HL Deb 22 February 1982 vol 427 cc807-19

7.31 p.m.

Lord Melchett

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will now reconsider their decision not to hold a public inquiry into the proposed diversion of the A.34 at Whitway.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I have taken the step of asking an Unstarred Question about this particular road proposal because it seems to me that in this case the department have behaved illegally in the terms of the legal advice which they themselves have been given and published, and also in terms of the court cases which have been held on the subject of when public inquiries may be dispensed with and when they may not be dispensed with.

It also seems to me that the department have not only behaved illegally but in an altogether not straightforward way. They have suppressed certain alternatives which have been put forward by the public. They have even gone so far as to manage to lose the map of one alternative route that was put to them. It seems to me that they have done all this with the specific intention of avoiding a public inquiry into this proposal.

May I briefly set out the background to this case and go on, as I believe I can, to substantiate those serious charges against the department? The proposed road is part of the A.34, and the proposal is to make a dual carriageway on part of the A.34—one of the few parts of that main road which is not currently dual carriageway—and it is no part of the objectors case that a dual carriageway is not needed. Therefore it is not my intention to go into any arguments about the volume of traffic on this particular road and whether or not there is a case for road widening. There may be some argument about that and it may be something worth considering at a public inquiry; but it is not part of my case this evening.

In November 1979 the department set out a shortened period of public consultation and only one route was offered by the department. In July 1980 orders were published for that route. In March 1981 those orders were withdrawn and new orders were published. In November 1981, at the end of last year, the Minister announced that he would not be holding a public inquiry into the proposal; Ministers would make a decision in the light of the evidence that they already had.

This is a local issue but nevertheless a number of substantial objectors have their objections still outstanding. They include objections from the Ramblers Association, the organisation called Save Britain's Heritage, the Garden History Society and Transport 2000. There have also been 60 individual letters of objection and a petition with 165 signatures. As I understand it, all those objections remain outstanding.

In the normal course of events, the department would have a public inquiry into a proposal of this kind. There does not seem to be any doubt whatsoever about that. The Highways Act, 1980 (which is a consolidation Act) in Schedule I paragraph 7(2) sets out the grounds on which a public inquiry may be dispensed with. This is only the case in unusual and exceptional circumstances. The paragraph says that where there are no statutory objectors—that is, landowners and other people with particular interests mentioned in the Highway Act; and there are none of those in this case for reasons to which I shall refer—the Minister may, if he is satisfied that in the circumstances of the case the holding of an inquiry under the paragraph is unnecessary, dispense with such an inquiry.

That, on the face of it, gives very wide powers to the Minister. Nevertheless, the Minister has to satisfy a strict test. He has to satisfy the test that the inquiry is actually unnecessary and he has to be satisfied in the particular circumstances of the case. There was one time when the department was taken to court, in the case of Shorman v. The Secretary of State, in 1976. I do not think that it is much of a coincidence that it happens to be the same regional officials of the Department of Transport who were concerned in that case as are concerned in the A.34 case, which we are discussing this evening.

The Department failed to hold an inquiry. There were only three unwithdrawn objections then, an incomparably smaller number than in the case of the A.34 improvement. The judge held that it was all right to dispense with an inquiry. But in the course of making that decision, the judge made it quite clear that he had upheld the department's decision because there was no appreciable public demand for an inquiry and the department had material which was sufficient on which it could reasonably come to a decision.

It would be going well beyond the bounds of reason to suggest that the same criteria applied in this case. There are not three unwithdrawn objections but well over 150 unwithdrawn objections, including some from major organisations. The idea that there is no appreciable public demand is ridiculous. There have been repeated reports in the press of the anxiety to which this proposal gives rise, and a number of complicated matters remain to be looked at in public and have not yet been looked at.

Therefore it seems quite clear from the case law on the subject that the department are acting illegally in not holding a public inquiry. But it is not necessary to rely on case law because, luckily for objectors—although, maybe, not so luckily for the department—I have in my hand a copy of the Highways Manual which is a document which the department make available for their own officials but not for the general public. This sets out the grounds on which in generla terms the department's legal advice is that a public inquiry can be dispensed with.

