§ Whereupon Me. Speaker, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 12th February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now Adjourn."
§ Sir F. BANBURY
On Wednesday last I called the attention of the Undersecretary of State for War to the action of the War Office in taking possession of Kenley Common and cutting down large numbers of trees there and destroying the beauty of the spot which belongs to the Corporation of the City of London, and which has been held by them for a certain number of years, and which is held under Statutory powers to preserve the Common for use of the public at large. I asked him, among other things, this question:Is my hon. Friend aware that no notice whatever was given to the Corporation of the intention of the military authorities to take possession of this common?908 The Under-Secretary replied:I am loth to believe that on none those occasions did they—that is, the representatives of the War Office—apprise the Corporation or the keepers that they intended to make the examination.I have here a letter from the Corporation addressed to the Land Agent Eastern Command H.Q., 50 Pall Mall, as follows:Sir—Referring to a telephone conversation you had with one of my representatives one day last week on the subject of the utilisation of this Common for the erection of hangars for aircraft. I beg to inform you that no official notification on the matter has leached me, and I have just received a letter from the head keeper to say that soldiers have commenced to cut down the trees. The Corporation has had several cases where open spaces under their control have been brought into use for various purposes of a military nature, but notices have always been given, and I am at a loss to understand why the usual procedure has been departed from in the ease of Kenley Common.There are one or two other matters referred to in the letter. That shows that the military authorities, without giving notice, had taken possession of this Common, and had proceeded to cut down the trees. Here I have it stated, in the answer of the military authorities, which admits the contention that I have raised in my speech and that the Corporation raised in this letter, namely, that they took possession and acted in this way, contrary to the Defence of the Realm Act, which requires notification, and that they acted in this arbitrary and tyrannical manner, which I am sure the Under-Secretary does not desire. This is the answer. It is dated 5th June, and is addressed to the Town Clerk, Guildhall:Sir—I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 4th instant with reference to the military occupation of Kenley Common. It is regretted that the notices under the Defence of the Realm Regulations were not served before occupation was taken, but these have now been forwarded to the local military authorities for service. The delay was occasioned owing to a request by the Lands Department that the matter should be referred for further consideration as to whether any other site would meet the military requirements. It was ascertained that the matter had been carefully considered from a military point of view, and or tactical and other reasons it was essential that this particular site should be obtained.I submit that that is no answer at all. The corporation has never contended that if the step was necessary they would put any obstacle in the way, but they have contended, and do contend, that if the military exercise their powers under the Defence of the Realm Act they should act in the way laid down and give notice to the owners of property, so as to give them a few moments or a few days to consider the action they should take. They have no right to act in this arbitrary manner, to go 909 down and take possession of somebody else's property, and cut down the trees, without giving any notice whatever. In the first part of my question I asked whether the hon. Gentleman was aware that there was a larger common in the neighbourhood and he replied as follows:The common has been examined by many skilled pilots, who all came to the conclusion that there was no place near at hand or near London so eminently fitted for these purposesA letter has been given to me from Sir Joseph Lawrence, who was a former Member of this House. It is dated 6th June, and he says this:The officer of the Aviation Office, who is of the strong-willed, determined type, and is cocksure, who selected the site, has not seen or inspected the alternative sites—I do not for a moment suggest that the Under-Secretary did not give his answer in good faith, but this is an absolute contradiction.because when I mentioned Farthing Down, a mile off, he did not know it, and I had to show it to him on the ordnance map.He goes on to say:This officer said Colonel Jenkins and Captain Noel would inspect it to-day.That is the date of the letter, 6th June. Colonel Jenkins said it was a vital condition to have dry ground and good drainage, and Sir Joseph Lawrence goes on to say that this common is on clay, and is neither the one nor the other.
I had a photograph sent to me to-day from a person who lives in the neighbourhood. It is a most beautiful photograph of the common, which has most magnificent trees on it. This gentleman gives me particulars of several sites, not Farthing Downs, which are quite close and handy, and which are better suited for the purpose. My object in rising on the Adjournment was to express the hope— though I quite admit and the Corporation quite admit that in these times we must all make sacrifices—that when you are quite open to make sacrifices you should have an opportunity of showing the War Office, whether or not they are justified in taking this particular land. It is not right that the War Office, or any other Office, because they have been invested by this House with certain powers, should overrule all the courtesies and common decencies and take possession of the land as though it were Germans taking possession of British territory, to turn out the owners, to say nothing to them, and then to make statements which 910 have not been borne out by the evidence I have put before the House. I trust the Under-Secretary will give instructions in future and see that they are conveyed in a little more suitable terms. There is nothing new in this with regard to the War Office officials, but I think the locality should have an opportunity of saying what it put in the matter.
