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3 p.m.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I wish to start by paying a warm tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and indeed to his wife, Lady Bridges, for their commitment on this matter and for their concern, which I am sure is shared throughout the House.

First, I underline the national context. The Department of the Environment estimates that there will be 4.4 million more households in England in 2016 than in 1991. If this estimate were to become a target, and building and planning policies remain unchanged, by 2016 an area of countryside larger than Greater London could be lost to urbanisation. This has huge implications for traffic growth. Rural traffic is already predicted to grow faster than urban traffic by at least 130 per cent., and perhaps by as much as 270 per cent. by 2025.

For any of us who cares about the quality of life within the British Isles this has all the potential of a nightmare as our all too limited remaining countryside is raped. Where will any of us have the space to relax, to walk, to regenerate, to write verse, to paint, to breathe or to think creatively? The abandonment of nature--one of our precious assets--could well be seen in history as national vandalism of the kind we deplore in the behaviour of lager louts and street hooligans. But against that we of course all have to consider carefully the significance of the need for homes and jobs--two other vital hallmarks of a decent society.

The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, has posed searching questions as regards Bentwaters. We shall want to hear convincing replies from the Minister. For my part I wish to emphasise what seem to me to be three key questions which have implications for national policy.

First, what relative weighting have the Government given to the need for employment, jobs, recreation, homes and environmental protection in this case, including the restoration of countryside of outstanding natural beauty? Secondly, how exactly, and why did the Government come to accept the subsequently abortive offer of the Maharishi Foundation? Was not the determining factor in reality that the land must go at all costs to the highest bidder? Thirdly, what has been the nature of the Government's relationship with the local authority? Have they been sensitively and co-operatively looking together at the various possibilities and how they could best help with the most sensible solution, or have they been somewhat domineering and manipulative, pressing their preferred options?

There are, of course, other significant questions arising from the Bentwaters sale which might usefully be underlined. How far are the Government satisfied that the current purchaser has the resources to see through his aspirations to their fulfilment, or how great is the danger of his selling on before fulfilment? That question quickly brings us to whether a sufficiently tight legal agreement has been formulated which would place firm conditions on the future use of the land. Is it remotely conceivable that, as things stand, the site could even end up as an airfield once again? What would be the environmental implications of that? We also need to

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know whether the MoD is contributing--as I understand was recommended by the inspector and agreed by it--to restoration of the technical site and, if not, why not?

As I say, to these and other questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, we need firm answers, free from prevarication or evasiveness. What is clear is that it has all been an unhappy, messy saga with tears, hopes, disappointments, frustrations, muddle, anxiety and general confusion. That is in no way an acceptable model for the future. It is a saga literally on the doorstep of the Secretary of State for the Environment; a fact which should, frankly, keep him awake at nights.

To return to the national dimensions, in its report on the defence estate, the Defence Committee in the other place recommended that the MoD and the Department of the Environment should press urgently ahead with general planning guidance on re-use of MoD sites. The Defence Committee drew attention to the strategic policy guidance which had been formulated on the sale of National Health Service estate and argued that MoD sites should be treated on at least an equal basis. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has of course referred to that. The Defence Committee also argued that there should be a formal obligation on the MoD to notify the appropriate authorities and major voluntary conservation bodies of possible disposal of sites of special scientific interest and other land of equivalent interest to facilitate environmental protection and that rights of first refusal should be given to those purchasers most evidently capable of preserving the natural heritage.

The sale of Bentwaters seems to me to have been a conspicuous illustration that little of this has happened. Why, my Lords, why? That is the question which must be addressed. We are dealing with what is in part an area of outstanding natural beauty, with two designated country wildlife sites, including ancient woodland. Why has the concern and guidance of the Department of the Environment been so sadly lacking?

My wife and I are glad to be subscribers to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, of which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, is the respected chairman. We see the CPRE as in the frontline of the stand for a civilised nation. As regards the wider dimensions of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, stretching way beyond Bentwaters to the MoD estate as a whole, the council makes several highly sensible recommendations, to which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has already referred but which bear repetition.