This is the department's advice to their officials. The edition I have was updated in April 1981. Therefore it clearly takes account of the most recent legislation, the Highways Act, 1980. In discussing when public inquiries may be dispensed with the Highways Manual, at paragraph 31, says: The effect of legal advice is that where there are unwithdrawn objections normally an inquiry should be held; and that an inquiry may be dispensed with only when the unwithdrawn objections are few in number and a public inquiry would be unlikely to reveal any information about the grounds of objection which is not already known and none of them raises an issue of substance or a matter of general public importance the arguments about either of which ought to be developed publicly before an independent person". That is the department's general legal advice about when public inquiries into trunk road proposals may be dispensed with.

It seems to me that it would be perfectly clear to the most casual observer that in this case none of these three conditions is met. The department have admitted in a letter that there are still substantial objections outstanding. It is clear that the first of these three limbs on which a public inquiry has to be held still stands. The unwithdrawn objections are not few in number. That by itself, according to the department's own general legal advice, means that a public inquiry has to be held, and it is therefore clear that the department are acting illegally.

However, there are two other grounds on which a public inquiry could be dispensed with—again, neither of which apply here. There is the point that the objections do not raise issues of substance or matters of general public importance. It is clear from the publicity this case has received in The Times, in Country Life and in a number of other publications, that it does raise issues of general public importance. The department's proposal would drive a dual carriageway through an ancient park designed by Capability Brown, through an area of the park to which the public have recently been given access. It would affect an area of outstanding natural beauty, and that in itself seems sufficient to give rise to matters of public importance. It will also affect other beauty spots, and I will come to those in a minute.

The third ground on which a public inquiry has to be held unless it does not apply is in a case where an inquiry would be unlikely to reveal any information about the grounds for objection not already known. It seems to me from what the department said and the Minister has said in his press release, that this is the basis on which the Government are suggesting that a public inquiry is not needed. As I said, from the case law and their own legal advice, if two out of three of the grounds for dispensing with a public inquiry do not apply, it seems perfectly clear that a public inquiry should be held.

However, let us consider in a little more detail the third point, that there are no issues which could be developed and illuminated by a public inquiry, because as I say, clearly that seems to be the Government's argument for not having one. The main issue which should be developed at a public inquiry concerns the question of an alternative route. The objectors have put forward more than one over the period in which this matter has been considered. The first objective of the alternative is that it avoids spoiling the view from Beacon Hill. One of the Government's allegations is that all the objections simply relate to one point; that is, that the road would go through a corner of Highclere Park. That is just straightforwardly untrue, and, from their discussions with the objectors, I believe that the officials concerned know it to be untrue. The alternative route, as I say, has the advantage that it would avoid spoiling the view from Beacon Hill. Beacon Hill is a local beauty spot visited by 200,000 people per annum, according to the county council. It is in the North Wessex Downs area of outstanding natural beauty and has an Iron Age hill fort on top.

It may be of interest that in a book called The Hampshire Heritage, published by Hampshire County Council, Beacon Hill is the only view of the Hampshire countryside which appears. All the other illustrations, relate to buildings and so on. The one view of the countryside which the county council thought fit to put in a booklet describing the heritage of Hampshire is the view of Beacon Hill—a view which, if the department's proposals are accepted by the Government, would have a large flyover bang in the middle of it. The idea that it is only Highclere Park which is affected is nonsense.

The objectors' alternative route had a number of other advantages as well as that it avoided cutting into Highclere Park. At the north end of the scheme the alternative is a great deal safer. Instead of the dual carriageway, under the department's proposals, narrowing into a single carriageway on a long, straight stretch of road with numerous turn-offs to private dwellings, the objectors would have a roundabout. There would be less loss of farmland under the alternative scheme than under the department's scheme—something with which I hope he noble Earl, given our discussions over the Wildlife and Countryside Act, would have sympathy. The alternative route is also shorter, simpler and there-fore cheaper.

