HL Deb 02 December 1980 vol 415 cc360-82

4.51 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have for the future of Wisley Airport.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Unstarred Question concerning the future of Wisley Airfield standing in my name on the Order Paper. Wisley Airfield must be well know to many of us. It lies alongside the Wisley Horticultural Gardens which we often have much pleasure in visiting. How delighted I am that my noble friend Lord Aberconway, who is chairman of the board of the Gardens, is here tonight to make his maiden speech on this particular theme. Wisley stands on the western edge of an extensive, attractive area of open common land which lies between Cobham, Ockham and Ripley, the Wisley and Ockham Commons in particular. It lies right in the middle of London's green belt. This area of open land, mostly common land, is the first major stretch of open countryside for the Londoner to enjoy when he comes out of London for the weekend or for the evening in summer. Its preservation from development is crucial to the whole concept of the London green belt. The London green belt is a belt of land of about 10 to 15 miles in width round Greater London and it is literally the lungs of London for the Londoner to come out and see a bit of green grass and have the right to walk there. It should be added that the site of the Wisley Airfield lies in the middle of a dense network of footpaths and bridleways linking the Thames with the North Downs. These are all public rights of way.

Great consternation has been aroused in Surrey generally and the Guildford Borough Council particularly by the proposal to develop the Wisley Airfield as an executive jet airport by an commercial company called Jenstate. I understand that a public inquiry has been fixed for 20th January for the appeal of the developer to be heard against the Guildford Borough Council's refusal of consent. A factor which arouses particular concern is the breach of the past undertaking by the Property Services Agency, which owns the site on behalf of the Government, with regard to the disposal of the airfield, when no longer required for test-flight purposes by BAC or the responsible Government departments. BAC gave up their lease in 1972.

The history of the airfield is that it was originally requisitioned in wartime in 1943 for wartime purposes and from that time there has been a clear undertaking that when it was no longer required for these purposes it would be returned for its pre-war agricultural use. Over the intervening years this undertaking has been re-stated from time to time by various Government departments who have been responsible for authorising this special occupancy. The local authorities, the Surrey County Council and the Guildford Borough Council, insisted that when the property was sold back to its pre-war owner, Lord Lytton, all the buildings and hard standings, including the runway, must be removed to ensure a return to its agricultural use before the war and to preserve the general policy of conserving the green belt. More recently, after a good deal of discussion, these conditions were con-confirmed and a letter was sent by the PSA on 15th November 1977 to the effect that Wisley Airfield would not be sold until both the buildings and the runway had been removed. Further letters were written in 1978 confirming this and, finally, there was a letter from the junior Minister of the Department of the Environment Mr. Ken Marks, on 6th March last year (1979) to the Dorking Member of Parliament, Sir George Sinclair, making the same confirmation.

It was thus a great surprise to everybody when the axe fell on 13th July last year with a letter from the PSA stating that the sale would be made with the runway still in situ. This decision by the PSA makes the site available for future use as a commercial airport, in direct breach of all the undertakings over the previous 36 years and in direct breach of the major conservation considerations for the green belt. My noble friend Lord Onslow will deal in more detail with the particular villainies of the breach.

As the PSA is part of the D of E, public confidence is seriously concerned for the impartiality of the appeal procedure to the Secretary of State for the D of E at the public inquiry next month. Therefore, I must ask my noble friend Lord Trefgarne—and may I thank him for appearing once again on the Front Bench (he seems to be in continuous occupation of it today) to deal with this tricky debate—to give us an unequivocal assurance tonight that when my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, acting in his quasi-judicial capacity, comes to consider the merits of this appeal, he will regard the action of the PSA in this matter not as part of his own department but as an independent authority acting on its own account.

To the merits of the appliation to develop Wisley Airfield as a general aviation airport with particular emphasis on executive jets—and I understand the proposal is for air movements of 30,000 per annum so that if will be a busy airport—there are two objections. First, on air traffic control grounds, I should like my noble friend to tell us what advice the National Air Traffic Services has given on this issue. Wisley lies about half-way between Heathrow and Gatwick. Presumably both main air traffic routes and stacking operations are using the air space overhead all the time. What are the dangers involved? What restrictions on flying from Wisley would be needed if it were allowed to become a general aviation airport?

In this connection I should inform the House that American experience shows that a number of mid-air collisions over New York and Los Angeles were mostly caused by general aviation planes, mostly jets. My noble friend has much professional knowledge of these matters and can no doubt confirm the danger of mixing general aviation, small plane flights, with main traffic routes in this way.

Finally, I come to what I believe is the major objection to this development which would be a savage breach in green belt conservation policy. Since the 1947 Planning Act, all Governments have wholeheartedly supported the conservation of the green belt surrounding the vast area of Greater London. The county and district authorities, with their responsibilities for local planning, have fought a vigorous campaign during the past three decades to repel the repeated attacks of developers on both the inside and the outside rim of the green belt.

I need hardly remind your Lordships that incentive in terms of cash to change the existing agricultural use of the land into residential or industrial development is enormous. Accordingly, the campaign is fought with no holds barred by the developers, and the defence by local authorities has been skilful and resolute over the years, strong in the knowledge that almost invariably if a developer went to appeal his proposal to develop would be rejected by the Secretary of State.

The present Secretary of State has as recently as last August declared his firm support for the conservation of London's green belt as one of the basic principles of the strategic plan for the South-East region. In a letter dated 7th August this year, written to me as chairman of the Standing Conference on London and South-East Regional Planning, he said this: There should continue to be the strongest restraint on development in the metropolitan green belt". It could not be more unequivocally stated than that. This letter has of course been published and it covers a whole range of matters to do with the strategic plan.

It is therefore clear beyond a peradventure that the proposed development of a busy commercial airport—with the inevitable service industries and commerce which would necessarily grow up round it—at Wisley would constitute the single biggest breach of the green belt, and Government policy supporting it, since the policy was established a third of a century ago. Throughout these years I have had an active part in helping to defend it. It is therefore pertinent to ask my noble friend to state whether the Government's official policy on conserving the green belt as stated by the Secretary of State in his letter to me last August still stands in the unequivocal terms which I have read out. That is my first question to my noble friend.

Furthermore, as the PSA's decision last year to break all past undertakings to remove the runway before sale back to the previous owners alone makes this major development physically possible, I must ask my noble friend to tell us whether the Secretary of State was informed before the PSA took the decision and, if so, his reason for approving it. I shall await my noble friend's answers with great interest because I feel that they are of paramount importance to all the people of Surrey, and indeed all the people of London, in preserving this essential amenity for all Londonders—the green belt.

