HC Deb 10 April 1987 vol 114 cc643-50

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

2.30 pm
Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

I am very pleased to have the second opportunity in four months to discuss the conservation of the environment in my constituency. I am particularly pleased to have a chance of bringing up to date my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment on the matters that we discussed during my Consolidated Fund debate at 3 am on Tuesday 16 December last year. I am mindful that my hon. Friend has already had to respond to two debates today, and I hope that I shall not test him too much.

In that Consolidated Fund debate, we discussed the proposed sale of 48 acres of redundant but undeveloped land in the tenure of the Ministry of Defence known as the Great Lines, Brompton, Gillingham. This afternoon I shall try to widen the scope of my remarks to include other redundant Crown land in Gillingham. I shall try not to repeat my earlier comments, although the Great Lines remains the most contentious area of land as yet undeveloped in the ownership of the Crown and likely to be sold by the Property Services Agency, acting as the Government's estate agent.

Since my hon. Friend and I last discussed the Great Lines, the attitudes of both Gillingham borough council and the PSA have hardened. The council has yet to determine the PSA's over-ambitious planning application for the residential development of 14 acres of the Great Lines, because it has been awaiting a promised amended application from the PSA that has never materialised. At its meeting on 3 February this year, however, the council resolved as follows: This council, recognising the Property Services Agency's apparent determination to pursue an application for development on the Great Lines, re-affirms its policy of preserving the whole area as a designated open space and supports and congratulates the Member of Parliament in securing an adjournment debate on that subject in the House of Commons. The full council, at its meeting on 28 April this year, will determine the PSA's application because the PSA has demanded that the council should determine the original application now. It needs no prophet or seer to predict the outcome of that determination.

As I said a moment ago, the relationship between the council and the PSA has worsened. That is indicated by a dialogue between the PSA's district estate surveyor, Mr. J. F. Thompson and the council's new chief executive, Dr. Chilton. Dr. Chilton, keen to know the provenance of the MOD's tenure of the land, requested a sight of the original conveyances and/or the Acts of Parliament by which the land came into the Crown's ownership. Mr. Thompson's response in a letter dated 22 January this year was uncompromising and, I think unhelpful. It ran as follows: I refer to your letter of 19th December and our subsequent telephone conversation and would confirm that at the present time policy constraints are such that it is almost inevitable that the subject area of land will be offered for sale on the open market, either by auction or tender and therefore a sale to your Authority should not be regarded as a real possibility. The documentation that has been requested is not that which we would generally circulate and will in fact only be available to a successful purchaser to enable the legal formalities to be completed. As you will fully appreciate there is at present a planning application before the Council for residential development on part of the land and we are awaiting your response to my letter dated 12th December; however, you will, no doubt, be shortly forwarding details of the proposals for the area which are considered by your Council to be acceptable. After consultation with the council's sub-committee that was set up specifically to consider the matter, Dr. Chilton replied, in a letter of 19 February 1987, as follows: They"— that is the sub-committee— propose to obtain Counsel's opinion on any means of preventing the disposal for development of this part of the Great Lines. From their knowledge of the history of the area they consider that there is a possibility that there were restrictions in the original conveyances of the Great Lines, or in the Acts of Parliament authorising those conveyances to the Government, which prevent the Government from disposing of the area for development, and they want this fully investigated. It is for this purpose that I need copies of the original conveyances which I have already asked you to let me have. I reported your response to the Sub-Committee and they instructed me to request you to provide this copy documentation and a note of the Acts of Parliament under which the conveyances were authorised, within 14 days, and to inform you that if you fail to do so the Member of Parliament will be asked to raise questions in the House of Commons about the matter. Dr. Chilton still awaits a reply to that letter.

The Great Lines is by far the most controversial piece of redundant Ministry of Defence land, and the council has set its face against the development of any of it. I am pleased to play my part in that fight against development. I share the council's belief that there may well be covenants in the original conveyances that favour the council's stand. I am also concerned to know whether the Ministry of Defence or the Property Services Agency, acting as estate agent, has fulfilled its obligations under the Crichel Down rules. Have the heirs to the original owners been sought?

There is another intriguing possibility. Was any part of this land common land before its appropriation by the Crown? If that were so, the claim that the Great Lines should remain as a public open space for the benefit of the good people of Gillingham and Chatham would be irresistable. It could even be transferred to an organisation of commoners. In any case, Gillingham borough council and Rochester-on-Medway city council are likely to be urged to declare the Great Lines as public open space on the draft local plan that is now in the course of preparation. In this European Year of the Environment, it would even be appropriate to declare the Great Lines a development-free zone, to use the common parlance of the day.

