HC Deb 15 October 2003 vol 411 cc129-36WH
Mr. Deputy Speaker

We come to the final topic for our consideration today.

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.17 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the matter of environmental damage to Dartmoor national park from military exercises, and I should also like to highlight the damage from military litter.

My credentials as a champion of Dartmoor national park are, I hope, well known in the House. Dartmoor is one of the last great wildernesses remaining in the United Kingdom and fortunately part of it lies within my constituency. I piloted the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 through the Commons, which was a watershed for environmentalists and farmers, as well as for walkers and riders. It gave them a statutory right to walk and ride over all the national park, and set up the commoners council to administer, manage and enforce against those commoners who exploit and overuse common land.

Although the national park authority, in conjunction with the commoners council and the Dartmoor Preservation Association, has done a sterling job in preserving and conserving the landscape, flora and fauna, the military's record is not quite as impressive, certainly if the activities of recent months are anything to go by. In 1991, the Duchy of Cornwall gave the Ministry of Defence a 21-year lease with no break clauses, unlike all previous leases. Although I realise that the importance of the defence of the realm was uppermost in people's minds, I suggest that they were also extremely conscious of the sizeable sums that the Government pay annually for the use of the moor by the military, although the Government have not disclosed the amount to date.

The Government and I are both fervent supporters of the right to roam, and we believe in the importance of an unbroken footpath along the length and breadth of the west country coastline. Despite that fervour, the Government remain silent on why they permit one of Great Britain's 13 national parks to be closed for at least eight months a year while live firing and military exercises take preference over walkers, ramblers and others who seek to enjoy the national park. It is as if the Government are suffering from amnesia over the reasons why national parks were established in the first place: to provide places of peace, solitude and recreation for the public, especially urban dwellers. There are only 13 in the whole country.

This debate is about not live firing, however, but dry training and the damage done by the most recent military exercise on Dartmoor, which took place in July, when 600 commandos and 18 BV206 tracked vehicles caused extensive damage to the moor. It is also about the disregard by the military command of basic rules. That cries out not only for an explanation but for recognition that it must not happen again.

Let me make matters plain. I am as patriotic as the next man and as committed and loyal to our forces as anyone. I recognise the important job that they do and the immense debt of gratitude that we owe them. I realise the importance of training, but I have some difficulty in squaring the objectives of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 with the military objectives of live firing.

Heaven knows why exercises cannot take place off the moor. Bodmin moor is nearby and is not a national park; Dartmoor is. I realise that exercises cannot be moved to Scotland or Ascension Island and that the south-west must have its own training ground.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Does the hon. Gentleman concede that, rightly in my view, the cornerstone of this country's defence policy is the ability to conduct expeditionary operations, which invariably means amphibious operations? Does he understand that it is essential for the Royal Marines and other troops to be near the fleet? Those commando troops must train under realistic conditions, including live firing, or their lives will be put in jeopardy. We owe them no less than the opportunity to undertake their training. If they cannot train on Dartmoor, where else can they go?

Mr. Steen

The answer is that they can go to Bodmin moor. We have a national park in Dartmoor—one of the 13 in Great Britain. There are no other national parks in the whole European Union where military exercises are allowed. This debate, however, is about not live firing but military exercises. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there is a distinction between military exercises that can take place outside the national park, on Bodmin moor just down the road, and live firing.

The hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that the Ministry of Defence recently told campers that they should not dig their tents too deeply or build latrines because they may blow themselves up. Again, that is a live firing issue, but there are serious implications if we have a national park where campers cannot dig tents and latrines. That is a serious issue, but my point is that Dartmoor is not a national military park—or perhaps it should be renamed. Bodmin moor is not a national park, and exercises could be conducted there. On one occasion, Bodmin moor was partly used; I am suggesting that it should have been completely used. I digress. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's interest and I do not disagree with him, except to say that that should not happen on Dartmoor.

I do not object to dry training, even though it is a little disconcerting for those picnicking on the moor to get mixed up in training programmes, especially when smoke mortars are fired and dozens of commandos appear out of puffs of smoke. As one is enjoying one's thermos of hot tea, one suddenly finds 200 commandos coming down—the Assyrians coming down like a wolf on the fold. That can be disconcerting, but I am not complaining about that. What I am talking about is that, at the end of June this year, a two-week military exercise ordered on the higher moor above the 1,400 ft contour. As part of that exercise, it is understood that the training area commandant authorised the movement of 18 BV206 tracked vehicles between the Okehampton range and Ringmoor on southern Dartmoor. Those vehicles are permitted under the terms of the Duchy of Cornwall licence to conduct military training on its land. The national park authority had no prior notice of the nature of the exercise.

