In 1969 the National Trust took a brave decision. It resolved not to renew its licences to the Ministry of Defence for training on trust land in the Dartmoor National Park. It said that the licences would end in 1975 unless it could be satisfied that the need for training could not be met elsewhere.
The trust’s land runs from Cadover Bridge on south-west Dartmoor, up the east bank of the River Plym to Plym Head and includes the Plym valley’s incomparable prehistoric landscape. The licences were for ‘dry’ training, ie not live firing, and they allowed the use of blank ammunition and pyrotechnics and forbade the use of vehicles, digging and wiring.
At the Sharp inquiry into military training on Dartmoor in November 1975, the late Michael Trinick (secretary of the Committee for Devon and Cornwall of the National Trust) made it clear that the trust was ‘unhappy to allow the permanent use of its land on Ringmoor for military training’. In his evidence he said that the ‘trust feels that continual use [then 345 days a year] is inconsistent with its obligation to allow public access to open land held for the enjoyment of the nation and to preserve the land with the least possibility of damage to it. This is especially the case where the land concerned is within a national park‘ [my emphasis].
The military, ever cocksure, did not believe that the trust would keep its word, and so it made no effort to look elsewhere. Although the trust had decided in 1969 not to renew the licences, in 1974 the MoD again asked that the licences be renewed. The trust’s committee reconsidered the matter and decided to stick to its decision, unless it could be persuaded that the need for training on its land could not be satisfied elsewhere. At a meeting in February 1975 MoD agreed to seek alternatives in preparation for the forthcoming Sharp inquiry, in return for the trust’s agreement to extend the existing licences to the end of he year.
Said the forthright Michael: ‘By 21 July Sir John Wilson [second permanent under-secretary at MoD] had plucked up sufficient courage’ to say that MoD ‘could not provide a statement of alternative or far less investigate them beforehand’ because it was a sensitive issue and the initiative must be left to the inquiry.
‘In other words’ said Michael ‘Sir John was perfectly willing in February to promise to do what the trust particularly asked, if in return the trust would extend two licences and get him off the hook for a few months. Only under considerable pressure did he disclose in July that he was going to break his promise, for reasons of expediency which this inquiry has clearly shown do not stand up to examination.’
The upshot was that the trust magnificently held its ground – a fine example to other landowners – and the military looked elsewhere. Deplorably it didn’t look very far, soon alighting on a nearby site, still within the Dartmoor National Park: South West Water’s land around Cramber Tor on the south-west moor.
At first the Dartmoor National Park Authority objected but before long the authority changed its mind and in 1980 the MoD secured a licence to use the land, in the face of strong opposition from the Countryside Commission and many amenity societies. The licence was renewed, first for short periods and then for longer periods, the last being for ten years in 2003. It expired this month (January).
Since then the law has changed, the MoD no longer enjoys crown immunity from planning permission, and so it is seeking permanent planning consent from the Dartmoor National Park Authority for its dry training. And astonishingly, the authority looks set to grant it in less than 24 hours time.
The use of the 848 hectares at Cramber Tor may not be for live firing, but it is still damaging, to the landscape and the tranquillity. The MoD can use the land for blank ammunition, pyrotechnics, low-flying helicopters, digging and wiring, as well as the less controversial adventure activities. Such battle-simulation exercises are contrary to the ethos and purposes of national parks where protection of natural beauty and promotion of quiet enjoyment by the public must be paramount. And this part of the Dartmoor National Park exhibits wildness, peace and a spectacular archaeological heritage.
It is extraordinary that the authority’s planning officer should be prepared to recommend a permanent planning consent. Not surprisingly, the Dartmoor Preservation Association, Open Spaces Society and Ramblers are among the objectors.
The military’s use of the land may be fairly low at present, but once MoD has permanent permission it will have freedom to increase the use and the park authority will be unable to stop it. At least with a temporary consent there is a regular opportunity for review in the light of current circumstances. It should be remembered that there has never been an independent inquiry into this abuse of the national park and if the park authority gives its consent there will never be one.
Michael Trinick would turn in his grave.