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Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may raise this point. We are concerned, as I know the noble Lord will agree, with protecting children. However, I wonder whether he will give thought to taking action in another place. I do not refer to this Chamber. He spent a considerable time pointing out the commercial aspect. While people commit such crimes for sexual gratification, there is also commercial exploitation. Will the noble Lord say something to the House about this suggestion--that he and those who assist him on the Bill might wish to consider in parallel with the Bill finding support from the Government to ensure that people who are involved in such activities are observed and working out how that could be done? It could be helpful.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, the Government can speak to this better than I can. I am just anxious that we should expedite the Bill as quickly as possible, it being so late in the Session. I commend it to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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RAF Bentwaters: Sale Procedure

2 p.m.

Lord Bridges rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the procedure adopted to sell the former RAF base at Bentwaters in Suffolk is consistent with their environmental policy, and whether similar procedures will be followed for other redundant defence property.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question standing in my name concerns a local matter which I believe raises issues of national importance. The one leads to the other and I shall start with a brief account of what happened at Bentwaters. Before doing so, I should perhaps explain that my wife and I have no personal interest at stake in the matter, beyond owning a house and garden five miles distant. We are also active members of the county branch of the CPRE, of which my wife is vice-chairman locally. She has local connections with the area going back to the period before the Second World War, and so has personal knowledge of the district before the airfield was built.

Bentwaters was built as an RAF base during the Second World War. It and its nearby sister base at Woodbridge developed into a major centre for USAF operations to meet the demands of the cold war. At its peak, there were some 13,000 US personnel and dependants on base. Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Americans withdrew and the Ministry of Defence announced that it had no further use for the base, which was declared redundant.

The base has two distinct parts flanking the A1152 which, despite its designation, is a narrow country road. The northern part is the domestic base, about 200 acres in extent. Here there are three separate areas of housing, perhaps 600 units in all, formerly leased to the Americans and now privately owned. Some of the houses are owner-occupied but many are on short-term leases through housing associations to tenants brought into the area because of housing need elsewhere, with a high rate of unemployment among them. Their plight has been made worse by the refusal of the Ministry of Defence to open up the central core of the domestic site which is for sale. The core area is intensely developed, with more houses and all the sophisticated commercial and social facilities of an American expatriate community. The new residents have had virtually no social facilities and difficult relations in the access between the several parts of the area. So there has been and will continue to be for some time a local, social problem of the Ministry's own making.

The larger southern site, known as the technical base, is 970 acres in extent and designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. The area contains a runway, workshops, aircraft shelters and hardened ammunition stores as well as other support facilities.

Faced with the problem of what to do with this dubious asset, the Ministry's original proposal was for comprehensive development of (in effect) a new town with many more houses and extensive industrial growth, all in a rural area with poor communications. Mercifully, when that strategy was considered at county level, the

14 Jun 1996 : Column 2006

ambition was thwarted. In January 1994, a panel of inspectors concluded that Bentwaters should not become a focus for major new development but should instead seek to re-use what could properly be re-used to create a balanced community with local job opportunities, while restoring, where possible, the land in the AONB so badly degraded by military use. The planning authority, the Suffolk Coastal District Council, then worked out a planning brief which is intended as a document of guidance, although it is perhaps capable of some manipulation.

In the summer of 1994, the Ministry of Defence started marketing the base. Bids had to be accompanied by a detailed business plan and there were several bids submitted and openly presented. But it was a surprise in February 1995 when the successful bidder turned out to be the Maharishi Foundation which had not submitted a detailed business plan and intended to create a university of natural law, based on the practice of fundamental meditation--a practice of which some of your Lordships may have first-hand experience, if not of the levitation to which it is supposed to give rise.

My first question to the noble Earl, of which I have given him notice, is: Why did the Ministry of Defence accept this offer without a properly researched plan, which was required from all bidders? In the event, the foundation found itself unable to produce a plan for the whole area and six months later it withdrew.