5.4 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, for putting down this Unstarred Question. He did it in his usual gracious manner, and his dulcet tones are always loved in this House. If I do not follow him in the same moderation but have some anger at what has transpired, I know that the House will not misunderstand me.

In this very House, while the Local Government Bill was being debated, I endeavoured, together with some of my noble friends, to say that the Secretary of State was, under that Bill, being given powers which were too great. They were too arbitrary and too dictatorial. I want to repeat more than once in the course of my remarks that I do not propose to try to make any political capital whatsoever out of what I am trying to say. The noble Lord opposite smiles but I intend to keep to that with great seriousness.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I was smiling at something else.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I always hope that the noble Lord is smiling at something that I have said which is witty, and I am sorry if that is not so. We were assured from the Benches opposite that local government could always trust in the sagacity, moderation, judgment and justice of a Secretary of State, and that indeed one need have no apprehensions and the public could similarly be assured.

I repeat what I said before: the importance of the matter that we are considering today lies not so much in the points made with such force in regard to amenities, in regard to the need to preserve the green belt, which were put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent. The importance of this discussion is whether or not Government departments, of whatever political colour—and I repeat it—are to be trusted by local authorities and by members of the public, upon whom they are entitled to rely.

Having said that, may I just tell your Lordships a little of the history that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, was not able to give because he was circumscribed by the very good time limit that he imposed upon himself. The correspondents in this case ought to be heard. They speak for themselves. This agricultural land is in the centre of one of the lovely spots of England. It is so right that reference was made to the noble Lord, Lord Aberconway, who will be speaking subsequently. The House has waited 27 years to hear him and I know that it is going to be worth while to have waited all that time.

From the very beginning, the local authorities were assured at the time of requisition during the war that this land would not only be used, after the national purpose had been served, for agricultural land, but that it would be sold to the local authority. Nobody knows better than the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that there was a happening in 1954 in which, if I may say so, his name emerged unscathed, as did that of his noble colleague who is so much respected in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, who at that time, if I remember correctly, was a junior Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture. We all remember that famous case where a Minister of great repute did something which is not so often done these days on matters of honour.

The Minister resigned because he felt that his civil servants had behaved in a way for which he had to accept responsibility. It was a very respectable resignation. What that matter then meant was that herafter if land was requisitioned it could not be sold to anybody else if the previous owner prior to the requisitioning was anxious to acquire it back or there was a successor of his who wished to do so. As a result of that, the local authority, after 1954, could no longer, because of the Crichel Down code, as it has come to be known, demand the right of first refusal to this land. But the undertakings that were firmly given in order to ensure that this could be used only as agricultural land, were that as soon as the user for national purposes ceased, the hangars would be taken away, the buildings would be taken away and the runway would be taken away: a very important matter, and one which, I am told—and I ask the noble Minister to correct me if I am wrong—would cost some £7 million to put in motion. I would ask the House to remember that figure against a figure that I shall mention in a moment.

There was also a firm undertaking that rights of way, which were so valuable at that time, over the agricultural land would be restored as they were prior to the requisitioning. I hope not to take too long, but this is a matter of such importance. I repeat that I am not concerned whether it is a Labour Minister, a Conservative Minister, or any other Minister: I am concerned only for the good of government, whatever be the political complexion.

May I just refer your Lordships to some correspondence dated 16th February 1960 from the Ministry of Aviation to the clerk of Surrey County Council. This refers to the right of way—still not restored, my Lords—and this is what the letter says: I note that the county council, Guildford Rural District Council and the Ockham Parish Council have decided not to object to the making of an order— I am leaving out some words which are unnecessary— stopping up the public rights of way across Wisley airfield on condition that the Ministry gives an undertaking to restore the public rights of way when the airfield use ceases. I have to inform you that in the peculiar circumstances relating to Wisley airfield the Ministry accepts this condition and hereby gives the undertaking that in the event of the airfield becoming no longer used in connection with the development and testing of aircraft, the Ministry will arrange for these public rights of way to be reinstated to a condition similar to that before the airfield was constructed, and rededicated for public use".

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do apologise for interrupting the noble Lord, but it might enable him to cut his speech rather shorter—not that it is too long—if I tell him that we quite accept the undertaking on the rights of way.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, how delighted I am to hear that, because your Lordships will now hear what transpired. I am surprised at the Minister's quick intervention, because no doubt he will as quickly intervene to answer my next point. It is this: this land has been sold back to the successor of the original owner who, in my judgment is blameless in this matter—I refer to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton—in June of this year for a figure that he revealed in the press today of just over £200,000. It was sold to him on one day, with exchange of contracts and completion within 24 hours. As a struggling member of the solicitors' profession who has been endeavouring to persuade Treasury Solicitors and the legal departments of Ministries to complete a transaction within months, I wish to proclaim to the House something which ought to be written up in The Guinness Book of Records: that this exchange of contracts and completion took place within 24 hours. And, my Lords, do you know what explanation was given by the Minister in another place? It was that he had to do it in order to avoid a caution being registered to effect protection of the right of way that the noble Lord the Minister now says he regards as being binding upon him. The noble Lord the Minister will answer that point, if not at once then hereafter, but I will give him the opportunity to answer it now if he wishes—

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will be precise as to where my honourable friend said that in the other place.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, indeed I will; and, if the House will forgive me, I will revert to it hereafter and I promise to read the precise portion of Hansard. I have here a photostat copy; which perhaps I can read now, as it might be more convenient. I am referring to the debate in another place on 24th July 1980 on the Motion for the Adjournment, at col. 909: In a Written Question I asked my honourable friend"— and I quote from Mr. Keith Wickenden— when the transfer took place. The answer was on 20th June, three weeks after notice of legal caution had been received from the Surrey county council. It was contracted and completed on the same day. I have never known that happen even in the commercial field, where things happen fast, let alone with the Government legal services". Then in reply the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg, said this, at col. 912: My hon. Friend referred to the proposed registration of a caution against the registered title of the land by the Surrey county council. He felt that it was a somewhat unfair procedure that the PSA should have completed the sale prior to the lodging of that caution. Again, that decision was taken by me, and my officials were instructed to expedite the sale so as to avoid the Government's intentions being frustrated by an act by a local authority—these are the important words—which had no legal justification. I stand firmly by that decision".

