HL Deb 05 December 1985 vol 468 cc1412-33


The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now considered on Report.

The Government bring this Bill to the House because we think that a southern bypass is right for Okehampton. The new road there is a key element in the national road programme. It is a major plank in regional development. Without it, West Devon and Cornwall would not be linked properly to the national road network. The people of Okehampton should not have to suffer traffic as they do all year round, and not just at holiday times as is often believed. It is the policy of this and successive governments that there should be a good national network of roads and that through traffic, particularly heavy goods traffic, should be kept away from people. This scheme meets both criteria. It follows that our proposals are a matter of policy and that there should be a bypass soon.

Many thousands await your Lordships' decision. They are anxious in case this House delays the appearance in their local papers of comments such as: Street Where Traffic Chaos Melted Away A mother can even safely walk her child across the road in a push chair—just like the old days when traffic helped govern town life instead of choking it to death. That is what the people of Reigate read two months ago, after the M.25 opened. I hope that we shall not be accused of delaying it for Okehampton.

There is still, however, considerable controversy about where the bypass should be. So let me start by briefly saying a word on the environment. From my background, many noble Lords would know that this is to me the most important consideration. I am as convinced as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport that our predecessors made the right decision in going for the southern route. He described why he was so convinced at some length in the other place. When I went to look for myself I could see quite clearly why the inspector at the public inquiry, while saying that the landscape south of Okehampton was of great merit, concluded that building a road to the north of the town would do greater environmental damage than a southern route. It is a balanced decision that we have had to take, but it is the environment which tips the balance.

Wherever one builds a new road in such an attractive part of the country, it is a soul-searching decision and one which will cause some environmental problems. But the impact on the landscape would be greater in the north than in the south. I am sure other noble Lords will go into this aspect in greater detail during the debate. Therefore, without downgrading the environmental considerations I want to give prominence to some aspects of the Bill which were not fully dealt with in the other place.

I turn first to open space. For many years compulsory purchase orders which would take open space have been subject to special parliamentary procedure unless the Secretary of State for the Environment can certify that "land not less in area and…equally advantageous to the public" is to be given in exchange. The current law is consolidated in the Acquisition of Land Act 1981.

We knew before the 1979 public inquiry that two acres of dedicated open space at the northern end of Meldon Woods would have to be taken permanently for the new road. Our compulsory purchase orders provided for four acres to be given in exchange. The inspector, however, found that this land was not equally advantageous to the public. He also found that about 20 acres of privately-owned land on East Hill which was also required for the road was, as a matter of fact, "Used for the purposes of public recreation". The sense of his finding was that, although the land was privately owned, it ought to be treated for exchange land purposes as though it were de jure open space. The department could not have included in the compulsory purchase orders exchange land for that area, because when the order was prepared this land was, and is still, privately owned. Furthermore, there was the added difficulty that the public had no legal rights, and we could hardly have offered land in exchange for rights that do not legally exist.

The Secretary of State could have, at this stage, decided to try to purchase additional exchange land compulsorily for the land at Meldon Woods and at East Hill. Those new compulsory purchase orders would almost certainly have led to another public inquiry. Alternatively, he could have introduced a hybrid Bill. Instead he decided that special parliamentary procedure offered the best course. Since then, with the help of the CLA, to whom I pay tribute, we have found a further 30 acres of land which we believe the owners are willing to sell by agreement and which we hope to buy under separate powers to mitigate the effects of the road and make available for use as open space if the Bill goes through. With the four acres already in the CPO, and a further eight acres which we may buy or manage for additional landscaping and public use purposes, in all about 40 acres are in prospect to replace the 23 acres of open space taken for the road. The two plots intended for public use are, in my judgment, more use to the public than Meldon Woods. They are closer to the centre of Okehampton, the public will have a legal right to be on them, and they will not be ruined by road noise as was implied in another place.

I should say also at this point that the report of the Joint Committee is a little misleading when it says in paragraph 3 that, Public open spaces form such a large proportion of the Southern Route". There are only two acres dedicated as open space for public use, and only 23 acres out of the 140 taken for the route was found to be open space by the inspector.

I should also correct another error made in another place. It was suggested that a northern route would avoid any problem of open space. This may not be so. There is a possibility that the inspector could determine that de facto open space exists at a place common to all the northern routes. The Joint Select Committee were told about it. We do not know if, on full investigation, it would be found to be open space, but it might be. Special parliamentary procedure might again be necessary, and the process we are going through might have to be repeated. This could mean further delay, but let me make it clear that we have not provided for it in our timetable for a northern route, which I shall come to later.

Let me recap on the decisions and procedures that have taken place. As I have already said, it was purely the question of open space that triggered the submission of the orders to Parliament under the Statutory Orders Special Procedure Act 1945 as amended in 1965. Under this procedure, and following the making of the orders, there are 21 days to enable petitioners to lodge petitions of either a general or specific nature. If a petition is lodged, it is scrutinised by the Lord Chairman of Committees and the Chairman of Ways and Means whose job it is to certify whether the petitions are proper to be received. The petitioners in this case indicated that central to their case were issues of policy—on national parks—which went far beyond the more limited open spaces issue. At this stage the Secretary of State can put a memorial to the joint chairmen on the question of whether the whole or part of any petition is proper. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State did just that. He asked the joint chairmen not to certify as proper that large part of the petition which was based on matters of policy. This indicated the Government's objection to issues of policy being taken by a joint committee. The joint chairmen disagreed. When this happens the petition must go before a joint committee of both Houses unless within 21 days there is either a resolution of either House that the matter should not go to a joint committee or there is a resolution in either House that the orders be annulled.

Your Lordships will remember that the noble Lord, Lord Foot, put down a Motion in this House that the orders be annulled. That was followed by a Motion put down in the other place by the honourable Member for Devon West and Torridge and others that the orders should not go to a joint committee. There followed discussions between all the parties involved in Parliament who reached agreement that the right procedure would be to take the orders to a joint committee as normally happens automatically under the Act since it was amended in 1965.