That was put forward in October 1980, and the Garden History Society put forward a second alternative in April 1981. The alternative has quite simply been suppressed by the department. There were two public exhibitions held by the Department of Transport at which they refused to allow any mention of an alternative route to be made. Incidentally, they did not even allow the department's own alternatives to be on display, let alone the schemes of the objectors. This means that the one major local expression of opinion in favour of the route—that of a petition with 404 names to it—is entirely discredited. It states clearly that the people signing it have considered the alternative routes and favour the department's preferred option. But as the department have admitted that no alternative routes have been made available to the public at any stage, it seems to me that the petition is not worth the paper the people signed their names on, and it would be quite wrong for the Government to place on it any weight whatsoever. The grounds of the objections are not simply that there is a better alternative route, though that is undoubtedly the main thing that should be examined at a public inquiry. I have mentioned Highclere Park. There is now limited access to the park for the first time in 200 years. Access is allowed in the park to a temple which has been recently renovated at public expense. The department did not mention in their summary of comments that the public now have access to the park. This was another issue which has been suppressed in this unhappy and discreditable saga of actions by the department's officials. They produced a summary of objections without mentioning that the one area of the park which would be affected by this road was one to which public access has just been granted. As I have said, the park was designed by Capability Brown, who took the trouble to move this road outside the park; and the department, now that the public have just been given access to the park, are putting the road back in again. This access to which I have referred was arranged by the Historic Buildings Council and Hampshire County Council and has been available since Easter last year.

The third ground of objection, apart from the fact that there is a better alternative route on offer from the objectors, and that Highclere Park is affected and need not be, is the effect on Beacon Hill. There are 200,000 visitors per annum and when you come down the hill the route leads directly to where this new road would be. The existing main road more or less follows the line, but because it is in something of a cutting it is virtually invisible from Beacon Hill. I have seen photographs which show this quite clearly. Under the department's proposals, as I have said, there would be a large flyover at the base of the hill clearly visible to the 200,000 visitors who go up the hill to look at the iron age fort and also at this remarkable view of Hampshire—an area of outstanding natural beauty which the county council are so proud of. Those visitors would look down at the department's new dual carriageway and its vast flyover.

There is a fourth point which I should like to make, which is that the Landscape Advisory Committee have come out in favour of the department's route. I suspect that this may be something which the noble Earl will have been briefed to use in defence of the department's route—and, if not, he should have been, and anyhow I will raise the point for him. The Landscape Advisory Committee's only examination of the site was in March 1978. They looked at a proposal without a flyover at the bottom of Beacon Hill and at that stage the temple in Highclere Park, to which the public now have access, was not restored. It was referred to in the committee's remarks in rather uncharitable terms, but since that time £20,000 of public money has been spent on the temple. It has been restored and is available to the public and a flyover has been put in at the bottom of Beacon Hill, which, as I have said, will dramatically ruin the view from the hill in an area of outstanding natural beauty. I would therefore suggest that the department, among the other things which should be examined at a public inquiry, could ask the Landscape Advisory Committee to reassess the proposals in view, first of all, of the major change in them and, secondly, of the major change in the circumstances of Highclere Park and the buildings which would be affected by the proposal.

I realise that to suggest that a department is deliberately suppressing an alternative route and deliberately avoiding the discussion of alternatives in order to avoid a public inquiry are very serious charges to make, but I can assure the noble Earl that I do not make thorn at all lightly. I do not make very much of it, but it seems to me symptomatic of the appalling behaviour by the department's officials in this case that they manage, as The Times reported last week, actually to lose the one map they apparently had of the objectors' alternative route. Apparently, they have had to write to the objectors—this is according to The Times—apologising for the fact that they have lost the map and asking for another copy. That does not seem to me to be the behaviour of a group of officials who are particularly interested in studying the alternative route, and it certainly gives no grounds whatsoever to the objectors for having any confidence in the idea that the officials will be able, in secret, to put the objectors' route fairly as an alternative to the department's preferred option—because that, at the moment, is what will happen.