The Ministry then resumed negotiations with the under-bidder, the Chris Parker Group--not a nationally known company. In October 1995, the CPG's revised bid was accepted. It was widely reported that the sum--never officially declared--might be as high as £16 million, as high as or higher than that previously negotiated with the lapsed bidder. That high price obliged the CPG to propose extensive development of the site, which is contrary to government policy for the AONB. So my second question to the noble Earl is whether it is correct that the high price asked from the CPG was in truth based on that discussed with the Maharishi Foundation. If so, it was most unfortunate because it made the CPG proposals difficult for the district council to accommodate for environmental reasons.

The end of the long planning saga is now in sight. In April, the planning committee of the district council sensibly decided that the CPG plan for the domestic site raised few serious problems and agreed to it in principle. But it considered equally sensibly that the extensive development of the AONB could not be accepted as a justifiable exception to normal planning policy. The CPG responded promptly by removing the proposed holiday village of 750 chalets in the AONB, which had been described by them as providing funds for the removal of the runway and unwanted buildings, and by increasing the area zoned for industry. That was discussed yesterday by the planning committee at Woodbridge, which, while minded to approve, deferred a final decision for three weeks pending detailed agreement on some of the more important aspects.

My complaint about this story is that the Ministry of Defence, as owner of the site, regarded sale at the highest possible price as the determining factor.

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No doubt the Treasury was egging it on. But I submit that the Government have wider responsibilities; for example, as regards the AONB, and on transport issues. The latter are a strong local concern. We are uncertain of the effect on county roads of the greatly increased traffic which the CPG's plan will entail, whether it be heavy goods vehicles, required for the removal of demolition material or bringing in construction goods, or the unknown increase in commuting into and out of the area.

There is also the absence of any input from central government on the environmental side. Who in this transaction was the guardian of the AONB? Evidently not the Ministry of Defence. So far as I know, we in Suffolk have had little support from the DoE, or from other government departments which could have exerted pressure on the MoD to observe environmental rules.

I have heard from English Nature, and the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, whose chairman and president respectively is the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, a local resident, who greatly regrets that he cannot be in the Chamber today. In a letter to me of 11th June, English Nature points out that it is a statutory consultee in the environmental process. If requested, English Nature must provide available information in the preparation of an environmental statement to the developer. No such request was received. The letter goes on:

    "The lack of involvement of English Nature and other conservation organisations during the scoping and production of the Environmental Statement for RAF Bentwaters led to the production of a document which did not adequately cover ecological interests or issues. Consequently it was not possible to provide a definitive assessment of the impact of the proposed development on nature conservation interests. This formed one of the main grounds for objection to the proposals by English Nature".

The Suffolk Wildlife Trust, which is an important organisation locally, says that it is delighted that your Lordships are considering this matter today and can supply information which would seem to suggest:

    "that the sale of RAF Bentwaters has not been consistent with the Government's environmental policy".

The trust makes seven points, which I shall not repeat seriatim. The burden of its message is that the AONB is an important acidic grassland in the Sandlings, particularly for the species associated with it, such as the woodlark, which is a rare breeding bird, and that this grassland has been identified in the Biodiversity Action Plan endorsed by the Government as a "key habitat" which should be protected by local planning policies. That important fact was not brought to the attention of the planning committee by any government department. It was left to individuals and NGOs, such as the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, to fill the gap. That is a serious failure by departments at the centre. It inevitably calls into question the seriousness of the Government's intentions regarding the environment, and suggests once again that they regard money as more important than anything else.

Regrettably, that fear is confirmed by a passage in the Government's rural White Paper which commits them to maximising the potential of redundant facilities for wealth creation and development. One of the reasons for the deferment of a decision by the district council's planning committee was the need to reach satisfactory

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arrangements with the purchaser for environmental protection. I am grateful to the council for getting the priorities right, despite the failure of government departments to do their duty.

I suggest that this tale illustrates the Government's failure to support our environmental policy in favour of short-term considerations. So much for the Government's support for the principle of sustainable development. I suggest it should be an essential precaution in property disposals of this size and complexity for a district council to have the benefit and support of an advisory council or group which could bring together NGOs, local authorities, landscape architects and other experts, so as to supervise and provide specialised knowledge as the development proceeds, all within the framework of a strict Section 106 procedure.

