HL Deb 03 December 1984 vol 457 cc1151-78

5.50 p.m.

Lord Foot rose to move to resolve, That the orders be annulled.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as the Motion in my name makes perfectly clear, it is concerned with two compulsory purchase orders which have been laid before this House and the other place by the Secretary of State for Transport. I hope it will be helpful if I very briefly attempt to explain to your Lordships how it comes about that this matter has reached this House and why I have ventured to put down this Motion.

The purpose of these two compulsory purchase orders is to enable the Secretary of State for Transport to acquire a stretch of land in the middle of the county of Devon, nearby to the ancient market town of Okehampton and just north of the Dartmoor national park, and to enable him to acquire a stretch of road of about only 4½ miles in length so that there may be subsequently constructed upon it a road which will effectively bypass the town of Okehampton.

Those of your Lordships who are not familiar with this particular issue may be rather surprised to discover that this is a matter for Parliament. In the ordinary way when a compulsory purchase order is made or is advertised Parliament plays no part in the matter. In the ordinary way if a highway authority, a local authority or even the Secretary of State, seeks to obtain a compulsory purchase order that intention is advertised. There is then an opportunity for persons who are aggrieved by it to object. If the objections are maintained there is usually a public inquiry and everything can be heard. In that event, the inspector makes a report to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State then decides on the matter. Parliament does not come into it.

However, Parliament comes into this matter because of two Acts of Parliament. One is the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945, and the other is the Acquisition of Land Act 1981.I shall give just the general effect of these two Acts, taken together, in this particular instance. In certain special cases they provide a right to people who are aggrieved by a proposed compulsory purchase order to appeal to Parliament. I shall explain in a moment the way in which that is done. First, let me say that the reason why that special procedure can be invoked in the present case is because part of the land which the compulsory purchase order seeks to acquire consists of what is known as "open space". For these purposes the words "open space" are defined as: Land which is open to public enjoyment". I am not sure whether I have given the exact and correct words, but they are words to that effect. There is no doubt however that this compulsory purchase involves the special kind of land called "open space" because it is provided that if the compulsory purchase order intends to take over such open space, the matter must come to Parliament, or there should be the opportunity for it to come to Parliament, unless the Secretary of State is able to certify that there is alternative open space of similar benefit to the public and of a similar size which he can provide in exchange for the land taken away from the public. If he is able to certify that he can find such land, there is no right of appeal.

In this case, the Secretary of State has not been able to so certify with the result that he had to lay these two compulsory purchase orders before both Houses. The Acts then further provide that if anyone is aggrieved and objects to these orders they can present a petition to Parliament. What happens then is that the petition is considered—and this is under the procedure of the Act—by the Chairman of Committees here in this House and by the Chairman of Ways and Means in the other place. They listen to any argument that may be presented to them. They are charged with the duty of certifying and reporting to each House as to whether, first, the petitions are proper to be received and, secondly, whether the petitioners have the necessary locus standi. All that has been done. The matter has been before the Chairmen and they have reported that the petition is entirely in order and that all the petitioners have a right to be heard.

If the matter had been left at that stage the petition would have been automatically referred to a Select Committee of both Houses. But something happened. In fact, two things happened. One was that I put down this Motion. It is a Motion to disapprove of and indeed to annul the two compulsory purchase orders. However, I want to make it perfectly plain right away that I have no intention, and never did have the intention, of dividing the House by carrying the matter to a Division. My whole purpose was in order to take advantage of the procedures of this House—as I understand I have quite properly done—so that there might be a debate on the Floor of the House before this matter goes to the Select Committee. I am persuaded that involved in this matter there is something of very considerable national consequence and importance.

The other development was that in the other place a number of Back-Bench Members put down an Early Day Motion, as I believe it is called, by which they sought to deny the petitioners who had been cleared, as it were, by the two Chairmen the right to go to the special Select Committee at all. If they had taken that to a Division, and if they had won, the petitioners would not only have been denied any remedy but would have been denied the right to be heard by the Select Committee at all.

I am glad to say that after a certain amount of discussion in the other place wiser counsels prevailed with the result that this matter is now going to a Select Committee. To that extent, justice will be done. I shall say no more about that, not because I think that there was not a very important constitutional issue involved when the Members of the other House sought to do that, but mainly because I know that my noble friend—if I may call him that—Lord Molson is speaking later in the debate and, as your Lordships will discover, he can speak on that aspect with unique authority.

May I now turn to the substance of this controversy? For many long years past the counties of Devon and Cornwall and the people who live there have suffered from terribly inadequate road systems. In particular, the only direct route running out of Exeter, going across the county of Devon and down into Cornwall—the great spine road, which will eventually finish up at Penzance—has up until very recently been antiquated, tortuous and highly dangerous. It is the old A.30, which is a road that we inherited from the period before the motor car had been thought of. There is no argument from anybody in this matter as to the inadequacy of the A.30.

Equally, another matter on which there is no argument is that for many long years past the town of Okehampton has suffered the most appalling traffic congestion. It has become increasingly intolerable with the steady increase in road traffic, particularly big lorries. It is, of course, particularly bad in the summer months, when added to the problem is the holiday trail.

I want to make that perfectly clear, because it has been put around by persons who do not sympathise with our point of view, that the petitioners are trying to prevent the unhappy people of Okehampton from having a bypass. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, at the public inquiry, to which I shall refer in just a moment, alternative routes were put forward by those who opposed the preferred route. They were put forward with all the authority, first of all, of the Dartmoor National Park Committee and the Countryside Commission, and, indeed, with the support of a great number of other bodies concerned with the environment.

How, then, does the conflict over the compulsory purchase orders arise? Until about 1973 I do not think that anybody had ever contemplated taking the projected road through the national park. I should have explained to the House that the whole issue in this matter is whether it is right, as the Secretary of State wants to do, to take that bypass road to the south of Okehampton, through the national park, or whether the right course is to take it to the north, through the agricultural land and the countryside to the north of Okehampton. That is the whole matter which is in issue here.

As I say, until 1973 I do not think that anybody contemplated the idea of taking the road through the Dartmoor National Park. Indeed, there was a county development plan. In so far as any indication was given in that plan as to where the future road was to go, nobody had contemplated it going south through the national park. Of course, this road has been planned for generations back. It has been in the womb of the Ministry of Transport for decades. But in 1975, for the first time, when there was a local public consultation exercise, as it was called, the proposal was made that possibly the road might go to the south through the national park. From that moment the momentum for an invasion of the national park took off. From that moment more and more did the mind of the Secretary of State and of the department concentrate upon the possibility of going to the south.

There was a highly organised campaign by the farming and land-owning interests to go to the south through the park, and not through the agricultural land to the north. The Secretary of State succumbed to that pressure. When the public inquiry was eventually arranged, the route through the national park had become the preferred route of the Secretary of State. That is the short history of the matter.

Then there was the public inquiry. It went on for 96 working days, which I think is something like a record. It was concluded in February 1980, but it was not until three years later that the inspector's report was delivered to the Secretary of State. Unfortunately, that was due in part to the illness of the inspector who had carried out the inquiry. There is no blame attaching to anybody on that account. Finally, in September of last year, the Secretary of State promulgated his decision and said that he approved of the invasion of the national park. It is against that decision that the petitioners are appealing to the Select Committee.

The petitioners do not on any account want to reargue all the matters which were so compendiously discussed at the public inquiry. But they believe that there is involved here a matter of major principle, and they seek the decision of the Joint Select Committee upon one or two or three very simple questions. They want to know from the Select Committee what it thinks is the meaning and the effect of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. They want the opinion of the committee as to whether that proposed invasion of the national park is not in diametric conflict with the purposes for which national parks were established. They also want an answer to this question. If the Select Committee thinks that there is that conflict between the proposed road and the purposes for which national parks were established, it wishes the committee so to declare.