It has not gone beyond my notice that, because of the rather unexpected collapse of previous business, the noble Earl has not had the benefit of advice for most of the period in which I have been speaking. In any event I know for myself, from coming to answer Unstarred Questions of this kind, that the brief is written and the noble Earl has his advice and is not very likely to be able substantially to change what he has to say. But, I suggest to him, in all seriousness, that there is a real scandal involved here; that the department has behaved badly; that it is clear that, if it is taken to court, its actions will not be defensible, both on the grounds of the reported case and on the grounds of the department's own legal advice. But maybe that would be a difficult point for the noble Earl or his advisers to accept, so may I put another one to him?

Putting an exceptionally charitable light on the matter, it seems to me that the department's officials have misdirected themselves in suggesting, as they clearly have, to Ministers so far, that there is only one ground for objection to this route; that is, the damage to Highclere Park. It is fair to say that, if the department's officials had simply read the publicity which this case has attracted, that is the impression which they would have gained; that the objectors were objecting solely on the grounds of damage to Highclere Park. The letters which I have seen, and the press statement by the Minister, seemed to be clearly based on that premise—that there is only one point at issue; whether the road should go through the corner of Highclere Park or not.

As I have tried to make clear, that is not at all the case. There are a number of other grounds for the objection, not least the effect on Beacon Hill and the numerous advantages, which I have listed of the alternative proposal. It seems to me that it would be wise for the department to have the opportunity to study what I have said, particularly as they were not present when I said it, and see whether it would be worth while having a public inquiry to look at these various other issues, which it seems clear from all their public comments, and from meetings which they have had with the objectors that the department has not taken into consideration so far.

So I ask the noble Earl by all means to answer in his own way the various points that I have made, but at least to say at the end of his remarks that he will ask his officials to study what I have said, to look at this point about there being a number of other issues, apart from the damage to Highclere Park, which it might be sensible to look at at a public inquiry, and to delay making a final response to my question until that has been done, and he can write to me after these various points have been carefully considered.

7.53 p m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am certain that my noble friend has made a very effective case to which the Government really must give answers. I want to avoid repeating what my noble friend has said on a number of points, but it is clear that his reference to alternative routes is very important. I understand that a copy of the preliminary report, which was issued by the department in February 1980, made clear that the public consultation was very limited, in so far as it requested views on only one route which it described as the western route. The department's document stated that, overall, that is the best solution. That must imply that other solutions were considered; in other words, other alternative routes. That is reinforced by the department's statement going on to say that the western route is also the least damaging agriculturally. A proposal cannot be the least damaging, unless other alternatives have been considered. Therefore, that would appear to justify what my noble friend has said about alternative routes.

The official departmental document, a press notice, stated as recently as 30th November 1981 that the Secretaries of State for the Environment and Transport had decided not to hold a public inquiry. The document mainly comprised a statement by Mr. Kenneth Clarke, the Under-Secretary of State. He said that they had received an "appreciable number of objections". Those were his words, not mine. But he seemed to dismiss these objections by stating that these are, mainly from groups and individuals outside the immediate area, but who are concerned about the effects which they believe the new road would have on the historical Highclere Park". It is clear from what my noble friend has said that the objections, serious as they were, went far beyond Highclere Park. But whether they are confined to Highclere Park or go beyond it, it appears that they are sufficiently important to justify the holding of an inquiry.

Surely, it is not sufficient for the Under-Secretary of State to comment that, The Secretaries of State will take into account the views of the objectors about the historic and intrinsic value of the park". That could be said about almost any scheme, to justify not holding an inquiry. It can always be said that the Secretaries of State will take these matters into consideration, and that there is therefore no need for a public inquiry. So the whole public inquiry procedure could be brought into disrepute. I suggest that it is rather an "I know best" attitude.

The number of protests, in the form of letters and signatures to the petition, has been agreed by the noble Earl, Lord Avon, because he gave these figures in his reply to a Question and to supplementary questions in this House on 1st February. My noble friend made reference to the Highways Manual, and the fact that the number of outstanding objections is not few appears not to be countered by the figures given by the noble Earl on 1st February.

The questions which have to be answered by the Minister are: Is it correct that the objectors themselves put forward an alternative route, with good justification for that route? Is it correct that no choice of routes whatever has been put to the public? Is it correct that no alternative routes, or choice of routes, was mentioned, either at the first consultation or at the public exhibition which was subsequently held? Is it correct that no alternative routes were put to the district council or to the parish councils concerned? These would appear to be very important questions. Is it correct that, as my noble friend has said, the petition supporting the scheme referred to various possible routes having been considered? If that is correct, what were the alternative possible routes? Who gave them details of possible alternative routes, which apparently were not given to the public or to the councils concerned?

