HC Deb 03 February 1988 vol 126 cc1132-8

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

2.29 am
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

I do not complain about the lateness of the hour, because at any time of the day or night I should be happy to raise the subject of the Dartmoor national park, for which I have a very great affection and which I have enjoyed walking and riding over for nearly a quarter of a century.

The Dartmoor national park was established in 1951 and is one of only 10 in Britain. It is designated, because of its exceptional beauty, to provide open-air recreation and relaxation, especially for town dwellers. Some 7.5 million people visited Dartmoor last year, which is almost as many as the population of London.

The Dartmoor national park measures 365 sq miles, about 200 sq miles of which is open moorland. Some 78 per cent. of that, which is the wildest country, the high moorland in the northern part of the moor, is out of bounds to the public when live firing by the Army takes place. Over three quarters of the wilderness area of northern Dartmoor is under military occupation for much of the year.

Okehampton range is used throughout the year day and night. There is remission at weekends, public holidays, Easter week and from 15 July to 15 September. At the Willsworthy range there is firing on one weekend a month, which means that there are not any clear weekends throughout the year and, 11 months of firing — only August is excepted—which prevents excursions by the public to the Tavy Cleave, one of the finest gorge valleys in the world. At Merrivale, there is no weekend firing and no firing in August. Willsworthy fires eastwards, Merrivale northwards and Okehampton in a southerly direction. The result is an impact zone in the heart of Dartmoor around Great Nesset and Great Nesset Head on the 17 to 1,800 contour.

The area from the Two Bridges crossroads northwards to Okehampton is a danger area for almost all the year, except in August. The three military live firing ranges are pointing inwards; the centre of the moor is the impact area and the danger zone.

The issues raised in the debate are national, not local. Although not all of Dartmoor is in my constituency, much of the open moor is. The issues transcend parish and parliamentary boundaries. This is a national park and it concerns the nation.

Besides live firing by the military, the Royal Air Force flies down to 200 ft, swooping over the moor, and that is increasing. That is not the case in August, but it is for the other 11 months of the year.

In the south of my constituency, the Royal Navy carries out dry training, blank firing pyrotechnics and uses helicopters. On Ringmoor, the Navy has admitted that, when it is hard at it, it is not a suitable place for a picnic. When the Army fires, not only is it noisy but large areas of the moor are out of bounds to the public. The scenery is spoilt by the flying of red flags and there are an increasing number of huts on the skyline, on the tors, as visible look-out posts. The moor is almost a training ground for the Army, the Air Force and the Navy. It cannot be consistent with the aims and purposes of the national parks.

There are those who suggest that I am anti the armed forces; they are mistaken. I have had close links with the Army, with which I worked undertaking courts martial when I was at the Bar, and I have a great admiration for the Navy. I have the Royal Naval college Dartmouth and HMS Cambridge in Wembury in my constituency, and my interests in aviation are well known, although limited to civil rather than military aviation. I wonder, however, how my hon. Friend the Minister equates the intention of the legislature, when setting up national parks, with the level of military activity in one of the 10 most beautiful and most protected areas of Britain.

Live firing is probably the principal culprit. It prevents the public from exercising their statutory right of access, decreed by Parliament through the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, which I had the privilege to pilot through the House. That gave every person the statutory right of access. No other national park has given the public such a right. How does my hon. Friend the Minister reconcile that statutory right of access with the fact that every weekday, except in the autumn, the public may be prevented from having access to half the moor?

The military wishes to build a new training centre in the national park at Willsworthy. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for arranging for me and other hon. Members to visit the Willsworthy camp in the most bitter of January weather, in dense fog and blinding rain. None the less, it gave us the opportunity to look at the problem of the Willsworthy camp. Fundamentally, I should like no live firing on the moor. If it is to continue, and bearing in mind that Willsworthy is owned by the Ministry of Defence, the proposed site of the new camp must be preferable to those dreadful Nissen huts, with the most appalling living conditions, currently on the skyline at Willsworthy.

