HL Deb 15 February 1938 vol 107 cc674-82

LORD MERTHYR had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the feelings of concern and dismay which have been occasioned by the proposal of the War Office compulsorily to acquire for a tank range or otherwise a large area of land on the south coast of Pembrokeshire; whether due consideration has been given to the consequent loss of exceptionally good agricultural land, of excellent bathing beaches and unrivalled cliff scenery, which the public have hitherto enjoyed; whether full weight has been given to the effects of the resulting spoliation of a region of the highest amenity value; and whether every possible alternative site has been considered; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question and to move the Motion which stand on the Paper in my name. I should like to say at the outset that we who are interested in this particular matter do try our very best to appreciate the difficulties which face the Government Departments who are concerned in finding suitable locations for such things as a tank gunnery range. We realise that there are comparatively few parts of the country which are suitable for the purpose. But the reaction of the people who live near this particular place is that if the War Office had chosen almost any other spot it would be tolerable rather than the particular place which they have selected. Upon any list in order of priority of places in which, in the view of the local authorities and local people generally, it would be desirable to put an activity of this kind, this place would come at the bottom.

I would emphasize that we who live in this small and thinly populated County welcome the presence of the armed forces of the Crown and any agitation or objection which there may be to this particular manœuvre on the part of the War Office is entirely disconnected with any sort of opposition on nationalistic or cultural grounds. We welcome the Navy and the Army and the Air Force in our County, and I think we can say that for a small County we have not altogether done badly in the military activities that we have in our midst. We have in the County an antiaircraft gunnery range, which has taken away, it is true, two of our best bathing beaches and some of our cliff scenery, but we offered no opposition to that. We have two large Admiralty establishments, one of which again spoiled some of our scenery, but we did not complain of that in any way. We have an Air Force station, and we have several military establishments within the County. In fact, we have almost everything in the military line except that which we most want, and that is the reopening of the dockyard which existed for over a hundred years in the County. That is the only thing which we are denied.

But the position now is that a site has been chosen for a tank gunnery range, as I understand it, which is the very last site that anybody would wish to be used for that purpose. I must say that the gentlemen who go round the country selecting sites for War Office and other military activities certainly have a way of picking upon beauty spots which is really almost uncanny. Their eye for scenery, their appreciation of landscapes, is impeccable. The area which they have now selected is part of a large area of some 6,000 acres, all of which is on or near the sea coast and the greater part of which is first-class agricultural land. The reason for that is that it has rather an exceptional climate. The climate is very mild in winter and cool in summer, and that renders the district particularly suitable for such crops as early potatoes and sugar beet. Actually one can grow twenty tons of sugar beet to the acre.

The first point I wish to make is that this land, or the greater part of it, is of first-class agricultural quality, and it should not be forgotten that areas of this kind are very valuable in time of war for the growing of food. With the price which is to be paid for this land we are not directly concerned, except as taxpayers, but in passing I should like to say that if the owner of this land, who is extremely averse from selling, is to be adequately compensated for the compulsory acquisition of it, then the price which will have to be paid must surely be a very large one indeed. This area, or so I understand—I hope I am correctly informed—includes some small villages and some large farms, on which there are considerable buildings, and to the best of my knowledge all these buildings will be literally razed to the ground under the scheme. I am told that there will be nothing left of any artificial structure whatever. The loss of employment which that must entail is no small argument against this proposition. It will displace from their lifelong occupation scores of men whose forebears have been employed for generations in agriculture. There may be some small initial employment in the work of destruction, but on balance I should say that the loss of employment which will be caused by the acquisition of this land must he considerable, and it will be very detrimental to the locality.

I pass to the question of amenity. I do not want to over-emphasise the scenic attractions of this particular spot, but I think I can claim that the coastline is as unspoiled and as attractive as any other in England and Wales. In fact it is one of the very few pieces, indeed it may be the only attractive piece, of coastline which is now left to us. There are two sandy beaches which are very much appreciated by hundreds of people in the summer time, people who come very long distances to enjoy them. There are literally miles of cliff walks, and the whole of this area has been completely unspoiled. The reason for that is that it happens to belong to an owner who has considerable regard for amenities, and for the public enjoyment of them. I am not here to appeal on his behalf, but in any discussion of this subject I think it would be right that tribute should be paid to the fact that the reason that this area is unspoiled is that, although there are no public highways, or very few public highways, across it, the public for as long as any one can remember have been allowed to enjoy it by walking across it, by walking anywhere along the coast and by using the beaches in an entirely unfettered manner.