When the general use of such vehicles was proposed six years ago, the authority expressed serious reservations and said that they should not be permitted to travel off hard tracks. It is fair to say that, in the interim, despite some use of the vehicles, the ranger service of the Dartmoor national park authority reported only one incident involving a BV206. The scale of the most recent exercise and the manner in which the BV206 was deployed have clearly had a major visible impact and have serious ramifications for Dartmoor national park.

The new tracks in the Hare tor and Lynch tor areas were inspected on 8 August 2003. I might mention that they are high tors, well over 1,400 ft. They are dramatic tors, and are often used by ramblers and walkers. In some areas, several tracks run across the same general area, but in others there are only single tracks. The number of BV206s that used individual tracks varied: there have been single passes as well as passes by as many as 18 vehicles.

As expected, damage to vegetation has tended to be greater in areas of blanket bog and heather, and less in areas of purple moor grass. A combination of the vegetation and the number of vehicle passes has determined the damage that has been caused on individual tracks. A noticeable additional factor is the number of sharp turns made on slopes. Those invariably produce bare patches of ground where the vehicle tracks lock and twist.

In areas of blanket bog and mire, the tracks tend to cut into the peat in short sections only. That may take several years to recover, although it is heavily dependant on future track use. Young heather plants are not damaged, but wherever the growth is old enough to include woody stems they have been abraded. That has led to desiccation, which is likely to cause the death of many plants. Recovery in those areas will be slow, dependent on seedling regeneration, and perhaps the re-growth of plants that have not been too badly damaged.

The greatest number of tracks around Hare and Lynch tors were on purple moor grass. The vegetation in those tracks is likely to recover provided that the tracks are not used further. The new tracks are mainly in areas of lightly grazed vegetation through which it is difficult to move. There are signs that many of the tracks produced by the BV206s have subsequently been used by people for walking, stock grazing and for some stock movements, and by other vehicles such as Land Rovers and quad bikes. That factor is of most concern, as it is likely to determine the length of recovery, and it could lead to permanent tracks and paths being established in some areas. Many of the tracks are still highly visible across wide sweeps of the most beautiful open landscape.

The areas most notably affected are those south of the existing Dinger tor hard track, thro ugh the Brim brook up to the western side of Great Kneeset, west of Little Kneeset, the east and south flanks of Great Amicombe, the western side of Fur tor, which is nearly 2,000 ft high, over the meads, north-east and south of Lynch tor, west of Cocks hill, and parts of Langstone moor towards Roos tor. Other tracks from the Willsworthy camp, on the west of the moor, exist around Hare, Sharp, Doe and Chat tors and through the Rattle brook below Deadlake Foot. The head ranger of Dartmoor national park has recorded the general extent of those tracks, and photographic illustrations have been presented to the national park authority.

The authority's ecologist has visited a number of locations in the company of an ecologist from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' rural development service. Initial reports of the damage were received from DEFRA in connection with the forest of Dartmoor's recent entry into the environmentally sensitive area scheme and the accommodation of military use within the scheme's objectives and achievements. Although recovery is expected, its speed and permanence is heavily dependent on deterring all potential moor travellers, walkers, commoners, military personnel and others from following the tracks created, which is no mean task given the temptation and convenience that they now provide.

Since the Duchy of Cornwall renewed the licence for military training on the estate in 1991, some very positive MOD conservation activities have benefited both the historic environment and the wildlife. The general standards of care and range maintenance have improved. That damaging incident is, therefore, all the more regrettable.

The Dartmoor national park authority has expressed concerns that a new contract recently awarded to Landmarc to deliver various aspects of range maintenance and operations may be affecting standards and may have been a contributory factor in that instance. Whether the impact of the BV206 exercise is long term or not, the complaints and dismay expressed in various quarters are sufficient to justify an investigation, this debate and whatever action is needed to avoid any repetition of the incident. The Dartmoor national park authority has made robust representations to the MOD, the Duchy of Cornwall and the Dartmoor steering group.

Will the Minister confirm that the use of BV206 vehicles away from hard tracks will now be prohibited? Will the MOD monitor recovery and carry out at the Government's expense any restoration agreed necessary by DEFRA and the authority's ecologists? Will the MOD bear responsibility for discouraging commoners, the public and service personnel from following the routes created until recovery is complete? Finally, will he confirm that standards will not be diminished by the engagement of Landmarc?

As a life member of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without raising the matter of military litter. In a letter, the splendid chief executive of the association, John Bainbridge, told me of an ex-soldier who, on 4 September, led a walk around Gutter tor mire and Ditsworthy farmhouse and encountered untold rubbish, probably 90 per cent. of which was military.

