§ 6.24 p.m.
§ LORD BROCKWAY
My Lords I beg leave to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper; namely, to ask Her Majesty's Government what decision they have faced regarding the future of Tyneham Valley in Dorset following the evacuation of the Armed Forces. That Question perhaps assumes that the Government will accept the recommendations of the Defence Lands Committee. Those recommendations are made on page 158 of their Report and they can be summarised in this way: that the Gunnery School at Tyneham should be re-located at Castle Martin; that the Ministry of Defence sites at Lulworth should then be released but the East Holme Rifle Range retained; that increased access should be granted to the public; that the heavy cost should be provided for outside the conventional Defence budget; and, lastly, that special steps should be taken to ensure that the land released can be protected and enjoyed. My speech will largely be 803 devoted to the last of those points. I suppose I ought to ask the Government in the first place whether they accept the recommendations which are made in this Report.
I want to discuss only very briefly the past and turn the minds of the House to the future. I think, however, it is worth while saying two things. The first is that when, during the critical years of the war, the Army decided to take over this area on the coast of Dorset, its decision was accepted patriotically by the residents. They pinned a notice on the door of the old church, saying that, while they co-operated in the national interest, they hoped that the Army, during occupation, would take care of their church and of their cottages. The other point that is worth mentioning is this. Mr. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, gave the very definite promise that when the war was over this area should be returned to the residents. Not only did the Prime Minister make that statement but a letter was actually sent to every individual resident repeating that promise. I shall refer to that letter later.
The important issue now is this: assuming that the Government accept the recommendations of the Committee, what will happen after the evacuation of the troops? The case which I will argue to-night is that the area ought to be regarded as a nature reserve under the protection of some public authority. I argue that for a number of reasons. The first is the extraordinary beauty of this region. I have been fortunate to have visited most of the beauty spots in the United Kingdom: Devon and Cornwall, the New Forest, the Sussex-Kent border, the High Peak, the Lake District, North Wales, Snowdonia, the Trossachs in Scotland, the Highlands in Scotland, where my first school was; but with appreciation of the beauty of all those places I would say that nowhere in the United Kingdom are so many riches of nature concentrated in such a small compass as in this particular area. First, War-borrow Bay, the carpet of sand, the cliffs rising higher than Beachy Head; the rocky headlands with their caves and their pools of water. Above it, that pathway which would be the longest public pathway in the world except for the interruption of Army occupation, extending 804 from Poole right down the Western coast and up again to Minehead, the South-West Coastal Footpath. I notice that my noble friend Lord Caradon, is here; he opened that footpath quite recently. My Lords. I repeat, the only part of that footpath that is cut off from the public is the seven miles along the coast which has been occupied by the Army. The beauty, first, of the coast, the beauty, second, of the Purbeck Hills: they are like a cathedral of nature in their outline; and underneath the Purbeck Hills the Tyneham Valley and its old village, the woodlands, the cottages with that grey stone which reminded me of the Cotswolds, that lovely 13th century church, that manor house with its Elizabethan wing.
Later I will describe the destruction which has taken place in Tyneham Valley during the period of the Army occupation: but, strangely enough, I am more moved not by the beauties which I have described but by the great heath on which one looks down from Ridgeway. It has an indescribably mystic appeal. It is the scene of Thomas Hardy's novel The Return of the Native, where he describes it in language which must have captivated every reader. He wrote:A thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity".As one stands on that Ridgeway, as far as the eye can see there is that heath with its brown heather and its gorse. It gives a sense of belonging to all time such as I have rarely experienced. It is imperative that it should become a nature reserve.
My Lords, the second reason for preservation is the almost unique wild life that can be found there. It is a living laboratory of fauna and flora. There are rare birds. Various falcons I have seen flying there, one type with only one hundred pairs left in Britain. There is the Dartford Warbler, almost dying out in the United Kingdom; the hen harrier, strangely only to be found elsewhere in the Orkneys and the Hebrides, yet in this particular area. It is not merely the birds, but also the moths, butterflies, insects, even the reptiles, the amphibian life with which the woods, the hills, the heath and the sea abound. There is the flora, the grasses and flowers in rare concentration, a high-growing heather on 805 the heath which is unknown except in isolated areas in Devon and Cornwall. The appeal of the wildlife is the second reason why it should be made a nature reserve.
