The Dartmoor reservoir saga, 40 years ago

Forty years ago, on 20 April 1978, I gave my evidence at the public inquiry into the Roadford reservoir scheme in west Devon.  It was a big event for me as I had been to very few public inquiries before this. 

My turn came on the 25th day of the 28-day long inquiry, held in Okehampton.  I had managed to attend on many days, through negotiation with my long-suffering boss, author Charles Owen.

The inquiry was to examine the South West Water Authority’s (SWWA) preferred site for a reservoir at Roadford, near Broadwoodwidger.

The objectors to the Roadford reservoir included West Devon and Torridge District Councils, the National Farmers’ Union, Country Landowners’ Association, Broadwoodwidger, Stowford and Thrushelton Parish Councils, Peter Mills MP and others.  They claimed that it was good-quality agricultural land (not true) and therefore should be preserved, whereas Dartmoor was expendable.

Roadford Lake by Lewis Clarke

Roadford Lake © Copyright Lewis Clarke and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Because the opponents of Roadford proposed alternative sites on Dartmoor, the amenity bodies had to appear as counter objectors.

I represented the Open Spaces Society (then the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society), Frank Beech appeared for the Dartmoor Preservation Association of which he was secretary, Mervyn Osmond spoke for the Council (now Campaign) for National Parks, and Sylvia Sayer and Lis Hawkins appeared as individuals. The Dartmoor National Park authority was represented by its chief officer, the late Ian Mercer.

Dredged up
As counter objectors, we had no view on the Roadford scheme but we were furious that the objectors had dredged up the proposal for a reservoir at Swincombe, in the heart of southern Dartmoor.  This had been rejected by a parliamentary committee eight years earlier.

Swincombe gorge

Swincombe gorge, the proposed site for the dam

And during the inquiry itself they came up with a further outrageous idea, to create a reservoir at Stengator, near Black Tor Copse national nature reserve.  This is in the wild West Okement valley, which had already suffered from the Meldon Reservoir, opened in 1972.  In no time Meldon had proved to be useless (as its objectors predicted), having failed to provide sufficient water during the 1976 drought.

My friend and archaeologist Colin Kilvington and I made a hurried visit to Stengator a week before I spoke at the Roadford inquiry, so that he could show me some of the ancient monuments there, including tinners’ huts on the Brim Brook.  I photographed them and presented them as part of my evidence.

Tinner's hut Brim brook Guy Wareham

Tinner’s hut on the Brim Brook. ©Copyright Guy Wareham and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

The objectors also proposed a site at Bickleigh, near Plymouth, as a further alternative and this was opposed by Plymouth City Council and South Hams District Council, represented by solicitor Robin Midgley).  SWWA had considered Swincombe and Bickleigh (with Roadford and another site at Townleigh, on the River Thrushel, a tributary of the Tamar) in the early 1970s and had come out in favour of Roadford in 1975.

The inquiry was into a number of issues, including the SWWA’s compulsory purchase order for Roadford, and its appeal against refusal of planning permission by West Devon and Torridge District Councils.  The inquiry inspector was Jack Mercer.  SWWA was represented by David Widdicombe QC and his junior Michael Fitzgerald, while the objecting councils employed Matthew Horton—so there were plenty of lawyers.

My evidence ran to 13 pages and came from the heart.  I said a great deal about the value of Dartmoor’s wilderness where one can find refreshment and relaxation.  I pointed out that the Swincombe scheme had been rejected by parliament in 1970, and averred: ‘we deeply deplore the absurdity of those who return, like hyenas to the kill, in the hope that there might be a fragment of meat left in the argument’.  I explained that Swincombe and Stengator were common land and therefore exchange land must be provided, which was impossible.

W Okement below Stengator

The West Okement below Stengator

I ended with a quote from William Crossing, the great Dartmoor writer:

If these solitudes should be invaded, nowhere in England will the eye be able to look upon a scene in which there is nothing but the handiwork of Nature.  No amount of profit, even supposing they could be made to yield such, would compensate for the loss of their primeval character, and it behoves those who believe there is something of more value to a nation than money to aid in the preservation of these stretches of wild moorland, which have come down to us untouched, and in which we have a glimpse of the world as it was.

‘Dartmoor may no longer be untouched,’ I concluded, ‘but it still fights to survive, and it is for these reasons that we oppose the siting of any further reservoirs on Dartmoor’.

Ter Cross and Swincombe

The Swincombe valley from Ter cross

My diary records that it took me an hour to read my evidence.  I was followed by Sylvia who probably took even longer (I had typed her evidence with my newly-acquired secretarial skills).  I don’t think I was questioned, which would have been a disappointment to me.  On the other hand I was delighted that David France, who was there for the BBC, said to Syl and me that we were the most newsworthy items so far, because we were emotive.  He then proceeded to interview us and I was thrilled to be on Morning South West, the local radio programme, the following morning.

Inspector’s report
The inspector’s report was not published until 6 October 1980.  It was accompanied by a letter on behalf of the Secretary of State for the Environment (Michael Heseltine, former MP for Tavistock in west Devon).

The inspector recommended the confirmation of Roadford.  He gave little space to the alternative sites, which he rejected.  He said: ‘I do not propose to express a view on the landscaping issue, concerning which it is difficult to avoid an element of subjective judgement, but to confine any comments to the guidance given by government policy on national parks.  From this it is my view that in designating national parks, the intention of the Government was to preserve such areas for the nation as far as possible in their original natural state.’  He went on to quote Department of the Environment circular 4/76.  He considered that a reservoir at Swincombe ‘is no minor peripheral erosion but a major construction in the very heart of Dartmoor.  I consider therefore that the construction of a reservoir at Swincombe would be in complete contrast to the spirit and intention of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act and the subsequent recommendations of the National Parks Policies Review Committee.

‘Similar arguments apply to a reservoir at Stengator except that it would be smaller.  However, in this case, further technical doubts arise, as indicated by the inspector’s report on the Meldon Reservoir, and there are problems associated with access.



‘For these reasons, therefore, without debating the issues of landscape, archaeology or delays in procedure, I consider that proposals for alternative reservoir sites within the Dartmoor National Park should receive no further consideration.’  He also rejected Bickleigh.

However Michael Heseltine did not endorse the recommendation but instead deferred the decision until a comparative study had been made of Roadford against Higher Horslett.  This was a site near Holsworthy which was previously rejected by the SWWA because it would take more agricultural land than Roadford, albeit of rather lower quality.

Eventually, in spring 1983, the Secretary of State for the Environment (by then Tom King) finally endorsed Roadford, and rejected any possibility of siting a reservoir on Dartmoor because ‘the Government has a responsibility to retain national parks as far as is possible in their natural state’ and ‘there are reasonable alternative locations to Dartmoor that would have less adverse effect on wildlife and the environment’.  At last, Dartmoor was safe from any more reservoir schemes.

Roadford Lake 2 by Lewis Clark

Roadford Lake © Copyright Lewis Clarke and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Roadford reservoir, now known as Roadford Lake, was opened in 1989.  It is managed by the South West Lakes Trust and is a nature reserve and a visitor attraction in a part of Devon which is often overlooked.

About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in campaigns, commons, Dartmoor, National parks, Open Spaces Society, wild country and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Dartmoor reservoir saga, 40 years ago

  1. John Bainbridge says:

    Remember it all very well. Thank heavens Swincombe was saved.

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