5 MAY 1961, Page 6

Chalk It Up

By BERNARD LEVIN THE case of the 'chalk-working pit at Saffron Walden (it would be his constituency), and the actions of the Minister of Hous- ing in overriding his Inspector's report on the Public Inquiry, which I examined in detail on March 17, has now taken a num- ber of disquieting turns.

First, a brief recapitulation of the facts. When, in March, 1958, Major Aubrey Buxton, who farms land at Stansted, Essex, heard that there had been an application to work chalk fOr agricultural lime at a neighbouring (dis- used) pit, he spoke, concerned at the possible effect on his crops and, livestock, to the local Planning Officer. This official told him that the project 'had the backing of the Ministry of Agri- culture'; Major Buxton was subsequently relieved to hear from the then Minister (Mr. John Hare) that he had only just heard of the application and that no view one way or the other had been expressed. But at an informal meeting called locally by the Divisional Planning Officer to dis- cuss the project, a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture attended and expressed himself strongly in support of the quarrying project.

The local authority dismissed the application; the firm appealed; a public inquiry was held; and the Inspector upheld the dismissal. The Ministry of Agriculture was not represented at the inquiry. Later, the Minister of Housing overrode his Inspector's report and alloWed the application; in his letter announcing this he said he had 'con- sulted the Minister of Agriculture'—after the close of the Inquiry. Major Buxton went to court. There, the Ministry of Housing argued that the `consultation' with the Ministry of Agriculture was only a request to know whether they wanted to add anything, and they had not. The judge had reluctantly to decide against Major Buxton and his associates when the Ministry took the tech- nical point that they were not, in the strict legal sense, 'aggrieVed persons.'

The matter was then referred to the Council for Tribunals, the body set up after the Franks Report, which in turn referred it to the Lord Chancellor. Now the Lord Chancellor has given his decigion; he says that the Minister of Housing acted entirely properly, and seems to consider the matter closed. Wherein, he errs.

1. The Lord Chancellor says that the Agricul- tural Land Service Officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, who advise planning authorities on applications involving the loss of agricultural land, made no comments because no loss of agricultural land was involved.

This won't do,, Mr. Hare (Minister of Agricul- ture when the busincss started) wrote to Major Buxton saying that 'My Land Commissioner hopes to have a word with you about the implications of the proposal from your point of view and will be getting in touch with you in a day or two.' This makes it clear that matters directly affecting agriculture apart from the lime question were involved; and incidentally the Land Officer has never, to this day, been in touch with Major Buxton, despite the then Minisreirs assurance that he would do so 'in a day or two.'

2. The Lord Chancellor says, following this point, that 'there was thus no question of the attendance of any officer of the Ministry of Agriculture at the appeal inquiry.'

This will hardly do; if the possibility of chalk damaging crops and livestock in the area is not a matter in which the Ministry of Agriculture should hold at least a watching brief at an inquiry —particularly since this was the whole basis of the objectors' appearance at the inquiry—what is?

3. The Lord Chancellor says that the Minister of Housing decided to consult the Ministry of Agriculture (after he had received his Inspec- tor's report) 'mainly because it had been argued at the inquiry . . . that there would be dust which might be detrimental to crops and animals, on which point of course the expert knowledge is to be found in the Ministry of Agriculture. Their experts confirmed the view already expressed by those in the Ministry of Housing. They said that in their opinion there was unlikely to be dust nuisance .

This not only won't do at all; it presents some very disturbing questions for the Minister of Housing to answer. It was argued on his behalf in court, and he wrote specifically to Major Buxton to say, that he had consulted the Ministry of Agriculture `by asking whether they wished to add anything. Had they done so, we should of course have informed the parties to the Appeal and invited their comments; that would have been our duty. But in fact they did not wish to raise any fresh points for consideration . .

Now, it appears, the Minister of Housing con- sulted the Ministry of Agriculture because he wanted that Ministry's expert advice (which he got). Apart from the question of relative accept- ability of the expert evidence involved—the objec- tors' experts had inspected the sites, were leading authorities on the subject and were cross- examined, while the Ministry's experts are un- named, did not inspect the site and were not ques- tioned at all—it is essential to have a full explan- ation of the discrepancy between what the Minis- ter of Housing claimed (in court and by letter) he asked and received from the Ministry of Agricul- ture, and what the Lord Chancellor now declares he asked and received.

The Lord Chancellor claims that the original interest of the Ministry of Agriculture was con- fined to their proper interest in the production of chalk for agricultural lime. And the Lord Chancellor states that the Ministry of Agricul- ture's experts agreed 'with the evidence produced by the Appellants at the inquiry about production need.'

This won't even begin to do. No evidence what- ever about production need was produced by the Appellants at the inquiry. What is more, and worse, there was evidence on production need at the inquiry by the objectors. This purported to show that there was no production need; the Appellants did not contest it, let alone bring rebutting evidence, and the Inspector accepted it. The only suggestion of production need made is this case, in fact, has come from the Ministry d Agriculture. This clearly constitutes the 'fresh, factual evidence' that would have laid a duty a the Minister of Housing to consult the parties, and saps still further the Minister of Housiaee denials of consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture.

In the. Crichel Down case Ministry officials clearly thought they knew best what ought to be done, and turned out to be none too careful ie the methods they adopted to make sure it Was done. It took a long time, a lot of money, a great deal of bitter public and private wrangling,' special inquiry, the `posting' of some Ministri officials, and the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture, before the dust was laid on that busi' ness; let us hope that rather less will be necessarY in this one.

The increasingly shameful affair of the Bahraini Prisoners on St. Helena is moving towards what may prove to be its close. Fresh legal proceedings have now been set in motion; a party of lawyers for both sides, plus a judge, are to leave for St. Helena towards the end of this month, where the prisoners' application for a writ of habeas corigis should be heard about June 7.

Meanwhile, some further information has conic my way as to the conditions of the three prisonerS. The Ruler of Bahrain (who, of course, rules onlY with British support), who started this whole bitter story with his fake trial (of which the vee diet was announced before the court—of his refs' tives—was even convened), appears to be indult ing in a series of petty persecutions of the melt and their families. Last year the Bahraini authors' ties started confiscating books which the prisoners' families (incidentally, I am happy to 10 able to correct my earlier statement that Mr. Al Bakar's daughter is ill; this now turns out not 10 be the case) wished to send them—Mr. Al Bakst knows of fifteen books thus stolen already. Iss, addition, the Bahraini authorities have started; censoring the prisoners' letters to their families, literally tearing pieces out of them. And, a Oat refinement of pointless cruelty, they are now delaying letters both to and from the prisoners for anything up to three months. None of this affects the basis of the case, 01 course, which is that for well over four years three men have been imprisoned in a British, colony at the request of the tyrant who faked their trial, and that it is possible that the wroal may soon be righted.

But this depends above all on one thing. Despite the great generosity of Spectator readers in responding to the appeal for funds launchea by the Committee set up for that purpose (ay sisting of Mr. Woodrow Wyatt, MP, Mr. JcreraY Thorpe, MP, Mr. John Stonehouse, MP, Me; Donald Chesworth, LCC, and myself) a great de°' more money is needed Untnediately if the case is not to founder for sheer lack of funds. I there' fore now renew the appeal for money to be seat' payable in the case of cheques and postal orders to 'St. Helena Prisoners Defence Fund' to me at the Spectator, 99 Gower Street, London, WO' The need is great, and urgent; but what is at stake is greater and more urgent, and other things besides.