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it might be convenient if I put right the noble Lord's mind on that particular point. The sale was indeed completed on the day the noble Lord mentions, but that had nothing to do with the undertaking to restore the rights of way, which was a valid undertaking and which remains. It was done in order to prevent the sale being frustrated altogether, because had the caution become effective I understand that the purchasers would not have wished to proceed with the purchase.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am covered with amazement, and I wonder really whether the noble Lord the Minister, who has such a reputation for clarity and for never even getting anywhere near misleading the House, wishes to conduct the argument in this way. But possibly I will be able to abbreviate this part of my submission to the House by saying that I personally do not understand—and no doubt the noble Lord will explain to the House—what it means when a Minister says he accepts that he has a responsibility to reimpose and reconstruct a right of way, and then, when a local authority endeavours to protect that right by registering a caution, he completes a purchase within 24 hours to avoid the local authority putting upon the title the very obligation which the Minister now says that he has. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, with his lucid mind, will be able to overcome the difficulty, but I can only say with all humility that, with my humble mind, I cannot. I find it absolutely—I do not want to use too strong a word and I was going to say "reprehensible"—that where an undertaking is admitted in this House to be binding, somebody can say that it is proper for a Minister to rush through a sale in order to stop what he regards as a proper undertaking being registered against the very land that the Minister is seeking to sell. To me, this is something that is novel in the governmental life of this country and I do not want to see it repeated. I was going to read some more correspondence, but I can observe the clock and—

Lord Bruce of Donington

Go on!

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, my noble friends are always very kind to me, but noble Lords opposite are possibly not so willing. But perhaps your Lordships will take it from me—and I am perfectly prepared to read the correspondence hereafter—that time and time again the promises have been repeated to the local authorities concerned: "Don't worry. The runway will be broken up. There will be a separate contract to take up the runway. Thank you, local authorities, for telling us how we can take up the runway without having to pay somebody to do it, because somebody will pay us for taking up the runway as a result of the scrap that can be obtained" Then, suddenly, a sale is announced and takes place within 24 hours for a figure which is now public property—and all credit to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for having written to the press today to reveal the price—of £211,000—

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, if the noble Lord will give way, I think the figure was £307,000 for 270 acres.

Lord Mishcon

Yes, my Lords. I am much obliged for that correction. I know that it works out at £1,100 an acre. I emphasise that there is nothing improper in what the noble Earl has done. But the Minister could not wait for the result of the planning inquiry, although it was fixed for January, and the land was sold in June. I am not talking about the noble Earl, Lord Lytton—trading people, a company, have put in the application—but is it realised that this land, with this runway, is worth somewhere in the region of £10 million if this planning permission is given? It cost £7 million to put in that runway, and the value of the land for civil airport purposes must be another £3 million. If the Minister thinks that I am astronomically wrong about that, then he will say so and I shall be reprimanded in the course of his speech.

It is not only a question of transactions of this kind, which are alien to our tradition—I put it in that very direct way—with contracts and completions being rushed through to defeat the proper registration of things against title by a respectable and much respected local authority. There are people who purchased houses in this area, believing in the assurances that were given by government that all this would be restored for agricultural land purposes. They have been sorely let down as a result of believing in government. The local authorities have been let down.

I cannot comment on an appeal which is now sub judice. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent, gave very forceful reasons as to why many of us pray that the planning permission will fail. But we cannot say any more about that, and we cannot debate it in the House today. What we can debate is the breach of solemn undertakings. The runway had never been taken up in spite of promises that it would be done before there was any question of a sale, and the rights of way have not been put back in spite of undertakings that have been given. This is a sorry chapter in the history, which I regard as a very fine history, of the department which the noble Lord has the sorry task of defending this afternoon.

5.25 p.m.

Lord Aberconway

My Lords, you can readily appreciate, having enjoyed the devastating eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, the strength of feeling that brings me before you to speak for the first time in—as you must now be tired of hearing—27 years. I hope that your Lordships will overlook any failures on my part to observe the verbal niceties and usages of this House. I address your Lordships more particularly as President of the Royal Horticultural Society, whose garden at Wisley lies at its nearest point to Wisley airfield some 400 yards away in a direct line with the runway, just across the other side of the A3 road.

Wisley is a beautiful garden—some say, the most beautiful garden in England. In the 12 months just ended, it gave pleasure and instruction to some 411,000 visitors. Had this flying been taking place then, their peace and contentment would have been rudely shattered. I am told that 30,000 aircraft movements is the likely height to which the traffic at Wisley airfield will build up in due course, on seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. That makes, on average, a landing or a take-off every 12 minutes. The figure of 30,000 is not mine. It is the figure put forward by the proponents of this project as a support and justification, if you please, for their activity. A visit to Wisley Garden in these circumstances would be not a pleasure but a penance.

We all recognise that environmentally distasteful and destructive measures must sometimes be implemented. We recognise that, and we support them so long as they are done on someone else's doorstep and not our own. That is not my argument this afternoon. My argument, or this part of it, is the the airfield's proximity to Wisley Garden and the great number; 400,000 or more—of visitors to Wisley Garden make this issue a very special case.

The Royal Horticultural Society has spent considerable sums of its Fellows' money on improving, developing and extending this garden. It did this relying on the many repeated assurances—officially given, freely given, over a considerable period—that the runway would be removed, as the noble Lord has said, once test flying and development flying had ceased. They ceased in 1972, when the last of the aircraft built at Vickers Weybridge—the old Brook-lands, with its short runway—skipped over the few miles to Wisley with its longer runway. Then all flying ceased.

I am told that a maiden speech should not be controversial. What I have finally to say to your Lordships is not controversial. It brooks no dispute. This is a shoddy, shabby story, as you will appreciate from what the noble Lord has said, and, in justification of what I say, my noble friend and kinsman, Lord Onslow, will, I understand, presently be unfolding to you in further detail this saga of broken promises.

To my mind, this case is on a par with that of Crichel Down. They are not precisely similar but the story is no less horrific. Crichel Down was a case where land was not sold back to the family from whom it was orignially requisitioned; this is a case where the land, when it was sold back, was sold back free from those restrictions which the Government had promised would be imposed, restrictions on which the Royal Horticultural Society relied and upon which many other people also relied in buying land or property nearby. I have no wish to see the family from whom the land was requisitioned being permanently deprived of it. What I cannot understand is that it has been passed back to them without any restrictions and in a state physically in which it can be put to very much more lucrative use than ever it could have been put to as agricultural land.