Bentwaters is now so far down the road that the council might not be able to help much at this stage. An alternative would be for the Ministry of Defence, given the pending disposal of so many important properties, to establish its own body for realising sales. It could include experts of the kind I mentioned and could work out a long-term strategy for disposal and further development of important sites. Such a scheme would also have the advantage of securing a better return to the taxpayer, who would receive a due share of the profits over time; whereas a one-off sale to the developer, as at present, means that it is he who creams off for his own benefit most of the value added.

My final question to the noble Earl arises from a passage in the report by the inspectors after the examination in public, which states:

    "We have already indicated that the Ministry of Defence should accept some responsibility for restoration [of the AONB], albeit the issue may have broader implications for central Government".

How does the Ministry of Defence intend to fulfil its obligations in that regard?

2.14 p.m.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, for bringing before your Lordships a case that is not only important in itself in local terms but is of importance also because it relates to a much more general problem which some of us have perceived for some while.

I should start by declaring a non-interest. I do not own any land adjoining or have any interest whatever financially in this site or in any land connected with it. I say that because, as a result of some parliamentary Questions I tabled, I noticed that Mr. Chris Parker of the Chris Parker Group Ltd. referred to local people "who had vested interests". I felt that that might in some way be referring to me. I should also like to say that I have never, as far as I am aware, met Mr. Chris Parker or indeed ever seen him, so I know nothing personally about the gentleman.

However, I have a more general interest as the chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England and as a member of the Suffolk Preservation Society. I therefore mind a great deal about what happens in Suffolk and I mind a great deal about what

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happens in England as well. I should like, before I come on to the specific matters connected with Bentwaters, to speak a little about the general issues involved.

First, I do not believe that in general the Ministry of Defence has in the past been a good landlord. I should like to give one specific example--again a local one. Shortly before the National Trust took over Orford Ness, I went for a walk there. I have never seen a piece of land in a more deplorable, ill-kept condition. Had it been my land I would have sacked my agent or farm manager. It was covered with cag from years before. That, I fear, is typical of the standard of stewardship which the Ministry of Defence has shown on many occasions.

Secondly, following from that, I believe that we need to have a fresh audit on those lands in the possession of the Ministry of Defence; such an audit has not taken place for some 20 years, since the Nugent Committee. Also, the Government should give guidance on the important issue of the disposal of lands or properties belonging to the Ministry of Defence, particularly redundant airfields, rather in the way the Government have in the past given guidance on the disposal of redundant hospitals. I suggest that the present plans of the Department of the Environment for reviewing PPG7--due to be published in draft form in July of this year--may be a good occasion for such advice to be set out.

In support of the need for such guidance I cite a totally different case--nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence and nothing to do with Suffolk: the state of the Battersea Power Station. I was glad to have a Written Answer from my noble friend Lord Inglewood this week in which he said that,

    "The present state of Battersea Power Station is most regrettable. Bearing in mind this and other cases ... the Government issued a Guidance Note for Departments on the disposal of Surplus Historic Buildings".--[Official Report, 12/6/96; col. WA 170.]
I suggest that similar guidance is needed in respect of Ministry of Defence lands. The Minister added--this will appear relevant to what I intend to say a little later--apropos Battersea,

    "advice should, wherever possible, be taken on the financial soundness of the prospective purchaser".--[col. WA 170.]

The Government have an obligation to take fully into account environmental factors in deciding who to sell defence lands to when they become redundant. So it is not necessarily the highest bidder who should receive the award of the contract for buying the land. The public interest is important. It is difficult to measure, but must not be neglected.

I should like to mention what is going to be one of the biggest national issues to be debated in this country over the coming years; that is, the huge pressure for more land for housing. The Government's prediction is that by 2016 there will be an additional 4.4 million households created due largely to demographic factors. This is going to put a very considerable pressure on rural areas. It is something that we must bear in mind in deciding how and whether it can be accommodated. Obviously, it follows that as much of the development as possible should be where man has already placed

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bricks and concrete--in other words, the so-called brown land. Certainly, we must consider this housing need when it comes to the disposal of bases. Therefore, it is relevant to this argument.

