Wisley Airfield

Oral Answers to Questions – in the House of Commons at 10:14 pm on 24th July 1980.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Cope.]

Photo of Mr Keith Wickenden Mr Keith Wickenden , Dorking 10:16 pm, 24th July 1980

It is usual at the commencement of an Adjournment debate for the Member who initiates the debate to express his pleasure and gratitude at being able to do so. I must say that it gives me no pleasure to have to raise this matter. It is one that reflects gravely on a Government Department, and perhaps even higher. Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity of raising it today.

Wisley airfield is in Surrey and in my constituency. The facts are simple, straightforward and easy to understand. I wish that I could say the same for the behaviour of the Department of the Environment, which has been conducting affairs. The airfield came about during the war when a large area of agricultural land was requisitioned from the family of the present Earl of Lytton for defence purposes.

At the time of the requisition, local authorities, even in wartime, were seriously concerned about the land's future use because of its proximity to two villages in the constituency—namely, Ripley and Ockham. They had meetings with Ministers, as a result of which they received a categoric assurance that the airfield would be used only for so long as hostilities continued. Needless to say, that pledge was not honoured. Nevertheless, the local authorities understood the reasons given to them after the war for continuing airfield use.

It was explained to them that the airfield would continue to be required for defence purposes. Subsequently, when it was taken over by Vickers Armstrong, later part of the British Aircraft Corporation and later still part of British Aerospace, it was understood that the public interest required the use of the airfield for testing purposes, as it had a particularly long runway. It was said that its use should continue to enable export sales to be made. Those were the arguments used and they were good ones.

Although the local authorities, especially Surrey county council, had considerable reservations, they nevertheless agreed to the airfield's continuing use. Furthermore, they did so on the clear understanding—asked for, given and expressed on numerous occasions—that if and when the airfield was returned to non-flying use the hangars and runways would be removed. In other words, the airfield had been built on agricultural land and would be given back for that use. Apart from anything else, Wisley is in the green belt.

In due course, the property ceased to be used for flying purposes. Immediately, there was pressure to have those expressions of intent—I put them no higher than that—honoured by the Property Services Agency, which is controlled by the Department of the Environment. A multitude of Government Departments have been involved over the years, but to all intents and purposes the Property Services Agency and the Department of the Environment are the bodies involved.

The situation has not always been as clear as that. In 1976, the Department appeared to change its mind about whether the airfield would be returned to agricultural use after the runways had been taken up. A series of meetings and a great deal of correspondence took place between the local authorities and the Department. As a result, the Department returned to its original decision—namely, that the property would only be returned under what had become the Crichel Down procedure, with the runways taken up.

I shall not weary the House by going into the many promises, undertakings—although not legal undertakings—assurances and expressions of intent that were given. However, I must refer to a few of the assurances that followed that 1976 hiccup. In early 1977, Surrey county council decided to reconsider the matter and sought an assurance that the airfield would not be returned, under the Crichel Down procedure, without the runways having been taken up and the buildings having been pulled down. It received those assurances from the Department. Minutes of meetings and letters from the Department record that.

The former Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks), wrote to my predecessor on 14 June 1977. He pointed out that it had taken longer than expected to consider taking up the runways and hardstandings. He said: It will not, however, be possible to remove the reinforced concrete hardstandings without an undue burden of cost to Government funds and so they will remain in situ. That contradicted much of what had been said before. The local authorities challenged the fact that it would cost money to take the runways up. To the surprise of the Department, they managed to obtain an estimate from an extremely well-known civil engineer, to the effect that it would pay to take the runways up because of the hard core in them. As a result, the opposition of the Property Services Agency seemed to disappear.

On 15 November 1977, the agency went back to its original position, and a letter addressed to the clerk and chief executive of Surrey county council stated: We do not propose to effect any sale of Wisley Airfield until removal of the buildings and runways has been completed. It is intended that sales of the buildings and the runway will be arranged consecutively during 1978 and it is unlikely that completion of the removal will be effected much before the end of 1978. On 17 August 1978, the Property Services Agency wrote again to the clerk of Surrey county council. It stated: The delay caused by the abortive tender action is of course regrettable but as Mr. D. M. Brown said in his letter of 15 November 1977, we do not propose to effect any sale of Wisley Airfield until removal of the buildings and runways has been completed. In a letter dated 11 December 1978, the Property Services Agency referred to the contract for the removal of the hangars. It stated: We propose following the completion of that contract immediately with a further one for the removal of the runway. The letter then explained why the two had to take place together. It explained that it was necessary to get vehicles across the hardstanding of the runway in order to demolish the hangars.