May I briefly remind the House of the many commitments that have been made over the years to the cause of the protection of national parks? First of all, of course, there was the passing of the 1949 Act. I am not sure whether I can lay my hands on the copy that I have made of it, but the effect of the Act was this—and the words are familiar to your Lordships. The Act of 1949 did not merely designate that certain areas of land were to be regarded in the future as national parks; it did not merely authorise the National Parks Commission, as it was then, to designate those areas; it did not merely set up machinery for the administration of the national parks. It was a declaratory Act: it declared what was the national purpose in national parks.

That Act spoke of the matter in these terms. It said that national parks are those special areas where it is particularly important and especially desirable to preserve the natural character of the land and to enable people to have access to it. Those were the twin purposes which were laid down by the Act of 1949 and those have remained the purposes of the Act, at any rate officially, ever since.

I do not think I am overstating it in saying that the Act was founded upon the proposition that, unless special measures are taken for their protection, these special areas, these priceless national assets, can all too easily, inadvertently and irretrievably, be dissipated and lost to the nation.

Perhaps I should say this. Subsequently there have been many and various declarations of support for the principle of the preservation and protection of national parks. One of the most remarkable of them was made very soon after the passing of the 1949 Act. It was a declaration by the noble Earl, Lord Stockton (Mr. Harold Macmillan as he was then), when he was at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which was then in the place of what is now the Department of the Environment. He said—and said without any reservation—that it was essential that in the national parks the causes of amenity and access should be paramount, overriding all other considerations and claims. When all those protestations have been made over the years as to the vast importance of maintaining the natural scene in our national parks, your Lordships may wonder how it therefore came about that the Secretary of State could have considered that the proper course was to drive the road through the national park.

There is one other quotation which I should like to cite upon the general principle. That is this. In 1976 the Secretary of State—I think it was the Secretary of State for the Environment—issued a circular, which is Circular No. 4 of 1976. That circular set out in great detail the conclusions which the Secretary of State had arrived at on the report that had been made to Parliament some years before by the National Parks Policy Review Committee, which had been presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. Circular No. 4 of 1976 gave the considered conclusions of the Secretary of State as to what should happen in the future in national parks. What he said about roads and traffic, and about through routes in particular, was this: It is now the policy of the Government that investment in trunk roads"—

and may I break off to point out that this is certainly a trunk road— should be directed to developing routes for long distance traffic which avoid national parks and that no new route for long distance traffic should be constructed through a national park, or existing road upgraded, unless it has been demonstrated that there is a compelling need which would not be met by any reasonable alternative means".

So the Secretary of State was saying, when he approved of the route through the national park, that to go north of the national park, to go north of Okehampton through the agricultural land—agricultural land of not a very high quality or grade—was not any reasonable alternative to putting a road through the park.

At the public inquiry, the arguments which were eventually advanced by the inspector, or the reasons which the inspector eventually gave for having come down in favour of the southern route through the national park—as he did—were essentially twofold. One of the reasons was that going to the north would involve the sacrifice of a greater area of farmland. The other was that going to the north would, in his view, involve a larger expense.

I want to say only a brief word about both those reasons and considerations. On the matter of the eating up of agricultural land, will your Lordships consider this.

On the line of this proposed road, running all the way from Exeter down to Bodmin, a distance of 65 miles, already 16 miles of it, running out of Exeter to the west, has been built: 16 miles of dual carriageway with four lanes of traffic. The whole of that road goes through what is ordinary agricultural land. Already a further extension of that road towards Okehampton has been approved. It has been a matter of public inquiry and has been approved. If you carry the road further, that further six miles of road all goes through the ordinay English countryside, through agricultural land.

Then if you go past Okehampton and you consider where the road is going to run—from beyond Okehampton down as far as the Launceston bypass, which is a distance of something like 12 miles—you will again find that the route which has now been proposed by the Secretary of State for that stretch of territory is all through agricultural land. The result is that, while agricultural land has been eaten up like that in order to construct the road—necessarily of course; you could not do it otherwise; and I may say without any protest from the farming community or from landowners—when it comes to the five or six miles to get around Okehampton they then decide that they have the opportunity of going through the national park, saving a bit of agricultural land and saving a bit of money.

I suggest that it is not unreasonable to say that if this is going to happen it will be a good thing if the Secretary of State tore up Circular No. 4 of 1976 and rewrote it. What he might write down would be this: It is inevitable, in the construction of trunk roads through the English countryside, that you are going to swallow up areas of agricultural farmland. But while that is inevitable, every opportunity should be taken, if you can go into a national park to take advantage of doing so—and eagerly seize upon the opportunity! The other argument which was advanced by the inspector, and accepted by the Secretary of State, was that going to the north would involve additional cost. I am obliged to say that I think that the arguments that have been advanced by the Secretary of State on that ground are really paltry and unworthy. I say that for this reason. There was a lot of argument at the inquiry as to what the extra cost of going to the north of Okehampton would be. I do not want to enter into that controversy. I am prepared to accept, for the purposes of the present argument, the figures which the inspector himself thought were the right ones. He concluded that, if you went through the national park, the cost—that is the cost in 1978—would be £16.3 million, and that if you went to the north the cost would be £20.54 million. That is an extra cost of 26 per cent., an additional cost of one-quarter. However, if you translate those figures into present-day prices, as you are obliged to do, you find that the southern route through the park would cost £27.25 million and that the cost of the northern route would be £30.35 million, a difference of only 11 per cent.

If you look at the cost, as I suggest it is essential and proper to do, taking account of the whole scheme and of the cost of constructing a dual carraigeway road 65 miles long, if you calculate the cost that this will involve and then try to work out what proportion will be represented by the increased cost of going round to the north of Okehampton, you arrive at the conclusion, however you work it 'out, that the increased cost of the whole scheme will be something in the neighbourhood of 1 per cent. of the total figure. I hope that I am not overstating the matter when I say that for the Secretary of State to advance that as a good reason for promoting the road through the national park is almost contempt.

I have gone on for longer than I intended. I shall conclude by saying only this. How did all this matter, if I am at all right about it, go wrong? I believe that it went wrong when the Secretary of State, in his wisdom, decided to succumb and to give way to the pressures from the farming community, against all principle and against everything for which governments have spoken and protested their support. The great mistake was for the Secretary of State to succumb to that pressure. Once he had succumbed, things went at a headlong pace. What happened was that he descended necessarily into the arena. When the public inquiry was held, it was his representative, his counsel, who was there to argue for the route through the national park. It was the whole business of his representatives not only to deploy all the arguments in favour of the southern route but, indeed, to denigrate and depreciate all arguments that might be advanced in favour of the northern route. That was inevitable; that was inescapable. That is what happened.

Another thing that happened was this. From the moment that the Secretary of State decided to put his influence behind the southern route, all the resources of the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport were available on his side, and all the resources of money, to whatever extent it was thought necessary to carry it.

I fear that what happened here was that the Secretary of State, and subseqently the inspector, and subsequently, again, the Secretary of State himself when he came to make his final decision, lost sight of what should have been the central issue of principle in the welter of detail that was gone into in that 96-day inquiry. My hope, and the hope of the petitioners, is that that grave error will be put right by the Joint Select Committee. I beg to move.

Moved, That the orders be annulled.—(Lord Foot.)

6.25 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has made clear, this debate is about a bypass proposed for the town of Okehampton and two orders made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport following a decision made jointly by him and by the Secretary of State for the Environment. It may be helpful if I take a little of your Lordships' time to explain some of the background.

In recent weeks there has been a certain amount of lobbying of Members of your Lordships' House, and of other individuals and organisations, by those with a particular concern and those with a particular point of view to press. That is as it should be, and there can be no possible objection to the free expression of opinion on a matter of this kind. It may, however, be helpful if I draw your Lordships' attention to certain aspects of the matter which have perhaps received less attention, and are less fully appreciated, in order to provide a balanced view of what this matter is all about and to explain why my right honourable friends came to the decision reflected in the orders.