Not only that, but the owner has voluntarily agreed—although he has not actually signed the agreement yet—with the planning authority, of which I have the honour to be the Chairman, to zone the whole of this area without any exception or any restriction as a private open space, or, where it would be more appropriate, as an agricultural reserve. I must say that the planning authority thought that they had made a very considerable step forward in their very difficult task of securing for the future the continuance and the permanence of such open spaces. All their hopes, how- ever, have been dashed to the ground and will be completely upset if this scheme goes through. One cannot help passing this comment: that if this owner had been like so many others and had sold up his property in small plots to speculative builders and allowed small houses and bungalows to grow along this beautiful coast, he would never have met with this trouble which has now descended upon him. In connection with planning, I should mention that the planning committee for the County have unanimously passed a resolution indicating their grave concern at this proposition; and that the same resolution has also been put to and unanimously passed by the County Council, which happened to meet one day last week. There was no dissentient voice or vote when they were asked to protest against the suggestion that this area should be taken by the War Office. I can assure your Lordships that every member of that council appreciates deeply the difficulties of the Government Department concerned and realises fully the necessity for the rearmament which is now proceeding.

There is one more not unimportant point, and that is that from time to time many suggestions have been made in this country for the establishment of national parks. Many persons and many authorities have drawn up lists of suggested places, and I think I can safely claim that upon every comprehensive list, every list which pretended to cover the whole country, the Pembrokeshire coast has always figured. I have never seen a comprehensive list which leaves it out. This area is the kernel of that national park on the coast—so far as I know, the only coastal park that has yet been even suggested except perhaps in Cornwall, where, owing to development, the difficulties would be much greater. One of the reasons for the suggestion of a park m this place is not only that it happens to have high scenic attractions but also that it happens to be so little built over and otherwise spoilt. If this scheme goes through, then the whole suggestion and proposal for the Pembrokeshire National Park falls to the ground, because this area is almost in the centre of the proposed park and, as I say, is the most important part of it. I will also mention what perhaps some people will think is a minor point: this area contains a bird sanctuary. It is almost unnecessary nowadays to say of a piece of land taken by a Government Department that it contains a bird sanctuary!This land, however, does really contain a small breeding-place for guillemots and many other sea-birds, and their breeding season is the very time of the year when this range will be used. Opinions may differ, I quite realise, on the effect upon birds which gunnery has, and I will leave it to other experts to assess.

Finally I would say this. If we who live in this area, and if representatives of the local authorities in the area, can do anything to help to find an alternative, either inside or outside the county, they will do all that is in their power. I am quite certain that I can speak for everyone in that regard. To suggest an alternative is a little difficult unless one knows exactly what are the requirements of the War Office for a tank range. Without that knowledge it is a little premature to suggest actual sites where this range could be established as alternative to the place proposed, but any assistance which can be given locally will be forthcoming. I hope that I have not unnecessarily detained the House, but I can assure your Lordships that the people who live in or near this locality feel that this proposition spells almost calamity for them, and that if anything can be done to meet the requirements of the War Office without taking this place, which they regard almost, I might say, as the holy of holies of the sceneries of the district, then they will be very glad to contribute in any possible way. I beg to move.


My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord has put down this Motion, and I am grateful to him for the information with which he has supplied the Department which I represent. I hope that I shall be able to remove some, if not all, of his anxieties. In the first place, I should like to reiterate what the noble Lord has said about the character of the present landlord in that area. It is only fair to point out to your Lordships that he would no doubt have been in his place in your Lordships' House to-day to deal with this Question and to put the case, well though it has already been put by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, were it not that he has been compelled to go abroad on business.

What is the problem? Owing to the conversion of cavalry regiments into light tank cavalry regiments, it has become necessary to increase the amount of range accommodation which is available for carrying out battle practice with tank guns. The increase in numbers and range of modern tank guns necessitates practice over much larger areas than have been necessary in the past for ordinary artillery practice. The number of districts in Great Britain in which suitable areas may be looked for is limited. During 1936 reconnaissance was made through Great Britain, and the only suitable site discovered was at Linney Head. It is not essential for a tank gunnery range to be on the coast, but if the boundary of the area taken is largely coast-line it not only provides a free danger area seawards but also makes easier the task of excluding members of the public from the ranges while they are in use. A coastal area thus ensures a greater measure of safety for the public at less cost. An area which is large enough to-day may, however, be found in a few years time too small owing to the increase in the range of guns. Having discovered a possible area at Linney Head, the War Office started to make inquiries into the value of the land. That is as far as negotiations have gone.