In a letter to the county planning officer on 27 February 1979, the Property Services Agency stated: Like you I also am disappointed that as yet we have not been successful in completing the contract for the sale and removal of the buildings at Wisley but I am a little at a loss to understand your reference to lack of positive action. I would have thought that the action over the past 2 years has all been of a positive nature which unfortunately has not yet been brought to a statisfactory conclusion. I suspect that the gentleman who wrote that letter is unable to differentiate between inactivity and action.

The letter went on: I am also a little surprised that you return to the view that providing there is no cost to public funds we should discount any possible gain to public funds I am sure it will be understood that we cannot accept that premise. The letter continued with technicalities.

On 6 March 1979, a letter from the county planning officer to the Property Services Agency stated: I assume that since the building should now be removed by the end of July"— that was two and a half years after we first began to talk about it— it will be now possible for you to proceed to invite tenders for the removal of the runway, which can then take place immediately following the demolition of the hangars and buildings. The PSA replied: You will recall that in our letter of even reference dated 11 December 1978 we said that it was proposed to follow the completion of the contract for the removal of the buildings with a further one for the removal of the runway. This is still the Property Services Agency intention. On 6 March 1979 the hon. Member for Gorton said in a letter to my predecessor, Sir George Sinclair: It is PSA's intention, following the removal of the hangars and buildings, to invite tenders for the sale and removal of the runway. This is now at ministerial level.

On 23 May 1979, the PSA repeated to the clerk and solicitor of the Guildford borough council: I have really little to add to that which has already been said to the effect that unless we receive instructions to the contrary"— that is where an element of doubt began to creep in— our intention is still to follow the completion of the contract to remove the buildings with a contract to remove the runway. On 13 July 1979, out of the blue, a letter to the clerk and chief executive of the Surrey county council said: As you know we have for some time been endeavouring to restore Wisley Airfield, as far as is practicable to agricultural use, and to this end we have arranged the demolition of the buildings which should be completed shortly. That has happened. The letter continued: It has however now been decided that disposal of Government interest in the airfield should be effected as soon as possible and to this end the airfield is to be offered to the former owner the Earl of Lytton under the Crichel Down Code. This means of course that the airfield will be offered to the Earl of Lytton with the runway and associated hardstandings in situ. I am sending copies of this letter to the County Planning Officer. One would think that when a Government agency decides to break the pledges which it has given over many years, it might at least have the courtesy to discuss the matter with the local authorities involved. It says little for the standards of ethics in our Civil Service if that is the measure of its behaviour.

This caused a great deal of concern to my constituents and local representatives. I proceeded to make inquiries. The reason given for the change of heart was that a company, not the owner of the land or the person to become the owner of the land, had applied for planning permission to use the airfield for general aviation purposes—that is, for light aircraft. Not having received a favourable response from the local authority, the company appealed to the Department of the Environment against a deemed refusal.

On behalf of the Department, it was said that the runways could not now be taken up because that would prejudice the quasi-judicial position of the Secretary of State, who would eventually have to determine the appeal. There might be some small measure of truth in that, although it equally could be argued that the extent to which the Government Department was going out of its way to break its pledges without consultation indicated that it was not adopting a neutral position, although that was not what I felt at the time.

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I conducted a long and, at times, rather angry correspondence with him, and we differed considerably. Nevertheless, we tried to find one or two alternatives. The problem could have been overcome quite simply if the property was not to be sold back under the Crichel Down procedure until after the planning appeal had been determined. At that stage, if the appeal had been successful, the Government could have sold the property with the value of the runway, which is very considerable as a runway, to the Earl of Lytton, and we should have had no argument in the constituency, because the proper planning procedures would have been followed. If, however, the appeal failed, it would not have been unreasonable to expect that the Government should at that stage honour their promises.

That proposal was turned down, apparently because of the need to raise money to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement. Some of us feel that, important as it is to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement, it is also important to behave within a reasonable code of ethics.

I then put forward another proposal that, if we could not expect the property not to be sold and if we could not expect the runway not to be taken up, it could be sold with a covenant that would be triggered only in the event that the planning appeal failed. The covenant would be that the then owner should take up the runways. That, too, was rejected, again on the ground that it would prejudice the quasi-judicial position of the Secretary of State. That appears to be the excuse that is trotted out every time that the civil servants are unable to think of a sensible reason for declining the suggestion.