Mr. HUGH EDWARDS
I rise to support the protest made by the hon. Baronet. I speak on behalf of the local authority of Purley, which has charge of this common. I am vice-chairman of the council and chairman of its General Purposes Committee, and I am desired by the members of the council to enter a protest against the arbitrary action of the officials of the War Office. We do not for a moment complain of the attitude of the Under-Secretary for War. He is the personification of courtesy, and every one of us has had ample experience of that. But we protest against the arbitrary action of some under officials of the War Office. If there were no other site obtainable, of course we should say, "By all means take it. We are at war, and the exigencies of the nation must come before everything else." But, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, if they had come down and said, "We require this particular common—what objection have you?" we should have pointed out Farthing Downs as a better place in every way, and an inquiry would have been held, at which they could have taken evidence. It could all have been done in one day. Instead of that, these men when asked if they were going to consult local authorities spoke in uncomplimentary language of all authorities. I wish the officials of the War Office could be infected with the courtesy of my hon. Friend.
The common has been given to the public use, and trees fifty years of age have been cut down simply and solely at the arbitrary whim of a number of understrappers at the War Office. I make an appeal to my hon. Friend. I know he has a slight leaning to these subordinate officials, but he owes a duty to the community. I think if he took action in this case it would stop these men acting in an arbitrary way in other places I make a special appeal to my hon. Friend to hold an inquiry even now, and see if something cannot be done to respect the wishes of that community, and if at that inquiry it 911 is the most available site, we shall give way, but we shall have a grievance until that is done.
§ Sir S. COATS
As one representing the district in which the common is situated I wish to add my protest to that of the hon. Baronet and the hon. Member who has just sat down. What we particularly object to is the manner in which this was done. From all I can gather, no consultation of any sort with the local authorities or anyone else took place with the object of finding out local opinion in this matter. Everyone in the constituency realises that where it is a question of defensive work and military necessity no one can see any hardship, but we do not feel in this case that there is that condition of affairs. There are several sites within a few miles of Kenley Common, some admirably adapted for the purpose, which are not surrounded, as Kenley Common is, by houses with families residing there who would be greatly inconvenienced and might be made miserable by the constant arrival and ascent of aeroplanes and the drone overhead, and which will not only make their conditions of life insupportable, but will unquestionably tend to depreciate the property in the immediate neighbourhood. It is a well-known fact that one of the great difficulties that aviators have had at Hendon was that the ground was so muddy that it interfered with the ascent and the descent of the aeroplanes. From first-hand information that I have had given to me I find that Kenley Common in wet weather is nothing but a swamp. A resident who has lately built houses adjacent to the common says that so much inconvenience was caused by this sort of thing that he was obliged to sink pits 40 feet deep to drain the ground so as to make the building of healthy dwelling-houses possible. There is also a golf course on Kenley Common, and the balls of the players sink into the ground and disappear. Is it not obvious that when aeroplanes with engines of 250 h.p. descend with any speed on the ground they will encounter very great difficulties, if not danger, in alighting; and also in ascending. It is just possible that there is one reason that explains the taking of Kenley Common. I am informed that the commanding officer has his house situated so close to Kenley Common that it will be infinitely more convenient for him to use the aerodrome at Kenley Common 912 than at any of the open spaces to which I have referred. I do not, of course, insist that that was the determining reason, but human nature being what it is, I think it may have had a good deal to do with the selection of the site.
The action of the War office in this matter is very much that which they took in regard to the hospital for venereal diseases now in course of erection at Warlingham. No preliminary investigation was made, and the people were subsequently informed that it was going up. When, in consequence of complaints, the War Office were approached, we were informed that they had spent so much money in preliminary preparations, and so on, that they could do nothing to alter the arrangements. We all have the greatest sympathy with our gallant soldiers and sailors who are fighting our battles, and who come back honourably wounded for the country; but I do say that in the ease of venereal diseases we do not feel that patients are entitled to quite the same consideration. In this case the hospital could have been removed a little further from London. It would have been quite as healthy and would not have been so objectionable to the property owners in the neighbourhood. I do trust that efforts may still be made to investigate other sites and see whether it is not possible even now to transfer this site to one of the other open spaces to which I have referred. I trust also that in future the War Office will show a little more consideration to the opinions of the local residents, so as to save the hardships they may inflict upon those dwelling in the neighbourhood which they choose for their operations. During the War everyone knows that all the country has to suffer great hardships, but it does appear that Government Departments might do what they can to save people from further unnecessary inflictions of this character.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Macpherson)
I have no reason to complain of the tone of the speeches of my two hon. Friends the Member for Glamorgan (Mr. Hugh Edwards) and the Member for Wimbledon (Sir Stuart Coats), but I did think when T heard part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon that it was somewhat contradictory. I was sorry that he descended—only for a moment, it is true—to personalities. When he referred to the officer who is supposed to be mainly responsible for taking over 913 this common he suggested that it was due to the fact that that officer himself had a house adjoining the common, and that it would be convenient for the aerodrome to be near his house. I cannot help thinking that that is inconsistent with the other part of his speech that all the people round about the common think it highly objectionable that an aerodrome should be near their houses, and I am sure that, on reflection, my hon. Friend would not wish to cast any aspersion on any individual member of the Royal Flying Corps. My right hon. Friend and Ms two colleagues both admitted that if it were a case of national urgency they were all three willing that any land in the country should be taken over for rational purposes.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
And, naturally, being patriotic, they think that the first consideration is the national interest and the safety of the lives of our civilians in this country and our soldiers at the front. There is not a doubt in my mind, so far as the taking over of land in this side of London is concerned, and I can assure my three hon. Friends that the taking over of this land was only after most careful inquiry by no fewer than at least six of our greatest specialists in aeronautics. I can mention that General Brancker, General Charlton, General Caddell, Colonel Jenkins, and Captain Sparkes, and, I am told, numerous other qualified officers—
Does the hon. Gentleman admit that none of these suggested of her places as equally accessible?
