§ Sir Michael McNair-Wilson
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the extinguishment of commoners' rights at RAF Greenham Common.
§ Mr. Neubert
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) explained on 29 April 1988, col.310, it had been decided to negotiate fair compensation for the legal extinguishment of the rights of common over land owned by the Ministry of Defence at Greenham and Crookham commons, which the Department intended to pursue under the provisions of the Defence Act 1854. There is no general right of access for the public over this land; and the only people enjoying such rights are the 64 commoners. However, in view of the commoners' concerns about the loss of these rights, the Ministry of Defence has since been discussing with them a compromise solution which would have preserved their rights over a substantial area of the base while meeting essential legal and defence requirements. If the commoners would agree not to exercise their rights over the remainder of the area for as long as the base is required for defence purposes, my Department would be prepared only to extinguish their rights over those parts of the base upon which development for defence purposes has already taken place or might take place. This would leave a substantial area of the Ministry of Defence land in question subject to common rights.
Such an arrangement could be put into effect only if agreed by all the commoners and the Department has been anxious to give the commoners every opportunity to consider the proposal. However, more than a year has passed since the original offer was made, and the commoners were informed on 14 December 1989 that there would be no alternative but to proceed as originally proposed unless they had all signed the agreement by 5 January. On that date three of the 64 registered commoners had failed to sign the agreement and we have regrettably been forced to conclude that agreement on the basis of the compromise solution to full extinguishment will not be possible. The Ministry of Defence now, therefore, intends to proceed with the legal formalities to extinguish all rights of common over the MOD property on both commons.
This action is being taken to remove a legal obstacle to construction on MOD property. It is legally quite distinct from the question of the legality of the bye-laws at RAF Greenham Common which is being pursued separately through the courts. No decisions have yet been taken on any alternative roles for the base once the cruise missiles are withdrawn, but RAF Greenham Common has been designated as a NATO standby operating base for many years and we envisage that this role will continue.