First, the redevelopment and re-use of redundant military bases should be consistent with wider land use and environmental policies such as reducing rural land-take for development and reducing the need to travel. Secondly, a comprehensive environmental audit should be undertaken of the defence estate to update that carried out by the Nugent Committee more than 20 years ago and provide a strategic context for considering individual development schemes. Thirdly, specific national planning guidance should be issued to guide the redevelopment of redundant military bases similar to that issued by the Department of the Environment in 1987 to guide the redevelopment of redundant hospitals in the green belt.

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Fourthly, adequate procedures should be established for the disposal of military land to ensure that land of environmental value is not damaged if environmentally acceptable owners or uses can be identified. Fifthly, the sale of defence land should not necessarily be to the highest bidder and should reflect the wider public interest in the future use of the site, including environmental considerations.

The council goes on to suggest that, when considering options for reuse,

    "it is essential to distinguish between military development that has only been allowed because it was in the national defence interest and that which might in other circumstances also have been in an acceptable location for other development. Much more restrictive planning criteria should apply to the former sites and a leading option should be their return to agricultural or another appropriate 'soft' end use".

At times this afternoon I have wondered whether this was turning into a debate about Upper Heyford. Of course, Upper Heyford raises serious considerations. For a moment I should like to dwell on some of the wider issues arising from the remarks by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and the noble Lords, Lord Chorley and Lord Beaumont of Whitley.

In relation to housing, the Council for the Protection of Rural England argues that the following questions should be addressed before considering redundant military bases as appropriate for new settlement. Is the level of housing development proposed in the structure plan as a whole acceptable, or is the government housing requirement set out in regional planning guidance too high? Is a new settlement being considered as an escape valve for a few thousand houses which cannot easily be located elsewhere, and, if so, should the option of reducing the overall housing requirement be considered? Is a new settlement the best practical environmental option for locating new housing development? What about the sites in urban areas or those in and around existing settlements? The Government's planning policy statement on housing states that new settlement should be considered only when,

    "the alternative of expansion of towns or villages would represent a less satisfactory method of providing land for new housing that is needed".
What evidence has the local authority produced to show that a new settlement is the best practical environmental option? Is there a strategic environmental impact assessment of the plan, its housing policies and the different locations where houses might be put?

What is the impact on the countryside of imposing an entirely new settlement pattern on an area where the existing settlements have grown organically through time? What guarantees are there that the pressure for housing development on green fields around existing towns and villages will be reduced just because a new settlement is proposed? PPG3 states that new settlements need to be considered alongside,

    "policies of restraint to protect the rejected alternative locations from development pressure".

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What will stop the new settlement from becoming a growth poll, fuelling further development and in-migration? Are claims about the self-sufficiency of the new settlement really justified? For example, will the new residents really work and shop in the new settlement itself? Are the numbers of houses proposed likely significantly to have an impact on the overall housing requirements?

What guarantees are being provided that the development will be well designed and provide a wide range of community facilities, affordable housing and infrastructure? PPG3 states,

    "the opportunity to start a new settlement will be rare and should not be wasted".

In addition, there is also the evidence which indicates that commercial sites in the countryside too often result in people driving from towns to work in the country, thereby aggravating traffic problems, when there are suitable sites for the commercial development in the towns themselves. This is not to deny the need for more local employment opportunity in small enterprises in some traditional villages, allowing sensitively converted barns to be used for workshops rather than for second homes.

It would be helpful to know the Government's thinking on the principles enshrined in these questions, both in relation to Bentwaters and in terms of wider strategic thinking on the MoD estate or, indeed, other areas of Crown land that may become surplus and where wider public interests than profit alone should be taken into account.

