HON. MEMBERS: "No".] Yes, a detailed examination of the inspector's report shows that he argued the case against taking away agricultural land. Make no mistake about that. The Government are displaying their well-known predilection for favouring the farming lobby against all other interests.

That the interests of the national parks need to be vigorously defended is well recognised, and is the basis of the environment circular 4/76 which the Minister quoted, and circular 7/76, which was the equivalent Welsh Office circular. That followed the report of the National Parks Policies Review Committee chaired by Lord Sandford. It is worth quoting paragraph 58 of circular 4/76 in some detail. It says:

It is now the policy of the Government that investment in trunk roads should be directed to developing routes for long distance traffic which avoid national parks; and that no new routes for long distance traffic should be constructed through a national park, or existing road upgraded, unless it has been demonstrated that there is a compelling need which would not be met by any reasonable alternative means. Application of the policy to some parks does, however, give rise to particularly difficult decisions because of their geographical location". Several questions arise and require to be answered. First, is there a feasible alternative route? Secondly, is there a compelling need which cannot be met by a reasonable alternative route?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman referred to a "feasible" alternative route. The circular says "reasonable". Was that a slip of the tongue or was it deliberate?

Mr. Hughes

No, it was not a slip of the tongue, it was deliberate. I am sure that the Minister has read every word of the inspector's report. I will not pretend to have gone that far. The Minister will know that the inspector sometimes speaks about "feasible" routes as well as "reasonable" routes. Therefore, the use of the word "feasible" instead of "reasonable" is deliberate and the answer to the first question is yes.

From the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s the proposals related to a northern route. In making their traffic proposals for the Okehampton bypass, the councils in that area used the northern route. A southern route was considered only in 1976.

The answer to the second question depends upon the definition of "reasonable." The inspector who conducted the local public inquiries did not reject the proposition that a northern route was feasible. He made a qualitative, balanced judgment—that the price that would have to be paid for avoiding the national park was too high.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that this will set a very dangerous precedent? Arguments about cost will have to be considered in future and they will carry the day.

Mr. Hughes

Yes. That is one of the serious concerns of those who are opposed to the southern route. Although the Secretary of State argues that this will not be a test case, many people regard it as a test case.

If one looks at the circular which announced the decision of the Secretary of State for Transport and Secretary of State for the Environment on 16 September 1983—CSW240 1/26/013—one sees that in paragraph 27 they say that they agree with the Inspector that 'substantial expenditure would be justified in order to construct the bypass on route that would avoid the National Park, provided that this can reasonably be done. The Secretaries of State agreed that substantial expenditure would be justified. If we look at the full text of paragraph 2767 of the main report, we find that the inspector said: Thus, it would be right in my view to accept a somewhat greater length of road, somewhat greater cost, the taking of somewhat more good agricultural land and some landscape effects in the northern countryside. Such disadvantages and the possible advantages require assessment, and I will consider them below. Therefore, we have, first, the use of this delightful, all-encompassing word "reasonable" which appears again and again in the documents.

Having made those very strong statements, it is difficult to understand why the inspector decided in favour of the southern route. However, we can conclude that in rejecting the northern route, on the ground that the price to be paid would be too high, we are speaking not just about cash. The Secretary of State has conceded that the expenditure of extra cash on the northern route would be justified on account of the environmental issues. What are the reasons, therefore, for rejecting the northern route?

Paragraph 28 of the same letter discussed the balancing factors: the disruption of other activities and the disruption of the environment north of Okehampton. On balance, the Secretary of State has decided in favour of the southern route. His judgment is, however, strongly contested by the Countryside Commission.

In case any hon. Member is in any doubt about the locus of the Countryside Commission, I should point out that it is the Government's statutory adviser on landscape conservation matters in England and Wales and that it has special responsibilities for the national parks. The Countryside Commission has always favoured a northern route. It submitted to the local public inquiry a line of route and expressed its disappointment with the decision that favoured a southern route. It welcomed the decision of the Joint Committee that the northern route provides a reasonable alternative means. In this case, it believes that the national interest lies in protecting the national park. Its judgment is absolutely clear cut.

There are compelling reasons for the House to reject the southern route and to direct the Secretary of State to proceed with the northern route. There remains only one other reason, therefore, for passing this confirmation Bill—delay. I have received heartfelt pleas from several organisations which say that the issue of the Okehampton bypass has stuttered on for 20 years and that they have suffered enough from traffic congestion; they need a new road to assist commercial and industrial developments and to provide new jobs, so for goodness sake let us get on with it. Some of them have said to me that the conservationists represent no more than trendy, middle-class, bourgeois ideas. I reject that view.

Throughout history, working-class people have always suffered the most because, in the drive for industrialisation, the environment has been neglected. That neglect has not been confined to industry. In modern times there have been the most appalling errors of judgment over the building of some of our municipal housing estates. Tower blocks have been demolished because they have proved to be so awful. One housing estate in London which was completed only three years ago is, I believe, such an environmental disaster that the gravest of difficulties are experienced over getting tenants for it. Although I make those criticisms of modern housing estates, I do not challenge the good faith of those councillors who had to take the decisions; they were reacting with speed to try to solve the chronic condition of bad housing in which so many people had to live. In this case, therefore, delay itself is no justification for reaching the wrong conclusion.

If, however, there were to be inordinate delay, I concede that we may have to swallow the environmental damage to the Dartmoor national park as the lesser of two evils. But the length of the delay lies entirely in the hands of the Secretary of State. He argues that delay in its completion will amount to six years. There is, however, strong evidence to the contrary. The Countryside Commission has drawn to our attention the evidence of Mr. Parker, a highway and engineering witness. The Secretary of State does his case no good by referring to "so-called" expert witnesses. I take the view that those who give evidence do so in good faith. I accept the expertise of the Secretary of State's witnesses, even though I do not necessarily accept their evidence. I hope that he will be "cannie", as we say in Scotland, about casting doubt upon the integrity and value of independent witnesses.

The Countryside Commission sought an independent assessment of Mr. Parker's evidence. It was obtained from Mr. Singleton, of Denis Wilson and Partners, consulting engineers and transport planners. Both have said that the delay caused by switching back to the northern route need not be more than two or three years. This weighed heavily with the Joint Committee. In paragraph 6 it said: The further delay this decision is likely to cause before Okehampton can be relieved of traffic congestion was seriously considered by the Committee. They therefore asked the Department of Transport to accord the highest priority to the construction of a by-pass to the north of the town. The Committee believe that, given good will, commitment and cooperation, this can be achieved in a significantly shorter timetable than was suggested in evidence. According to the Joint Committee, the essence of speed depends upon good will, commitment and co-operation.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Could the hon. Gentleman draw to the attention of the House the fact that bypasses have been built from scratch within two or three years from the day upon which the plans were issued?

Mr. Hughes

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that the bypass could be built in two or three years. The evidence suggests that the delay in the completion of the northern route could be about two or three years, not six years as has been argued by the Secretary of State. We are saying not that the bypass could be completed in two or three years but that it could be completed in a much shorter period than six years.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Is the hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Opposition, adopting the fallacy that a public inquiry after the present Session of Parliament could not find in favour of the southern route and put us back where we are now?

Mr. Hughes

I am not under that impression. I shall come later to the need for a fresh public inquiry, if the hon. Gentleman has a little patience.

In connection with the issue of speed and delay, I should like to commend to the Secretary of State the Prime Minister's answer to a question from the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller). The hon. Gentleman asked the Prime Minister: Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind during her busy day the problems of less successful areas such as the west country, where decisions about road planning have been too long delayed, and where implementation of plans have been delayed even further? The Prime Minister replied: Yes, Sir. My hon. Friend has been to see me about this matter. He has complained bitterly about the length of time taken to reach decisions. I share his opinion that planning decisions take far too long, and I shall do what I can to speed up the decision in which he has a particular interest."—[Official Report, 14 November 1985; Vol. 86, c. 685.] I think that the Secretary of State can earn himself some Brownie points with the Prime Minister if he commits himself to accepting that a northern route could be delivered with a delay of two to three years.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman said that "given good will" a faster speed could be achieved. May I make it clear to him that the people who live along the northern route and those who objected to that route, of whom there are many, do not have good will in this matter. They made it abundantly clear that they would object to a northern route and would fight it tooth and nail. The hon. Gentleman cannot, therefore, assume that there is good will. That, of course, invalidates his whole perspective.

Mr. Hughes

As I read the Joint Committee's report, which referred specifically to urging the Department of Transport to act, we are asking for good will from the Secretary of State. That may be too much to expect. We are asking, as the Countryside Commission said, for more management efficiency in administration in the Department of Transport. That is something that we would expect to have anyway.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Is the hon. Gentleman urging my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to override the rights of the people living along the northern route? That is what he seems to be saying.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman must not try to put words into my mouth. I am not suggesting that the rights of individuals should be overridden. By this confirmation Bill, the Secretary of State is overriding the rights of individuals. He is adopting this procedure, which is unusual even though it may be constitutionally proper.

The Secretary of State and, I gather, many of his Back-Bench colleagues have said that, in order to look at the alternative of a southern route, we must start with an entirely fresh public inquiry. Goodness knows how long such an inquiry would take. That inspector might not reach the correct conclusion. The views of those who objected to the northern route have been well canvassed. It is not necessary to start from scratch, because the issues have been thoroughly argued. Is the Secretary of State saying that in all matters affecting transport planning—many will arise in the near future—he will hold a full public inquiry? The right hon. Gentleman should give us a clear assurance.

I believe that the interests of protecting the national park are compelling. The northern route is a feasible and reliable alternative. The delay need not be longer than two to three years. Such a delay would be tolerable. The balance of judgment on all counts is weighted against the Secretary of State. Whatever he may say, he is putting bureaucracy before democracy and his departmental case before that of the Joint Committee. I therefore have no hesitation in recommending to my right hon. and hon. Friends that they join me in the Lobby to oppose the Bill.

4.24 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

The essence of the speech of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) was that, if he were Secretary of State, he would, having weighed all the evidence, have rejected the advice and recommendations made by the independent inspector after the 96-day inquiry. In other words, he was saying that the House should substitute his judgment for that of the other people concerned, especially the Secretaries of State. In the end, it is all a matter of judgment and balance. I think we all accept that the issues are of national as well as local concern. We have little opportunity to debate the application of planning policies generally to particular cases.

From my experience, I know the agonies that Secretaries of State have to go through in weighing often bitterly opposing, deeply felt views and then coming to a decision. We must accept that, sooner or later in these matters of national and local importance, decisions must be made by someone. In the absence of compelling reasons to the contrary, I should have thought that it was right that the views of the Secretaries of State should be upheld, especially when they follow the recommendations of an independent inspector.

Over the years we have devised a system of public participation in the planning process that has reached the point where controversial but necessary development is being held up—perhaps for decades. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North says that everyone agrees that something must be done in this case. He thinks that there should be a northern route and that somehow the necessary planning procedures need not be followed. Some people will never accept that the point has been reached where a decision must be taken. We must examine our planning processes so that decisions can be taken and supported.

Recently, a Minister was discussing with his French opposite number how he dealt with difficult planning issues—roads, nuclear power stations and the rest. Reportedly, the French Minister replied with a shrug, "If you want to clear the swamp, you do not consult the frogs." There is a real danger that frustration with our planning processes could lead to an over-violent reaction.

It is wrong when considering the development of docklands or enterprise zones to hold no public inquiry. We have concluded that there should be no such public inquiry because people have become frustrated by delays. In the case of the Okehampton bypass, there have been 17 years of design and public consultation. Finally, after an inquiry lasting 96 days—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that 58 were devoted to the question of incursion on the national park—the independent inspector said that in his judgment, the total price that would be paid for avoiding the national park was too high. He gave a number of reasons, none of which were dealt with by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North.

This is the time for all of us to apply common sense. Projects that took a few months to decide in the 1950s are taking an unconscionable time to decide now, and that must he stopped. A balance between the democratic right to object and the need to take a decision in the general national and public interest must be found. This is not a new problem. When I was Secretary of State for the Environment—that Department then encompassed Transport—I thought that the delays were unreasonable. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister takes the same view. This is not an easy matter to resolve.

I appointed Mr. George Dobry—he is now Judge Dobry—to to look into the development control system. He made a number of recommendations, many of which have been implemented. For the run-of-the-mill inquiry I think it is fair to say that the Departments have speeded up the process, but there is still no improvement in respect of major inquiries such as the one that we are considering. One solution might be to impose a time limit—to have a guillotine—to combine speed with fairness. We cannot go on as we are at present without bringing the planning process into disrepute. My right hon. Friend might ask Judge Dobry to update his report.

It is unreasonable for the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North to suggest—whatever views he might have about delays in public inquiries—that we could arbitrarily in one case abrogate the planning processes that are laid down.

Objectors at inquiries usually fall into two classes.

There are the local participants, some of whom say, We won't have heaven crammed, Let all the rest be damned. There are other objectors who say, "We must have a road, but not where I don't want it." They will never accept another point of view. Then there are national interest groups. Where there is a conflict between local opinion and the national interest groups, which are entitled to express a view, the balance of argument should be drawn in favour of the local people.

We know that a majority of the local members on the county council and local authorities favoured the southern route. I see no overriding reason why the House, with representatives from all other parts of the country, should override local interest in this case.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that when Devon county council last voted, the vote was 38 to 34? Although I respect much of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument, it is not as if it were national conservation bodies against overwhelming local opinion. Local opinion is divided. The county council vote reflects that clear division.

Mr. Rippon

On the other hand, we are told that it would be wrong to take account of the fact that the vote in the Select Committee was four to two. The Opposition cannot have it both ways. All that we can do, using our best judgment, is to ask, "Where does the balance of advantage lie?" I am aware of how difficult these matters are. I remember when there was a proposal for a Winchester bypass. Because it was to go through part of Winchester college's playing fields, I received a letter from virtually every living Old Wykehamist putting across their interest. However, they did not mind whether the road went straight through the nave of Winchester cathedral. The balance of advantage in that case lay in the proposed route against another that would have done more environmental damage.

I was also interested in a comparable case involving a national park, when I had to deal with the proposal that the A66 go through a national park. For some time, I was burned in effigy, but luckily in no other way. I have refreshed my memory about that case. It occurred in 1972. There were alternative proposals for a route that was outside the national park, but on the inspector's recommendation, after much heart searching, I came to the conclusion that the balance of public advantage, locally and nationally, lay in approving a route that went partly through the national park because on balance it did less damage to the environment than the alternative.

I am pleased to say that my decision at that time had the support of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). I notice that he has not signed the motion before the House. It would have been difficult for him to do so, because he gave evidence at the public inquiry into the A66. He rejected the idea that another route should be chosen merely because it lay outside the national park. He pointed out, as I think is correct, that a national park boundary does not mark a point beyond which environmental considerations should not apply. He also pointed out that the A66 improvements, which were being urged by all the local authorities, would lot be accomplished by going for the alternative route. All that, in every case, is a matter of judgment. It is significant that the Opposition spokesman on the environment took a view different from the one apparently now being taken by those Opposition Members who put down the motion.

The fact that a route passes through a national park, although even peripherally, is a weighty matter. It is not a conclusive matter. That is the burden of the 1976 circular, which, of course, came after my decision, but it was before the Labour Government's decision to prefer the southern route. Clearly, the Labour Government accepted that there were circumstances in which a route could go through a national park.

It is not reasonable for the House to go against the independent inspector's recommendation, backed by the Secretaries of State, merely because of the Joint Committee's findings.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman say that it is right to accept the inspector's views but not those of the Joint Committee?

Mr. Rippon

The inspector presided over the inquiry on the spot for 96 days. He was interested in studying in detail the views expressed by the proponents of and those against the northern and southern routes. Both Secretaries of State supported that recommendation. As I understand the position, the matter was referred to the Joint Committee only because of the issue of the open space. It would not have had referred to it the issue whether the route should go through the national park. It would never have considered the matter. It was considering the effect on the open space of the legal inability to provide compensation.

Mr. Rost

My right hon. and learned Friend would riot wish to deceive the House. The Joint Committee might have sat for only 16 or 17 days, but nevertheless its inquiry consisted of hearing evidence from petitioners as to whether there was a reasonable alternative to the compulsory requisition of that land. That involved considering whether any evidence had arisen since the public inquiry which might have changed the balance of judgment.

Mr. Rippon

My view is that the Committee went rather beyond what was required. The 15 days' sittings should have been devoted to the issue that it was required to judge—the open space issue. It dealt with the issue as one of national parks policy. That is not what it had to consider. The Committee said that the orders should not be made on national parks policy grounds; not on the ground that the open space that was to be taken was valuable and could not be replaced.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

My right hon. and learned Friend was asked why he should prefer the inspector to the Joint Committee. Will he confirm that the inspector was duty bound to hear petitioners against the northern route, but the Joint Committee was not permitted to and did not? That must be a convincing reason, in natural justice, why my right hon. Friend should attach more weight to the independent inspector's report.

Mr. Rippon

That was the next point on my note.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I am sorry.

Mr. Rippon

I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point, because it is important. As he said, during 15 sittings the Committee heard the petitioners' evidence. It never heard anything from the people who preferred the southern route. I do not call that satisfactory.

Mr. Rost

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would wish me to put the record straight. More than half the Joint Committee's time was taken up by the Department of the Environment putting forward its witnesses in support of its proposals against the petitioners. It acted like a court of appeal and heard witnesses who were against the northern route.

Mr. Rippon

With respect, that is a fallacious point. The Select Committee is not, and should not act as, a court of appeal, reopening every issue dealt with at the inquiry. The Select Committee heard witnesses from the Department of the Environment. It may not have thought much of them, but that was not the issue before it. Perhaps it was no fault of the Committee, but it did not have an opportunity to hear the objectors to the northern route, and that is not a satisfactory basis upon which to reject the Bill.

Mr. Steen

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for signing my early-day motion opposing the southern route for the Okehampton bypass, but his action does not quite bear out what he is saying. On the matter of open space, he has rightly pointed out that the sole task of the Joint Committee was to look at the open space issue. Because no open space had been offered by the Government to replace the open space that would have been taken by the southern route, the Committee met and 10 petitioners petitioned and spent £50,000 of private money putting forward their case. A couple of weeks ago the Government found public open space. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Joint Committee need never have met? We need not be meeting today on a confirming Bill if the open space that is now on the table and being offered to the nation had been offered prior to the Joint Committee being convened. For that reason, the Secretary of State has delayed the building of the Okehampton bypass, and he should recompense the national petitioners for the money that they have wasted.

Mr. Rippon

I understand my hon. Friend to be saying that there is no need to oppose the Bill, and that it is only a matter of compensation for expenditure that need not have occurred. I accept what my right hon. Friend said about the problems of paying compensation, or repaying the costs of people involved in litigation, either in the courts or at public inquiries. That raises many difficult issues. I am glad that, in effect, my hon. Friend is withdrawing his objection to the Bill, because he says it should never have gone before the Select Committee. What I ought to say is that I should withdraw my name from his motion. I fell into a trap, and that is something that one sometimes does in this House. One looks at something and says, "Yes, that is reasonable. I support that. There seems to be a lot of opposition to the southern bypass." I must now confess that having thought in more depth in the light of debate, and having studied voluminous literature sent to me by everybody, I have come to the conclusion that the Bill ought to be passed. I am reinforced in that view by what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that virtually every other Tory Member of the House has had exactly the same reaction? Having studied the matter in depth, they are equally disposed towards the Bill.

Mr. Rippon

I am grateful for that information. I quite agree. I am completely convinced by the arguments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the constitutional point. There is no merit at all in the argument that there would be something unconstitutional in reversing the findings of the Joint Committee. The 1945 Act clearly provides that orders will fall unless the Government decide to bring forward a confirming Bill. That has been done in this case, and in answering a question my right hon. Friend gave a precedent where it had been done before. It is clear that in 1945 the Labour Government said that in appropiate circumstances the Government would have to act in that way, and that clearly must be right.

My own view is that the joint Secretaries of State have statutory responsibiliies, and Parliament must also have the right to review the findings of one of its own Committees. It is for this House to decide whether the order should be made. This is an extremely difficult case, and there are deeply felt views on all sides, but it seems to me on the evidence that the Secretary of State has made the right decision about the best way to proceed. I hope that the House will support the Bill.

4.45 pm
Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

To say that this issue has caused some interest and excitement in the far southwest of the nation is putting it rather mildly. There may be questions about whether a full day of parliamentary time is required to make a decision about a bypass around what is, after all, a rather small town some 250 miles from here. That is something some of us may wish to reflect upon on another occasion. The simple fact of the matter is that a decision is asked for and has to be made. I ask for the forebearance of the House so as to mention Cornwall.

Mr. Steen

Oh dear.

Mr. Penhaligon

The hon. Member says, "Oh dear." That is his attitude and I recognise that.

This is the main road for the county of Cornwall. On more than one occasion I have been delighted to accept the company of one of my right hon. or hon. Friends on the drive to my part of the country. Sometimes when we are driving down the A30 they say to me, "It's very nice of you, David, to take us by the picturesque route." I have to reply, "This is not the picturesque route; this is the main road." The A30 through Okehampton and through the rest of the villages that run from there down to Launceston, has long been known as Britain's longest lane, but it is the main artery for business and commerce and for all the activities for at least four fifths of Cornwall. That four fifths takes in my constituency, the constituencies of the hon. Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) and, of course, the constituency of the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale). It affects less the constituency of the hon. Member for Cornwall. South-East (Mr. Hicks) but for the other four of us, it is overwhelmingly the main road to our part of the world.

The economic difficulties affecting my part of the world are substantial. We hear endless talk in this House about the great north-south divide. I do not complain that hon. Members from the north draw to the attention of the House the difficulties they face. I often listen to them abusing the south, but as far as the argument goes, I am a part of the north. Today I looked up the latest unemployment figures for the towns the A30 serves. The figures are comparable to those anywhere else in the nation. In Falmouth 24.9 per cent. of the male population is currently registered as unemployed and receiving benefit. In St. Ives, Penzance 26.1 per cent. of the male population is in this position. I will read them all so that hon. Members can see I am not just picking out the worst ones.

In Redruth 22.8 per cent. of the male population is unemployed. My own Truro—which for reasons for which I claim some credit is better than the rest—has a male unemployment figure of 14.9 per cent. St. Austell is the bright spot with 13.2 per cent. Newquay has 27.6 per cent., Bude 18.3 per cent., Helston 23.6 per cent. and Okehampton, ironically, has 13.9 per cent. Bodmin and Liskeard is 20.2 per cent. and Launceston is just short of 14 per cent.