The third reason is its geological value. I am not sure I ought to say this in the presence of the Minister of Defence, but I have been over the whole of the area while it was under Army control. There on Warborrow Bay one sees the cliffs with different examples of coloured sand. One goes to the excavations of ball clay on the heath and sees sand coloured in yellow, brown, orange and purple. I know of no other place in the United Kingdom which has that geological richness, except for a very small cliff on the Isle of Wight. It is not merely the sand. As one looks at those cliffs from Warborrow Bay one sees the different colours and types of rocks. The geological value has been described by Professor B. H. Mottram, the well-known geologist, in these words. The area… is of geological interest that is unique in the British Isles… Purbeck is formed by a large updoming, or arching, of geological rock layers, or strata, that are mostly unexposed anywhere else in these islands as clearly as they are at Purbeck.I will not continue, but he describes in his memorandum the unique geological value of this area.
My Lords, the next reason is its archæological value. I have mislaid my notes, so I speak from memory. The barrows on that heath, 1,500 years before Christ, the Bronze Age; the iron age fort there which the Romans attacked in vain: the areas of quite early farming in this country, before the 13th century. I do not know any other area where so much of archeological value is so concentrated.
I am afraid one has to say that much of that has been spoiled during the 30 years of Army occupation. There is hardly one of those beautiful old cottages which has not been damaged. That lovely 13th century church is harmed in its roof, and the manor house with its Elizabethan wing is now just a shambles. My Lords, what disturbed me most, and I put down a Question about this, was the exploitation of ball clay on the heath. There is now, under Army occupation, an open working which is the largest excavation in Dorset, a quarter of a mile 806 across and 75 feet deep—an absolute outrage upon the beauty of that heath. The cottages, the church, the manor house may perhaps be restored, but that exploitation for ball clay indicates the danger that may take place in that beautiful area in the future. I quote Doctor Norman Moore, a leading British professional nature scientist, who says:China clay is 'peanuts' when compared with the international value of Purbeck as such. People come to study its ecology from Poland and all sorts of places. It is exceptional for anywhere in the world. It is an extremely unusual situation to find such rapid geological changes, and these mean that you can find every sort of habitat in only a small area.China clay is "peanuts" compared with the beauty and the geological and archaeological value of this area! My Lords I hope I have made out the case for preservation.
The Government say that they are bound by the Crichel Down decision that land must be returned to former owners. This I want to challenge. In another place, Mr. Graham Tope, M.P., on May 24, 1973, asked this question:If, in the event of disposal of Crown lands as a result of the findings of the Defence Lands Committee, he"—the Minister—will give equal consideration to the return of land to former tenants and their heirs and to former freeholders and their heirs?This was the extraordinary reply by Mr. Paul Channon for the Government. He said "No", and he explained that the Crichel Down code—and I now quote—… is limited to the possible rights of former owners of agricultural land or their successors."—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Commons 24/5/73; c. 143.]But in the case of Tyneham the promise was given to every tenant. I have in my hand the letter which was sent to them promising the restoration of their rights. It was dated. November 30, 1943, and it came from the War Department Land Agent at Wareham. I quote from it:I think it should be brought to your notice that when the War Department requisitions property that you occupy as a tenant, and for which you pay rent, the existing tenancy between yourself and your landlord is in no way disturbed.Then I read this paragraph:This means that when the War Department has no further use for the property and 807 it is handed back, you have every right to return to the property. It should not be assumed by you that, because the War Department has turned you out, you lose your right of occupying the premises again.But that is exactly what is happening. Under the Government policy ownership will be allowed to landlords, but there is no right of the tenant at all, despite these promises which were given. Not merely was the promise given in that letter to every tenant in Tyneham, but in December, 1947, the Attlee Government admitted this promise in Command Paper 7278. I read from it:In the case of the proposed training areas, particularly Stamford and the Purbeck Tank Gunnery School, it has been, or may be, represented that pledges were given that persons required to leave their homes would be allowed to return at the end of the war. The Government accept that pledges of this kind were given or understood to be given.Therefore, it was not merely the Government in war-time; it was the Attlee Government after the war which made this promise to the tenants which a representative of Her Majesty's Government now denies in answer to that Question in another place.
