HC Deb 19 June 1865 vol 180 cc478-84

(7.) Question again proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £20,482, be granted to Her Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1866, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of Woods, Forests, and Land Revenues.


said, it was now seven years since he brought under the notice of the House the extravagant expenditure incurred by the Office of Woods in converting 2,000 acres of Hainault Forest into a farm. The cost of doing so was £67,000, and the rent realized was little more than interest on this outlay, so that the fee simple went for nothing, while the public were for ever excluded from such rights as they had before enjoyed over this part of Epping Forest. During the last ten years, however, the revenue of the Crown estates had been steadily increasing, the gross receipts having risen in that period nearly 30 per cent. But one branch of the Crown estates, the Royal forests, presented a very different result. The net revenue, which in 1854 was £13,448, had fallen in 1864 to £7,090. Possibly some part of this was due to the conversion of forest land into farms, but still the fact remained that from some 120,000 acres of land, chiefly in the southern counties, the net rental realized was little over 1s. an acre. The original object for which these forests were maintained—the production of navy timber—no longer existed, partly from the substitution of iron in the construction of our ships, and also because we could now import from other countries better and cheaper oak—required principally for"knees"—than we could produce at home. This pretext, therefore, for maintaining in some of our finest counties a dreary waste in the midst of the civilization of the nineteenth century was gone. The time had come to alter the system and to turn to better account, alike in the interests of the Crown and the country, these extensive tracts of unimproved land, In Hampshire alone the Royal forests exceeded 70,000 acres in extent. When Aldershot was chosen for a camp the War Office had to purchase the land at a high price, not knowing that the Crown forest of Woolmer was within a few miles of it, yielding not a shilling of revenue, and better adapted for the purpose of a camp, being on the high road from London to Portsmouth, now touched by the Direct Portsmouth line of railway, and having the advantage of a plentiful supply of water. Since then it had been found necessary to have a subsidiary camp at Woolmer. Then, there was the New Forest, a wild and picturesque tract of upwards of 60,000 acres, in South Hants, but yielding little more than £5,000 a year. About twelve years ago the Duke of Somerset, then Commissioner of Woods, directed inquiries into the matter, and an Act was passed for the removal of the deer, in lieu of which the Crown obtained leave to enclose 10,000 acres for plantations. A Commission was appointed to ascertain the extent and value of the common rights, but all further progress seemed to have stopped when Mr. Kennedy ceased to be one of the Commissioners of Woods. Enough was ascertained to show that no improvement could be effected until these common rights were dealt with. One was the right of cutting turf for fuel, claimed to an extent which had been computed to be equal to the scalping the surface from 300 acres annually, a process which in the course of time had already most seriously injured the agricultural value of the forest. The whole tract was traversed by the South Western Railway, it was within a short distance of the sea, and was healthy and picturesque, and in a favourite neighbourhood for residental occupation. Some of the land was good, and highly improve-able. The fee simple of the land and the timber upon it were valued some years ago by the Crown Surveyor at upwards of two millions sterling, and the common rights had been estimated to be worth about £100,000. There seemed to be the elements of a great improvement. If the common rights were ascertained and extinguished either by allotment or purchase, and the remainder dealt with as a property in fee simple, great advantages would be obtained. Let it be offered for sale in moderate-sized estates, and in a few years, instead of an uncultivated waste, that country would be covered with houses and enclosures, affording food and wages to a well employed population. Instead of £5,000 a year, the present net income, the income of the capital realized by the sale, at the surveyors' estimate, would add £70,000 a year to the Crown revenues. This country was too small to admit of the continuance of so large a tract of wild land within two hours of the metropolis. The time had come when it should be dealt with, and every interest could not be otherwise than benefited by such a change. He wished also to say a word or two on the system of payment by commission of surveyors and receivers. This matter he touched upon some years since, and it was then admitted by the Secretary of the Treasury that the surveyor received from (he office upwards of £10,000 a year. [Mr. PEEL: £8,000.] This charge formed a deduction from the revenue, and did not appear in the Vote, hut he believed that it continued nearly as great as it was then. The charge for similar duties for the Ecclesiastical Commission appeared last year to have exceeded £30,000, so that the Woods and Forests were not the only public Department which suffered from this monstrous system. An architect possessed of eminent talent might fairly claim to be paid largely for that talent; but a land surveyor, though a very useful, was by no means a very high class professional man, and nothing but habit and excessive negligence could permit such men, however respectable, to be paid sums for their services far exceeding the salaries of our highest functionaries, and beyond the earnings of the most eminent professional men in this country. The Office of Woods and Forests ought to have within itself a competent salaried officer, adequately paid, and responsible for his valuation and advice, and he trusted that the Treasury would stir themselves in the matter and put an end to a system which was quite indefensible.


said, he wished to draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that within his own knowledge in-closures had been made in Epping and other forests by the lords of the manors without a shadow of title, and that the Office of Woods and Forests when called on to resist these encroachments and to protect the public rights had neglected their duties.


said, that when this Vote was last under the consideration of the House attention was called to the proceedings of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests in respect to the management of Epping Forest, He regretted that the Committee on open spaces, by whom the subject was being considered, had not yet been able to make their Report, It would be unfortunate to discuss a matter of such gravity and importance in anticipation of that Report. It would, therefore, be better to allow the Vote to pass, and to abstain from what must necessarily be a partial and imperfect consideration of the subject.