Although that part of the moor is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), with whom I have discussed this matter, it seems to me that it would make better sense, if the military is to continue its activity on the moor, for the old camp to be demolished, the area regrassed and environmentally landscaped and the new camp built out of sight in the valley lower down from the high moor. That is not under discussion in this debate, but I felt that it was worth mentioning in passing.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that, if the moor continues to be used extensively by our armed forces for training purposes, the aims of the National Parks and Access to Countryside Act 1949 and the Dartmoor Commons Act must be frustrated and, if so, the status of the park should be reviewed? I am not sure whether one can denationalise national parks and declare them national training areas for the military, but it seems to make better sense that another area should be selected which does not suffer from such bombardment of live ammunition and military training.

Alternatively, although I recognise the need for the military to train, perhaps the training should be restricted to dry training, with live firing being moved elsewhere. The Sharp inquiry looked at the military presence of the Army. Although some good things came of it, one regrets that some of the principal recommendations have not been vigorously pursued and some aims have not been achieved.

In 1991, the Duchy of Cornwall lease for the Okehampton and Merrivale ranges expires — the live firing range in the northern part of the moor and the range in the bottom half of the moor, just north of Princetown. Will this not be a wonderful opportunity for those two ranges to be transferred elsewhere? There are other moors in the south-west which are not national parks. Perhaps they should be looked at to determine whether some of the live firing and inconvenience can be moved outside the national park.

I hope also that the Duchy will enter practical arid meaningful discussions with the Government on that score and that they can come to some sensible and acceptable conclusions. Even if live firing cannot be moved lock, stock and barrel, it should be restricted, possibly to one range—the Willsworthy range is already owned by the Ministry of Defence—or to winter periods only, so that throughout the summer months, the public can enjoy what was established in the first place for their enjoyment and recreation.

Although this debate is not as well attended as one would like, and the Strangers Gallery is not as crowded as it was earlier, the future use of our national parks is of great importance. I am grateful that the Minister, in discussions I have had with him, has taken a more liberal and understanding line on the case that the environmentalists put forward, and realises that to discuss this matter at 2.40 am or over tea in the Tea Room is not an attack upon him or the Government or the work of the armed forces. It is part of a continuing discussion about the future role of the military in peacetime in areas of special beauty that have been decreed by Parliament as being for the enjoyment of the nation.

I believe that I have done some service by raising this issue tonight, and I ask the Minister to help, as far as he can, to reconcile the military's problems of finding adequate places in which to practise its work in the way that it should to equip it to defend the realm, with the needs of people in a mobile society—particularly town dwellers — who need and want to visit areas of great beauty in which to seek solitude and beauty for reviving their lives.

I am anxious that Dartmoor, one of the most beautiful parts of Britain, should not become a live firing range for the military for ever and I hope that the Minister will reassure the nation that the Government intend to reduce the amount of noise, live firing and military activity in an area prescribed by Parliament as being of special sanctity and beauty for the nation.

2.43 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) on securing this important Adjournment debate on the military use of Dartmoor national park. He has been a consistent and courteous champion of the national parks —especially of Dartmoor—and I hope that, at the end of this short debate, he will be convinced that his interests are compatible with those of the Ministry of Defence.

The services have been training on Dartmoor for more than 100 years. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the Dartmoor national park did not come into being until 1951. As the House will recall, in the mid-1970s, Baroness Sharp conducted an inquiry, at the Government's request, into the use of Dartmoor for military training. In her report, published in 1977, Lady Sharp said: I accept that military training and a national park are discordant, incongruous and inconsistent; but I cannot accept that they are incapable of living together. Baroness Sharp had to recognise — as indeed successive Governments have done — that, important though the purposes of the national parks are, they are not paramount. They have to be balanced against other objectives of national policy. Defence is one such national requirement.

Why is Dartmoor in particular so important for military training? For historical and operational reasons, a large part of the Army is based in the south, and especially in the south-west, of England. That remains essential because of the requirement for forces to be near ports and airfields for their NATO role, and also as home defence. Nowadays, there are some 5,000 Royal Marines, 18,000 Regulars, 5,000 Territorial Army soldiers, and 12,000 cadets in that part of the south-western district who need facilities to train locally. The needs of the TA and cadets, whose training has to be done in the evenings, at weekends and at their annual camps, should not be overlooked. They must have a training area within easy reach, or their precious training time would be seriously eroded by the need to travel.

