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Greenham Common

Volume 46: debated on Monday 25 July 1983

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

5.23 am

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise in a debate a matter that is confusing and angering many of my constituents, and has confused and angered them for many months—that is, why the Government, in the shape of the Department of Transport, are providing the site for those women who describe themselves as "peace women" and who first came to Greenham common in 1981. They came to stage a protest against the deployment of cruise missiles at RAF Greenham common, although that deployment had been agreed by NATO and accepted by Her Majesty's Government in 1980.

In a statement to the House, the then Secretary of State for Defence said that Greenham common would be "the main operating base" for the cruise missiles in the United Kingdom and would:
"house six flights of cruise missiles … It is planned that the first units will deploy at Greenham Common in 1983.
The factors affecting the decision stemmed from the prime operational need to bring the first missiles into service as soon as possible. The choice had therefore to concentrate on establishments already in defence occupation which had sufficient space available and as many as possible of the basic facilities, in particular, adequate accommodation, road communications, and access to training areas and suitable dispersal areas … it will be necessary from time to time to practise the deployment of the launcher and its support vehicles to dispersed sites away from the base. These exercises will be along preplanned routes and will take place after consultation with the local authorities concerned.
No live missiles, or warheads, will be carried on exercises at any time … As part of the security arrangements we shall be contributing 220 British personnel towards the guard forces for the bases and dispersal deployments …
I am notifying the local authorities concerned about the deployment, and their views on the environmental and social aspects of the arrival of the units"—
Cruise missiles—
"will be taken into account to the fullest possible extent." —[Official Report, 17 June 1980; Vol. 986, c. 1342–43.]
I wish to consider to what extent the then Secretary of State's statements have been implemented as they relate to the responsibilities of the Department of Transport. He spoke of road communications and of considering the views of the local authority on the environmental and social aspects of the coming of cruise missiles.

First, I wish to deal with the arrival of the women in 1981. When they arrived they pitched their tents on Greenham common in flagrant disregard of the byelaws administered by Newbury district council on behalf of all those who wish to enjoy the amenities of the common. Initially, they chose for their site land outside the main gates of the base and to one side of the access road. There they made their camp and proclaimed themselves pledged to resist the deployment of cruise missiles at RAF Greenham common. They have been there ever since. They now rejoice in the name of the Greenham peace women with their residence the Greenham peace camp. From what we know of their views, they are opposed to the nuclear defence policy of NATO, opposed to the Government's nuclear defence policy and strongly biased against the presence of American bases in the United Kingdom. Judging from the propaganda that I have seen, they seem to believe that the Americans, our allies, are the most likely aggressors in any east-west struggle.

I make no criticism of these women's absolute right to hold those views. How could I, when I believe in and wish to cherish our free society in which we can all say what we think? I am as surprised as my constituents, however, that this group of women—self-appointed and enjoying no calculable public support except a handful of votes for their candidate in the general election and the presence of 30,000 women at a demonstration in December, a figure not remotely equalled in their latest demonstrations —should be allowed to maintain a physical presence at the gates of RAF Greenham common by courtesy of the Department of Transport.

When the women first came to Greenham common in 1981 they lived in tents. With the onset of winter, they brought in caravans which were positioned on either side of the access road, some on the common land and some on land owned by the Department of Transport. There they remained until September 1982 when the Department of Transport, following action taken by Newbury district council in respect of the council's side of the access road, evicted the seven caravans belonging to the women. The Department then covered the site, including both sides of the access road, with loads of stones and boulders. To quote a recent parliamentary answer to me, this was
"to prevent reoccupation by vehicles. Soil was later added as a first step towards eventual planting of the mounds."—[Official Report, 1 July 1983; Vol. 44, c. 174.]
So far as I know, that was the last action taken by the Department of Transport on its site.