Matters then got a great deal worse. In the meantime, the Surrey country council discovered that it had not a promise but a legally binding undertaking from the Department of the Environment to its predecessor to replace the rights of way over the airfield which had been eradicated during the war. That was legally binding, so the council had been advised. Indeed, it is admitted as such by the Department, since it has agreed to take them up and has in writing agreed to restore them to their former condition, which means that they would not be covered with tarmac.

It was therefore something of a shock to the county council to hear rumours that the Government might not be going to honour that legally binding undertaking. It therefore wrote to the Property Services Agency at the end of May 1980, putting it on notice that it would be putting a caution on the land to require the PSA to conduct itself in accordance with the legal undertaking and also requiring other things. On 27 June 1980, a little more than four weeks later, it received a reply from the Property Services Agency which is indicative of the most disgraceful sharp practice that I have ever come across. The second paragraph states: I am unable to confirm that the land will be offered to the county council, because the PSA has effected a sale of the airfield to Lord Lytton, i.e. there is in existence a contract of sale for the whole and all the land being sold, with the exception that the sites of the original rights of way have been transferred. In a written question, I asked my hon. Friend when the transfer took place. The answer was on 20 June, three weeks after notice of legal caution had been received from the Surrey county council. It was contracted and completed on the same day. I have never known that happen even in the commercial field, where things happen fast, let alone with the Government legal services. I repeat that that letter, in a shabby story, is the most disgraceful example of sharp practice that I have come across.

I shall read parts of a letter from a constituent who is asking me to refer the matter to the Ombudsman. Before we fee] that we are dealing with a Home Counties crank, let me say that Mr. John Cooper, who wrote the letter, is a managing director of a leading merchant bank in the City of London, and he perhaps knows the meaning of the phrase "My word is my bond". He is not a crank but a reasonably intelligent and articulate man. He uses phrases such as: I was very shocked to read in the Surrey Advertiser of the behaviour of the Property Services Agency. Assuming that the reports are correct, I am writing as a resident with land immediately adjacent to ask you to object … As a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of you as our Member of Parliament and also as chairman of the Conservative Association of Ockham, Ripley and Wisley, the villages most adjacent. I am finding it very difficult to prevent the whole Wisley airfield saga from thoroughly souring support for the Government in the locality. That is an area where we probably got 80 per cent. of the vote at the general election.

I could spend a great deal of time on this matter, but I shall conclude by saying that it is a sad and shocking story. It is one of broken promises, sharp practice and had faith. Throughout my speech I have deliberately addressed my criticisms to the Government Departments involved, as Departments I have to say, with all the humility that I can, that if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is to avoid having the same charges levelled at him he must renounce the sort of behaviour that has taken place.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Camden Hampstead 10:41 pm, 24th July 1980

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Mr. Wickenden) has rightly raised this matter in the interests of his constituents. Let me say at once that I endorse every action that my Department has taken. I do not accept that there has been sharp practice or that anything unethical has been done.

I have been at great pains to examine for myself every piece of paper issued on this matter since the day I took office. My hon. Friend will understand that I have no right to see documents from before May last year. In my judgment, as one who has had some experience in the commercial world, nothing unethical has been done by my Department since I have had responsibility for it.

In the limited time avalable to me I should like to deal with one or two of the points that my hon. Friend raised. He said that the PSA had broken a legal, or at least a moral, undertaking by deciding not to remove the runway before selling the airfield. No undertaking to remove the runway was given by the PSA. It was the agency's intention to remove the runway before the sale if that were economically possible, but an appeal was lodged against a deemed refusal of planning permission to use the airfield for flying purposes. Because the decision on such an appeal is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, it would have been prejudicial to his position in hearing the appeal if we had gone ahead with the removal of the runway.

My hon. Friend said that in his opinion the undertaking that had been given to restore several rights of way over the airfield was not being fulfilled. I acknowledge unreservedly that an undertaking was given to restore the rights of way to a condition similar to that when they were closed." That is being done, but it cannot be agreed that public money should be used, as the local authority suggests, to replace a pre-war lane with a 36-ft wide roadway with an 18ft carriageway apparently leading to an overgrown track, or to remove 1 kilometre of runway more than 50 metres wide in order to provide a soil surface footpath one metre wide. No reasonable person could accept that that would restore the situation to what it was before the war. My hon. Friend has fairly put the case for his constituents. He acknowledged that the Government's intention since May of last year—and I am sure that he endorses it—has been to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement. For that reason, surplus Government-owned land must be disposed of as swiftly as possible.

To have to await the outcome of a planning impasse—and there was and is nothing to prevent further planning applications followed by further planning appeals—could mean that the disposal of Wisley airfield, already delayed for several years, would be delayed indefinitely.