My noble friend asked, in referring to the Highways Manual, whether or not the objections raised issues of public importance. It would surely appear from what he said that the question of Highclere Park itself is of public importance. The question of which scheme does the least damage to agricultural land is of general public importance. The interference with scenic views from other spots is also a question of national importance and that, and other matters, are issues which a public inquiry should cover.

I make it absolutely clear that I am not arguing for or against the proposed scheme. I am arguing only on the question that there appears to be sufficient justification for a public inquiry to have been held in this case. I recall that on 1st February, when answering questions in this House on this matter, the noble Earl seemed to agree with his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. who referred to the cost of public inquiries, and said that to resort to such inquiries was the easiest way out for the Minister, so as to avoid taking responsibility for decisions.

I hope that will not be the attitude taken tonight by the noble Earl, for it would be a reflection upon the provision in numerous Acts of Parliament for public inquiries to ensure that all the facts are uncovered, that all possible alternatives are looked at and, frankly, to avoid the possibility of bureaucratic control. It would appear that in this case there is every possible reason for a public inquiry. I know that it is often difficult for Ministers to retrace their steps, but it would appear in this case that they should take heed of these various points. Apart from looking into the facts of the matter, a public inquiry is surely there to allay public concern. As there has been so much public concern voiced about this matter, I believe that the Government ought to take a look at it and see that a public inquiry is held. I support my noble friend.

8.1 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am impressed but of course not surprised by the determination with which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has pursued this matter and by his customary skill in presenting his case. Before I reply in some detail to his question, I think it would be helpful if I said a few words about the scheme itself. It may help to put matters in perspective from the Government's point of view, as we see it.

As we have heard, the A.34 forms part of the trunk road between Southampton and the Midlands. It carries a high proportion—between two and three times the average—of heavy goods vehicles. I stress that point because there has been some comment that this is not so. About five miles south of Newbury the A.34 passes through the small community of Whitway in Hampshire. The road through the village is very narrow and the amount of traffic, in particular the heavy lorries, makes life unpleasant for the local residents as they go about their daily business.

The Department of Transport has recognised for some while that something must be done to improve the conditions at Whitway, both for residents and for drivers. An improvement along the line of the existing road was ruled out because this would not have provided any relief for Whitway. Indeed, it would have affected the village even more severely than the present road. This left a by-pass as the only acceptable solution. Three alternative routes were investigated: one passing to the west of Whitway and the A.34, one to the east and a third route also passing to the east of the village which was in part a combination of the other two routes.

The western alternative passes just within the eastern boundary of Highclere Park which is undoubtedly, as the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has said, an historic garden and landscaped park of some note. I slightly take issue with him. Although I believe that Capability Brown was not directly responsibility for the end result, his designs were used in the remodelling of the park in the 18th century. This western route, to which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, also referred, was considered to be less damaging to Whitway, less damaging to agriculture and to the landscape generally and also less costly. The department therefore decided in 1979 to seek the views of the public on the western alternative only, explaining at the same time the reasons for rejecting the alternatives to the east of Whitway.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I do not want to interrupt the noble Earl too much, but just so that nobody thinks we are talking at cross-purposes may I say that the two alternatives which he has just mentioned were the department's alternatives, not the alternative of the objectors which, as I said earlier, was presented to the department somewhat later. I think it would be helpful if the noble Earl could confirm that.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, that is quite correct and I shall be coming to it as my saga continues. We are still only in 1979. There was not a large response to this, but most of the people who replied either supported the route proposed by the department or had no objection to it. Subsequently the department published draft orders for the western route setting out the line of the proposed road and the alterations that would be necessary to existing roads, together with an order which would authorise the acquisition of the land required. These orders were subsequently withdrawn following objections to some of the details of the proposals, and revised orders were published in March 1981 which took account of these earlier objections. The new orders in their turn attracted objections, but also a great deal of support. It was then necessary for my right honourable friend to decide whether to order a public inquiry.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has said that objections to the department's scheme cover more than just intrusion into Highclere Park, and of course literally that is right. As he said, various objectors have mentioned the view from Beacon Hill, the loss of farm land and the traffic figures. Few could doubt, however—I think the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, will agree—that the main thrust of objections to the scheme is that it enters Highclere Park. Indeed, the alternatives provided by both the Highclere Park Action Group and by the Garden History Society were designed specifically to avoid the park. Be that as it may, I can assure noble Lords that in reaching a decision on the orders my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State will continue to take full account of all points made by objectors.

