HL Deb 04 December 1946 vol 144 cc614-25

3.57 p.m.

THE LORD BISHOP OF TRURO rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the Admiralty will now define the boundary of the Culdrose aerodrome near Helston, and whether steps have been taken to safeguard access to the Lizard and the Helford River; and to move for Papers. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I am venturing to bring certain details before your Lordships' House because I believe them to be a clear illustration of principles of far-reaching importance. I have here in my hand a rough map of the Lizard Peninsula. It is one of the most beautiful areas in Cornwall and is of great interest to the naturalist. Indeed, it has been proposed as a national park. About 1941 a Royal Air Force Station was constructed some seven miles south of Helston. It was constructed in an area which is a mile or two from Kynance Cove, Mullion and Poldhu—places which are, I expect, well known to many of your Lordships. This airfield takes in the whole of higher and lower Predannack Downs, lying to the west of the main road, and it has encroached on the eastern side of the road. It now covers about 1,000 acres. In connexion with the airfield there are a great number of Service establishments scattered about the Lizard Peninsula; they include radio stations, radar establishments and personnel camps.

A good deal later in the war a second air station was started, this time by the Royal Navy, at Culdrose, between one and two miles south-south-east of Helston, that is, about five miles from the great aerodrome at Predannack. The construction of the road around this vast airfield was begun in the summer of 1943 and the road was opened to general traffic by the spring of 1944. At that time, in view of the war, these large-scale projects were kept as secret as possible, and the country was hardly aware of what was going on. The Culdrose Airfield has taken up about 700 acres of some of the best agricultural land in Cornwall. Its construction has involved a great transformation of the landscape in the neighbourhood. The valleys were filled up, hillocks were levelled and several farms were eradicated, their buildings being demolished. I understand that some modern council houses were also destroyed. Now there can be no doubt that these two airfields together have gravely reduced the amenity of the Lizard Peninsula, and I am afraid they may have endangered the proposal for a national park in that area. Moreover, Cornwall simply cannot afford to lose 700 acres of good land, particularly if we are to make our maximum contribution to the food supply of the country. The Cornish people, therefore, are troubled, and the matter has again and again been brought to the notice of the Cornwall branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England; hence the question which has been put down in my name to-day.

A similar question was asked in another place, and I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, for having kindly communicated to me the answer which was given then. Up to a point the reply is reassuring, and still more reassuring, if I may say so, is the information which I have received from the West Cornwall Joint Planning Committee to the effect that during the past fifteen months the Admiralty have co-operated with the Committee in connexion with the lay-out of the married quarters for the Naval Police which are to be constructed on the southern edge of the aerodrome, and also as regards the scheme of direct-approach lighting. I believe it is the express intention of His Majesty's Government that such consultations and co-operation shall regularly take place in the future, and that will be a very welcome safeguard. But even so, I confess I am not quite satisfied—nor, I believe, are the Cornish public quite satisfied—with the answer given on November 20, in another place. That answer defined the present boundaries of the airfield, but I want, if I may, to ask what there is in store for the future. The Predannack airfield has crept further and further. Is the Culdrose aerodrome going to creep further and further, too? Have the Admiralty any designs upon the Loe Pool or the Helford River? I find it difficult to imagine what the Royal Navy could want with these small stretches of shallow water. To see a Royal Naval air station perched between that interesting pool on the one hand, and the beautiful estuary of the Helford on the other, naturally arouses misgivings. The procedure adopted in the past has done nothing to allay those misgivings. Are these charming little waters suddenly to be taken from the enjoyment of the public, who will be informed of their loss only when it will be too late to repair it?

Further, what is the relation between Culdrose and Predannack? Why is it necessary to have these two large airfields so close together? Is it true that the Predannack airfield is to be disused? The Nissen huts there have already fallen into a dilapidated condition, as anyone can see from the Lizard main road. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that some of the Predannack buildings have their walls flapping in the wind. The area is beginning to look almost like a deserted battlefield, with dozens of empty buildings, heaps of rusty barbed wire, and a general clutter of miscellaneous equipment. If Predannack is going to be given up, why could not that site have been utilized by the Royal Navy, and the fertile land nearer Helston left under cultivation?

I must not trouble your Lordships' House with further details, but I have been anxious to call attention to this calamity in Cornwall as a sad example of the casualties inflicted on the English countryside by training and defence schemes. I am fully aware that good training and defence schemes are necessary, but I would submit that the Government really must be more economical of the country's land. Granted that the Armed Forces of the Crown must be trained, it is surely necessary to divide their training into two parts. One part should include personal fitness, the use of instruments and such like small-scale activities. The other part, in connexion with large-scale operations, should be kept distinct. Provision for the first can be found in this small island, but not provision for the second. We can in fact find room for two things here, but not for three. We can find room for personal training, and also for the fortifications and prepared areas essential to the defence of the country in the event of sudden attack, but we cannot find room for exercises on a vast scale. We cannot afford Bodmin Moor or Dartmoor or any other of the few remaining open spaces of this country.