On either side of the access road to the main entrance to the base there are large mounds of gravel and soil in which a few weeds and scrub plants manage to survive and on which the so-called peace camp now resides. The eating or communal area is on the common land administered by Newbury district and the sleeping quarters —20 to 25 unsightly bivouacs covered with polythene sheeting—on part of the 66,698 sq m of land that the Department of Transport acquired between June 1951 and October 1952. Despite the ministerial hope that the site would not be reoccupied by vehicles, there is a van converted into a caravan on the Department of Transport site.

The area in and around the site on either side of the access road is littered with rubbish, rags of old carpet, parts of a broken fence and bags of refuse. When I drove past yesterday morning there was a wooden scaffold on which had been pinned a notice saying that some Danish women had come to the camp. The whole site is ugly, an environmental eyesore and blatantly against the district council regulations.

Yet the women seem to think that they have a preemptive right to be there. When I looked around the site some weeks ago I was told by one of them to get off the site, as though she owned the common. She advised me not to walk on to another part of the common because that was where the lavatories were. She spoke as though I were trespassing on private land rather than acknowledging that she was breaking the law by having the camp on the site.

Newbury district council has evicted the women on several occasions, most recently last May when it sought and obtained from the High Court an order for possession and injunctions against the women then in the tents on the common. On that occasion, the evicted women simply crossed the access road and took up residence on the site belonging to the Department of Transport, and there they have remained ever since.

As each High Court order to evict the women costs about £3,000 of ratepayers' money, it is not difficult to understand why the district council now wonders whether it is justified in spending any more to get rid of the women if they are to be given a safe haven on Department of Transport land. The chairman of the council's recreation and amenities committee, Councillor Cyril Woodard, recently wrote to me as follows:
"The Council is disappointed by the attitude of the Department of Transport and is dissatisfied with the apparent lack of concern for what it considers to be an infringement of the law … I would hope that this letter … clearly demonstrates the feeling of frustration which members and officers of the Council have about the lack of co-operation on the part of the Department of Transport during the past few months … I would stress that a much firmer and clearer indication of the Government's intention in dealing with this outbreak of lawlessness is essential if a satisfactory conclusion to the problem is to be reached."
I concur absolutely with those statements. Indeed, I go further. If the Secretary of State for Defence informed the House in 1980 that he would seek the views of the local authority — Newbury district council — about environmental aspects of the coming of cruise missiles, how can the Department of Transport now ignore the council's views even to the extent of not replying to letters about the site? How can it leave the site as an ugly, weed-grown gravel mound dotted with polythene shanties and claim that it cares at all about Greenham common as common land? I stress that I am talking about the land not just as an air base but as English common land. Finally, how can the Department justify its ownership of the site when the present access road leaves so much to be desired, especially in terms of the amount of traffic that uses and will continue to use it, probably in increasing numbers, as the build-up of the base accelerates?

Locally, the so-called peace women, with their ultra-feminist views, their lack of concern for local people, their high-handedness and their public behaviour, have lost any support or respect that they ever enjoyed. From the result of the general election, it is clear that their national support is on the wane. They have become an unmitigated and expensive nuisance, and we want them to go. What is more, their demonstrations, although poorly supported, tie down police manpower.

The Thames Valley chief constable told me only at the weekend that of £3½ million budgeted for police overtime in Thames Valley for the year ending 31 March 1984, £2 million has already been spent, although two thirds of the year is still to go. Where the additional finance is to come from is not clear, but I know that the presence of these women on Department of Transport land at the entrance to the base means that they can mount incidents against the base at will, like the disgraceful and irresponsible break-in last night when they daubed two American military aircraft with paint.

Not only does that show how willing these people are to take matters into their own hands, but it again raises the whole question of security at Greenham. That is a matter for the Ministry of Defence, but it must exercise the minds of everyone in the House of Commons as this is such an important base.

It is difficult for me, as it is for Newbury district council and my constituents, to understand why these women, whose anti-social behaviour has made them so unpopular locally and whose political gestures are so expensive, should now be afforded the sanctuary of Department of Transport land wherewith to flout the wishes of the local authority although it was denied them in 1982.