My Lords, I am sorry for speaking long, but perhaps this issue is more than just that of Tyneham Valley. I want to suggest that there are precedents for not following the rigid interpretation of the Crichel Down finding. The accepted practice of Governments is for surplus Government land to be offered first to other Crown Departments and then to local authorities, and even if another Department or a local authority shows no interest the land is not necessarily returned to the former owner or his successor. In evidence of that, in January, 1970, Daniel Awdrey. M.P., complained to the Parliamentary Commission because land at Compton Bassett had been sold for sand extraction rather than offered to the former owner, and the Parliamentary Commission ruled that the Ministry was correct because the land could be used for another use than farming—sand excavation. If what I have been saying to-night is true, the land in Tyneham could be used for other purposes than farming. It could be used for the value of its natural beauty. It could be used for geological and archeological values. Surely they are more important than sand excavation, and an exception which was allowed for sand 808 excavation ought to be allowed for these much more important values. There is also the case of amenity land which falls into Crown ownership through acceptance by the Inland Revenue in lieu of death duties, where it has been given without charge to the National Trust. An example is of Brownsea Island, handed to the Treasury by Mr. Bonham Christie.
My Lords, there are two suggestions I want to make as to how these natural beauties and values could be preserved. The first is that the land should pass to the National Trust. I had this letter yesterday from the Director-General of the National Trust, Mr. F. A. Bishop. He quotes again what has been said publicly, that the Trust is very concerned about the future of the land and would be very happy to play its appropriate part in determining its permanent preservation. Then he adds this paragraph, which is new but which is very important:As you know, the Trust's purposes and powers are contained in a series of Statutes, culminating in the National Trust Act of 1971. The Trust could certainly hold for permanent preservation and manage the area, or part of it, which Nugent has recommended should be released. The funds which the Trust has received for its Preservation of the Coastline appeal—' Enterprise Neptune '—have of course been spent on many acquisitions, and our resources would be quite inadequate if Tyne-ham had to be acquired by purchase. But, subject to whatever may be decided as regards the application of the Crichel Down procedure, it would be open to the Government to give the property to the Trust through the Land Fund.My first proposal is that it should be handed over to the National Trust.
I now want to make a new proposal. I try to practise the courtesy of letting the Minister who is to reply know what I intend to say in these respects, and I have indicated to her that there is a new proposal which could be made other than the proposal about the National Trust. In association with her own Ministry, the Department of the Environment, there is a Countryside Commission. That Countryside Commission is an agency of the Government, and I want to suggest that it might be made an alternative to the National Trust. At least I ask the Government to consider it.
My Lords, I should like to conclude with an appeal to the members of the 809 Dorset County Council, who are the planning authority. Many of those members belong to Dorset, and their forefathers have lived there for generations, and they must have a great love for it. I acknowledge at once that I am a comparative stranger. I am in love with Tyne-ham, but I suppose I am in love with it as a "teenager" compared to their associations with it. I know that I shall be appealing to many members of that County Council if I say that their association with this area, their love for Dorset, should find expression in a desire to bring its preservation.
I hope that Her Majesty's Government, having heard what I admit is an overlong appeal but nevertheless uttered with tremendous sincerity, will be prepared to consider the future of Tyneham for its beauty, for its geological and archeological value, for its wildlife, for its nature, so that these may be preserved in a National Park representing the heritance and values which centuries have given us.
§ 6.54 p.m.