My Lords, this is a red hot potato straight from the soil of Crichel Down. I earnestly appeal to the Minister, when the report of his inspector on the forthcoming appeal comes to his desk, to refuse that appeal and thereby to avoid the name of Wisley Airfield being inscribed alongside that of Crichel Down on the roll of dishonour of government and civil service.

5.33 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, the pleasure of congratulating a good maiden speaker is certainly enhanced by the fact that the maiden speech was made by a kinsman. As to what he will be like when he is controversial I do admit to some inside knowledge. The fact that for 27 years my noble friend has not made a maiden speech and now has decided so to do on Wisley shows how strong are his feelings and the feelings of those of us who live and have our being near this airfield. The noble Lord, Lord Aberconway, is not a man of straw. He is, as he has said, the president of the Royal Horticultural Society; he is chairman of English China Clays; a director of the National Westminster Bank and of Westland Aircraft. He was chairman of John Brown and is deputy chairman of Alliance and London Insurance. He also runs—and runs well—a large estate and garden in North Wales. I produce these curricula vitae not to embarrass him but to indicate to your Lordships the seriousness of his speech and the weight that should be attached to it, apart from his native eloquence.

My noble friend Lord Nugent is the most honourable and loyal of Conservative Privy Councillors—and I do not say that in the sense that Mark Antony said that Brutus and Cassius were honourable men, to go on to stab him in the back. I say it with total conviction. For him to express the degree of concern that he has on the action of a Conservative Government is not perhaps unprecedented, but the use of the word "villainies" by him certainly is and it must be judged in the light of his fierce loyalty. I am especially grateful to him for putting down this Question. He is a man of strong and forthright speech; a velvet glove but a steel hand are obvious. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, was devastating.

My Lords, Wisley, as your Lordships now realise, was requisitioned in 1943 and pledges were given after the war to sell to the Surrey County Council. But as Russia proved a menace and post-war reconstruction was hard Surrey County Council agreed, with misgivings, to its continued use and the extension of its runways. The aircraft noise warning signs came down in 1972 and flying ceased. Since then Surrey County Council has been trying to get the hangars and runways pulled down as promised and the land returned to agriculture. It is accepted that, if the Crichel Down code applies, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has the first right to buy. Neither Surrey County Council nor the Guildford Borough Council are in the agricultural business. It suits neither Mr. Twyford nor Mr. Watts to be seen walking around with gum-boots on and straw in their mouths. They would be quite happy for the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, or his successors to farm there indefinitely, but, a £100 company called Jenstate, with the support of the noble Earl, want to continue flying and to turn Wisley into an airport for executive and private flying with, as your Lordships already know, 30,000 take-offs and landings a year.

Private flying does not just consist of people buzzing gently about in Tiger Moths. There are private 707s belonging to Arab Sheiks and rich Americans; Lear Jets and BAC 1-11s are quite large aircraft, some of which are privately owned. Large numbers of British companies use executive jet aircraft and they would and could all use this airfield if planning permission is granted on appeal.

Wisley's airfield comprises 270 acres, as has already been said, approximately halfway between Gatwick and London Airports. It is within 400 yards of access to the new M.25 and, if I were Jenstate or the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, I would drool at the financial prospects. I would consider that, for my purposes of aviation—though I know nothing of air traffic control—it would be an ideal spot. Forty minutes from Central London. Mark you well, my Lords, I spoke from a narrow aviation point of view.

My remarks really fall into three groups: was the Government right to sell the airport before the planning inquiry set for January next year settled its future? Did they act in good faith? Did they obtain a fair price? Also did Wisley fall within the Crichel Down code?

The good faith argument must be faced first. I now quote from some of the letters from Government officials and Ministers and, if I repeat some things that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has said, I do it without apology because they must be repeated and hammered home into the heads of Ministers. On the 10th December 1947, Mr. Bickford of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning wrote and said: The Ministry of Supply consider they are justified in obtaining formal legal title—provided that they are prepared to offer it for sale to the Surrey Councy Council at such time as it is no longer to be used as an airfield". On 21st January 1948, Mr. Dowling, Ministry of Supply, wrote: This Department will offer its interest for sale to your Council at such time as Wisley Airfield is no longer required". The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has quoted the letter of 16th February 1960 and my noble friend Lord Trefgarne—who seems to have been on his feet nonstop today, and I must congratulate him on his energy—has acknowledged the undertaking on the question of public rights of way.

In October 1964 the runway was extended, one of the conditions of planning being a requirement— That all buildings and installations be demolished and removed and the site left in a clean and tidy condition by March 1988 and making the permission personal to BAC only". on 14th June 1977: It has been decided"— note the word "decided"— to include the runways as a separate lot in the proposed sale by tender of the assets at Wisley". This was not a civil servant, but Ken Marks, Under-Secretary of State in the Department of the Environment. Identical words appeared in a letter from the Property Services Agency on 17th June 1977 from a Mr. Garland. On 15th November, Mr. D. M. Brown of the Property Services Agency said: We do not propose to effect the sale of Wisley Airport until the removal of the building and runways has been completed". On 17th August, 1978, a new gentleman from the Property Services Agency, Mr. Fern, wrote: As soon as the other buildings are cleared we shall proceed with the sale of the runways". On 11th December 1978, Mr. Montgomery of the Property Services Agency gives a new undertaking to the same effect.

On 14th March 1979, Mr. Fern again reinforces and reiterates the letter of 11th December 1978. On 6th March 1979, Mr. Ken Marks again: It is the Property Services Agency's intention, following the removal of the hangars and buildings to invite tenders for the sale and removal of the runways". On 23rd May—and please note that date, my Lords, because there was a new Government—our friend Mr. Fern again: I have little to add to that which has already been said to the effect that unless we receive instructions to the contrary"— I shall come back to that a little later— our intention is still to follow the completion of the contract to remove the buildings with a contract to remove the runways". On 13th July 1979 poor Mr. D. M. Brown has to eat his words, but alas! he shows no embarrassment: It has now been decided that the disposal of the Government interest in the airfield should be effected as soon as possible … This means, of course, with the runways and associated hard-standings in situ". Interestingly, I received a letter from a gentleman living in one of the affected villages which said—I understand that in September 1979 the property Services Agency wrote to inquirers in the East Horsley area, When the airfield was originally acquired, it was necessary to close several public rights of way but a formal undertaking was given by the Ministry of Aviation in 1960 that these would be rededicated before the airfield was sold out of public ownership". I do not think they have been. Property Services Agency will implement that undertaking and is discussing with Guildford Borough and Surrey County Councils the action necessary". In an Adjournment Debate in another place on 24th July 1980, my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg, said: No undertaking was given to remove the runway". I must therefore think that Mr. Finsberg's advisers cannot have shown him a copy of any of these letters. If they had, I find it totally incomprehensible that he could have said what he did.

