HC Deb 07 May 1833 vol 17 cc1027-31

On the Motion of Lord Althorp, his Majesty's Message brought down on May 6th, was read as follows:—


"His Majesty being desirous that an in quiry should be made into the state and condition of the woods, forests, and land revenues belonging to the Crown, in order that the same may be rendered as beneficial and productive as possible, recommends it to the House of Commons to take the subject of these revenues into their early consideration, with a view to the adoption of the most effectual means for the attainment of this important object. "W. R."

Lord Althorp

observed, that although there could be no doubt that much exaggeration had taken place with respect to the value of the woods, forests, and land revenues, belonging to the Crown, yet that it was certainly desirable that an inquiry should be made into their state and condition, with a view that they might be rendered as beneficial and productive as possible. The course which he intended to pursue was, in the first place, to move an Address to his Majesty in answer to his Majesty's most gracious message, and afterwards to propose the appointment of a Select Committee on the subject. The noble Lord concluded by moving "that an humble Address be presented to his Majesty, thanking him for his most gracious message, and assuring him that the House would take the subject into immediate consideration."

Mr. Harvey

said, he had always thought that the time of that House would be most economically and usefully employed by attending to one subject at a time. Very soon after he had become a Member of the House, he had adverted to the subject of the Crown Lands; and lour years ago had pressed the House to inquire into the real state and condition of the property in question, respecting which he had submitted to the House much information, acquired by considerable inquiry and labour. He was very glad to find that his Majesty's Government were now disposed to take up the question. He was personally glad on the occasion, because he had given notice of a Motion on the subject for next week; and he was happy, that he should be saved the trouble, and also that the time of the House would be saved. All that surprised him was, when he called to mind the surrender by his present Majesty, in the speech which he made at the commencement of his reign, of his interest in the hereditary revenues of the Crown, and of the manner in which that surrender had been dwelt upon by Ministers as a most liberal act, that two years and a half had been allowed to elapse without any step having been taken on the subject. It was, however, better late than never. There could be no doubt whatever that considerable advantage might be derived by the public from the investigation of the subject. The noble Lord thought that the value of this Crown property had been greatly exaggerated. It might be so. Where darkness was thrown over objects, it was difficult to ascertain their exact dimensions. But when he saw the magnificent establishment in Whitehall-place, when he saw the distinguished persons who presided over that department of the public service, when he saw that even the hereditary Counsellors of the Crown did not hesitate to become land-surveyors, and to cast their eyes over the royal territory and domains, he was compelled to believe that the matters to which such persons directed their attention must be of considerable importance. That the Aristocracy of the country had greatly diminished this property, since it was surrendered by the people to the Crown, in the reign of William 3rd he was quite aware. Some great families possessed at the present moment noble estates derived from it, for which they had given very trifling consideration. In truth a very small part of the revenues of the Crown lands came into the Exchequer. From the year 1794 to the year 1804, 580,000l. had been received, of which only 10,800l. had come into the Exchequer. From 1725 to 1826, 2,374,321l. had been received, of which only 8,760l. had come into the Exchequer. From the year 1826 to the year 1829, 1,500,000l. had been received, not a shilling of which had been paid into the Exchequer. If, therefore, there had been, as the noble Lord supposed, some little exaggeration in the value of these revenues, there was evidently a foundation for extensive and beneficial inquiry. When the noble Lord, the other night, had a difficulty to find five or six millions which were cut from under his feet by the partial repeal of the Malt-tax, and by the menaced repeal of the House and Window Duties, he might have found in the Crown lands an ample fund for meeting the chasm in his resources. He would only have had to go with the Act of Parliament in his hand into the Money Market, and he might have raised five or six millions on this property. There was another advantage to which this property was applicable; why not create ten or fifteen millions of notes, to be called Crown land notes, to be received and paid in taxes, but not to be convertible into gold at all? The noble Lord was about to appoint a Committee. He would not find that sufficient. Such a Committee would have to send individuals to make inquiries in every county in England, and in many counties in Ireland, and to call witnesses before them from all quarters, which it would be impossible to do without great delay and serious expense. He had no doubt that it would be found more expedient to appoint Commissions to go into every county, and find out all about this property. In the year 1786, several Commissions of this nature, composed of three or five persons each, were appointed, and made some most valuable and important reports. If those reports had been followed up, instead of the Crown property having been misapplied, it would now be worth double its present amount. What he suggested, therefore, was, the appointment of a Commission. He had paid a great deal of attention to the subject, and he was satisfied that the Crown lands might be judiciously, though gradually, converted into a sum of money that would not fall short of fifteen millions. He suggested as the best mode of facilitating the disposal of this property, that half the purchase money should remain on mortgage, at two and a half per cent. It was important entirely to get rid of the establishment attached to this property, and to the expense of the collection of its revenues, which amounted to twenty per cent. He had no doubt, if the subject were followed up as it ought, the property might be made one of outmost useful resources in time of need.

