Thirty years ago today, 27 November 1984, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was the end of a frantic seven days. For, as I wrote in the Open Spaces Society’s magazine Open Space (spring 1985), ‘in an unprecedented series of moves inspired by the Department of Transport (DoT), the government attempted to subvert procedures and crush the objectors to the Okehampton bypass in Devon’.
The DoT’s proposed route for the A30 dual-carriageway Okehampton bypass had been the subject of a 96-day public inquiry in 1979 and 80. It was to the south of the town, slashing across the magnificent wooded and furzy slopes of the mediaeval deer-park of Okehampton Castle and invading the Dartmoor National Park. It thus contravened government policy (then Department of the Environment Circular 4/76) which stated that no new trunk road should go through a national park when there were reasonable alternatives. There were alternatives to the north of Okehampton, on mediocre farmland. But the inspector, barrister Charles Fay, had recommended the southern route, and the minister had confirmed it in September 1983.
However, the DoT had acknowledged that the road would destroy public open space. This was the 3.5 acres of Bluebell Woods, given by Mrs M K Ryan in 1965 to Okehampton Hamlets Parish Council in memory of her late daughter Mary, to be held as an open space for public enjoyment. The inspector ruled that the exchange land was inadequate. In addition, the objectors had argued at the inquiry that the large expanse of East Hill, on the eastern side of Okehampton Park, was also land used by the public for recreation and therefore qualified as open space for which exchange land must be provided. The inspector and minister agreed.
This meant that the compulsory purchase orders for the road, in accordance with the Acquisition of Land Act 1981, had to be subject to Special Parliamentary Procedure (SPP). This procedure, set out in the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945, was intended to ensure that when land of particular public importance was to be destroyed, the public could appeal to a higher independent judiciary. (I use the past tense because, tragically, this procedure was amended by the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 so that SPP is no longer an automatic requirement for the compulsory purchase of open space in the absence of exchange land.)
So the objectors to the CPOs for open space could petition and be heard by a parliamentary joint committee of three peers and three MPs. Such petitions were first scrutinised by the Chairman of Committees in the Lords and Chairman of Ways and Means in the Commons. They decided whether the petitions were in order and whether the petitioners had loci standi.
Ten national and local organisations*, including the Open Spaces Society (OSS), Ramblers and Dartmoor Preservation Association, petitioned against the CPOs. But the DoT, angry that its scheme was to be further delayed by this procedure, made strenuous efforts to quash the petition. In a memorial which it presented to the two chairman on 14 November 1984, the DoT disputed the locus of three of the petitioners. It also criticised the petitioners for acknowledging that ‘at the heart of their objection is an issue of principle of the first magnitude for the whole future of national parks’ and for indicating that the bypass decision was a misinterpretation of government policy regarding roads in national parks. The DoT argued that the implementation and interpretation of government policy should not be canvassed before the Joint Committee but on the floor of either or both Houses.
The two chairmen, without even hearing the objectors, ruled that the petition should be referred to the Joint Committee.
A pernicious move
No doubt infuriated by that decision, the DoT then employed a more devious tactic and, in a gross abuse of executive authority, it threatened both to undermine the prerogative of the two chairmen and to crush the petitioners. For it was no coincidence that, shortly after the memorial hearing, an early-day motion (EDM) was instigated by Sir Peter Mills, MP for West Devon, who was an unashamed protagonist of the southern route. The motion, under section 4(2) of the 1945 Statutory Orders (Special Procedures) Act, was that the petition should not be referred to the Joint Committee.
Peter Mills worked hard and the EDM rapidly collected 51 signatures. EDMs are normally harmless but this one was different. When the following week’s business was announced on 20 November, we learned that the motion had been allocated debating time on 27 November. David Clark (Labour, South Shields), chairman of the OSS, and Sydney Chapman (Conservative, Chipping Barnet), a committee member of the OSS, boldly opposed this pernicious move, but to no avail. Government was determined and we had only a week in which to act.
There followed a massive lobbying exercise: feverishly I sent out press releases, wrote to members of both Houses and briefed MPs for the debate (remember, no email then). I even wrote to the Duke of Edinburgh. Our parliamentary agent Jeremy Francis of Dyson Bell was hugely helpful with advice.
This blocking device, which had been invoked only twice before, was never intended as a weapon to stifle objectors. This was made clear by Arthur Greenwood who, as Lord Privy Seal, was the minister responsible for the 1945 act. He pledged to the House on 14 November 1945 that the government would never use these measures to ‘beat down opposition or to carry proposals through without due regard to all the interests who ought to be considered’ and he assured the House that ‘no petitioners’ rightful claims shall ever be rejected’. But government had forgotten this. Fortunately, our friend Lord Molson had not. He took the opportunity to remind the government of its promise, for it was in response to him that the assurance had been given 39 years earlier.
Some time before this had blown up, Lord Foot (President of the Dartmoor Preservation Association) had tabled a prayer in the House of Lords, to be debated on 3 December, that the CPOs be annulled. He had intended merely to give the matter a public airing, not to press a vote. But now it was different—if we were to be silenced by the Commons, there was no option but for Lord Foot to divide the Lords on 3 December, in a last attempt to prevent a flagrant injustice.
We were fortunate in our support from both Houses of Parliament. Sydney Chapman and Anthony Steen (Conservative, South Hams) wrote to 120 colleagues, urging them to vote against the Mills resolution. In the Lords too there was considerable disquiet. An opportune letter in the Times, signed by seven peers, aroused widespread interest and the ensuing publicity put Okehampton firmly on the map. The fight was not only to save Okehampton Park, but to prevent a contemptible erosion of democracy.
Only hours before the resolution was to be debated in the Commons on 27 November Peter Mills agreed to withdraw, provided he had a written assurance from Lord Foot that there would be no vote in the Lords on 3 December. But Lord Foot was on the train from Devon, in the days before mobile phones—would he return in time? Mercifully he did, and I was in the House of Commons to hear Mills withdraw the resolution—a great moment. A major parliamentary injustice had been averted.
And a few weeks later the Duke of Edinburgh sent his reply, rather too late to be of any use!
The sad footnote is that a year later there was a further parliamentary injustice when the parliamentary joint committee’s subsequent decision to reject the southern route of the bypass was quashed. The government introduced a confirming bill, which, with its large majority, it forced through parliament. The bypass was consequently forced through the Dartmoor National Park.
* The ten petitioners were the British Archaeological Trust, the Dartmoor Preservation Association, the Devon Alliance of Amenity Societies, Friends of the Earth, the Long Distance Walkers Association, the Open Spaces Society, the Ramblers’ Association and the Devon branches of the Council (now Campaign) for the Protection of Rural England, the Conservation Society and Transport 2000.