HL Deb 24 October 1990 vol 522 cc1327-9

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have recently re-examined the case for the over the horizon radar transmitter at St. David's in Pembrokeshire.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, no. The Government see no reason at present to re-examine the case for the over the horizon radar transmitter at St. David's.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but naturally I am disappointed by it. I had hoped that, in view of the changing world circumstances, the Ministry might have thought again. Does the Minister realise that that installation will be visible from the whole of the coastal path around St. David's Head; that that is a national park; that the entire population of St. David's is up in arms against it; and that apart from the health risk there is a great fear that it will have a destructive effect on tourism which is one of the great industries of that part of the country? Is it too late to ask the Ministry to think again?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, of all our defence commitments, the direct defence of these islands is one that we should never contemplate abandoning. In maintaining it, we need to maintain our ability to provide early warning of any military activity in or above the huge expanse of the Norwegian seas to the north of the United Kingdom. We believe that OTHR can make a substantial contribution to that difficult surveillance task.

As regards the second part of the noble Baroness's question, of course we are sensitive to the objections relating to national parks. We are committed to consulting fully the local planning authority and the Countryside Commission over any significant development within a national park. Military use and tourism are by no means incompatible, as, for instance, at Fylingdales in the north Yorkshire moors national park.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that while I do not share the views of those who think that the risk has disappeared from the world or that it is unseemly to have a defence installation near the holy place of St. David's, I am deeply sceptical of the view that it is impossible to consider a location that will do less environmental damage? Will he accept from me, as one who was a local Member of Parliament and lived for a number of years less than a mile from the site, that there is well justified concern at the serious damage that that siting would do to the beautiful and extremely important environment of the St. David's peninsula, which, as he has reminded us, is part of a national park?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I fully appreciate the local concern upon which my noble friend comments. An environmental impact assessment will be done. That is essentially a technique for ensuring that the likely effects upon the environment of a new development are fully understood and taken into account. By providing a full analysis of the proposal's likely effects, an EIA can help to allay fears created by a lack of information. At the same time, it can help to inform the public of the main issues that the local planning authority will have to consider in reaching a decision on the planning application.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is the Minister aware that during the recess I walked the 200 miles of the Pembrokeshire coastal path in 10 days? I can inform him, without fear of successful contradiction, that St. David's peninsula is one of the most beautiful, magical and holy parts of that extraordinarily beautiful area. Is he further aware that I would willingly walk it again, if he would agree to accompany me, to point out to him a dozen sites in that area which, from an environmental point of view, would be infinitely better as a site for his equipment?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord had such an interesting recess; that he covered 200 miles; and that he is willing to cover it again. Equally, I am aware of the sensitivity of that location and the strength of local feeling about it. I can say categorically that St. David's was selected as a location for the transmitter only after an exhaustive search for suitable sites. In fact, 160 other sites were considered.

Our proposals will be submitted to the local planning authority—in this case the Pembrokeshire coast national park—and will fully address the need for appropriate landscaping to minimise the impact upon the environment. The point is that the distance between the transmitter and the receiver should be on a latitude of between 50 miles and 150 miles. That site was thought to be the only one that fitted those requirements.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, in his categorical reply was the Minister taking into account the fact that last week the American Congress cut out of the Pentagon's budget expenditure for that purpose? If he is so certain that it is necessary, what will he do if that disagreement persists and Congress has its way?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is our understanding that as part of the scrutiny of the United States Government spending proposals for the fiscal year 1991, Congress has requested that the United States Navy should re-examine the requirement to locate the radar in the United Kingdom. The response to that request is a matter for the United States Government. However, we understand that they remain fully committed to the proposal to undertake a joint two-year trial of OTHR in this country.

Baroness White

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that this is purely a bilateral arrangement between the military authorities of Great Britain and those of the United States, and that it has nothing to do with, for example, any NATO commitments that we may have? Does the Minister understand that if he tried his hardest he could not have found a more sensitive site in the whole of Wales for this installation? This is not just a matter of local opposition. I am quite sure that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, is fully aware of that fact. To put the matter at its lowest, does the Minister recognise that if the Government want to lose the few Conservative seats that they still hold in Wales, this is an excellent way to start that process?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I do not accept the final point that the noble Baroness made. I must repeat that we are extremely sensitive to all the implications of this matter. As regards the first point that the noble Baroness made on NATO, I must emphasise that this is a trial project. We would not normally expect to seek or to be granted NATO funds for such a purpose. However, the air defence of the United Kingdom region is an important NATO endorsed task. We are confident that the alliance will be interested in the implications of a successful outcome of this trial.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the Minister recognises that the United States Congress does not like this project. He has said that the Government will apply for planning authority through the normal channels. Given that this application will inevitably be opposed, will the Minister give an undertaking to this House on behalf of the Government that if the application is turned down the Government will not override that decision on defence grounds?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, if the project were turned down, any decision that was taken would be entirely a matter for the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State for Wales.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, does the Minister accept that although many Members of your Lordships' House are not Welsh they are nevertheless greatly disturbed by this development? Many of us have spent time on that coast and recognise how beautiful it is. We recognise that it should not be disturbed except absolutely as a last resort. Will the Minister please go away and tell his honourable and right honourable friends in the Government that they must think again about this matter because considerable concern is felt by noble Lords in all parties and in all parts of the House, whatever their nationality?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I trust that when the noble Lord told me to go away he meant it metaphorically. I must repeat again that once we have submitted the planning applications we intend to give full public presentations of our proposals. There will be a 16-week statutory limit on that. I assure noble Lords that no construction work will begin before the planning process has been completed.

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