As can be appreciated from what I have just said, the question of whether a petition goes to a joint committee is not now decided primarily by the Government of the day. This is contrary to what my noble friend Lord Molson believed and wrote in his recent letter to The Times. If the Government had moved at this stage that the petition be not referred to a joint committee, we would have been criticised for using our powers as—and I quote from Mr. Greenwood in Hansard of 14th November 1945, at col. 2180: 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". Mr. Greenwood further said: We hope to get on to the Floor of the House discussions which go to the root of Ministerial Orders". He added at a later stage: it must rest with the Government of the day, whatever its complexion, to advise Parliament whether a particular issue raised on a Ministerial Order is or is not one of policy on which the Government may feel bound to use their Parliamentary resources". My right honourable friend the Secretary of State did make clear that this was a matter of policy, and we are of the opinion that it is of such importance that it should be brought for decision on to the Floor of the House under the procedure provided for in Section 6 of the 1945 Act. Some of your Lordships might not like the present system, but given the only alternatives of a hybrid Bill or special parliamentary procedure I believe even with hindsight we were right to use special parliamentary procedure. This was agreed as the best way forward at that time. The provisions of the relevant Acts have been followed meticulously.

Given the fact that there was a 96-day public inquiry; that there was considerable local consultation; that a right was given to the petitioners to put their case yet again to a joint committee of both Houses, I cannot see how my noble friend Lord Molson can argue that the assurances given to him by Mr. Greenwood have been overturned. It is clear to me that every effort has been made to have this matter fully debated and that the correct procedure was followed. While I respect my noble friend's concern I just wonder whether my noble friend is not in fact more concerned that we used the procedure, for it was none other than my noble friend who, as the then Member for High Peak, tabled a Second Reading amendment to the Bill back in 1945.

Let me say a word on the constitutional custom consistently followed by successive Governments. The House will know that in 1949 the Government of which Mr. Greenwood was a member did bring to the Floor of both Houses a confirming Bill to change amendments made by the joint committee to the Mid-Northamptonshire Water Board Order 1948 because they raised issues of principle. The joint committee has sat 43 times since the 1945 Act. On three occasions before this one they have rejected orders completely. Two of them originated with local authorities, and on the one occasion when a central Government order was rejected. The Minister was so diffident about it that he gave no oral evidence and let petitioners fight it out with witnesses from an existing water board.

I trust your Lordships will all agree that it would not be right to erect a constitutional doctrine from such material. The House has always been able to review the decisions of its committees. If serious matters arise the Floor of the House is the place to deal with them, and judging by the number of noble Lords down to speak today and the number of speakers in the other place, this is a serious matter of considerable interest. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, to reconsider his amendment to the Motion. It was his party—although he was not of course personally involved—which published DOE circular 4/76, which contains the now famous statement on roads in national parks. But it was also his party which eight months later published the preferred route for the bypass to the south of Okehampton, acknowledging, in the announcement, that there were national park implications. We agree with their decision. We can see that at Okehampton there are the geographical circumstances of which the circular speaks when saying that there will be exceptions. The inspector saw them too. He gave five grounds for his recommendation for a southern route with which we agreed; and we give prominence to landscape impact which was one of those grounds. The joint committee disagreed and that was their right. But I would have hoped for some consistency from the noble Lord's party. He seems now to be saying that they made the wrong choice in 1976. They were right then to conclude that there was no reasonable alternative means of meeting this compelling need. Having published the preferred route, they drafted and published the orders and set up the pubic inquiry in 1979. They should not be regretting our bringing in this Bill. They should be supporting it.

Many noble Lords who have spoken to me about this Bill have been concerned that we might set a precedent for future roads or other development in national parks. My noble friend Lord Elton is better placed to deal with the general point, but on roads I can give a categorical assurance that we shall not use it in that way. The processes of public inquiry and decision do not allow the facts of one case to justify another.

Lastly. I want to deal with the time necessary to plan and build a northern route, which has emerged as an important issue, especially for the people who live in Okehampton and for Cornwall. No one disputes that it would be possible for a southern route to be completed within three years of Parliament approving it. The dispute lies in the difference between the department's firm statement that a northern route would take nine years to complete and the objectors' advisers who have said since the joint committee hearings that it need only take five years or thereabouts. From what I understand it appears that their opinions can be challenged. It is based on the views of Mr. Brian Parker, who appeared as a witness for the objectors, and Mr. Singleton, who broadly corroborated what Mr. Parker said. While they both hold respected qualifications, neither has led the design and processing of a national road scheme.

Nevertheless, I do not think they would dispute that it takes—on average—13 years to plan and build a national road project. We wish it could be a lesser period. We have said that pulling out all the stops we might be able to build a northern route in nine years—a significant saving of four years—assuming that the inspector at the inevitable public inquiry did not reject it, as the last one did, and assuming also that none of the land involved was ruled to be de facto open space: a point I referred to earlier. So what has led Mr. Parker into thinking, erroneously, that we might do better than nine years?

If it is the assumption that we could save two years on investigation of route options by going straight for the particular northern route advocated by the petitioners, he is wrong. This route was not as such discussed at public inquiry, though it does consist of parts of some of the 13 variants which were. To do this would be clearly unrealistic, and we could be challenged at public inquiry and in the courts, and rightly so. because we would not have done our homework thoroughly.

That leads me to wonder whether if Mr. Parker also thought that we could save another year by avoiding public consultation of the route options. This is undemocratic as well as unrealistic, given the strong local preference for a southern route. He might have assumed that yet another year could be saved because we have done most of the detailed design for a northern route. We have not. This is evidenced by the fact that the South-West Water Authority drew to our attention only on 18th March this year, and for the first time, that there was some metal contamination in soft ground through which any northern route would go. Naturally, if the detailed design for a road had been undertaken water and soil tests would have been done and we would have known about this possible problem. All we have done is to say that one or other of the northern routes comply with our design standards. The joint committee said that given good will we could proceed quicker. To meet the tighter timetable those entitled to be heard at a public inquiry would either have to forgo their statutory rights voluntarily—which they would not—or be compelled to do so.