We are concerned today with the question of a bypass for the town of Okehampton. As the noble Lord, Lord Foot has said, and as we all agree I think, Okehampton needs a bypass, and as soon as possible. Okehampton suffers from traffic congestion, noise and intrusion on a scale which is not acceptable, and successive Secretaries of State for Transport have pursued the objective at Okehampton, as elsewhere in the country, of the construction of a bypass to take traffic out of the town.

Decisions on the best routes for bypasses are only taken after the most careful study. Alternative possible routes to the north and to the south of the town were examined in some detail, and as long ago as 1975 there was a major consultation with the people in the area on which should be adopted. Following this, and taking into account the views expressed by individual members of the public, by representative bodies, by local authorities and by others, the Secretary of State of the day came to the view that the best route for the bypass would be to the south of the town. That choice was announced in September 1976. Draft orders were published in 1978. This was followed by a public inquiry, which was held between May of 1979 and February of 1980. During the inquiry the merits and demerits of the Secretary of State's proposals were very thoroughly examined, and alternative proposals were also tested in a public forum. Representations were made on behalf of many local authorities, and many private and voluntary organisations. The merits of their comments on the proposed route, and of alternatives which were put forward, were very fully examined.

As your Lordships will know, such inquiries are held before an independent inspector, who is nominated by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. In due course, the inspector's report and recommendations were received by my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for the Environment. It was a very substantial and thorough report, running to more than 600 pages, and dealing in great detail with all the issues. The letter giving the decision of the Secretaries of State was issued on 16th September 1983. As is usual in these matters, the inspector's report was published at the same time.

There is no normal procedure whereby your Lordships' House, or the other place, would become involved in the details of a road scheme, because both Houses have agreed that is not the way in which we should do things. There is a procedure agreed by Parliament and refined and modified by Parliament over the years, and embodied in the Highways Act. This gives a full opportunity to every group of interested citizens, whether in favour of the proposed road or against it, to submit their views, and to have their opinions tested publicly against those of others under an independent inspector. In the case of the Okehampton bypass, this is exactly what had been done, and in the normal course of events, once the inspector had reported and the Secretaries of State had made and announced their statutory decision, that would have decided the matter.

It is often difficult to choose between alternative routes for a much needed road, all of which involve some loss which must be set against the communal gain. In the case of the Okehampton bypass, a number of unusual features arise, of which two are particularly relevant to this debate. The first, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has said, is that Okehampton lies immediately to the north of the Dartmoor National Park, and indeed the very road which we are discussing, the A.30 trunk road, which runs from east to west along the fringe of the park, actually forms the boundary of the national park on either side of Okehampton. The town itself lies just outside the park, though the town centre is less than a mile from the park boundary at its nearest point. It follows from this that any bypass for Okehampton which went to the south of the town would be likely to cross the park boundary and run, to a greater or lesser extent, within the park.

At the time of the public consultation on alternative routes, about a decade ago, the Government had recently received an important report from a committee established by the Government themselves to review national parks policies. That committee was chaired by my noble friend Lord Sandford, and I know that the work that he and his colleagues did, and the conclusions and recommendations expressed in their report, have been greatly valued by all those who are concerned with our national parks. The Sandford Report, as it has come to be known, devoted a chapter to the difficult question of the interrelationships of roads and traffic with our national parks. They stated very clearly their conclusions and recommendations.

This report was addressed to the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Wales. In due course, the conclusions of the Secretaries of State were published in a circular—Circular No. 4 of January 1976. This, of course, dealt among other things with the committee's conclusions and recommendations on the interplay between roads and traffic and national park policy. The noble Lord, Lord Foot, has quoted the actual words of the circular, which I shall not do again, except to say that he missed out one important sentence at the end; that is, that after "reasonable alternative means" the report went on to say: Application of the policy to some parks does, however, give rise to particularly difficult considerations because of their geographical location". Those are the words of the circular, and I should like just to emphasise that it is not the Government's policy, and it never has been the policy of any Government, that under no circumstances should any new road go through any national park. I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate this point.

It was against this background that the Secretary of State of the day came to form a view, during the latter part of 1976, on whether a route for the Okehampton bypass should go to the south, which inevitably meant some intrusion into the national park, or round to the north, avoiding the park, but intruding into other sensitive landscape areas, damaging farm land, and having other disadvantages. It will be clear from what I have already said that the choice of preferred route at that stage could by no means be expected to be a final one, as a public inquiry had yet to be held.

As expected, this question of the national park figured very substantially in the public inquiry into the Secretary of State's proposals. The principle of intruding into a national park, the circular outlining Government policy, and the question of what might or might not represent a reasonable alternative were discussed in very great detail. The inspector recognised the significance of Government policy towards national parks, and the importance of the circular to which I have referred. The inspector concluded that this was a case where there was a compelling need for a new road, and where no reasonable alternative existed. May I quote the inspector's own words? He said: In all the circumstances, my view is that none of the northern routes that were considered at the Inquiry is a reasonable alternative for the purposes of Circular 4/76". That is what the inspector said, in paragraph 2818 of his report.

Having heard all the evidence, and examined all the evidence, the inspector concluded that the Secretary of State had chosen the best route. The Secretaries of State considered the inspector's report, and accepted its recommendation on the route of the bypass. The line order fixing the route of the bypass was made on 29th November 1983 and has not been challenged in the High Court.

May I say just a few words about the details of what is proposed, lest some noble Lords who have become aware of the issue should be left with a false impression of what is actually involved? As I have explained before, it is not possible to build a bypass to the south of Okehampton without intruding, to a greater or lesser degree, into the national park, of which the trunk road forms part of the boundary. The line of the proposed bypass goes into the edge of the national park, and for about half this length the road is less than 60 yards inside the park boundary. It follows, quite closely, the existing road for part of its length, and it then runs close to an existing railway line which also passes through the park to the south of Okehampton. At no point does the route of the new road go so far as 1,000 yards inside the park boundary. I explain that to put the matter in context.

Some noble Lords may have noted, in a leading article in The Times last week, that there is already development in this part of the park. As well as the railway line I have mentioned, there is a quarry and an army camp. It is no part of the Government's argument that where there are already some intrusions into the park then one more intrusion is acceptable. On behalf of the Government, I reject the suggestion quite categorically.

But it is important to remember that landscape of high value does not exist only within the national park; in Devonshire there is a very great deal of beautiful landscape. The inspector drew attention to the value and attractions of the area north of Okehampton, and among his reasons for recommending against some of the northern routes which had been suggested was that a bypass there would adversely affect the environ- ment. I would also mention here the view of the Landscape Advisory Committee, whose advice on the choice of routes for trunk roads, on landscape and environmental grounds, is available to the Secretary of State. They visited the area on no less than six occasions. After their final visit to Okehampton, the committee unanimously recommended the southern route, the route on which the Secretary of State proposes to build the bypass.

National parks do, however, enjoy a special standing, and I think I can illustrate this by telling your Lordships that on this same route, the A30 trunk road, only a few miles from Okehampton, a further road scheme is in preparation which will have the effect of moving trunk road traffic, which now goes through the national park, out of it. This is the Whiddon Down to Okehampton section of the A30, where for some two and a half miles a replacement road for the existing trunk road is to be built outside the park. I refer to this to illustrate the way in which trunk roads policy accords with the policy towards national parks, and it is something which deserves to be known.

