§ LORD ISLINGTON asked His Majesty's Government to state to what service it is intended to put the aerodrome near Dorchester; what amount of public money has been expended on it up to date; what amount is now being expended monthly; whether the Government intend to complete the aerodrome, and if not, whether steps will immediately be taken to stop the expenditure.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question I have upon the Paper deals with 1032 one of a series of those operations that have out from been undertaken and are now being administered by the Government. The facts about them are gradually coming to light and more and more becoming the subject of public attention. I would like to supplement the Question I have on the Paper by a few observations. During the past week wide publication has been given in the Press to the establishment and development of the aerodrome near Dorchester. In a letter to The Times last Thursday Lord Midleton gave a brief narrative of the operations connected with this aerodrome, and since the publication of his letter further information has been afforded by the subject having been dealt with in a wide manner by the Press—the conditions under which this aerodrome was conceived, and the method of operations since that inception. Altogether they justify my asking, before Parliament rises, for an explanation from His Majesty's Government in regard to the whole scheme.
§ In putting this Question I am, of course, aware, as your Lordships must be also, that the original decision of the Admiralty to erect this aerodrome was come to as far back as December, 1917—at a period when the war demand for the extension of air stations of this character was urgent, and probably imperative in the public interest, to enable the Air Force to cope with the increasing work which was demanded of it, and which, as subsequent events have more than proved, justified its expansion by the unqualified manner it contributed to victory. As regards the site, I fully realise that the Government may be able to show that strategic reasons of importance necessitated an aerodrome in that part of England, but it is incumbent on the Government to explain, and the public are anxious to know, why this particular site was taken in the face of protests of owners and occupiers and the Board of Agriculture. I lay stress on the protest of the Board of Agriculture, because it goes to confirm the impression that valuable agricultural land was being absorbed for this purpose, at a time when every acre of land was required for food supply. I hope the noble Lord who will answer for the Department will be able to explain, if only to allay the dissatisfaction aroused in the neighbourhood in which the aerodrome has been established.
§ Just one word as to the Question on the Paper, which is, "to ask the Government 1033 to state to what service it is intended to put the aerodrome"—in other words, to ask the Government what considered policy they have arrived at in regard to this aerodrome, which influenced them in November, 1918, to continue, as apparently they have, towards its completion.
§ It is stated that prior to November, 1918, little expenditure had been incurred, and it is reasonable to assume that whatever expenditure had been incurred prior to that date would be justified as a war necessity; but it is in regard to the expenditure since that date (which is since the signing of the Armistice and after hostilities had ceased) about which the public would like to know particulars. It is stated that since November, 1918, the work of the aerodrome and all the accessories to accommodate upwards of 200 men, with roads, water supply, and storehouses—in fact, the whole scheme of a considerable air station—had been actively proceeded with towards completion. It is not unreasonable to ask that the public should be informed what project was in the mind of the Government in continuing this work after its immediate necessity, apparently, had ceased. They would also be anxious to know for what purpose this money had been spent during the last eighteen mouths, and what prospect the Government may hold out that a remunerative return will be realised for the money expended; especially the money spent since last November.
§ I am sure the noble Lord will forgive me (because it is in no sense a reflection upon him, personally) when I say that the more these kind of operations are brought to light the greater becomes the suspicion and dissatisfaction of the public. They naturally feel a growing sense of apprehension that these undertakings (and others of which we have cognisance in this House and in another place) are being carried on involving immense sums of public money without that careful consideration and foresight for the ultimate issue and purpose to which they are to be put which the country has a right to expect from those in whose hands public money is placed. I hope that my noble friend will be able to reply in a far more convincing manner than some of his colleagues have succeeded in doing in recent replies on similar questions.
§ It must be admitted that it becomes very important to clear up matters like this before Parliament rises. For the 1034 next six or eight weeks there will be no opportunity afforded for any information on subjects of this character, and the public are beginning to realise, with a growing sense of apprehension, that present expenditure is pouring forth on a scale far in excess of the national resources. The public are becoming convinced that large groups of daily expenditure in a variety of directions, if dealt with energetically and with precision, would in some cases be immediately extinguished, and in many others materially reduced. No wonder the public are losing confidence in the Government's determination, if not capacity, to deal all round with this vast expenditure and grapple with it in a strong and effective manner.