Those are the levels in an area 100 miles long. We are not talking about one suburb in an urban area, but about an immense expanse. Besides that—this is a statistical fact and not a new one—Cornwall has the lowest average wage of any county in Great Britain. That is the situation we face. Sometimes these things cut across party channels, and those of us in the south-west who have been trying to do something for the economy, for our homes, or part of the world and our people, time and time again meet industrialists. They show some interest because Cornwall has much to be said for it. It is clean and basically law-abiding and has a good work force. But when those people we meet go down to the south-west they take one look at the A30 and that is the end of that.

Of course, it affects not just the industrialists we try to attract. I wonder how many tourists are put off visiting the county of Cornwall in August? I never cease to be amazed at the sheer bravery of people who set off from London to go to Cornwall during the summer. One can get from London to Madrid a great deal quicker than one can get from here to the other end of our nation. Often at peak times there are 13 to 14-mile queues outside Okehampton, and on a normal weekend those queues are five or six miles long. That is the reality of the position as it affects those who look at Okehampton from our end. Okehampton is in between where I live and here, whereas for most hon. Members it is at the end of the road, somewhere almost beyond all civilised thought.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the length of time it takes to get through Okehampton. As a regular user of that road to go on holiday every year, I can assure him that the Okehampton police make a lovely cup of tea first thing on a Saturday morning, and many times have I sampled that delight.

Mr. Penhaligon

What we will do in the south-west to make a shilling out of tourism is beyond compare.

I shall ensure that our police are supplied with free tea for the hon. Gentleman, even when the road is built.

One of the ironies of the argument about the road is that most of those living in Devon will be no more affected by it than those living in Shropshire, Aberdeen or anywhere else. Okehampton is very much at the end of Devon. Those who will be most affected live in the areas covered by the West Devon district authority, the Okehampton town council and the Cornwall county council. I beg the House to take my word for the fact that, for a number of reasons, opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of the building of a bypass as soon as is conceivably possible.

On checking "Erskine May", I discovered that I am allowed to do something in this Chamber that I had not thought would be allowed. For the edification of the House, I have brought with me a map of Devon. Apparently I can display what I want, provided that it is not a weapon. The map may be argued to be a weapon, but not in the context of "Erskine May".

Hon. Members who can see this far across the Chamber will realise that I am holding a map of my part of the world. Towards the top is Exeter, as the hon. Member who represents that area will confirm, and towards the bottom is Plymouth. Cornwall runs away one way and England runs away the other way—if hon. Members understand the way that I phrase that.

The Dartmoor national park is outlined accurately with a green line. It was done by professional cartographers and is not one of my efforts. Hon. Members with good enough eyesight will see that that covers a not inconsicerable expanse of the map—indeed, 233,000 acres. Hon. Members wishing to see the proposed road that we are discussing will need very good eyesight indeed, because it comprises six little red dots in the top corner. That is the size of the issue that has been brought to the House, and which has dominated and disadvantaged the economy of my part of the world. Objectors talk about the intrusion and the rape of Dartmoor, yet the road comprises only that little line of red dots across the top of the map. Therefore, I find the importance given to the issue quite extraordinary.

For those whose eyesight is not good enough, I shall use some of the training that I received as an engineer. The Chamber in which we have the opportunity to argue our case is approximately 24 panels wide and 60 panels long. The actual amount to be slivered off the Dartmoor national park is proportionately equivalent to three panels square—the space occupied by less than two civil servants in their box. That is the rape of Dartmoor. Yet people claim that the road is being driven straight through the middle. Some of the arguments are quite nonsensical and of little merit.

Let us examine the 460 acres that it is alleged will be slivered off the top of Dartmoor. I know Okehampton well, and to say that I have been there and looked at it on a number of occasions would be an understatement. Many hon. Members will also have been there on a number of occasions. The largest bit of the 460 acres that will be affected is a golf course. Now I am all for the people of Okehampton having the maximum opportunity to play golf, but to argue that the entire environment is being destroyed because a golf course is affected is nonsense.

The second largest area affected is what is romantically called—not only in the south-west, but elsewhere—a medieval deer park. I, like many other people, at one time was foolish enough to wonder just what a medieval deer park was. I have to tell the House that it is a place where deer were kept up to about 300 years ago. In other words, there are no deer there now and there have been no deer there for a long time. Unless, suddenly, deer should come back as the great solution to west country agriculture, I suspect that there will be no deer there in future. The remainder of the land involved is woodland and the areas surrounding the castle. The castle will actually be further from the main road, given that that improvement occurs, than it is now.

The woodlands have already been discussed today. The area has become known as the bluebell woods. I have received letters from anxious people in various parts of Britain telling me that I am committing one of the great outrages of all time because the bluebell is an endangered species. In all honesty and with all the vigour that I can muster, I must insist—people can take my word for it or not as they please—that the bluebell is not an endangered species in the south-west. There are acres and acres of them. Indeed, it would not be difficult to find people who would argue that the bluebell is a weed, although I hasten to add that that is not my view.

There is no doubt that the Government's current position on tree planting is a great improvement on their previous position. We must give the objectors full credit for that because it has been achieved largely as a result of their efforts. As the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said, there has been much effort recently to find open space, and I believe that open space to be better than the previous open space because it is nearer Okehampton. People already use it. Some of the original open space is certainly space, but is not open—unless one is 6 ins high and can go under, or more than 20 feet high and can climb over.

Let us honestly examine what we are discussing. The truth is that moors do not start as conveniently as the 1948 Act suggests. By definition, the Act forces someone to draw a line on a map. That line must have zero width because that is the nature of legislation. Moors do not start like that—there is a gradual change in the land from what is obviously moor to what is obviously not moor. I suspect that many cartographers and geographers of the highest standards would have great arguments about whether certain parts were or were not moor.

My honest view is that the piece of land that we are discussing cannot be described as moor. It is true that it is on a slope running up to what I believe to be moor, but the actual area is most definitely not moor. Such is the geography of the land that the road will blend in extremely well. If the trees are given a reasonable chance, which clearly they will be, before long the road will be hardly noticeable.

One of the great ironies of the argument is that when people visit the moor—as they do in large numbers, which I understand because I do so often myself—

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Two million of them.

Mr. Penhaligon

I do not deny that figure. The moors are a major attraction in my area, and parts of them are beyond compare in Britain. When people visit the moor they tend to stand on it and look outwards. They do not go to the nearest agricultural area and look inwards to the moor.

If the road is the southern route and one stands on the moor looking out, there is not the least possibility of the road being seen. It is true that if one went from the other side of Okehampton and stood in the middle of a barley field—I admit that some visitors do that, though not many, thank goodness—and cast one's eyes across the moor one would be able to see the road, but the ratio of those on the moor looking out to those on the outside looking in must in this case be in the order of several hundreds to one.

I am convinced that the southern route is the preferable one, although I confess that my starting point in the argument was a desperate anxiety on behalf of the community that I try to represent in the House to promote a road that represents the present decade and century. I have been forced to investigate the matter and I believe that the intrusion of the proposed road into the moor is so insignificant that it makes no difference to the great space that is Dartmoor. I do not believe that it constitutes the precedent that some hon. Members have argued because I believe that moors and other great beauty spots will live or die on their own merits.

It is generally agreed that if this House and the other place vote as I would like them to, we could have the southern route in about three years. The optimists argue that we could have the northern route in approximately six years—that is, three years' delay and two or three years to build the road. The pessimists argue that the northern route would actually take nine or 10 years. I believe that the truth is probably somewhere between the two, but the House must not underestimate the sheer vigour with which the anti-northern route people would fight that proposal if it came back to the House. They believe that they defeated the Devon establishment on this issue at a public inquiry which lasted 96 days. I was rather surprised that they pulled off that triumph, not because of the merits of the argument but because of the vigour with which some anti-southern route people pursued their case.

As the Minister knows, the coward's way out of this would be to have the road put around the north, but it would be an outrage for the House to suggest that the solution to the agonising dilemma my constitutents face is to take away from them the right to argue their case again if this vote is lost. If another inquiry is necessary, it will be a significant one. One would hope that it would not last for 96 days but insanity may go that far again. There will certainly be significant and vigorous argument and the House need not kid itself that if we vote in a particular way today the northern route will suddenly be acceptable.

Mr. Steen

If the House throws out the confirming Bill, would the hon. Member agree that it would not be proper to open a future inspection and inquiry into the southern route? If the southern route goes ahead, it will take traffic out of the centre of Okehampton. The hon. Gentleman says that it will also revive the economy of Cornwall, but it will simply move the bottleneck from the centre of Okehampton to an area four miles west of Okehampton. The hon. Member knows that the road between Okehampton and Weston is still single track and that it would be six more years before a dual carriageway could be constructed to Okehampton. If the northern route were constructed there would be a continuous dual carriageway to Tongue End just outside of Okehampton running east through to Launceston. Does the hon. Member agree that building the southern route would not help the economy of Cornwall but would simply jam up the dual carriageway four miles west of Okehampton?

Mr. Penhaligon

The hon. Member knows that I do not agree with that. There is a marvellous Cornish definition of the word "expert". The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) was talking about experts earlier on. My somewhat cynical Cornish friends define an expert as a man from 50 miles away. Sometimes when I listen to the hon. Member for South Hams discussing these matters, I take a similar view to that of my Cornish friends.

I do not defend the attitudes of successive Governments towards improving the A30. If successive Governments had applied themselves to the problem, we would not be in the present difficulty. One of the significant problems created by arguments to the bypass is that the bypass is between Cornwall and the dual carriageway that currently exists. Given the present row, we do not know where the Okehampton bypass would start or where it would finish. It will be impossible to build a road to the Okehampton bypass or a road from the bypass until a decision is taken.

Mr. Ridley

I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) has said. I should add for his edification that if this House and another place pass the Bill we shall be able to proceed with the Okehampton to Launceston section. I have asked my Department to give that road full priority and to make it a dual carriageway. If the Bill is not passed there will be no need to do that because the bottleneck will stay in Okehampton.

Mr. Penhaligon

I hope that the Bill will be passed. As the Secretary of State knows, I have previously called the attention of the House to the standard of the road and one likes to believe that occasionally one has some effect and can see changes being made.

The Joint Committee which met to discuss this matter voted by four votes to two to reach its decision and I make no complaint about the outcome. I apologise to the House, however, because I believe that I and other hon. Members made a mistake in connection with the Joint Committee. I read, studied and took advice on what I understood to be the Committee's powers. The general view was expressed —wrongly, as events turned out in my part of the country—that there was no purpose once again in going to the Committee and arguing in favour of the southern route and not the northern route because the Committee was not allowed to investigate that point. In fact, the Committee did investigate that point. I do not complain, but the Chairman of the Joint Committee did not get the anti-north lobby in full flood before him. Local people express their case with more vigour than civil servants, who are sometimes reduced to reading from a map. The reason why the case was not presented was not that it did not exist—the public inquiry showed that it did—but that, perhaps foolishly as it turned out, we believed that the Committee would not be arguing once again the case of northern route versus the southern. That being so, the evidence taken from individuals as opposed to civil servants was totally one-sided.

Mr. Rost

I am sure the hon. Member for Truro will appreciate that the Joint Committee had serious doubts as to what its terms of reference were before it commenced the inquiry. We took the best procedural advice available from the House of Lords Procedure Committee, which advised us that, although the basis of the petitioners' case was the narrow one of open space, that case could not be fairly presented by the petitioners without also allowing them to put the argument against the Dartmoor route. We were therefore obliged to consider the arguments against that route and the arguments presented by the Department of the Environment in favour of it. There was no chance for us to invite witnesses as happens in a normal Select Committee. Our only power was to hear the petitioners' case and the defence put up by the Department of the Environment.

Mr. Penhaligon

I thank the hon. Gentleman. It is a legitimate description of what happened and fits in with what I said. We took advice, which was that there was no point in organising the arrival at Westminster of the anti-north route view. I do not think the hon. Gentleman was trying to argue that he did not hear that from the local people who held that view so vigorously.

I ask the House not to allow the matter to become a simple party issue. There are in my party divergent views, which I have done my best to correct. We shall see what happens when the vote takes place. I ask hon. Members to examine the merits of the case. After all these years the intrusions within the 1948 boundaries of Dartmoor national park are of such minor significance and the road is to be built in such a way that I ask the House to back the Government and support the Third Reading so that the road can be built as soon as possible and can start to give my part of the country, which has as much right to prosperity as other areas, at least the chance to compete on an even basis.

5.10 pm
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

I think the whole House knows that if my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) had not had an operation recently for the removal of a kidney he would be here putting, as forcefully as only he can, the case for the route which has been recommended by every democratically elected tier of local government. As he lives in my constituency, and as his constituency adjoins mine, I hope that the House will be no less favourably disposed to the Government's case than it would be if my hon. Friend were here to put it before the House himself.

The final absurdity from the Opposition Front Bench was the peroration, if it might be dignified with that description, saying that what the Government wanted to do was a triumph of bureaucracy over democracy. The facts are the exact reverse. Every tier of local government supports the route put forward by the Government. The parish council of Okehampton, which is a town council properly elected, favours the route recommended by the inspector and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; so do the district council, the county council and Cornwall county council, whose interest in the matter was so ably put before the House by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon).

In the debate on Third Reading it would not be a service to the House for me to repeat the points made by the hon. Member for Truro, which show the extent to which this is not a local issue purely for Okehampton. The prospect of economic recovery for Devon to the west of Okehampton and for Cornwall as a whole will be intimately affected by the decision of the House.

It is more than a decade ago that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, as it is now called, made an investigation into means of promoting economic activities in development areas. I was a member of the Committee that took evidence from business men who had set up new enterprises in the peripheral areas of Britain. We asked them what incentives were decisive with them in locating new enterprises in peripheral areas. In those days, there was relief from selective employment tax, regional economic premium, interest free loans, rent free factories, relief from rates, training grants and a whole catalogue of incentives. But the representative answer was good road communications, because that meant a permanent reduction in costs which no change of Government policy could take away.

The facts that were true then are even more true today. With the tachograph and stricter control of drivers' hours, if it is not possible to get from the source of supply in Cornwall to the market in the midlands, or to the docks and back in a day, double the number of vehicles and double the number of drivers are required. That is enough to deter anyone from bringing new employment to those areas.

Delay in constructing the bypass is a direct cause of avoidable unemployment in the further south-west. Let those who make speeches about unemployment bear that in mind and share the responsibility for continuing avoidable unemployment if they vote against the Bill tonight. I repeat that every layer of local government in the area has expressed itself decisively in favour of the southern route.

I was born in a village on the edge of Dartmoor and lived there as a child. I knew Dartmoor before many of the people who have chosen on retirement or for other reasons to move to the south-west. I love the area. It is where I go with my wife and children to swim, rather than to the coast. Dartmoor will suffer less from the southern route than from the northern route, which would appear like a scar when seen from Dartmoor.

The issue of principle is the issue of good sense against bigotry. Where the frontier of Dartmoor was drawn on the map was a matter not of principle but of judgment. Those who decided on the boundary did not have in mind the sort of performance in which we are engaged if they were to draw it a few hundred yards south. With its present boundary, Dartmoor includes some areas of great ugliness. One would need a peculiar sense of beauty to settle on Meldon quarry as an example to draw to the attention of the House, yet Meldon quarry will be on the Dartmoor side of the proposed road if the House approves the Bill. That is the sort of thing that one should bear in mind.

To a considerable degree, for those familiar with it, the history of Dartmoor as opposed to Exmoor is archaeological rather than natural. The Stanary law which overruled all the normal law of England was centred on the Stanary town in Devon of Tavistock and Lydford. Wheal Jane and the buildings by the mine shafts cannot be destroyed, quite rightly, because they are listed. The heritage of Dartmoor is partly one of untouched natural beauty and partly one of natural resources harnessed to the service of man, as can be seen in the wool towns around Dartmoor, which for centuries, not for decades, have used the rivers flowing from Dartmoor.

Within the last few weeks, as opposed to months, some people have set themselves up as the protectors of Dartmoor, but many others, without labelling themselves, love Dartmoor every bit as much. Those who have set themselves up as a self-appointed protectors of Dartmoor have claimed the right to object to a massive potential source of new employment outside Dartmoor at Hemerdon, a wolfram mine, on the ground that it can be seen from inside the national park.

My right hon. Friend has shown that he can see the force in arguments of that kind. He went there personally to look at what would be visible from Dartmoor if the northern, instead of the southern, route were adopted. What is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. If people say, "We must protect what can be seen from Dartmoor," that must be as important in the north as it is in the south of Dartmoor. It must be inconsistent to put forward that argument in the south and deny it in the north.

A convex slope is one above which one cannot see what is in its shadow below. That is largely where the southern route of the bypass will go and where the existing railway line is, which one does not see from the moor because of that convexity. That is the truth of the matter which one must be familiar with the part of the country to know. Looking at a map—unless one does the old cardboard trick and marks out the contours—one cannot be aware of that.

It has been suggested that the northern route could be adopted without a public inquiry. It could not, and there are many reasons why. Those who are familiar with the compulsory purchase procedures know the view that the High Court has taken when there has been bad faith on the part of the Minister. The Minister is allowed to exercise his judgment in seeking compulsory purchase orders so long as he is exercising good faith. But what if the Minister tries to impose compulsory purchase orders in respect of a northern route when, in good faith, he does not believe that to be necessary in the public interest, nor does he believe it to be the route that is required by the relevant circumstances?

No Parliament can bind its successors. The fact that a Joint Committee of both Houses, split four to two, reached a certain conclusion this Session does not mean that a differently composed Joint Committee in a different Session would come to the same conclusion, even on the same facts. Do not let those outside Parliament come to believe that a decision made—I attach no particular weight to the fact that it was a split decision; our vote tonight will also be a split decision—by Parliament in this Session binds a Parliament in a successive Session. It does not.

The inspector hearing an inquiry against the objections, which would undoubtedly be massive, to a northern route would be bound to consider the same facts again. He would be no more bound by a decision made by a Joint Committee of six Members drawn from more than 1,200 Members of both Houses in this Session than that Joint Committee was bound by the inspector. What would be the view of an inspector trying the same facts over again? The probability is that he would come to the same conclusion, which would be that the southern route was to be preferred to the northern one.

The Government would then make sure that the open spaces hurdle was crossed—and it was not the Government's fault that it was not crossed earlier. After all, it was not a matter of compulsory purchase orders. Such orders could not have been sustained for that purpose. It was a matter of people being willing to sell their land to facilitate the route, and the Country Landowners Association did an honourable and excellent job in assisting the finding of the land. All credit is due to the association for that. Thus, there would not even be the opportunity of arguing on the basis of what the Committee found on the last occasion, because the circumstances would not warrant such a Committee in the future. We should have only rich lawyers from the public inquiry and poor unemployed people.

I ask the House, therefore, as forcefully as I can, to give its judgment in this matter in accordance with the democratically declared wishes of the town council, which has the legal status of a parish council, in Okehampton, of the district council, of the county councils of Devon and Cornwall, reinforced by an independent inspector after one of the longest public inquiries there has ever been for a bypass. It was, I believe the first such inquiry in which public money from the Consolidated Fund paid for a considerable chunk of the opposition case, through the Nature Conservancy Council, and for the Government's case, through the Department of Transport.

That was a departure. It set a precedent and, on that subject, to argue that one cannot do anything without an exact precedent is to argue that one can never do anything new. Is the Labour party wedded to that doctrine? It is not, so far as I know.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

The hon. Gentleman has not been a Member of the House for long. If he turns up the 18th edition of "Erskine May", he will find in the preface these wise words: 'old Mr. Ley (Clerk of the House of Commons from 1820 to 1850) used to say "What does it signify about precedents? The House can do what it likes. Who can stop it?"'

Mr. Hughes

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. Long before I entered the House I was aware of his expertise above all in matters of this nature. Will he accept that, once the precedent of breaking into previously inviolate national parks has been established—particularly since the circular of 1976, which the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) accepted, and which came after a decision of his relating to a road in the north of England—national parks, as a matter of public policy, are far less secure?

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

No, I do not accept that. The security of national parks depends on reason rather than on law. As I pointed out, the boundary of a national park is drawn, not as a matter of principle, but as a matter of judgment, and the two must never be confused.

Mr. Harris

Will my hon. Friend accept that in many respects the boundaries of the national park, particularly around Oakhampton, are not even a matter of judgment in that they follow the old parish boundaries?

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Yes, if that was judged to be a convenient way of doing it. As in so many other matters, lawyers argue law, but at the end of the day the House of Commons is concerned with reason and with doing that which is reasonable.

After the most exhaustive inquiry, when all points of view were exposed, argued, defended and attacked, the inspector published his report. The Secretary of State has made his decision, and on the basis of reason it is fair and reasonable. I ask the House to support that decision, not grudgingly, but willingly.

5.30 pm
Mr. Gordon Oakes (Halton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) on his first speech in a transport debate in his new capacity. He deployed his case with considerable skill, agility and dexterity. He had to, because the case was so thin. I have been in that unfortunate position, speaking from Opposition and Government Dispatch Boxes. He acquitted himself well.

The case for the southern route bypass at Okehampton is overwhelming. We should get on with the job. The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) rightly said that this is a matter not only of local but of national importance. It is not a matter only for Okehampton, Devon or, with respect to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), for Cornwall. It is a national matter. The decision, the procedure and the public inquiry are matters for the nation and there is a practical matter for the nation.

Every hon. Member has hundreds or perhaps thousands of constituents who visit that beautiful part of Britain during the holiday period. Constituents from the north of Scotland to the south of England regularly go to that part of Devon, as do we. Even midweek, not on a Saturday morning, I have been held up in Okehampton while towing a caravan. The volume of traffic in the area is horrendous. I feel sorry for the inhabitants of Okehampton who suffer a constant stream of traffic through their lovely town. Apart from holidaymakers, tourists and those driving cars from their constituencies, another important factor is the professional coach and heavy goods vehicle drivers who have no choice, as the hon. Member for Truro said, but to use the Okehampton route. They have a schedule, a timetable and their time is money. They must drive through and suffer delays in Okehampton.

For that reason my union—I am sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union—firmly and unequivocally supports the building of the bypass now. Most professional drivers belong to that union, which supports the bypass because it is in the drivers' interests and, as the hon. Member for Truro said, it is in the interests of employment in west Devon and Cornwall. Whenever I have been on the south coast admiring the beaches and the scenery, local business men have said, "Yes, but the area is on the sands for three months and on the rocks for the other nine." I am sure that the hon. Member for Truro would echo that view.