I now turn to the second unusual feature of this road proposal. This is the inclusion in the two compulsory purchase orders—the subject of the Motion before your Lordships' House—of some areas of public open space. I have explained that the processes by which new road proposals are planned, developed, and carried through are very exhaustive. In the case of open space land, the procedure lays down that the orders shall be subject to special parliamentary procedure where the Secretary of State has not obtained a certificate that he is providing land at least equal in area and equally advantageous in exchange for any public open space which he proposes to take for the new road. One of the functions of the independent inspector is to examine the Secretary of State's proposals in this respect, and to say whether or not he thinks them adequate. In cases where he does not consider them adequate, and declines to recommend the issue of the appropriate certificate, then it is open to those affected, if they so wish, to petition Parliament.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State, in putting forward his proposals for this bypass, did offer exchange land; but the inspector decided and recommended that a certificate should not be issued. The Secretary of State for the Environment accepted the inspector's view on that point, and the decision letter acknowledges that recourse to special parliamentary procedure would accordingly be available. As noble Lords will know, a petition has been made to this House. The point I wish to make clear is that it is not the principle of where this road should go but only the absence of a certificate for the public open space land which lays these orders open to special parliamentary procedure. If this Motion is not moved today, the matter will then stand referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses.

Before closing, may I say a few words about the Dartmoor Preservation Association, who with others have organised and presented the petition to this House, and who have the good fortune to have as their president the noble Lord, Lord Foot? My right honourable friend the Secretary of State appreciates the sincerity and depth of the association's love of Dartmoor and acknowledges their deeply-held view that this road should not go through any part of the national park. However, your Lordships will of course appreciate that the petitioners do not have to carry the responsibility for the decision on where else this road might go, were the petitioners' point of view to prevail. They represent a particular interest, and they represent it very forcefully and effectively; but I have to remind your Lordships that there are other interests which also deserve respect, and which the Secretary of State, in promoting and deciding on this most difficult matter, has had a duty to consider.

I have already reported the views of the independent inspector, who was charged with the task of hearing all the evidence, which included the views of the leading petitioners, and who concluded that the route chosen by the Secretary of State was the best one. I have also reported the view of the independent Landscape Advisory Committee, who were of the same opinion.

The chosen route of the bypass was and is supported by the local parish councils and by the district council for the area concerned, representing the people who live there and whose lives are most affected by the decision. The parish council of Okehampton Hamlets are the actual owners of the public open space affected by the orders. It has long been, and it remains, the considered and firm view of the parish council that the route proposed by my right honourable friend is the best one for the bypass.

I have been glad of this opportunity to draw attention to some aspects of the matter which are perhaps not so widely known as they should be, and I look forward now to hearing further views from noble Lords who have taken an interest in this matter.

6.40 p.m.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I want to concentrate my remarks on the likely impact of this road on the area of the national park that will be affected; namely, Okehampton Park and in particular the two areas of open space that will be affected and which led to the matter coming before Parliament in the first place. I should like to make two comments on the remarks which the noble Lord has made on behalf of the Government, one of which I shall come to at the end of my remarks. First, the noble Lord mentioned the Dartmoor Preservation Association, and certainly they have been in the lead in opposing a route that went through the national park. But a number of other interests—the Open Spaces Society, the Ramblers' Association and many national organisations—have been concerned about the proposal that this route should go through a national park. I take it from what we have heard already that the other interests which the noble Lord mentioned as needing to be balanced against these are primarily the agricultural interests and the financial interests of the Government. Those were the main arguments at the time and, as far as I can see, remain the main arguments against a northern route.

I agree with everyone else—and as I am sure everyone who speaks in the debate will agree—that a bypass is urgently needed. The last time I drove through Okehampton a car had broken down on the road just as it leaves Okehampton to the west. There was an extremely long tailback of traffic building up even though it looked as if the breakdown had occurred only a few minutes previously. It is a deplorable road. A bypass is clearly needed and there is no argument about that at all. However, the argument is now rather narrower than it was previously—namely, whether these two areas of open space should be taken for this particular route.

The noble Lord said that the A30 forms part of the boundary of the national park at this point, and that is quite correct. There has been an assumption by some people looking at this matter that if you move the road you therefore move the boundary of the national park and it does not matter much because the boundary was obviously drawn to meet the road and for no other good reason. With respect, that is not good enough.

The area of Okehampton Park falling within the national park which would be affected by the southern route is an ancient, rich and varied landscape. There is the open hillside of East Hill with its gorse and heather slopes and the deep wooded valleys of two rivers—East and West Okement Rivers. The park is dotted with very old oak and holly trees—indeed, this is woodland cover reminiscent of the ancient cover which would have been present throughout Devon in areas up to the treeline.

Okehampton Park is, in fact, an old mediaeval deer park. Indeed, of all the deer parks in Devon it is the least touched by development in recent years. It has remained largely undisturbed and many of its prehistoric and mediaeval features have been undamaged. It is therefore very rich in archaeological and ecological features. It is a landscape of great importance. It is not a bit of the park that was put in to fill it up to the edge of the road which would provide a convenient boundary—quite the opposite.

The road would go brutally across Okehampton Park. Okehampton Park is not a very large area and so the noble Lord is quite right in saying that the road does not leave the national park boundary for any great distance; but that does not alter the effect that it would have on Okehampton Park itself. There would be large viaducts at either end across the two rivers—the East and West Okement Valleys—and very large bridges across the existing roads and the railway, which the noble Lord mentioned. Indeed, their presence in the area only serves to prove that the visual and physical intrusion of the new road will be all the greater. I would guess that it would mean the felling of very nearly 1,000 mature trees—the oak trees and the hollies which I mentioned, many of which are in theory protected by tree preservation orders because they are very important trees. It would destroy the flora of the valley bottoms, the wet valleys in the two river systems. The oak woodlands are very rich in lichens and they would obviously be threatened or destroyed—certainly destroyed where the road went and where the bridges were built. There are pied flycatchers nesting in the wood and there are otter havens on the two rivers, which would be dramatically affected and clearly otters would no longer occur in that area as I understand they do at present.

I should like now to look in more detail at the two areas of open space which are particularly affected. As noble Lords who have spoken have said, it is the existence of these two areas of open space which has given rise to the opportunity for petitioners to come to Parliament to object to them being taken for the road. I hope that no one will be deflected in the statutory duty which they have to look at this requirement by the fact that there has been a public inquiry or that we have been waiting a long time for this. Indeed, as I shall say in a moment, I think that that reinforces the duty which will lie on those who look at this to take the case on its merits.

First, there is Bluebell Wood, which is a 50 acre oak and hazel wood which is at the west of the park and which is the major area of open space affected. It is unlike many bluebell woods in this part of the country because in such woods around London one very rarely sees a bluebell nowadays, but in this particular wood there are carpets of bluebells in the spring and it is much loved and visited by local people. The road would go through the heart of that wood.

I wish to go into a little of the history of the wood. The wood was given by a Mrs. Ryan in 1965 on trust as public open space in memory of her late daughter. It is held by Okehampton Hamlets Parish Council, in the words of the trust deed: to allow the enjoyment thereof by the public as an open space to be kept accessible to the public". This is not, in other words, some legal quirk which has given rise to this opportunity to petition. Mrs. Ryan left this space for the public in memory of her daughter and the trust deed stipulates that the property is to be preserved in its existing state; no trees are to be felled; and no part of the property is to be: used otherwise than as an open space preserved for the recreation and enjoyment at all times by the public". It takes very little imagination to see that driving a large bypass through this area would breach all the conditions of the trust on which Mrs. Ryan gave this open space to the public. That is why it is quite right that Parliament should examine this matter. As the noble Lord has said, although the Government did attempt to offer some land in exchange for this space, it was not considered to be adequate by the inspector.

There are 20 acres of open hillside at East Hill—also officially open space—which would be devastated by the split level carriageways which we know are necessary on the bypass at that point. The hillside is close to the town and I think that the implication has been from the noble Lord speaking on behalf of the Government that because it is close to the town it cannot be that special, it cannot be that marvellous—it cannot be anything like the middle of the national park. Of course it is not like the middle of Dartmoor National Park, but open countryside near to the town is that much more valuable to the majority of the people who live in the town. East Hill is used by local people for picnicking, blackberrying, jogging, birdwatching and a quiet evening stroll. I received letters from local people before it was known that this matter was going to be raised in this House saying that they regularly visit that area for walking and picnicking and expressing how much they will miss it if the road proposal goes ahead. There is an ancient beech avenue running through East Hill which is now a bridleway but which was part of a trackway linking the Saxon settlements from Okehampton to Tavistock, and that would be destroyed by the road.