The department's south-west road region which comprises the seven counties, including Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, is currently working on over 50 schemes in the national road programme. The staffare fully committed. If we cannot proceed with the proposed scheme at Okehampton, there will inevitably be delays to these schemes as well. The dual carriageway A.30 Okehampton-Launceston scheme would have to be delayed until the line of the western end of the Okehampton bypass was fixed. I shall not be drawn on which other road schemes would suffer, but if we have to divert resources to finding a new route north of Okehampton, suffer they will.

It is entirely proper that we should have been asked to explain and justify these estimated timings for a possible northern route. On the face of it nine years is a long time. Before some of your Lordships point out to me quite correctly that we have just completed the Darlington bypass in eight years and nine months, let me remind the House that the public inquiry lasted two days and that the inspector reported in 14. That, as your Lordships will know if you have spoken to any Devonian, simply will not be the case in this instance. Any northern route would be bitterly fought; in fact, the whole concept of a northern route would be contested with the same vigour as has been deployed against the southern route. I have to advise the House that nine years is a minimum realistic time for a northern route. It would be wrong and cruelly unfair to the people of Okehampton and others affected if the House rejected this Bill in the mistaken belief that a northern route could be completed in less than nine years.

I shall summarise the Government position briefly. We are convinced that the southern route is right. We stand by the general presumption against major through routes in national parks, and we say that this is one of those exceptional circumstances for which DOE circular 4/76 provided when it was drafted because we do not believe that any northern route would be a reasonable alternative means of bypassing Okehampton. We do not apologise for presenting the Bill. We still believe it was the right course. It is right that Parliament should decide this important matter and I ask the House to allow the swift passage of the Bill. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now considered on Report.—(The Earl of Caithness.)

3.47 p.m.

Lord Molson rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now considered on Report, to leave out all the words after ("that") and insert ("this House declines to proceed further with the Bill because it contravenes assurances given by the Lord Privy Seal in the House of Commons during the passage of the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Bill 1945 in two separate respects (H.C. Debates, 14th November 1945, vol. 415, cols. 2180, 2181), the constitutional custom consistently followed by successive governments up to December 1984 and circular 4/1976 issued by the Department of the Environment; and overrides the recommendation of the Joint Select Committee's Special Report on the Orders (H.L. 131, 1984–85.).").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have drafted my amendment in very firm terms in order to draw attention to the important constitutional issue involved. If your Lordships pass this Bill unamended—and you can hardly amend it—it will create a precedent going to the root of special parliamentary procedure and infringing a custom maintained for 40 years. Never before have parliamentary majorities been used to over-rule the recommendations of a Joint Select Committee on a petition of general objection. Of course your Lordships have the power to do so, but I believe that you would want to be aware of what you are doing with its implications for the rights of the individual.

I was fairly confident of my facts, having taken an active part in the debates and negotiations about this matter ever since 1945, but in order to be sure of my ground I took the most authoritative advice available to me, as I was entitled to do, and I have obtained their confirmation that there is no precedent for this Bill.

In order to explain this special parliamentary procedure I have to go back a long time; and in addition it is a complex subject. I have been at pains (writing my speech about three times over) to be as concise as possible. However, it is impossible to be very brief in going back to 1845 and, in greater detail, to 1945. Before 1845, every infringement of a private right required a statute. It was agreed in that year that in the modern world that procedure would have to be brought up to date. A complicated system of ministerial orders was introduced, usually requiring a very brief confirming statute.

When war came in 1939 the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act was passed, and in the following years of a siege economy we were ruled by orders made thereunder. There was no opposition to that: we accepted it as necessary in time of war. There was in fact virtually no opposition, except that of two distinguished ex-Ministers. They both spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, always in an entirely patriotic spirit. One was the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, and the other was the late Lord Winterton. I am afraid we rather irreverently nicknamed them after a popular play running at the time, Arsenic and Old Lace.

It was left to us, the Conservative Back-Benchers Committee, to scrutinise the stream of ministerial orders under which we were governed. We did not object, in wartime, to the Government's dictatorial powers, but we wanted to know in the case of each order, first, what these orders meant, and, secondly, in what spirit the wide powers taken would in fact be exercised. For example, when rationing limited the cost of a meal to five shillings, it was important to define also a snack and refreshment. Such were the complexities of the time.

Those orders could not be amended. Our only way of proceeding was to move a prayer to annul them. We did so fairly regularly after the normal hour for the House of Commons to adjourn. I do not think we ever divided the House against an order, but the Whips kept a sufficient number of loyal supporters to defeat us if we had ever divided. Whips in that House will be familiar with the technique. That taught us the power of a Government with a substantial majority.

This necessarily arbitrary procedure by the Government in wartime under defence regulations did not take much account of private interests. Necessary and accepted as it was in wartime, it was not, of course, tolerable for peacetime, and so both Governments fully recognised. This they did by introducing the Statutory Order (Special Procedure) Bills of 1944 and 1945. The first was introduced by the Conservative Attorney-General, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, affectionately known to your Lordships as Lord Kilmuir. After the victory in 1945 of the Labour Party, it was re-introduced almost unaltered by Herbert Morrison. It is clear, therefore, that this was never a party issue. However, we, the Back-Benchers, scrutinised the Bill carefully because it introduced a new and permanent procedure for protecting private rights in a way broadly analogous to Private Bill procedure. It is invoked by many statutes and is therefore of great importance for the liberty of the subject.

If we welcomed the Bill, your Lordships may ask, what was its principle and why did we scrutinise it so carefully? It provided that ministerial orders invading private rights should, in suitable cases, be treated like Private Bills; that is to say, sent upstairs to be examined by a Joint Select Committee which would hear counsel and see witnesses. The Bill wisely made separate provision according to the nature of the petitions against orders. The Bill distinguished, first, petitions for amendment, and, second, petitions of general objection. These last were generally in the form of raising a matter of principle, as the name indicates.