What puzzles me is how we got into such a mess as to make a special Bill necessary. Strangely enough, the Bill has proceeded straight to Third Reading, which I have never experienced in my 21 years in the House. There has been a history of delay. The first inquiry began in 1968 when it was considered that so much congestion called for a bypass. Public consultation took place in 1976 and a public inquiry was held in 1979. As many hon. Members have said, it was one of the longest inquiries in history—96 days. Eleven years elapsed from the time of the first proposals to the inquiry. Normally, one would consider that the Secretary of State would make his decision quickly once the matter had reached the inquiry stage. The public inquiry took place in 1979, but it was not until four years later, in 1983, that the Secretary of State accepted the recommendations of the inspector's report on the public inquiry. I do not blame the present Secretary of State. His predecessor was responsible. Whether it was the Minister's fault or that of the Secretary of State or the inspector, four years is an inordinate delay for a decision on the report.

Mr. Penhaligon

Inquiries were made about what was happening to the report and we were told that the inspector was ill and incapable of writing the report for 18 months. That was the reason given for the remarkable delay.

Mr. Oakes

That was the beginning of what became a chapter of accidents.

Essentially, this is not a planning matter. The planning decision was taken by the inspector and confirmed by the Secretary of State. It is purely fortuitous that, in 1984, a petition of general objection was laid against compulsory purchase orders. That is what the Committee should have considered, rather than reopening and re-examining a 96-day inquiry on which the Secretary of State has already announced his decision. The Committee's decision would put the completion of the bypass back possibly for another 10 or 12 years. On the optimistic time scale that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North gave, the chapter of accidents could and probably would happen again. Completion could be well into the 1990s and, on the present time scale, it could be the next century before the bypass is built. That is shameful.

Having listened not only to my hon. Friend's skilful arguments, but to the views of the TWGU which represents drivers, I have to say that I cannot support my hon. Friends in the Lobby tonight. That leaves me with a choice between abstention or voting with the Government. To abstain on this matter would be lazy, or at worst, cowardly. With regret, I shall be in the Government Division Lobby tonight.

5.39 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) is unable to be in his place. He has apologised to me for not being here. I feel sure that if my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) had heard the forceful and robust speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton, he would have been proud of it. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West is indisposed. We have long been sparring partners over Dartmoor. I respect his view and I am sorry that we are not able to continue our sparring tonight. I am sure that we all look forward to seeing him back in his place.

Okehampton is at the top of the southern part of the Dartmoor national park and my constituency is connected to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West on the southern part. We join somewhere south of the Fox Tor Mires, just south of Okehampton. The House will therefore appreciate why my view may be somewhat different from that expressed by other hon. Members.

In one way or another I have been associated with Dartmoor for 30 years. I have walked the moors since I was a schoolboy. In most years, I have been on the moors for long periods, and I know it extremely well. No other national park has occupied so much parliamentary time as Dartmoor. In 1980, the first Dartmoor Commons Bill, aimed at providing a proper management of the moor, failed. In June of last year I was invited by the Devon county council to pilot the Dartmoor Commons Bill mark 2 through the House. It was backed not only by the council but by the Department of the Environment, and in addition to the proper management of the moor we managed to secure a great improvement. It not only allowed the proper management of the moors for farmers, which pleased me, but protected the moor's natural beauty and environment, and gave the public a unique statutory right of access to the common land. Second Reading was unopposed both in this House and the other place.

How then is it that, two weeks after the Dartmoor Commons Act was passed, another Bill is brought before the House not by the Department of the Environment but by the Department of Transport, which does exactly the opposite to what the Dartmoor Commons Act has tried to achieve? The Bill will damage the environment, prevent public access to part of the moor and infect an area of Dartmoor with noise and pollution.

Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

I have travelled Dartmoor, and my constituency is immediately adjacent to the future Okehampton bypass. Is my hon. Friend aware of the firing of guns and the presence of troops on Dartmoor? Does he really think that this tiny road incursion will make more noise on Dartmoor than we have already suffered, or enjoyed, for many years?

Mr. Steen

My hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely right. There is intolerable noise in the centre of the national park—my hon. Friend makes the point extremely well, as he always does. The noise is already intolerable but the road will make it even worse.

Four main arguments are advanced by my colleagues and I shall rehearse and deal with them all. The first has been expressed on both sides of the House. It is that the Okehampton bypass, if it goes south, will eat only into the tip of the national park. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), who has vacated his seat, produced a map to illustrate this point, at which we looked with interest. The second argument is that the national park boundaries were arbitrarily drawn along the old parish boundaries, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton in his interesting speech. The third point is that the local councils support the southern route and the fourth is that changing the bypass to the northern route would delay its building by at least eight years.

On the first point, while it is true that the road breaches the national park by no more than about half a mile inside its boundaries, the House has not had the advantage of hearing what the scenario is and where the road is going. Even on a 2½ in ordnance survey map, the area looks flat and boring and not at all special. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been down there, and I think that he will recognise my description of the area.

The southern route will come off the A30 at a place called Tongue End Cross. The road will then fork to the left and go down a small wooded valley to what is called the Fatherford viaduct. This is an old granite bridge, over which the railway runs. Underneath the viaduct is a wonderful, typical Dartmoor river with huge granite boulders. The bypass will go south of that wonderful viaduct, by about 50 to 100 yards, and then it will climb up East Hill, which is about 1,200 ft. This hill is the first buttress of Dartmoor. It is dramatic as it rises from the river at about 400 ft, up a heavily wooded slope to about 1,200 ft. A four-lane viaduct will carry the road, which will start to climb East Hill and swing round a magnificent arc that stretches from East Hill to the Meldon valley through some five miles of trees. The bypass will carve out a piece of the side of the hill, which was formed millions of years ago by water erosion. It is covered by mature deciduous trees that have wonderful colours at this time of the year.

The importance of the road is that it goes on the 600 to 800 ft contour and is not tucked down by the river. It is over halfway up the hill, along the arc of trees, and will thus affect a dramatic sweep of hillside valleys with the river deep below. In the middle of the huge arc are the ruins of a medieval castle on a small hill about 100 ft up. The river goes round the hill with the medieval ruins from which one can get a magnificent view, as it is a small promontory.

Some hon. Members have made a big point out of the fact that there are no deer in the deer park. I accept that, and I do not make an issue out of it.

Mr. Nicholls

There is the golf course.

Mr. Steen

I am not making an issue about the golf course either. I am fond of golf and no doubt my hon. Friend is a good player and has probably realised that one can see spectacular views when one plays golf there. That, too, will be ruined by the new bypass. It is also true that there are not as many bluebells as hon. Members may like in the bluebell woods, but to some extent that does not affect my argument. Nor does it alter the magnificent backdrop behind Okehampton—the wonderful silent and tranquil foothills that are a prelude to the wilderness of the moor beyond.

The southern route will take a chunk of the land on the steep slope, including a medieval trackway and 1,000 mature trees. When the road reaches about 800 ft, it will start to drop again. It will come round the arc for about three or four miles and in dropping will cut across the railway line. British Rail sends about six trains a day each way from the Meldon quarry to Exeter. The train adds a certain colour to the area and a little acceptable noise.

After going across the railway line, the road will carve through bluebell woods and join the A30 a few miles west of Okehampton.

Mr. Nicholls

Can my hon. Friend help the House by explaining how Meldon quarry and its associated activities contribute to the marvellously tranquil and silent scene that he is describing?

Mr. Steen

My hon. Friend is well known for missing the point. I shall come to that matter in a moment because one of the contentions that I shall advance, as he listens with interest, is that the fringes of the national parks are being eaten into. That is one of the problems. The quarry is eating into the national park.

Mr. Harris

The quarry was there first.

Mr. Steen

As my hon. Friend says, the quarry was there first.

Before I was understandably interrupted by my hon. Friends, I was trying to say that that panorama will be disturbed. To give the Secretary of State his due—somebody should do that—he has promised 70,000 trees to replace the 1,000 mature trees that will be uprooted. I am not sure where he will put them all. Even if they are crammed extremely close together, I am not sure whether he will get them all in. However, it is a bold and imaginative idea, and an attempt to reduce the noise in that tranquil valley. However, the cost of going south is the intermittent noise that will percolate the wild moor. I ask my hon. Friends to realise that. There will be intermittent noise if there is a four-lane carriageway through a wonderful valley with a wonderful panorama.

Sir John Wells (Maidstone)

Can my hon. Friend give us any idea of the numbers of people who currently enjoy that tranquil scene, apart from the quarry men, railway drivers and railway guards? We all enjoy driving up some of the more beautiful stretches of existing motorways. Assuming that the road is built there, how many members of the public, and how many of my constituents travelling to points further west, and how many boat builders and vegetable growers bringing their produce further east, will enjoy that magnificent view instead of being cluttered up in the back streets of Okehampton?

Mr. Steen

I can gladly answer my hon. Friend. Meldon quarry is right at the end of the five mile arc. If one is standing at Okehampton, the arc starts two or three miles on the east. It swings round, and Meldon quarry is five miles to the west. Therefore, it is just outside the area that I am talking about. It is over the ridge.

My hon. Friend asked how many people enjoy that area, which is an important point. I was up there on Sunday, unannounced—[Interruption.] A sizeable number of people were walking on the East Hill with children and dogs. I am advised that in the summer months sizeable numbers of people picnic at the river, around the castle. It is one of the popular picnic spots.

My hon. Friend wondered whether lorry drivers would enjoy the area. The answer is no, because the best place to see Dartmoor is from the northern route. If they were driving along the bypass, they would be thick in the 70,000 trees. They would not be able to see anything. They would not be able to see the wood for the trees. They would be jammed in, with the 70,000 trees that the Secretary of State is planting. It is better to go on the northern route, where they would get magnificant views of Dartmoor.

However, I shall not be distracted too much by those important questions. I should like to deal with the destruction of the peace. That should not be under-estimated. Although it seems to be the tip of the valley on the map of Dartmoor, the whole valley will be spoilt because of the noise. When the wind blows from the north, the noise of the dual carriageway will probably be heard at least a mile into the deep moor. I hope that I am wrong, but that is what I estimate. My principal objection at this stage is that the tranquillity of the foothills of Dartmoor will be spoilt. That damage would be irreparable. No other foothills around the moor are of the same quality. Dartmoor would be worse off.

I should like to deal with the principle, because I believe that that is what my hon. Friends would like to hear. Either national parks are special, or they are not. Either they are to protect the natural beauty of our finest landscape and to promote public enjoyment, which is what they were established to do from 1949, or they are not. Either 1976 Government policy following the Sandford report, which outlaws new roads in national parks when there are reasonable alternatives, is adhered to, or it is not.

Nor is it right to say that we shall not create a precedent, because the Sandford report, as the House will remember, clearly states the exceptions to the rule that one does not build new roads through a national park. Lord Sandford states that the first is where the park lies across important long-distance routes to which, for geographical reasons there is no reasonable alternative, such as the A40 and the A470, which have to go through the middle of the Brecon Beacons because that is the only way to get from Abergavenny to Brecon. The second exception is where parks enclosed towns such as Buxton, Whitby and Blaenau Ffestiniog, which themselves are not within the designated areas, but can be reached only through the park. Thus, the Sandford report, on which the circular was based, specified the two exceptions that Lord Sandford saw would allow the national park boundaries to be breached.

Okehampton, a town with 3,500 souls, is not enclosed by the park; it is outside the national park, and there is no physical barrier to the north to prevent the road going that way. Therefore, why does not the policy of the circular apply? I am glad that the Secretary of State went down to Fatherford bridge the other day. When he looked at the grandeur of the scene, he said that he felt that the southern route was much less damaging to the environment than the northern route. That was his personal view. However, that is not the point. It does not matter what the Secretary of State thinks, although we are always glad to hear it. Although he is known for his good taste and arboreeal expertise, it does not matter whether he fancies the northern or the southern route, because the national parks policy is much bigger than the Secretary of State. The fact is that 7.5 km of the 9 km southern route is in the national park, so it does not matter whether the Secretary of State prefers one route to another. If Government policy says that one does not go through national parks, there must be compelling reasons why it is disregarded.

A suggestion has been made today that this is a fight between the environmentalists and the farmers. I reject that. The farmers whom I know are some of the best conservationists there are. It is wrong to suggest that they are opposed to the southern route or the northern route for the wrong reasons. It is a fact, according to the report, that along the southern route three farms will be more than moderately affected. The northern route will affect only slightly seven farms, three moderately and only one severely. The northern route takes only eight more acres than the southern route but the value of the land has decreased since the introduction of milk quotas. That would be an interesting and relevant issue if there were to be a new public inquiry. The land that was inspected in 1980 was extremely valuable but it has become less valuable since the introducion of milk quotas.

There are no buildings to be lost on the northern route, whereas some are lost on the southern route. On the other hand, the land to the south is far more valuable for recreation, as the inspector said. There are 15 miles of public paths on the southern route and only 3.5 miles in the same radius on the northern route. There is extensive open space on the southern route and none on the northern route.

If a confirming Bill is passed by both Houses, it will be a further nail in the coffin of our national parks, which are already under severe pressure from development.

Mr. Penhaligon

Will the hon. Gentleman outline the statistical evidence that he has to support his assertion that the value of land on the northern route has reduced since the introduction of milk quotas? Is that not a reflection on whether land does or does not have milk quotas attached to it? What is the statistical evidence on which he bases his assertion?

Mr. Steen

I do not have statistical evidence to hand to throw at the hon. Gentleman but I am told by reliable sources—individuals who deal with land in the area—that the introduction of milk quotas has affected the value of the land to the north of Okehampton in various parts and that land value is not nearly as great as it was five years ago. That view is expressed also by farmers in the area. I cannot provide statistical evidence at this moment but I shall gladly provide the hon. Gentleman with it in due course if that will be of assistance to him.

Mr. Neale

I am certain that my hon. Friend has no intention of misleading the House. However, he talks as if there is a southern route and a northern route and that each can be considered a clear alternative when set against the other. Will he confirm that there is no northern route of anything like equal status in terms of preparation when set against the southern route? There are 13 optional routes in the north that have been advanced and that are capable of being upgraded in preparation if my hon. Friend's arguments were to prevail.

Mr. Steen

That is a helpful intervention, and I shall try to respond to it. I understand that the 13 routes of which my hon. Friend speaks were put forward by the complainants and petitioners at the public hearing. I understand also that about 50 routes could have been put forward on that basis. None of the routes has been explored in the detail to which the southern route has been subjected. However, it is a great shame that over the past year, while the Joint Select Committee was meeting, no preparation was made for a northern route. I understand that no land or soil samples were taken to advance a northern route.

I understand that in 1976 there was a northern route and that the county council had put it into its structure plan. It is true that there have been a number of routes in the north and that preparatory work is not as far advanced as in the south. However, there are many who believe that a northern route could be advanced quickly and agreed. That could be the old route of 1976.

For all these reasons the Countryside Commission, among others, feels that the southern route should not be pursued. I am taking a stand on this issue—I have a sizeable chunk of Dartmoor in my constituency—because the policies of successive Governments, and often local governments, have been to chip away at the edges of Dartmoor and other national parks. The result is that our national parks are being eroded constantly by one-off decisions. That is well illustrated by the Meldon reservoir debacle. The reservoir is in the north-west corner of the park on the other side of the southern bypass. In 1972 the cry was, "We must have water."That was being said when my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West opened the reservoir. He claimed that it would solve all the water problems in the area. That was 13 years ago. A new reservoir is being built at Roadford to the north-west of Dartmoor. It is to be eight times the size of the Meldon reservoir. I am told that the South West water authority wants it to be 12 times larger than Meldon. Meldon reservoir is now defunct and a beautiful wild valley has been lost.

Mr. Speller

I think that my hon. Friend, being a relative newcomer to the west country, is confusing Meldon with the abortive Swincombe scheme. It was argued that the Swincombe reservoir—it is now to be the Roadford reservoir—would look after the area that I represent by providing standpipes. It ill becomes my hon. Friend to confuse Meldon, which was never a major scheme, with what was to be a scheme on the moor, which was rightly or wrongly discarded for the same reason that he discards the scheme that is set out in the Bill. It would seem that my hon. Friend is a reservoir too few.

Mr. Steen

My hon. Friend does me a disservice, which is most unlike him. I am a newcomer in terms of representing a parliamentary constituency in the west country, but I explained at the beginning of my speech—I do not know whether my hon. Friend was in his place at that time—that I have been travelling through the Dartmoor national park for about 30 years and that I know the area well.

I referred to the Meldon reservoir because I wished to quote what my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West said when he opened it in 1972. The construction was undertaken with a view to solving water problems in the area. That is an example of how the moor is being eroded constantly. I do not want to spend too much time on water provision although it is a major issue in the west country. The Meldon reservoir, however, is an example of the loss of a beautiful wild valley. Two further examples are the firing of live ammunition by the military and the extraction of china clay, which is eroding the Dartmoor national park at its edges.

I am concerned about other areas of natural beauty apart from national parks. My constituency has 60 miles of heritage coastline, thousands of acres of areas of outstanding natural beauty and many areas of great landscape value. Recent appeals to the Secretary of State against the refusal of planning consent for development in these areas have been upheld, contrary to structure plan policies and environmental and conservation interests.

Is it right for the Secretary of State for the Environment to say that we must build on vacant land, which in many instances it is right to do, in our inner cities, especially in areas of public open space, to save the green belt, and then, as a latter-day Nelson, to fail to see what is happening in our national parks, along our heritage coastline, in areas of oustanding natural beauty and in areas of landscape value?

I have dealt with the first of my list of four points. My second point turns on the fact that the boundaries that we are discussing were drawn along parish boundaries, which has been criticised by some. I shall deal with the issue shortly. It is true that the boundaries of the national park in the north were drawn along parish boundaries but that was done because they were natural boundaries formed by the river bank and the fringes of the granite outcrop. The boundaries were drawn for good reasons.

We have heard much about the support of elected local representatives for the southern route. Let us consider the voting patterns. A great deal has been made of the Okehampton town council this afternoon. It would be thought, I am sure, that that council would support unanimously the southern route, but that is not so. Instead, it voted 10 to six in favour of it. I am sure that it would be thought that the Devon county council—the transport authority, the structure plan authority and the traffic management authority—would support unanimously the southern route. On 25 July, 34 of the county councillors voted for the northern route and 38 for the southern. There were four abstentions. That can hardly be described as a unanimous vote of the local representatives. My fourth argument turns on delay, about which it is only right that the House should be concerned. If there is to be a six or eight-year delay before the completion of the northern route or the southern route, for whatever reasons, the House will be concerned about the effect that that will have on the area.

There is some dispute about how long the difference would be. There has been unusual delay in this case, and it would not be useful to explain why. However, there are differences of opinion. One opinion is that it will take at least six years longer to go north rather than south. Another view advanced by very distinguished engineers, planners and surveyors is that the northern route could take only three years longer to build. That means that the northern route would take six years to build—given that the southern route would take three—but it should not take more than six years.

An important point that has so far not been dealt with is that if the southern route goes ahead and is built in three years there will be a bottleneck three miles west of Okehampton where the track is single. I fully understand the strenuous and emotive pleas of the hon. Member for Truro on behalf of the people of Cornwall, but his timing is mistaken. If the southern route is built, instead of a jam in the middle of Okehampton, there will be one four miles further on.

The dual carriageway between Okehampton and Launceston has not yet got through its planning inquiry, and it will be four to six years before even that takes place. Therefore, if a northern route were pursued, one could have a dual carriageway from Tongue End bypassing Okehampton but going straight onto Launceston and into Cornwall. However, the southern route will mean another bottleneck, and the only people who will benefit—I admit that they are important—are the people of Okehampton, who will get relief four years early.

That should be understood. We are talking not about a through route to Cornwall but about shifting the traffic jam from one part of Devon to another. The hon. Member for Truro will have to wait another six to eight years before the Launceston to Okehampton section becomes dual carriageway.

By now hon. Members will have concluded that I am not in favour of the southern route, and I have given the reasons why, but I am not totally unreasonable. I have tried to obtain some improvements to the southern route should it go ahead. In July I asked the Secretary of State whether it would be possible to make the southern route less visible, less noisy and less obvious. I also tackled him about open space. I pay tribute to his response. He was quick—he got the point before I had even made it—generous and courteous to my proposals.

On visibility, there will be a huge cutting on the scarp face of East Hill, running right along the arc. Within a few minutes my right hon. Friend told me, "If we, fell 1,000 trees, we must plant 70,000." I am sure that his gardening skills will be extremely handy.

As to noise, my right hon. Friend not only promised to screen the dual carriageway but talked about earth humps. What does he plan to do with these earth humps, or bumps? Where will he put them, and what will they achieve?

As for the obtrusion of the dual carriageway, I ask my right hon. Friend to consider the construction of a tunnel through East Hill, because that is where it will rise up over the Dartmoor escarpment. Officials quoted me £100 million as being the cost of 2 km, but, according to an answer in yesterday's Hansard, that has been revised to £160 million for 2 km. I have obtained figures for the 17 km four-lane carriageway through the Alps which, with two separate tunnels, cost £275 million. Therefore, a tunnel at East Hill will cost £80 million per km, whereas through the Alps it is £16 million per km.

Mr. Ridley

Perhaps I can explain the discrepancy between £100 million and £160 million. The £100 million was the cost of bored tunnelling—cutting through the granite—whereas the £160 million was for cut and cover. That will involve cutting a trench and covering it over later, which is why it is the more expensive of the two. There is a remarkably close correspondence between the cost comparisons of tunnelling through Dartmoor and tunnelling through the Alps. Both go through hard granite rock, which is why the work is so expensive.

Mr. Rost

My hon. Friend was referring to an answer given to me. I asked about the cost of possible partial cut and cover through the most sensitive part of East Hill. I also asked for the estimated cost of the tunnel to be built on the A1(M) motorway at Hatfield. I was told that a three-quarter mile section would cost about £14.5 million. Admittedly, that may not be a cut through granite, but it seems a large discrepancy to me.

Mr. Steen

If the 2 km at East Hill could be tunnelled, and if the 70,000 trees and earth humps did their job, we would not see the road rising up on the north face of Dartmoor. I am perplexed, because the cost will be £80 million per km through Dartmoor whereas it is only £16 million or £17 million through the Alps. In other words, it will be four times more expensive to go through Dartmoor. I wonder whether the figures are right. If it were to be £17 million per km for 2 km, would it be possible for the Department to review this decision before the matter goes to another place?

I thank the Secretary of State for all the improvements that have been offered and the concessions that have been given. Even though this route still goes through the national park, there have been improvements, and we owe the Secretary of State our greatest thanks for what he did during the summer recess.

At the end of July, after the statement was made to the House, I pointed out that it was inconceivable that the Conservative Government should be party to the seizure of open space designated for public recreation without making sure that some alternative open space was offered. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton mentioned the chairman of the Country Landowners Association in Devon, who is one of my constituents. He ferreted away day and night to persuade the landowners in that area that the future of the Bill and the southern route would to some extent depend on finding comparable open space, and, with the help of the Department's officials and the Secretary of State, the very best has been done to find it. It is fair to ask why that was done so late.