§ LORD CLIFFORD OF CHUDLEIGH
My Lords, I will be very brief. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, in his summing up of the beauties of this area. I know the area fairly well, and I have sailed many times along the coast he has described, and generally inside the danger mark. However, though I agree with his views about its beauty, I disagree with his contentions and interests. First of all, he is rather "jumping the gun", because while the Nugent Report has been submitted to the Government we have not yet had any indication whether the Government are going to accept it, or whether they can, from a different point of view, accept it. We know that the inhabitants of East and West Lulworth do not wish the Army to leave; their livelihood depends on its being there. We do not yet know whether the Government have decided that they can afford to go to Castlemartin, or whether they can there fit in their technical requirements.
The noble Lord, Lord Brockway, was kind enough to invite me to a meeting he arranged last night where we were addressed by a protégé of his. I hope that I am right in assuming that the opinions expressed by that young man were probably the same as those of the noble Lord. I found the address anti- 810 agricultural, violently anti-landowner, and I feel, as a member of the N.F.U. and as President of the Devon Branch of the C.L.A., that I have a right to react, as I know they do, to what I believe is behind the noble Lord's Question. I would remind the House that the beauty of the English countryside owes practically everything to the farmer and his man. I bitterly resent the implications which were made in speaking of local landowners, as I considered them to be an attack on a relation of mine who, I may say, was recently knighted for his services to Dorset. The insinuation that a landowner, if allowed to buy back his land, would despoil it after having had it in his family's possession for 300 years, without even waiting to hear what the result of the inquiry may be, I consider to be a rather violent one. In addition, a completely hypothetical case was made out.
If the land is released, then I think that there is only one reasonable, just way of releasing it, and that is to carry out the Crichel Down rule. The owners of the land which was taken gave it up in a patriotic cause. If the land is going to be handed back, then they should have the first refusal. Once we know what the decision is going to be, then will be the time for the noble Lord to have a campaign on the use of the poor agricultural land. I have an idea that what is behind this Question is far more than appears on the surface; it is just another step in the campaign, about which we had a debate the other day, for increased socialism, and I beg the Government not to follow the noble Lord's pre-emptive bid.
To sum up, I would say that the thing to do in this case is to wait until we know what the Government are going to do, or what they can do. If the land is handed back, then the good agricultural land should return to agriculture; the heath-land could be subject to alternative arrangements; and the Crichel Down rules should apply.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ LORD MAELOR
My Lords, I am not going to speak for very long because I know nothing about this land, but I should like to reiterate and emphasise one thing in particular that my noble friend stated in his speech. He reminded us that the Churchill Government of 1943 gave a solemn pledge to the tenants in this area that they would be returned 811 to their homes when the land was handed back again. It would be enough to make Sir Winston Churchill turn in his grave if he thought that a Tory Government, of all Governments, had broken that solemn pledge which was given to these people when the land was taken over. I hope that it will be offered to the National Trust, and, if not, will be kept as Crown Land. Then the Minister of Defence can keep to that pledge and hand over the cottages to those who formerly occupied them. I am sick of hearing about Crichel Down. I am sure that the decision made at that time, when the Minister of Agriculture resigned in consequence, was the silliest thing that ever happened in the other House. I hope that the Government will not think of handing this land back to the landowners, but will hold it either in the National Trust or as Crown Land.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ LORD BOURNE
My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, in his Question, but it is a little previous. The question of what to do with the land if it is released ought to be resolved and there is much good will on all sides. The Dorset County Council and the Dorset planning committee were mentioned. We all know them. A better lot of men you could not imagine, and I am sure that the right solution will be reached in the end. Many of us live within a few miles of the area and we agree with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, but I do not agree about the Government's promise. I think that a proper tank gunnery range ought to come first in the considerations, and we ought not have to go to Canada or Australia in order to fire our guns. The choice, as outlined in these proposals which I have read only while sitting on these Benches, is between Lulworth, Castle Martin and Kirkcudbright. I have been to all three, and there is no question that they are very well discussed in this Paper.