As is known, Surrey County Council attempted to enter a caution—Lord Mishcon has dealt at length with this—in the Land Registry to enable them to hold up the sale because of the 1947–48 promises to sell. Lord Lytton has behaved over this whole sorry affair with complete integrity, and I, like Lord Mishcon, make no criticism of him at all. In his circumstances, I think I would have attempted to do exactly the same thing. He heard of this and so he and the Property Services Agency completed the contract within 24 hours. Can my noble friend tell me of any other contract of sale which has been completed by the Property Services Agency within 24 hours?

The Under-Secretary of State said, again in the Adjournment Debate: That decision was taken by me, and my officials were instructed to expedite the sale so as to avoid the Government's intentions being frustrated by an act by a local authority". Is it not a sorry state of affairs that a Minister of the Crown resorts to the practice of avoiding, by legal contrivance, legal obligations which his department has undertaken to a local authority? Perhaps I might point out to your Lordships, if you did not already know it, that the treaty guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality was not a legally binding obligation, nor was the guarantee to Poland in 1939.

I have perhaps dealt with the subject of broken promises for too long, and to accuse one's own Government of this sort of behaviour is a most unhappy thing to have to do, especially when they are receiving a certain amount of criticism and having a hard time with their economic policies, and when they are led by such an admirable woman as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. But it appears that my honourable friend Mr. Finsberg has left undone those things which he ought to have done, and done those things which he ought not to have done". I will not go so far as to say that there is "no health in him" or that "he is a miserable offender". I may, however, think it.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, tells us that the land, all 270 acres of it, was sold to him at a price of £307,000 or £1,137 an acre. This would appear perfectly reasonable for land if it was certain that the land was subject to the Crichel Down Code. But, my Lords, I have grave doubts whether it was. The Crichel Down code as defined by Mr. Taverne in the House of Commons in January 1970, in vol. 794, No. 40 is as follows: Land is regarded as outside the scope of these arrangements (i.e. the Crichel Down Code) which are intended for land which is to continue in agriculture indefinitely". I suggest that if Jenstate are prepared to spend an estimated £30,000 on an appeal, they first of all do not intend this land to be used for agriculture indefinitely, if at all; and, secondly, that there was no "hope value" reflected in the price paid by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, to the Property Services Agency. Was there in the contract any clause saying that if planning consent were granted then the Crown would receive an added value? If not, why not?

It has been said that to remove the runways would prejudice the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial powers in appellate matters. I am absolutely convinced that failing to dig up the runways as promised is more prejudicial to the Minister making a sound judgment. He has positively encouraged Jenstate to hope that they will have some success with their appeal. He has further given away the value of the runway, 85,000 tonnes of saleable material for which, in 1977, a substantial public company was prepared to pay £19,987, and for some extraordinary reason, 50p.

To summarise, I suggest the Government have encouraged Jenstate with their appeal. By so doing they have put a hope value upon the land at Wisley airfield which has not under any circumstances been reflected in the purchase price; and by putting that hope value on Wisley airfield they have breached the condition of indefinite agricultural land use in the Crichel Down code. Therefore, the Secretary of State was not entitled to offer it to Lord Lytton for sale.

Furthermore, the Secretary of State has by his action made it impossible to reconcile his function as the appellate authority with his administrative function in ratifying the sale of that airfield. So the Minister has, by not determining the planning status before the sale, deprived the taxpayer of getting anything like the true value for his assets, and he has possibly handed large sums on a plate to a collection of businessmen who, having seen the opportunities, have acted upon them, totally and completely legitimately. I interject one criticism of Jenstate, which is to regret that they have hidden behind anonymity and the £100 company. After all, they have nothing to be ashamed of.

My Lords, I have this to say to the Secretary of State for the Environment, if he does not know it already. By the actions of his department he has aroused feelings of such intensity among the Surrey people of our neighbourhood which I honestly did not believe to be possible. The Ripley, Ockham and Wisley Conservative Association has withheld its contributions to constituency funds as its only method of protest, in spite of the extraordinarily co-operative and helpful attitude of its Member, Mr. Keith Wickenden.

Last Friday, the Surrey Advertiser had a small column saying that I would be happy to receive letters on the subject of Wisley airport, as it was being discussed in your Lordships' House today. They arrived by every post; they were delivered round by hand. They all, except for one, complained either at the prospect of an airfield or at the duplicity of the Government, or both. This was not Mr. Arthur Scargill on a flying picket; this was not a rent-a-mob crowd. All classes, all ages and both sexes wrote: an ex-president of the Law Society, a retired brigadier of 33 years' service, a lifelong Conservative who talks of disgust at the Government's lack of honesty. From many people in East and West Horsley, Ockham, Ripley, East and West Clandon, Guildford, Send, Merrow, Hatchford, Effingham, Leatherhead, Esher, Burpham, Jacobs Well and Woking, letters came saying, in effect: "I shall be grateful for anything you can do to stop this airfield".

There is a frightened letter from an old and sick spinster. An architect wrote Ito the Secretary of State saying that successive Governments had promised to return the land to agricultural use and the present Government would obviously lose much support if the application were upheld. There is a letter from the headmaster of a middle school in Send whose final paragraph reads: I have never written a letter in protest before this on any matter. This, I think, proves how strongly I feel about this particular case". There is one from an ex-headmaster of a private school; several letters complaining about the intrusion upon the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens to which my noble friend Lord Aberconway has referred. There are bitter complaints about the abuse of green belt land, to which Lord Nugent has so eloquently alluded.

I received a copy of a letter to Mr. Heseltine from the sort of businessman whom the present Administration considers vital to the economic recovery of this country, saying: Having already reconsidered my position as a Conservative, if this final insult is allowed to proceed I am confident that I and a large proportion of the inhabitants of these villages will consider that your Government does not justify our further confidence". A letter from a private pilot said: and most important, it was the word of this government, Churchill no less, that promised this land would be returned as agricultural land once the war was over". These are extracts from but a small part of the mail I have received in two days. Five hundred people packed in and stood outside Ripley village hall to hear Keith Wickenden speak a few weeks ago. The Secretary of State has received enormous numbers of letters. Responsible officials of Guildford Borough Council tell me that in their experience no planning matter has ever aroused such hostility as this one. They have received between 400 and 500 letters. Keith Wickenden informs me that since his election he has not received so many letters on any other subject except abortion, and perhaps that is appropriate. I must plead with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, when he comes to answer, to understand the beliefs of the people of the area, that they feel cheated, and I would suggest to your Lordships that I have produced sufficient evidence to justify that belief.