Under the 1945 Act they would only go to a Joint Select Committee if either House so resolved. Petitions for amendment would go automatically to a Joint Select Committee for detailed examination and amendment. The difficulty of getting a petition of general objection upstairs to a Joint Select Committee led to much criticism. In Henry Brook's time, and after careful examination, the 1965 Act was passed to reverse (shall I say?) the general assumption. Instead of a resolution being needed to send a petition of general objection to a Joint Select Committee, it was to go there automatically unless a resolution to the contrary was passed.

Reverting to the 1945 Act, our relations with the Labour Government of the time were friendly all through our private negotiations. In fact, throughout the proceedings Arthur Greenwood kept referring to me as his honourable friend having apparently forgotten that in the general election of 1945 I and my friends had been relegated to the Opposition Benches. When accepting our most important amendment at the Report stage, Mr. Greenwood said that it had been skilfully drafted. Many of your Lordships will realise that that meant that it had been drafted for me under his instructions by parliamentary counsel. No amendment is ever praised by the Government of the day unless it has been drafted by parliamentary counsel.

If we welcomed the Bill, your Lordships may well ask: what, then, was all the debate about? In one sentence, the issue at stake then and that today was the same. We wanted an assurance that a majority in the Commons would not be used to deprive or limit the rights of private interests to have their case judged by an impartial Joint Select Committee which had heard the case stated in a judicial atmosphere upstairs. In principle that was handsomely conceded by the Lord Privy Seal. I put the point to him on 14th November 1945 (at col. 1167) when 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".

I break the sequence of my statement at this point to remark that that unfortunately is precisely what some honourable Members in another place sought to do at an early stage, to prevent the Okehampton bypass being considered by a Joint Select Committee. I shall revert to that later.

To return to my recital, the Lord Privy Seal replied to me in the same column: I cannot speak for any future government, least of all for a government drawn from the opposite benches, but I can speak for His Majesty's present Government. I do not want to mince my words at all, and I give the most explicit 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 Hon. Members that this specific pledge which I have given will be honoured to the full".

And so it was! Not only so; it has been honoured by the Labour Party ever since. I had occasion to raise this matter in a particularly difficult connotation with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, when he was Leader of the House and with the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, his Chief Whip. That was in connection with the Meldon Reservoir.

I do not wish to take up your Lordships' time by dealing with the interesting legal technicalities arising out of Standing Orders. Suffice it to say that the noble Earl took a broad view. He withdrew the order, secured an amendment of the Standing Orders to give locus standi to amenity societies and so gave full effect to another sentence in Arthur Greenwood's speech. He thereby made sure that the issue involved would go in a new order before a Joint Select Committee; and it did.

So much for the general constitutional convention; but does it apply in this case? Arthur Greenwood was an experienced statesman and, as I have said, we had discussed the whole problem in private. Consequently, he put in a reservation which we thought perfectly reasonable. After giving the general assurance that I have quoted he went on to say (at col. 2180): it must rest with the Government of the day, whatever its complexion, to advise Parliament whether a particular issue raised on a Ministerial Order is or is not one of policy on which the Government may feel bound to use their Parliamentary resources in support of their own point of view".

He meant that the Government of the day must retain the right to legislate to sustain a ministerial order—and here I quote his words, with one or two left out, but not altering the meaning— where national policies are involved … or imperilled or embarrassed".

Can it be said that this Bill is justified under that reservation because a national policy is imperilled?

It is quite the contrary. This Bill contradicts national policy as stated by the Department of the Environment's Circular No. 4 of 1976, which says in summary—and I shall quote, again leaving out a few words— no new route for long distance traffic should be constructed through a national park…unless it has been demonstrated that there is a compelling need which would not be met by any reasonable alternative means".

The Joint Select Committee which has gone into this matter has found that a northern route offers "a reasonable alternative means".

This Bill does not preserve a national policy; it contravenes it. If one of my noble friends says that Circular No. 4 of 1976 was issued by a Labour Government and does not bind a Conservative Government, I would say that the circular only repeats in rather bureaucratic language the policy laid down by my noble friend Lord Stockton when Minister of Housing and Local Government. I am tempted to quote his words which I have here, but I do not want to be too long and the House will accept my assurance that he took exactly the same line.

When, in December 1984, I learnt that some honourable Members in another place had put down an Early Day Motion to use the 1965 Act to by-pass the normal Joint Select Committee procedure I approached my noble friend the Leader of the House and I explained the important constitutional principle at issue. He said, "Leave it in my hands". I knew they were very good hands and I was perfectly content—and justifiably so. A few days afterwards the Early Day Motion disappeared from the Order Paper of the House of Commons.

My noble friend has a remarkable entity. I would say with all reverence that he resembles the Holy Trinity, but it is in a humbler way. He is Deputy Prime Minister; he is Leader of your Lordships' House; and he is the Lord President of the Council. In which capacity he acted to secure the withdrawal of that Early Day Motion, I do not know. Anyway, he was at unity in himself. But is he still?

After the Joint Select Committee had come to a decision adverse to the Ministry of Transport, I heard a rumour that it proposed to introduce this Bill. I accordingly approached my noble friend again. This time I got a more guarded reply. This time it was not, "Leave it in my hands", but, "I will see the Secretary of State and write to you again". The analogy I venture to draw between my noble friend and the Deity breaks down at this point. He is not omnipotent! I have had a most courteous letter from him defending the Government's policy in introducing this Bill. I will not take time to answer him now, but he has not convinced me. I have the authority of two successive Ministers in charge of what is now the Department of the Environment that if a Minister feels that an order is so fundamental to his policy that he would use legislation to have his way, it would not be right to allow petitioners to go to a Joint Select Committee and, if they won, to reverse the decision by legislation since that would involve petitioners in a waste of money. In this case it amounts to nearly £50,000.

