HL Deb 22 February 1928 vol 70 cc228-33

EARL RUSSELL rose to ask if the War Office will make a statement giving the terms of the settlement arrived at with regard to the Surrey Commons. The noble Earl said: My Lords, you will recollect that last Session I ventured to raise the question of the Surrey commons which the War Office was at that date anxious to acquire and about which there was a great deal of public anxiety both in Surrey and in London. I have since seen in the public Press that an agreement has been come to between the War Office and the Committee presided over, I think, by the noble Earl, Lord Midleton, which, I believe, represents not only the interests of the landowners but, through representatives of the Commons and Footpaths Preservation Society, to some extent those of the public also. I am happy to think that to-day it will not be necessary to raise any discussion. I have merely put this Question down in order that your Lordships may have an official statement from the War Office as to what the exact arrangement is. In asking that Question I think I ought to say one word more with which I am sure that all of your Lordships will concur—namely, that those who are interested in this matter owe a debt of gratitude to Lord Midleton for the trouble that he and his Committee have taken and for what appears to be the quite successful issue of their negotiations.


My Lords, when my noble friend opposite asked this Question last year he was good enough to say that after the observations that had fallen from my noble friend behind me (the Earl of Midleton) and myself he hoped that a satisfactory solution of this question would be reached. I gather that he has seen that which has appeared in the Press and thinks that such a solution has, in fact, been reached. As the noble Earl has said, a Committee was formed at the instance of my noble friend Lord Midleton to confer with the representatives of the War Office in regard to the whole of this question and to endeavour to arrive at a suitable and satisfactory settlement. That Committee has met and has discussed the question, and I think I shall not be wrong in saying that the solution at which it has arrived is one that is satisfactory to all parties and from every point of view.

In the first place, the boundaries of the area to be used for military training have been settled and the War Department are to have the area within those boundaries during certain parts of the year for the purpose of carrying out military training. The lords of manors will allow the commons to be used for this training between April and September. In this connection there is one point that I should like to mention. I refer to the possibility of Easter occurring during the last few days of March. As a matter of act, that contingency does not arise until 1931, and by that time we may have a fixed Easter, which will take us into the middle of April. Nevertheless, when the agreement is finally considered, and its terms settled, perhaps my noble friend will take that small point into consideration. It is not in any way pressing, but I mention it in passing.

The use of the commons in normal years for brigade training with tanks will be confined to the period between June 1 and August 15. During the remainder of the period the training of smaller parties will be permitted. The lords of manors have given this permission to the War Department for ten years, and they have also agreed that at the expiration of that period the renewal of the agreement shall not be unreasonably withheld. I speak of "terms" because the agreement is not in the shape of a lease, since the lords of manors have granted these privileges to the War Department free of charge. Naturally, when we desired to acquire these rights in the manors, we offered to pay for them, but since the owners have been so patriotic and public-spirited as to offer them free of charge all that we can do is to express our sincere appreciation and gratitude.

The actual terms are as follows: (1), No camps are to be erected on the commons, except in one or two areas, such as the sites near Frensham Pond, which are the areas where camps have in the past been erected. Any other camps that may be required will not be erected on the commons but on the freehold land acquired by the War Office adjoining the commons. (2), It is agreed that no buildings either temporary or permanent are to be erected on the commons, nor are any buildings to be erected on unenclosed freehold land except temporary buildings, which are to be removed at the end of each training season. (3), No trenches are to be dug on the commons, and at the end of each training season any damage that may be done by wheeled vehicles or tanks is to be made good. (4), Due regard shall be taken to prevent injury to trees, shrubs and vegetation. I may point out that on War Department lands at Aldershot and elsewhere great care is always taken to avoid damage to plantations. They are put out of bounds for troops and the men are well accustomed to looking after these places, so that I do not think there will be any difficulty in this condition being satisfactorily carried out. (5), No part of the commons is at any time to be enclosed or used as a rifle range. (6), The public shall have free access to the commons in accordance with their legal rights, and free access, subject to appropriate regulations, to the unenclosed lands adjoining the commons which are acquired or are being acquired by the War Department. I speak of this access being subject to regulations because, though the legal rights of the public on the commons are well known, with regard to private land there will have to be bylaws or something of the kind laying down exactly how they may be used.


This will be an access as of grace rather than of right?


Yes, it will be part of the agreement. It is also agreed (7), that strict orders are to be given to drivers of tanks not to turn abruptly or in a short circle. This is done to prevent the tearing up of vegetation. I may add that what is called "waltzing" a tank, or turning it on its axis, does do damage, and is already forbidden on War Department land, and this prohibition will continue. (8), No vehicles of over an agreed weight—I will not mention the exact weight, because at the moment I am not quite sure what it will be and I had better wait until the agreement is finally settled—are to be driven on the commons. (9), We have agreed to reconsider the whole question of the use of the commons for tanks in a couple of years' time. That is the substance, I think, of the agreement that has been reached, and I hope that it will be satisfactory and will serve to calm any apprehensions as to the intentions of the War Department that have arisen. I know that this matter has caused a great deal of anxiety, especially in my own County of Surrey. I can only conclude my observations by expressing, on behalf of my right hon. friend, my colleagues on the Army Council and myself, great gratitude for the public-spirited manner and the generosity with which the lords of manors and all those interested in the commons have met us in arriving at an agreement which I hope your Lordships will admit to be satisfactory to all parties. The War Department gets the land, no charge is incurred upon the public Exchequer, and I think the rights of the public and of the lords of the manors are fully safeguarded to their own satisfaction.


My Lords, I rise on behalf of those who have co-operated with me in this matter to thank my noble friend for the account which he has given of the arrangement that has been come to, and I should wish to take this opportunity of expressing my thanks to him for the generous acknowledgment which he has made of the conduct of the landowners and those who negotiated with the War Office. I am also very grateful to my noble friend opposite for having originally raised this question. Although a most satisfactory arrangement has been come to I do not flatter myself that that has been solely due to those who have had to negotiate. The difference between the original proposal and the present arrangement is a very marked one. I give all credit to the War Office, with whom I so long served, for their desire to do the best thing for the public, but there was undoubtedly a very strong feeling that to hand over these open commons for the use which the Army must put them to throughout the year—for encampments, for continual trampling of troops and all the disturbance which exists where large bodies of men are placed—would have been really fatal to the amenities of the commons and destructive of bird life, and would have certainly rendered the commons much less useful and enjoyable to the public.

By the arrangement to which we have come the time has been restricted, but we have been able, I am glad to say, to meet in almost all respects the necessities of military training, which it is our greatest desire to do. My noble friend thanked us for our part of the business, and I should like to say this, that if it had not been for the strong expression of opinion in this House, in which we reechoed what has been said by the Press, and for the strong efforts made by such societies as the Commons Preservation Society, which owed its greatest initiative to the oldest member of this House, Lord Eversley, who has been associated with it for fifty or sixty years and has done untold service to the public during the whole period—if it had not been for those things I am not sure that even under my noble friend's influence the War Office would have been found so amenable to what seemed to us to be a reasonable settlement. We are, however, very grateful to him for what he attempted to do to make that settlement possible, and I think the public may now rest assured that the best has been done for all parties.


Might I ask the noble Earl whether we are to expect that Frensham Common will be occupied for six months every summer, for camp?


What I said was that commons would not be occupied except where they had hitherto been occupied. At Frensham there have been camps hitherto, and I understand that it is not proposed to give up what has been done in the past. My noble friend behind me (the Earl of Midleton) really knows more than I do, because he has been over the ground so recently as Saturday last, but I think I am correct in the answer which I have given.