Chalk Extraction, Wiltshire Downs (Inquiry)

Part of Clause 3 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th July 1970.

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Photo of Mr Michael Hamilton Mr Michael Hamilton , Salisbury 12:00 am, 17th July 1970

Turning from Fiji to matters nearer home, I would like to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary upon his appointment, which is welcomed in all parts of the House. He is, I know, a preservationist at heart and as such will have my support. I am only sorry that in welcoming him here for what I believe is his first Adjournment debate I should not have more attractive fare to put before him.

Three years ago my constituents suffered an injustice. The facts are safely on the record in HANSARD of 25th July, 1969, and 19th March, 1970. I have no wish now to add or subtract from that record nor need I cover that unhappy ground in detail again.

Wiltshire people were the victims of the first secret planning inquiry in history, a fact confirmed by the previous Administration. My constituents have paid dearly for that, and it seems that they will pay more dearly still in the future. In what I have to say I invite my hon. Friend not to hesitate to intervene to correct me on any point of fact.

What happened was that a company from another part of England sought permission to carry out large-scale mineral workings in one of our loveliest unspoiled valleys. A public inquiry was held. We discovered two years later that before the inquiry the company had called at the Ministry of Housing and had asked that part of the inquiry be held in camera. As a result the inspector conducting the enquiry was alerted to expect this request at the inquiry.

I interpolate here that in this country about one-third of a million applications for planning permission are made every year; that at that moment there had never been a planning inquiry held in secret; that the Minister had several weeks in which to act but it never appeared to him that it was desirable to warn a soul of what was afoot. Thus with no warning from the Minister this charming little piece of play-acting took place at the inquiry between the inspector and the appellant company.

My unsuspecting constituents were hustled from the room. Not a single elected member of any local authority remained behind. The distinguished geologist from London University, the only man who understood things, was equally turned away because the company objected to his presence. Justice did not shine very brightly that day in Salisbury. Openness and fairness, the two cardinal principles which the Franks Committee sought to inject into our inquiry procedures, were both ruthlessly jettisoned. Then 15 months later the nation was in the grip of financial crisis. The Minister of Housing, against his better judgment, succumbed to export pressures from the Board of Trade and allowed the appeal and the machines went to work in that valley.

This was not an easy case to fight. After this inquiry the Minister took 15 months to make up his mind. I will never criticise him for that delay but at the same time I could hardly raise matters before he had reached a decision. On the day that his decision reached me I referred matters to the then Prime Minister, asking him for a standstill. The then Prime Minister in reply supported his Minister of Housing. Time was running on. I then referred certain aspects of the case to the Parliamentary Commissioner. His deliberations, and I do not criticise him for this, took no less than six months. While matters lay before the Parliamentary Commissioner, with his rather narrow terms of reference, it seemed to me that it would be wholly discourteous if I made an additional reference to the Council on Tribunals because the Parliamentary Commissioner is an ex officio member of the Council.

When the Council on Tribunals received it, at once it grasped the seriousness of the issue. But by then it was late in the day. More than two years had passed since those events in Salisbury and much water had flowed under the bridge. The Council indicated to me having regard to the date on which the Minister's decision was announced, the Council would not have been prepared to recommend that the inquiry should be reopened". Put another way, it was too late. The machines were already at work.

But the Council has been my friend. It seized on the point that such an event must never happen again, and for that I am grateful to it. Discussions between my hon. Friend's Department and the Council on Tribunals began. Those discussions are still in progress. They have continued for a year. They still have some way to go. These are grave issues, and justice cannot be hurried.

Then at last I was free to raise matters in this Chamber, and I was deeply grateful for the sympathy and support shown to my constituents. I remember my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Posts and Telecommunications saying in the House that the whole House would have a sense of unease about the story which had been unfolded. The reaction was the same in another place. No less a figure than Lord Brooke of Cumnor, a former Conservative Minister of Housing and Local Government, expressed his deep concern at what had taken place.

The national Press was equally unanimous. One newspaper said: If anybody doubts that public affairs should be handled openly and that anything resembling secrecy carries special dangers, let him read about recent happenings in the Dean Valley, Wiltshire. That was the theme of the leading article.

The feeling of Wiltshire people was described in another morning newspaper as the true spirit of English liberty still gloriously and unexpectedly alive in 1969". Thus, for a while, the issue burned brightly and then it spluttered and died, and the civil servants put away their files with a sigh of relief.