I would like now to come on to Bentwaters directly. First of all, I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, refer to the interest that English Nature has taken in it, but apparently it had not been consulted earlier on. I have been rather disappointed that the Countryside Commission, of which I was a member for 12 years, has not taken a greater interest. The most recent statement I can find is a letter I dug up from my file dated 12th October 1994 apropos Bentwaters, where it says:

    "The thrust of our submission, and our continuing position, is that AONB policies were not receiving a high enough priority in planning consideration of the development proposals. There was therefore a danger that further development would be beyond that necessary and suitable for the site and the area. We asked that the balance to be struck ... be tilted further towards the protection of the AONB, including some landscape restoration work on the airfield itself".

I am sorry that the Countryside Commission has not taken a greater role. It is the Government's watchdog on rural beauty. The whole idea of hiving off that responsibility to such an agency is that it should perform that task. I know that it feels overstretched and is withdrawing to some extent from being involved in planning issues. I regret that. I believe that if anyone is to advise government as the public interest it must be the Countryside Commission.

Finally, I would like to say a word or two about Bentwaters. I ask the Government two questions about the Chris Parker Group, of which I know very little indeed. First of all, I would like to know what track record it has in being able to manage as big a project as it appears it may be about to embark upon. Secondly, following up the comments made by the Government about Battersea, have they taken professional independent advice on the financial soundness of the group? I have no view on that issue. I am merely asking the Government for their view.

Local opinion has the feeling--and it may be wrong--that the main interest of the Chris Parker Group is in the exploitation of the concrete. Concrete and aggregate are valuable commodities, mined by people perfectly properly. There is a great deal of concrete at Bentwaters. There is a great deal of concrete at all airfields. Many of them were built in the early days of the war when contractors were paid for the amount of cement they used. Indeed, perhaps I may tell your Lordships that some years ago on my own land, which is some five or six miles away from Bentwaters, we were digging up some hard standings which used to have B17s on them and selling the concrete ourselves. We have turned the area into wildlife ponds. We were fascinated to find tons and tons of cement still in hessian sacks. It had just been dumped in the bottom of the hard standings. No doubt the contractor of the day was one of those hard-faced men who did well out of the war!

At any rate, the value of the Bentwaters concrete is clearly important, but that is not the entire value of this site. It is a sensitive and important site and, whatever happens, we must make sure that there is a

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well-balanced development there. There has already been a tendency to decant people from local housing lists on to the site, and that does not necessarily make for a balanced community and may be storing up problems for the future. To some extent, the MoD has a responsibility, and I believe it has not handled that aspect cleverly. We have to make sure that whatever happens is well thought out and sustainable. I would remind the Government that it was some years ago, during a brief period when agriculture appeared to be having a less important priority for the nation--and it is a period which in my opinion is fast vanishing--when Nicholas Ridley, the late Environment Secretary, said in a memorable phrase that, apart from anything else, we have to preserve the countryside for its own sake. That very much applies to designated areas and it certainly applies to the Suffolk coast's AONB. I hope very much that that will be the kind of priority the Government give.

It is sometimes argued that economic interests and the creation of jobs are paramount. I would point out that the Bentwaters air base, in the Suffolk, coastal constituency of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment--I live in that constituency--is not an area where there are unemployment problems. The monthly brief which shows unemployment by constituency--the latest edition came out yesterday--showed that the unemployment rate in the area is 5.1 per cent. and in ranking by constituency it is 500th from the top. Let us satisfy ourselves that we give proper regard to the environmental aspects of this important development. I look forward to being reassured on this matter by my noble friend.

2.26 p.m.

Lord Bancroft: My Lords, I intervene as an almost disembodied voice from the past. The case has been put with such eloquence and passion by my noble friend Lord Bridges and by--I almost said my noble friend--the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that I shall confine myself to the lessons to be learnt by two government departments. The wider lessons have already been drawn by my noble friend and by the noble Lord. I shall confine myself to narrower, workaday issues.