§ This apprehension is by no means abated by the fact that within the last few months Parliament has supplemented the Government, by a series of Acts of Parliament, with new Departments, I venture to say more bureaucratic and more autocratic than any of the Departments that have existed in our Parliamentary system. It is the fact, I think, that bureaucracies unchecked by Parliament invariably fail in their efforts, and we have not only had sad experience of that fact in what we have seen in this country, but we can also point to the baneful results of bureaucracies in other parts of the Empire. In all these circumstances I think it is only natural that there is profound disquietude, which I venture to say will inevitably find its expression in an outburst of popular indignation and revolt, unless in the course of the next few months the Government take the matter seriously in hand and carry out a really drastic scheme of economy in all their Departments. I have taken this opportunity somewhat to diverge from the actual Question on the Paper, but all I have said is fully germane to that Question, which is one with which the public is becoming more and more concerned every day.
THE CIVIL LORD OF THE ADMIRALTY (THE EARL OF LYTTON)
My Lords, my noble friend need offer no apology for raising this subject to-day. On the contrary, I feel very much obliged to him for giving me an opportunity of making a statement on the question of this Air Station at Dorchester. It was, I think, the noble Viscount opposite, Lord Midleton, who first discovered in this question the elements of a new scandal, and who revealed in the 1035 columns of The Times the largest details of the extravagance of this profligate Government. I know that the noble Viscount was actuated by the highest possible motives in the public interest, and I am certain that he was at some pains to ensure the accuracy of his information. Therefore I am sure he will be as glad to hear, as I am to tell him, that with regard to some of the facts he is not quite correctly informed, and that with regard to other facts they are not quite so discreditable to the Government as he at first not unnaturally supposed.
What are the allegations in this case which justify a reference to this matter under the title of a scandal? They are, I think, these: First, that we insisted upon taking possession of 400 acres of valuable agricultural land, in spite, as my noble friend has just pointed out, of the protests of the Board of Agriculture and of the Food Production Department. Secondly, that "up to November, 1918—I quote from the noble Viscount's letter in The Times—" little expenditure had taken place, and the Department could have covered their losses without any serious waste of money, which they were urged to do by all concerned." Thirdly, that instead of doing this we continued building a shed for storage purposes, and spent hundreds of thousands of pounds, to the general demoralization of the neighbourhood. Fourthly, that the contractor had wasted money by bringing building sand from the Midlands, although excellent sand was available locally; and, lastly—and this also from the noble Viscount—the whole site is now derelict and the Government are preserving a stony silence when asked about their intentions.
I am glad that I may at last break such silence as hitherto has existed on the subject. I really do not know what is meant by that, because the only person who has asked for information on the subject has been the owner of the property, with whom I have had an interview myself and from whom it has not been attempted to conceal anything. With regard to the actual acquisition of the property, the site was first selected in September, 1917, for a Coastal Non-rigid Airship Station for defence of the South Coast. It is quite true that protests were made at once by the Board of Agriculture against the acquisition of this valuable agricultural land, and the result was that the negotiations were delayed 1036 from September, 1917, until February, 1918, and during that time the whole of the district, including alternative sites suggested to us, was inspected between Southampton and Sidmouth and within fifteen miles from the coast.
The result of the search was that no suitable alternative site fulfilling requirements could be found. Lastly, the President of the Board of Agriculture had an interview with my predecessor, the Second Civil Lord, at the Admiralty, and after a visit by his advisers in conjunction with the advisers of the Admiralty to the site in quest on, the opposition of the Board of Agriculture was withdrawn, and the site was finally requisitioned on February 12, 1918. One of the main conditions for the withdrawal of the opposition of the Board of Agriculture was a fact which does not come out in the newspaper correspondence. I rather think the noble Viscount was under the impression when he wrote to The Times that the whole of the 400 acres was disturbed, but as a matter of fact only seventy out of the 370 requisitioned were ever disturbed at all. The tenant remained in occupation of the farm and of the farm buildings, none of which have been taken, and the landlord has, of course, received rent for the whole farm during the whole period of occupation.