Ultimately, I just wonder why Mr. Fern of the Property Services Agency said in a letter written on 23rd May 1979 and already quoted: Unless we receive instructions to the contrary", and why in the Adjournment Debate in another place, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment went on and on saying that it was his responsibility and his alone? I just wonder whether he overruled the advice given to him by his officials, because, if not, those protestations of his responsibility and his responsibility alone remind me of Queen Gertrude's comment about too much protestation by the Player Queen.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Reigate

My Lords, I apologise for detaining your Lordships, but I can assure your Lordships that I shall be brief. In particular, I apologise for the fact that my name is not on the list of speakers, but I had not anticipated that this debate would come on as early as it has come on. I wish to support my noble friends Lord Nugent of Guildford and Lord Onslow in their protest, but first I should like to congratulate my noble friend and my old friend Lord Aberconway. I was going to say "my noble old friend", but that does not sound quite right, so he will have to be my friend twice over.

The specific angle that I wish to mention in this debate is the question of the airport. I cannot go into all the other legalities which have been dealt with so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and my noble friends. First, I think that it is quite clear that this is the wrong place even to contemplate an airfield, whether it is for executive jets or for any other purposes. Certainly this crowded south-western section that lies around the metropolis is the wrong place. If there is to be an executive jet airfield anywhere, I should have thought that the logical place to have it would be to the east of London. Presumably executives wish to call on their bankers in the City and it would be much more convenient to have it on that side than on the south-west.

The proposal at present is the subject of an inquiry and I sincerely hope that the Secretary of State will reject the application for what is such a very unsuitable location. Therefore, I doubt whether my noble friend can give us much satisfaction today while the inquiry is pending, although it seems to me that he has tried very hard to make somebody else's case for them. But perhaps he will explain—although he cannot justify it—the total and inexplicable breach of faith by the Government.

My reason for intervening is that I have some memories of Gatwick. When I was a member of another place Gatwick bordered on the edge of my constituency. There were four Members of Parliament concerned—the Members for Reigate, Horsham, Dorking and East Grinstead. I do not know about my other colleagues, but for 20 years the file on Gatwick was the largest that I had on any subject. I remember the original inquiry when Gatwick was mooted in, I think, about 1951 or 1952 and my noble friend Lord Boyd of Merton came down and justified his proposals to a hostile audience and a few friendly people. I was among the hostile section. However, it came into being and it impinged on the life of the communities for miles around, for better or for worse.

Its establishment was inevitable for two reasons: first, there was a national need for an airport. One may think that it was in the wrong place, but there was a national need to be filled and I emphasise "national" rather than "sectional". Secondly, Gatwick—and this is a fact which people had almost not realised at the time—had been an airfield for nearly 20 years before it was enlarged into being the second London Airport. Neither of those reasons applies in this case, and I think that that is a very good reason for its rejection and I support my noble friends entirely in what they have said.

5.56 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, for enabling the House to discuss this grisly and sordid tale this afternoon. However, let me first congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Aberconway, on his maiden speech. I was told when I came to this House that the longer one put off making one's maiden speech, the more courage one needed to make it. If that is so, the noble Lord, Lord Aberconway, must have super-human courage. I hope that, having taken the plunge, he will give us the benefit of his clear, foreceful and unarguable logic again in the near future.

The tale of broken promises and broken faith "villainy" as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, called it—unfolded in this debate, does not need to be repeated by me this afternoon. The chain of promises that the land at Wisley would revert to agricultural use when Government use ceased, dating from the time when the the Minister of Aircraft Production, Sir Stafford Cripps, assured the late Lord Chuter-Ede, then a member of the Surrey County Council, that this was a temporary wartime expedient only, up until the letter last May, quoted by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, when the Government said, and reiterated again, that they would knock down the hangars and take up the runways before any sale was made, lulled people in the area into a sense of security over that period of 36 years. They thought, with due reason, that this would never become a general aviation airport and, as my noble friend Lord Mishcon said, people bought and sold property in the area on that basis with full confidence.

My noble friend Lord Mishcon also tackled the problem from the point of view of the erosion of the green belt and that is extremely important for Londoners. But I should also add, that if one was contemplating an airport in this area with, as has been said, 30,000 movements a year with private jets, executive jets, and scheduled services to other places in the United Kingdom, it would cause very great air traffic control problems in the London area.

As I have said, I do not wish to reiterate what has been said today. I think that the Government have some very difficult questions to answer. They have to answer, first, why the land was sold back to Lord Lytton when it had not finally been determined that its proper future use was agriculture. Secondly, they must answer why it was sold at agricultural-use value when planning permission was possibly in the offing which might affect its re-sale at a higher value? They have to answer why the rights of way have not been put back and are no longer criss-crossing the area, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, in his speech, and why it passed back to the original owners—as was forcefully stated by the noble Lord, Lord Aberconway—without any restrictions as to the purpose for which it should be used.

I had intended to refer to the statement by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Mr. Taverne, in 1970, but the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, has quoted the relevant sections of that statement which, I think, make it quite clear that the Crichel Down procedures apply to land which is to continue in agricultural use indefinitely.

The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, gave us a very long and full catalogue of all the assurances, ending up with the assurance of 23rd May, and he concluded his speech by quoting the meaningful words: Unless we receive instructions to the contrary". As the noble Earl pointed out, 23rd May was shortly after a change of Government; no doubt the civil servant was writing that letter with the thought that his new masters might be giving him new instructions, and we wonder what those instructions were. The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will soon have an opportunity to tell us.

But this is a very sordid story; it is a story of the hasty disposal of public assets not in the public interest. I would add that the taxpayer is paying, and possibly could be paying very heavily, for this unexplained, unwarranted action by the Government. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, can make out a good case this afternoon, but I am rather doubtful. From what has been said in your Lordships' House this afternoon, I think that he is on a very sticky wicket.