But justice is not mocked, and once again the same issue lies before us. The foot is in the door. Now come the pressures to open the door wider. This time, unlike the last time, events lie in front of us, and I suspect that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary would agree that it is easier to take a bird in front than behind.

On 18th June, a month ago, while the polling stations were still open, somebody at the Ministry of Housing was good enough to write to me. He courteously wrote to me at the House of Commons. It was kind of him to anticipate the decision of the electors of Salisbury. It always puzzles me, but I sometimes think that civil servants deliberately make their signature illegible to hide their identity. At all events, he told me in this letter that a planning inquiry was due to be held at the Guildhall, Salisbury, on 28th July. The outgoing Minister had chosen that date and instructed his inspector to attend. The inquiry, which lies 10 days ahead of us, is to consider applications to extend the activities of those who were permitted to carry out mineral workings in the Dean Valley. When the letter reached me, the final election results were still coming in, but it was joyously clear that there was to be a change of Administration, and by 20th June, therefore, I was able to write to my right hon. Friend the new Minister of Housing.

I know that the problems confronting a new Minister taking over a great Department of State are manifold and I would wish for him that in the opening days the normal machinery would cope satisfactorily with day-to-day matters. But I considered it imperative that he should appreciate at the outset that this was no mere run-of-the-mill business. Time was critically short. The House would soon be rising for the Summer Recess. A date for the inquiry had been fixed. Either my right hon. Friend could postpone the inquiry for a few weeks until there had been time for consideration or follow the road determined by his predecessor. The choice for him was wide open.

The fact that these two applications had lain on the table since last year meant that a few weeks one side or the other could not materially matter, and yet a few weeks would give just that time for reflection which a vital issue like this demanded. But, in reply, the Minister made clear that he could not consider postponement.

Since then, I have moved very carefully indeed. I have done all that is open to me to do to warn my right hon. Friend, and I believe that here he would accept what I say. I sense that if there is a pull for me between my constituents and wishing to ease the task of my right hon. Friend in his new work there is equally for him a pull between wishing to help a colleague, which I have no doubt he would wish to do, and supporting the line adopted by those in his Department over the last three years. What has placed my right hon. Friend and myself in this unhappy juxtaposition is the insistence on maintaining the date of the inquiry at 28th July.

Before raising matters in the House, I thought that I must first establish how far down the strange road of his predecessor my right hon. Friend was prepared to go. I therefore tabled a very simple Question. I asked the Minister if the public inquiry to be held in Salisbury on 28th July would be held in public. I wanted to establish whether the events of 1967 were a disastrous lapse on the part of the previous Administration, or whether the secret planning inquiry is a new feature which we must expect from Labour and Conservative Administrations alike.

What was the Minister's answer? He replied I have no present reason to believe that in camera proceedings will be sought."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th July, 1970; Vol. 803, c. 96.] Now we know. The new Minister is not prepared to eschew such practices. The inquiry may be in public, or it may not. My right hon. Friend is keeping his options open, and thus if I choose to go to the public inquiry in the heart of my constituency on 28th July I may be admitted, or I may not. I may find the door closed, just as it was closed in 1967. The Minister stands firmly shoulder to shoulder with his predecessor on this issue. They both claim that the decision whether an inquiry should be held in public or in camera rests on the discretion of the inspector conducting the inquiry. This is the language, the true tone, of the previous Administration.

In 1967 a distinguished geologist travelled from London to Salisbury. He might just as well have stayed in London. He was good enough to call on me here this week because he wishes to help his friends in Wiltshire. He does not believe the claims which have been put forward, but I could not possibly recommend him to make the journey a second time. Moreover, the cost of railway tickets has gone up since 1967.

I ask myself what further tragic farce is necessary before the Dean Valley is finally put out of its misery? I am sorry to say that my right hon. Friend has failed to allay my suspicions. If he could not give me an assurance about whether it would be held in public or in private, I had hoped that he might at least have been able to give the assurance before the date itself, and so I tabled another Question. I asked whether he could give the assurance in order to save members of the public long journeys to no purpose as happened on a previous occasion, and the answer is in HANSARD of two days ago. The answer is "No". But that answer in HANSARD of two days ago—and I acquit my right hon. Friend absolutely of this because I feel sure that he cannot have seen the answer until after it appeared in print—contains the final twist of administrative hypocrisy. It refers to the coming inquiry, which will be concerned only with the applications for planning consent now before my right hon. Friend."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th July, 1970; Vol. 803, c. 228.] The Question was answered by the Minister of State. How innocent that phrase sounds—"the coming inquiry which will be concerned only with the applications before it". The plot is as simple as that. It is so transparent.

