Forty years ago, on 18 June 1979, I joined other petitioners to fight the first Dartmoor Commons Bill. On that same day I first encountered the brilliant young barrister (later QC) George Laurence who remains a close friend.
We met in the splendid, hushed ambience of the Moses Room in the House of Lords, so named because it contains a large fresco called ‘Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law to the Israelites’ by J R Herbert RA.
The Dartmoor Commons Bill was promoted by Devon County Council on behalf of the Dartmoor National Park Committee (then a subcommittee of the county council) and the Dartmoor Commoners’ Association (DCA). The petitioners were the Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA), the Ramblers, the British Horse Society, Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and several individuals, including Sylvia Sayer (as a Dartmoor commoner, with unusual Venville rights* attached to her property, Cator near Widecombe-in-the-Moor) and me.
Most of the petitioners were concerned about the powers which clause 4 of the bill conferred on the DCA, to ‘improve’, for livestock husbandry, up to 25 acres of common per parish per year, effect drainage improvement of up to one acre per parish per year, and plant trees to protect stock. There were 32 parishes containing some common land within their boundaries so potentially the council could improve up to 800 acres of Dartmoor common in any one year (of a total of 96,000 acres).
We feared the council would be dominated by large graziers: Syl called the bill ‘a prairie-farmers’ charter’.
We had seen conversion of moorland and severe overgrazing and poaching by stock, who were being given supplementary feed on the commons to enable them to outwinter there. We did not trust the large commoners to respect Dartmoor’s natural beauty.
The bill also gave the public the right to walk on the Dartmoor commons, but this did not compensate for the dreadful clause 4.
The DPA had a turbulent time before the bill reached parliament. At a special meeting of its executive committee, of which I was a member, on 2 December 1978 it decided by a majority not to petition. A number of us then invoked a provision in the constitution whereby a special general meeting can be called at the request of more than 20 members. It was not difficult to find the 20+, and a special meeting was held on 27 January 1979 at which a resolution was carried asking the committee to consider its earlier decision, which it then rescinded.
Sadly, despite my best efforts as a committee member, the Open Spaces Society decided not to petition. However, its secretary, the late Ian Campbell, gave me a lot of valuable help in preparing my petition as this was a process of which I had no knowledge or experience. Here are the front and back pages of my petition.
The bill started in the House of Lords and after receiving a second reading was referred to the committee which sat in the Moses Room. That committee consisted of Lords Listowel (chairman), Craigavon, Gridley, Halsbury and Morris. My notebook records that Listowel, Gridley and Halsbury were ‘ancient’ (I was 24).
The DPA and Ramblers were represented by George Laurence, the BHS by Robin Purchas, and Devon County Council by Roy Vandermeer QC. The witnesses for the promoters were Ian Mercer, then Dartmoor National Park Officer, and Herbert Whitley, chairman of the DCA. Both were clever operators and could wriggle their way out of any difficult questions; I found questioning them to be like shooting arrows at a sheet of steel, they were hard to penetrate.
Repeatedly we were told that the works they envisaged were minor, such as liming and bracken spraying. Repeatedly we argued that if that was so, why did they seek such wide ranging and potentially devastating powers?
We proposed amendments which we believed would make the bill more acceptable and less damaging to Dartmoor, namely requiring that the powers could only be exercised with the express approval of the national park authority and the Countryside Commission. I also argued among other things that the DCA should include two representatives from amenity organisations, and that no action should be taken on any land of archaeological interest without six weeks’ notice having been served on the Department of the Environment (which was responsible for ancient monuments) by the park authority.
The hearing lasted for 10 days, causing an interruption in the Okehampton bypass inquiry which was suspended as a number of us needed to be at both hearings. On 20 July the committee published its decision; it made only minor amendments to the bill and none to the contentious clause 4. Despite this disappointment, I found the whole thing fascinating and learnt a great deal about the workings of parliament, and how to cross examine witnesses. I still have my detailed notes of the hearing, and some of the official transcripts, and they make interesting reading. For instance, I had forgotten that after I gave my evidence, Lord Morris asked:
Am I right or wrong in thinking that it you have known the Dartmoor National Park for some 14 years, you must first have ridden in the park when you were in your pram?
Fortunately this egregious bill failed the following year when Anthony Steen, then Conservative MP for Liverpool Wavertree, talked it out at second reading, forcing a vote which the promoters lost. The next bill to be promoted by Devon County Council was significantly better, with the necessary safeguards plus a right to walk and ride on the commons. The revised bill became law in 1985, and was a useful precedent for future legislation affecting commons.