said, he believed that the best plan would be to allow the Vote to pass without discussion, but he still hoped that some supervision in the case of these in-closures would be exercised by the First Commissioner of Woods and Forests. By these encroachments, not only were the public deprived of their rights, but the Crown also lost the value of property to which it was clearly entitled.


desired to state a fact which had come under his knowledge with reference to the inclosure of Wimbledon Common. The Crown had set up rights over this manor. It would be remembered by the House that a Bill upon this subject to define the rights was introduced early in the Session, and that Earl Spencer was much abused for interfering, as was thought by many, with the public rights. The Bill was to inclose the common, reserving to the public a certain space. It was deemed advisable to withdraw that Bill, but since that time Earl Spencer had been offered for the rights, the existence of which some people altogether denied, the sum of £100,000. That placed the public in an awkward position, because, if Earl Spencer accepted an offer, which certainly was a very tempting one, the public would have to contend with a large and powerful company. Earl Spencer knew that he was possessed of extensive rights, and that life was uncertain. He wanted, therefore, at once to secure to the public the enjoyment of a large open space, reserving to himself only certain rights.


said, he must rise to order. If the discussion upon the subject of Wimbledon Common were to be continued, he should have to refer to the evidence taken before the Committee. He should be sorry to have to go into the other side of the question.


said, that it was not a question of evidence but of fact, which had come out since the sitting of the Committee. He simply desired to show that a large and tempting offer had been made for rights which were supposed not to be in existence. He believed if such an offer were made to trustees they would be bound to accept it.


said, he believed that Earl Spencer had sold one-half the common without any title at all.


said, he agreed with those who thought that, the Committee not having reported, it would be inconvenient to go into the question of alleged neglect of duty in not preventing encroachments. He would only say that it had not been shown that the Commissioners of Woods were responsible for the course taken. They had acted as they were advised by the Law Advisers of the Crown, to whom they had referred in every case; and although it was true that the Committee had recommended that no further sales of forest rights should take place, it should also be remembered that there was a second course open, and that was too rigidly to maintain those rights and defend them regardless of expense. He did not believe that these rights were lost because the parties had encroached upon them for any particular period. The reason the hon. Member (Mr. Caird) had given for the new mode he recommended of dealing with these forests was that the present system was not productive of sufficient revenue, and that by adopting his course a much larger revenue could be obtained. Now, what was the expense and income of these forests? The expense was not so much as had been stated. There were 100,000 acres subject to very extensive common rights. When the land was planted and the plantations were enclosed, the common rights were excluded. The planting and enclosing took place under special Acts of Parliament, and if the planting had taken place one hundred years ago, no doubt the revenue derived would be sufficiently large to satisfy the hon. Member; but the Acts were not passed more than sixty years ago. The Commissioners were, therefore, in the position of having a growth of timber not yet arrived at maturity. The only receipts, therefore, that could be obtained from these forests until the timber arrived at maturity were from the thinnings of the plantations. Some years ago the thinnings were more extensive than at present, and the receipts were therefore larger. There had also been a considerable fall of timber. In the course of the last ten years the gross receipts from these forests amounted to £508,000, and after meeting all expenses the net payment into the Exchequer was £270,000, or at the rate of £27,000 a year, or about 10s. an acre on planted land. With regard to the proposal of the hon. Member, there were only two forests to which it was applicable—Dean Forest and New Forest. The former was a most valuable mineral property, where the revenue was about £11,000 per annum and was rising year by year. The whole of the New Forest was subject to common rights, which had been ascertained to attach to upwards of 1,000 properties. With regard to his at forestation and enclosure, considering the number of parties entitled to common rights, it was impossible for the Crown to take any step without their concurrence. But if they were desirous that the forests should be enclosed, he was not aware that the Crown would offer any opposition.


said, he was rather surprised at what had been stated by the right hon. Gentleman as to the age of the forests. The Royal forests had been in existence since the days of William the Conqueror; and for many years past, down to recent times, there had been large falls of oak for the purposes of the navy. In Nelson's time the New Forest was largely used for the growth of timber for the Royal Navy. The question was whether it was right to maintain these large tracts of land for a purpose that was no longer necessary. There were extensive tracts of land perfectly open, where there was no timber whatever, where the common rights were of extremely little value; and the proper course would be to extinguish those common rights and convert the land to purposes beneficial to the Crown, the commoners, and the public. There was a great deal of desolate country perfectly capable of profitable conversion into smiling fields and homesteads.


said, he must express a hope that as the House had decided that these rights should not be sold the Commissioners would not allow people to steal them. The last time the question was discussed the right hon. Gentleman seemed to think that those rights were of no value, and that anybody ought to be allowed to run away with them. Now, the House were trustees on the part of the Crown, and if they did not like to convert the right into money they ought to keep other people from robbery. It appeared that because the Woods and Forests were stopped from selling, they became, to use a vulgar phrase, "awkward," and would not allow the people to enjoy the rights which they had hitherto exercised in these forests.

Question put, and agreed to.

Vote agreed to.