The greatest challenge to government in a decent society is how they strike a dynamic and civilised compromise between the discipline and drive of the market and necessary intervention for the common good. If the common good in our crowded islands demands anything, it surely demands that the sordid clutter of urban jungles, concrete motorways and too often vulgar ribbon development spawned across the country is balanced by the joy and priceless value of well preserved open space. We must have room to breathe. We must make rational judgments that will stand the test of time. In surplus defence land there is an opportunity to work towards the right balance. The Minister is a very civilised man. We look to him for clear answers on the calamitous saga of Bentwaters and for reassurance on the MoD's general policy for the future.

Lessons must be learnt and applied to future sales. As Dryden so well put it:

    "How blest is he who leads a country life Unvexed with anxious cares and void of strife! Who studying civil peace, and shunning civil rage, Enjoyed his youth, and now enjoys his age".
Not a bad thought, my Lords, for the last business on a Friday afternoon.

3.12 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): My Lords, this has been a useful short debate and I am grateful to the noble

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Lord, Lord Bridges, and all noble Lords who have spoken on a matter which is naturally of great concern to those who live in the vicinity of Bentwaters.

As the size of our Armed Forces has reduced in the aftermath of the Cold War, so has the need for some of the establishments and installations which were required to accommodate and support them. The resulting disposals programme would have been substantial in its own right, but the decision of our American allies to follow a similar course of action has led to further significant properties being identified for disposal, of which Bentwaters is one. In many ways, Bentwaters typifies the difficulties which we face in disposing of surplus sites. The size of the site, at over 1,000 acres, would not be a problem if it were simply open land but an airforce base is far more than that. Bentwaters includes some 2 million square feet of technical buildings. It has 22 hardened aircraft shelters and associated runways. There are also some 68 married quarters on the site and, in common with other American bases, modern amenities including a community centre, theatre, health centre and shopping facilities. The base is served by its own private utilities, including water and sewerage.

The Americans' intention to withdraw from Bentwaters was announced on 26th August 1992, with the withdrawal to be completed by 30th September 1993. A working group was set up in September 1992 to consider the options for the future of the site. Bentwaters, together with its sister base at Woodbridge, was home to some 13,500 service personnel and civilian employees and their families. The effect of closure on the local community was expected to be significant and economic regeneration was one of the key considerations. While there are some 600 privately owned houses at Rendlesham Park and Watersfield Park adjoining the base, it is some way from any major conurbation. That inevitably also influenced decisions on the way ahead.

The working group comprised officials from my department, the Suffolk Coastal District Council as the local planning authority, Suffolk County Council and the Department of the Environment's regional office in Bedford. In September 1993, an examination in public was held to consider changes to the Suffolk County Council's structure plan. That was used as a public forum for the expression and crystallisation of the ideas formulated by the working group. The findings of the review, which became available on 25th January 1994, were the subject of further detailed liaison, and a revised draft planning brief was broadly agreed in June 1994. That was substantially ratified and formally incorporated within the local plan and county structure plan in September 1994.

From that, noble Lords will see that detailed consultation took place with a view to obtaining the broadest measure of agreement on the future of Bentwaters when it passed out of Government ownership. I make a point of saying that, because some noble Lords suggested that the MoD had been fairly indifferent to the future of the site and had not acted as responsibly as perhaps it should have done. I reject that.

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I must add that environmental concerns, including the fact that much of the site lies in an area of outstanding natural beauty, are not strictly a matter for my department. They would be a matter for the local planning authority, which would no doubt take account of national planning guidance in considering what re-use might be acceptable. The AONB designation does not prevent development taking place. Rather, it requires that it be carried out in a sympathetic and acceptable way. The AONB is protected in the planning brief. It is worth noting that much of the existing infrastructure at Bentwaters was in place when the AONB designation was conferred.

The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said that English Nature was not properly consulted. English Nature is a statutory consultee, and my advice is that it was consulted by the local authority.

The base was formally placed on the market in June 1994, with expressions of interest invited by 2nd September. Those expressions of interest were assessed on the basis of compatibility with the planning brief. They were assessed, too, on their overall viability and the availability of financial backing. As noble Lords will be aware, that process led to the selection of the Maharishi Foundation as the prospective purchaser, with its proposal to establish an educational facility with a related science and business park.