Thus tonight I ask the Minister to give me a clear-cut assurance that the women will be evicted without delay, as they have been in the past. I ask her to fulfil the promises made by the Secretary of State for Defence that the local authority will be consulted about environmental matters, in particular about restoring the common land around the main entrance to its natural beauty.

I also ask my hon. Friend to look at the access road to see whether she does not agree that it could and should be improved for the sake of better road communications and in the interests of safety.

As a footnote, I should perhaps add that if my hon. Friend feels that I would leave the women homeless, I assure her that they have a house in a village close to Greenham common and I can see no possible reason why they should not vacate Greenham common and move to that house as permanent residents.

5.38 am

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has spoken with some feeling about conditions in his constituency, but he has ranged over wider topics that cannot be avoided when discussing Greenham common and the women's protest movement. It is a matter of judgment and opinion as to how much support there is in the country for the objectives of these women, and I do not accept his view that the majority of our people are in favour of cruise missiles. However, I do not intend to discuss the defence aspect tonight as it is outside the remit of the debate.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the House are aware that the women of Greenham common are symbolic of the opposition to cruise missiles in particular and to nuclear weapons in general. I do not think that one particular group of women has been there every day since the protest began, but what we now call the women of Greenham common have inspired people throughout the world who have never seen the common or the airbase or taken part in any of the activities.

The women of Greenham common have a wider and even greater symbolism that goes far beyond the specific aim of being opposed to cruise missiles. Their activities symbolise the richness and diversity of our democratic way of life. Some people may feel uncomfortable by their protest. Others may find it difficult to understand. Many cannot come to terms with the way of life or the dedication of those women, but the strength of our democracy is that peaceful and lawful, although perhaps unorthodox, demonstrations should not only be tolerated but encouraged.

There was a hint in the hon. Gentleman's speech that only in Britain could such events take place on Government land. Some say with justification that only in Britain does such tolerance exist. I am very much aware of the harassment. No one can say that the women of Greenham common have been left to their own devices to do as they wish. The hon. Gentleman drew attention not only to the evictions by the MOD and the Department of Transport, but to the various activities of the Newbury district council.

A society that ruthlessly tries to crush and imprison protesters and seeks to silence the voice of reason and dissent is the poorer for that. I find it incongruous that those who oppose the aims of the Greenham common women should point to the defects of the totalitarian societies with a great deal of fervour while looking at those defects with envy. I do not say that of the hon. Gentleman, but some people point to how dissenters are dealt with in a totalitarian society while suggesting that we are relaxed in our dealing with protesters.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman's constituents find the protest uncomfortable to live with. When large numbers of people go to the air base, they are extremely difficult to cater for.

The local people object, not to the protest but to the way that the women behave in the town of Newbury.

Two things make the hon. Gentleman's constituents uncomfortable. One is the descent of large numbers of people on the air base at various times. It is difficult to take care of them. I understand why the hon. Gentleman's constituents find that upsetting. I understand that the villagers find the activities of the women uncomfortable, but there are ways to deal with them. Perhaps the Newbury district council should accept: the peace women, as they will be there for some time, and perhaps help to make their conditions more tolerable.

They will be there for some time, whether we like it or not. They are engaging in a peaceful protest.

The hon. Gentleman said that the land on which the women are living belongs to the Department of Transport, but most protests in this country could take place on other than publicly owned land. I accept that some protests take place on private land, but, by and large, the general activities of the protest movements take place on publicly-owned land.

The fact that the land is owned by the Department of Transport is not of any great significance in itself. The Department of Transport, which is not an individual entity, holds land in trust for the nation, not for its own purposes. The Department should remember that part of our heritage is that protest should survive, or even thrive.

If the human race is to survive the awful perils of a nuclear war—I am optimistic enough to believe that it will — the women of Greenham common will have played their part. We should be proud that we are willing to allow such protests to take place and that we have something to offer the world. If the Under-Secretary of State resists the temptation put before her by the hon. Member for Newbury to evict the women, she, too, will have played her part in seeing that not only progress but we survive.

5.46 am

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) chose the Greenham Common women's peace camp as his topic, because it is causing a great deal of concern to the people of Newbury, Berkshire and southwards in north-west Hampshire, an area represented by my colleague the other Under-Secretary of State for Transport.