In an earlier intervention I asked the Secretary of State whether he could refund the £50,000 spent by the private national conservation organisations on petitioning the Joint Select Committee.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

Perhaps I should point out that section 7 of the 1945 Act contains provision for the award of costs to petitioners, but the Committee was not asked to exercise its power in that respect in favour of the petitioners, although it is thought that it would have been at liberty to do so. Furthermore, a prominent member of the leading petitioners—who apparently is not just speaking for herself—has written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport saying that they would have regarded an offer of money as an insult.

Mr. Steen

I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench and thank her for that timely intervention, but what one petitioner writes to her or to her right hon. Friend should not be construed as a view shared by all the petitioners, who represented 10 of the most eminent and distinguished national conservation, environmental and amenity societies.

I may not have made my point clear. The Joint Select Committee might never have met if the open space which was offered—and quite properly—by the Secretary of State a few weeks ago had been offered before the Joint Select Committee met. The Committee did not meet about the national parks; it met about open space and about the compulsory purchase orders which would have to be made if the southern route went ahead.

It was because no open space had been offered by the Government that the Joint Select Committee met. If open space had been offered, the Joint Select Committee might have decided that there was nothing to meet about, and, because the open space which was there and could have been offered was not offered until after the Joint Select Committee made its finding in favour of the northern route, the petitioners were put to the cost of over £50,000 in putting their petitions to the Joint Select Committee.

Mr. Neale

I appreciate that my hon. Friend may be distancing himself, understandably, from the various organisations which produced the leaflet "Why a national park needs your vote", but it appears to be clear from the leaflet that, despite the fact that the Secretary of State has made offers of further land, on which my hon. Friend has congratulated him, the organisations concerned are not impressed. The signs are that they feel that the matter should be contested to the death.

Mr. Steen

My hon. Friend is entitled to that view and he is right to refer to what I thought was a well-produced leaflet. In what has turned out to be a charade, the petitioners went to the Joint Select Committee, and what the Committee said will be overturned if the Bill goes forward. We are here today only because open space was not offered at the right time. Therefore, the Government would be well advised to offer to pay the petitioners' costs. If the Government have not the power to offer cash, they could offer trees. Clearly the Secretary of State has plenty of money to buy trees. He could offer trees to the national environmental groups, which are always short of trees. Those groups should not be at a financial disadvantage because open space was offered so late.

I have made my point, and I do not think it would be right to push it further. I feel that the petitioners entered the Joint Select Committee hearing with false apprehensions. If the open space had been offered earlier, it would have helped to circumvent the whole of this debate, and would have allowed either the southern or the northern route to go forward.

I want to look now at the open space which is the subject matter of the confirming Bill. The Department has offered three sites and the House may find it of interest to know a little more about them. We have talked about open space but not about the specific sites. As many hon. Members are interested in open space and the national park, I feel that it is only right to give some of the details. One of the sites is near the old railway station at Okehampton, there is one around the medieval castle, and there is a further site at Bluebell Woods. In all, the open space amounts to 38 acres. It is true that the open space lost by the southern route is 22 acres.

An important point conveyed in the leaflet which my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) referred is that Bluebell Woods was given to the Okehampton Hamlets parish council in 1965 in the memory of Mrs. Ryan's daughter Mary, who died while a child, and that under the deed of trust it was dedicated to be preserved for ever as a place of public recreation. The open spaces are havens of peace and tranquillity.

The new open space by the station is virtually under the dual carriageway, the one near Bluebell Woods is near the new viaduct, and the one near the castle is at the bottom of the slope, at the point where vehicles on the bypass will be roaring.

Although the Secretary of State has clearly looked, with the chairman of the Devon country landowners, for every possible solution, I think that to picnic at the open spaces that are being offered would probably be like picnicking in the middle of Trafalgar square.

I am impressed by the fact that the Okehampton town council has offered to maintain and sustain the open spaces if and when the Government give them to the nation. However, it should be recognised that the open space which will be given to the nation will be declared to be for the use of posterity.

There is one further possibility about which I invite the Secretary of State to say something, either now or in the reply to the debate. There are 1,400 acres of land which could be included in the national park. It was mentioned by the Secretary of State in his opening speech when he said that the Department of Transport's decision on the Exeter-Okehampton road had circumnavigated the national park near Sticklepath. The re-routeing of that section of the A30 outside the national park has opened up the possibility of adding two further pieces to the national park. I recognise that it is a matter for the Countryside Commission, but that addition would be convenient, because the A30 would then encapsulate not only the present piece of the national park but the two other pieces on either side, making another 1,400 acres.

I hope that the Secretary of State for Transport will recommend to the Secretary of State for the Environment and his colleagues that it would be an appropriate measure for the Countryside Commission to consider, and welcome the possibility of a further 1,400 acres being included in the national park, which has been made possible only by his circumnavigating of the park.

National parks are special, and many of them are fraying at the edges. Dartmoor is rapidly coming to resemble a moth-eaten carpet. If Okehampton is to be given the alternative of a northern route, I believe that there is a reasonable northern route. If the House rejects the southern route today, and the other place also rejects it, I do not believe that it will be open to the inspector in future to say that he will go south of Okehampton. He will have to go north of Okehampton, and that will fit in, in a timely way, with the dual carriageway from Okehampton to Launceston.

If the Bill is confirmed, Dartmoor will shrink. The noise pollution will affect the whole of the Okehampton valley for nearly six miles. If the wind is from the north, I believe that it will affect the deep north.

The saga of the Okehampton bypass has captured the imagination of the nation. The threat to the national park has attracted widespread concern. Although I understand that the Secretary of State felt obliged to bring the Bill to the House, we should not allow it to make any progress. By voting against it we can ensure the integrity of all national parks. I have no doubt that in the years to come the debate will be regarded as a watershed in terms of saving our heritage as against short-term expediency.

6.30 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey

I begin with two short tributes. The first is to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). I congratulate him on his first appearance in his new post. His move from agriculture to transport is a little ironic. I wonder whether, in his previous responsibilities, he could so cogently have put the case that he has presented today. He is welcome to the Opposition Front Bench, not only because of his expertise in the House, but because he is much respected for his other activities outside the House, in particular for his connection with the anti-apartheid movement.

My second tribute is to an absent friend who has been referred to by many hon. Members—the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) in whose constituency Okehampton lies. We all miss him, and wish him a full and speedy recovery. He is particularly missed this week, because he has the much respected function in the House of being the chairman of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, which this week is holding its first ever national prayer breakfast. The hon. Gentleman will be unable to be with us for that breakfast. He much regrets that he will be absent, as he regrets his absence today. We send the hon. Member and his family our good wishes for a speedy recovery.

My third tribute is to my temporarily absent colleague, the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon). I shall take a different line from him, and I do so with trepidation. Not only has he been a Member of Parliament for longer than I have, but he is the president of my party. Despite his words and, unusually, his graphics, I am happy to say that I do not think that the balance of the argument lies entirely in his favour. When the votes are cast—I see that my hon. Friend is returning to the Chamber just as I am about to foretell our fate—I think he will discover that more of his hon. Friends are against him than are for him. But that remains to be seen.

Lastly, it may appear to be somewhat anomalous and odd that an hon. Member who represents about the most urban consituency should be speaking on this issue.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Typical."'] Hon. Members say, "Typical," but I can assure them, if they do not know it already, that by upbringing I am a country lad, even though by adoption I am a city dweller. I have enjoyed the pleasures and suffered the troubles of Okehampton and Dartmoor. For many years I have had clearly in my mind a vision of the moor as seen from Okehampton: either while stationary, which is the cause of the problem, or while on the move.

Mr. Neale

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to give a further explanation of his opinion, in view of the declared support for the Bill by his hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon). Is the hon. Gentleman speaking for himself, or is he speaking as the spokesman for the Liberal party? He is aware, I am sure, that there is strong, unequivocal Liberal support in Cornwall for this measure. It would be considered by them to be a grave disloyalty if he were to try to persuade his party to oppose the hon. Member for Truro.

Mr. Hughes

I shall willingly answer the hon. Gentleman's question. There will be no party-line on this vote. We do not call it a free vote, because we believe that all votes should be free. We are sad only that the Government have not allowed their Members to have a free vote, or a no-party-line vote. We understand that the Whips are on, even though with only two stars, as opposed to three. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not speak as the spokesman or as the representative of the Liberal party. We shall speak and vote as individuals, and we shall put our cases from our different points of view. This is one of those debates in which strong and honest views are held on both sides of the argument and in which one seeks to weigh the evidence, balance it according to one's experience and come to a proper view.

One argument is that this is about the national interest. That is defined as upholding the national parks principle and ensuring that there are no intrusions into them. This argument has to be set against the argument about the local interest—the economy of the south-west of England. However, there is another dilemma with which the House and Government institutions are faced—the difference between gain and loss. Is the gain to the people who seek to bypass Okehampton and to the people of Okehampton greater than the loss that will be suffered by the loss of amenity if part of the national park is lost? Is that loss sufficient to justify the bypass being built a little more quickly than the northern route, which I favour? [Interruption.] I heard somebody say, "No." The Secretary of State is sensitive to the fact that there will be a delay. It is his most sensitive spot. It is the Government's Achilles heel. There are other arguments which are not so strong as the Secretary of State would have us believe, but I shall deal with them later.

I am surprised that reference has not been made to the fact that it was not until the mid-1970s, although the debate has been raging since the early 1960s, that the balance of local interest and the predominant view moved in favour of the southern route. Until then, the northern route had been favoured. An interesting point was made earlier by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), that if there had to be another inquiry because Parliament voted against the Bill, and the inspector's conclusion in favour of the southern route had therefore to be rejected, it would result in a heyday for the lawyers. However, it has to be borne in mind that it was only when the farming interest predominated, although not entirely, that the lawyers who spoke for them came into the picture. Only then, because of the agricultural land that would have been lost, did the balance tilt in favour of the southern route. The argument has not always therefore been one way. The tide has turned. Only in the last few years has opinion favoured the route which the Government now endorse.

Mr. Speller

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that my constituents, who live within three miles of Okehampton, say, "A plague on both your houses. We do not care which way the inquiry goes, but for goodness sake, do something."? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a free vote would lead to procrastination and vastly increased expense for the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) and my own?

Mr. Hughes

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that Okehampton needs a bypass. The anomaly and the tragedy are that it could have been built more than 10 years ago, when it was felt that it should be built on the northern side of Okehampton. It was not a failure of the planning system which meant that it could not be implemented. The failure arose from the consensus view not being implemented. Had that plan been put into effect the delays would have been obviated. The national park would have been preserved, the inconvenience would have mitigated and unemployment in the south-west would, I hope, have been reduced. It is sad that it has taken the nation so long to get to grips with this problem.

Mr. Penhaligon

I do not know what the position was in the early 1960s. I was 18, and my hon. Friend was even younger. Will he take it from me that there are eight farmers who serve on the Okehampton town council, that four of them farm to the south of Okehampton and that four of them farm to the north of Okehampton? Their collective view was seven to one in favour of the southern route.

Mr. Hughes

I do not dissent from that. The problem with which the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), who had experience as Secretary of State for the Environment in the 1970s, did not grapple is that, according to a Government circular of 1976, the key test is that if a road is to be built through a national park, no reasonable alternative should be available. The conclusion of the public inquiry and of the Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament, chaired by the hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost), was that there was a reasonable alternative. Lawyers argue more than most about what is meant by "reasonable", but nobody has dissented from that proposition. By pressing ahead with this route, the Government are ignoring the cumulative wisdom of the ages, including that of their predecessors—that national parks should not be intruded upon unless there is no reasonable alternative.

Mr. Neale

In paragraph 28.18 of the report, the inspector said: In all these circumstances, my view is that none of the northern routes that were considered at the Inquiry is a reasonable alternative for the purpose of Circular 4/76. The hon. Gentleman is right about the Joint Committee, but he is wrong about the public inspector's decision.

Mr. Hughes

I did not mean to give the impression that the inspector was saying that in his view there was a reasonable alternative, which he then discounted. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that the argument that one can conclude only that there is no reasonable alternative—which is the test of the Government's policy, and which has now been established for nine years—has been put by many bodies, not least the Countryside Commission.

The Countryside Commission has repeatedly considered the relative merits of the land in question. Its statement says:

The Commission has confirmed that the area which would be affected by the southern route is of national park quality. The landscape which would be affected by the northern route is not of national significance nor is it comparable in quality of that south of the town within the national park. It is important to weigh that up. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has pointed out that many environmentally and ecologically important elements in the land will be lost. Once lost, the land will be lost for ever. If a similar threat were posed to, for example, the Cornish coastline, I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Truro would be equally willing to see it disappear. I doubt it.

On the other side of the scale is the agricultural land. It is not prime quality agricultural land. There is a drainage problem. Its value depends on surpluses and payments under the quota system. The argument that we need to conserve every bit of non-prime dairy land, when we clearly over-produce—we are trying to deal with this problem—does not ring true.

There is the argument about the relative scenic advantages and disadvantages. Weighed in the balance, the argument points in favour of the northern rather than the southern route. There is the argument also about the effects on traffic into and out of the national park. Many experts believe that the inflow and outflow of traffic are not crucial determining factors. It has been argued that good roads automatically bring jobs. The Department of Transport said that that was not a proper conclusion. Its 1977 advisory committee said: since most of the problems of depressed areas can be traced to non-transport factors, improved communications may do more harm than good". There are not many jobs available in some of the areas with the most roads—for example, north-west England and Strathclyde in Scotland. One can just as quickly leave an area and take employment from it as move into an area and bring in employment.

Perhaps the crucial issue is delay. Recently, there has been correspondence in the columns of The Times between Mr. Parker and the Minister of State. Mr. Parker's inquiry was checked by engineers from a firm in my constituency—Denis Wilson and Partners—and it has been confirmed that the differential delay will be two or three years. It is not a matter of getting rid of any further inquiry or of ignoring the rights of people to protest. Most of the evidence has been accumulated.

We must ask: should we forfeit two or three years of delay—given that we have delayed so long—to obtain the benefits needed by Okehampton and the south-west, or should we forfeit for ever an incursion into our national park? Those who believe that our countryside and environment are important say that the principle is sufficiently important to be held sacrosanct by Parliament. We are afraid that, if we breach that principle once, we can breach it again more easily. I defy anyone to say that the argument would not be used to that effect in the future.

6.45 pm
Mr. Peter Rost (Erewash)

It takes courage for a Derbyshire Member to enter this heated fray. I hesitate to intervene, especially as so many of my colleagues from the west country are anxious to have the vote as quickly as possible so that we can proceed with the bypass. I feel that I should explain why, although I want the bypass to be built as quickly as do my colleagues—it should have been constructed many years ago—I cannot support the Government and must vote against the Bill.

It was perhaps my misfortune but also my great honour to chair the Joint Committee. The House should have the opportunity to hear the Committee's view. No Committee Member has yet had an opportunity to participate. I would not present myself as a representative of that Committee, but I should point out that its view has been misrepresented and denigrated. To some extent, attempts have been made to discredit the Committee. Those moves were unjustified. Hon. Members served on the Committee conscientiously and impartially and approached their work in a completely uncommitted way.

The Committee had very narrowly defined terms of reference. Some hon. Members have suggested that we defined those terms far too widely, but the narrow terms resulted from the right of petitioners to petition a special Committee on the grounds that open space was being taken away without adequate alternative open space being offered. At first, the Committee thought that it could accept the petition on those narrow grounds and not become involved in re-arguing the public inquiry. We sought the best available advice from the House of Lords Procedure Committee. It was clear that we would be doing an injustice to the petitioners if we defined the terms of reference in such a narrow way as to look only at the open space aspect without considering why the route should not go through Dartmoor and considering whether there was a reasonable alternative route. We noted the petition, but tried to insist that only new evidence that had not come to light during the long public inquiry was relevant.

An interesting point which I do not think the House has understood is that a great deal of new evidence was presented to the Joint Committee. The inspector openly admitted in 1979 that he had made a finely balanced decision. He made his decision as he thought right at that time, but he might well have made a decision the other way if he had heard some of the evidence presented to the Joint Committee. I do not believe that that point has been brought out. Anyone who goes through the evidence—I do not recommend it because it would be a long task and it would involve as many sleepless nights as we had—given during the Select Committee's 90-odd hours of hearings might come to the same conclusion.

The Joint Committee's case has been misrepresented. Its terms of reference were, in the view of its members, to decide whether we should allow the compulsory purchase to go ahead, as the inspector had recommended, or whether there was any new evidence which might lead us to a different conclusion—in other words, that the route need not go through Dartmoor because there was a reasonable alternative. We came to the conclusion that the fact that there was no reasonable alternative was not proved. My hon. Friends have referred to some of the evidence—for example, that it need take no more than two or three years for the alternative road to be built rather than the five to six years, as the Department claims.

We are all aware that our beloved civil servants and bureaucrats have ways and means of arguing their case strongly when it suits them. I hope that no one would be so hypocritical as to deny that. Once someone is committed to a line of action, it is far easier to pursue that decision rather than to admit that there may be a second opinion and justification for a re-think. I believe that that is what has happened here.

Originally, a route to the north was recommended. That was the position until about 1974, when the prospect of the railway line being available for the southern route suddenly emerged. At that point, the landscape advisory committee said, "Aha, here is the ideal route. We can put the road along the railway line being abandoned by British Rail. No one will see it or know that it is there. I will make an ideal cutting." That suddenly became the ideal preferred route.

Mr. Neale

My hon. Friend has said that the civil servants and bureaucrats, as he described them, exaggerated the time element to make the Minister's case. Does he accept that the same argument could have been put 15 years ago when the southern route was first advanced? They could have suggested to Ministers that it would only take three years to approve the southern route. Knowing what has happened in the south, and how tremendously well educated people in the north have become as a result of the actions of the protesters in the south, does my hon. Friend imagine that anyone would want to under-estimate the time that the northern route would take to go through its various proceedings?

Mr. Rost

I accept that my hon. Friend has a good point. I will not keep him too long from putting his point of view. I am aware that my hon. Friends feel passionately about this matter. I dare say that I might have had a different view if I were a west country Member and realised the damage that the delay was doing to my constituency and its economy.

My hon. Friends must understand that those of us who served on the Joint Committee approached the matter impartially and from a non-constituency point of view. We had to decide whether the evidence given to us warranted a decision. We had to come to a conclusion, from the evidence and the narrow terms of reference, on whether there was a reasonable alternative route.

The road going through the park along the railway line became the preferred route. The preparatory work went towards that route. Suddenly British Rail changed its mind. It did not want the railway line to be closed. It wanted to continue it for the quarry. It became obvious that that route was no longer available. Instead of the landscape advisory committee saying that Dartmoor no longer seemed a likely route, that vast environmental opposition was building up and therefore reconsidering the original route in the north to see whether it could be put into shape, we were committed to one route. All the arguments were deployed in favour of stubbornly persisting with that route, although it was clear that it would take far longer to push it through because of the environmental opposition that was building up and the inevitable keenly fought public inquiry that would result.

It is unfair that some of us on that Joint Committee who were responsible for ruling against the inspector are in some way being blamed for the delay. It is as if we were trying to add to the inconvenience and economic hardship that is resulting from the failure long ago to build that bypass. That is grossly unfair. The implication is that two wrongs should make a right. Because a mistake was made in the past by continuing to persist with the southern route, it has now become so late and the matter has become so urgent that the quickest route to build must be accepted regardless of the principles and the arguments. That is what we are being asked to accept tonight.

Unfortunately, a Select Committee, especially one set up under that rather special judicial procedure, was unable to consider that point. We had to weigh the merits of the case, not whether to accept the quickest route to build. Going back to circular 4/76, we had to consider whether the case that there was no reasonable alternative had been made out. Unfortunately, the evidence presented to us made it clear that there was a reasonable alternative. It was a little longer. It would take a little more farming land. It would cost a little more, but it would not damage the environment as much as the Dartmoor route. The inspector confirmed that point.

Mr. Steen

Is it not right to say that, if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had offered the public open space to the nation before my hon. Friend's Committee was established, my right hon. Friend could be building the route now? Does my hon. Friend agree that by not offering the open space for a year my right hon. Friend has prolonged the case? I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would say whether he feels that the petitioners should bear the cost merely because my right hon. Friend offered the open space as late as he did?

Mr. Rost

I was interested in my hon. Friend's speech, which I enjoyed. He put forward a forceful argument that we might not have been in this position tonight and might not have had the special Committee procedure if the open space had been offered and if the Committee had considered it and decided that there was no case for the petition. If that had happened, we could now be nine months further on with the road, but that would not necessarily have led to justice. We welcomed the opportunity, which we did not ask for but which was nevertheless thrust upon us, to consider the new evidence that the petitioners claimed that they had. We did that.

I spent many sleepness nights going through the evidence of the 96-day public inquiry. Some of it was absolutely fascinating and some of it was a bit dreary. Nevertheless, it was an important exercise. What struck me most about that public inquiry—I I accept it is a subjective judgment—was that the final decision, which came out three years after the inquiry finished, because the inspector, unfortunately, suffered from ill health, was made by one man and was a finely balanced one. He took pages and pages of summary to weigh up the pros and cons, saying it was a bit more this and a bit more that. When he had weighed them up, he did not come to a clear-cut decision, because if one reads the final conclusions of that report one sees that the judgment was by no means unanimous and clear cut. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will agree with that.

The decision was finely balanced and could equally well have gone the other way. Anyone who listened at the Joint Committee hearings would also have come to the conclusion that the Joint Committee faced a finely balanced judgment. There were only six members on the Committee and we came to a subjective conclusion. The difference is that we came to a conclusion based on the evidence presented to us and the case made by the Department, and on balance the case of the petitioners stood and there was a reasonable alternative. It might not be the best and most desirable alternative, and of course it will take two to three years longer. It will be a little more costly and will take a little more farm land. There were also other inconveniences, but in our judgment, those factors did not make it an unreasonable alternative route.

I should like to refer to Lord Sandford's report and circular 4/76, paragraph 58, which we had to take as our terms of reference. When we looked at the inspector's report, we took the view that, although he also took circular 4/76 into account, it had been issued only a few months previously and did not weigh as heavily during the inspector's deliberations as it would have done subsequently when the circular was accepted more widely as a basis for policy decision-taking. Let us remind ourselves of what the Joint Committee and the inspector were asked to decide. Paragraph 58 of circular 4/76 says:

it is now the policy of the Government that investment in trunk roads should be directed to developing routes for long distance traffic which avoid national parks, and that no new route for long distance traffic should be constructed through a national park, or existing road upgraded unless it has been demonstrated that there is a compelling need which would not be met by any reasonable alternative means. That was our dilemma, and it was the inspector's dilemma. It is grossly unfair for the deliberations of our Joint Committee to be in some way abused as if we were not experts, as if we did not take the matter seriously, as if we had only 90 hours instead of 90 days' deliberation, and as if we sat at Westminster instead of Okehampton. All sorts of insinuations were made. Many of my hon. Friends sit on Select Committees that produce important reports. How would they feel if their reports were denigrated, making it look as if they were being accused of not having done a conscientious job?