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I cannot say that, but I am informed that they came to the conclusion that this site is the only suitable one at that part of London, after consideration of other places.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I cannot say that, but I am inclined to trust the judgment of these very distinguished aeronautical officers when they are choosing land which is first of all to be used as an aerodrome, and the greatest care must be exercised in taking such ground here. We have had experience of ground being chosen in a very ill-advised way not only for an aerodrome, but also for an 914 accepting station. At this time—it was soon after the Folkstone raid—it was necessary to take immediate action and my information is that although they were looking round that part of London for ground for some considerable time before, it was only on 30th May that a conference was held by the Department concerned, and on that evidence my information is that a definite suggestion was sent to the Town clerk's office saying that it was arranged to take over Kenley Common for the purpose of an aerodrome and accepting station.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I do not think at this stage of the proceedings it was necessary even under the Defence of the Realm Regulations to send that statement. My information is that the official notice, which involves certain legal documents, comes at a later stage of the proceedings.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
May I point out that the reply of the officer himself was to the effect that he admitted he did not send the official notice, and he regretted it had not been done?
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I think my right hon. Friend is partially correct, and so am I. I only say that a telephone message was sent immediately after the Conference. I gather from information supplied that no letter was sent to the Corporation of the City of London until 4th June.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I am told it was upon 4th June a letter was sent informing the Town Clerk of the City of London that the Army authorities proposed to take over this particular common. On the following day a letter was sent from the Town Clerk of the City of London, and I have seen that letter. There was a letter sent by us on 6th June expressing great regret, because no written notice had been sent to the Corporation of the City of London. I am sorry, and so are the officials concerned, that so distinguished and ancient a corporation should not have received a written communication. At that particular moment, after the Folkestone raid, there was a great desire that everything possible should be done at the shortest possible notice to provide against any danger to the lives of civilians round about London, and also to 915 provide as quickly as possible the necessary equipment for Home Defence by aircraft. My two hon. Friends, from personal knowledge of this locality, say that Farthing Down Common is better for this purpose. I have only to rely upon information supplied to me. I am told that Farthing Down Common is hopeless for aerodrome purposes, and that it would be extremely dangerous to ask young pilots to land there.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I do not know, but I can trust the opinion of these officers whose first consideration is to save the lives of young pilots. I am told that Kenley Common is not so disadvantageous as hon. Members have suggested. I am told that the trees which have been cut down are not so ancient as they have been stated to be. The trees cut down, at the most, are not twenty years old, and very few of these have been cut down. I am told that they really do not damage in any way the Common as it stands. I might also tell my right hon. Friend, in answer to his question, that we do not propose to erect any buildings. The Common will be used entirely for aerodrome purposes, and such buildings as have to be erected will be erected not upon the Common itself, but upon land 916 adjoining the Common. I am personally sorry, and, of course, everybody is sorry to think that any public land should have to be taken over at any time, but the sole justification for taking over this land at this time is, as I have said, national necessity. There is no single Member of this House who is not sorry to see the rights of commons and of the people of this country being taken away, but one has got to remember that in times like these the most tremendous sacrifices have to be made, not only by individuals but by corporations. The graveness of the charge, as I understand it, and I have tried to meet it as best I can, is that we had not the courtesy to give notice in the ordinary way as we should have done, whether it be the Corporation of the City of London, or even a private individual, what we proposed to do. As I have said, I do not think that any intention was actually expressed by any of the authorities concerned to take it over definitely until May 30, and, if my information is correct, we endeavoured, not, it is true, by the ordinary way of letter by post, but by telegram, which, in my view, shows the urgency of the matter, to carry that information to the body which is responsible.
§ It being half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 12th February.
§ Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.