Within the last few hours, information has been given to me that gives me cause for great hope, and I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to listen particularly carefully to this. Notwithstanding the obduracy and obstruction of the PSA, I have been able to turn up the original Act of Parliament of 1709 by which the lands for "better fortifying and securing the harbours and docks" at Portsmouth, Chatham and Harwich were conveyed. They include the relevant land. My source, from the House of Commons Library, is Statutes at Large, Volume IV, published in 1811, page 60. That Act of Parliament is still in force, and since it dealt with the conveyance of land there is no reason why it should ever have been repealed. Clause 4 reads as follows: And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That no private Building or Buildings shall be made or erected upon any of the Lands vested in Her Majesty"— that is Queen Anne>— as aforesaid; and that the whole Profits arising, or that shall hereafter arise from the same, be and are hereby appropriated and applied for and towards the Erection and Reparations of the respective Fortifications of each Place; and all and singular the Premisses shall be and are hereby enacted and declared to be unalienable from the Crown, neither shall any Part of the Premisses be demised or demisable, otherwise than during Pleasure only. No wonder the PSA did not want to release the papers to the council, because it seems to me that the sale of the Great Lines, and much other land besides in Portsmouth, Chatham and Harwich, for the development of private housing would be illegal on two counts.

Clause 4 of the 1709 Act clearly places a statutory prohibition on the erection of private buildings and also prohibits disposal of the land by the Crown. The illegality of the proposed sale of the Great Lines for development will not be lost on my hon. Friend, who is himself a fine lawyer. I suggest that the Great Lines could legally be leased as open space to the council and that a rent of one peppercorn per year would be appropriate.

I said that I would widen the scope of my remarks beyond the Great Lines. Another highly contentious planning application is currently winging its way towards my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, on appeal. I do not expect my hon. Friend to comment on it. One of the few substantial deciduous woods left in Gillingham or, indeed, in the Medway towns, is known as East Hoath woods and is threatened with destruction. The regional health authority, which owns the land, is seeking permission to build a facility for the mentally handicapped on part of that land. That is not opposed. However, it seeks also to develop the remainder for houses. The council refused planning permission for the housing in the hope of saving part of the woods. Unfortunately, a long out-of-date town plan, which zones the area as residential in preference to the alternative, which was then light industrial, makes an appeal difficult to resist. With a heightened awareness of the preciousness of undeveloped land, my constituents are hoping against hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not allow an appeal on that application.

Along the banks of the Medway, and through the northern strip of my constituency, there is a sizeable area of agricultural land, much of it not very intensively farmed. The pessimists locally already see a growing pressure for residential development, because already the ownership of some of that land is what might best be called speculative. The council, a little in the mould of Canute, has bought an area alongside the Medway at Motney hill and is creating a riverside country park. However, all around the pressure, mainly from outsiders with no strong attachment to Gillingham, is for development.

It is for these reasons that I urge my hon. Friend, with his responsibility for the PSA, to call in the whole matter of redundant MOD land in Gillingham and the Medway towns, to suspend any further progress of the planning application on the Great Lines, and to instruct his officials at the PSA to sit down with the Gillingham borough council, in the hope that by discussing "in the round", and in total, the entire likely redundant land holdings of the MOD, both parties can co-operate in achieving a felicitous outcome, with development where that is sensible, and with conservation where natural justice and common sense demand it.

The Government have a heavy responsibility to the local population in the disposal of their redundant Crown land. That responsibility must not be sacrificed in the interests of short-term land profit. The Medway towns have given too much, over too many years in the service of the Crown for their opinions on the development of Crown land in the towns to be ignored. They will not allow officials of the PSA to ride roughshod over them in this matter.

I am not against all development. I am not a member of the "never a blade of grass shall be touched" tendency, far from it. I rejoice at the prospect of the great development in the former naval base, which is being undertaken by English Estates. That will be a considerable asset when it is completed. However, that great development, which offers so much in potential employment, housing and leisure must be balanced by the sensible retention of "green lungs" and woodlands nearby.

Every acre of green land and woodland, which is sacrificed to concrete, bricks and mortar, is gone for ever. My right hon. Friend and hon. Friends at the Department of the Environment shoulder a heavy burden in maintaining the balance between development and conservation. I understand the message that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State delivered when he spoke in Cambridge this week to the delegates at the Nature Conservancy Council's first national conference to mark European Year of the Environment. However, in assessing redundant MOD land in Gillingham, it is without doubt that the Great Lines are worth conserving; whereas much of the other land in the Ministry's tenure would benefit from development. Indeed, Gillingham council has suggested its willingness to consider favourably the development of its surplus Government land in return for the conservation of the Great Lines. That was made clear by Dr. Chilton in his letter to Mr. Thompson of 19 February.

May I conclude by asking my hon. Friend to redeem his promise of 16 December 1986 and come to Gillingham to see the Great Lines and other surplus land whether the MOD has yet declared it so or not. I feel certain that he will then see the merit of my case and the council's aspiration to avoid the loss of a priceless and well-loved recreational area in my constituency.