I want to make two final points both of which seem to me to suggest that the matter would have been decided very differently had the Secretary of State been looking at this matter in 1984, or, indeed, in any period in the last few years as compared with September 1976. First, there is the growing importance of conservation and recreation, and particularly of walking in the countryside. Just this year the Countryside Commission have carried out a survey to assess the popularity of walking in the countryside and they found that even in February 40 per cent. of those questioned had been for a walk of two miles or more in the countryside in that month. The figure is clearly higher in the summer months. That is a considerable increase from the time when surveys were last carried out. The general household survey and a Sports Council survey showed something nearer 20 or 30 per cent. of people going for a walk of that length in the countryside every month.

Your Lordships will not need reminding after the debates on the Wildlife and Countryside Act which we had in 1980 and 1981 of just how important the recreation and conservation of the countryside are to the general public. That is in sharp contrast to the position in 1976, despite the sterling work many people had done to fight for, and defend, national parks over the years since 1949.

The second aspect which has dramatically changed and why I am sure a different decision would have been taken had this been looked at more recently is the agricultural case. It is normally the position that conservationists and farming organisations are at one in opposing the destruction—the removal—of agricultural land. This is the case where industrial or urban development threatened or where new road proposals are considered unnecessary by the farming and conservation organisations.

However, I am afraid in this case that that happy unity which so many of us welcome does not exist. Here, as the noble Lord has said, if the road goes to the south of Okehampton it is bound to go through the national park; if it goes to the north, it is bound to go through agricultural land. There is no other option available.

Although the noble Lord made something of the landscape arguments to the north of Okehampton, frankly there is no point in having national parks if we are to pay much attention to the line that he tried to develop. The major case was that there would be a loss of agricultural land to the north of Okehampton which would not occur if it went through—one can see the people at the time saying—the waste land to the south of Okehampton which nobody uses, and it is only in the national park because they wanted to put the boundary where the road is.

Since 1976—indeed since 1980—we have seen a dramatic reversal in agricultural policy in this country. We no longer have an official government policy which says that we need every acre of agricultural land to increase agricultural production. Quite the contrary. We now have official agricultural policy which says we must desperately try to reduce agricultural production. It is causing huge problems of surpluses and of public expenditure. We must try to cut back. The month before last in October the Government announced yet another series of public expenditure cuts on the grants which are designed to increase agricultural production for that very reason.

While the conservation, recreation and amenity case has grown dramatically stronger, the agricultural case has weakened. I do not, as a farmer, say that with any joy, but that is the fact of the matter. It is clear to me that were an inspector or a Secretary of State starting from scratch to look at Okehampton today, they would say, "We would not be justified in taking these two areas of public open space for a road. The road should go to the north". That seems to me the task that will face the joint committee, and I hope that is the conclusion to which they will come.

6.55 p.m.

Lord Molson

My Lords, having at one time been chairman of the Committee on National Parks, I naturally support the argument of my noble friend—if I may reciprocate his kind reference to me—Lord Foot in deprecating the proposal of the Secretary of State to put a major road through the Dartmoor National Park. But I rise to deal fully with the procedure introduced by the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945.

When my noble friend Lord Foot informed me that a Motion was to be moved in another place to prevent this order from going before a Joint Select Committee of both Houses, I at once remembered the proceedings, in which I took an active part, on the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945. In this matter at least it is a good thing that I have outlived the allotted span of three score years and ten, and that I am still here to be able to quote the proceedings in 1945.

I recall in particular the explicit pledge given by Mr. Arthur Greenwood, then Lord Privy Seal, in order to secure the passage of that Bill through another place. He undertook that the Government majority in another place should not be used to deprive petitioners of their right in suitable cases to be heard by a Joint Select Committee upstairs. I quote his words form col. 2180 of Hansard spoken on 14th November 1945: I cannot speak for any future Government, least of all for a government drawn from the opposite Benches, but I can speak for Her Majesty's present Government. I do not want to mince my words at all, and I give the most specific assurance that we do not regard this Bill as a weapon with which to beat down opposition or to carry proposals through without due regard to all the interests who ought to be considered. I think it would be wrong to use the Bill in that way, and so long as this Government continues I can assure honourable Members that this specific pledge which I have given will be honoured to the full". That pledge was given in reply to a speech of mine and I was speaking on behalf of a group which called themselves the Active Back-Benchers. They were anxious to ensure that the rights of the individual would be protected against a majority—at that time a Labour majority, now at the present time a Conservative majority—in another place. I said: I would ask the Lord Privy Seal to give an undertaking now that this Government at any rate—and if they set an example, perhaps other governments will follow it—will not use their majority as a 'bulldozer' in order to prevent petitioners from having a fair opportunity of having their case heard in a judicial atmosphere upstairs". That was at col. 2177 of Hansard.

Mr. Greenwood's Government fully observed that pledge, and although it was perhaps technically breached by a subsequent Labour Government in the cases of the Humber Harbour Reorganisation Scheme in 1968 and the Blaenau-Gwent Compulsory Purchase Order 1974, this was largely the work of Back-Benchers, and I am willing to believe that the Labour Party was not fully aware of the constitutional principle involved. I feel sure also that the Conservative Members of another place who put down that Motion were also not fully apprised of the facts.

The Act of 1945 was amended by the Act of 1965, but that in no way was intended to diminish the rights of the individual petitioner. On the contrary, as the Parliamentary Secretary in the Commons said on 24th February 1965 (at col. 530 of the Official Report): whereas at present, for a petition of general objection to get to the Committee there has to be a resolution of the House, under the new proposals, unless there is a resolution stopping it … it automatically goes there". The Act of 1965 actually increased the protection afforded to private interests.

There was a further development in this constitutional matter in 1967 in connection with the North Devon (Meldon Reservoir) Water Order 1966, when a number of amenity societies, with several of which I was associated, were denied by the Chairman of Committees and the Chairman of Ways and Means the right to be heard by a Joint Select Committee. I raised the matter and I questioned the correctness of the chairmans' decision on that matter. I was supported by Lord Dilhorne, the ex-Lord Chancellor. As a result of that, whether we were right or not in disputing the correctness of the chairman's decision, I asked that as the standing orders were obscure they should be amended to make it indisputably clear that amenity organisations had locus standi.

The Labour Government at the time, to their great credit, withdrew the order to give time for the standing orders to be so amended. They gave effect to Mr. Greenwood's promise in 1945 by providing a standing order as it reads at the present time. He said: It is the intention of Her Majesty's Government that these standing orders shall be such that no petitioner's rightful claims shall ever be rejected". The right of amenity societies is now explicitly stated in Standing Order No. 117(2) as follows: Where any society, association or other body, sufficiently representing amenity, educational, travel or recreational interests, petition against a Bill, alleging that the interests which they represent will be adversely affected to a material extent by the provisions contained in the Bill, it shall be competent to the Select Committee, if they think fit, to admit the petitioners to be heard on such allegations against the Bill or any part thereof". The Meldon Reservoir Order was reintroduced and under the amended standing order it went before a Joint Select Committee. There could hardly be plainer evidence of the existence of this constitutional principle and the Labour Government, at considerable inconvenience to themselves, honourably fulfilled the pledge given by Mr. Greenwood in 1945.

In point of fact this principle is only the application to Special Parliamentary Procedure of the right to recognise, at least since 1845, of private persons and interests under Private Bill procedure. Its application can make a predominantly Pubic Bill into a hybrid Bill. The intention of Parliament was that a difficult problem of this kind should be decided by a Joint Select Committee hearing counsel in a judicial atmosphere upstairs.