But I should like to point out that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, came to the conclusion to give up Lulworth against the evidence, particularly against the evidence of the Chief of the General Staff, who said that he did not recommend that Lulworth should be given up and that to provide three months' training 812 en bloc for the Germans—on whom we depend very much for our tank gunnery ranges in Germany—is totally unacceptable for the Royal Armoured Corps. The spreading of training over three separate months, although less undesirable, was also unacceptable. In my opinion, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has recommended a completely wrong course to the Government. In 10 or 15 years' time, every Welshman who has a car will want to go to Castle Martin, which is a very beautiful place, to study the bugs and butterflies, and there will be exactly the same problem there as there is at Lulworth. So we ought to think twice before we give up the Lulworth tank gunnery range and, if it were my responsibility, I would put the matter back to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and his Committee.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ LORD WYNFORD
My Lords, I do not want to prolong this debate, but it seems to me that this whole matter has been raised prematurely. I think it was clearly understood that the first thing that would happen after this publication came out was that the public would be given an opportunity to comment and to discuss the matter, and then Her Majesty's Government would rule. We are far in advance of all that, and I really believe that the Unstarred Question of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, is premature for that very reason. However, he has been very eloquent indeed and not only about the charms of the Tyneham Valley, which is a very limited area. I know it, because I come from there. This evening this short debate has ranged over the Isle of Purbeck and over Hardy's heathland far beyond the Tyneham Valley. We have acknowledged that we have a fine planning authority which is expert and has our interests very much at heart. It also has very much at heart the interests of all those who come into the county for recreational and other purposes, and we can depend upon that planning authority to see this matter through.
But since this Question has been asked, I think it is my duty to seek an assurance from the Government that the Crichel Down principle will be observed and honoured, as it was in the test case of years ago, not only in the case of the Tyneham Valley but also over the rest of the tank range, because there are two 813 good quality farms of a total of 800 acres which the original owner wishes to take back into agricultural production. So whether or not the Committee's recommendations are accepted, an assurance is now due so that we may know where we stand. It was said just now that the Crichel Down principle is all nonsense and should not be followed. I could not agree less; I think it is vitally important.
§ 7.9 p.m.
§ LORD KENNET
My Lords, I shall be very brief. I think we are all glad to see the Secretary of State for Defence in his place this evening because it shows that the present owner, at any rate, is taking the matter seriously. There is much to be said about this subject, but I shall say very little. I have before me quotations from the last article written by the late Kenneth Allsop, who was good at this kind of thing. He said that the land we are talking about has three statutory designations: it is an area of outstanding natural beauty, it is a heritage coast and it contains an area of special scientific interest. That gives the Government quite a grip on the matter, whatever they may decide to do, and I hope that they will use that grip to the full in taking a decision. It is remarkable to learn—if I understood my noble friend correctly—that china clay working has grown up on this site while it has been under military occupation. We should not wish to accuse anybody of consciously doing anything wrong, but if it arose by accident or by muddle when the land was supposed to be withheld from its original owners solely for military purposes, that would indeed be a grave matter. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to enlighten us on this point when she comes to reply.
Now my noble friend has described this site as exceptional in every way, and he ran through many ways in which it was exceptional. I would agree with him; but there is one way he did not mention —or, if he did, I missed it—in which it is exceptional, and that is the fact that the whole Tyneham issue has given rise to what I suppose must be the most formidable and the best organised amenity pressure group which exists in the country. Judged by membership and frequency of public utterance against acreage, this is a very powerful lobby indeed. It has 814 always been obvious, I think, that if the Nugent Committee were to recommend that this land should come out of Defence use then this would be a test case, and one of the most difficult which could face the Government and Parliament. Everybody who is interested in these matters has been watching and thinking about it for 30 years past. I should like to say to the Government that I believe that this particular issue is one which will turn very nasty if it is left to look after itself in any way. I think it is necessary for the Government to take the matter in hand, and I should like to come to a concrete and, I hope, positive suggestion as to what they might do.