The tenant's claim for compensation, which has recently been agreed, only amounts, up to Michaelmas 1918, to £268 10s., which includes the rent for that portion of the farm which we have occupied and which he has paid to the owner, showing the result, therefore, that although the land was of high agricultural value very little damage has in fact accrued to it. The estimated cost of the whole scheme was £200,000, of which the shed—which was to cost £80,000—and £120,000 of the total were in the form of a fixed-price contract. The allegation about sand is simply a mistake. A very small quantity of ballast was brought not from the Midlands but from the neighbourhood of Portland, being required for special reinforced concrete work, and was found cheaper titan to wash the local sand; also a very small quantity of granite sand was brought from a distance for special roofing plates. With that exception the whole of the building sand was taken front the locality, where, as the noble Viscount pointed out, very excellent sand is available. So much for the extravagance of the original outlay.
1037 At the time of the Armistice, so far from only a small expenditure having been made, 50 per cent. of the whole had been completed, and nearly £100,000 out of the total of £200,000 had already been spent. The work on subsidiary plant—gas plant, and gas holders, and so forth—was immediately reduced, but work on the shed itself was continued, it being then the intention of the Staff to retain the shed for the housing of airships. It was not till May of this year that the Staff finally decided to abandon this station for air purposes. Then the question arose as to what should be done with it. Pending a decision as to its ultimate use, it was decided in the first instance to complete the roof of the shed, which was at that time incomplete, and use it temporarily for the storage of mines. At that time a very large number of mines were stored in commercial ports, and we were then being hardly pressed, as now we are, to release this accommodation for its ordinary commercial purposes; consequently, the permanent place for the storage of mines not being complete, a comparison of cost showed that there would be a considerable saving by building this shed and using it temporarily for the storage of these mines rather than building a new store. This course was therefore adopted, and the mines are now being transferred there. My noble friend asks what has been spent to date, and what is the expense monthly. The answer is that approximately £182,000 has been spent to date. It is expected that the work required for the temporary storage purpose to which I have referred will be complete within a month or six weeks, at a further cost of about £3,000.
In conclusion, let me say a word about the future. At the time that this land was requisitioned the owner, Lord Ilchester, was opposed to selling it, but in an interview that I had with him this summer he expressed his willingness to sell the property if the Government decided to purchase it, and I am inclined to think that this will be the best course. The estate will be retained for the present for the purpose which I have described. Eventually, if the Air Ministry do not require it for a flying station, the shed will be taken down and removed, in which case the total loss on the transaction will be confined to the cost of the labour of erecting, taking down, and removing and re-erecting it elsewhere. The material, of course, will all be utilised. 1038 If the whole farm is purchased it could be utilised for small holdings, or as an experimental farm. The buildings which have been erected on it would then be a valuable asset, for, as my noble friend knows, to find at this moment valuable agricultural land with available buildings already upon it is far from easy in this country, and if such a farm is required it is probable that this property will meet that purpose.
The ultimate use of the station is still under consideration between various Government Departments, but there is no reason to believe that the greater part of the expenditure incurred will not ultimately be turned to good account. That is the whole story of this transition. I hope that I have succeeded in removing some of the misapprehensions with regard to the carelessness of the original transaction, and also the ground for the charges of undue extravagance which were then made. I hope also that I have succeeded in assuring my noble friend that when the ultimate decision with regard to the disposal of the property is taken, practically the whole of the money which has been spent upon it will be realised. If there is any other point with which I have not dealt I shall be glad if the noble Viscount opposite will remind me of it, so that I may not be accused at any rate of preserving a stony silence.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, I do not know whether I may, before I answer the remarks of the noble Earl, utter what I feel sure will be the congratulations of all your Lordships upon the honour which was conferred upon him this morning—
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
An honour which I cannot help saving he amply deserves for the many forlorn hopes that he has led on that bench, and for the gallant defences that he has made on many difficult occasions.