In the debate in your Lordships' House on November 21 the noble Lord, Lord Pakenharn, assured your Lordships that the country had been "thoroughly combed''—those were his words—for suitable training areas. But if that is so, then surely the Government should make up their mind to find larger areas overseas. I do not think the extra expense involved will be excessive, and every day of the journey to and fro will provide valuable opportunity for training all the men concerned. It is not for me to pursue that subject any further; but I am very anxious, in the first place, to be assured that our sad loss of good land in Cornwall is not to be still further aggravated and, in the second place, to call attention to the Lizard disaster in the hope that, through vigilance and forethought, other valuable areas may be spared. I beg to move for Papers.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, I would say only a few words, as I was the Minister who was responsible for building the aerodromes to which the right reverend Prelate is now taking exception. They were built, quite rightly, because of necessity, because we needed them at that time. But I agree with the right reverend Prelate that we ought to have a statement from the Government as to what is going to be their policy on aerodromes. In that I entirely agree with him. At the same time I would pause for one moment for a word of warning and say: "Do not give up your aerodromes. They are just as important as the ports were in the war, when you wanted to expand your fleet. You may need them again. Do not be too careless in giving back to agriculture something which is very important to the country for its security."


My Lords, I should like, as a Cornishman, to say that I support the Motion moved by the right reverend Prelate. He has explained the situation so clearly that there is very little I can add, beyond stressing the fact that the district from the Lizard Peninsula to the Helford River is among the most beautiful parts of Cornwall, and it would be most regrettable if access to that district was curtailed. It is one of the most beautiful spots in England, and I say this without fear of contradiction, in spite of the noble Lord who resides in the neighbouring county of Devon. Every summer Cornwall is subjected to a peaceful invasion by tens of thousands of people, known to us as foreigners; that is to say, people who come from other parts of England. Those people come from London, Bristol, and other large cities outside Cornwall, for bathing, boating, sea fishing, and occasionally Cornish cream. If they find difficulty in reaching their favourite haunt they will go further afield to Brittany and Normandy as soon as travel becomes easier and when the franc exchange becomes more favourable, as I presume it will. The money they would spend at home will then be spent elsewhere.

The right reverend Prelate, as he has told your Lordships, is Chairman of the Cornwall branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, of which I am a humble member, and he is a very active and energetic Chairman. The Council has an uphill fight these days. I feel sure that your Lordships will be in sympathy with its aims and objects and any help you can afford will be most welcome. A year or two ago the Admiralty cast covetous eyes on Bodmin Moor, and the right reverend Prelate was largely instrumental in starting the opposition which, I am glad to say, resulted in a rather half-baked scheme being withdrawn. I hope he will be equally successful this afternoon.


My Lords, I intend to intervene for one moment only because I happened to be in one of the Air Departments during the war, and I know what tremendous difficulties these Departments had in finding suitable sites for airfields. The site selected was always the best agriculture land in the district and always the most famous beauty spot. I am no Cornishman, but whether it was in Scotland or wherever it was, the site was always claimed to be a beauty spot. I would suggest, therefore, that His Majesty's Government should be very careful before releasing this particular airfield. It happens to be in the vicinity of one of our naval ports, and one has to have airfields for the Fleet Air Arm near where the ships are based so that exercises can take place. I suggest that we should think very seriously before releasing this airfield.


My Lords, I intervene for one moment only as one who has visited that particular district for more than fifty years, and walked over it again and again. I would say that this is quite literally one of the most beautiful places in the world. I know that very often such a description is not justified, but I will stand in defence of the Lizard anywhere. I will also say it is most deplorable that there are these two great aerodromes. They were no doubt necessary in the war, but now they stand, to all outward appearance, looking desolate and neglected, and they do stop a number of most interesting and enjoyable walks. I venture to plead with those who are in authority to be content with only one of these aerodromes, and that not the one which is most southerly and nearest Lizard Point, the part which I look upon as best of all.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I, like my noble friend opposite, did not intend to take part in this debate. In a previous debate on this subject I put a restraint on myself and did not get up to speak but went out. These protests against training grounds are nothing new; they happened before the war. We have heard a lot about Purbeck and the South Dorset coast, and we were told the swans would desert the swanneries and go away if aeroplanes flew over them. But not a bit of it; they became accustomed to the aeroplanes just as everybody else did. When we found an island suitable for a target right away from the coast we were told, when we were going to use it for bombing, that it was a nesting place for birds and we could not use it for practice. I myself had abusive letters when, in 1935, I fired guns more than twenty miles off the coast. Letters came accusing me of wasting money by firing guns that would never be wanted again.