The issues raised by the presence of these ladies on Department of Transport and Newbury district council land outside the gates of RAF Greenham common present a difficult problem. The question is how to balance the rights of the people in the local and wider communities who think that their environment is polluted by the protesters, and the rights of citizens who wish to effect a change in an element of Government policy which offends them deeply.

The camp set up to protest against the deployment of cruise missiles is principally a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. My concern in this debate can extend only to the women's occupancy of certain highways land for which the Secretary of State for Transport is responsible. For the purpose of anyone reading this debate, I add that my right hon. Friend and I are firmly and unquestionably committed to multilateral disarmament. For that we shall fight and fight again.

That is why I found the comments by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) preposterous. I have never used that word to describe the hon. Gentleman before, but he suggested that Newbury district council should assist the Greenham Common women's peace camp. The hon. Gentleman has lost his sense of proportion.

I shall briefly outline the camp's history. In August 1981 the protest began with the setting up of a camp comprising a number of women and children in seven caravans on common land owned by Newbury district council immediately adjacent to the main entrance to the air base.

In May 1982, following an eviction order by Newbury district council, they moved their camp on to the verge of the A339 trunk road, which borders the common land. The Department of Transport could not allow the caravans to remain because they obstructed the site line from the air base access road to the trunk road. Since we were unable to persuade the women to move, I gave instructions, in the interests of road safety, to take action to remove the caravans. That was done in September 1982. To prevent the women from moving the caravans back to the highway verge, I arranged for stones and soil to be deposited there. The caravans have not returned.

I note my hon. Friend's statement that a van which has been converted to a caravan has appeared. That must have happened since he and I visited the site of the camp about three weeks ago. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall investigate the van and ascertain whether it is on Newbury district council or Department of Transport land.

As my hon. Friend said, the women came back. They are now camped in crude, plastic-covered shelters mainly on highway land to either side of the air base access road on the north side of the trunk road. During the first week of July they staged a week of protest by attempting to block access to and from the base and to gain entry to it. The House may recall that it was felt necessary to reinforce the airfield security by drafting in 600 men of the 1st battalion, Queen's Own Highlanders. They are doing a good job in support of the camp security police. In all, 139 women were arrested and variously charged with obstruction and criminal damage. For the moment the women are continuing their peaceful protest and all seems quiet — but, for all that, none the less infuriating and annoying to my hon. Friend's constituents.

As the highway authority for the trunk road, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has powers under the Highways Act 1980 to remove structures from the highway or things deposited on the highway that constitute a nuisance or a danger, that is, a nuisance or a danger in highway terms. We have been loth to use these powers, partly because it is everyone's right in a free and civilised society, such as we all enjoy in this country, to make peaceful protests against anything that gives people cause for concern, and partly because the women have not and do not constitute either a danger to road safety or, except when they sit down in the road, a disruption to traffic. When they do cause disruption the police act swiftly.

In those circumstances, it would be a misuse of highway powers to secure the removal of these women for other than a highway purpose. This is why we have been reluctant to take more positive action to move the women on, particularly when such action would not only encourage confrontation and publicity but would play into the hands of the protesters, who hunger for news media coverage, which they have not been getting in the same measure of late, as my hon. Friend intimated. In any case, they would in all likelihood simply move back on to the common land and all we would have done was to shift the problem back on to the Newbury district council.

I heard my hon. Friend say there had been a lack of response by my Department to letters from the Newbury district council, exercising its view, quite rightly, that action to protect the local people should be taken. I shall look into that lack of response to letters, but I am aware that none are outstanding from my office to my hon. Friend and I shall find out what has been going on. There is no need for it and responses should be sent.

The camp has been there for a long while. It lacks basic services and amenities. I have verified for myself what an eyesore it is. It offends against the normal standards of Air Force establishments. It spoils some pleasant common land and is a potential, if not an actual, environmental health hazard. Furthermore, it is causing mounting frustration among local people in Newbury, who find both the camp and its occupants a perpetual irritant on the outskirts of the town.