Apart from its location, Dartmoor offers ideal terrain for realistic and challenging training exercises, designed to make the soldier tough, fit and self-reliant, as we would all wish. It is isolated, has unpredictable weather, which can often be bad, and has few easily identifiable geographic features. They are essential features for good military training land.

Dartmoor is a large and sufficiently sparsely populated area to make live firing possible. The only other area in the south-west that offers comparable live firing facilities and is large enough to allow similar training is Salisbury plain. It is the Army's largest and most important area in the United Kingdom, but it is already used to full capacity.

As my hon. Friend said, we have three ranges on Dartmoor—Okehampton, Merrivale and Willsworthy—which together provide for live firing and "dry" training, that is, where no live ammunition is used. There is no use of tanks, tracked vehicles or heavy artillery on Dartmoor. Dry training is possible in at least one of the ranges on almost every day of the year. However, the amount of live firing conducted is kept within limits agreed between ourselves and the national park authority, but it tends to be affected by the vagaries of the weather.

Therefore, Dartmoor remains of the utmost importance as one of our principal training areas. That importance has, if anything, grown since the mid-1970s because of the larger numbers of Regular and TA forces now based in this country and because of the increased range requirements of modern weapons. Although it has been suggested over the years that training activities, particularly live firing, should be transferred elsewhere, I do not believe that there is any foreseeable prospect of this happening.

It is inconceivable that an area offering facilities comparable to Dartmoor would become available in south-west England, which is where such an area would be needed if the requirements for military training are to be met. A search was made before the decision was taken to modernise the Willsworthy ranges, but no suitable alternative could be found. Lady Sharp's report accepted that there was no alternative area capable of meeting military needs in the south-west.

This Government, like their predecessors, therefore believe that national parks and military training must continue to co-exist. However, a heavy responsibility is placed on my Department to ensure that any conflict of interest between military and other activities in the national park—inevitably, there will be some conflicts—are reconciled to the greatest possible extent.

Although my first concern must be to ensure that the services can train effectively, I am also much aware of the need to make every possible provision for public access and to support measures aimed at conservation of this important part of our national heritage.

Mr. Steen

The Minister mentioned public access. No doubt he will deal with the Dartmoor Commons Act, which gave the statutory right of access. I feel somewhat embarrassed, having piloted that Act through the House, to say to the public, "For five days a week throughout the year, other than in August, you do not have that right." Does the Minister have a view on that matter?

Mr. Freeman

I shall certainly deal with that.

It was with just such aims in mind that the Dartmoor steering group was set up in 1978, under independent chairmanship, with representatives from the bodies principally concerned—the national park committee, the Duchy of Cornwall, the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council. The group meets regularly and provides a forum for discussion on all such important questions. I should like to take this opportunity, as I am sure my hon. Friend would, to commend the group for its most valuable work.

The issues that challenge us in seeking solutions to the many problems that my hon. Friend alluded to are well illustrated in the case of Willsworthy camp. The need to improve conditions at Willsworthy camp has been of concern for many years. The camp was last refurbished in 1985, to make it weatherproof for a few more years, but the timber and corrugated iron structure — all that remains of a much larger camp that was put up before the last war — is now in need of more substantial improvement. Rather than meet our long-term requirements there, however, we wished to see whether we could offer the national park an opportunity for the camp to be moved to a less environmentally sensitive position. We looked closely at a number of alternatives, but none proved suitable until the site at Higher Beardon farm, Lydford, became available.

I was disappointed that the Dartmoor national park authority objected to our proposals to replace the camp at the alternative site. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's preference for the Higher Beardon site, although I appreciate that that represents the more acceptable of two alternatives and my hon. Friend may not have wished to make a choice in other circumstances.

This is not the time or place to argue the rights or wrongs of the national park authority's decision, since the planning process is not yet complete. We shall, of course, be considering how to proceed in the light of that decision. There are, however, a few points that I need to make now to clear up some misconceptions that seem to have arisen about the effect of our proposals.

One of the objections to the proposed development is that it would be visually intrusive in the national park. Our proposal is, however, for a one-storey building, in local materials in keeping with its surroundings, set in a hollow off the high moor, where it can scarcely be seen. This would be far less visually intrusive than the existing camp, which is without doubt an eyesore. It can be seen for miles and its ugly appearance is a blot on the landscape.