People talk about Service Ministries as if they were very wicked, and as if all they had to say was that they wanted an area and they had to have it. In the previous debate the noble Viscount, the Leader of the Opposition, came into action and mentioned doctors. He said he was on a panel and the Service Departments stuck out for so many doctors for a certain number of persons, and got a great number more than the public could have. That is not the Service Ministries' fault. They are there to look after their own men and to see they get the best attention. If the Government of the day give it to them they get it, and if the Government do not give it to them they do not get it. It is usually only in war-time that they can get it.

We always get the objection "They cannot have my beauty spot, they have disturbed my walk to the Lizard." People want to hustle them out of the county and send them somewhere else, anywhere, irrespective of amenities. They are simply to be sent to where they are not disturbing wild fowl or the beauty spots of Cornwall! They are to be sent to some wild place where there are no facilities, no amenities, or anything else. I think this outcry against the Services started a little too soon after the war to be in quite good taste.

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, my task is a very easy one because I think that the case has been so well put by the noble Lords who have recently spoken. There is very little more that I need say. I come from the centre of the South Wales coalfields where much of the scenery, if I may say so, is marred by colliery pits and one thing and another. Yet I am absolutely convinced that if an aerodrome or a training ground were put right in the centre of that area there would be complaints about the destruction of the amenities and the beauties of what was once, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful of the valleys and glens in South Wales. I deeply deplore that we have to put aerodromes anywhere, and, indeed, that we have to have dockyards anywhere and that we have to get training grounds anywhere. But we have to get them. Conditions are such that it is absolutely essential in the interests of the country that we shall have dockyards and training grounds and aerodromes in various parts of the country.

For the Western part of England in any way to bemoan the fact that we are going to put a naval aerodrome there surprises me very much when I remember the tradition of Western England. It has become a part of our defensive system in this country that the Air Arm, even in the Navy, is regarded as being absolutely essential, and there is no part of the country which I think should have welcomed a connexion with the Royal Navy more than the Western part of England. Not that that was a consideration which entered into the choice of site at Culdrose. This site offered certain advantages for the special requirements of naval air training. The proposal for the making of the aerodrome on this site was agreed to by the Ministers of Agriculture and Town and Country Planning, and it was reported that, although the land was not of exceptional but of fair quality, it was felt that it was the most suitable site for the kind of aerodrome which we required.

Work on the airfield was started in the spring of 1944, when this nation was confronted with very great difficulties, but when the war ended the Admiralty gave further consideration to the altered situation. At the same time the Admiralty considered a request from the Ministry of Health to make available the maximum number of men for housing. The question as to whether the site should be retained as a permanent training ground was carefully weighed and it was decided that retention was necessary. At the same time, the Admiralty responded to the request which was made by the Ministry of Health for the release of a proportion of the personnel employed on this aerodrome, and about 1,000 men were released. Although the release of these people slowed down the work considerably it was never intended to abandon the scheme altogether. It was felt that it was essential for the proper functioning of the defence of this country.

At that time, the total expenditure incurred by the Admiralty on the construction of the works on this aerodrome was not less than £1,000,000. The position to-day is that progress, with a reduced number of men, has been made to the extent that between 85 per cent. and 90 per cent. of the approved major works are now complete; these include runways, living accommodation and the general levelling and grassing of the site. So near completion is this airfield that the date for arrival of the station advance party has been recently fixed for mid-January and the full commissioning date for mid-April, 1947. We are agreed that this airfield is essential to the permanent peace-time requirements of naval aviation. Originally it was intended to be the School of Naval Air Warfare, but owing to complaints which were received from local residents over the Admiralty's use of ranges, this school will be transferred to another airfield in Scotland. So it cannot be said that the Admiralty do not take into consideration representations which are made to them. The functions of Culdrose will now he naval advanced flying and training of aircrew men and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve observers. It will also accommodate first-line squadrons when disembarked.