I should add, as the noble Lord seemed in some doubt about the point when we last discussed it, that supporters of the preferred scheme would have been aware that alternative routes had been considered because the department explained the reasons for rejecting these at the public exhibition. I cannot agree that the department did not take seriously the alternative routes for this scheme which were put forward by objectors. The south-eastern regional office have had a number of meetings with objectors. Indeed, the original orders were withdrawn and new orders published specifically to meet detailed objections.

As I have mentioned, proposals for alternative routes were submitted both by the Highclere Park Action Group and by the Garden History Society. The former put forward two suggestions in August 1980 and two further suggestions in October 1980. The department's officers discussed them at some length with a representative of the action group at the public exhibition of the draft orders on 21st March 1981. The Garden History Society's alternative, which is in fact very similar to those put forward by the action group, was submitted in May 1981 in the form of sketches and supporting notes. Meetings were held with the society's representatives in July and October 1981. Further discussion has taken place since the decision to dispense with a public inquiry was announced. I had heard about the loss of the map. My department is very sorry that the original plan was lost, but I gather that it has produced its own copy of the action group's works.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, the noble Earl mentioned the public exhibition and did so in the context of the petition which supported the department's preferred route. I hope he will not want to mislead the House. Could he confirm that at none of these public exhibitions and nowhere in their discussions with the parish councils and others involved did the department publish their own alternatives which, as the noble Earl said, they considered and dismissed, nor did they allow the Highclere Park Action Group's alternative to be displayed to the public. That is why the petition supporting the preferred option is so worthless.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, my understanding is that at the first public inquiry, which was probably way back in late 1979 or early 1980, they did set out the alternative routes. The noble Lord shakes his head, so I shall have to confirm it, as I was not there.

That, very briefly, is the background. I should now like to say a few words about the statutory position as it applies to the holding of a public inquiry. I apologise if what I am about to say may seem tedious but it is crucial to an understanding of why my right honourable friends decided not to hold an inquiry.

The relevant statutory provisions are to be found in one of two Acts, depending on the type of order. For an order establishing the line of a new road, or making provision for alterations to existing roads, the Highways Act 1980 is the appropriate authority. For a compulsory purchase order, the provisions are to be found in the Acquisition of Land Act 1981. When my right honourable friends come to consider whether to order a public inquiry they are normally faced with one of two positions. In the case of an order published under the Highways Act, if there are unwithdrawn objections from a local authority or in certain circumstances, a navigation or water authority, they must hold a public inquiry. lf, on the other hand, there are no such statutory objections, then it is open to my right honourable friends to dispense with an inquiry if they consider that in the circumstances it is not necessary to hold one. I shall come to that point in more detail in a minute.

For compulsory purchase orders, the requirements of the Acquisition of Land Act are slightly different insofar as every owner, lessee or occupier of land included in the order is a statutory objector. Otherwise, the effect is broadly the same as for orders under the Highways Act. I will now return to the Whitway Diversion, and explain in a little more detail than perhaps I have been able to do in answer to the noble Lord's earlier questions, precisely why my right honourable friends decided not to hold a public inquiry.

A few moments ago I mentioned the alternative schemes considered by the Department of Transport, and the events leading to the publication in 1981 of draft orders which took account of earlier objections. The revised proposals themselves attracted a number of objections—225 in all, 165 of which were signatories to various petitions. Several of the objections were from prominent and respected bodies in the field of conservation and environmental protection. In fact, the noble Lord listed some of them.

