HL Deb 13 May 1970 vol 310 cc545-7

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the Ministry of Defence is selling by auction in June of this year, 656 acres of Otmoor in Oxfordshire which were requisitioned by the Air Ministry in 1920; and if so:—

  1. 1. Who were the owners of the land at the time it was requisitioned;
  2. 2. Whether the land has been offered back to the former owners;
  3. 3. Whether the land was common land at the time it was requisitioned; and
  4. 4. Whether this land should not be established as a Nature Reserve in view of its rare flora and fauna.]


My Lords, some 563 acres of Ministry of Defence land on Otmoor will be offered for sale by public auction, probably this autumn. Another 93 acres of privately owned adjacent land is on offer and will be sold at the same auction because this is likely to be of mutual benefit to both vendors. The 563 acres were purchased between 1931 and 1933 to provide a bombing range for the Royal Air Force. There were eight former owners. One was the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and another the Parish of Horton-cum-Studley; and the other six were private persons. All eight, or their successors, were offered back their land, and three expressed no interest. Of the remaining five, three dropped out on grounds of price, and the other two for other reasons. In accordance with the Crichel Down procedure, the land will be offered on the open market, and the former owners will be able to bid. The land was not common land when the Air Ministry purchased it in the early 1930s, although there is historical evidence that it was until the Inclosure Acts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

My Lords, the scientific importance of this land has been assessed by the Nature Conservancy, now a component body of the Natural Environment Research Council, who have powers under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, as amended by the Science and Technology Act 1965, to establish and maintain nature reserves. In their view, it is an interesting area of marshland which serves as a feeding ground for a variety of birds and contains some examples of locally rare flora, and accordingly about 2,000 acres of land on Otmoor were notified in 1952 as a site of special scientific interest under the Act. It is not considered that the scientific importance of the site is sufficiently high in the national context to qualify for its establishment as a national nature reserve.


My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend for such a full reply. May I ask him whether, in the event of former owners not wanting to bid for the land, it would be possible to offer it—notwithstanding what he has said—to the National Trust or the Nature Conservancy Board, in view of the flora and fauna and the historic association which this part of Otmoor has with the rest of Otmoor?


My Lords, under existing procedures the land must be offered at public auction. It cannot be sold privately. However, I believe that the only development that the local authority would be likely to permit would be agriculture or forestry, and this would not interfere with the usage which the noble Lord wishes to see preserved.


My Lords, in view of that, if the land is put up for auction and it is sold, are there likely to be any restrictions on the use and development of the land?


My Lords, that is of course for the local authority to decide. But, as I have said, it is improbable that anything except agriculture or forestry would be permitted.


My Lords, assuming that I am right in understanding that this land is being offered back to the former owners (who may or may not have shown interest, but who may have second thoughts), may I ask the noble Lord whether he recognises that this is a most welcome development in the preservation, as it were, of the so-called Crichel Down procedure, and that this procedure should be maintained unless a proper public announcement is made beforehand?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. We are very mindful of the need for following the procedures correctly, and although most of the owners, or their descendants, have in fact renounced provisionally their interest in the land in order to enable them to bid at public auction, the land is being offered in the original parcels and will not be lumped together without their specific agreement.


My Lords, could the Minister inform the House whether or not it is a fact that in any case the three projected routes for the continuation of the M.40 all go across Otmoor?


My Lords, that is another question.

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