Thirty years ago today, 3 April 1985, we thought we had stopped the Okehampton bypass from bulldozing its way through the Dartmoor National Park. How wrong we were—but I well remember that brief period of celebration.
The Department of Transport’s proposed southern route for the Okehampton bypass, slashing across the northern slopes of Dartmoor, had been the subject of a nine-month public inquiry in 1979-80. The inspector, barrister Charles Fay, had recommended the route be approved. Because the road would take the public open space of East Hill and Bluebell Woods, for which no suitable exchange land had been offered, the decision was subject to special parliamentary procedure. This meant that a committee of both houses of parliament had to consider the open-space issue, under the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945. I gave the detail in an earlier blog.
Ten organisations* petitioned and were heard by the committee of both houses. The members were Lords Airedale (Lib), Henley (Con) and Stallard (Lab) and MPs Peter Rost (Con), William O’Brien (Lab) and Henry Bellingham (Con), the last having replaced MP Jerry Wiggin who was sacked after he accused the protesters of attempting to rerun the public inquiry, and was therefore clearly not impartial.
The committee sat for 15 days during February and March, in the sombre committee room 3 with its flock wallpaper, listening to the cases for and against. It then took the unusual, but for us welcome, step of visiting the lovely open spaces at East Hill and Bluebell Woods which were the subject of its deliberations.
On Wednesday 3 April the committee’s decision was to be announced. With the other objectors I sat nervously in the committee corridor for two hours. At last we were called in to hear the chairman, Peter Rost, announce the momentous words: ‘The committee are of the opinion that the orders be not approved.’
The committee was heavily influenced by the government’s national parks policy, as laid down in the Department of the Environment’s circular 4/76, that no new route for long-distance traffic should be built through a national park unless there was a compelling need which would not be met by reasonable alternative means. The committee considered that the route to the north of Okehampton through farmland, proposed by the objectors at the public inquiry, was a reasonable alternative. The decision was carried by four votes to two: Rost, Airedale, Stallard and O’Brien voted in favour of rejecting the southern route, Henley and Bellingham voted against.
It was a moment of pure glory. We had stopped the Okehampton bypass in its tracks. The open-space argument had won the day.
The following day we were on the front page of the Guardian and there were reports in other national papers and the Western Morning News. David McKie wrote in the Guardian diary: ‘On the public benches old friends shook hands, offered congratulations, even exchanged the odd decorous kiss. It was, in every sense, a peculiarly English kind of triumph’.
Peter Vince wrote in the Western Morning News: ‘There were gasps when, after a brief preamble, committee chairman Mr Peter Rost MP, reached his announcement that the orders should not be approved. Soon afterwards, jubilant conservationists were lining up in the Palace of Westminster’s committee corridor to offer congratulatory hugs and kisses to leading campaigner Miss Kate Ashbrook, secretary of the Open Spaces Society.’ (Actually, I was not the leading campaigner. That accolade should go to Dartmoor champion and patron of the Dartmoor Preservation Association Sylvia (Lady) Sayer who led the campaign indefatigably for more than a decade.)
The victory was short-lived. On 26 July the Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, tabled a bill to confirm the orders for the bypass through the park, overturning the democratic will of a committee established by statute. It was a dastardly move which led not only to the devastation of part of the historic Okehampton Park but also to the overturning of the government’s policy to protect national parks.
Of course we knew on 3 April that this was possible, but we never thought the government would dare do it. And so I spent the easter weekend immediately following in blissful happiness, falsely believing we had saved Dartmoor from the dreadful road scheme.
* 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.