The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, asked why the offer from the Maharishi Foundation was accepted without our having seen a full business plan. In fact, there were detailed plans for the site. It is true that they were not in the form of a commercial business plan, but that is not particularly significant. The foundation is not a commercial organisation. What mattered was that it had proper ideas for the site which appeared viable and which were consistent with the planning brief, and that it had the means to pay at the end of the day.

The foundation's proposal was not welcomed in some quarters. But at the end of the day the deal was not finalised because it proved impossible to reach agreement on some elements of the sale. The exact nature of the unresolved issues is commercially confidential between my department and the foundation. I am sure that noble Lords will understand if I do not comment further.

It was accordingly decided, in July 1995, to discuss the possibility of sale with one of the underbidders. In September 1995, heads of terms were agreed with the Chris Parker Group of Companies. That provided for Mr. Parker to obtain planning permission for the site before completion of the contract. Again, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, will understand why I cannot disclose details of the purchase consideration. What I can say is that the often quoted figure of £16 million is considerably wide of the mark.

My noble friend Lord Marlesford and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked whether we were satisfied that the Chris Parker Group was financially sound enough to carry through the transaction. The answer is that we have made thorough and extensive inquiries and are wholly satisfied--as satisfied as we can possibly be--that the necessary financial resources are available to complete the purchase.

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The details of the planning application submitted by the Chris Parker Group are not a matter for my department. However, Mr. Parker was aware of the agreed planning brief and the environmental context in which any planning application would be considered. I understand that the planning application included 750 holiday chalets, subsequently reduced to 550, a business and technology park, a leisure park, golf course, gun club, water sports centre, equestrian centre and wildlife country park.

In rejecting the application on 18th April, the planning committee of the Suffolk Coastal District Council referred, among other things, to the scale of the leisure development, the possible environmental impact of the creation of the lakes and the potential impact of the loss of acid grassland on local wildlife. Quite clearly, the local authority has taken environmental issues into consideration in determining that planning application. Whether or not they have struck the right balance between those matters and the interests of the local communities in bringing the facilities back into use and creating new employment is open to debate. Local press reports suggest that some residents strongly supported the application and were unhappy with the outcome. Others expressed concern at the impact of the redevelopment proposals on the local road network and on nearby villages.

I understand that the Chris Parker Group submitted a revised application which was considered yesterday. I am advised that the planning committee resolved to defer the decision until a meeting of the full planning committee on 4th July. But I remain confident that Bentwaters will soon become the centre for a thriving community, while preserving the local environment. That is the kind of balance to which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in particular referred.

A number of noble Lords suggested that the MoD had not acted responsibly in this matter. I believe, on the contrary, that the MoD has acted wholly responsibly. We placed the property on the market to see what price the market would be prepared to pay and on what conditions. We have not tried to drive the price up, as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, seemed to suggest. We adhered totally to the planning process; we consulted widely; we agreed many conditions in the planning brief and we looked after the site for nearly three years at considerable cost.

In the end we have a duty to obtain the best price for the taxpayer. Of course, we must approach that objective in a responsible fashion. I have sought to demonstrate that we have done just that. To suggest, as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and my noble friend Lord Bridgeman appeared to do, that we should somehow subordinate the taxpayers' interests to a subjective set of considerations which might run contrary to the needs and wishes of local people or which might ultimately prove unviable, is quite wrong.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, dwelt with some emphasis on his view that restoration and reclamation of land in AONBs should be a priority. As I understand it, the Chris Parker Group's proposals incorporate ideas

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for land reclamation. But the real point is that the MoD does not have a monopoly on good ideas. It does not and should not dictate the future uses of sites. That is the role of the local planning process.

Perhaps I can turn away for a moment from the specifics of Bentwaters. I should like to deal with the wider issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, in his Question.

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