I trust that I have not wearied your Lordships by tracing this constitutional principle back to the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945, the amending Act of 1965 and the amendment of Standing Orders in 1967 which made clear beyond any possibility of doubt the effect to be given to it. I have thought it necessary to do so because of the Motion to override the petition which was put down by honourable friends of mine in another place. I feel sure that they would not have done so had they been aware of the constitutional convention that has been observed over the last 39 years by Governments of both parties.

I thank them for not taking that action when my noble friends in the Government represented to them that it would not be right to do so. I am glad to have been able to remind Governments of both parties on different occasions of the understanding on which the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945 was passed, and I wish to express my appreciation of the way in which both Governments have honoured it.

7.4 p.m.

The Earl of Iddesleigh

My Lords, I should like to begin by apologising to the House, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, for leaving the House during his speech, but I was called away by mistake for some other Peer.

I speak as a Devonian by adoption, not by birth, for I have lived continuously in that country for some 33 years. Although I own and farm land in Devon, I do not speak as a farmer but rather as an individual who knows the county well and also meets a wide selection and cross-section of its inhabitants. Perhaps I should also add that the land I farm is some 15 miles from Okehampton and nowhere near a national park.

I should like to take up two points made by the noble Lord, Lord Foot. They are briefly these. Although the Secretary of State could not provide suitable alternative open spaces that are the crux of this debate, do not let us forget the vast area of open space of the moor itself which is only a very short distance away from the proposed route. I should like also to take up the point of building roads through agricultural land in Devon. It would be impossible to build a road that does not go through agricultural land when it is built in Devon. Great consultation takes place between the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association before these routes are approved, so I would question the validity of that argument.

I take up some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. He made much of the deer park, but this, as has been agreed by the inspector's report, is not a public open space. I think that is an important difference.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, mentioned the large viaduct if the road goes to the south. I would remind him that if the road goes to the north there will still be a large viaduct. I was indeed surprised, too, when the noble Lord suggested that if the inquiry had happened this year the agricultural case would not have been put so strongly. As a farmer myself, and knowing the difficulties for farming on the edge of the moor, I think that that is an extraordinary suggestion.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, the noble Earl has heard, no doubt, of the imposition of milk quotas. Is it not possible that that would have been seen as considerably changing the atmosphere and the importance of agricultural production compared with the period when this was looked at?

The Earl of Iddesleigh

My Lords, I perfectly accept the argument on milk quotas, but that shows the greater struggle that these farmers are having.

If I may continue, I am glad to say that the case for by-passing Okehampton has surely been made. I do not think that anyone would quarrel with the contention that this is the major bottleneck now in the County of Devon. As the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has said, in the mid-1970s informal discussions were taking place to solve this problem. In May 1979 the public inquiry started. I will not repeat the figures that he gave but they show the tremendous amount of work put into it, not only by the legally qualified inspector but also by the various organisations and members of the public as well.

After acceptance of the need for a bypass, the alternatives are reasonably simple—either to go through attractive, mainly open farmland of medium quality to the north or through predominantly woodland scrubland with some far less valuable farmland to the south. This, as noble Lords have said, would mean slicing through the northern boundary of the Dartmoor National Park. I would point out that that leaves some 440 acres between the proposed road and the northern boundary of the park.

As we know, the inspector's report came out very strongly in favour of the southern route. I am sure that after 96 days he would not have reached that decision lightly, or, indeed, as has perhaps been hinted, come under pressure from the Secretary of State. My figures are slightly different from those of some of your Lordships in that I was told that the additional cost in 1980 was put at some £5 million, and I was also told that the report stretched to some 767 pages.

The objections put forward against the southern route were, of course, many and varied, but the most fundamental was undoubtedly that of entering the national park itself. But I ask your Lordships to put this into perspective. The proposed southern route does not cross open moorland, and, as has been said, it is nowhere more than 1,000 yards from the present park boundary. As has also been said, it runs along the A30 for something like half its length. I happen to know that this northern boundary of the park was fixed by a very arbitrary line being drawn on a map. Noble Lords may be interested to know that the total area of the national park is some 230,000 acres, and I calculate the loss, if this 440 acres can be called a loss, as being 0.19 per cent. of the total. I understand that if the inspector's report is adopted by the joint committee, this area will still be inside the park. The inspector also appreciated that from the high moor the northern route, if it is adopted, would be far more conspicuous than the proposed southern route.

Mention has also been made of Bluebell Wood and the triangular field, as I think it is called. I admit that these are agreed as public open spaces. But in spite of these objections and the only moderate importance to the public of these two areas, the inspector firmly supported the southern route. I think it is particularly significant that neither the Countryside Commission nor the Dartmoor National Park Authority have felt it right to pursue these matters further before the joint committee. Both these bodies have statutory responsibilities in respect of national parks; both argued against the Department of Transport's proposals at the public inquiry; and both have felt it inappropriate to pursue the matter any further now.

As has been said, neither the Okehampton Parish Council nor local people—nor, indeed, the many people in Devon to whom I have spoken on this subject—would generally seem to wish to claim Bluebell Wood and the other area as public open spaces. They are not of such importance that the inspector's decision for a southern route should be challenged. I am sure that there would be a very real sense of outrage locally if the joint committee were to embark on a lengthy review of all that has already been fully examined during the public inquiry. This, if it happens, would seem to me to be an abuse of the democratic process built into the Act.

There is one further vital consideration that cannot be neglected. It is the inevitable delay in providing a bypass for Okehampton if the orders now under consideration are not made. Of course, I believe in the principle of free speech and I realise that this is a very important decision which the joint committee must now take. I would only stress that the issues have already been very fully debated in public.

I should like to conclude by quoting one paragraph from the inspector's report. He states in paragraph 2816: In my judgment the total price that would be paid for avoiding the National Park is too high. That price includes:

  1. (1) an economic penalty of £5 million;
  2. (2) a severe agricultural penalty;
  3. (3) the environmental damage; and"—
as has already been mentioned— (4) the closure of Aggelts Quarry with the loss of employment that that would entail". These reasons, and the conclusions reached by the inspector in 1980, I feel, still stand today.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Clinton

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Iddesleigh. It was some years ago that his father very kindly showed me round your Lordships' House, and I am very pleased to follow my noble friend today. I have lived in Devon for some considerable time—for 25 years or more—13 miles north of Okehampton, and remember well the best way to get there from this city. That was by train, which took the quite correct route through the moor south of the town and on west into Cornwall. As far as I remember, nobody objected to the train and its route, and in those days roads were less crowded and national parks and their boundaries were not as parks are today. I agree that the parks are very important to our livelihood.

However, some of the edges of the park close to Okehampton, on an arbitrary boundary chosen not always with consideration for its landscape but more in line with a parish or road shown on a map, leads me to wonder whether, if the map had been drawn differently, with the road outside the park, we would be here today. As we have already been told this evening, the encroachment within the park is very little—surely only a very little bite from a very large apple.

By coincidence I am the present chairman of the Devon branch of the Country Landowners' Association. We are in favour of the southerly route, believing that it is the best one. We objected to the northern route on agricultural and severance grounds. But it is interesting to note that we set up a working party during the consultation period in 1975 and our branch was able to suggest two modifications to the southerly road. These modifications resulted in a saving in construction costs at that time of about £1.63 million. Recommendations were made for the benefit of the environment generally—for example, to take less of the national park; to reduce the noise levels in the town; and to straighten the route. Perhaps this is an example of the constructive help which we have been able to give at a local level from time to time.

Much mention has been made of the A.30, and we who live in Devon know it very well. We know all its trials and tribulations. But I wonder whether we have any concept of the amount of time that is wasted on this road, of the accidents which take place and of the general disturbance to people who live along it. As long as I can remember the road has been a problem; and here we are, at the 11th hour and 59th minute, yet again putting back the clock for the sake of a small part of the intended bypass going through the national park. Surely we must be constructive. Let us accept the road, build it and make sure that its design and surroundings, where it offends the protectors of the national park, are made so as to please them.