As the local planning authorities consider that the land should be used only for agriculture, and because its disposal could not reasonably be further delayed, I took the decision that it should be offered back to the former owner's successors under the Crichel Down code. Therefore, I instructed my officials to proceed with the sale to the successors, with the runway remaining, at market value as assessed by the district valuer, and a sale has now been completed.

My hon. Friend referred to the proposed registration of a caution against the registered title of the land by the Surrey county council. He felt that it was a somewhat unfair procedure that the PSA should have completed the sale prior to the lodging of that caution. Again, that decision was taken by me, and my officials were instructed to expedite the sale so as to avoid the Government's intentions being frustrated by an act by a local authority—these are the important words—which had no legal justification. I stand firmly by that decision.

I do not in any way believe that my hon. Friend was wrong or unfair to raise this issue, but some of the things that have been reported in the local press and some of the actions and purported actions by the local authorities have not been totally accurate.

If my hon. Friend still feels that the interests of his constituents would be best served by referring this matter to the Parliamentary Commissioner that is his right. I shall not feel in the least unhappy, because I think that he has a duty, if I have not convinced him, to take the matter as far as he feels that he should.

Having looked at this matter on numerous occasions—true, only since May of last year—on the papers that I have seen from the day that I had responsibility for the Property Services Agency, I find nothing with which I would quarrel.

I hope my hon. Friend will feel that the explanation that I have given, the answers that I have tried to give to the points-that he made and the full correspondence that he has had from me, even if he does not accept it all as being an answer to what he wants, show that I have not tried to conceal anything.

The one thing that I will not allow is for blame, if there be any, to fall upon the civil servants. Whatever blame there may be—and I do not believe that there

COAL INDUSTRY BILL
Division No. 429]AYES[9.58 pm
Adams, AllenEastham, KenLewis, Arthur (Newham North West)
Allaun, FrankEdwards, Robert (Wolv SE)Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Alton, DavidEllis, Raymond (NE Derbyshire)Litherland, Robert
Anderson, DonaldEllis, Tom (Wrexham)Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Archer, Rt Hon PeterEnglish, MichaelLyon, Alexander (York)
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Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)Ewing, HarryMcKay, Alien (Penistone)
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Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Field, FrankMacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
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Beith, A. J.Flannery, MartinMcNally, Thomas
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Dunwoody, Mrs GwynethLeighton, RonaldRoss, Ernest (Dundee West)
Eadie, AlexLestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)

is any—falls squarely on my shoulders and I am prepared to accept it. I hope that on reflection my hon. Friend will feel that there has been no unethical behaviour and that the Property Services Agency has acted in a totally ethical way in the interests of the taxpayer.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

Rowlands, TedStraw, JackWelsh, Michael
Ryman, JohnSummerskill, Hon Dr ShirleyWhite, Frank R. (Bury & Radcliffe)
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Spearing, NigelWainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)
Stallard, A. W.Walker, Rt Hon Harold (Doncaster)TELLERS FOR THE AYES
Stoddart, DavidWatkins, DavidMr. James Tinn and
Stott, RogerWeetch, KenMr. Hugh McCartney.
Strang, GavinWellbeloved, James
NOES
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du Cann, Rt Hon EdwardJopling, Rt Hon MichaelPage, Rt Hon Sir Graham (Crosby)
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Percival, Sir IanSpicer, Jim (West Dorset)Waldegrave, Hon William
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Rhys Williams, Sir BrandonStokes, JohnWells, Bowen (Hert'rd & Stev'nage)
Ridsdale, JulianStrading Thomas, J.Wheeler, John
Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)Tapsell, PeterWhitelaw, Rt Hon William
Roberts, Wyn (Conway)Taylor, Robert (Croydon NW)Whitney, Raymond
Rossi, HughTaylor, Teddy (Southend East)Wickenden, Keith
Rost, PeterTebbit, NormanWiggin, Jerry
Royle, Sir AnthonyTemple-Morris, PeterWilkinson, John
Sainsbury, Hon TimothyThatcher, Rt Hon Mrs MargaretWilliams, Delwyn (Montgomery)
St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon NormanThomas, Rt Hon Peter (Hendon S)Wolfson, Mark
Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)Thompson, DonaldYoung, Sir George (Acton)
Shelton, William (Streatham)Thome, Neil (Ilford South)Younger, Rt Hon George
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)Thornton, Malcolm
Shepherd, Richard (Aldrldge-Br'hills)Townend, John (Bridlington)TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Shersby, MichaelTownsend, Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)Mr. John MacGregor and
Silvester, FredTrippier, DavidLord James Douglas-Hamilton
Sims, Roger