I have a regard--almost an affection--for the Ministry of Defence going back to the time when I was in the Treasury and for two periods in my duties there, in the then jargon, "looked after" the Ministry of Defence. It happened to coincide with two defence reviews--my Lords, what's new?--and also the withdrawal from east of Suez, and in these even harder times the Ministry must regard as one of its prime objectives minimising any adverse effects on the defence budget. We should again remind ourselves that in this case most of the remaining physical assets, however deplorable their condition, were funded by the US taxpayer and not the UK taxpayer. But the other department concerned, the Department of the

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Environment, to which I owe great affection, had specific duties laid to it in the founding White Paper Cmnd. 4506. I shall quote briefly from it:

    "the new Department will be responsible for the whole range of functions which affect people's living environment. It will cover the planning of land--where people live, work, move and enjoy themselves. It will be responsible for the construction industries, including the housing programme, and for the transport industries, including public programmes of support and development for the means of transport. There is a need to associate with these functions responsibility for other major environmental matters: the preservation of amenity, the protection of the coast and countryside ... It will also have the particular responsibility of ensuring that people's rights are adequately protected wherever they are affected by the proposals of their neighbours or of public authorities. Local authorities are profoundly involved in these fields".

A bit of that--not a lot--is now out of date. But, as one of the authors of that White Paper and as a former Permanent Secretary of the department, I am a touch dismayed by the general role which the department appears to have played so far in this affair. I am not in the least underestimating its helpful intervention on at least one occasion or indeed the particular difficulty which it faces in this case. As we have been reminded, the area includes, however damaged the goods, an area of outstanding natural beauty and two designated wildlife sites, one of which is listed as an ancient woodland. It also includes people who, in the words of the White Paper, "live", meaning housing, schools, doctors; "work", meaning employment opportunities; "move", meaning transport, and "enjoy themselves", meaning some recreational facilities.

As the noble Earl is by now aware, I am an unreconstructed product of the days before the new commercial approach to public service--there is the beginnings of an oxymoron for you: rather like certain Ministers conducting charm offensives--before the decision to transform professional public servants into pale shadows of employees in the private sector, just on the cusp of the ending of Her Majesty's Permanent Civil Service and the creation of conditions in which to give unpopular advice is hazardous and certainly before competition for bonuses and the renewal of contracts replaced co-operation for the public good.

In those old days, frequently tempestuous and certainly not golden, with hideous memories, for example, of Crichel Down, it would have been recognised very early on that here was a hot issue affecting both the defence budget and the whole raison d'etre of the Department of the Environment. The two Secretaries of State and their senior advisers would, I fancy, have set up a small, joint task force in short order. It would have been tasked to report in a matter of weeks on a narrow range of options, which would have sought the optimum reconciliation between two conflicting aims, which my noble friend Lord Bridges described; namely, maximum money on the one hand and, on the other, the needs of the environment, including the local population. If necessary, heads would have been knocked together; local interests consulted; other interested bodies such as those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, consulted; the Treasury squared away and a series of agreed options put to the two Secretaries of State. Their joint preferred option would then, I fancy, have been fed

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officially into the planning process as firm guidance and thereafter it would have been jointly followed up in the marketing phase. There would have been unofficial channels open as well.

Of course, I have grossly oversimplified. I have made it sound easy. As we all know, in practice it is complicated, difficult and rough. It takes a little time and deliberation; it takes a lot of willpower. I make no claims as to the quality of the final outcome, but it would have been reached at the end of a sensible process in which there would have been a collective government view from the start. Mutual co-operation and accommodation are the watchwords.

Echoing again what my noble friend Lord Bridges said, but in a rather narrower way, would it not be possible to set a pattern of the sort which I have very crudely sketched out for future large disposals? Echoing the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, what about a guidance note on the disposal of defence land? I do not know, but perhaps it has all happened in this particular case. If so, I have to say that the joint departmental reach has greatly exceeded its grasp.

Since there are so few of us here this afternoon, I take the liberty of using yet again Mr. Macmillan's favoured quotation:

    "Quiet calm deliberation disentangles every knot".

2.35 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, all land in this country forms part of the national heritage, and of course more specifically for the local community in which it is situated. The land for these airfields--I refer particularly to Bentwaters and to Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire--was taken out of the local community cheaply at a time of grave national emergency for the defence of the realm and it has served this country well through the First and Second World Wars and then the Cold War. It is surely not inequitable that those same communities should have at least a say in the use of those lands now that the requirement for their use in the national interest has passed.