However, none of the objections were from persons or bodies such as would have required the holding of an inquiry under the terms of either the Highways Act or the Acquisition of Land Act. Incidentally, very few were from local people. My right honourable friends therefore had to decide whether or not in the circumstances an inquiry should be held. It is fair to say that they did not reach their decision lightly.

As I have already indicated, there were a number of objections. However, the objections are based almost entirely on one aspect—opposition to the routing of a new road through the edge of Highclere Park and, of course, the views from Beacon Hill. Some objectors called for a public inquiry because they considered that this aspect of the proposals was so important that an opportunity should be given for the objections to be considered by an independent inspector. But the purpose of a public inquiry is to inform Ministers of the weight and nature of objections. In this case, opponents of the scheme have stated their case with, if I may say so, admirable clarity. As a result, the point at issue is quite straightforward—whether the protection of Highclere Park from any intrusion at all justifies the choice of another route which is, in other respects, less desirable.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Avon, persists in saying that there is only one point at issue, whereas he himself said at the beginning of his speech that, in the light of what I said, he acknowledged there was more than one point at issue. Does this not mean that it would be worthwhile for the department to have another look at this?

The Earl of Avon

No, my Lords, it does not. At the same time, my right honourable friends also took account of the substantial local support for the scheme. They concluded in all the circumstances that an inquiry was not necessary. It would not usefully contribute anything to their consideration of the objections which was not already known or would become known when objectors had been given a final opportunity to amplify their objections. An inquiry would inevitably lead to further delay and uncertainty, which my right honourable friends felt could simply not be justified. I should add one further point on the procedures. Some, including the noble Lord, have suggested that objectors in this case should have been given the opportunity to comment on the decision not to hold a public inquiry. Ministers considered this point but, given that they were already satisfied that no inquiry was necessary, they saw no useful purpose in asking for such comments. And there was, of course, no legal obligation to do so.

To clear up any confusion about the legal requirements for when a public inquiry should or should not be held. I will try to clarify the position further. There are three aspects to the matter. First, there is the statutory position. The Highways Act 1980 is quite clear that in certain circumstances a public inquiry need not be held. If there are no statutory objectors to line or side road order, then under paragraph 7(2) Schedule 1 of the Act Ministers: may if satisfied that in the circumstances of the case the holding of an inquiry under this paragraph is unnecessary, dispense with such an inquiry". The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has already referred to this. There is similar provision relating to the compulsory purchase of land in the Acquisition of Land Act 1981—this is the legal, statutory position.

Secondly, there is the legal advice mentioned in the Highways Manual, from which the noble Lord has quoted. This is general advice on the interpretation of the statutory position and, like everything else in the manual, is intended as guidance to officers in their day to day consideration of road schemes. It is not, and is not intended to be, specific advice for each specific case that arises. And more importantly, it does not bind Ministers and officials in a way that the statutes do not. It is a guide and not legally binding. Thirdly, there is the specific advice given to Ministers on the A34 Whitway diversion. I cannot, as I have already explained to the noble Lord, say what that advice was. I can only repeat that Ministers satisfied themselves that no inquiry was necessary in this case. I accept that Ministers would normally order an inquiry to be held where there were a significant number of unwithdrawn objections. But this was not a normal case.

As I have explained, the department's scheme had considerable local support, including that of the main land owner in question, and little local opposition. My right honourable friends were satisfied that they had, or would have in response to the letter asking for final comments, sufficient information to take a decision on the orders. And they were satisfied that the issues were sufficiently clear cut to enable them to decide without the advice of an independent inspector. In sum, they were satisfied that they did not need to hold a public inquiry in this case.

I do not consider that anything either discreditable or underhand has been done. I do not believe that, in any sense, the word "scandal" could be used in this particular connotation. I hope that I have illustrated to the House this evening that a great deal of consultation and interest has been taken at all levels. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, asks whether the Government will now reconsider the decision not to hold an inquiry. I have to say, No. I must stress, however, that no decision has yet been taken whether or not to make the orders themselves. En this context, the noble Lord's research will not have been wasted and, in this context, the remarks he made this evening will be carefully studied.