No decision has been made to acquire the area, and no decision will be reached without the fullest examination of the interests affected. With this end in view, His Majesty's Government have devised suitable machinery to ensure that when a site of this kind is being selected, consideration of interests of national importance other than national defence shall take place in sufficient time to enable due weight to be given to them by the Department which is initiating the proposed acquisition. In accordance with this policy, the War Office has notified the Linney Head scheme to the Minister of Agriculture and also to the Planning Division of the Ministry of Health. Meanwhile I am having an immediate examination made of the suggestion which the noble Lord did not make in his speech to-day, but which has been made elsewhere, that an alternative site should be found in the Prescelly Mountains, north of the area suggested, but I would again remind your Lordships that if we go inland for this purpose a larger area may be required. Your Lordships will therefore realise that the interests to which attention is called by the noble Lord who asked this Question have by no means been overlooked by the War Office, and the House may rest assured that no decision in this matter will be reached until these and other interests have been fully weighed. In present circumstances, however, I am afraid that the needs of national defence must necessarily receive priority in the last resort.

Perhaps I might point out that the appropriation of an area as a gunnery range does not result in its complete spoliation. It probably means that the whole area is kept free of buildings except those necessary for the camp, and the open character of the scenery is preserved. Moreover, when the range is not in use access is often preserved for the public to a greater degree than would be the case—or might be the case—if the land were in other hands. I welcome the invitation which Lord Merthyr gave that we might consult him about alternative sites, and he and his friends have been good enough to make certain suggestions, other than the alternative which I have mentioned, which will be examined. I would like to assure him and the House again that we are fully alive to what I may call all the conflicting amenities involved in this case, but we are equally anxious to find, and mast indeed find, a suitable site bearing in mind the question of national defence. I would conclude therefore by issuing this invitation to the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr: I hope he will come to the War Office later on, when our investigations, now only just commenced, will be more complete, and the materials for reaching a decision have been further considered and collected. Then we shall be delighted for him to see all the plans, which will he prepared and ready for consideration. With that assurance I hope he will feel satisfied and not wish to press his Motion.


My Lords, I would like to say a word about the procedure outlined by the noble Lord on behalf of the War Office. I listened with attention to what he said and he concluded by saying that he would be glad if the noble Lord who raised this matter would, at a later stage, consult him at the War Office. He said that he had already placed the matter in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture and of the Ministry of Health. I would point out that there is another authority, and one which is better acquainted with it, as I think, and that is the local planning committee. He gave no undertaking to approach them. I suggest that the proper procedure is that he should inform that committee, and that they should take their responsibility—and a very heavy responsibility it is—of seeing whether any alternative site can be found. So far as the statement which has just been made is concerned, no such undertaking is given. It is true that Lord Merthyr is Chairman of the local committee; but it is not a personal matter between Lord Merthyr and the noble Lord who represents the War Office, it is a matter between the War Office and the local planning committee.

There seems to be a fatality, as Lord Merthyr has indicated, in the choosing of sites, whether by the War Office, the Admiralty or the Air Ministry. I do not know how it comes about, but sites in extraordinarily fertile areas seem to have for these Departments an irresistible attraction. It is possible that in this case a site may have to be taken further inland; I hope it may be the case. It may be that a larger area will be required, but the further inland you go the cheaper the land becomes, and the less is the danger, as in this case, of injuring famous and beautiful scenery. It is said that the public may not lose access to the land. Access to land which is ploughed up by tanks and military manœuvres loses much of its natural charm. If possible, can- not greater effort be made to prevent really good agricultural land being used for this purpose? Time after time in the last few years we have had instances of choice agricultural land being used for these purposes. It is sad, and I for one would welcome any success attending the efforts of the noble Lord in finding less valuable land for this national purpose.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for the information which he has given me. It is the fact, as suggested by the noble Earl who has just spoken, that the local planning committee have not been consulted at all in this matter. There may be reasons for that, but I will not go into it now. I readily accept the invitation extended to me by the noble Lord at the conclusion of his remarks, and I will do everything possible, by visiting the War Office, to help the Department in its acquisition of a site. I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for the way in which he has given me this information, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.