We all know that Select Committee reports are often ignored by Government, by officials and by policy makers. We also know that they are often influential in getting changes of direction and changes of policy. The implication that our Joint Committee was less important than the public inquiry is quite unacceptable. They were different forums with completely different procedures. The Joint Committee was more like a court of appeal than an ordinary Select Committee. We could not choose whom to call in evidence. We had the petitioners and the defence, two sides. First one side presented its case and its witnesses, then the other side presented its case and its witnesses, just as in a court of law. We then had to rule.

We were able to intervene as a judge can intervene, to ask questions, but for the most part counsel were responsible for prompting the witnesses to say, what they wanted them to say, and we had to sit and listen When we weighed up the pros and cons, we came to the independent judgment that there was no reason why an alternative route should riot be developed. Having reached that conclusion, we were still faced with the terrible dilemma which now faces hon. Members.

Some of us may have a conscience as to what extent this affects the wider issues of national policy on the environment, open space and national parks. Against that, however, we have to face the fact that the Government and my hon. Friends from the west country have, quite rightly, reached such a point of frustration with the 20-year delay that they do not care which route the road takes so long as the road can be built quickly.

I know from my own soundings and the Committee's work that that is the majority view of local people as well, and that is inevitably why most local authorities in the area support the Dartmoor route. They know that it will come two or three years sooner. We have to weigh that factor against our conscience, because there is a matter of principle here. Has there been an error of judgment? The inspector went marginally one way and the Joint Committee went marginally the other way, its decision being based on fresh evidence.

In addition to a marginal error of judgment, there is a matter of principle here. Do we condone and endorse that error and assume that two wrongs will make a right, or do we take the easier option and go for the route which will be built more quickly? I have thought carefully about this matter over many weeks, and particularly just before this vote tonight, and I have no doubt that in years to come the fact that one road would take two to three years longer to build than the other will be forgotten. I am not saying it will not cause a great deal of inconvenience over the years until it is built, but in the long run I will be able to rest in peace and my conscience will be clear, because I will have voted for the principle that the route to the north is environmentally the best, and will preserve the principle of our own policy towards open space.

My decision will also correct an error made some years ago. We are being asked to take the easy option to correct that error by going through the park when we ought to go the other way. For that reason, I will vote against the Bill.

7.10 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost), first, on the case that he has put to the House, and secondly, on the way in which he presided over the Committee. I do not want to do him any damage with his hon. Friends, but those who have heard him today or who have read the report will realise with what devotion and skill he presided over the Committee. He was determined to carry out his duties under the provisions of the constitutional and parliamentary arrangements. I, on behalf of many, thank him for the work that he has done and for the way that he has presented the case today.

The Minister referred to the constitutional aspects. As he said, in the last resort this House must be prepared to exercise its right to decide what is to happen. It can override Committees, Joint Committees and anybody else, and in some cases it has a duty to do so. It is under that procedure that we operate today. However, the Minister must acknowledge that it is rare to call upon that form of procedure, because it is rare for Ministers to seek to override the view of a Joint Committee asked to report on a certain matter.

The hon. Member for Erewash underlined another matter of great importance, not only to this debate but to the future protection of our heritage—that very often Joint Committees are much wiser than inspectors. We should not think that inspectors always reach the right conclusions. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, the inspector's decision made many years ago was a matter of balance. He admitted under cross-examination that, had other facts been available at the time, he might have reached a different conclusion.

I hope that the House will support the Joint Committee report, which has been brought before it under such exceptional procedure. I have listened to every word spoken in the debate, and I still believe that the case of the hon. Member for Erewash and his Joint Committee is a great deal stronger than the Government's case.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) on the way in which he put the Opposition's case. We all understand the enormous pressure from Cornwall, Devon and other areas to get the matter settled. They say, "A plague on all further delays." No one could have put that aspect of the case more eloquently than the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon). He put his case well, although he rather overstated it. By the end of his speech, he would have had us believe that no injury at all would be done to Dartmoor. Those of us who know Dartmoor as well as the hon. Gentleman knows Cornwall take a different view. It was an error to try to overstate his case, because no one denies that his case has merit.

We all agree that there must be some sort of bypass and that it must be constructed as soon as possible. Whatever decision is made today, the construction must be hastened. I do not accept the Secretary of State's comments about the time involved in an alternative route. If we decide to throw out the Government's proposal and choose an alternative, I am sure that the speed with which it could be implemented would be far greater than that suggested in the right hon. Gentleman's speech. Of course, we cannot cut out all the delays, but they will not be as long as he tried to suggest.

Because Ministers have said that long delays are inevitable if an alternative route is chosen, many people in Okehampton and Cornwall have been persuaded to support the case presented by the hon. Member for Truro. That case is not good enough. The hon. Gentleman argued about jobs, and I understand his passionate desire to do everything possible to protect existing jobs and to attract fresh jobs to Cornwall. Everyone wants the bypass constructed as soon as possible.

However, many interests must be weighed. Some of those interests have, to a degree, been protected by those who oppose the Government's scheme. I give the hon. Members for South Hams (Mr. Steen) and for Erewash full credit for having gained something by their objections. If the southern route goes ahead, it will be a better route because of the arguments and objections than had they never been presented. Anyone who thinks that the national parks would have been protected without such a campaign has a strange understanding of how the House operates.

When I heard the Secretary of State misquote the debates in 1945 and 1946, I felt that it was all the more necessary to put on record the views of all hon. Members. Had the Government's proposal gone through the House in the easy way that the Secretary of State wanted—with the House accepting that it was 100 per cent. right, with nothing to be said against it—the next time that someone wanted to carve a piece out of a national park this precedent would be quoted.

Since the national parks were established, hon. Members on both sides of the House have wanted to protect them. The Labour party takes special pride in the part that it played after 1945 in extending the operation of the national parks and kindred operations. The Labour party took a leading role at a critical moment in our history. It has always been interested in protecting our heritage. If that had not been the case, the invasion of our heritage would have been even greater.

It was right that a Joint Committee of the House should be charged with determining whether there was a reasonable alternative to the proposed route, and that is the question that it examined with such care. The hon. Member for Erewash has every right to throw back in the faces of those who make them any aspersions against the way in which the Joint Committee applied its understanding to the problem. It produced an answer, and it is no good the House just pushing that to one side simply because it is different from the Minister's answer.

It may be that a Joint Committee considers the matter more objectively than Ministers or inspectors. Therefore, the House must take account of the fact that a Joint Committee set up by the House has examined the matter in great detail and decided that there is a reasonable alternative to the Government's proposal. The Labour party believes that the House should vote for the reasonable alternative. Indeed, many of us have argued over the months and years that we should adopt a reasonable alternative.

People in different areas have differing views on the matter. The societies and residents of Okehampton have voted against the northern route. All who have read their views will agree that they have put a very reasonable case and no hon. Member can deny them the right to put their case. Strong elements in Devon, Cornwall and throughout the country recognise the powerful conclusion arrived at by the Joint Select Committee. The House must take account of the individual's case as well as listening to the powerful arguments of those who say that we must speed ahead in every possible way to procure the bypass.

However, other arguments must be borne in mind by the people of Cornwall, Devon and the rest of the country. I speak as one who has Devon blood as well as Cornish blood in his veins. That is another reason why I am participating in the debate. No two counties owe more to the protection provided by the national parks and the National Trust or rely more on those institutions being safeguarded by the House. The affairs of Devon and Cornwall may not primarily be involved with tourism but tourism plays as great a part in the livelihood and life of Cornwall as it does in the traffic jams of Okehampton. It is nonsense for anyone to suggest that the House should treat trivially the question of how national parks or the National Trust should be affected. That point was made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who was the Liberal dissenter on this occasion—although I understand he may be in the majority on the Liberal Benches at the end. The hon. Member for Truro expressed the majority view in the Liberal party when he stated eloquently what his reactions would be if a proposition were made to carve away even a small slice of some of the beautiul parts of the National Trust in his own and neighbouring Cornish constituencies.

If a fight arises on one of those matters and the hon. Member for Truro faces a barbarian Ministry of Transport, I can promise him my support just as I would support hon. Members and others who say that the most essential aspect of this debate is the need to protect the national parks against any form of depredation, especially when procedures have been followed and the House has been presented with an authoritative view that there is a reasonable alternative to the desecration that would occur if the proposal were carried through.

7.24 pm
Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

It is always a great pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). I listened to some of the right hon. Gentleman's speeches which were recorded and broadcast on the radio before I came to the House and I admired his contributions to various debates. I am aware of the right hon. Gentleman's blood relations and know of his brother's close interest in this matter, which Lord Foot will no doubt pursue with equal eloquence in another place.

I find rather curious one or two points arising from the right hon. Gentleman's speech. I noted with interest that it was the Labour Government, when the right hon. Gentleman was in the Cabinet, who first announced a preferred route to the south and set in train the whole process that we are now conducting. Bearing in mind the right hon. Gentleman's unashamed espousal of human rights and individual rights over many years, it is interesting to note that he, too, was apparently persuaded by the suggestion that if we reverted to the northern route it would be possible to accelerate the process in a way that would trample the rights and property interests of people on the north side of the town.

My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Joint Committee accepted the point that I made in an intervention about the amount of experience that people in the Okehampton area now have of the various types of procrastination on these matters but expressed somewhat sensitively his annoyance at the reaction of some of his colleagues which was thrown back at the Committee and at him and which he regarded as grossly unfair.

The point was ably dealt with by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon). There was the clearest understanding among all the various interests in the west country that the Joint Committee would consider only questions of open space and would not investigate in depth the north-south question. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) also touched on this and would no doubt agree that it would have been far more comprehensible if, having decided that it was genuinely disastisfied with the amount of land offered in exchange, the Committee had made it clear that for that reason it could not recommend the orders. It need not have gone further. As the hon. Member for Truro pointed out, we were all surprised when it then went to the length of considering the north-south question.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton also criticised the Government and, presumably, the Labour Government for proceeding on just one preferred route and providing less evidence in connection with the alternative. In my view, however, that is a well-tried precedent and it behoves Governments to keep to it, because the cost of preparing detailed plans for two or three alternative routes would be prohibitive and would blight a large number of properties in a way which would subsequently prove to be unjustified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) is not present, but I am sure that he will be delighted when he reads the comments that have been made about him. He has asked me to make certain constituency points for him and I hope that the House will tolerate my doing so on his behalf.

First, my hon. Friend wishes to thank especially our right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment for visiting the area and acquiring personal knowledge of it. That has not only reassured my hon. Friend but has done much to reassure local people, whatever their opinions, that in the decisions being made, Ministers are fully aware of the location, the route and the alternatives. My hon. Friend will be similarly delighted at the number of colleagues on both sides of the House who have visited the area to acquaint themselves with the nature of the problem.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that my hon. Friend feels very sad in connection with two matters. One of them accounts for his absence today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton will confirm, my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West was elected in 1964 and almost immediately the Okehampton bypass changed from a fantasy—a line drawn on a map to show that there ought to be a bypass—into something meaningful.

It appeared for the first time in the county development plan in 1965, when it was talked about as a route around Okehampton. In 1968 the route was placed in the programme to be considered more seriously. I do not think my hon. Friends and Opposition Members are aware that as early as 1969 the advisory committee on the landscape treatment of trunk roads, which was established under successive Governments and includes people appointed by the Secretary of State for the time being, including all manner of experts on planning and highway design, and representing every conceivable interest, considered the matter for the first time so as to advise the Labour Government on the route the road should take.

That committee reported in July 1969 to a Labour Government, to a Conservative Government in January 1972, April 1972 and June 1972, and to a Labour Government in April 1974 and again in November 1975. On each and every occasion the committee not only reviewed the decision but visited Okehampton. On each occasion the committee came back to the same conclusion—that, although it had to be accepted that there would be environmental damage whether the route went north or south, in its view there would be less environmental damage if it went south of the town.

In 1975, under a Labour Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West had reason to feel that the chances were that the route would go south of the town, but obviously it was still for the Government to decide. The Sandford report, which has often been referred to in the Chamber by various Members, was also considered in the sixth review of the landscape advisory committee. The committee commented on that report. Then we had the decision of the Labour Government in favour of the southern route.

I cannot see how anyone could dispute that, in announcing the southern route decision eight months after circular 4/76, the Government must have taken note of the wording of that circular. They must have accepted the evidence which had come to them and realised that it was in order, within the context of the condition in that circular that the route should go to the south. Nevertheless, they intimated that the northern alternative would be considered. I have checked with my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West. Whether one asks him now or had asked him at the time when the southern route was first announced as the preferred route, there is no doubt in his mind that the majority of people in and around Okehampton favoured the route to the south.

When we were returned as the Government in 1979, it was close to the time that the public inquiry was to be set in motion. Presumably the Secretary of State saw no reason to change the decision which had been made about the southern route, and we went into the 96-day public inquiry. Every conceivable issue was raised in that public inquiry. It was one of the longest public inquiries there has ever been about a new road. As has been stated several times, on 58 of those days the environmental factors of the southern route were discussed. The matter could not have been better reviewed and investigated.

We know that there were problems later because of the illness of the inspector but, as I made clear in an intervention, he said in his report: In all these circumstances, my view is that none of the northern routes that were considered at the Inquiry is a reasonable alternative for the purposes of Circular 4/76. Surely any Government that followed upon another that selected the southern route as the preferred route, that followed upon six separate visits and reports by the landscape advisory committee and that followed upon a 96-day public inquiry are entitled to say that the southern route should be the preferred route. There would have been absolute astonishment in the west country if the Conservative Government had departed from that view.

Mr. Rost

Does not my hon. Friend accept that everything seems to hinge on the word "reasonable"? Is that an objective or a subjective criterion? Can he understand that it is conceivable that one man might regard the southern route as reasonable, as the inspector did, and another man might regard something else as reasonable, as we did in the Joint Committee?

Mr. Neale

That is a reasonable comment. As the hon. Member for Truro said, many of us were not aware of the way in which the Joint Committee would consider its evidence. My hon. Friend is entitled, as were all the members of that Committee, to arrive at a conclusion. I dispute his conclusion, but I do not dispute his entitlement as a Member of the House to arrive at a conclusion. The one inescapable point is that a decision has to be made.

In 1976, the Labour Government were faced with a fearful dilemma. There was beautiful country on either side of Okehampton and a preferred route had to be announced. They faced the decision and went for the southern route. I take issue with my hon. Friend because the route has been considered by the landscape advisory committee and has come under the charge of several Secretaries of State and Ministers of State for Transport as well as Environment. A range of people have played a part in the consistency of the decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West would no doubt consider it a second sad aspect of the matter that Parliament has become embroiled in it, bearing in mind that it is of such local importance. He has campaigned for it ever since he was elected. Everyone bar the ignorant accepts the need for the bypass. We have heard that approximately 1,300 lorries a day go though Okehampton. The hon. Member for Truro will confirm that there are 260,000 visitors a year, 90 per cent. of whom travel by car into Cornwall and many of whom go through Okehampton on a road that is only 17 ft wide in places and which has very steep gradients. Lorries and other slow-moving vehicles must inevitably cut their speed to 2 to 3 mph, causing enormous traffic jams.

There has been reference to the police providing tea just outside Okehampton. One may jest about their generosity, but we must remember that, because of the nature of the road, the police have to expend manpower on conducting about 500 wide vehicles a year along that stretch. It is inevitable that at busy weekends they must devote police time, money, vehicles and manpower to this inordinate build-up of traffic. Tremendous pressures are placed on the emergency services. The bypass would obviate that.

Speaking for my constituency and on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West, I must point out that there was considerable disbelief in the west country at the fact that this matter should have been referred to a Committee at all. After all, it had gone through all the processes that I described. The delay over the inspector's illness was bad enough, although that could not be avoided, but the people could not understand that even further delay should arise. Thus, reference to the Committee met with complete disbelief.

When the Committee began to hear the protesters' allegations, the nature of the argument could not be comprehended. There was talk of the Dartmoor route going through the national park and of the park being "carved up". In fact, half the bypass round the town of Okehampton would be a mere 60 yd within the boundary of the national park and the other half at no point would be more than 1,000 yd inside it. Perhaps the hon. Member for Truro set a new trend in the Chamber by producing visual aids. He showed on a map the area, 365 square miles, of national park. We are talking about 2,330 acres and a mere 0.06 per cent. of the park. It is minimal.

There has been much talk of open space as if this route would invade a large area of publicly owned land and that what is proposed would be a national disaster. Only two acres on the southern route is not in private ownership. Indeed, one area that is in private ownership and is deemed to be open space represents the land for which the Secretary of State has offered replacement land. Only two acres, graphically called Bluebell Woods or Meldon Woods, are privately owned.

We have heard about the basis on which the local council owns the land. The council members are delighted with what the Government have offered. Well before the latest exchange proposal was made they were greatly in favour of the scheme, and when I met them some months ago they said that they would have transferred the land without the necessity for a compulsory purchase order. The hon. Member for Truro said that the farm-owning community on the parish council were seven to one in favour of the southern route.

Whatever my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) has done to try to defend himself—I do not mean that disparagingly—and the members of this Committee, there was derision in the west country about the way in which the Committee examined the matter. I must admit that, for it would be wrong of me to do otherwise.

Mr. Rost

I am sure that my hon. Friend did not intend to phrase what he said in the rather unfortunate way in which he said it, and I will not make anything of that. Will he accept that if, in a democracy, there is a procedure which gives an appellant a right of appeal in a court of law, and if the same right of appeal, through some strange but nevertheless entirely democratic procedure, allows petitioners to appeal, they should be entitled to do so, and that the procedures in this case were perfectly in order?

Mr. Neale

I do not dispute that. I repeat—I say this not by way of personal comment—that the fact that the Committee was meeting to consider the issue in this fashion caused derision among people, certainly in Cornwall, and that feeling was strongly held.

Mr. Steen

My hon. Friend suggested that there was some criticism of the Joint Committee for meeting at all. The Committee met as the result of a procedure by which the petitioners were able to petition. Surely there is no criticism that the Committee met or of the fact that it reached a decision. My hon. Friend may not like the decision, but I hope he will agree that the Committee was entitled to reach it.

Mr. Neale

The Committee was entitled to reach a decision and I dispute any suggestion that there was criticism of it having reached one, although there was criticism of the decision. I wish to make it abundantly clear that there was disbelief at the Committee's establishment in the first place and derision about the way in which it reconsidered what many people in Cornwall in particular considered to have been gone over time and again.

There was utter astonishment when the result was announced. I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) and Opposition Members who speak in terms of some cosy arrangement being arrived at to reduce the time involved should we revert to the northern route that there will be—one can almost feel it developing—unabated anger in west Devon and Cornwall if the Bill does not go through.

A realisation is developing that if we do not get the Bill and are thrown back into the situation of having to wait six, nine or 13 years for an alternative route to be decided for Okehampton, it will be impossible to make any move towards planning a dual carriageway route from Okehampton to Launceston.

There suddenly appears to be a dual carriageway there. It seems to break down, then to go on to another great stretch of dual carriageway. The hon. Member for Truro will confirm that along the route are great stretches with which we are waiting to connect.

The damage of such a delay to the west country in economic terms would be disastrous. Unashamedly, on behalf of my constituents and my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West, I have spoken to hon. Members in all parts of the House about this, and the reaction of many of them has been, "If the local people want it, it should be supported."

I accept that it is impossible to satisfy everybody. However, when the local Member—my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West—wants it, when the town council, the parish council, another parish council close by, the district council and county council all want it, and when one goes westwards to constituencies in west Cornwall and finds that the constituency Members want it, the county council and district councils there want it, as do innumerable parish councils, they should be allowed to have it.

Hon. Members have been bombarded with submissions from the AA, RAC, Country Landowners Association, NFU, tourist and commercial organisations and even trade unions saying that they are in favour of it. Some hon. Members, notably Opposition Members, will comment. "They would say that, would they not? They are not the conservation groups."

A letter from a member of the executive of the Council for the Protection of Rural England in Cornwall, dated 4 November, states: When considering the two alternatives to this problem may I ask for your support for the southern route? Although the CPRE in London is pressurising for the other route it may interest you to know that after prolonged and careful discussion at the Cornwall Branch of CPRE executive committee meeting on the first of this month, a vote revealed an overwhelming majority favoured the southern route. Amongst other reasons it was felt that the destruction of some twenty farms—and families—and the rural countryside of Devon, involving miles of hedgerows, footpaths, etc. was too heavy a price to pay for lip service to a bureaucratic line on a map and the mere scratching of the edge of the vastness of Dartmoor. Politically, for Cornwall, the cheaper and quicker route is also preferable if our industries are ever to have hope of competing with up-country firms. The letter comes from a local branch of a highly respected organisation well known for its commitment to conservation. Those of us who represent Cornish constituencies do well to listen to it carefully, and it is clearly committed to the construction of the southern route.

Mr. Rost

My hon. Friend has been kind to our Joint Committee. However, does he accept that, although everyone wants the southern route, they would prefer and campaign for the northern route if it could be built more quickly than the southern one? Will he be big enough to admit that the important issue is to get the route that will come most quickly?

Mr. Neale

That is an interesting view. Cornwall views the matter as a Devon issue that seemed to be progressing along constitutional lines. When the inspector decided on the southern route, we felt that it must have been considered in depth and that that was the right route. We have come to study the matter more, only because we have been drawn into it by the Committee and the Bill.

In Cornwall, we are highly accountable to our conservation groups because the county depends for much of its tourist industry on conservation being maintained. I have taken the closest interest in the matter, studied it carefully and heard the views of colleagues on both sides of the House who have done the same. It is interesting that very few hon. Members have said that the southern route should not be taken. They have studied the matter and have come to the unavoidable conclusion that it should be the southern route.

Another element of the Bill that has turned anger into fury is the realisation that, because of the strange traffic flows in the west country that are distorted by tourism, if the route went too far to the north of Okehampton—the longer route—drivers would seriously consider going through the town. That has happened in other places where bypasses have been too long. That leads to the serious problem of justifying a dual carriageway. The route from Launceston to Okehampton suffers similar traffic distortions. We would again be thrown into doubt about the future of the route from the end of Whiddon Down to Launceston.

