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Bbc Transmitter Station, Henstridge

Volume 975: debated on Monday 3 December 1979

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

11.30 pm

People in North Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire will be grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for granting me the opportunity of raising in the House the BBC's proposal to erect a transmitter station at Henstridge. I raise this matter out of no antipathy to the BBC. On the contrary, I strongly believe in the battered concept of public service broadcasting. I also take the view that the BBC's external services should be maintained to protect and promote the British way of life. My opposition to this proposal is that, if implemented, it would significantly impair and diminish that precious commodity.

I should also explain that, in raising this matter, I have the full support of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen), in whose constituency the land lies. Although he is unable to intervene in the debate, the points that I shall make reflect the deep concern of his constituents and mine. My hon. Friends the Members for Westbury (Mr. Walters) and for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer), who are unfortunately unable to be present tonight, have asked me to make clear that they support the case that I present.

The BBC has applied for planning permission to erect at Henstridge a shortwave radio station consisting of approximately21 self-supporting towers holding aerial arrays and ancillary buildings on a 300-acre site. The station would transmit overseas radio services to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and perhaps South America.

The transmitter at Skelton in Cumbria presently used for this purpose is outdated and the BBC, for reasons of audibility which I am advised are marginal, would prefer a southern site.

The result of this proposal, if succesful, would be that bands of what appear to me as a former pig farmer to resemble pig wire up to one mile long strung between towers 300 ft. in the sky would be beaming the broadcasts with 8 megawatts of power towards the ionosphere and Russia. The BBC has in mind that other transmitters would be added later.

This proposal has aroused unprecedented alarm throughout the area of the Black more Vale. Concern is based upon the advice of radio engineers. Parish meetings in full halls of all the villages and towns affected have echoed this concern both at the proposal and at the inadequacy of the representations, the limited nature of the preparation and ground work and the non-assurances that were received from the BBC engineers at a recent public meeting.

The first area of concern is radioactivity. Although the beams would be aimed into the sky, some spraying and reflection can be expected. The BBC states that radiation levels would be below the present maximum permitted level of 1,000 volts per metre. My understanding is that a new lower radiation level is under discussion. I ask whether the Government can give me assurance that any lower level would and could never be breached by a transmitter station of this kind. Even if they can, the National Farmers' Union and others are concerned about the effect upon the Henstridge grain store, which will use computer-linked electronic equipment. There is widespread concern about the effect upon the Plessey research establishment nearby which employs 600 people. People in the area are worried about their businesses, farms, livestock and health.

Secondly, there is a fire risk. A radio transmitter causes induced voltages to occur in any length of conducting material, such as, for example, a wire fence. Within about a mile of the station the movement of, say, a petrol can against a tractor could produce a spark and start a serious fire. Garages, farms and industrial buildings in the area could be affected.

Thirdly, and more certainly—and more ironically—there would, without question, be serious interference with radio, television, hi-fi and other electronic equipment. I am advised that the effect of induced voltages at short range would be to blot out radio and hi-fi reception within 3 miles and seriously impair television reception. The effect of interference at greater distances is, say the BBC engineers, hard to guess. The area health authority advised me that modern heart pacemakers will be affected. Most hearing aids will not work close to a station of this kind.

The fourth and major concern is for the environment of this specially beautiful part of England, lying as it does next to one area of outstanding natural beauty and bordering another area awaiting such designation. Although Tess of the d'Urbervilles might have been glad of a landmark as she wandered the lanes of Marnhull, the tourists and visitors who come to see the vale made famous by Thomas Hardy would be shocked by such an act of vandalism. There are many who have chosen to retire to this unique piece of English countryside. As a result of this proposal, the amenity for which they have saved is gravely threatened.

Property values would, of course, be affected and, perhaps even more serious, small technically skilled businesses of the kind now providing employment in Dorset would be discouraged. Certainly this station would provide no employment in the locality. The effect upon the nearby helicopter station at Yeovilton is a defence aspect which should be considered.

My right hon. Friend's Department described the land, when dismissing a planning application in November 1976, as being in
"an isolated position, in open countryside, where it is the local planning authority's present policy to limit development to that required to satisfy a special, agricultural, or other local need.…In view of this location and the proximity of the site to a village in which only minimal development is acceptable, industrial use of the land is inappropriate."
This was in the context of current land use policy, notwithstanding the fact that some industrial development had been permitted. It is land near to this which is the subject of the present application.