Let no one say to me that I asked for the matter to be referred to a Joint Select Committee. Of course I did, but it did not occur to me at that time that if the decision of the committee went against the Government they would introduce legislation overruling the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee. I think this is a matter of straightforward dealing. I feel entitled to ask: at what moment of time did the Secretary of State decide that he would not abide by an adverse decision of the Joint Select Committee and treat its proceedings as an elaborate and costly charade? He can choose on which horn of the dilemma he wishes to sit. Did he never intend to accept the opinion of the Joint Select Committee or did he decide to overturn it when it was adverse to his wishes? An apologist for the Secretary of State said to me that he had probably regarded it as a gamble which he hoped to win. I should not willingly make a wager with a man if I thought the other party intended to take up the stakes if he won but to invoke the laws against gaming if he lost.

My noble friend referred once more to the so-called precedent of the Mid-Northamptonshire Water Authority, cited by my noble friend Lord Brabazon. It is not a precedent. It was a petition of amendment and not a petition of general objection; and so it went before the committee and was amended. The Government accepted all the amendments except two, and on one of those your Lordships stood firm and the Government accepted a compromise.

I have only one more argument to adduce, and I am glad to think that we have again had an assurance from my noble friend Lord Caithness that perhaps it will not be used to our disadvantage in the future. If, in breach of Circular 4 of 1976, the sanctity of Dartmoor can be infringed, that creates a precedent for roads through other national parks. What about the Lake District? What about the High Peak of Derbyshire, which I represented in another place for 22 years? We have had an assurance, and naturally I accept any assurance that comes from my noble friends on the Front Bench. But before hearing that, I asked this question, which I regard as relevant: are those other national parks to be transfixed by trunk roads?

I am deeply grateful to your Lordships for the customary courtesy with which you have listened to an unduly long speech; but covering 40 years of this established procedure with which I have been familiar all the way through, and involving, as it does, the liberty of appeal of the private interest, my speech could not be brief. If my longevity has served no other useful purpose, it has at least enabled me to recall in 1985 the circumstances in which this procedure was inaugurated in 1945. I beg to move my amendment.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now considered on Report, to leave out the words after ("that") and insert ("this House declines to proceed further with the Bill because it contravenes assurances given by the Lord Privy Seal in the House of Commons during the passage of the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Bill 1945 in two separate respects (H.C. Debates, 14th November 1945, vol. 415, cols. 2180, 2181), the constitutional custom consistently followed by successive governments up to December 1984 and circular 4/1976 issued by the Department of the Environment; and overrides the recommendation of the Joint Select Committee's Special Report on the Orders (H.L. 131, 1984–85).").—(Lord Molson.)

4.20 p.m.

Lord Underhill had given notice of his intention to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now considered on Report, at end to insert ("but that this House regrets the decision of the Government to introduce this Bill, and urges the Secretary of State, after consultation with the Dartmoor National Park authority, to provide adequate compensation to the authority, both financial and in kind, to provide suitably for loss of amenities and land.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think there is one point on which there will be unanimity among your Lordships; that is, that there is need for a bypass for Okehampton. I know the area fairly well, as I have a son who lives only a few miles west of Buckfastleigh and just a few miles from the moor. But I want to be thoroughly honest with the House. I have not had the opportunity to walk over the route. I was at Exeter over the last two days, but to walk over the route at ten or eleven o'clock at night would not have shown me what I wanted to see.

We must recall that a bypass was included in the county development plan for Devonshire way back in 1964—that was a northern route—and a bypass for Okehampton has been in the national road building programme since 1968. I have always held that one cannot divorce transport matters from the environment and I am pleased that the noble Earl himself stressed that point in his opening remarks.

We have the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Molson, and, whatever one's views may be upon his amendment, I think the whole House will appreciate the clarity with which he put his case and also the firm independence that he has shown on this matter over such a long period. I hope that the debate will cover not only the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Molson, and of course the Government Minister's speech, but also the amendment in my name.

When the Statement was repeated in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, on 26th July about the Government's intention to bring forward such a Bill I stated that when a Bill was presented it would be contested on non-political and all-party grounds. That view was endorsed heartily by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and by a number of other noble Lords. This is clearly not a party issue and, by the very nature of the Bill, it can be clearly seen that it is not a Bill that one can amend in itself.

Faced with the convention, both held and strongly observed by the Benches on which I sit, that we do not vote against any basic principle determined by the other House, we have decided that our Front Bench spokesmen will be encouraged to abstain on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Molson.

However, we recognise that there are strongly held opinions on the matter—on procedure, on constitution and on environmental grounds—and that it would be wrong to do other than say to all other than our Front Bench, who we hope will abstain, that they have a completely free vote to determine, according to their own consciences and the strength of the arguments, whether or not they should support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Molson. I want to make that absolutely clear to the House. That is the reason for my amendment, which expresses deep regret that the Government have brought forward this Bill.

In commenting on the Statement when it was presented prior to the Summer Recess, I suggested that it would be extremely helpful if noble Lords read the report of the debate to annul the orders, which had been initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, on 3rd December last year, during which debate some of the points put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, today were covered. I hope that many noble Lords will have read the report of that debate in the weeks since the Statement was made to us.

I know, as the noble Lord, Lord Molson, has said, that there is still considerable concern at what seems to be setting aside the principle of the Department of the Environment's Circular No. 4 of 1976. I shall not repeat what that circular stated, but I hope noble Lords will remember clearly the words expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Molson. I also hope that everybody stands by the principle of that circular. As the noble Lord. Lord Molson, has said, any departure from the principle of that circular is a precedent which could be used by any government in the future in connection with any other national park. Therefore, it is a very important statement in the circular.

Reference has been made to the decision of the Labour Government in 1976. As I have said on previous occasions, I was not a member of that Government, though I supported it. But we had not had the public inquiry then; the public inquiry was not set up until 1979 and did not report until 1983. We had not had the setting up of the Joint Select Committee when that decision was taken. It is clear that there is an alternative to the southern route. There is the northern route. As I have already mentioned, that was in the Devon county development plan back in 1964, and it seems that it was not until around 1973–74 that there was any thought given to a possible southern route which might traverse in some degree the national park.