I can only repeat what the hon. Member for Truro said—no doubt my hon. Friends from Cornwall will agree with it. We cannot continue to allow people who will not accept a properly arrived at decision to have appeal after appeal. We must arrive at a decision. Perhaps the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) implied it unintentionally, but I cannot see how he can suggest that the Secretary of State is acting with impatience when the matter has been around for 17 years. Every conceivable aspect has been considered. Never in the 11 years that I have been involved in Cornwall have I known such unanimity of view among people with so many different interests. That should be borne in mind.

I should like to read a short statement from my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West. He said:

I apologise to the House for my absence. This Confirming Bill is vital to my constituents and I wish I could have been here to put their case. I have been fighting for this bypass for over fifteen years. I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for us in West Devon and Cornwall. We live in real danger in Okehampton from heavy lorries; we suffer terrible delays which are harming our economic life over a wide area. Our tourist industry is also suffering. If we do not accept this route, that to the north would mean further long delays and a great scar over agricultural land. I fully support the Southern route and beg this House, in spite of all the objections, to allow this Bill to go through. My constituents must not suffer any longer. In the name of common sense, I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends and Oppositions Members to support the Bill.

7.57 pm
Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

I have listened to the debate so far and hope that the House will excuse me if I regard this as not so much a debate on route options, timetables or what the Joint Committee should or should not have done, but rather as a parochial issue. The debate is about people, jobs and the quality of life for the people of Okehampton and nature's ability to restore itself. However, whether 300 years later it will bring deer back to the deer park and life to the decaying bluebells is another matter.

For many reasons, I shall not attempt to follow other speeches too closely. The debate is being conducted in the tranquillity of the House of Commons on 19 November. Had it been conducted in Okehampton in the heat of the summer, we should be following one another closely, each occupying his allocated meterage in an unending caterpillar of steel, polluting the environment with the flatulence of carbon monoxide and adding to the delays and costs that have turned Okehampton at peak times into a thrombosis of traffic suffering from the crippling constipation of congestion.

Okehampton was not invented as a town. It was created as a trading town by the free flow of people and goods. Okehampton was never intended to isolate the trade, commerce, industry and the tourism of east Devon from that of west Devon and Cornwall, as has become the reality of the 1970s and 1980s. There is no way in which the will of man can put Falmouth one mile nearer Falkirk, or Camborne one mile nearer Chorley, but the skill of the highway engineer can cut the expensive time barrier created by distance. By early next year, as the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) said, unemployment in my constituency, already at 25 per cent., will increase to 30 per cent. We need jobs, and we are not alone in the belief that this much needed bypass will help to provide them.

Much has been said about the Countryside Commission, and far too little about the Development Commission, the chairman of which, Lord Vinson, has estimated that the bypass could take up to 5,000 people off the dole in Cornwall. It could do so by opening Cornwall for industry, attracting inward investment and industrial growth and everything else that is obvious to anybody who has any ideas of the problems of peripheral areas such as Cornwall.

The great majority of industry and of British people have chosen to invest in wheels. Do the minority have the right to deny the majority the enjoyment and effective use of this chosen investment? As Professor Colin Buchanan told the convocation of the university of Leeds in 1973:

Excessive concern for conservation could lead us in a direction potentially more dangerous than would result from non-conservation. I am the first to concede that road construction is not a pretty sight in its earlier stages, but well-designed modern roads, bridges and bypasses usually end up adding to the sculptural qualities of the landscape. Birds, animals, butterflies and plants adapt to their new surroundings.

There may be no direct parallel between Okehampton and Blandford in Dorset, but I was interested to read what Stella Boughton wrote in a letter published in The Times on 5 July this year. She said: The recently opened Blandford bypass has given a double bonus to those who live here: the Georgian town is now quieter and safer; the banks of the bypass are being naturalised by wild flowers. Are there, I wonder, other places where the demands of modern traffic have resulted in a return of sights and tranquillity enjoyed in past years? That was an open question, but I hope that the Okehampton southern route will provide the answer, and that the House will hasten the realisation of that proof.

8.2 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I realise that many Conservative Members with close constituency interests have not had an opportunity to speak, so I shall be brief. However, I must make a few comments, because I have been lobbied hard by many conservationists who oppose the proposed route. I have been to Okehampton, and both on the occasion when I went specifically to look at the proposals, and on previous occasions, I was appalled at the way in which the environment is ruined by the volume of traffic. It is not just the crawl in summer, but the heavy lorries that go through, often rapidly, during the winter months.

The case has been well made for the northern route, but, unfortunately, most of the people who are now pressing so hard for the southern route are not particularly concerned about where the route goes. They just want the road built quickly. For this, the Department of Transport must bear a great deal of blame. For many years it has made up its mind which route it prefers and then manipulated procedures to make it almost impossible to get any other route. Time after time, proposals for a section of the road go through all the stages and are agreed, but at the same time the Department prejudges the next section of road because, inevitably, the sections have to join up. The Department puts forward road proposals in a piecemeal fashion and uses its arguments to make it extremely difficult for people to put up rational objections and judge whether public opinion prefers one route or another. Most people want the route that is available most quickly.

There will also be an effect on Okehampton. When a bypass is built, that is a good opportunity to develop industry close to the road. Had the northern route been chosen, there would have been more opportunity to make use of it to develop industry near Okehampton. If the Government's intention is to keep the southern route devoid of any development close to it, it will be to the disadvantage of local people. There would be considerably more advantage in the northern route, as it would help industrial development.

The Government have argued that the bypass encroaches only on the edge of the national park. That argument perhaps has some validity, until the argumens about the drawing up of the boundaries are remembered. In almost every case they were drawn much more tightly than most conservationists liked, because of the arguments about planning procedures. Particularly when boundaries come close to market towns such as Okehampton, they are drawn away from the town and close to the attractive land, or even within it. The Government should not make too much play of this point, because the bypass encroaches on the edge of where the boundary was drawn, and not on the edge of the natural boundary.

The Government will be drawing a line through an area over which animals coming up from the lowland areas to the moorland pass. It is sad to see roads littered with the carcases of animals that have been knocked over by vehicles. By choosing the southern route, the Government have made it much more likely that animals will be injured or killed.

The procedures on the Bill have been a shambles. I hope that the reports in the Sunday papers that the Government are thinking of using the same procedure for the Channel link are false, because this procedure gives the least satisfaction to Members of Parliament, and complete dissatisfaction to all groups that lobby against a Bill, as well as those who have lobbied for it, although no doubt the latter will be pleased with the outcome.

It is ridiculous to refer the matter to a Committee of both Houses of Parliament and then to take no notice of its recommendations, and equally not give hon. Members the opportunity to consider the information on which the Committee based its recommendations. In our normal Committee procedures, hon. Members can study the report at the end of the Committee's proceedings. However, all that we have got out of the long procedures on this measure and of the money spent by objectors is a fairly brief report. If the procedure is to be used in future, it should be possible to have a complete report published, with all the information put to the Committee, so that hon. Members can make an informed judgment on it.

It is wrong to sidetrack the parliamentary procedures so that we can debate this matter only on Third Reading. Under a normal Bill, there is a proper Second Reading, the Committee and Report stages and Third Reading, all of which give an opportunity for the people involved to make their representations. We should look at this closely. It is grossly unfair if objectors spend considerable sums of money putting their proposals before the Committee and then find that, having presented their case, it is not passed on to the House through a report, and is then rejected by the House. We should look carefully at ways to pay the expenses of objectors if they have won their case before the Committee, but the House decides to find in the opposite direction.

The House is coming to the wrong conclusion. We would do far better with the northern route. The matter has been disgracefully handled by the Department of Transport, which, over the years, has used the procedures to encourage the route that it always wanted. On this occasion, it would be a salutary lesson for the Department of Transport if we turned round and said that we were not prepared to accept its proposals, and that we accepted the case made by the 12 environmental groups that the northern route would be better.

8.9 pm

Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

It is a great pleasure for me to be able to tell the House that my good friend the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P Mills) was allowed by his doctor to make a fleeting appearance on television earlier today, which may or may not guide our steps in the Lobby tomorrow, but it is nice to know that at least he was fit enough to make an appearance. He stressed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) said, the requirement for the bypass to be on the southern route.

I have some qualifications to speak on the subject, which is not always the case in the House, because I was brought up in Moretonhampstead on the south of the moor and then at Bow on the north of the moor, and I represent Devon, North, which is within five miles of the proposed bypass, whichever route it takes.

The citizens of Okehampton are not my constituents, but many people who work in, visit and travel through the town do so not just in the peak period during the summer but all through the year. To me, they appear unanimous in requiring any route, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, at almost any price.

I would have no brief for a northern or southern route if one started from scratch today, but we are not starting from scratch. We have one proposal before us, and one only. There is no delineated northern route. It is not a question of saying, "If we cannot have A, we can have B tomorrow, next year or the year after." It will be one choice out of many Bs in many years to come. I stress that my constituents who work in and travel through the Okehampton area would accept the southern route because, despite the excellent pleading of my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), there is no doubt that, unfortunately, the Dartmoor that I know and have lived adjacent to has already suffered incursions far greater than this sliver of road can ever be.

I accept and pay tribute to the views of those who object to the southern route. There is nothing wrong or wicked in preferring one route to the other. I support anyone who supports the national parks. I remember well, when serving on the Devon river authority, how we were denied a reservoir at Swincombe, which would have provided Devon with water, which has been mentioned several times before. That was denied on the grounds that national parks were inviolate.

Therefore, we have the problem that many of us in the west country, from the Okehampton area, say that we believe that the national parks should be protected, "but". There is always a "but", and there is always a reason. When it comes to the crunch, human beings are more important than a road that skirts an old quarry, and goes near a golf course and a deserted deer wood. I have no pleasure in supporting a road that even touches a national park, let alone the one to which I have always lived adjacent, but time has passed and the west country is lacking in almost every form of economic development.

I must now be more parochial and say that as every civil servant in the west country who works with the Department of Transport has his eyes firmly fixed on Dartmoor and the Okehampton route, he cannot have his eyes fixed on the, to me, even more important north Devon link road. There are only so many surveyors and civil servants to go around, and there is now an unreasonable delay in the north Devon link simply and solely, I believe, because everyone has his eyes firmly fixed on the Okehampton bypass.

I make no moral judgments over the goods or the bads, but those who have spoken to me, with three exceptions, all of whom live on the north Devon coast, far from Okehampton, say that we have waited too long for the road, and that if the southern route can be built swiftly, let it be built. I add my voice to that cause.

8.15 pm
Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

As a northern Member of Parliament, I shall make a brief intervention, especially as the subject has stirred the emotions of west country Members. I am sure that everyone who has listened to the debate from beginning to end, as I have, will agree that we have had a series of first-class speeches.

I have three excuses for making this intervention. First, I am the longest serving member of the Select Committee on Environment. Secondly, I have an abiding interest in tourism because I co-represent by far the biggest tourist facility in the country. Thirdly, I use the road on occasions. If that were not a sufficient excuse, last week I took the opportunity of going down and looking at the area for myself. In the clearest terms, I can say only that, looking at the proposals with a fresh eye, with no constituency interest and not feeling that it must be put through regardless, I came unhesitatingly to the conclusion that the Government had got it right. In every way that one can judge, the southern route is best.

Because it has been referred to so widely in the debate, I shall say only one or two things about the matter, and what I saw when I walked part of the route myself. The very fact that it was so populated with trees was of the greatest advantage. Today the trees mask the viaduct, which is a vast structure in parts—from the Okehampton side one can hardly see it. I know that in its early stages, the road goes through some idyllic country. When one looks at this gem of a town, one gets the impression that the country on both sides is of the highest standard, but unfortunately the motor car cannot be uninvented and we have to have a bypass. It is a hideous decision to make.

When one goes further on the southern route, one sees other advantages. Admittedly, it is not at the bottom of the valley, but it is still in the valley. The so-called bluebell wood is so thick with brambles that unless one had a hide thick enough to sit on the Treasury Bench with comfort, one would not attempt to go into that wood. We have all seen the maps, and there is a quarry. This is pure hearsay, but I am told that at the moment there is an application for a substantial increase in lorry traffic to go up and down to the quarry.

We shall destroy lovely country, whichever way we do it. If one goes for the northern route, I would caution people who think that a route relatively high up around the town will be unobtrusive. It will be a scar; it will be unprotected by trees or, if it can be protected, it will not look natural because the trees will be put in purely and simply to mask the road, and will look like a line of trees.

If anyone wants to know how difficult it is to live with such a motor road, I advise him to go to any of the small valleys in Berkshire that run south from the M4. In villages up to a mile away one hears the constant hum of motor vehicles. I should have thought that by any standard, the choice of the southern route was the preferred one.

Of course there is the argument about national parks, but whatever argument we have about that, the very fact that we have to consider going through a national park does not mean that we must choose the most damaging route environmentally. That is a conclusive reason why we should give grave and careful consideration to going south.

I shall not say any more about delay than this. I am a lawyer. At one time, with the Attorney-General, I held the record at the Old Bailey for the length of time that a case had gone on. It lasted for only about 46 days, but it seemed a fantastic length of time. That time has been greatly exceeded as the years have gone by. My strong suspicion is that the Government are absolutely right that if we have another inquiry, 46 days might be exceeded. It was apparent from talking to those in the area that there was passionate opposition to a northern route. There would be enough money available to make that protest prolonged and probably effective. At the end of the day, what will a new inspector do? The likelihood must be that he will come to the same conclusion as the previous one. Where would we go from there?

It has been generally conceded that a bypass is vital for the people of Okehampton. Of course, others will benefit apart from them. We are not proposing to build a bypass so that Prince Charles will find it easier to drive down to the Duchy. It will be built because the working people of Cornwall and Devon need it badly. Anyone who travels by road to Cornwall—I do so myself as I am fortunate enough to have a small cottage within the county—will be only too well aware of the unemployment in the area and the difficulties that firms face in creating new jobs within it. It is an area that can do well if only transport is effective. That argument is reinforced when we consider the tourist industry, in which I am especially interested.

It has been said—I read this only recently in the newspapers—that one of Britain's problems is its attitude towards planning. I shall not denigrate our planning procedures this evening but there is much truth in what has been said about them. It was suggested in the article I read that if a German and an Englishman both invented the same item at the same time and planning was involved, the German would be in production in his factory before the Englishman had obtained planning permission. There is much truth in that.

There is some of that truth in the delay that has taken place in determining the route of the Okehampton bypass. The issue has been discussed for 16 or 17 years. It must be recognised that the tourist industry provides a great deal for our country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) and I represent a town that earns more money from tourism than Greece and all its islands put together. The west country must make its own contribution. Perhaps that will not be so great as that made by Blackpool but it will be a great one comparably. It is in the national interest that the Okehampton bypass should be built. It is in the local interest as well and every locally elected body has voted for it and wants it. The House should heed those views.

8.22 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

It is a pleasure to take up the remarks of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell), not least because the debate has gained a great deal from the objective opinions that he has contributed to it. Some will be asking themselves why a Norfolk Member should be participating in the debate. I am doing so in part because I was a member of the Joint Select Committee. Perhaps it would be wrong to say that I sat on that Committee, because I was shanghaied on to it at D plus four day. However, it was a great privilege to be a member of it, and once I had overcome the initial shock I found it a greatly rewarding experience. The Committee was chaired expertly and sensibly by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost). As I said when I was a member of the Committee, I could not help thinking about my constituency when discussing a first-class dual carriageway road. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is on the Treasury Bench because I know that he is aware that my constituency has problems over trunk roads.

King's Lynn's industrial base is expanding. The port is expanding, but it is losing its competitive edge because communications with the north, the midlands and the south are entirely inadequate. I am campaigning like mad to get more dual carriageway stretches constructed on the A47, which links King's Lynn with Peterborough. That is the area's link to the motorway network. There are 6 schemes in the pipeline and I am campaigning to ensure that dual carriageways are constructed. I am campaigning also for flyovers on the Hardwick and Saddlebow roundabouts. It is only by these improvements that the industry and economy of my constituency will be able to compete with other areas that have far more favourable status in terms of grant regimes and enterprise zones, for example.

Having been sidetracked from the main debate by constituency interests, I shall return to the Joint Select Committee. Every member of the Committee approached his task with an open mind. Committee members were bombarded by a larger amount of paperwork than I have ever seen before. When I was at the Bar I came across large amounts of paperwork, but the scale of that which we met as members of the Joint Select Committee was formidable. We ploughed through it and we took our task seriously. Although the raison d'etre of the Committee initially was the open space argument, that argument was widened greatly to encompass the entire national park debate and the widest of environmental debates on routes.

At the end of the day, the Committee decided 4:2 against the preferred route. I was one of the two who voted for the preferred route. I did so as I felt that a northern route was not a reasonable alternative. Although I shall explain why I reached my decision, I am reluctant in some ways to speak out because all of the members decided that it would be the Committee's decision regardless of the breakdown of the vote. My initial reaction was that the Government were probably wrong to ignore the Committee's recommendations. However, I have since discussed the matter with all the local Members and I realise that there was such a major local interest at stake that the Government were correct in bringing forward a confiming Bill. That is why I am now speaking out reluctantly. I feel that all the members of the Committee should tell the House why they reached their decision, as only then will a balanced view be presented.

I understood immediately that there was an overwhelming need for the bypass to assist the economy of the southwest. I was struck by the views of the local people and the locally elected authorities. This point was made decisively by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon). We cannot ignore the views of local people, nor can we ignore the views of local Members. As a Member of this place, I would tread warily in coming to a decision that was greatly at variance with the views of local Members. I should put myself in their position. If I were speaking out and fighting for a project in the area that I represented and members from other areas took decisions that jeopardised my campaign, I should not look too kindly upon their intervention.

As a member of the Joint Select Committee, I considered carefully the views of the inspector who presided over the public inquiry. The inquiry lasted for 96 days and I was influenced by the huge weight of evidence that came before it. It encompassed so many different points of view and such a variety of submissions. It heard far more points of view than the Committee could hear in the time available to it and within the narrow confines of its brief. I was influenced also to a considerable extent by the views of the landscape advisory committee. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) that the advisory committee visited Okehampton on six occasions. More importantly, it did so after the publication of circular 4/76.

The main reason why I decided to vote for the preferred route was on the wider grounds of environmental and landscape considerations. If we are to put the issue into context, it is crucial to examine a site oneself. We can hear any amount of evidence and examine any number of photomontages, but it is necessary for us to see for ourselves. One view down there is worth 1,000 words or 100 pictures. I went there with an open mind. At that juncture I really had not made my mind up. I also believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost), the Chairman of our Committee, also had not fully made up his mind at that juncture.

The first thing that struck me about the southern route was that although parts of it went through particularly attractive countryside, man's hand had already influenced and tampered with that terrain south of Okehampton. I was struck straight away by the fact that parts of that landscape have been ravaged by man. There is the railway line, the disused station, the viaduct over the East Okement river, the army camp, the reservoir and the monstrous desecration in the form of Meldon quarry.

The effect of a road on an area such as that will not be minimal—I accept that it will have a profound effect on the environment—but it will be nothing like as profound as suggested in the crisis brief which has been issued by numerous bodies. It says: The Government's plan will not only destroy a lovely and cherished piece of countryside where people walk and ride freely through woods over furzy heaths with marvellous views. It will also put at risk every national park and designated landscape in the country. That document has been put together well, but it is full of half truths and wild exaggerations. It does no credit to the Council for National Parks, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Dartmoor Preservation Association, the Friends of the Earth, the Open Spaces Society, the Ramblers' Association, the Residents of Okehampton Against the Moorland Route, Transport 2000 and the Youth Hostels Association. If one goes there and takes an objective view, as I did, one will see that although it is attractive countryside it must be put into its correct context.

There are 233,600 acres in the national park, of which the road will take up only 140. It will isolate 444 acres of national park. The point that has not been made is that the Exeter-Okehampton stage 3 stretch of road which is currently being built will isolate 917 acres. Superimposed on that is the fact that in any event the national park boundaries are pretty arbitrary.

The southern route does not affect the high part of the moor or the views from it. It follows the contours and does not affect access to the moors. It is absorbed into the woodland. I am pleased that the Secretary of State is arranging to have 70,000 trees planted whereas only 1,000 will be felled—so much for the road cutting through the heart of the moor. Far from it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) made clear, for most of its stretch the road will be only 60 yards from the edge of the moor and at worst only 1,000 m. As has already been made quite clear, there is no northern route as such. There is the route that was put to the Committee by the petitioners, and that was an amalgam of earlier northern routes. No northern route has been properly surveyed or is in any early stage of preparation.

The northern route will be a good deal longer and will be clearly visible from the moors. It will require long embankments to meet design standards for gradients, and they will be extremely disfiguring. The viaduct across the Okement river will be 95 ft high—twice as high as the viaduct on the southern route. A raised interchange will also be needed, where at present there is a hollow. That road will cut through open space at Abbeyford Woods, and there will be loss of jobs at Aggett's quarry.

The agriculture argument did not have so much impact on me as it might have done given that I represent a farming constituency. We all know that at present agriculture is in a great state of flux with milk quotas and falling land prices. The importance that the inspector attached to this at the time of the public inquiry no longer carries the same weight.

One of the flaws of the Joint Committee was that it did not hear objections to the northern route. A number of Department witnesses referred to numerous different aspects of that route, but no objectors to it were formally brought before the Committee. That was a flaw, given that we had widened our remit.

On 3 August 1985, Lord Courtenay wrote to the Daily Telegraph and stated: Any northern route on the other hand inevitably crosses high ground to the north of Okehampton involving a viaduct and cuttings. It is, of course, much longer involving more land as well as more cost and inevitably it will cause a great scar across a very beautiful part of Devon countryside which will be visible for miles around and not least from many parts of the Dartmoor National Park. He added: By any normal rational criteria environmental groups would be united in their opposition to the immensely damaging northern route and in their support for the unobtrusive southern route. The reason that they are not of course, and this is the nub of the whole question, is that the northern boundary of the Dartmoor National Park was not drawn as it might have been at the foot of the Dartmoor escarpment nor along the railway line but turned North-West to the present A30. In short, this whole dispute, which leads to so much passion and is likely to take up a whole lot more parliamentary time is literally about a few hundred yards difference in the arbitrary drawing of a bureaucratic line on a map". That letter sums up many of the points that have already been made. We must look at the overall impact of the two routes—the preferred route, and the northern route that was put to the Joint Committee.

The southern route is shorter, neater and cuts through terrain that has already been tampered with by man. It blends well into the landscape. The other is far longer and much more unnatural. Far from blending into the countryside, it is a blot on beautiful virgin Devon landscape that has scarcely been altered since the time of the Druids.

All land is part of our national heritage. Those who farm it or own it do so as trustees for the rest of us and for our successors. A piece of countryside may not be designated national park, but that does not mean that intrinsically it is any less beautiful or less worth protecting or saving. All land must be looked at on its merits. In this case, these two pieces of very beautiful landscape must also be looked at on their merits.