I make it clear that the area affected by the proposal is large. No doubt contrary to the BBC's impression, it is well populated. The area potentially affected contains, so far as I can estimate, over 100,000 people. We are not debating whether the BBC should broadcast to Russia. However, it seems hard for the BBC to justify considering only Dorset and part of Somerset in its preparation for this scheme. We have to apply the technical skills our country possesses to advanced science and at the same time protect the amenities of our countryside.

Simply to move to a new site as the way out of a technical problem is no answer. Despoliation of the countryside, on the Masai principle, will not do. There was a time when Governments could plant monstrosities of this type in an area without regard to local feeling. That is not an appropriate attitude today. A proposal of this kind has many implications, all of them serious, long-lasting, and highly damaging for North Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire.

It is inconceivable that such a proposal could proceed without being called in for a public inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could achieve this by calling in the application under section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. In this case the technical or scientific aspects of the proposed development are, in my opinion, of so unfamiliar a character that planning inquiry permission under sections 47 and 49 might be appropriate. My right hon. Friend has no doubt considered that approach.

I have said that this proposal has not been thoroughly thought out. It is a boffin's dream. It is not only that; it is a dream which the BBC cannot, and should not, pay for, because it will never pay the price for the destruction of a priceless amenity.

Finally, I urge the Minister to take another approach. We do not want in that part of Dorset and Somerset a sword of Damocles hanging over the area for years. I urge him to arrange for an immediate withdrawal by the BBC of this ill-judged and dangerous application. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has said that he is resolved to protect our precious environmental heritage. Let his hon. Friend do just that tonight.

11.41 pm

I rise with considerable concern to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker). I appreciate that in raising this matter he is representing the concern of many of his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen), who I see sitting on the Front Bench.

I am aware that Yeovil district council, which is the local planning authority to which the BBC has made its planning application, has received more than 500 objections to the proposal. I might add that additional objections have been directed to my Department. A number of anxieties are being expressed and not just from pig farmers, or ex-pig farmers. There is concern, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, about the visual effect of the aerial array suspended from 100-metre supporting towers.

There are fears that a health hazard could arise from the radiation effect produced by transmissions from this proposed station which could be harmful to people, livestock and wild species. There is the possibility of serious interference with the performance of electrical equipment such as television sets, audio equipment, hearing aids and computers, a fact which has also been mentioned by my hon. Friend.

I am not in a position to comment authoritatively on either the possible health hazards or the matter of interference with electrical equipment, but I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we have looked into the dangers from radiation. I am given to understand that the BBC would certainly comply with all the international safety standards for such installations. In these remarks, obviously, I refer to any fire risks as well.

Moreover, the BBC's own personnel would be working within the station complex. This would not be possible unless the strict requirements of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act were satisfied. Some interference with electrical equipment within 1 or 2 miles of the station is expected. My hon. Friend thinks that the radius is somewhat greater than that. We shall see. But measures can certainly be taken by users of appliances and equipment to alleviate the effects of this interference.

From what I have just said, I hope that my hon. Friend will not assume that I am prejudging any inquiry or planning application. Of course, these are not new problems for the BBC. Its experience of operating similar stations at Ramp sham in Dorset, which is adjacent to a major road, and at Daventry in North ants, where a large housing estate approaches almost to the boundary of the site, leads it to believe that any difficulties can be overcome with reasonable co-operation from those affected.

The question frequently asked is: why not merely replace the ageing equipment at Skelton in Cumbria? The answer involves considerable technical detail which I understand my hon. Friend had explained to him personally by experts from the BBC a week or so ago. I shall not, therefore, trouble hon. Members with detailed explanations of these technical matters other than to say that they concern the efficiency of transmitting signals in the required directions.

The BBC has a commitment to provide radio services, both in the English language and the vernacular, to overseas countries. This commitment has been acknowledged in the discussions and negotiation in recent weeks between the Government and the BBC about the possible reduction in foreign language transmissions by the Overseas Service in consequence of the need to reduce public expenditure as part of the fight for national economic recovery. These overseas services are quite separate from the domestic services and are financed by a direct grant-in-aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The services are considered to be most valuable in explaining the British point of view and way of life, and the BBC has gained a reputation for high quality programmes and the presentation of accurate and unbiased news broadcasting.

Indeed, hon. Members will be interested to know, as my hon. Friend said, that a lively three-hour meeting was held recently under the auspices of the Henstridge parish council in order to question BBC experts and scientists from Southampton university about the proposed radio station.

