Forty years ago last week (9 May 1979) the 96-day Okehampton bypass inquiry opened at the Charter Hall in Okehampton. It was the longest public inquiry I have participated in, and at the time was one of the longest ever.
It was hugely controversial. The Department for Transport wanted to drive the dual-carriageway Okehampton bypass south of the town through the Dartmoor National Park. This was in contravention not only of national park purposes but also of Department of Environment circular 4/76 paragraph 58 that ‘no new route for long-distance traffic should be constructed through a national park … unless it has been demonstrated that there is a compelling need which would not be met by any reasonable alternative means’.
Of course there were reasonable alternatives: it was not a foregone conclusion that any bypass was needed but, if one was, it should have gone to the north, across low-grade farmland not through the priceless mediaeval deer park of Okehampton Castle.
And so on 9 May a barrage of barristers met at the Charter Hall: Michael Rich representing the Department for Transport, Jeremy Sullivan for Devon County Council (supporter of the southern route), and Michael Howard for the Countryside Commission and Dartmoor National Park Committee in opposition. All three are now QCs. All the usual amenity organisations were represented as objectors, and I was there for the Open Spaces Society (then the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society) as well as for myself. Sylvia Sayer spoke as an extremely knowledgeable individual, and there were many other objectors including from the town of Okehampton.
The inquiry was delayed considerably by what was known as ‘the open space argument’. The Department for Transport planned to build the road through Bluebell Woods on the West Okement river, a public open space which had been given to the town by the Ryan family. The department had offered land in exchange, as was required by the Acquisition of Land (Special Authorisation Procedure) Act 1946 schedule 1 paragraph 11, but this was grossly inferior.
The ingenious secretary of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, Frank Beech, had lit on the argument that other land, including East Hill (a beautiful open expanse across which it was proposed to carve the road) was also public open space. It had been used by the public customarily since time immemorial. Therefore, we averred, suitable exchange land should be provided for that too or the case referred to special parliamentary procedure. The inspector, barrister Charles Fay, was interested in this topic and recognised that it needed proper consideration.
The morning of 9 May was largely taken up with programming (although this had been discussed at the pre-inquiry meeting in March, and again on 1 May when we met in Okehampton for the formal opening, but the inquiry was then adjourned so as not to intrude on the election period—a wasted day).
We discussed how to tackle the open space issue. Jeremy Sullivan said that Devon County Council opposed our open space arguments, and the inspector expressed his surprise that a public authority should be ignorant of claims made by the public. That was a small glimmer of daylight on a dreary day—and indeed, the inspector did eventually find in our favour on that point. The case went to parliament and we were only defeated because Nicholas Ridley forced it through against the recommendation of the parliamentary committee.
The decision on 9 May was to treat the open space issue separately, and for it to be heard after the Dartmoor Commons Bill had been to parliament—a number of us, including Ian Mercer the Dartmoor National park officer (who was opposing the bypass), had already explained that we must be absent for some days in June when that bill was in parliament. In fact, the timetable slipped to such an extent that the open space issue did not come up until mid-October and then occupied nine days of argument.
I filled five notebooks, 591 pages, with my notes of the inquiry.
And here is my box of papers relating just to the inquiry. The inspector’s decision was six volumes.
The Western Morning News‘s report of the first day was headlined ‘Inquiry could last three months’. How optimistic it was! In fact it lasted for nine months, closing on 4 February 1980, by which time I had left my job as aide to the author and entrepreneur Charles Owen (because I wanted to spend too much time at the inquiry), and been reappointed by him to run his Devon-American Fortnight festival as he learned that the inquiry was coming to an end.