Mr. Hume

was glad that the subject was to be inquired into, and hoped it would be extended to Ireland and Scotland.

Lord Duncannon

said, it had occurred to him that the House would prefer having the question referred to a Committee in the first instance, but if a Commission were then found necessary, his Majesty's Government would not object to it. The hon. member for Colchester had stated, that large sums had come into the Treasury of the Woods and Forests, from 1826 to 1830, which had not yet been brought to the public account. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that a heavy debt had been contracted under the authority of Parliament, which must be paid before the money could be made available for other purposes. He believed the whole amount was 1,500,000l. Last year a sum of 250,000l. was paid towards it, and in the present year another 100,000l. would be appropriated to the purpose. With regard to the expense of collection the hon. Gentleman was misinformed, for it did not exceed half the sum which he had stated.

Mr. Cobbett

thought, that the Commissioners of Woods and Forests had done very wrong in wasting all this property in beautifying streets, and building houses and fine palaces in the metropolis. Of all the mistakes ever fallen into by the Government, none was greater than that of expending large sums of money on this particular spot. Instead of accumulating and adding to the crowd of idlers in London, it ought to be the object of Government to diminish the attractions of the spot. As it was, however, something was taken away from every part of the country, in order to enlarge London. The building of the Penitentiary was a most unwise measure. It cost a million of money, and a number of persons were brought up to London to assist in its erection. What he rose, however, to observe was, that as soon as possible, efforts should be made to recover Crown property which had unjustly got into other hands, in order to enable; the Treasury to take off some of the taxes. The hon. member for Colchester valued the property at 15,000,000l. He (Mr. Cobbett) was more sanguine. He had known a trifle paid for a very valuable estate. Now, they all knew that when a steward had unjustly disposed of his master's property for a small consideration the landlord's remedy was in the Court of Chancery. In the case of the Crown lands the country should have its Court of Chancery—namely, that I louse. The leases, fines, and all other circumstances ought to be strictly inquired into, and if it were found that Crown property had been sold or let for less than its value, the agreement ought to be cancelled by Parliament. Fraudulent contracts ought not to Le permitted to endure. He was born on the borders of a royal forest; and he well remembered, when he was young, that it was full of fine and lofty timber. Many thousands of acres of trees were, however, struck down, lopped, barked, and then disposed of; and it was not improbable that Government had been treated on that occasion as Lord Peterborough had been treated by his steward, who knocked down his house, sold the materials, and then brought in his Lordship a bill for repairs. There had been enough wood cut down in that forest of Holt to have supplied the Royal Navy for several years. He hoped that the hon. member for Colchester would be a member of the proposed Committee, and that the Committee would go into the consideration of the subject honestly, without any respect to persons, and with a determination that the public should have justice done them.

The Motion for an Address in answer to the Message agreed to, and a Select Committee subsequently appointed.