Before I go to the rest of the case, I should like to justify one or two of the statements in which the noble Earl, in his reply, stated that I was incorrect. I think that if he could have gone down yesterday to the actual site he would have given a rather different account of it from that which he has supplied to-day on official information. For instance, he thinks that the number of acres taken has been stated 1039 excessively, and he mentioned seventy acres as having been actually taken by the Government.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My information is that 147 acres are actually in the Government's possession, and that eighty-one acres have been rendered hopeless for all other purposes. The Government empowered the farmer to lay clown two spaces of sixty acres and sixty-two acres which are bearing no crop at this moment of any value, and there is also the question of the severance of some part of the farm which has been rendered inaccessible. That brings the total acreage to a very much higher figure than that given by the noble Earl, who would find that approximately at this moment the number of acres is not far short of that which I mentioned.
There is further the question of how much work has been done. The official statement is that since the Armistice 65 per cent. of the work has been done. Here again, if the noble Earl could have seen the place he would know that that figure is wrong. It is quite true that there has been a certain amount of expenditure in steel girders and other necessary preparations, but nearly the whole of them were on the ground but not erected, and they could have been used elsewhere. Again, on the men's accommodation of 300 houses not half the work had been done. There was not a single roof on the houses, or at most not more than one or two roofs upon them, and the work generally was in its earliest stages. With regard to the great amount of work done between November and May, the railway siding, the new drainage works, and the whole of the station have been completed since the Armistice. On the question of the sand also there is a conflict of testimony which is very extraordinary. I have in my hand a letter from a gentleman who investigated the matter on the spot the day before yesterday, and he assures me that the mass of sand there came, not as I said from the Midlands, but from a place equally distant—namely, Bideford, North Devon. Yet the noble Earl has been instructed that what sand there is there came from the neighbourhood of Portland. Here again we have a distinct conflict of testimony, into which I am sure he would be willing to look.
The official apology that the aerodrome is very useful at present for storing mines 1040 will not, I am informed, bear examination. Not only are there no mines there, but I have ascertained that on Friday night there were 500 sheep in the aerodrome. There really is a flaw in the noble Earl's argument The Admiralty (or whatever Department was then in charge) did lose months in making up their minds what was to be done. It is part of our complaint against all these Departments that when the Armistice came, instead of stopping and endeavouring to make the best of what had been done during that six months, the main and what yon may call the irretrievable expenditure was undertaken. And the best proof that neither Department knows now what to do with this splendid series of buildings is that the unfortunate man from whom the land has been taken has even yet not bad his compensation assessed, and has not received a farthing. I am absolutely certain that, had the matter remained with one Department and that they thought they had got full control they would have settled that long ago.
I am sure the noble Earl is correct that those who have got hold of this land and who have spent this £150,000 upon it (I understood that it was £200,000) desired to save the public as much loss as possible. But I really believe that these buildings are in a place where they are not required and cannot be required, and the sooner that all these girders instead of being used for completing the roof are pulled down and used for other Government work the better it will be. As it is, I am afraid that it will be found that we have got more than 200 acres—something like 300 acres—to deal with which are not required. In the presence of the noble Viscount who made such an eloquent defence of Slough I hardly like to say that this is a parallel case. But I do feel that this and other cases which have been mentioned in the newspapers since the letter which I wrote appeared show that in one Department after another the armistice was not taken to be, as it ought to have been, the moment for stopping altogether these expensive preparations, and that one of the things which is leaving the country in such great difficulties as regards money at this present moment is that in all Departments there was no reasonable feeling that at the moment of closing the war it was absolutely necessary to come down as quickly as possible to something like a peace standard. I thank the noble Earl very much for the explanation he has given.
THE EARL OF LYTTON
With regard to divergencies of fact, I can assure the noble Viscount that I will look into that. I have given him the facts as they were supplied to me. It is true that according to his remarks there are divergencies which require explanation. I will look into this and communicate with him further. With regard to the date of the armistice, the noble Viscount assumed, as indeed it is generally assumed in the Press, that November 11, 1918, was the end of the war. I would ask your Lordships to remember that that was not the case; that was the cessation of hostilities, and the fact that we are now securely at peace is really only due to the fact that during the months immediately following the Armistice we were prepared, as indeed we had to be, to resume hostilities, if that were necessary, at Any moment. Therefore it is not really fair to argue that from November 11, 1918, all warlike preparations, whether with regard to the Army or the Navy ought immediately to have ceased.