These anniversaries make me feel old! Forty years ago today, 25 November 1975, the Sharp Inquiry into military training on Dartmoor opened in Exeter. I was still at university and skipped some lectures to take part—because what better training could I have for becoming a campaigner than participating in a public inquiry?
We had anticipated the inquiry for some time. In 1973 the report of the Defence Lands (Nugent) Committee was published. The committee had been appointed to review the holding of land in the UK by the armed forces for defence purposes (with particular reference to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty), and to recommend to the Secretary of State for Defence what changes should be made to the holdings and to public access there. A significant area of the Dartmoor National Park was (and still is) used for military training—live firing and ‘dry’ training (ie no live ammunition but still noisy and dangerous).
The Nugent Committee’s conclusions on Dartmoor were deeply disappointing, with a minor reduction in the size of the Okehampton range, disposal of a couple of small sites (Rippon Tor rifle range and Plasterdown Camp) and extension of public access on the Okehampton range by ensuring there was no live firing at weekends and a few other times.
However, John Cripps, a member of the committee and chairman of the Countryside Commission, boldly issued a note of dissent. He made a number of recommendations which would have made a real difference: restriction in, and consolidation of, the use of the ranges; disposal of the 3,877-acre Willsworthy range; transfer of the live firing from Merrivale to Okehampton. He proposed that a search be made outside the national park for a live-firing range and, if that was unsuccessful, the Commando Training Centre should be relocated elsewhere in the UK. Moreover, he recommended that: ‘a public inquiry be held early in 1975 to recommend how the training requirements of Commando Forces Royal Marines and the Commando Training Centre can best be met outside and, to the extent that is essential, within the Dartmoor National Park.’
The government, in responding to the Nugent Report, accepted that there should be a public inquiry in 1975 to consider ‘how, in the light of the circumstances then existing, essential defence needs in the south-west can be met’.
Most of the land over which the armed forces train on Dartmoor is licensed to the Ministry of Defence by the Duchy of Cornwall. The licences were due to expire in 1970 and the MoD sought a 14-year extension. However the Duchy would not agree to this because of the objections from the amenity societies and Countryside Commission. The latter urged that the renewal be for five years only, and that at the end of that time all military training in the national park should cease. The defence secretary would not of course agree and he undertook that, at the end of year five, there should be a comprehensive review to ‘ascertain to what extent there would be a continuing need for all or any of the training areas of Dartmoor’. On this basis the Duchy agreed to a seven-year renewal of the licence.
And so the public inquiry was convened, stemming both from the government response to Nugent and the promise of a review when the licence was renewed in 1970. The terms of reference were as follows.
Having regard to all relevant factors, including:
(a) the purposes for which the national park was designated;
(b) the economic constraints set out in the Statement on the Report of the Defence Lands Committee;
(c) the need for the army and Royal Marines units based in the south-west to retain their present bases and to have training facilities in the area;
(d) public and local opinion on Dartmoor and at possible alternative locations.
(1) Whether and to what extent the training needs of the army and Royal Marines which are at present being met in the Dartmoor National Park could, without unacceptable loss of efficiency, be met elsewhere.
(2) In the light of (1) above, what changes, if any, should be made in defence land holdings on Dartmoor and in the extent and nature of their use.
To make recommendations.
We arrived at the inquiry that Tuesday morning with some hope that at last the case against the continued battering of Dartmoor with military shellfire would be given a fair hearing. Sylvia Sayer (who appeared as an individual) recalled in her evidence her experience of previous inquiries into the military on Dartmoor, starting with ‘the sad and farcical inquiry of 1947, the first public inquiry I ever attended and the octogenarian Hansford Worth’s last. I remember the inspector’s refusal to allow Mr Worth to make his statement orally, and Mr Worth’s quiet comment “I expected this” as he handed it in.’
The terms of reference invited us to provide evidence and opinions on how the military’s training needs could ‘be met elsewhere’. And so Sylvia and others prepared detailed submissions on alternative training sites in Britain and overseas. It was a bitter blow when the inspector, Baroness Sharp, announced at the start that the inquiry would only consider alternative training sites in the South West. The terms of reference had no such restriction, and the objectors protested loudly.
The objectors were represented by barrister Michael Howard (later to become an MP, and Leader of the Conservative Party 2003-5) for the Countryside Commission and Dartmoor National Park Committee; Lord Foot for the Dartmoor Preservation Association, and Jerry Pearlman for the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, Ramblers’ Association and Youth Hostels Association. They argued strongly that the restricted terms of reference made the inquiry a charade—we all knew that there were no such alternatives in the South West.
The Western Morning News for 26 November recorded that ‘There was an immediate row over what evidence could and could not be given. … Baroness Evelyn Sharp, who was formerly one of Britain’s top civil servants and who is conducting the inquiry, agreed that the terms of reference were not crystal clear.’ John Foot said that ‘It would be illogical to interpret the preamable in the terms of reference in the restricted way in which you would appear to have in mind’. Konrad Schiemann, counsel for the MoD, countered that if Lady Sayer was able to suggest that training areas should be moved elsewhere ‘we are going to be a travelling circus, because then you would need to have regard to local opinion about each alternative site all around the country—or in Gibraltar or wherever’. Sylvia responded that ‘If we cannot discuss in the light of new circumstances whether bases near Dartmoor are still necessary, then we will be very severely handicapped.’ And of course we were.
Eventually Lady Sharp agreed to ask the ministers (Roy Mason for defence and Anthony Crosland for environment) for confirmation of the interpretation of the terms of reference, and the inquiry got under way. On day 3, Thursday 27 November, the answer came back—the terms of reference were to be taken to mean that the army and Royal Marines would stay in the South West. We could only propose alternative sites in the South West. In effect, as we all knew there were no such sites, we could only discuss mitigation, with no chance to free Dartmoor from its military incubus.
Nevertheless it was gripping stuff and I was there most days. I particular enjoyed cross-examining Major General Pounds, Commanding Commando Forces, Royal Marines, the military’s principal witness. (I now learn, from his obituary in the Telegraph, that he had retired to an Exmouth bookshop but came out of retirement at about the time of the inquiry). This was my first foray into cross examination, and I asked him: ‘Are you satisfied with your present arrangements for the removal of live ammunition from the ranges after firing?’
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘Well’, I said triumphantly, ‘Lady Sharp, you will see from my evidence that an arrangement which the army feels to be satisfactory is very likely to cause serious injury or fatality.’
When I later gave my evidence I presented a photograph, similar to the one below, of what I believed to be an unexploded missile on Dartmoor and made the point that while the military occupied the national park the public would always be at risk.
In fact, under questioning from Jerry Pearlman, General Pounds did concede that ‘We do agree that the aims of the national park and the services are incompatible’. This was an important admission and led to Lady Sharp writing in her report: ‘I accept that military training and a national park are discordant, incongruous and inconsistent’, and that ‘on Dartmoor military training is exceedingly damaging to the national park’.
Our objections were, among other things, to the restrictions to public access, danger to the public, the visual intrusion of look-out huts, flag poles and targets in wild country, military roads extending far into central Dartmoor and used by civilian cars, damage to ancient monuments and noise. The Sharp Inquiry made little immediate change although over the years there have been some improvements, in particular the removal of shell and mortar firing and the closure of the military roads to civilian traffic. But Lady Sharp’s pronouncements about the conflict between military training and a national park hold true today.