It should be pointed out that before Culdrose was chosen, consultations took place with the Air Ministry—as the noble Lord would, of course know—as to whether they could release an existing airfield for naval use. But they were unable to do so. In the Air Ministry there is an Airfield Board which has a complete record of all available sites for airfields, and they were consulted as to the most suitable one which could be obtained for the purpose for which Culdrose is required. Throughout the war the airfields provided for naval aviation were of temporary construction and built on the principle of dispersal. Culdrose is now going to be one of the permanent and the best of our naval air stations. It has been constructed to take all types of naval aircraft and is built on a concentrated and not on a dispersed plan. This will mean considerable economies in administration, for it will enable us to give up two airfields—namely, Hinstock and Peplow in Shropshire. These two were some short distance apart but they worked as one unit. The combined area of those two airfields is far greater than that which is taken at Culdrose I should like your Lordships to know that no fewer than eighteen naval airfields in this country have already been disposed of and handed back or are awaiting disposal. Others will be given up in the course of next year. It is intended to give up emergency landing ground at Treligga, North Cornwall, when the School of Naval Air Warfare is transferred.

The centre of the airfield which we are now considering is some distance away from Helston, and the nearest point to Helford River is about a mile away. I do assure your Lordships that the Admiralty has no designs for the use of Helford River or Loe Pool in any way whatsoever, and no further extensions of the existing station boundary are contemplated other than possibly a very few small plots of land for radar and radio installations. For these, I have been assured, not more than about five acres of land will be required. These sites will be decided upon after consultation with the Cornwall Joint Planning Committee. They will not be decided upon until that Committee have been fully consulted.

The Admiralty, of course, have received complaints concerning the making of the airfield in this area. Two organizations particularly, the Ramblers Association and the Society for the Preservation of Rural England, have complained to the Admiralty concerning the taking over of this site. I regret that, as is inevitable with sites of this kind, some lengths of public road and footpaths have had to be closed; but these, for the most part, with the exception of the footpaths, have been re-provided by alternative routes, so that access to the Lizard and Helford River has not in any way been cut off. The R.A.C. suggested, when the old Helston-Lizard Road was closed, that traffic on the new road would be restricted when flying began at Culdrose. I am pleased to assure your Lordships that that is not the case.

The right reverend Prelate asked why it was necessary to have a Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose in addition to the Royal Air Force Airfield at Predannack about six miles away. The answer is that the Royal Air Force are not able to transfer Predannack to the Navy because it is one, so we are informed, of their key stations. Even if Predannack had been available for the Navy in August, 1945, its buildings, which are of temporary construction and widely dispersed, would have needed to be replaced at considerable expense after a few years. The redesigning of the station in the concentrated form which would have been essential for peace-time administration would have required heavy expenditure on re-siting of the main services such as water, drainage and electricity. Hangars additional to those provided for war-time purposes would also have been necessary in peace-time as we could not contemplate leaving aircraft out in the open. I should perhaps add that consultations are now taking place with the Ministry of Civil Aviation with a view to the use of part of Culdrose Aerodrome by civil aircraft.

I can well understand the feelings of local residents who see part of their land and countryside, which they would like to keep free and open or to use for agriculture, taken up by airfields. For their part, the Admiralty are anxious to do all they can to mitigate the effect of the presence of the airfield on the life and amenities of the local residents. Although it is impossible to replace and throw open the paths through the airfield, it is hoped that when the scars of construction have disappeared the station itself, being neat and orderly, will not too severely mar the countryside. Your Lordships, I am sure, realize that in these days airfields for both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy are absolutely essential to the defence and protection of our island and our countrymen. It is exceedingly difficult to find locations for air stations which fulfil the varied and specialized needs of national defence, but we shall continue to do our utmost to ensure that these vital needs are met with the minimum interference to the industry and amenities of the country.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful for the answer of the noble Viscount. It contains a good deal to reassure us, and I should like to say that we in Cornwall already have the closest association with His Majesty's Navy, and if we are to be expropriated by anybody we would as soon be expropriated by the Royal Navy as by anybody else. At the same time, we do regret that the authorities feel it necessary to have both these aerodromes so close together in the Lizard Peninsula, and if the aerodrome at Predannack is a key station of the Royal Air Force, I must say the key is getting a little rusty. May I ask the noble Viscount whether something could be done to improve the appearance of the vast corrugated steel hangars that now mark the sides of Culdrose aerodrome? If they must be a permanency it would be a great advantage if the twenty-four steel hangars, so huge and black and forbidding, could be painted grey. That is a much better colour for Cornwall than either the black or the red buildings which are appearing upon that particular aerodrome—buildings which, I am sorry to say, have replaced trees, in which that part of Cornwall is sadly lacking. May I say how sincerely we welcome the establishment of that Inter-Departmental Committee to which reference was made in your Lordships' House on November 21, and to which all these questions are referred? We eagerly look to that Committee for some protection in the future, and we shall watch very carefully the results of their work. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.