I remember that there was an issue of which Parliament became seized at a somewhat later point in its history than my noble friend had seized this one to-night—ten years ago, or more—and that was the question of what to do to reconcile the needs of the city of Manchester for water with the firm conviction of everybody in the country that the Lake District ought not to be ruined any further. The Conservative Government of the day took a very wise step in that case. They said to a junior Minister, "Get everybody round a table and see what happens." That junior Minister was Lord Jellicoe, and he carried out an operation which has become famous, I would say, in the annals of junior Ministerial enterprise. It worked a treat and it paved the way to a settlement which is roughly holding until this day. I suggest to the Government that they pick up that precedent, because, after all, what are junior Ministers for if it is not to undertake this sort of job?
Could the Government not invite a junior Minister, probably from the Department of the Environment—it would be invidious of me to go any further—to chair a conference, completely open-ended, with no preconceptions on the Tyneham problem? That is assuming that the Government accept Lord Nugent's recommendation. The conference would have to be an absolutely enormous one, to get all the interested people in. It should probably include not only the Department of the Environment, but certainly the Ministry of Defence, as the outgoing users; the Treasury, I think, because the Land Fund has been mentioned, and it seems to me 815 a possible solution; the Dorset County Council; the Nature Conservancy, because it is of scientific and naturalist interest; the Countryside Commission, because that is what it is for; the National Trust, because they have already made friendly noises; the appropriate archaeological experts; the owners of the land, of course; the Friends of Tyneham, or the 1943 Committee, or whatever the pressure group is then called; and possibly the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, which groups these local amenity groups nation-wide. I would go only this far and say that if such a conference were called it seems to me that there would be quite a good chance of the right answer coming out of it. If it is not, I foresee a lot of trouble.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE, DEPARTMENT OF THE ENVIRONMENT (BARONESS YOUNG)
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, most courteously gave me notice of the main points that he wished to raise in this Unstarred Question this evening. I shall do my best to answer them and the other points which have been raised in the course of this debate, but before coming to those specific points I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, will understand when I say that, as the Report of my noble friend Lord Nugent has been published for only one week, any statement of policy on my part at this stage would be premature. Further, I think it would be helpful to the House to explain some of the problems which the Report has highlighted and some of the consultations which must take place before any policy decision can be reached. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, appreciates that his Question assumes that a decision has in fact been taken and that the Army will leave Lulworth, when in fact no decision on this matter has yet been taken at all.
The first point which has been raised by a number of noble Lords has been the question of the past and the pledges that were in fact given. My understanding of the position is that assurances were given individually to landowners and tenants in 1943 by the War Department Land Agent that they would be able to return 816 to their homes when the land was released; and in a Statement on training made in 1947 the Government then accepted that such assurances had been given. Subsequently, in 1948, there was a public inquiry, and the pledges were then, in effect, overturned because as a result of that public inquiry the then Minister of Town and Country Planning gave orders for the compulsory purchase of the land for the ranges. I think it is only fair to make this clear, so that we know what in fact is the past on this question of pledges.
I now turn to the Report itself. It recommends that the Ministry of Defence sites at Lulworth, with the exception of the East Holme Rifle Range, be released and relocated at Castlemartin in Pembrokeshire. As noble Lords are aware, the Tyneham Valley forms part of the large area—over 7,000 acres—recommended for release at Lulworth. In making this recommendation, the Committee drew attention to the difficulties which the release of Lulworth would involve. The difficulties are, first, the practicability of the R.A.C. Gunnery School sharing the facilities at Castle-martin with the German Army. Consultations with the German Government are now taking place. Secondly, the environmental penalties that would be incurred at Castlemartin if the R.A.C. Gunnery School were located there. Bigger guns would be used, and the amount of firing would increase appreciably. Present grazing arrangements would have to be drastically curtailed, and public access might be affected. Thirdly, there is the heavy cost of the transfer, estimated at f14 million. The whole problem of financing the Nugent recommendations is under careful consideration.