In the debate in your Lordships' House on 3rd December 1984 the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, said at col. 1158 of the Official Report: 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…were examined in some detail.".

If those words mean anything, they mean that the department had details of a possible alternative—the noble Earl shakes his head—and therefore the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, was not correct in the statement he made that, Alternative possible routes to the north and to the south were examined in some detail.".

In the Third Reading debate on this Bill on 19th November, the Secretary of State said at col. 140 of the Commons Official Report: I emphasise that we are promoting the southern route because we believe it is environmentally superior. It is my firm conviction that, in an area as unique as the countryside round Okehampton, environmental factors must not only have high priority, but must be the priority.".

That is a definite statement made by the Secretary of State. That statement surely dismisses some of the snide comments that have been made about environmentalists and conservationists.

But the Secretary of State's view, and the Government's policy on the southern route, are challenged by many competent authorities. Ten actually petitioned against, and I was very pleased to see that such is the respect in which some of these authorities are held that in The House magazine of 11 th November there was an article from the Council for National Parks, another one from the Countryside Commission and another from the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Those bodies were considered sufficiently responsible for accounts of their activities to be given in The House magazine of 11th November. Therefore, the objections have not been irresponsible or made by irresponsible persons.

Clearly, the Dartmoor National Park Authority, whose duty is absolutely clear, is opposed to the southern route. So, also, is the Countryside Commission, which is the Government's own statutory body with members appointed by the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Wales and funded by a grant from the DoE. What docs the Countryside Commission say? It says: The Commission has confirmed that the area which would be affected by the southern route is of national park quality. The landscape which would be affected by the northern route is not of national significance, nor is it comparable in quality with that south of the town within the national park".

But what do the Government do? Instead of having regard to the views of their own Countryside Commission, they accept the views only of the department's own Advisory Committee on the Landscape and Treatment of Trunk Roads. I sec no reference to the Government's consideration of the views of the Countryside Commission.

I am not arguing against the propriety of the Government in bringing forward this confirmation Bill. Despite the clarity and eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Molson, we accept that there is provision to the effect that if the Government of the day cannot support a Joint Select Committee's report, there is this confirmation Bill procedure.

But what should the Government do about a Joint Select Committee report? As has been emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, the Government had to go back 36 years, back to 1949, to find some justification and precedent for what they are doing now. Surely it is ridiculous to refer an issue to a Joint Select Committee and then completely to ignore its conclusions. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, was a member of the Joint Select Committee, and he dealt with this in his brief comments on the original statement. I am sure that my noble friend will amplify his comments when he speaks later today.

I appreciate that it is not in order to quote speeches made in the other place, other than those of Ministers. Therefore I shall transpose one particular speech. I hope noble Lords have read the debate in the other place of 19th November and in particular the speech of Mr. Peter Rost, Conservative Member for Erewash, who was chairman of the Joint Select Committee. Noble Lords may now, if they wish, refer to cols. 182 to 186 of the Hansard report of that day. Mr. Rost said that if the DoE had followed its own circular of 1976, a reasonable alternative to the northern route would have been completed long ago and Okehampton's frustrations would have been cleared up many years ago.

Mr. Rost complained of some attempts to discredit the joint committee and said that the committee's view had been misinterpreted and denigrated. He claimed that it was unacceptable that the joint committee was held to be less important than the public inquiry. Mr. Rost complained also that it is not generally understood that a great deal of new evidence was presented to the Joint Select Committee. He said that the inspector had submitted his report and had said that his decision was a finely balanced one. Mr. Rost commented that the inspector might well have changed his mind and made the decision the other way if he had heard the new evidence that had been presented to the Joint Select Committee.

Mr. Rost said that when the joint committee weighed up the pros and cons the members came to the independent judgment that there was no reason whatever why the alternative northern route should not be developed. The chairman of the Joint Select Committee, Mr. Rost, referred to the dilemma facing Members of Parliament. There was a conscience as to the wider issues of national policy on environment, open space and national parks, and against that the frustration of the delay of some 20 years.

The Secretary of State has repeatedly made much play of consultation with local people and the views of local authorities. He also said in the debate of 19th November, at col. 141 of the Official Report that, the damage incurred in going north of Okehampton on any of the 13 possible variants of a northern route would be greater".

But those who know the area like the back of their hand have stressed in debates in both Houses that this view is not accepted and that there is no physical barrier whatever to prevent the road going to the north. As a democrat, I accept that a majority is a majority, but the Secretary of State should be very careful in claiming that there is an overwhelming local view. Devon County Coucil voted 38 for the southern route. By the way, I was at a lunch yesterday with the present chairman of Devon County Council, and so I think my facts are right. It voted 38 for the southern route, 34 for the northern route, with four abstentions—a decision taken as recently as 25th July.

Lord O'Hagan

My Lords, can the noble Lord compare those figures with the normal voting figures on Devon County Council, taking into account the fact that the Alliance have recently become the majority party? Will he compare the figures he has just given with the normal voting pattern on Devon County Council? Otherwise he may have given a misleading impression to the House.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, what I am going to give are the figures on this particular issue. That is the only one with which we are concerned. I am not concerned with decisions taken by Devon County Council on any other matter, whether a month ago or two years ago. As I emphasised, this is not a party issue. My noble friends here have completely free votes. The Front Bench will abstain because of our propriety of not voting against a decision of the other House.

This decision of the county council was taken despite all the influences brought to bear through the department and Ministers. Even the Okehampton Town Council voted only by 10 to six for the southern route. These are the elected local people. The Secretary of State has referred to the strength of the survey of the people of Okehampton which has been conducted. But, again, what are the figures? I am a democrat and I accept majorities, but let us have a look and see what the figures mean. In a questionnaire, 55 per cent. favoured the southern route, with 45 per cent. against. One thousand and thirty people completed the questionnaire out of a population in Okehampton of 3,500. My elementary mathematics tells me that is a majority of 100 people—not exactly an overwhelming view of local opinion.