2.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) on deploying his arguments forcefully on behalf of his constituents. I listened with interest to the points that he raised and the eloquent way in which he read from ancient statutes. I shall ask my officials to read them so that they can advise me whether the implications of the statutes are as my hon. Friend described them.

The Crichel Down code does not apply, and has never applied, to land purchased before 1935. My hon. Friend accepts that the great lines were acquired long before 1935 and, indeed, in the early 18th and 19th centuries. I hope he will accept that the Crichel Down issue is a red herring, even if some other matters have yet to be proved such.

There are substantial areas of Crown land in the Gillingham area and its surroundings which are owned by the Ministry of Defence. Some of this is undeveloped, and I am aware of my hon. Friend's view that there is a need for a strategy to be established for its future, with the MOD, the PSA and the local planning authority working together in the public interest.

I must make one thing clear straight away. Whether or not this land owned by the MOD should be retained in its present state, developed for defence purposes or declared surplus to that Department's needs is entirely a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. It would be inappropriate for me to comment during this debate on propositions that the MOD should or should not make its operational decisions in particular ways or with particular non-defence aims in mind.

Nevertheless, when any development or redevelopment is proposed this is carefully considered by the Ministry of Defence in consultation with the PSA and normally, at an appropriate stage, informal discussions take place with the local planning authority. These discussions are usually tripartite in the sense that they include MOD specialists, representing the defence interests, PSA officials, as the MOD's professional advisers, and planning officials, and in major cases the chairman and members of the planning committee representing the local planning authority. This is, given good will on all sides, conducted in a spirit of co-operation and mutual understanding of each others' interests. These informal discussions are then followed by a formal written consultation which is considered and dealt with by the relevant planning committee. I must emphasise that operational proposals are, for obvious reasons, initiated by the MOD—that is its business—while consideration of local planning issues and policy is in the first instance the business of the local planning authority.

These formal consultations with local planning authorities are part of a non-statutory procedure which is invariably followed by all Government Departments before engaging in any activity which would require planning permission if it were to be carried out by a private sector body or individual. In the case of proposed development or a change of use by the MOD, the planning consultations are normally carried out on its behalf by the PSA.

That, then, is the position on development proposals. When, on the other hand, the Ministry of Defence decides that land is surplus to its operational requirements it is handed to the PSA for disposal: the normal procedures then are that it is sold on the open market for the best price. That is Government policy. It is not wholly inflexible and it is always open to hon. Members, local planning authorities or individuals to seek to persuade me to vary the rules. Nevertheless, an open market sale is the usual method of disposal and sales of land by private treaty to public bodies, such as water authorities, electricity boards, and local authorities, are permitted only where the authority concerned demonstrates an overriding need to acquire the property to meet operational requirements to fulfil its proper and necessary statutory obligations. In the case of the Great Lines, my predecessor and I have made it clear on numerous occasions that we have yet to be persuaded that Gillingham borough council has such a need and, on my instructions, the PSA has been proceeding with an open market sale.

Perhaps I should at this point explain that while where development by Government Departments is proposed, a non-statutory consultation takes place, when it is proposed to sell Government-owned property a normal statutory planning application is now legally acceptable since the enactment of the Town and Country Planning Act 1984. This is what has been happening in respect of Great Lines, and I understand that the PSA is still awaiting a formal decision on this. My hon. Friend confirmed that, although he has said that he knows exactly what the decision will be. It is an odd state of affairs that everybody seems to know exactly what will be decided in a committee that has not yet met.

Mr. Couchman

I do not know what that decision will be. I said that I would feel that no great foresight was needed to see what the decision was likely to be.

Mr. Chope

I apologise if I misrepresented what my hon. Friend said. I looked at the substance of what he was saying and thought that he meant that the matter was decided already. From my point of view, and that of the PSA, we have to wait to see what the decision is and then decide what action we should take. I am told that that meeting is on 28 April, and assuming that the decision follows the council's recently stated opposition to any development on the site, this leaves me with a choice of either instructing the PSA to take the matter to appeal or instructing its marketing agents to sell on the open market.

My hon. Friend has asked me to go to look at the Great Lines myself and I said in December that I would do so. I thought that it would be better if I waited until the outcome of the planning application has been determined. In December, I expected that that would be February, and My hon. Friend said then that that was likely. We now know that it will not be determined until the end of the month, but I assure my hon. Friend that I have asked my Office to make the necessary arrangements for a visit. We have had a discussion about this, and I hope that my visit will be able to take place within the next few weeks.