6.1 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as every noble Lord has said, your Lordships will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford for raising this subject, which clearly has the interest of a number of your Lordships who have taken part in this short debate. First, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Aberconway on his splendid maiden speech. As he reminded us, a maiden speaker is constrained to be uncontroversial in his first intervention in your Lordships' House, and having regard to the very high feelings which have been generated by this matter, I think that my noble friend did very well to speak in the moderated tones that he did. I understand his strong feelings and, indeed, the strong feelings of other noble Lords on this matter, and I hope that I shall be able to set some of your Lordships' fears at rest during the course of my remarks. However, I hope that my noble friend who spoke for the first time this afternoon will intervene again in your Lordships' House soon and often.

I should like to start by reminding your Lordships briefly of the history of Wisley Airfield. My noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford did this, as well, but perhaps I may recite the history with a slightly different slant. It was acquired during the war by the then Ministry of Supply, and the airfield was then eventually leased to Vickers Armstrong, which subsequently became the British Aircraft Corporation. In 1972 BAC terminated the lease, and the Ministry of Defence, in whom the ex-Ministry of Supply property had become vested, decided that Wisley should be disposed of. That was 1972, my Lords. This disposal only happened earlier this year—that is eight years after the decision had been taken—when the airfield was sold by the Property Services Agency of the Department of the Environment, who act for the Ministry of Defence in such matters, to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton.

Listening to your Lordships today, I think that there are three main strands which need to be unravelled. There is, perhaps most importantly, the question of future aviation use at the airfield. Secondly, there are the circumstances in which the Government decided to sell the land with the runway in situ; and, thirdly, there is the action taken to avoid the effect of the caution registered by Surrey County Council. I shall, if I may, take these in turn.

The question of planning permission for the future use of Wisley for aviation is at the moment the subject of an appeal to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. For this reason I cannot comment on the merits or otherwise of particular arguments whether Wisley should or should not be used for flying again—I am sure that your Lordships will appreciate the Government's position on that point. A public local inquiry will commence on 20th January 1981 before an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State and, at the discretion of the inspector, anyone who wishes to do so can make representations about the proposed development. Following the public inquiry, my right honourable friend will consider the inspector's report in reaching his decision on the appeal. Nevertheless, I should like to explain briefly how policy with regard to both the metropolitan green belt and to air traffic considerations is dealt with in the context of deciding whether or not aviation should be permitted in a particular place. I must emphasise again, though, that these are general considerations only and I cannot, as I have explained, comment on the merits or demerits of Wisley as an aerodrome.

Green belts are used to contain the sprawl of built-up areas. Inside these areas planning permission is not normally given for the construction of new buildings or the change of use of existing buildings that would be inappropriate to the open character of the undeveloped part of the area. It is usually a feature of the planning policy for a green belt to secure the continued operation of viable agricultural holdings and to provide opportunities for recreation.

In so far as the green belt contains necessary developments associated with the life of the urban community, these pose considerable problems. But then planning policy must be to locate those developments, such as motorways, at a distance from towns and villages. It is also necessary to consider how to resolve the problems of location of other developments that may be associated with a new service provision. This will often be the consequential demand for housing resulting from the growth of employment in the green belt.

The Government want to encourage the small-scale business, and many can be carried on in rural areas without causing unacceptable disturbance. Whether the development of a business in a green belt is open to planning objections will often depend on its character and the number of employees, and hence the consequential development pressure.

On the more general question of air traffic, as my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford well knows, it is becoming increasingly difficult for business aviation users to find room to operate from Heathrow and, in particular, Gatwick. This is due to the growth of commercial airline traffic which, inevitably, is given precedence over executive jets at BAA airports, and, indeed, to the growth of business aviation itself. None the less the economic penalty of being unable to provide effectively for business aviation would be considerable, and it remains our policy, as it was that of our predecessors, that appropriate facilities should be provided.

The problem was foreshadowed in the mid-1970s when the Standing Conference on London and South-East Regional Planning, of which my noble friend is chairman, joined with the Civil Aviation Authority in a comprehensive study of aerodrome facilities in the South-East. They produced two invaluable reports recommending that business traffic be accommodated at a number of selected aerodromes. These did not include Wisley, which had already ceased to operate, and which, in airspace terms, and as the standing conference noted, is located below one of the Heathrow arrival stacks, and is also beneath the busiest departure sectors for the London airports.

Following this advice, the previous Government concluded in their White Paper of 1978 that the airports at Biggin Hill, Leavesden, Luton, Northolt, Southend and Stansted, could satisfactorily fill the business aviation role. The present Government generally endorse these conclusions, while recognising that other aerodromes in the South-East might also contribute to handling this type of traffic. However, more recently it has emerged that air traffic control restraints would appear to rule out Biggin Hill from a role as the major business airport for London.

However, it has also to be recognised that air traffic management in the very congested airspace of the London area has been primarily directed at ensuring that the capacity of the existing London airports is exploited with maximum efficiency and safety. The development of additional aerodromes with air traffic requiring access to the airways system could have an adverse effect on the existing highly developed and inter-acting air traffic control structure as a whole.

I turn now to the circumstances surrounding the sale of the land to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. These were explained in some detail by my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in an adjournment debate in another place on 24th July this year, which has been referred to several times; and since then the matter has been referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Ombudsman.

It has been suggested that the PSA had given an undertaking some years previously that the airfield would not be sold before the runway had been removed. No such undertaking—either legal or moral—was in fact given. The PSA had said that it was their intention to remove the runway before selling the land if that were economically possible, and indeed had invited tenders for the sale of the runway for removal as hardcore. But it had been made clear at the time that the PSA did not consider itself under an obligation to do this.

Before the tender procedure could be completed, the appeal was lodged against a deemed refusal of planning permission by the local planning authority. Since the decision on the planning appeal lay with the Secretary of State for the Environment, it was considered that it would be prejudicial to his position in hearing the appeal if the agency had proceeded with the removal of the runway in the absence of a legal liability to do so. The decision was taken not to proceed with removing the runway before the planning appeal had been settled.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, how can the noble Lord possibly say that no undertaking was given when I, and several other noble Lords, have read out letter after letter saying that sort of thing? This has no bearing on the facts whatsoever.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as the noble Earl will know, and as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, will also know, the correspondence of Administrations prior to the one in which I serve is not available to Ministers in this Government. I can, however, refer indeed to the letter of 23rd May 1979, to which the noble Lord referred, and he quoted from that letter, and I indeed have a copy of the letter in front of me. Certainly there was a declaration of intent, but a declaration of intent is not the same thing as giving an undertaking.