Many noble Lords will have received masses of briefs, documents and papers of all kinds on this issue. Perhaps I may refer in particular to the document received from ROAMR—Residents of Okehampton Against the Moorland Route. Nothing could be more local than that particular opinion. The secretary, and a resident in the town, Dr. Bill Hunter, forwarded a five-page statement setting out the case against the southern route. It was a powerful case based on the history of the matter and the nature of the area affected.

Emphasis has been laid by the Secretary of State and also by the noble Earl today on the possible delay if we do not proceed with the southern route. The noble Earl referred to the position of Mr. Parker. Perhaps I may quote one statement made by Mr. Parker. He said: I trust that pride in professional independence and concern for good planning and good engineering practice rule my judgment". Mr. Parker, who is a highly qualified independent road engineer, has said that further delay need be not more than two years and a bit. Noble Lords may recall, as it has been mentioned previously, that the Countryside Commission questioned this figure and asked a reputable firm of engineers, Denis Wilson and Partners, who are consulting engineers and transport planners, to check that statement. The firm did so and confirmed it.

The question of a bypass is naturally of great concern to the people of Okehampton. It is of concern to the hundreds and thousands of people who travel each year on holiday and go through Okehampton, or try to go through Okehampton, as I know to my cost. It is also a matter of concern with regard to the position of commercial vehicles. But the matter is one of great concern, too, for the environment and for the protection of our heritage. That must be kept in mind.

The joint committee gave attention to the problem of a possible delay if the northern route were now adopted. The joint committee said that the mistake made in the past by switching to the southern route should not now be insisted upon by continuing on that basis. The Select Committee decision would correct that error. The chairman of the committee has said that we must not now be asked to take the easy option of deciding to go through the park when a route may go through the northern alternative way. That is the problem before us. The easy way out is to accept the southern route despite the precedents that are being created.

I can understand the concern of Cornwall County Council about its unemployment problem. I can understand the concern of the haulage contractors. But perhaps I may take a short while to quote a letter which other noble Lords may have received from the driver of a heavy goods vehicle, a Mr. John Luce, who lives near Chard in Somerset. He states: Whichever [route] is built will be there for good, and if short-term considerations result in the wrong choice, its advantages will very soon be forgotten". That is the issue which faces your Lordships this afternoon. Mr. Luce puts seven points, but I will repeat only two of them:

A northern route would intersect all radial roads and therefore offer a complete and wholly effective bypass. A southern route intersects none; all traffic commuting north/-east/-west will continue to go through the town". He adds as his fourth point: Both routes rise to over 850 ft. but are not affected by the same weather. The northern route lies across part of the West Devon plateau which though exposed is not high enough to influence its weather pattern significantly. The southern route mounts the main mass of Dartmoor, running less than two miles of the 2,000 ft. peaks, and is subject to the notorious Dartmoor weather: it is often affected by fog and ice and snow when the plateau to the north remains clear. Above all, it would attract heavy snowdrifting, which on a north face would thaw only very slowly, as I know from having lived in the area". Those are the views of a heavy goods vehicle driver.

I conclude by reminding your Lordships of what was said by the Secretary of State—and I have already quoted him in part—at col. 140: Environmental factors must not only have high priority, but must be the priority [and] if I had believed that the balance of environmental interest favoured any of the northern alternatives, I would not be here today presenting the Bill". On the evidence that has been presented, I believe that the Government ought to withdraw this particular Bill. Although we are unable, for the reasons I have mentioned, to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Molson, our Back-Bench Members will have a completely free vote. My amendment regrets that the Government have introduced this Bill, but it also declares that if it is the wish of Parliament that the Bill should go through, adequate compensation, both financial and in kind, should be made to the Dartmoor National Park Authority following consultation with that authority. I believe that other noble Lords will be dealing with this matter, but I wish to emphasise that I am moving this in a non-political manner and that all our Back-Bench Members will have complete freedom of conscience on this particular issue.

4.43 p.m.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, at an early stage in his speech the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, pointed out that views are very strongly held on this matter. I am among those who feel very strongly indeed about this Bill. The noble Lord also made it clear that for his Benches there would be freedom to decide what Members wished to do at the end of this debate. I should make it clear that although I speak from the Alliance Benches, I am speaking for myself and I am not committing any of my noble friends to the views which I hold.

The procedures to which the Government have resorted in pursuit of their determination to adopt the southern route have been masterfully dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Molson. I say at once that I share the case on and the objections to the southern route which have been extremely clearly put to the House by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I shall try not to repeat what has already been said and will confine myself to some of the environmental issues involved. I wish mainly to speak to matters of principle.

It is only right that your Lordships should know that every one of the constituent member bodies of the Council for National Parks of which I have the privilege of being president is strongly of the view that the Government's decision to adopt the southern route for the bypass is wrong. I may add that every other organisation concerned with environmental and conservation issues of which I am aware, from the Countryside Commission down (and its views have been retold to your Lordships by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill), is of the same opinion.

Your Lordships may wonder why it is that the council's 35 constituent member bodies representing a wide spectrum of interests, by no means all of them—in fact, most of them not—specially focused on the problems of Dartmoor, should be of one mind and hold the same view so strongly. It is because this bypass is regarded not as a local matter but as a national issue. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, made it clear in his opening speech that whichever way the bypass goes, it will be a key element in the national network. By the same token that both he and the Government regard it as being a national issue, so do we.

A key principle bearing on this matter was established by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford (he is my noble friend, except on these occasions), whom I am so pleased to see in the House, in chapter 15 of his report on the national parks published in 1974.I shall not quote that report again because it was spelt out in the Government circular 4/1976, to which the noble Lord, Lord Molson referred, and it was endorsed by another Government circular in 1977. It should in my submission hold good in this instance. The key words in what the circular has to say are "a compelling need" and "any reasonable alternative means".

Those of us who are opposed to this Bill agree with the Joint Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament that in this instance, whereas the need for a bypass is certainly "compelling", one of the northern routes—which I believe is labelled "M"—is, all things considered, a "reasonable" alternative. Environmental considerations apart, it is well worth bearing in mind that which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, had to say about the advantages for locally-sited industrial traffic if the northern route were adopted—advantages that would be denied by the southern route.