There were more than 50 spent 5.56 mm cartridge cases, 11 empty cardboard cartridge boxes, which hold 25 rounds each, six used smoke canisters, untold ration pack wrappings and one damaged Hexi stove. While looking around Ditsworthy farmhouse, green twine, which looks like wool, was found but it was strongly tied against the walls to keep the public out. That illustrates a lackadaisical approach in the military, which is new; it has not been seen before.

It is difficult to sustain the untamed wilds of Dartmoor while permitting hundreds and sometimes thousands of military personnel to use it for training. I have always advocated Bodmin moor as the right place for training. Therefore, while the Dartmoor national park authority watches powerless from the sidelines and the Dartmoor Preservation Association howls in anguish, in reality, nothing can halt the destructive forces and preserve for the nation that unique environment, unless the Minister is minded to intervene, and intervene he should to protect from destruction the last great wilderness in Britain.

4.33 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate and giving me the opportunity to talk about the work of the Ministry of Defence on Dartmoor.

The hon. Gentleman has raised concerns about environmental damage to Dartmoor national park arising from military exercises. He has exchanged correspondence with my Department about military activities in the past, and I hope that my remarks will assure him of our recognition and appreciation of Dartmoor's special qualities. The MOD takes its responsibilities to the environment very seriously, and I intend to say more about that.

We are very aware of Dartmoor's place in people's affections. It is held in special regard by all branches of the armed forces, whose first recorded use of it was for training during the Napoleonic and Crimean wars. Okehampton camp, south of Okehampton, was built during 1892, and 4,050 hectares of land were rented from the Duchy of Cornwall for training artillery. That use continued until the second world war, when virtually the whole of the moor was used in preparation for the D-day landings invasion. A reduced area of Dartmoor has continued in such use ever since, playing a valuable role in preparations for the Falklands conflict in 1982 and again more recently for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The terrain and climate of Dartmoor provide conditions that challenge the recreational user and armed forces alike. Walkers and riders enjoy Dartmoor for much the same reasons that it provides an ideal training area for the military: challenging walks, strenuous climbing, unpredictable weather, featureless navigation, and remoteness. Those special qualities allow the military to develop character through resource, self-reliance and leadership skills—qualities that are called on wherever the armed forces are deployed.

Of course, simulation has much to offer these days with advances in technology and we are already exploiting that wherever possible, but simulation cannot replicate all the tests of character and skill provided by the natural environment.

Mr. Burnett

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Caplin

No. I am sorry.

As well as the regular forces from all three services, not just those based in the south-west who use the moor, locally based Territorial Army units and cadets depend on Dartmoor to provide them with an area to practise tactics and to maintain their weapon skills. In fact, 50 members of the local TA are about to deploy to Afghanistan on operations—[Interruption.] I hope that that is not them calling. I am sure that the Chamber will wish to join me in thanking them for their continuing commitment and dedication, and wish them well.

The hon. Member for Totnes asked me about 45 Commando's training exercise on Dartmoor at the end of June. He was right to say that there was a recent occurrence of surface damage caused by the cross-country vehicle known as BV206. That is a matter of the greatest regret to me and to my Department. It was recognised that some damage might occur as a result of the Commando exercise, but with a return to Afghanistan imminent, it was considered that the operational imperative outweighed the argument for not proceeding with the training. In some ways we are the victims of our own success, as the damage is much more noticeable because of the damage-free record in recent times. I am pleased to inform the hon. Gentleman and the Chamber that the repair work was quickly started and, with the help of the Dartmoor national park and English Nature, efforts are being made to minimise any long-term impact. That incident should be considered against the background of a good and improving record of conservation, not just on Dartmoor but throughout the defence estate. In particular, I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have agreed with the Dartmoor national park authority to discourage users from walking or riding along the tracks caused by the BV206. The Ramblers Association and the Dartmoor Preservation Association have also recommended avoidance, and I hope that that will be significant in allowing the rehabilitation of that area of Dartmoor as speedily as possible.

Mr. Steen

I have walked over Dartmoor for the past 40 years so I know it well. The Minister is right to say that the Ministry's record is pretty good. The recent incident is a departure and there is concern about Landmarc. Will he say something about the BV206 in the future, because that is the concern? The exercise also took place on Bodmin moor, so could not the Dartmoor national park, one of Britain's 13 national parks, be avoided if at all possible? The terrain on Bodmin is very similar to that on Dartmoor.

Mr. Caplin

We shall take those views into account, but, because of the operational nature of the training, only Dartmoor was suitable, not Bodmin. However, I shall certainly reflect on the hon. Gentleman's comments.