We have, moreover, already made it clear that as part of our proposals the existing buildings would be demolished and the site restored to moorland. No matter what view one might take of the military use of Dartmoor, there can surely be no doubt that the environmental arguments are heavily in favour of replacement at Higher Beardon.

Concern has also been expressed that the proposals would amount to an entrenchment of the military presence on Dartmoor. From what I have already said, it should be clear that military use of Dartmoor will have to continue for the foreseeable future. The decision on Higher Beardon does not affect this one way or another, and if the camp is not replaced it will stay at Willsworthy. We would then need to carry out work to ensure that the camp was able to meet our future military requirements.

Another misapprehension is that we should withhold our proposals pending the outcome of the forthcoming review of licences for the use of the Duchy of Cornwall land. The use of Duchy land, however, has no bearing on the need for a training camp in the Willsworthy area; the firing ranges and proposed camp sites are on freehold land.

As I said earlier, we of course attach considerable importance to ensuring public access to the training areas. I must, however, put all this into perspective. In the first place, the MOD owns just 1.5 per cent. of the area covered by Dartmoor, farmed and unfarmed. We have on lease or licence a further 13 per cent. The ranges are closed to the public only when live firing is actually due to take place. No live firing, as my hon. Friend said, takes place on Dartmoor during the whole of August, on public holidays or, as far as possible, at weekends when visitors will most want to have access.

We try to ensure that information about open days is easily available to the general public. Nevertheless, we would of course be ready to consider any further ideas to improve the arrangements for public access. We would, for example, be ready to consider requests from organisations wanting to plan special events on Dartmoor and, if possible, to permit access by making adjustments to the firing programme.

My hon. Friend raised the possibility of realigning the range danger areas. That was considered in 1969. The national park committee concluded that the advantages of such a scheme were outweighed by the disadvantages of subjecting a common impact area to very intensive use. I would be prepared to reconsider the idea if the national park committee so wished. I should also like to renew the offer to grant increased public access to Tavy Cleave if the committee thought that that might be helpful. I am sure that national park committee members will read my hon. Friend's remarks and my reply with great care.

Mr. Steen

My point about Tavy Cleave is that the Ministry has been very helpful in stating that the public can have access to the cleave. However, it has said that there should be a little sentry box at each end to ensure that they do not wander down it when they should not. If we have little sentry boxes as well as flags flying on the tor, it will ruin Dartmoor.

Mr. Freeman

I will deal with that issue in the next few moments, because I had anticipated that my hon. Friend might raise the question of sentry huts.

My hon. Friend raised the matter of the safety of ranges indirectly when he referred to flags. The Government and the services take the matter most seriously, not only from the point of view of public safety, but also with regard to all those training on the ranges. Every reasonable precaution is taken to guard against accidents to the public.

Byelaws are in force which control public access arid actions. When live firing is taking place, red warning flags are flown. The danger areas are delineated by red and white posts, and warning notices are also displayed on the areas where live firing takes place. Under the byelaws, flags have to be raised first thing in the morning of the day firing is to take place. However, they are removed as soon as possible after it is resolved riot to conduct firing. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall ask the Army authorities to continue to make every endeavour to ensure that the flags are not flying unnecessarily.

I believe that our safety arrangements are effective and as good as they can be, but our arrangements for public safety depend inevitably on the common sense of the public not to put themselves at risk. In the case of accidents involving civilians — I am glad to say that there has been only one on Dartmoor in the past 10 years and only three since the creation of the national park—these are regrettably often due to foolhardy actions in direct contravention of the byelaws. I intend to consider how best to apprise local schools and schoolchildren of the need to observe range byelaws.

My hon. Friend referred to huts. I think he meant what we describe as lookout posts required for the Willsworthy ranges and, by implication, for the other ranges. Both their siting and design were approved by the national park committee. I assure my hon. Friend that they are a necessary part of our range safety arrangements.

To sum up, I cannot stress sufficiently the importance of the Dartmoor training areas to the fighting efficiency and effectiveness of our armed forces. I am always ready to consider any suggestions for ways in which military use and other national park interests can best be reconciled. In particular, we shall continue to ensure that essential military training is conducted in a way that takes full account of the needs of the national park. But this can be approached only in partnership. I am sure that all concerned recognise the importance of continuing close consultation and the need for some give and take on both sides.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o'clock.