Perhaps I should explain. Once a Minister has decided a planning issue, it is said that the matter is closed, the file is put away, and if a subsequent application is made, that application is judged on its merits in isolation. There are to be separate watertight compartments, although it is all part of the same industrial complex, and it is all part of a single continuous process.

Perhaps I might translate this into more practical terms. We have in the Dean Valley today a Trojan Horse. It was admitted by the Minister in 1967 after that secret planning inquiry. We see it, but we do not know why it is there. We were told that more than 200 other sites were explored before it was decided that this particular stretch of countryside must be sacrificed. We do not know where a single one of those 200 sites is. We do not know what tests were carried out at those sites. Our valley is taken from us, but we do not know why.

Since being admitted this Trojan Horse has acquired hundreds of acres of good farm land adjoining its modest initial pitch. The area there now is a good deal larger in extent than Hyde Park. Moreover, it has acquired acres in many other parts of my constituency. It now plans, as my hon. Friend knows, to set up on the other side of Salisbury a processing plant which will draw its raw material from the Dean Valley. Thus, we now see the outline of a single giant edifice built on the foundations of secrecy.

In 10 days' time the Minister's inspector will attend at the 18th century Guildhall in Salisbury and conduct an inquiry into the merits of this processing plant. It may be in public; it may not. Nobody knows what the process is. Nobody will be told what the process is, and only a mere handful of technicians could understand even if they were told. The inspector will not encourage questions on the previous application. That file, we must remember, is neatly closed. That is the intention.

The local authorities will be consulted. They will be invited to give their views—"Would this extension of the Dean Valley activity be a good thing or not? What do they think?" I would answer "What can they think?" They will be courteous—Wiltshire people are always courteous—and they will try to help, but not one elected member of a local authority, neither parish, district nor county councillor, was present at the secret hearing. How can they be asked to contribute their views? How can they be asked to pass judgment on this extension to the Dean Valley activity? To me, even to invite them to do so is lacking in integrity. Participation in planning, yes; but participation is meaningless unless all the facts are known to all parties. I am afraid that this inquiry, like the last one, will be a charade. It is a further insult to my already bruised constituents.

Once a Minister becomes party to secrets he, and he alone, can decide whether extensions to the original activity should be allowed. That is the bitter and logical answer to the whole matter. There is no other conclusion. Where there is injury, I would expect a Conservative Minister to heal it. Indeed. I asked my right hon. Friend if he would cause an investigation to be made into the whole matter, but the OFFICIAL REPORT of two days ago confirms that my right hon. Friend sees no need for this. Not merely is he not prepared to cause an investigation to be made. Not merely does he appear to condone what has taken place. Worse threatens than that. To my great sorrow, it would appear that he has chosen to pursue the self-same path in the days ahead.

I assure my right hon. Friend that the inquiry on 28th July will not be the last. Along the road lie yet further applications. One will follow another. Time limits will need to be extended—extended into the next century. Acreage will need to be extended too. Each fresh application will stem from the same initial secrecy behind which the original permission was granted. It is a slippery slope. Each fresh application is a further step along it. Each fresh application will bear the same stigma of in camera proceedings. This is why I sought to warn my right hon. Friend, but he is very confident.

It would be premature at this stage to assume that the Parliamentary Commissioner has said all he has to say. This problem is a problem of a continuing process—yesterday, today and tomorrow. Nor would I care to hazard a guess at the present thinking of the Council on Tribunals. On the face of it, it would appear to have been treated with modest courtesy. The former Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington), said We are having these discussions and can rely on the Council on Tribunals to insist on rules if it is thought necessary."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th July, 1969; Vol. 787, c. 2344.] Where are these rules? Yet in 10 days' time the Minister is to consider an extension of the 1967 installation.

I named this brief debate "A dangerous planning legacy". Dangerous it is. It is full of pitfalls. I have never wavered in my belief during these three years that the enormity of what has happened will speak for itself and that, in due time, the valley will be saved.

I have noted the undertaking in the Queen's Speech by the new Government: My Ministers will intensify the drive to remedy past damage to the environment, and seek to safeguard the beauty of the British countryside. I believe that this Government will keep their promises and I would ask my hon. Friend for reassurance.