The message coming across to us at the Department of Transport is that local residents have had more than enough. They have been patient — very patient — but they now feel that it is time for the authorities to act and rid them of the nuisance. I understand that there have been one or two attempts to discourage the women's continued presence. Those have not succeeded with a determined group of women. Another factor that we must consider is the high cost to the police, the local authority and central Government since the camp was first formed. The worst difficulties have occurred when the small number of actual campers are joined by much larger groups for so-called days or weeks of action.

I am under no illusion about the fact that the cost to the taxpayer and the ratepayer in seeking to allow this protest to continue within reasonable limits has been, and for the moment continues to be, considerable. The question asked quite reasonably is, "How long are we prepared to tolerate the trespass of these women on highway land?" They are also on Newbury district council land that lies between the Department of Transport land and the perimeter of the RAF camp.

The Department could take action in the courts to evict the women and repossess the land. However, that would take a long time and, in highway terms, legal action might not succeed and proceedings would certainly be turned into a media circus, probably causing worse local disruption for a time. Whatever action is to be taken by whichever Government Department or local district council, it must be sure to succeed.

There is one new highway matter that I should mention. It has been clear to the Department and the airbase authorities for some time that the junction of the access road and the A339 needs improvement. The volume of traffic on the road and into the airbase has increased notably and will increase further over coming months as the number of personnel at the base increases.

No improvement scheme has yet been designed and I cannot say how much of the verge on which the women are camping may be needed, but my concerns must be the access from the A339 to the base and the need for road safety. Therefore, any land needed for the highway work will have to be cleared when the improvement is made. I am asking for a further investigation of what improvements can be made and within what time scale. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall keep him in touch with those developments, which may be a successful way of resolving not only his problem, but the problem of road safety which is beginning to arise on the site.

I understand that my hon. Friend would have liked me to say tonight that I shall issue instructions forthwith to proceed to legal action. I know his views, from our visit to the site on 8 July, and the strong views of the people of Newbury and the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Mr. Mitchell).

The debate has re-emphasised the strength of local feeling. I have explained my Department's position on the occupation of highway land. Obviously my Department is in close contact with the Ministry of Defence about the wider issues arising from the problem I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is keeping a close watch on the situation. If circumstances changed, he would reconsider the matter carefully.

My hon. Friend need have no doubt that as soon as there is a sensible opportunity to improve road safety at the entrance to the base, I shall take the action open to me that will help his constituents and those in the general area.

In reply to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, I should say that wherever protest takes place it is likely to be on publicly owned land. That is a problem which we have to face. Every hon. Member would defend to the last the right to peaceful protest, but such protest will be effective only if it does not irritate, annoy or provoke the people in the surrounding area.

Is not the difference between the Greenham Common demonstration and almost any other protest that one could think of the fact that protesters have decided to build an establishment on common land? Most other protests last for 24 or 48 hours, after which the people depart. The women at Greenham Common have taken up residence on land that is not theirs and have turned the demonstration into something different from anything that we have seen before.

I have a great deal of sympathy for my hon. Friend. It is a more long-standing protest than we have seen in other places. The presence of those people, wherever they may be on public land, will never be successful if it causes the amount of disruption that is occurring in that area. A permanent solution must be found to the problem. If these ladies wish to continue their protest, they must find a more acceptable way of doing so.

I think that my hon. Friend had the answer when he referred to a house that had been acquired by the ladies. They should return to those premises and conduct their peaceful protest from there. While that would not solve the problem, it would at least allow the protesters to live a little more peaceably alongside the residents of Newbury, who are being inconvenienced and whose rightful wish to enjoy the common land is being severely restricted.

Although my powers are somewhat limited and can be exercised only in respect of road safety and safety matters, I have a good deal of sympathy with what the councillors told me on our visit to Newbury and all that my hon. Friend has said in representing the views of his constituents. He need have no fear, because I have taken on board all that he said and will see what can be done in the interests of road safety to resolve the problem.