I would ask them to show their love for the national park and to help ensure that this is done. It always seems to me that we have a very negative approach. The road must be built. To delay is not good for anyone. My plea may be a little self-interested, but, in fact, I am lucky enough to leave the A.30 on the eastern side long before it reaches Okehampton.

However, I know the road very well, and one must not forget that Exeter is only half way to Penzance. This bottleneck is a nightmare to those who live in Okehampton, and we need a remedy. I quite like the quote of someone who said the other day: While Whitehall and Westminster fiddle, Okehampton fumes". Devon may not fume, but I know that it is very concerned to have this road built.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to one matter which strikes me very much. During the summer a lot of traffic is diverted onto unsuitable roads so as to avoid Okehampton. The adverse effect on these roads, which are completely unsuitable for the extra traffic, is doing great harm to the countryside. Several improvements have had to be made which I do not believe would have been made in other circumstances. The letters "HR" are a familiar sight on our byways, but they do not stand for "Hell road" they stand for "Holiday route". But they could easily stand for the former, and I believe they do.

I believe that the objectors and those involved in trying to stop this bypass being built may pay a high price for their demands, well outside the national park; and to decline to take away such a small piece, which can be properly landscaped, seems a great pity to me when compared with the northerly route, on the other side. Let there be no more delays, my Lords: there are people's livelihoods, not bluebell woods, at stake.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I have an interest to declare, in that I am President of the Open Spaces Society—and probably by the time I have finished saying what I am going to say they will give me the sack!

I have very litle to say except that, for Okehampton, a bypass to the north is an environmental disaster, a bypass to the south is an environmental disaster, and not building a bypass at all seems to me to be an even worse environmental disaster. That is probably why the problem has been so sticky and so difficult. I suppose we could build a road underneath Okehampton and then there would be no bypass either to the north or the south; but somebody would doubtless find some very rare form of fossilised shell which should not be disturbed from it several million years of sitting there, so there would be a row about that.

That is the first point I wanted to make; and the second point is really specifically addressed to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. It is actually not good enough for him to say that agricultural and financial interests are the only things that count in this argument and that conservation arguments should always arise. With the greatest of respect to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, this is what gives the conservation argument a very bad name, as does sitting down in front of bulldozers, et cetera. It is not a good thing to do. I care just as much about conservation as he does, and very often you can get much more by going quietly and talking to people and having helpful and co-operative discussions in that way. That is because there has been a change of opinion in this country and that change of opinion has been brought about, I would suggest, not by the "ecofreaks" but by sensible, intelligent conservation and persuasion—

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I know that the noble Earl likes having an argument across the House, but he really is having an argument about nothing, because all I said was just what he said. There has been a change of opinion in recent years and conservation is seen as more important than it was in 1976, and the need to increase food production is no longer as great as it was in 1976. That is all I said: I did not say that those things should be disregarded. I hope the noble Earl would not think me as silly as that.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I did not think that the noble Lord was as silly as that but sometimes he has been known to give the impression that he has said that. The other point I should like to make—and I say this very sincerely to my noble friends on the Front Bench—is that when they saw the damage which was being done by the operations in another place they reacted with sensitivity and high intelligence, and they managed to push things back from the point which the argument was reaching to the level of sensible discussion. The move to stop the petition going to the Joint Committee of both Houses would have been a disaster. It would have been a very grave mistake, in my humble opinion.

This is really the main point of what I want to say to your Lordships. May I please have an undertaking from Her Majesty's Government that because they have nearly been caught out this time they have no evil intention of changing the rules for the next time round, because that would be a very wrong and bad thing to do? My Lords, that is really all I want to say.

7.24 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I am at a disadvantage compared with many of your Lordships who have spoken, in that I am not so familiar with Devon as many of you obviously are. I have learned a great deal from listening to the debate and I have no doubt at all that everyone who has spoken has spoken with great sincerity from a personal point of view.

I have been in Okehampton but it was a very long time ago, and I think it was even before the real motor car age when the traffic became intolerable. I have seen many pictures of Okehampton, taken at rush hours and at various times of the day. I know there is no questioning the necessity of a bypass for Okehampton. The pictures I have seen show intolerable conditions; and when I had something to do with it in an official capacity we had a film show from some of the local people, showing us just how bad it was. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, said that the local parish council were in favour of the southern route, but from memory I got the impression that they had reached the point of exasperation and were just wanting a road anywhere round Okehampton to give life a chance in the very fine old town.

One noble Lord referred to the holiday routes. I know they are a slight help but, really, the sheer volume of traffic is such that they can take only a very little away from the basic problem of the road through Okehampton and down to the far West Country. I know that families leave London and the Midlands to go to the West Country on holiday and that they leave at ridiculous times of the day and night in order to try to get through, so that there can be almost a 24-hour jam. People have been leaving at times all round the clock, trying to find a quiet time to get through Okehampton.

So no one is in any doubt that Okehampton needs a bypass. Your Lordships' House tonight has stressed that very clearly. But there is always great pressure on Ministers whenever a route is being chosen for a new road. Much has been said in the debate about the vested interests and there have been arguments about the particular route that has been chosen, but in my experience the interests are not by any means always financial. We do not like the idea of change: we all tend to worry about change and also tend to delay it as much as possible-and that is change in our own little part of the world. So, as I say, we tend to delay it as much as possible, in Britain in particular. Britain is such a relatively small island and is so full of history and of natural beauty spots and areas of beauty that it is almost impossible to build a road anywhere without hitting on one or other of the problems that arise.

As in this particular case, it frequently appears that practically all the difficulties and objections to any route have concentrated and crystallised on this particular Okehampton bypass. Whether we go north or south, it seems that these problems are there; and they are almost intractable despite the great efforts of the inspector and despite all the work that the department and the inspector have done to try to reach some sort of understanding.

All the classical reasons for rethinking the route have been expounded tonight. The noble Lord, Lord Foot, intimated at the beginning of his exhaustive and very informative speech that he would not be pressing the matter to a vote. That means, of course, that the Joint Committee of the two Houses will have another chance to look at the problem.

I think we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Molson, for giving us the very interesting historical background to the debate, not just because it was a piece of history but because it was the very essence of Parliamentary trust and understanding. He said that there was more than one Government involved, and Governments with very big majorities, which shows that there is a place in Parliament as a whole for a second look at many things and this is certainly a case where there should be a special look.

As I said, I am not as familiar with the area as most noble Lords who have spoken. I have merely been looking at maps and trying to get some understanding from them and from the various pieces of paper that I have been given. It has been said that there are only about 1,000 yards of the National Park involved, at a rather special part of the park. But we are talking about a quarter of that area and, after all, 1,000 yards is more than half a mile. It is quite a bite not out of Dartmoor as a whole, which is vast, but out of the immediate environs of the area of Okehampton on which we have all been sent information.

The noble Lords, Lord Melchett and Lord Foot, put very clearly the value of this area to the local people; for example, the 1,000 valuable imported and classified trees which it will be difficult to remove. Further orders may be needed for that, although I am not quite sure about it. But the very principle of roads through national parks is important. It is not just the local residents and pressure groups who are involved. As the noble Lord, Lord Molson, said, this is something which concerns us all. With his great knowledge, he was able to provide only two examples of where the special procedure was not used, because of default or Back-Bench pressure.

So we must all be very grateful that the people who have brought pressure to bear have been able to see the Chairman of Ways and Means in another place and the Chairman of Committees in this place, and to persuade them that there is a good case for having another look at this. In the eight years since this started, there has been a radical change in thinking towards our heritage and towards the whole question of roads. In my own part of the world, things that were done 10 years ago would never be tolerated in the present climate. So I hope that this committee will be able to get under way fairly quickly.