Let me give your Lordships an example. Very frequently I telephone my wife in the evening to tell her that I have an intention of being home by ten o'clock. Unfortunately, your Lordships sometimes detain me and I am not able to meet that declaration of intent, and I do not get home until one o'clock in the morning. But that is quite different from giving a categoric assurance that I will be home by ten o'clock, which I do not do.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the Minister is very courteous, and I am sure what he wanted was a direct quotation of an undertaking so that he could deal with it. I shall now read it. It is contained in a letter from the PSA dated 17th August 1978. The delay caused by the abortive tender action is of course regrettable, but as Mr. D. M. Brown said in his letter dated 15th November 1977, we do not propose to effect any sale of Wisley airfield until removal of the buildings and runways has been completed". When he next telephones and says that there is a delay in this House, I am sure the noble Minister will want to explain to his wife what he proposes to do immediately before he returns home. I hope that he will be as precise as this letter is, and that his word will be kept.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as the noble Lord has said, that letter was written in the time of the previous Administration, and of course I have not seen a copy of it; but it sounded to me another declaration of intent, which is not the same thing as an undertaking.

Lord Glenkinglas

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I think that the noble Lord, probably by mistake, totally misled your Lordships when he said that when a Government changes the Minister cannot see the papers of the previous Administration. Of course they can. The only thing they cannot see are the comments of the particular Minister upon them, but all the papers are available.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am advised that my noble friend is not correct, and that I am not entitled to see the correspondence of the previous Administration. In any event, I have not seen it. Nor indeed have my honourable and right honourable friends. At the same time it was this Government's policy to accelerate the sale of surplus Government lands so that the receipts would help, as quickly as possible, to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement. If the sale of the land had had to await the result of the appeal the receipts would have been delayed—and there was and is nothing to prevent further planning applications followed by further appeals. So the delay could have stretched on indefinitely: and there had already been a delay of eight years. Since, as I have said, the Government were under no obligation to remove the runway before selling the land, it was decided to sell the land, under the Crichel Down procedure, to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. The land was sold at current market value as assessed by the district valuer.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, may I put this point? I am sorry about asking my noble friend so many questions. Does he not recognise that selling the land back to the previous owner, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, with the runway intact, was flatly prejudicial to the prospect of the land going back to agriculture according to the undertaking which, I am sure my noble friend will agree, was absolutely unequivocal from the day when the property was first acquired?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, when the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, acquired the land, as my noble friend says, the runway was indeed in situ. If the noble Earl was intending to use the land for agriculture, as presumably he was because that was the only planning permission available at that time, then of course he would have had to remove the runway, and no doubt the noble Earl took that into account when deciding to go ahead with the purchase.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is the noble Lord not aware that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, had put in planning permission for its use as an airfield, and that planning permission had been applied for before it was sold? Furthermore, had it been sold after it had been established that planning permission had been allowed for an airfield, is he aware that the public sector borrowing requirement would have fallen by something like £10 million, as opposed to £307,000 plus the £19,000 which no doubt they could have had if they had dug up the runway?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if planning permission had existed which would have authorised the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, or anyone else, to operate Wisley as an aerodrome, it is of course the case that the price to be paid would have been much higher. But if my right honourable friend had waited until the planning appeal had been settled and permission granted for aviation use before selling the aerodrome, he would then have been accused by my noble friend, I suspect, of rigging the planning appeals to increase the reduction in the public sector borrowing.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, it is a little unfair to tax the noble Lord, but he appears to have had official advice, and therefore it would be helpful to the House if he would make clear what he has been advised. Is the noble Lord saying that, if an undertaking is given to a member of the public, a succeeding Government are not entitled to see the terms of that undertaking?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it may well be that officials are entitled to advise an incoming Government of undertakings made by the previous Administration, but, as I have been at pains to explain, no such undertaking existed in this case.

There has been reference to the registration by Surrey County Council of a caution against the registered title of the land. I will not deny that the PSA moved swiftly in the closing stages of the sale in order to prevent the caution from taking effect. But in answer to the point put to me by my noble friend Lord Onslow about whether there were any other examples of contract and completion being on the same day, I must tell my noble friend that there are very often transactions of this nature which take place without any contract at all. So the answer to my noble friend is, Yes, many.

But I emphasise that the reason for doing this was to avoid the frustration of the Government's intentions by an act which it was considered had no legal justification. I want to take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who thought, mistakenly I must tell him, that the caution was entered in relation to the restoration of the rights of way. It was not entered in that connection at all. The connection was against the sale of the land on the basis that the Surrey County Council should have been sold the land, and it had nothing to do with the undertaking of the rights of way. Had this act succeeded the only effect would have been to delay the sale and the receipt of the proceeds. I believe therefore that the swift action in completing this sale was entirely justified.

There have been a number of newspaper articles which have been frankly mischievous and ill-informed about this entire business, and have not helped people's understanding. There have been hints of improper behaviour by a Government department. As I have explained, we have not broken any undertakings; where we have given undertakings we intend to honour them in full. In particular I acknowledge unreservedly that an undertaking was given to restore the rights of way to a condition "similar to that when they were closed".

That will be done, but it cannot be agreed that public money should be used as the local authority have suggested, to replace a pre-war lane with a 36 ft. wide roadway with an 18 ft. carriageway apparently leading to an overgrown track, or to remove one kilometre of runway more than 50 metres wide in order to provide a soil surface footpath one metre wide. No reasonable person could accept that that would restore the situation to what it was before the war, and we are in the process of discussing with the local authorities precisely what needs to be done in order to meet the undertaking. But I also have to tell the local authority that we shall not be able to restore the singing birds on the trees either.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I interrupt the Minister this time with some vehemence. Is he really answering the complaints of the local authority by mockery? I cannot interpret his words about singing birds in any other way. Does he not feel the strength of feeling in this House, let alone in local authorities, which makes a comment like that completely uncalled for?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I wish to make it quite clear that the action of the local authority in entering the caution on the Land Registry was in our view designed to frustrate the execution of Government policy in this matter, and that is why we have to deal with it very firmly. I also wish to demonstrate by my remarks that some of the suggestions which have been made as to what we should do to restore the rights of way are unreasonable.

I trust your Lordships will understand why I have not been able to give a clear-cut answer this evening to the question whether flying will resume at Wisley. In fact, nobody can give that answer until a decision has been reached on the planning appeal. But I hope I have been able to set some minds at rest about other aspects of this affair, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford for having given me the opportunity to do so.