Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st November 1960.

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Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury 12:00 am, 1st November 1960

The speeches in this debate so far have ranged very far and wide, and they seem to have reached a foreign affairs level. I am sorely tempted to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), but I wish to take the spotlight away from international affairs for a moment and use it at a more constituency level.

While the Gracious Speech has dealt with a variety of problems which will face us in the year ahead, there is one aspect which, I am sorry to say, has been omitted. This is a non-party matter, and I feel that it is the responsibility of all hon. Members of the House. I refer to the need to preserve, in this age of industrial expansion—the Gracious Speech referred to a well-balanced growth of production—the beautiful landscape of this Island. We all know that the standard of living of this island is rising. We hear ad nauseam about refrigerators, cars, television sets, and so on. We hear about education, welfare and full employment. These are all vitally important, but they are all very material matters.

I believe that the time has come to include in our definition of the standard of living what I call the atmosphere of living as one of the parts which go to make up this standard of living, which is at the moment a very material thing. Parliament must ensure that we preserve an atmosphere in which the irreplaceable beauty of our countryside continues to provide a setting for thoughts which are more noble than mere material prosperity.

Since the war about 400,000 acres of agricultural land have gone over to industrial development. Hon. Members must consider and think about this, and above all, care about it. We preserve our ancient monuments. Some of them are not very ancient, and some, certainly to people like me, represent nothing more than a pile of stones which I find difficult to identify as an ancient monument. Yet we allow the most beautiful tracts of our countryside to be ravaged by industrial development.

There is an application pending by Richard Thomas and Baldwins to mine about 7,000 acres of our most beautiful countryside in North Oxfordshire. I am glad to see the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) present; I believe that he has experienced very much the same thing in his constituency. This area contains some most typical examples of quiet, unspoilt rural England. It is not scenery of grandeur. It is not like the Highlands, the Welsh mountains, or the Lake District. It is just the quiet, ordinary rural England which I believe is really England.

Many hon. Members may have passed through it. It lies between Banbury and Chipping Norton, on either side of that road. Unhappily, it sits on ironstone, and it is this which Richard Thomas and Baldwins wants for its new strip mill operations in Newport. If the application is allowed, that landscape will be irrevocably changed. I believe that we are the trustees of our land and that we have no right to allow it to be desecrated by operations such as these. The cosy villages and the mellowed farms will be left high and dry and quite out of context with all the rest of the surrounding country; the folds of the countryside will be flattened out by these mining operations. What right have we to do this? I do not think that we have any right to allow this sort of thing to be done now.

There will be an inquiry. There will be arguments at that inquiry, arguments centring round, I expect, the economics of the thing—whether we should use home ore or imported foreign ore. Shipping will be mentioned, I expect, and a plea will be made that we should import ore because that would employ our merchant shipping. Businessmen will say that now is the time, when freight rates are low, to get long-term charters, and that we can thus bring the ore in more cheaply. Others will say that there is plenty of ore in under-developed countries, that, as the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East was saying, it is our duty to help them, and that we should get it from there and not from north Oxfordshire.

If the local people feel that it is vital to scrape the surface like this, they will, of course, agree to it, but if it is not vital they will fight, fight and fight against it. They are not happy about one or two things. They are not happy about the fact that Richard Thomas and Baldwins comes under a Ministry as a nationalised concern. Nor are they happy that the inspector, who will hold the inquiry, is appointed by a Minister. They are not happy that, following on this sequence, the third thing is that the judge in the case will be my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

There is a slight feeling that perhaps the denationalisation of Richard Thomas and Baldwins is being delayed so that the result of this application can be decided and if it is granted then, when R.T.B.—as it is called—is denationalised, in the prospectus will be a statement that it has all the rights for all the ores it will need. That might benefit the resale of the concern.

Despite these misgivings, I have confidence in the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and that he will consider all the factors laid before him at this inquiry in the light of the national interest. But what is the national interest in a context like this? I do not believe that one man can say what it is. I believe that it is for this House to decide. It is surely very much in the national interest to preserve the heritage of this land even if it means importing ore. It is surely very much in the interest of this country to keep this ore which, I understand, is the last suitable ore in this country as a strategic reserve in a time of economic crisis or war.

The Government can decide to preserve this area from what I would call industrial rape. Here is their chance. Let them heed the local feelings and hear the local people say that decency and common sense have prevailed over commercial opportunism. I regret that the Gracious Speech has omitted to declare that industrial growth will be matched by rural preservation.

There was, however, a reference in the speech to protection of the community against crime. Perhaps, within the meaning of that, north Oxfordshire will be protected against the crime which Richard Thomas and Baldwins wishes to commit against it. Perhaps I expected too much to be put into the Gracious Speech, but I am sorry that this was omitted. I trust that my plea will be heard and that when we talk about a rising standard of living we shall include the whole fulness of living and will give a higher priority to a standard of life where tranquillity can be found in our countryside and where minds can be allowed to develop thoughts which transcend our immediate material needs. I hope that the Government will acknowledge their responsibility in this matter.