The Minister has not yet mentioned the difference in cost between the northern and southern routes, and it would be a great help to have the latest departmental estimate of the costs. I have no hard and fast and quickly made-up view as to whether there should be a northern or a southern route, but I believe that the case has certainly been made and the Chairman of Ways and Means and our own Chairman of Committees have decided that there is a sufficient case to go to a Joint Committee. I hope that the debate here tonight has been able to enlighten a number of people who may be giving evidence, and that, as well as having the views of barristers and other people, the committee will be able to have some regard to the voice of your Lordships' House in the debate tonight.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, replies, may I say one quick word, because I think that the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, gave the impression that the Chairman of Ways and Means and I had gone into the merits of the case. Indeed we have not. The only thing we had to certify was that their petition was in proper legal form and that their locus standi was good. We did not have to go into the merits of their case.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I am very grateful for that assurance. I think that I was misled, because of the interesting interventions we had earlier on the history of the matter. Hovever, having said that, the fact that the provision is there is of benefit to us all.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should now like to try to attempt to deal with some of the points that have been raised, although I think noble Lords will agree that most of the questions are not for me but for deliberation in the future by the Joint Committee. But I must take up one or two points. The noble Lords, Lord Melchett and Lord Carmichael, mentioned that up to 1,000 trees might be felled. It was made quite clear at the inquiry, and it remains the case, that the department intends to plant at least five times as many new trees along the line of the route, if the road is built. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, also mentioned the subject of bluebell woods and drew attention to the terms of the trust deed for Bluebell Wood. But I should like to repeat that the owners of Bluebell Wood, the parish council of Okehampton Hamlets, are responsible for administering that deed. They have carefully weighed the pros and cons and have concluded that the best interests of the people of Okehampton are best served by allowing the bypass to be built through that area, rather than through any of the alternatives.

We all listened with interest to the speech of my noble friend Lord Molson, whose knowledge of these matters must be unrivalled. The Government will certainly take careful note of the points made by my noble friend. But as I think he himself made clear, most of what he said is no longer applicable to this particular case which will, in due course, be considered by a Joint Select Committee. However, it is clear that the interests of democracy will now be served by the Joint Committee's consideration of the petition.

My noble friend Lord Onslow asked me to give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that we would not attempt to use this procedure. I cannot give that commitment on a hypothetical case, which might or might not arise in the future, and I do not think that he would really expect me to do so at this stage.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I think that my noble friend has not understood what I wanted him to say. What I wanted him to say was that there was no question of the Government changing the right of people to petition in the circumstances in which they are petitioning now. That was the question I asked; not whether they would use it, as in the case of Sir Peter Mills in another place.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I can say that we have no present intention of changing this. But, as I said, I cannot commit myself to a hypothetical case which might arise in the future. We listened with interest to the speeches of the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, and my noble friend Lord Clinton and to their strongly held and well-raised views. I think we have had a very interesting debate and I should like to take this opportunity to wish the Joint Committee well in its deliberations.

Lord Foot

My Lords, I am sure that it would not be the wish of the House that I should prolong these proceedings for more than a minute or two. However, I should like to take the opportunity to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this discussion, not least noble Lords who have taken the other view. I could indeed agree with the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, when he said that he hoped the hearing before the Joint Select Committee would not be a rehearsal of all the arguments and so on that went on before the public inquiry. I share that view very strongly. What I hope is that the Select Committee will see it as their business to pronounce not upon the detail of this matter, but upon the general principles which are involved.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton, spoke about the dangers of delay and how improper it would be for this matter to be delayed any longer. That is a very dangerous argument, because it is an argument which is constantly used in order to support some very doubtful operation. Unfortunately, there is a terrible example in the history of Dartmoor of the way in which that argument of delay was used to the desperate disadvantage of the moor. That is the case of the Meldon reservoir and the Meldon dam to which the noble Lord, Lord Molson, referred.

On that occasion a long time ago a proposal was put forward to build a dam across the little West Okement river, which is just north of the area of the national park about which we are talking. The proposal was made that that should be constructed and that a reservoir should be created behind it. That has been done. At the time it was bitterly fought over. The argument of the proponents of the Meldon reservoir was overwhelmingly that there was a desperate need for water in the whole of Devon and that this was a way in which the demand could be met. The argument was utterly empty. Before even the dam and the reservoir had been constructed and finished it had been demonstrated that the reservoir was wholly inadequate to meet the needs of Devon and Plymouth and of north Devon in particular. We now have a proposal after a long delay for another larger reservoir outside the national park. The result is that we have had built in the national park a reservoir which has contributed absolutely nothing to the solution of our water problems, as is now admitted by many of the people who supported the reservoir at the time. The main argument that was used during that controversy in support of the reservoir was that we could not tolerate any further delay. That argument unfortunately prevailed and as a result the moor has been desecrated by a worthless operation.

May I say to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that I certainly do not take the view that the conservation argument must always prevail. The noble Earl shakes his head as if I did not understand. Possibly I did not understand him. Of course, the difficulty with the noble Earl when one hears him so often is that when he sits down, one is never quite sure which side he is on. That was the case on this occasion.

I am certainly not a fanatic in this matter. I assert not that the interests of conservation must always prevail. I would rather say, as is said in the Act of Parliament, that in national parks the interests of preservation and access should be paramount. I do not put it higher than that.

The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, was good enough to refer to the fact—I am not sure whether he thought it was to my advantage or not—that I am the President of the Dartmoor Preservation Association. I have to plead guilty to that. I have for all my life been interested in Dartmoor and in the Dartmoor National Park. However, in addition to being the President of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, I served for 10 years as a member of the Dartmoor National Park Committee which is charged with the business of looking after the interests of the park. I hope that in that time I certainly did not take any fanatical view. I realise of course that there were many interests and many views which have a claim upon public attention; but may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and indeed to the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, that one of the things I have discovered over the years is that whenever anybody proposes some form of development in a national park it is always very easy to produce specious reasons—the word "specious" is not a pejorative word although I thought until recently that it was. People are able always to produce respectable reasons for the development which they want to achieve. The difficulty so often is that these respectable reasons are advanced but that if one always gives way to them there is a progressive deterioration of the national park and a progressive diminution of the national park.

It is not surprising to me that tonight the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, should have said—as indeed I expected him to say—that surely this is not really a very important matter because it is only an intrusion of up to 1,000 yards inside the park. The noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, said that, after all, there is a lot left of the park even when you have taken away the area that will be swallowed up by this road. Of course there is. That argument is always addressed to us by everybody, whatever they want to do—whether it is the military who want to build a new firing range, whether it is the china clay interests who want to have a new tipping ground, or whether it is other interests of the same kind. One hears the constant demand for the right of farmers to plough up the moor land, not only in Dartmoor but more so in Exmoor. There are constant demands by people who do not appreciate the national park to build more reservoirs in the national park. In all these cases it is very simple to reduce respectable reasons for doing it. If one judges each particular issue on its apparent merits and forgets the overall problem of maintaining the integrity of the national park, it is all too easy for these schemes of development and of national park destruction to be heard and to go through.

May I conclude by saying this. Back in 1962 there was a famous debate in this House about national parks. It arose from a proposal by the Corporation of Manchester to carry out water works affecting Ullswater. Some of your Lordships may remember that it was the famous occasion when Lord Birkett spoke in this House and, as it turned out, he spoke within three days of his death. He came to the help and aid of the lakes and of Ullswater in particular. The argument which had been advanced by the supporters of the proposal was that, after all, this was going to make only a very little difference to the level of the water in Ullswater. It was said that it was very important that Manchester should have its water and that this would make very much difference. Happily, Lord Birkett on that occasion was not only able to persuade the House to his view but he spoke about that argument and said that the argument that it would make very little difference was, in the context of the preservation of the national parks, a pitiful one.

I hope that when this matter goes before the Joint Select Committee they may be of the same mind as Lord Birkett. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.