As regards future disposals, it would always he the PSA's intention to discuss strategies with local planning authorities where such discussion seems likely to be fruitful. For example, the MOD is at present considering the release of land at Lower Lines in Gillingham and, although the extent of the land to be released is still under consideration within the MOD, the PSA has instructed agents to enter into preliminary discussions with local planning officials in the hope that constructive proposals will emerge prior to a planning application being submitted.

Of course, each planning application — or consultation about development—must be treated on its own merits, bearing in mind any local or strategic plans which!, exist or are being formulated by the local planning authority. On these, the PSA — usually the local PSA estate surveyor and his MOD or armed service colleagues — will willingly participate in any discussions in connection with the formulation of plans, clearly reserving the right to object to proposals when draft plans are issued and to vary stated positions in the light of changed or changing operational requirements.

Should the MOD decide to release substantial areas of land in the Gillingham area—I am not suggesting that it will, I do not know, as I say, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence — then there would be no question but that the PSA—following the precedent of the Chatham dockyard disposal —would seek to evolve a sensible and rational programme of land release and disposal, taking fully into account the wishes and ambitions of local people and the planning authorities. The Chatham dockyard disposal was an exceptional case that required exceptional measures, and the successful implementation of its disposal was due, in no small way, to the excellent co-operation between local and central Government— ably supported by the local hon. Members—in formulating a future policy for land use which minimised the impact on the local community and which will in the long term ultimately benefit the Medway towns.

Considerable business is now passing through the area transferred to the Medway (Chatham) Dock Company— a subsidiary of the Medway Ports Authority. I understand that English Estates is working closely with the local planning departments in formulating future plans —for example the proposal that the Tropical Research Institute, which is the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development, should be rehoused in the fine buildings that were formerly known as HMS Pembroke. There is also the historic dockyard where the trust jointly formed by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and for the Environment is working on what promises to be a major tourist attraction.

My hon. Friend mentioned conservation. On existing undeveloped areas of land, including woodland, the Ministry of Defence has an impressive conservation record. In saying this, I am not commenting on the planning application about some area health authority land that is before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. As my hon. Friend has said, it would be inappropriate for me to do so. In the Gillingham area, the local conservation group is run by the Army with expert advisers from the Nature Conservancy Council, the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation, and Maidstone museum. The MOD conservation officer frequently attends and the PSA's estate surveyor participates in the discussions and helps to carry out many of the recommendations.

The group meets four or five times a year and there are also regular field meetings. Most of the matters discussed affect the Chatham area on the Isle of Grain, a few miles north of Gillingham on the other side of the Medway in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton). Recent meetings have discussed, for instance, a land management plan for the training areas, which included a forestry plan designed to improve, this and, where appropriate, replant woodland at Chattenden in accordance with a five-year plan. A site dossier is being compiled listing species of flora and fauna found on defence land locally; any rare or endangered species will, of course, be closely monitored by the group.

Other matters that have recently been the subject of discussion by the group include orchids in Chattenden wood, sites of special scientific interest on Army training areas, and liaison with other local conservation societies. In order to make known its activities, the group proposes to have a stand at the local Army open day.

Apart from the Chattenden area, there are also undeveloped areas in and around Gillingham. We have discussed Great Lines and Lower Lines. There is also the ancient moat, at present being restored as part of the community programme—sponsored by the Army and organised by the National Council for the Rehabilitation of Offenders. That is a considerable and important task, as the moat is an important feature of the original defences of the royal naval dockyard and passes through what is now the royal school of military engineering's establishment at Brompton barracks.

My Department and the Ministry of Defence take an interest in conservation in my hon. Friend's constituency and that is why we are particularly disappointed by the breakdown in relations with local planning department officials following the meeting on 3 December. I understand that at that meeting is was agreed in principle that some amendments would be made to the planning application, but that when PSA agents tried to discuss the matter in detail, the planning officials were not prepared to do that and attempted to divert the discussion to wider issues of land use and the release of land by the Ministry of Defence. The agents are clearly not competent to deal with those issues, for the reasons that I have set out.

The PSA officials have tried to maintain a co-operative relationship with the borough officials and I have instructed PSA staff that they should continue to do so. However, that will not be helped if the council will not accept that the sale by private treaty at open space value is not possible.

To sum up, there are properly established arrangements for consulting local interests about development proposals, conservation matters and disposal strategies. Those must be tailored to individual circumstances, but there is never any question of the MOD or the PSA riding roughshod over local interests. Nevertheless, I have to say again that it must be for the MOD to make decisions about the use of defence land, at Gillingham or anywhere else.

I look forward to my visit to my hon. Friend's constituency after the Easter recess. As I have had the privilege of replying to the final Adjournment debate before Easter, I conclude by wishing you,Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Officials of the House a happy and enjoyable Recess.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o'clock till Wednesday 22 April, pursuant to the resolution of the House [2 April].