An overwhelming case has today been made in favour of the southern route in the context of landscaping. It wins hands down. If tonight this House does not confirm the order, it will be economically disastrous to the west country and a disastrous day for the environment.

8.39 prn

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Several of my hon. Friends started by mentioning their qualifications to speak about Okehampton and I do not see why I should depart from that approach.

I have travelled to Okehampton on many occasions to appear in courts there. I have also tried to travel to Cornwall to do the same thing. In doing so, I have come to know something about the quality of life of the people who live in Okehampton. It is rather trite to talk about traffic jams, the lack of a bypass and the quality of life; it is the sort of hyperbolic comment that can easily be made. But for anyone who has to live or work in Okehampton, at the height of the traffic jams life is unbearable. Pedestrians have to suffer the effect of vehicles which are stationary but with their engines running. In addition to the exhaust fumes and the mess, in the summer there is the heat. Anyone who has any doubt about the conditions there should go and see them for himself. If ever a bypass was needed, it is at Okehampton.

I listened with great care to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) indicating his opposition to the southern route. I realised that we had a great deal in common but that there were several issues dividing us. He said that he had a long acquaintance with and love for Dartmoor, going back to his boyhood. My acquaintance with Dartmoor may not go back as far as my hon. Friend's, but I have a slightly different perspective. I did not visit that part of the world as a holidaymaker when I was a child. I knew it because I was west country born and bred and because Devon was my home. Therefore, to that extent I have, I would hope, every bit as much of an acquaintance with and love for Dartmoor as my hon. Friend has, but at the same time I realise that there are differences between us.

Having been brought up in Devon, as my forefathers were before me, I have another perspective about Devon. To me it was not just a matter of looking at the environment and having a great love for Dartmoor; there was something else about it. The needs of people who care about Dartmoor have to be balanced with those of people who care about the agricultural environment—the farmers who have farmed land there for generations. They do not regard the Dartmoor national park as something simply to be preserved. They have to think about the countryside as a whole, as an environment in which they live and work and from which they derive their income. With that background, I suspect that I have a slightly more amplified perspective than that of my hon. Friend.

There seem to have been two themes running through the debate and in the substantial correspondence that I have had from people who for the most part, although not exclusively, have opposed the southern route. There was a feeling, certainly in the correspondence, that we should regard national park land as sacrosanct, never to be tampered with or touched in any circumstances whatever. Despite the fact that my hon. Friend is nodding, I remind him that he did not put his case as strongly as that when he was speaking to the House, and I can well understand why he did not. There is no doubt that some of the passions which have been whipped up on the subject—I do not say by whom—have inclined many of my correspondents to say that national park land is sacrosanct. It is not, and it could not be.

The nearest thing to being sacrosanct is the home that a person might own and his family have lived in for generations, and in which he will have invested his money, care and pride, but we have procedures in law enabling compulsory purchase orders to be made for people's homes. Those procedures are not to be entered upon lightly, but they are there when the need arises. One could conceive of circumstances in which it would be necessary to serve compulsory purchase orders on homes owned by hon. Members. One would not do it lightly but it might have to be done in certain circumstances. National park land, I repeat, cannot be sacrosanct.

The other theme that I detected—more aggressively in correspondence than in some of the speeches from hon. Members opposing the southern route—is that somehow the effect that the northern route would have on agricultural land can be brushed aside. It is utterly wrong to allow the whole environment issue to be hijacked by those who do not regard farmers and agricultural land as part of the environment. They are part of the environment. When motorways and dual carriageways are constructed, that also involves the desecration of agricultural land if such roads have to go through it. Sometimes they do. One cannot take the attitude that it does not matter because it is only agricultural land. In the west country we get a little tired of that attitude.

Through the years we have heard the argument, "We do not want any reservoirs on Dartmoor. Put them on agricultural land. That does not matter. The farmers can be compensated. They are probably too rich, anyway. We do not want our little playground to be interfered with. Put the reservoirs on agricultural land where it does not matter." I acquit my hon. Friend of the charge of putting the argument in that way. I listened with great care to his speech to make certain that I had not missed his point. I could not accuse him of dealing with the agricultural question in a cavalier manner, because basically he did not deal with it at all.

One cannot refer to the northern route and say that it would take only a little more agricultural land and would be only a little more expensive. My hon. Friend is not in a position to say that it will take only eight acres. I do not know how many acres the northern route would take. Nobody knows what the northern route would be. There could be 17 or 70 routes, but it is abundantly clear that it would take a great deal more agricultual land than the southern route, and that land to the north is of a higher quality.

Some hon. Members have talked about property values and said that perhaps it does not matter so much because the value of agricultural land has gone down. I remind hon. Members that agricultural land is also land on which people work and to which they have a commitment. They and their families may have farmed it for generations. It is not just a matter of writing out a cheque drawn on the taxpayer and saying to the farmer, "There you are. That's your money. Push off. We want your land for something else." When we talk of taking agricultural land away—even when it is necessary—we are talking of the severe disruption of communities and of the agricultural way of life. The environment is not just the middle-class playground of Dartmoor, as some people see it. There are also the agricultural communities. My hon. Friend did not begin to address himself to that point. The fact that he can talk about a loss of only eight acres, knowing, as he does, that the site of a northern route has not even been decided, speaks volumes. Anyone wanting support for that proposition should look at the position of the National Farmers Union.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the useful work done by the NFU. In its briefing material it makes the point that usually it would not back one set of farmers against another. The NFU has pointed out that farmers on the southern route who would be affected are so convinced that there should be a southern route that there is no dispute or animosity between them and those on the northern side of Okehampton. There is a great discrepancy between the value of agricultural land in the south as compared with the north. We cannot ignore the agricultural input. A proper balance has to be achieved.

Mention has been made of a reasonable alternative. Does the northern route represent a reasonable alternative? My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) asked my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) what "reasonable" meant. As lawyers, my hon. Friend and I know that "reasonable" means reasonable. That is the beginning and end of it.

The reason why the word "reasonable" is inserted there, as it is inserted in so many statutes, is not just to enable people like me to make a modest living by interpreting what that word means in particular cases. It has another function. It is an important qualifying word. There is no doubt at all that there is an alternative to the southern route. It is a viable alternative. It is also a feasible alternative. It cannot be reasonable to take a route which descrates countryside which cannot possibly be camouflaged, the route of which is uncertain and which at the very least will mean delay in producing the bypass that Okehampton needs. Whether it is three, five, seven or 10 years, the delay will be substantial.

Those circumstances have to be compared with a route the site of which is known. It is heavily landscaped. When those two routes are compared, one cannot possibly say that one of those routes is a reasonable alternative. It is an alternative. It is not reasonable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) said, if we were starting from scratch, the northern route would perhaps be a reasonable alternative. It might be, but I do not think that it would be. However, we are not starting from scratch. For the reasons that I have given, it cannot be said that the northern route represents a reasonable alternative.

I referred earlier to themes which I had detected as running through the debate. I referred to the fact that I had received a substantial correspondence from people who, to judge by their letters, are passionately concerned about the fate of the moor, without realising that there are other aspects to the countryside. One of the other themes was the deer park. It is all very well to talk about a deer park. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) said, that part of the countryside has already been greatly interfered with. Apart from a medieval deer park that is devoid of deer, other areas have to be considered as well. Bluebell Woods is an absolute thicket. Then there is Meldon quarry. To take the road to Meldon quarry is quite an education. One would have to be deaf and blind to enjoy the rural tranquillity of that area. To try to suggest that Meldon quarry represents the tranquillity of Dartmoor is stretching the imagination far too far. As for Bluebell Woods, the locals never knew it as Bluebell Woods, but it is a lovely, emotive phrase which appeals very much to imported, middle-class townies. They love it; it is a marvellous phrase. Those hon. Members who have taken the trouble to go and see Meldon wood know that it is not quite the arcadian copse that has been described.

One is conscious of the fact that all the democratic institutions that will be affected by the bypass have voted in favour of the southern route and that this was one of the longest public inquiries in history. I have no doubt about where that route should go. When I began to receive correspondence and saw the type of representations, I wondered whether something had changed in the last two years. Therefore, I went back on Monday to see what it is like in that area. I saw Bluebell Woods. I saw the deer park and, so far as one can identify it, I saw where the northern route would go. I realised, too, the extreme difficulty of getting a view of where the southern route would go. I was left in no doubt about where the route should go.

This cannot be an easy decision for hon. Members. It cannot have been an easy decision for the inspector. However, he took evidence over a prolonged period and made up his mind about what is reasonable. His view cannot be ignored. As we debate this matter tonight, there is no reasonable alternative to the southern route.

8.55 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

It is appropriate, in a way, that I should be the last Back Bencher to take part in this debate, because I represent the end of the road. Land's End is in my constituency, although it stretches beyond it to the Isles of Scilly. I am glad to be following my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) because I, too, am a west-country-man, born and bred. That colours one's approach to these matters. I do not claim to be so impartial as certain hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I applaud the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). I applaud also the speech of the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) and the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) and for Erewash (Mr. Rost), who had the difficult job of looking into this matter.

I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash betrayed unnecessary sensitivity on the subject. None of us who take a different view from that which he favours doubt his sincerity, or the manner in which he approached this difficult task. However, some of us think that he got the wrong answer. I do not blame him for that. As he said, it is a very difficult decision and he came down on one side of the argument, whereas the inspector came down on the other side of it. The inspector sat on that inquiry for 96 days. Despite my hon. Friend's speech, I did not hear him mention any of the new evidence that was available to him but which was not available to the inquiry. He referred to the railway and various other matters, but they were before the inquiry. My hon. Friend said as much himself.

I, too, love Dartmoor. It goes back to a night of filthy weather when I lost a platoon of the Devonshire Regiment. I have already said that I represent the most westerly constituency in the United Kingdom, and that rightly colours my approach to the subject.

I have been sitting on this Bench for over five hours. If I had set out from this place over five hours ago and driven like the clappers to reach my home in West Cornwall, I should not have reached there yet. I could not reach my home in the height of the summer in that period of time. I certainly would not have reached my home if, as nearly always happens, when I get to the end of the dual carriageway at Whiddon Down, I find two lorries are holding me up all along that dreadful road through Okehampton and out the other side. Then there are the fits and starts of the A30. Every hon. Member with a Cornish constituency knows it and loathes it. One gets going on a good bit of road and then, suddenly, it is a single-track road. Such driving conditions are dangerous.

The right hon. Member for Halton mentioned the needs of professional drivers—lorry drivers. A week or so ago, a furniture lorry set out from my home in west Cornwall to bring a few modest sticks of furniture to the flat that I have taken not far from this place. The lorry did not arrive that day. It ran out of driver's hours. The lorry was held up and had to make the delivery the next day. That experience is shared by many people in the haulage business.

The people who have come together on this issue in Cornwall know the road well and have suffered on it. They include members of the Road Haulage Association. Of course the association has a vested interest, but it is a proper vested interest, as the right hon. Member for Halton recognised. We have heard about the quality of farming land north and south of Okehampton. The Cornish branch of the National Farmers Union is interested in getting produce to London—again, that is a proper vested interest and one that should be taken into account. It is concerned about the road. The hauliers of fish, which makes an important contribution to Cornwall's economy, also face considerable difficulties because of this road.

Perhaps the industry that is most affected is tourism. I echo what several hon. Members have said. I cannot help wondering about the poor holidaymakers this summer who were stuck on the approaches to Okehampton on the way to or from Cornwall. I bet that many said, "I will never face that again." The House should take that factor into account as well.

There has been unanimity in Cornwall—not only from those with a direct commercial interest but from those who represent the county at all levels. We have heard about the way in which the Devon councils have come together—the same is true to a greater extent in Cornwall. I think that only one or two members of the county council are against the proposal. I pay tribute to the county council for the lead that it has given, with the chambers of commerce and the other interests which I have mentioned, in pressing for the bypass. I believe that the district councils are also unanimous. All five Members of Parliament for Cornwall are as one on this issue. I pay full tribute to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) for setting out their case. Those Members who represent Cornwall would back him.

Fourteen of the 16 Members of Parliament who represent the counties of Devon and Cornwall back the southern route and the Bill. That support is significant. The two exceptions are my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams and the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). The right hon. Gentleman was here at the beginning of the debate but, considering his stand, he disappeared early in the debate.

Mr. Simon Hughes

He will be back.

Mr. Harris

He will be back.

Whatever the state of the Liberal party on this matter—I am not making any political points, Mr. Speaker—the SDP is the one party that is united against the Government, against the southern route and against the wishes of the Cornish people. I hope that, even at this late hour, the hon. Member for Truro will have a word with his colleague the right hon. Member for Devonport before the Division is called and tell the right hon. Gentleman that he has made a mistake and that he cannot plead for better infrastructure to help the people of Cornwall and, at the same time, vote against the most vital piece of infrastructure for that county.

I shall return to the merits of the case. Although I admit to being somewhat biased, I listened to the debate carefully and there can be little doubt that the argument has been won convincingly and fairly by those who support the Government on the Bill.

I give my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State great credit because he was faced with a difficult decision. When he introduced the Bill it was inevitably said that he was trying to trample on the constitutional rights of some people and that he would run into trouble in another place. I believe that there will be an overwhelming vote in favour of the Bill, not because of whipping but because it is right. I hope and believe that Members of another place will look to the result in this House and take full note of it when they come to give their proper consideration to the measure.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to a sign which for many years has been at the end of the dual carriageway at Whiddon Down some miles to the east of Okehampton. The sign states: Temporary end of dual carriageway. I am reliably informed that that sign has been replaced twice because it has been worn out. Be that as it may, the time has come for the House to take a decision to ensure that that bottleneck is dealt with. The right way to deal with it is to vote for the Bill so that we can bypass Okehampton by the southern route, because on environmental grounds that is the correct route. Above all, it is the correct route if that bottleneck is to be removed reasonably quickly.

Without fear of successful contradiction, I can say that the people of Cornwall accept that. I believe that the people of Devon accept it and I believe that it is right to take that decision tonight.

9.7 pm

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

In the last two or three minutes available to Back Benchers, I want to put the unbiased views of someone who comes from nearly as far away from Okehampton as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). I put my view as someone involved with the countryside, conservation and the heritage and as a member of the Nature Conservancy Council and, the National Trust for Scotland, and as a former Minister responsible for national parks. It might therefore be thought that I favour the northern route but, having carefully considered the ground, the maps and all aspects of the case, and having listened to the most splendid speeches, I am 100 per cent. in favour of the southern route.

Too much weight has been placed on the views of those who are against the southern route on the narrow national park issue. When the Dartmoor national park was originally drawn up, who decided where its boundaries would be drawn? They might have been decided because of the railway line, the road, parish boundaries or the rivers, or on the whim of the civil servants who were given the job.

The country to the north, the west and the east of Okehampton is just as beautiful as that to the south. It would be wrong to place too much weight on the suggestion that one part of the area is more beautiful than another. We should not place all the emphasis on the original line of the national park. The fact that additional land would be made available for the park more than balances that which will be taken away.

Sufficient tribute has not been paid to the tremendous work of those who look after the national park, because for many years it has enhanced Dartmoor. That tribute also goes to our other national parks, because we are wonderfully served by those who work on our behalf to keep them as beautiful as they are.

At the beginning of the debate, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) said that the decision about which route to take must be the result of a balanced judgment. One must weigh the evidence and study the Joint Committee's report, but at the end of the day, when one looks at the site and the projected landscaping of the road, there is no doubt that one will come down in favour of the southern route and in support of the people of Okehampton, and in particular in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills). We have to use that balanced judgment and decide against the issues of the railway line, the quarry and the Army camp, all of which are manmade, and all of which despoil the beauty of the national park.

When the landscaping is completed, the new road will enhance the area, but over and above that it will give a tremendous advantage to the whole of the west country and to development generally. An hon. Member wisely mentioned the view of the Development Commission. The debate must bring home the strong case that the Government have on this Bill but it must also show the Members in another place the strength of feeling in this House. We must show that we do not wish to see the Bill tampered with or amended in any substantial way at the whim of certain people in another place who have no more experience than have hon. Members of this House.

9.12 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

This House can be proud of itself for the fact that it has devoted a whole day in peak time to discussing this important issue. I suppose we are talking in two dimensions. At one level we are talking about the bypass. It will have a knock-on effect and, I hope will improve the economy of our two most south-westerly counties. At the same time, we are debating an important principle about which there has been disagreement between the parties and throughout the House about whether the bypass should run across one of our few national parks.

Before I develop my argument, may I say that my only regret, which I am sure is shared by all hon. Members, is that we are not having the debate in the presence of the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills). He and I often crossed swords when we debated countryside matters, but we came to respect each other's sincerity in our beliefs and I sincerely regret he is not here.

I am looking forward to hearing the comments of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold). I shall be hearing her for the first time at the Dispatch Box and I welcome her in that role.

In one sense, this has been a good debate. It has been a debate of emotions and, in a sense, it has been a mixed debate. The characteristics of each hon. Member have come out. We heard the spirited reaction which nobody could mistake of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), and the cool logic of the hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost), who in a clinical way went to the nub of the problem and gave the House a report of the way in which earlier this year his Joint Committee went about looking at the problem of the bypass.

We have had the benefit of the experience of two eminent former Cabinet Ministers, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon). Many other hon. Members have spoken in the debate and increased its quality.

Having listened to all the arguments, I still believe that we are making subjective and value judgments. Clearly, when considering subjective matters, there must be disagreements. It is important to put it on record—even if it is only a message for the other place—that there is some common ground in the House, and it revolves mainly around two aspects. The first is that Okehampton badly needs a bypass, and the second is that it needs to be of dual carriageway standard. I could perhaps stretch the common ground a little further and say that most of us believe that the road should be built as quickly as possible. However, we must consider the price and the cost—although not in financial terms.

Obviously there are differing views. I accept that the local democratically elected authorities have, by a majority, come down in favour of the southern route. However, the issue is not quite as clear as it might appear. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) made a useful contribution when he spelt out the voting figures for the two principal local authorities concerned. It is worth repeating those figures, as some hon. Members may not have been in the Chamber when he gave them. The Okehampton town council favoured the southern route by 10 votes to six; the Devon county council favoured it by only 38 votes to 34. That vote does not really manifest itself in the way in which the issue has been portrayed today. There is a difference of opinion in the locality, and I certainly recognised that when I was in Okehampton.

My impression was that people were sick of the delay and felt that the sooner the matter was sorted out, the better. I believe that that is why there was a majority in favour of the southern route.

Mr. Penhaligon

The hon. Gentleman accurately reports the vote of the Devon county council. However, he said that he was referring to the two principal councils involved. I must point out that, although I accept that Okehampton town council is primarily concerned, the other councils concerned are, in order, West Devon, Cornwall and, last of all, Devon.

Dr. Clark

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I am trying to spell out the views of some of those living in the area. I was trying to portray the voting patterns in a different manner from the way in which they have been presented generally in the debate. The hon. Gentleman has made a strong point in saying that the feeling Cornwall is, if anything, stronger then the feeling in the county of Devon and in Okehampton itself.

I hope that, when the bypass and the road improvements are completed, the hon. Gentleman is not disappointed with the economic regeneration that he hopes will come to Cornwall. The north of England has experienced similar difficulties. I listened with awe to the figures that he gave for male unemployment, but they in no way match the figures for the north-east of England, terrible though they may be. Good road links from the south to the north have not solved the economic problems of the northern region. However, I wish him well.

Let us consider some of the arguments by the supporters of the Bill. One of their main arguments centres around circular 4/76. As the House knows, the circular said that there should be no new or upgraded road going through a national park unless there was a compelling reason. I have paraphrased the circular, but that is the main principle.

One of the reasons for going against that circular was forcefully stated by the hon. Member for Truro. He said that the proposal touched only a very small part of the national park. According to my calculations, only0.05 per cent. of the national park will be affected. People connected with human biology advise me that that is equivalent to the space occupied by the eyes in the human form, hut I am sure that the hon. Member for Truro will agree that they are necessary parts of the human body. Even if only the fringe of the national park is affected, that part may be one of the most attractive areas of the park.

When the Secretary of State introduced the Bill, he rightly pointed out that the bypass skirted the fringe of the national park, but in 1965 Mr. Charles Johnson, a planning inspector in a previous planning inquiry in the immediate vicinity, said: The rarest beauties of the moor belong to its fringes, not to the upland wastes. I accept that that is a subjective judgment, but it is the judgment of an expert.

Mr. Rost

The point is not that the bypass is on the fringe of the national park or that it necessarily affects the most beautiful areas, but that it cuts Okehampton off from its natural environment. Most visitors going to Okehampton want to use the amenities within one or two miles of the edge of the moor. The proposal would cut them off completely.

Dr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman is right. I proposed to make that point later, but I shall develop it now to save time. The bypass cuts off the access from the town of Okehampton and one of the reasons why Okehampton is so attractive is that it has access to the open moors through the wooded area. If the bypass cuts across that area, it will deter people from going to Okehampton.

I remind the House that walking—I mean short walks of two or three miles—is, according to the last household survey, the most popular outdoor pastime in the United Kingdom. More and more people are demanding it, and we should not stop them.

Mr. Rippon

The hon. Gentleman referred to circular 4/76. Does he agree that the Labour Government proposed the southern route after the publication of that circular and that the southern route was proposed by Mr. William Rodgers, then Secretary of State for Transport and now in the SDP?

Dr. Clark

I disagreed with Mr. Bill Rodgers then and I have disagreed with him a great many times since. It is pointless being consistently wrong and that is no good reason to follow the southern route.

In evidence for the Dartmoor National Park Office the local authority plus the national representatives responsible for looking after and administering the Dartmoor national park—Mr. Ian Mercer said that the proposed southern route would cut through the centre of Okehampton park, regarded as the largest medieval deer park in Devon. Conservative Members have poked fun at the fact that there are no deer in the park, but the presence of deer is not essential to make the land attractive. I am afraid that, as the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham knows, trees are not a vital part of a forest; in medieval terminology there are many forests which, like Dartmoor itself, are denuded of trees but are equally attractive. Ian Mercer says: Significant areas of the old park remain unchanged since its creation in the 13th century … the present parkland is our inheritance from the ancient forest that once covered most of Devon. Such parks are rare. He further stated: as an ecological habitat Okehampton Park is irreplaceable…rich ornithologically … the construction, existence and use of the road would damage forever the whole of this delicate complex of habitats. That is what is at stake today.

Mr. Ridley

When I was last in Okehampton I saw a photograph of the southern route taken from Okehampton castle in about 1890. There were no trees at all—just bare grazing grass—so it is not quite true to say that the forest has been there for all time.

