7 MARCH 1970, Page 7


The rape of Dartmoor


Last Sunday, the engineers arrived at Meldon. By the time these words are read—if all goes to plan—they will (to quote the exact words of one of those most in- timately involved) have 'blasted a hole in the side of the hill.' The noise of that blast will signal only the beginning of the process of the destruction of Dartmoor National Park. Not until the last crane and lorry and bulldozer have gone from Meldon and Swin- combe; not until the engineers have finally surveyed their handiwork and moved on to further triumphs; not until the last stone has been laid, the last road constructed, the last great concrete leat rammed across the moor, will those who love Dartmoor admit that their cause is irretrievably lost.

Most people believe that it is lost already. They believe that the last word was said in November 1968 when Mr Greenwood, Minister of Housing. gave his final approval of the North Devon Water Board's Water Order for the construction of a reservoir at Meldon. They note the explicit warning of Mr Robinson, Minister for Planning and Land, in April 1969. that 'we must expect to have to build more inland reservoirs, and some of them may have to be in Naticinal Parks and areas of outstanding national beauty.'

Yet both the Meldon scheme and that pro- posed for Swincombe. which comes before Parliament next month, have little or nothing to be said for them and everything to be said against them. That they should be allowed to come to fruition in European Conservation Year leads one to ask what, if anything, lies behind the high-flown rhetoric; how does the dream match the reality?

The case against Meldon and Swincombe does not have to be argued on amenity grounds. This is icing on the cake. There is no need to talk about the sheer beauty of the gorge at Meldon. the silver ribbon of the West Okement winding through the steep sided valley, then plunging down to Okehampton. There is no need to talk about the great sweep of moorland at Swincombe, vast and bare, refreshing the eye and the soul. Anyway, men who are able to promote such schemes will have long since closed their minds to the 'amenity argument'. The uniqueness of Meldon. the irreplaceability of Swincombe on a moor which is already ravaged by the army, the prison and BBC and which even now feels the tentacles of the china clay industry thrusting up from the south—all this will not mean much to them. Fortunately. there are other arguments which can and must be used.

While the eight year long battle was still being fought over Meldon, the Water Resources Board was established under the Water Resources Act 1963. Those in power had at last recognised that the piecemeal development of reservoir schemes by each and every local water undertaking was absurd and uneconomic. Water was a regional and national resource and should be planned and developed as such.

Unluckily for the opponents of the Meldon scheme, who had mounted a cam- paign involving two public inquiries. a joint parliamentary investigation and finally an appeal to the Ombudsman, the Water Resources Board devoted itself first to pro- blems outside the south west region. It did however examine possible sites for a reser- voir to meet Plymouth's long-term needs of 20 mgd (million gallons of water a day) and in due course settled upon Swincombe, the wild and most imposing tract at the very core of the moor. Thus, in quick succession two reservoirs were being proposed within the National Park notwithstanding the pre- sumption under the 1951 Act that amenity and access would be paramount considera- tions.

What makes this case so tragic is that. had the North Devon Water Board been prepared to give up its own precious project at Meldon, the verdict might--in spite of the evident determination of Plymouth to have Swincombe at all costs—have gone the other way. As it was, the report of the Water Resources Board's technical steering com- mittee makes it clear that little if any cooperation was received from the North Devon Water Board. Though notional recognition was given to the idea of north Devon as a potential participant in a joint scheme, they were (with their commitment to Meldon) effectively excluded. What emerges from a careful study of the Board's reports is how shortsighted this policy was. For the Board (and its con- sultants) had identified in Townleigh—a site lying outside the National Park—what they described as 'an attractive proposition as it is capable of meeting the needs of not only Plymouth and south-west Devon but also of north Devon and east Cornwall.' Naturally enough, the Dartmoor Preservation Associa- tion saw strong virtues in Townleigh. But so did the Countryside Commission. Strong op- ponents of reservoir schemes inside the Na- tional Park, they felt Townleigh could be an ideal site for a 'Country Park'. relieving pressure on the National Park and providing immense opportunities for water-borne recreation.

What went wrong? Is it a question of money? Is Townleigh more expensive than Swincombe plus Meldon? If it is, how much more? And is this a price worth paying to preserve Dartmoor? It is always difficult to thread one's way through the figures. There are not only different schemes, but different variations of the same scheme. What does seem perfectly clear, however, from the sums given by the Water Resources Board (in Ap- pendix I of its annual report for 1968) is that a Townleigh reservoir serving Plymouth and north Devon would be every bit as cheap if not cheaper than the combined costs of Swincombe to serve Plymouth and Meldon to serve north Devon.

For example, the cheapest Swincombe scheme to yield jointly the 20 mgd demanded by Plymouth and the 10 mgd demanded by south-west Devon is put at £6.9 million. Ac- cording to the Board, £5.8 million of that is Plymouth's share. With Meldon costing, say, £2.5 million, the total cost for meeting the water needs of Plymouth and north Devon via the Meldon/Swincombe proposals would come to around £8.3 million. On the other hand, the Townleigh reservoir could yield 20 mgd to Plymouth, 5 mgd to north Devon and 3 mgd to Cornwall at an estimated cost of £7.2 million. South-west Devon could also be supplied from Townleigh. though this would involve some expensive pumping, bringing the total cost of a 38 wed Townleigh scheme up to £9.6 million. The alternative would be for south-west Devon to proceed with a (cheaper) scheme of its own, probably at Woodcourt.

The economics of the case. then. are at best inconclusive. Certainly they are not decisively against Townleigh and they may actually be favourable to it. The net difference between the various schemes would hardly seem to justify the despoliation of the National Park. Indeed. the indecent haste with which the North Devon Water Board last month sought and obtained loan sanction from the Ministry after awarding the contract for the dam only serves to demonstrate its fear that the Swincombe Bill will be thrown out when it comes before Parliament next month.

But could Townleigh be built in time to meet the combined needs of North Devon and Plymouth? The answer is that North Devon already has substantial licences to abstract water which it has not even taken up. while Plymouth would probably get its water a great deal quicker from Townleigh than it could from Swincombe. For the pro- testers about Swincombe will be numerous and vocal. They will include the Devon County Council and probably Prince Charles himself, who is no longer content to leave the administration of his estates in the south- west in the hands of bureaucrats.

And the protests will be made, not by cranky conservationists, but by people who want to see a rational long-term approach developed to the questions of land- and water-use. If we are to preserve the uplands, rivers must be cleaner, perhaps people (and industry) will have to pay more for water and use less of it; and the economics of desalination may have to be looked at in a different light. Seven years after the establish- ment of the Water Resources Board, water undertakings in different parts of the country are still coming up with their own individual isolated, uncoordinate projects with all the costs these entail, both economic and social. Even now, on Exmoor, in Yorkshire and the Peak District and in Wales dark and dismal schemes are afoot to meet the water demands made by growing populations and growing affluence. It may be, hopefully, that the recent Com- mons debate on the Calderdale Water Bill will come to be seen as the herald of a new era. But the fact that, under the absurd parliamentary procedure for so-called Private Bills, the fate of Dartmoor may de- pend on whether or not an MP finishes his lunch in time to get to the House and shout 'object' would be funny if it were not tragic.