The objections to a northern route have been powerfully advocated, and I am sure your Lordships are only too aware of it through lobbying outside this House. They were also powerfully made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in his opening speech. No doubt other noble Lords will extend those objections in the course of this debate. It seems to me that we have to make a choice not only between alternative routes but also between conflicting principles. Should the principle be that of expediency or that of cost? I understand that the northern route would cost more, to the tune of perhaps £5 million. If this is so, in a matter of national importance involving a key element, as the noble Earl said, I cannot bring myself to believe that the sum of £5 million, considerable though it is, is an insurmountable and unacceptable cost to the Department of Transport's budget.

Should the principle be that of protecting farming and land-owning interests, or of avoiding further delay in solving what is undoubtedly a serious traffic problem? We have heard the figures on the extra time required to start now on the northern route. Some fantastic figures have been bandied around in the propaganda which we have recieved. A period of up to 13 years has been suggested. We have heard the noble Earl's conservative estimate of nine years. We are told that the southern route would take four years less. I put it to your Lordships that in an issue that is a matter for perpetuity and for irreversible decision, a further delay of four years in a lifetime and for posterity could be tolerated—all the more so because there is a southern holiday route which is coping not too badly with holiday traffic at the moment. Alternatively, should it be the principle underlying the creation of national parks; the integrity of certain areas especially designated for their natural beauty, the peacefulness they provide and the opportunities for recreation with access for the public to enjoy all these values?

There may, or there may not, be fewer votes for this latter principle in the short term; let us say, in the run-up to the next general election. But the time is not far off when conservation will be an important election issue. I have no doubt how future generations will judge a government which had chosen to erode the national heritage on grounds of expediency.

We have certain precedents in this matter. There was the construction of the A.66 through the northern part of the Lake District in 1973 to shorten the journey of heavy goods traffic from the M.6 to the coastal industries of Cumbria. No one who knew the Lake District before that road was constructed and who is familiar with the Lake District today could possibly deny the irreversible damage wrought by that decision for the sake of less than an extra hour's driving time round the northern fringes of the park.

Some of your Lordships may recall the powerful argument advanced against encroaching on the northern flanks of the Carneddau peaks in the Snowdonia National Park at about that time to build an expressway which would relieve the congestion along the North Wales coastal road. Those arguments in that case happily prevailed. Your Lordships who remember those precedents will point out that neither is exactly similar to the case of the Okehampton bypass, but the underlying principle is the same. Incidentally, the A.66 case—I hope the noble Lord will not shake his head—gave urgency to the formulation of policy contained in his report on the national parks.

In announcing his decision on 14th October, Mr. Nicholas Ridley underplayed the effect on Dartmoor, calling it a very slight incursion. At the same time he magnified the impact of the northern route, describing it as a scar across the rolling countryside. It has been claimed that the southern route is somehow environmentally more attractive and superior to the northern route. I regard that, without respect to persons, as preposterous nonsense. No one who cares about the environment and conservation of our beauty places can possibly contemplate a motorway, let alone listen to or watch the movement on it, and call it in any way environmentally attractive. The fact is that the southern route will be a permanent, noisy intrusion on the southern landscape, within sight and hearing of many of the citizens of Okehampton, day and night, and it will run cheek-by-jowl with the southern fringes of the town.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, dealt most effectively with the claim that the citizens of Okehampton and the inhabitants of Devon, represented by the county council and the town council, prefer the southern route. He dealt with the point that a significant minority feel strongly that the southern route should not be the route taken. The fact is that Mr. Ridley has persuaded his Cabinet colleagues to damage and diminish the Dartmoor National Park. I would say that our national parks are too small to justify this kind of erosion.

Erosion means compromise and I am tempted—and I shall not resist the temptation—to mention some words of the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, who was mentioned in a Starred Question last week by the noble Baroness, Lady David, in another environmental context, and who is deeply loved and respected on all sides of your Lordships' House. As Mr. Harold Macmillan, in 1952 when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government and the designation of the national parks was beginning, he said: In those areas which are designated as national parks, amenity and access are to be given an overriding position". "Overriding"—an unambiguous, unequivocal and uncompromising adjective. There should be no compromising with that dictum; for each compromise reduces the unique value which each national park represents to the nation and for posterity. Each compromise provides a precedent for further damaging development.

Sadly, proofs of this latter objection to compromise abound over the years from 1952, and increasingly during the past decade, through the increased defence training activities, through industrial and agricultural demands, through commercial afforestation, water storage schemes, mineral extraction, and the growing pressures of the tourist industry. Arguably most damaging of all is road construction; a lot of it allied to one or other of those factors that I have mentioned.

Where do we draw the line? Is it not time to call a halt? Should not the Okehampton bypass case be the ne plus ultra against further incursions and scars on our national parks? By a peculiar irony the decision to introduce this Bill coincides with the Countryside Commission's campaign to draw public attention to, and elicit more concern among the public for, our national parks. It falls, too, in International Youth Year in which emphasis has been placed on the importance, especially for young people, of access to more open spaces. Some of your Lordships may have seen, or been aware of, the lobby of young people in connection with International Youth Year about a fortnight ago in the Palace of Westminster. It coincides, too, with a changing public attitude in regard to the excess of certain agricultural products, some of which are produced in that rolling countryside of Mr. Ridley's emotive phraseology.

On all those grounds, as I said at the beginning of my speech, I believe that the Government have made a serious blunder in preferring short-term expediency to abiding principle. I believe that they will diminish not only Dartmoor but their own credibility as a political party which gives a high place for conservation when issues of rural land use arise.

My final words are these. It gives me no pleasure whatever to say what I have just said. My council has been happy to give credit to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for its successful efforts to persuade our EC partners to give importance to conservation in restructuring the agricultural directives. But this Bill illustrates the continuing need to co-ordinate the policies of all Government departments, including the Department of Transport, when conservation of the rural environment arises.