In that respect, the situation in respect of the defence estate is basically different from that of a straightforward development of land, as my noble friend Lord Bridges reminded us. That was recognised first by the First Report on the Defence Estate from the Select Committee on Defence in another place. I should like to give three short quotations from that report. The first states:

    "We would strongly deprecate central targets for reduction in the estate, including rigid targets from property sales, which puts undue emphasis on a once-off capital gain as against longer-term savings".

The second states:

    "A simple search for capital receipts does not in every case secure for the community the best long term return, however expressed: the rule requiring the best possible return must therefore be applied with due acknowledgement of potential non-cash gains to the community".

The third states--and this is the nub:

    "The defence estate is not the same as private land, in that it came into National stewardship for a very particular purpose".

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I have one more quotation. This comes from page 58 of the White Paper on rural England and relates to defence. It states:

    "we will ensure that decisions on disposal and re-use take account of policies for regeneration and land use for the local area".

We have had the benefit of a most expert account of the relationship of two departments, the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Defence. There is a certain ambiguity in the light of that remark in the White Paper in that the same firm which advised the Secretary of State for the Environment is now advising the North Oxford Consortium.

The procedure for the subsequent development of defence lands is basically different from that of private lands where at least there is an established procedure for planning inquiries. In the case of the MoD lands, it appears to have been confined to little more than an advertisement by estate agents followed by awards of tenders. We have heard details of those so far.

Perhaps I may speak about Upper Heyford. I have to say with regret from these Benches that the experience of local interest groups, certainly in Oxfordshire, is that in dealing with the ministry they perceive that the somewhat authoritarian departmental ethos palpably so necessary in the national interest over the past 50 years--in the post-Soviet Union era--still persists in times when it is quite inappropriately, and I suggest improperly, insensitive to local views.

What are those local views? In the case of Upper Heyford, we find the hostility of no fewer than 23 parish councils adjacent to the property, representing the whole of the district councils of Cherwell and West Oxford. They are unanimous in their view that as against the 7,500 houses for 20,000 people proposed by the consortium, a maximum of 1,000 houses should be built. The Oxfordshire County Council is of the view that the roads infrastructure represents a truly horrendous problem and all seem to be united in the fear that the proposed development will lead to an urban ribbon development between Banbury and Bicester. What alternative suggestions will the local authorities seek to put forward? The first is a proposal for some sound and potentially profitable light industrial development, which is very much called for in that particular district. A car fleet maintenance company employing 500 people (most of whom were made redundant after the departure of the Americans) has a relationship with the local community that is a model of its kind. The company has made it clear that it is considering moving to France because of the refusal of the ministry to grant leases of more than five years.

I remind your Lordships that these airfields are by their very nature not totally brown sites. There are substantial amounts of green agricultural land lying between buildings which is extensively used for grazing. As I speak, a substantial crop of sileage is being taken off Upper Heyford. Imaginative light industrial development would lie well with this and it would, incidentally, provide huge benefits to the local community in that its commercial vehicles would be confined to designated routes as opposed to the unrestricted use by private cars from a town the size of Bicester.

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I see the priorities as the following. Either these lands are developed to the maximum benefit of the national taxpayer or they are used for a purpose more sensitive to the local communities, from which they were taken in exceptional circumstances. Is it only to be the taxpayer and the developer who will benefit and not the local community? I suggest that the procedures for reaching the decision are and have been arbitrary in the extreme, and it is to this that I urge my noble friend the Minister to give the most urgent consideration.

2.41 p.m.

Lord Chorley: My Lords, all noble Lords will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Bridges for enabling the House to discuss the important issue of redundant defence property. I suggest that there is nothing like a practical case such as the RAF base at Bentwaters to sharpen one's focus on the general issues. It is not very satisfactory that one should have to debate an issue such as this on a Friday afternoon. It is not a trivial issue, not least because the Bentwaters case is not an isolated one. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, most of my remarks will be directed to the remarkably similar case of the huge former American base at Upper Heyford near Banbury.