My hon. Friend has said that the problems have been overcome, and he mentioned the Rampisham station in my constituency. I was shocked when I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) say that about 100,000 people lived in the area around Henstridge. That is not the case in Rampisham. Why should the BBC settle upon an area where there is not only a large population but growth potential? Why cannot the BBC go somewhere else away from Dorset and set up the station on some blasted heath?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Department of the Environment often has to tread a careful path when planning. I cannot respond to his question. Perhaps if he listens carefully to my speech he will understand why I fail to respond.

The meeting was attended by about 450 people. The proceedings were recorded by the BBC for broadcasting overseas to countries where people are not free to hold such public forums.

I appreciate that there is bound to be disquiet at the prospect of having such tall structures planted in the midst of the Blackmore Vale. Although not designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, the vale takes in an area of about 170,000 acres enclosed by hills including Bullbarrow, Mere, Shaftesbury and Hambledon. I remember the television programme to which my hon. Friend referred. The undulating landscape provides a fine setting for the scattered towns, villages and country houses, built for the most part of the golden Ham Hill stone. Agriculture and agricultural processes remain of considerable importance in the area. There is some manufacturing activity in the small towns. Yeovil, which is some 12 miles away, is the largest manufacturing centre and is dominated by Westland Aircraft. Only small population growth is expected in the area.

I can understand that no one would wish to have an installation of this type almost in his own back garden, but I am equally appreciative of the difficulties facing the BBC in its legitimate search to maintain and improve the quality of the service that it provides.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whilst it would provide the finance for this proposal, has played no part in the selection of a site, which is entirely the BBC's responsibility. Its selection of Henstridge would have been based upon a series of technical criteria. The BBC has no powers of compulsory purchase and is thus required to go through all the normal planning processes that apply to any private citizen.

I understand that the formal outline planning application was submitted by the BBC to Yeovil district council and received by it on 24 September 1979. The district council is anxious to allow sufficient time for public consultation, so its planning committee is unlikely to consider the application before its meeting on 3 January 1980.

Many of the representations received by my Department have urged that the Secretary of State for the Environment should immediately call in this planning application for his own decision. That is what my hon. Friend suggested. But as a Government we are committed to the encouragement of local democracy. This must include not only the full exercise of those powers available to local authorities but the assumption of their duties to the community that such a concept involves.

We believe that local authorities should be left to perform the functions for which they have responsibility without the constant threat of intervention by central Government. In the field of development control, this means that local planning authorities are expected to face up to the sometimes difficult and unpalatable decisions that responsible planning of their area demands and not to pass the buck to the Department of the Environment. The mere fact that a particular proposal is of great local sensitivity is not, in our view, a reason for departing from the normal planning procedures.

I should explain that any proposals for development of land which significantly depart from the provisions of the development plan for that area fall to be considered under the procedures laid down in the Town and Country Planning (Development Plans) Direction 1975. The majority of land in the vicinity of Henstridge airfield has been graded three or four on the scale used by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The site itself is mainly used for agriculture, although a small industrial estate has been established to the south, in north Dorset.

In the county development plan for Somerset, which is still relevant for devel- opment control purposes until there is a county structure plan, the site is shown as white land. White land is land where for the most part it is expected that the existing uses should remain unchanged. Thus, if the Yeovil district council is disposed to grant planning permission in this instance it will first need to refer the matter to the Somerset county council as a departure from the development plan. Should the county council itself be of the same mind, it in turn will have to submit the planning application to the Department of the Environment to give the Secretary of State the opportunity of deciding on the basis of the facts placed before him whether to call in the application for his own decision.

In the event that either Yeovil district council or Somerset county council refused to grant planning permission, the BBC would have the right to appeal to the Secretary of State. This appeal could be dealt with by means of a local public inquiry at which all parties could state their case.

In spite of my hon. Friend's request, for the reasons I have explained, I do not propose to call in this application, or to suggest that it should be called in, before the responsible local authorities have considered it. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that it would not be right for me to comment on the merits of the proposal in view of the possibility that the Secretary of State may later be required to decide the matter.

I would advise anyone who has an interest in this proposal to make his views known without delay to Yeovil district council. If the proposal is eventually brought before the Secretary of State, all representations that have been made to my Department will certainly he taken fully into account. It is not within my responsibility to suggest to the BBC any action that it may take.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.