Dr. Clark

I, too, have had a good look at the area and in my humble aesthetic judgment it is exceedingly attractive. I believe that that view is shared by the overwhelming majority of people in this country. That is why hon. Members on both sides have received so much correspondence on this.

Let us now consider the views of theGovernment's own advisers. The Countryside Commission, charged by the House to tender advice on these matters, states: The landscape which would be affected by the northern route is indeed pleasant, but it is not of national significance or comparable in quality to that to the south of the town. In environmental terms, therefore, the Commission, which "is the statutory body … considers the southern route to be far more damaging than the alternative. That is my judgment, too. The landscape on the northern side is certainly very pretty, although I thought that the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) was pushing his luck a little too far and perhaps exaggerating somewhat when he said that the lard had been unchanged since the Druids. If that is true, I can only say that they built very good walls in those days. It is decent, good quality farm land and in national terms, but it is not unique and in my view should not be sacrosanct.

Mr. Neale

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Clark

I am sorry. We are short of time and I want the Minister to have plenty of time to respond to the many questions that have been asked.

On the crucial subject of delay, I wish to make it clear that Labour Members do not take the view that there should not be a public inquiry. Such an inquiry is an essential safeguard to protect the democratic rights of those who feel aggrieved. I wish to nail at the outset the suggestion of some Conservative Members that that is not our position.

The difficulty lies in trying to work out how long the delay will be, according to the Minister. [HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] Hon. Members say that it is too long, but let us try to work it out. We believe that the Government are guilty of exaggerating the delay in their attempts to persuade and bully the House into accepting a route which is not the most desirable. As I understand it, if the Bill is passed by this House and another place and becomes law, the southern route will be completed in 1989. I am going through this slowly, because it is important that the House is aware of the timetable.

The Secretary of State has said that it will take eight or nine years to finish the road and that October 1993 may be the appropriate date. I think the Minister is indicating that that is the scenario. Yet the Minister of State said on television recently that it would take 13 years. She said nine years from where we are today; in other words, if we add on the three-year building period, we are talking about 13 years, so there is confusion. It is right, therefore, that independent assessors have been brought in to analyse the time saving which could be achieved with the alternative route. The expert, Mr. Parker, expressed the view that the difference would be two or three years, which means in effect that the northern route might be finished in December 1990 instead of 1989.

Mr. Ridley

It will take about three years from now to complete the southern route, so it should be finished by the end of 1988, not 1989.

Dr. Clark

That is helpful. I am talking about a date in 1990, according to Mr. Parker, which is a delay of two and a bit years.

The Countryside Commission queried the figure and asked a reputable firm of engineers to check it. The Countryside Commission has put in the Library of the House its evidence. It has come to the conclusion, because of the letter from its expert, that the findings of Mr. Parker are reasonable and are likely to be correct. So we believe that the delay will be only an extra two or three years. The point of the shortened timetable is that there is no need for further public consultation—

Mr. Ridley


Dr. Clark

Let me take it a stage further before the Secretary of State says, "Oh."

The public have already been consulted on a route very similar to route M. Indeed, route M is much closer to the red route about which the public were consulted than the preferred southern route is to the green southern route about which they were consulted. The point I am making to the Secretary of State is that the northern route would be on a line closer to that about which there was consultation than the southern route for which the Minister has accepted the consultation that has taken place. There would be no need to reassess traffic demands because that has been done. The landscape advisory committee has inspected the northern option—

Mr. Ridley


Dr. Clark

With respect to the Secretary of State, the landscape advisory committee—appointed by and responsible to his Department, as opposed to the other statutory landscape advisory body, the Countryside Commission, which is completely independent—has examined the northern route and given its opinion on it.

The point that has been agreed by two independent assessors, qualified road engineers, is that the timetable can easily be shortened. The Department of Transport has followed that procedure on the M40 at Ot Moor, so a precedent has been laid down. We charge the Department and the Minister with exaggerating the delay in order to browbeat the House into accepting a route which should not be accepted.

Great attention has been centred on the plight not only of holidaymakers but of heavy goods vehicle drivers—the traffic that goes through Okehampton in summer and in winter from parts of west Devon and Cornwall.

Other lorry drivers use Okehampton. Indeed, Okehampton is trying to develop an industrial base, and a new bit of evidence to come to light between the 1979 public inquiry and the Select Committee investigation has been the development of the industrial site on North road, Okehampton. On that site are now employed 660 people and about 250 lorries a day call there. All those lorries must not only go through the centre of Okehampton but must use North road or Northfield road, which are narrow streets, to get to and from that industrial estate.

If we have a southern route, those lorries will still have to use the centre of Okehampton. If we have a northern route, it will be easy to link the industrial estate in North road to that northern bypass. In other words, not only in terms of traffic is the northern route preferable, but also in terms of the environment.

A point has been omitted from the debate. While people have cast aspersions on the motives of certain amenity societies, none of those societies has anything to gain financially out of the northern route. Indeed, many of them have spent much money fighting for their beliefs. They do not apologise for the stand that they have made and many of them have said that they do not want their money back because of their belief in fighting to protect the environment. Some environmentalists are worried because of what has happened in the past. I cite the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill as an example of a measure which would destroy the environment. No wonder much concern is felt on issues of this kind.

Obviously the national parks are special. The fact that this House back in 1949 deemed that certain parts of England and Wales were in need of a special form of administration and protection make them stand out from the rest of the countryside. Their very uniqueness requires us, in the sovereign body of Parliament, to protect them in a way in which we are not required to protect what I might call the ordinary environment. If there is doubt, we should give the benefit of that doubt to the national park.

Like the Minister and many hon. Members, I have been to have a look. It is my subjective judgment that the northern route is infinitely superior in environmental terms to the southern route. Hon. Members should tonight make a stand for the national parks and not allow the Bill to go through because we do not want a southern bypass at Okehampton.

9.38 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I dare say that most newly appointed Ministers make tentative inquiries, when taking up post, about their responsibilities. When I discovered that mine would embrace the protection of the environment, I was glad, because I believe that the House should spend more time, as it has spent time today—the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) made this point—on this most important area, which deserves the time of hon. Members.

It also became evident to me, as the most junior of Ministers, that I would be expected to pick up the pieces after difficult and contentious debates. Little did I think that my first speech in reply to a debate would be on a matter of immense environmental sensitivity, although perhaps today's debate on the siting of the Okehampton bypass has not been quite so contentious as it was heralded.

I have listened to the debate with great attention and I have been impressed with the concern for principle that has been expressed, a point that the hon. Member for South Shields confirmed. There have been some clearly expressed emotions on a most important issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) was at great pains to outline clearly why the Joint Committee came to its conclusions. It was important for us to listen to those reasons. He said that the landscape advisory committee had visited the route before it was known that the railways would not close. In fact, the visit was made after it was known that the railway would not close. There was no evidence to the Joint Committee that the delay would be for only two or three years.

My hon. Friend conveyed the notion that the Joint Committee could be regarded as a court of appeal. The Joint Committee could in no way act as a court of appeal. A court of appeal reviews the whole matter which was before the lower court. The Committee was not qualified and had no jurisdiction regarding the public inquiry to do so. A legal court of appeal gives a decision on the law and the Committee simply advises on the expediency of an administrative order. It is important to get that straight.

The protection of our national parks provokes much feeling. As the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) acknowledged, it is not a trivial matter. It is all the more important that the final decisions should rest on the process of reason and the application of common sense. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) said, it is a matter of a balance of judgment, which should favour the local people. We should consider local people's views carefully.

There seems little doubt on one issue—we all agree that Okehampton must have a bypass. All hon. Members acknowledged that today. It is not the need for a bypass that creates debate, but where it should be sited.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) delighted the House this afternoon with his explicit geography lesson, together with map, that demonstrated the merits and demerits—depending on how one looks at his map—of the southern route. He pointed out that the Dartmoor national park covers fewer than 233,000 acres of land. The proposed southern route would encroach on a small proportion of that acreage. The hon. Member for Truro clearly stated that the incursions into the national park, although sad, were somewhat exaggerated.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear the urgency for the decision. That view has been echoed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, not least by the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes), if for no other reason than the relief of intolerable pressure on the town of Okehampton. Many hon. Members have acknowledged the difficulties facing the Government in taking this decision, but have rightly pointed out that it is the Government's responsibility to make judgments and act upon them.

My task is to allay the fears of those who believe that, by taking this decision, the Government have abrogated their commitment to the future well-being of the countryside, especially the national parks.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) made an interesting point—when considering the importance of national parks policy, it must be brought to the attention of the House that a large majority of hon. Members who represent Devon and Cornwall have favoured the southern route. That is a pressing point.

Many hon. Members have spoken of the importance of national park and the countryside, and some have expressed their worries about the effects of the southern route on Dartmoor. The Government's track record on developing practical conservation policies is second to none. Through legislation and financial support, we have demonstrated a firm and continuing commitment to safeguarding the environment and our tackling of Okehampton's traffic problems is in line with that commitment.

I take comfort from the rigorous words of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). He made a supportive speech and said that he visited the site with an open mind and was convinced that the southern route is right. I am sure that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends will reach the same conclusion. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) had a much more difficult job convincing himself of the correctness of the southern route, as he was a member of the Joint Committee. He told us that the terrain had already been tampered with by the railways, the quarries and the viaduct.

Like many others, I have visited Okehampton to see how the proposed decision would affect the national park, and what the other choices offer.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

The discussion of the bypass has boosted tourism in Okehampton.

Mrs. Rumbold

The hon. Gentleman is right. More hon. Members must have visited Okehampton in the past month than ever before. I went to Okehampton with as open a mind as possible and visited each sector of the proposed route while viewing carefully the possible impact of a northern route, which has been eloquently advocated by many hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes).

I am not afraid to admit that I felt a frisson of dismay when I first saw the woods at Fatherford over which it is proposed to build the road on a viaduct, but as our tour continued, I was made aware of the value of the argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West. The environmental damage done by such a route was clear and the visibility of any northern route would also do environmental damage. It was obvious that any such solution would not be acceptable to all.

I should like to take my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams up on some of what he said. He said that, if the southern route was built, there would still be a bottleneck as it would simply be transferred to the west by the bypass. That is not so, as Okehampton is the bottleneck, not the single carriageway. The traffic queues extend to the east and to the west and are caused by restrictions of the traffic flow in the town, principally by traffic lights.

The need for a bypass to overcome the problem has not been questioned. My hon. Friend also spoke of a combination of the northern bypass and the Okehampton to Launceston scheme and argued that if the Bill were enacted, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be able to proceed quickly with the neighbouring dual-carriageway scheme from Okehampton to Launceston and that it might open in six years.

If the Bill is lost, however, and we proceed with a northern bypass, my right hon. Friend would have to consider combining the northern bypass with the Okehampton to Launceston scheme and deal with them both at one inquiry. The resultant much larger scheme would throw up new problems and further delays to both schemes. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams will accept that his suggestions for the northern route are not as acceptable as he might have felt.

The nub of the objection to the southern route centres round two themes. On the one hand, it is held that untold desecration of the Dartmoor national park will take place, and that this will destroy well-known beauty spots. The other theme is that the Government have overturned their policy on trunk roads and national parks as set out in the circular 4/76, issued by the Department of the Environment during the course of a Labour Government.

It has been claimed that we are creating a dangerous precedent with the Okehampton bypass and that no national park will be safe if the Bill proceeds. I cannot stress firmly enough to hon. Members that whatever the final outcome of the debates in the House and the other place, no one should believe that the decision to pursue the southern route with the bypass sets a precedent of any kind. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) so clearly stated, the security of the national parks depends on reason rather than on law and it is a matter of judgment where one draws the boundaries of a national park.

Okehampton is a prime example for the use of the caveat in the 1976 circular, which sets out clearly that exceptions to the rule relating to any development in national parks should be taken only if—I quote yet again that sentence—

there is compelling need which would not be met by any reasonable alternative means. A great deal of detailed evidence was submitted on this point to the inquiry, which ran for 96 days during 1979 and 1980. One of the arguments in support of the northern route, which was deployed then and which has been made forcibly by hon. Members today, is that because the countryside to the north of Okehampton is apparently less dramatic than it is to the south, a northern route would be less environmentally damaging, but I do not believe this.

The hon. Members for Aberdeen, North and for South Shields challenged the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the northern bypass would take nine years to construct, while the timetable for the southern route to be completed is three years. Any choice of the various different routes to the north would take at least nine years. When my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport said recently that it could be 13 years, she was taking the normal length of time for the building of a bypass. It would only be if great haste and considerable acceleration were used that a time scale of nine years would be right.

The truth of all this is that it displays the measure to which the argument is about people's perceptions and opinions. In my opinion, a route to the north would be more environmentally damaging as it would lead to greater visibility and more heightened noise, particularly for the people who live by Knowle Bridge.

Mr. Rost

Does my hon. Friend accept that in paragraph 28.18, of the summary of the inspector's report, he maintains that the southern route is more damaging environmentally?

Mrs. Rumbold

My hon. Friend must accept that the debate is about balance of judgment. Whichever way we look at this, one can argue for either a northern or a southern route, but the argument for the southern route becomes more and more compelling.

It is plain to all that there would be disturbance whichever route the road took. A dual carriageway is not a small construction and will be seen and heard wherever it goes, but I must respond to some of the more fervid and romantic misconceptions about the southern route. It has been claimed, for example, that it would brutally slash the wooded slopes of Okehampton park and the medieval deer park about which we have heard today. The deer park was "disparked"—an odd word—in 1538. Since then, the only deer that has been seen is the occasional wild one grazing or passing through. The truth is that the road will be scarcely seen from the moor proper or the town below and the tree-planting proposals, wherever the trees are, which were outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, will help to hide it from any other normal viewpoint.

Similar allegations have been made about the destruction of the woods that surround the road up to Meldon quarry. Sometimes the woods are more creatively called the "Bluebell Woods". Alas, a trip to the woods will soon prove to the observer that the thick undergrowth and a poor management of trees have resulted in a rather unsightly area so that one requires a machete if one wishes to go into the woods.

Nevertheless, I do not under-estimate the importance of the feeling expressed by many concerned people. I emphasise that only two out of the 50 acres of that wood will be taken for the road. Equally, as my right hon. Friend emphasised, the environmental considerations are in the forefront of the Government's deliberations in the choice of the route for the bypass.

The inquiry inspector recognised that the 1976 circular is designed to test all the considerations that are relevant to each individual case. It is clear that national parks and trunk roads do not make good bedfellows. It follows that new roads should avoid parks wherever possible. That is a principle that the Government endorse.

Outside the national parks, too, the importance given to environmental considerations in road planning decisions was well illustrated only two weeks ago when it was announced that the M40 extension near Oxford was to be diverted, at some cost, around Ot Moor and Bernwood forest to avoid damaging that valuable wetland and important habitat for threatened species such as the black hairstreak butterfly.

However, the circular also recognises that on some rare occasions other factors must be taken into account and treated on their merits. Any other principle would surely prove to be intolerably inflexible. All decisions must be set within a framework of clear and strong planning policies. However, to argue, as hon. Members have today, that the Government draw up circulars and then ignore them when it suits them is simply not true. Policy circulars are statements setting out planning objectives and weighing the arguments to allow the ends to be achieved. They are not, and never can be, absolute, categorical, binding statements that such and such a development will never be allowed or, conversely, will always be allowed. Successive Administrations, including the former Labour Government, when they promoted the southern routes around Okehampton in 1976 following public consultation, have taken that line.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) made it clear how strongly my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) feels about the matter. It is his constituents who have been in the forefront of his mind throughout the long time that he has represented that seat. It is his constituents about whom he is thinking when he urges the House to look carefully at the decision that it makes tonight, hoping against hope that it will adhere to common sense and take the correct route.

The criticism that the Government used delaying tactics in reaching a decision on the report of the Joint Committee is nonsense, as is the belief of one organisation that a northern route road would take only two years longer to build.

I know that not everyone will agree with our decision. It was a painful choice. No one is suggesting that the countryside south of Okehampton is not beautiful Devonshire countryside. Of course it is. It is certainly not a wilderness, and when people write in defence of the last wilderness left in southern England, it merely serves to show that they have never been there.

There are those who argue that Okehampton is a test case, but that ignores the fact that following the same inquiry a section of the A30 that currently runs through the national park is to be detrunked and routed outside as a direct result of the policy, which the Government adhere to, in the 1976 circular.

I conclude by reminding the House that the people of Okehampton have been waiting a long time for their bypass. The Government believe that now is the time to provide it in the best possible situation and as quickly as may be. I hope that hon. Members will share that view and the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West and support the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 247, Noes 127.

Division No.7] [10 pm
Adley, Robert Harvey, Robert
Alexander, Richard Haselhurst, Alan
Amess, David Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)
Ancram, Michael Hawksley, Warren
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Hayes, J.
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Hayhoe, Rt Hon Barney
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y) Hayward, Robert
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Heathcoat-Amory, David
Baldry, Tony Heddle, John
Batiste, Spencer Henderson, Barry
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Hickmet, Richard
Bellingham, Henry Hicks, Robert
Benyon, William Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Best, Keith Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Bevan, David Gilroy Holt, Richard
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Bottomley, Peter Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Howells, Geraint
Bright, Graham Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Brinton, Tim Hunt, David (Wirral)
Brooke, Hon Peter Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick
Burt, Alistair Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Butterfill, John Johnston, Sir Russell
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Cash, William Kershaw, Sir Anthony
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Key, Robert
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Clegg, Sir Walter Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Cockeram, Eric Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Conway, Derek Knowles, Michael
Coombs, Simon Knox, David
Cope, John Lamont, Norman
Corrie, John Lang, Ian
Cranborne, Viscount Lawler, Geoffrey
Crouch, David Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel
Currie, Mrs Edwina Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Dicks, Terry Lester, Jim
Dorrell, Stephen Lightbown, David
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Lilley, Peter
Durant, Tony Lloyd, Ian (Havant)
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke) Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Emery, Sir Peter Lord, Michael
Eyre, Sir Reginald Lyell, Nicholas
Favell, Anthony McCurley, Mrs Anna
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Macfarlane, Neil
Fletcher, Alexander MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Fookes, Miss Janet MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Forman, Nigel MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Maclean, David John
Forth, Eric McQuarrie, Albert
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman Madel, David
Fox, Marcus Major, John
Franks, Cecil Malins, Humfrey
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Malone, Gerald
Freeman, Roger Maples, John
Gale, Roger Marland, Paul
Galley, Roy Marlow, Antony
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Mather, Carol
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde) Maude, Hon Francis
Garel-Jones, Tristan Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Glyn, Dr Alan Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Gow, Ian Mellor, David
Gower, Sir Raymond Merchant, Piers
Gregory, Conal Meyer, Sir Anthony
Griffiths, Sir Eldon Miscampbell, Norman
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Moate, Roger
Grist, Ian Monro, Sir Hector
Ground, Patrick Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Gummer, Rt Hon John S Moore, John
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Hampson, Dr Keith Moynihan, Hon C.
Hanley, Jeremy Mudd, David
Hannam, John Murphy, Christopher
Harris, David Neale, Gerrard
Needham, Richard Stern, Michael
Neubert, Michael Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Newton, Tony Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Nicholls, Patrick Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Norris, Steven Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Sumberg, David
Onslow, Cranley Taylor, John (Solihull)
Oppenheim, Phillip Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Page, Sir John (Harrow W) Terlezki, Stefan
Page, Richard (Herts SW) Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Patten, Christopher (Bath) Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Pawsey, James Thurnham, Peter
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Townend, John (Bridlington)
Penhaligon, David Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian Tracey, Richard
Pollock, Alexander Trippier, David
Portillo, Michael Twinn, Dr Ian
Powell, William (Corby) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Viggers, Peter
Proctor, K. Harvey Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Raffan, Keith Waldegrave, Hon William
Rathbone, Tim Walden, George
Renton, Tim Wall, Sir Patrick
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Waller, Gary
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Ward, John
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Warren, Kenneth
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Watson, John
Roe, Mrs Marion Watts, John
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Rowe, Andrew Wheeler, John
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Whitfield, John
Ryder, Richard Wiggin, Jerry
Sackville, Hon Thomas Wilkinson, John
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Winterton, Mrs Ann
Sayeed, Jonathan Winterton, Nicholas
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Wolfson, Mark
Shelton, William (Streatham) Wood, Timothy
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Woodcock, Michael
Shersby, Michael Yeo, Tim
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Soames, Hon Nicholas Younger, Rt Hon George
Speller, Tony
Spence, John Tellers for the Ayes:
Spencer, Derek Mr. Robert Boscawen and
Spicer, Jim (W Dorset) Mr. Archie Hamilton
Squire, Robin
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Boyes, Roland
Alton, David Bray, Dr Jeremy
Ashton, Joe Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Bruce, Malcolm
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Caborn, Richard
Barron, Kevin Callaghan, Rt Hon J.
Benn, Tony Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Campbell-Savours, Dale
Bermingham, Gerald Canavan, Dennis
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Carter-Jones, Lewis
Cartwright, John McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) McGuire, Michael
Clarke, Thomas McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Clay, Robert McKelvey, William
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Marek, Dr John
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Martin, Michael
Cohen, Harry Maxton, John
Coleman, Donald Maynard, Miss Joan
Corbyn, Jeremy Michie, William
Craigen, J. M. Mikardo, Ian
Crowther, Stan Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Cunningham, Dr John Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Nellist, David
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) O'Brien, William
Deakins, Eric O'Neill, Martin
Dewar, Donald Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Dobson, Frank Park, George
Dormand, Jack Parris, Matthew
Dubs, Alfred Parry, Robert
Duffy, A. E. P. Patchett, Terry
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Pavitt, Laurie
Eadie, Alex Pike, Peter
Eastham, Ken Prescott, John
Ewing, Harry Randall, Stuart
Fatchett, Derek Redmond, M.
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Richardson, Ms Jo
Fisher, Mark Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Flannery, Martin Robertson, George
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Rogers, Allan
Foster, Derek Rost, Peter
Foulkes, George Sedgemore, Brian
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)
Godman, Dr Norman Skinner, Dennis
Golding, John Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Hancock, Mr. Michael Soley, Clive
Hardy, Peter Spearing, Nigel
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Steel, Rt Hon David
Haynes, Frank Steen, Anthony
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Stott, Roger
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Home Robertson, John Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S) Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Warden, Gareth (Gower)
John, Brynmor Wareing, Robert
Kennedy, Charles Welsh, Michael
Kirkwood, Archy Winnick, David
Lamond, James Woodall, Alec
Leadbitter, Ted Young, David (Bolton SE)
Leighton, Ronald
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Tellers for the Noes:
Lewis, Terence (Worsley) Mr. John McWilliam and
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe
Lofthouse, Geoffrey

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.