We have witnessed the extraordinary cases of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and the proposal to dispose of Admiralty Arch. For obvious reasons, those have evoked a huge public outcry. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred to Orford Ness. I did not intend to refer to Orford Ness, but since it has been mentioned I should immediately declare an interest as chairman of the National Trust, which acquired it from the Ministry of Defence. What the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, says is absolutely correct. It was left in the most appalling condition. But the position is somewhat worse than that. It was sold to the National Trust, with a good deal of taxpayers' money from the Department of the Environment, on the basis that most of the pollutants--mainly asbestos--had been cleared up. Having received an, albeit oral, assurance that it had been cleaned up, I was told yesterday that the trust will have to spend approximately £100,000 to remove what still remains--not just asbestos but other rather dangerous and nasty toxic chemicals. I did not particularly want to deal with that case because I wish to keep off National Trust territory.

The cases involving large air force bases in the countryside are in their different ways just as worrying. There are common worrying features--an almost paranoid desire to push through sales with little or no public discussion or regard to local opinion and little consideration of the wider countryside, nature conservation, planning and the circumstances in which the sites were acquired and all, so far as I can tell, with the overt aim of extracting the highest possible cash value for private development with all the dangers to quality and design.

As the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said, these places were acquired by compulsory purchase at a moment of grave national crisis. They tend to be on relatively open, high, desolate plateaux because, after all, that is what makes a good airfield. Why should we

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suppose that they are suitable for residential or light industrial development? There is no reason why that should be the case. Whether in landscape or general planning terms, they are not. The process by which it is being done reminds one of the Crichel Down case. I suggest that something of a moral issue is involved.

Since the war dozens of RAF airfields all over the country have been disposed of. However, in most cases they have reverted broadly to what they were, which is agriculture. Why suddenly this change of attitude? The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, suggested that it would be suitable for PPG7 to deal with the matter. He had some authoritative support from my noble friend Lord Bancroft, with which I agree.

One would like to know more of the genesis of the references in last autumn's White Paper on rural England. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, referred to page 58 but there are also references on page 131 to the use of land for housing. There are fine words about consulting the local community and so forth and it is easy to see that in the remote vastness of Marsham Street Towers it appeared to be so sensible. In the words of the White Paper:

    "Before building on greenfield sites the full potential of derelict and degraded land should be exploited".

"Exploit" is a rather emotive word. But what about the scale of development, the landscape and the planning context? One simply cannot generalise in this way. Moreover, what about the way in which the proposals are being tackled? It would appear that the maximum pressure is applied to the local authority to agree to dense and quite unsuitable development.

I turn to Upper Heyford. I shall try not to repeat what has been said. The MoD selected a consortium of well known housing developers. Their proposal was to build 7,500 houses and, for all I know, it still is. That is the equivalent of a small county town to be set on a treeless plateau. The consultation draft of the county structure plan suggested 5,000 houses. But even 1,000 houses, one-seventh of the original notion, is not really appropriate in this quiet Oxfordshire countryside of the Cherwell Valley, an area of local conservation.

In the case of Upper Heyford, there is an additional consideration because the base abuts on to one of the most important 18th century landscaped gardens in England; indeed, historically, in Europe. One of the greatest contributions this country has made to European civilisation is the 18th century development of the notion of the landscape garden. It was a unique concept and began at Rousham, where the work of William Kent reigns supreme. I believe that it is the only work of William Kent which has survived completely without being altered by Capability Brown. Historically, it is very important. Rousham was the forerunner of the great landscape gardens at Stowe, Fountains, Stourhead, Blenheim and so forth. That is not my personal opinion. It is the opinion of, for example, Sir Angus Stirling, the former director-general of the National Trust, and internationally of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. Moreover, Rousham remains one of the best preserved of those landscape gardens, thanks to the efforts of the family which owns it. Its setting is quite crucial. All that is to be put at risk.

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So far as I can make out, there has been no environmental impact assessment--that is, there is no publicly available environmental impact assessment. There are other wider issues. For example, it has been estimated that the new town would involve no fewer than 55,000 vehicle movements per day in the quiet Cherwell Valley on small country roads.