The Ministry of Defence has been set the challenging target of having 95 per cent. of MOD-managed SSSI sites in favourable or recovering condition by 2010. The Army training estate is responsible for many of them, and current information suggests that it is ahead of the national average with 53 per cent. in the favourable or recovering status. We still have a long way to go, but the chief executive of English Nature tells me that this is indeed a promising start.

It is also worth pointing out that for the third successive year the Army training estate has won the coveted Silver Otter conservation award. This is an award made annually to the best project by a conservation group on MOD land. This year's award went to Foxglove Covert in Yorkshire, where we have developed an ultramodern field centre on a local nature reserve. I cite those as some of the examples of the MOD's environmental and conservation work.

I am pleased that Dartmoor was one of the first areas to introduce an integrated land management plan, which brought together all interests to inform its management and development. With the introduction of an environmental management system to the wider MOD, Dartmoor is again leading the way, with valuable contributions coming from statutory bodies such as English Nature and English Heritage, as well as the volunteers who make up the local conservation groups.

In addition, those essential programmes are supported by the rural element of the estate strategy funding programme, which sees £2 million annually ring-fenced across the Army training estate in support of our statutory obligations. Dartmoor is part of that programme. Contrary to the opinion of some, it simply is not in our interests to cause environmental damage, but it is in our interests to protect and conserve our training areas. Let me add that not all military training impacts are adverse; some are positively beneficial to the environment. For example, land used for military training often prevents intensive agricultural practices.

Mr. Steen

The most beautiful part of Dartmoor national park is the northern part—the highest part. It is closed to the public for the best part of eight months a year. It is a contradiction to have a national park that one cannot actually get to. It is true that the conservation and environmental record of the MOD is very good. People cannot access the land because the Army is firing on it and the public are cleared from it: if one closes the land, the corollary is that the environment will be improved. However, that is not the point of the national parks; the point is to get people to visit them, not to prevent them from going.

Mr. Caplin

I was about to come on to access, so the hon. Gentleman's intervention is timely. I know that public access is a matter dear to his heart and to the hearts of his constituents and many other Dartmoor users, including those who visit the moor regularly.

Unless live firing is taking place, the whole training area is open to the public. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in the opportunities available to his constituents as well as visitors to the area, but I can assure him and the Chamber that the ranges are operational for only the minimum time consistent with our troops achieving their training objectives. When those objectives are achieved more quickly than expected, or when the unpredictable weather I have already referred to closes in, the ranges are opened. In those areas not used for live firing, there are no closures and people are free to walk and ride while training takes place.

I deal now with the hon. Gentleman's point about military litter. Units are instructed not to leave litter on the moor at any time, but it does happen occasionally. I can assure him that range staff rectify the problem as quickly as possible, as soon as it is brought to their attention.

I accept that the paraphernalia of military activity such as flags, poles and lookouts are an intrusion on the landscape, but with the safety of the public paramount they are necessary. It is regrettable that a small minority of members of the public fail to accept their responsibility to avoid entering the danger area during published live firing periods. I also accept that there are some visitors who find the presence of troops disturbing. There are also, however, those who enjoy watching their activities, and who appreciate both the contact with them and the economic benefit brought to the south-west by their presence. It also helps to create an essential understanding between the public and the services through increased exposure to the role of the military.

I shall deal briefly with the issue of why military training has to take place in a national park and not elsewhere. Ideally, the military would not choose to exercise in such an area. However, alternative sites of similar size and scope, especially those without an environmental designation, are difficult to come by in the United Kingdom. With the exception of the newly created Scottish national parks, there are military training areas in all national park areas. They predate the creation of the parks. Their military use has meant that there has been no urbanisation, and no use of intensive agricultural practices; that has led to sites strong in landscape and conservation value—hence their designation. The MOD occupies less than 3 per cent. of the area of national parks, but that represents about 30 per cent. of the Army training estate.

At a recent debate convened by the Dartmoor Society to consider the military use of Dartmoor, the Ministry of Defence made a significant contribution to the discussion, and our presence there was warmly welcomed. However, we are not complacent about our use of the Dartmoor national park, or indeed of other national parks. I am aware that some people fervently believe that the military have no place in areas of special beauty and wilderness, and that such activities are inconsistent with the objectives of a national park. I am also aware of an issue with the licence for the use of Duchy of Cornwall land, which will fall due in 2012. We and the Duchy will consider how the renewal will be dealt with closer to the time, and I would not wish to second-guess anyone's views. For my own part, I am keeping an open mind.

In conclusion, it is worth reminding ourselves that in order to maintain our freedoms, and those of others, it is necessary not only to persuade potential foes of our political will and military capability to respond to threats, but to persuade them that our forces are effective and capable of preventing future adversaries from achieving their objectives. It is therefore essential to have a highly trained, well-motivated force that is operationally ready.

It being thirteen minutes to Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.