The Report of the Committee is indeed inevitably long and complex. My noble friend the Secretary of State for Defence thought it right to issue, on the day of publication of the Report, a brief Explanatory Memorandum designed to focus attention on the main issues involved in the Committee's recommendations, and also the factor mentioned by the Committee which the Government will have to take into account in reaching decisions on their recommendations. Now that the Report has been published, there is a period 817 available for public comment and discussion, so that all views expressed can be taken fully into account by the Government. Thus, no decision has yet been taken on the Lulworth range; nor will one be taken until after this period of consultation is over. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, who wondered when this might be. I hope that the announcements can be made later this year on the recommendations of the Nugent Report, including that on Lulworth. But before a decision is reached that the Lulworth ranges should be given up, the Government will have to weigh very carefully all the considerations involved, including the special difficulties to which the Report drew attention.
Should the Government decide to accept the recommendation of the Committee on Lulworth, the disposal of the ranges, including Tyneham Valley, would be the responsibility of the Property Services Agency of the Department of the Environment. The Report recommended —and I should like to emphasise this—that special steps should be taken to ensure that land released can be protected and enjoyed. I entirely accept the point raised so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, on the beauties of the area and the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is a heritage coast and an area of special scientific interest. Of this area, over 1,000 acres of the total of some 7,400 acres are held on lease and the Ministry of Defence interest in this land could be surrendered to the freeholders.
As to the remainder of the land, it is agricultural in character—and I think this answers the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh. It has been policy since 1954 under the Crichel Down rules to offer back to former owners or their successors agricultural land which is surplus to Government needs. Perhaps I should refer to the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh and Lord Bourne. Under the Crichel Down procedures each case is considered on its merits; but the usual procedure is for agricultural land which the Government decide should be released as surplus to requirements to be offered to the former owner at market value. If the former 818 owner did not wish to purchase, the land would be offered to local authorities with territory in the area. Only after these processes were exhausted would it be offered on the open market. May I now comment on the point about the position of tenants. My understanding is that since 1954, on the introduction of the Crichel Down rules, all Governments have accepted that the rules have applied to owners and not to tenants; but it would be open, in the event of the land being sold back to the owners, to them to re-enter into, negotiations with the tenants.
I fully appreciate the concern felt in many quarters that this land should be released and with the minimum delay, but I should point out that even if the decision were taken now to release the ranges it would be some years before Lulworth could be actually released. A new range complex would have to be constructed and the ground cleared of unexploded missiles. I also appreciate the concern felt that if the land is released, the related recommendation of the Nugent Committee that steps should be taken to ensure that the land released can be protected and enjoyed should be fully honoured. On this I think we are in complete agreement. I recognise that this is a matter of special importance, for the reasons I have already given and which noble Lords from all parts of the House have made clear.
The noble Lord, Lord Brockway, read a letter from the National Trust which I have not had the benefit of seeing. The position about the National Trust is that it is possible that the National Trust might be, as the letter indicated, interested in acquiring the land. It would have to acquire it at market value, either from the former owners, or directly following rejection of their options to buy by the former owners and the local authorities. This would be the procedure that would be followed. So far as his suggestion about the Countryside Commission is concerned, I think the noble Lord has misunderstood the purpose of the Countryside Commission, which is not to acquire or manage land. It is an organisation which gives advice on countryside matters and which is responsible for making recommendations to the Depart- 819 ment of the Environment for spending money on various countryside projects. It does not itself acquire and manage land. I hope therefore that that answers, so far as I can at this stage, those particular points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, and that the House will recognise that I cannot say more than that at present.
In the first place, no decision has been taken to release Lulworth; and, in the second place, the question of precisely what arrangements might be appropriate to ensure the protection and enjoyment of this land depends on a great many factors, including the question of future ownership.
There are two things that I should like to say in conclusion. The first is that I will ensure that the views expressed by noble Lords this afternoon, both as regards whether the land should be released and what should happen if it were, will be taken account of by the Government in consideration of the Nugent Commission recommendations on Lulworth. Secondly,—and this covers the imaginative suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, about a round table conference—if the land is released, my Department would wish to initiate discussions with all those concerned, including former owners and public bodies such as local authorities and the National Trust, on questions of possible arrangements for protection and enjoyment.