The proponents of the development argue that that would not be the case; that the town would be, as it were, self-contained. On the other hand, a recent independent study of a housing estate in nearby Bicester showed that the average worker there travels 180 miles per week by car. In other words, he goes outside the development for his work. That is far and away above the average for a normal country town. That is without taking account of the lorries and heavy vehicles.

Where will it all end? I suggest that, if this proposal goes ahead, it will end by going beyond what the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman said. He said that it would create a corridor between Oxford and Bicester. I suggest that it would go all the way along the Cherwell Valley and create an urban sprawl all the way to Banbury. Is that what we want to see? How can it possibly be argued that that is consistent with the Government's policy of sustainable development or the spirit of the White Paper? In these cases, whether it be Bentwaters or Upper Heyford, we need a thorough and open process of consultation and study. Both the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and my noble friend Lord Bancroft suggested something on similar lines.

Why is there this stampede? Why is there this hurry when we are about to make irreversible decisions in relation to important landscape? Is it only quick cash values which matter? We talk enthusiastically about the peace dividend. Is this how we wish to spend it? I hope not.

2.52 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, in speaking from these Benches on a subject which is part of my normal brief--the countryside and conservation--I am speaking also on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, who is very sorry that he cannot be here today because he had to go to Brussels on parliamentary business. But he is obviously greatly concerned, partly because of his defence responsibilities and partly because of the correspondence which we have received from the local Liberal Democrat group on the Suffolk Coastal District Council.

Also, I have been asked to say a few words about Upper Heyford by my noble friend Lady Robson who again is unfortunately unable to be here today. The whole question of Upper Heyford has been fairly well aired through the speeches of noble Lords. However, I believe that the points coming to light, which I wish to underline, are the same in both cases. It is clearly in respect of the Suffolk case that we are asking for a detailed response from the Government. Equally, the Question relates to similar procedures being followed for other redundant defence property.

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In common with other noble Lords who have spoken, I suggest that there are two glaring issues which stand out. The first is the lack of consultation with local inhabitants, and the second is the lack of transparency in the procedures. The leader of the local Liberal Democrat Group in Suffolk, Councillor Christine Block, has written to say:

    "It seems to us that this is a planning matter with far reaching implications. Under the circumstances we feel we should know more than the Ministry of Defence seems prepared to tell us".
Then, she goes on to say:

    "We understand that a new contract with the MoD has been exchanged; we do not know if the price has been reduced/re-negotiated. We do not know who the financial backers are for all or any of the proposed development ... We have been able to discover almost nothing about the Chris Parker Group. I believe his last company went bankrupt. I believe he 'has done some work' for the MoD ... No one in the demolition business in this country appears to know anything about him or his company".
It is quite clear that the local authorities are finding it very difficult to deal with the problem, which very much affects both them and their electors, in a situation where the Ministry of Defence is not producing answers that are necessary; or, indeed, exposing the whole process, as it surely should be, to the same kind of examination which would happen if it was not coming from the Ministry of Defence and was a simple planning matter.

With regard to Upper Heyford, the situation is very much the same. The North Oxford Consortium (a combination of three housebuilders) has been chosen without any public consultation by the MoD, using the commercial property branch of Savills estate agency. As a result, plans have been produced which, as we heard today, have generated considerable opposition. We have heard about the local parishes which object; we have heard about the National Trust and English Heritage which have written, opposing the plans put forward by the consortium; and there is major county council opposition to the plan because of the absurd cost of providing an adequate transport network for a development of the size suggested.

We have to ask if land acquired in this particular way is really the property of the MoD to dispose of in the way that best suits it and the Treasury. The answer given by noble Lords in the various speeches which have been given today is surely, emphatically no. There is a much more general interest to be consulted. There are very real principles about how we treat our countryside and how we deal with matters like the area of outstanding natural beauty in Suffolk; or, indeed, the particular areas and pieces of land that were drawn to our attention by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley.

I feel that we are due to receive not only an answer from the Government as to the particular situation regarding both developments, but also, I hope--if we do not get it from them today, I suggest that we go on trying to get it--a commitment by the Ministry of Defence that, when dealing with disposals of land in the future, it will undertake a radically different attitude to such disposals than that which it has taken to date or as regards the two particular cases.

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