HC Deb 23 May 1884 vol 288 cc1248-63

, in rising to call attention to the management of the landed property of the Crown by the various Public Departments charged therewith; and to move— That a Select Committee he appointed to inquire into the management of the Crown Lands, and the principles to be followed in selling or leasing the same said, the Resolution which he had to submit to the House was identical in terms with the Notice of Motion which the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Bryce) had given Notice of at the close of last Session. He was sure it would be a matter of regret to the House that the subject was not being brought forward now by one so competent to deal with it as his hon. and learned Friend. It was a question which had, from time to time, forced itself upon the attention of former Parliaments, and which had been invested with a fresh interest to the present Parliament by the discussions which took place last Session upon the questions of the Esher manor and the Southport foreshore. He would take for granted the proposition so clearly laid down by his right hon. Friend the Postmaster General (Mr. Fawcett), in his evidence before the Select Committee on the New Forest in 1875—namely, that— The Crown property is held by the Crown as trustee for the public, and that the House of Commons is to consider as to the best way that property can be used for the advantage of the public. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith), in moving an Address to the Crown upon the question of the Thames Embankment, used almost the same words; and when the Prime Minister challenged on technical grounds the view then laid down, the House, by a majority of 50, affirmed the proposition which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Westminster had set forth. He did not imagine that the House had gone back from that view. He might describe Crown property as of two kinds—first, property as to which the State, in its dealings, was concerned with private persons and interests, and in those dealings might claim to be governed by ordinary pecuniary and commercial considerations. But there was other property in which there was an admixture of rights and interests of a public or semi-public character; and in regard to the administration of property of this kind reference must constantly be made to higher considerations than how to extract from it the greatest possible amount of revenue. As to property of the first-mentioned description, he did not propose to raise discussion beyond saying that it appeared to him the management might with advantage be made the subject of inquiry. Representations, for instance, had been made to him with respect to the management of the mineral property of the Crown; and he had been told that the leasing of this property was now so much fettered by restrictions that mining ventures were being seriously retarded and very much prejudiced. But it was with the second description of property that he proposed to deal on that occasion. He might include within this category the Crown forests, manors, and foreshores of this country. With regard to the administration of foreshores, now happily transferred to the Board of Trade, it was a satisfaction to know they were regulated by the admirable Memorandum of the Board of November, 1867; and if the Commissioners of the Office of Woods and Forests had been guided by the enlightened considerations of the public interest embodied in that statesmanlike document, there would have been no occasion, so far as concerned that Office, for the inquiry which he now asked for. But the Woods and Forests absolutely repudiated any obligation beyond the simple regard to revenue. In illustration of this he might give various references. In Epping Forest the Crown possessed forestal rights, the due exercise of which would have gone far to prevent encroachments and secure to the Metropolis the enjoyment of the Forest; but the Office of Woods and Forests, concerning themselves merely in making the most pecuniarily of the Crown forestal rights, so used those rights that they effected rather than prevented encroachments, for they issued notices inviting encroachers to come forward and settle with the Crown. In the Report of the Select Committee there was a paragraph very like censure on the Department, for the Committee said they considered the issue of notices in 1857 inviting encroachers to purchase had acted in a way to increase the number of encroachments in the Epping Forest. In the New Forest the Crown possessed not only the forestal rights, but also the soil subject to the rights of the commoners; and the object of the management seemed to have been to minimize these common rights as far as possible. Reference was made in the Select Committee on the New Forest to a famous letter from an official surveyor, recommending the use of powers of inclosure in a manner to cheapen the rights of commoners when the time came for buying them out. The object of the Office of Woods and Forests appeared to be to get rid of the commoners somehow or other; but nothing could be stronger than the evidence given before the Committee of the great value of these commonable rights, not only in securing an independent body of labourers, but in also preserving a very valuable class of small freeholders. The First Commissioner of Works, who was a great authority on this question, referred to the subject in a speech he delivered at Reading in the Autumn; and the right hon. Gentleman had pointed out the great injury done by the process of indiscriminate inclosure to the agricultural labourer, and to that most valuable class, the English yeoman. It might be said that he had been alluding to cases that had occurred 10 or 20 years ago, and that public opinion had advanced since then, and that the views of the Department of Woods and Forests had advanced also. There was, however, no evidence that that Department had advanced, its policy, apparently, being unchanged and unchangeable. The case of the Esher and Bagshot Commons was last year brought under the notice of Parliament by the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Bryce). The Crown had gold the estate of Claremont, a perfectly proper proceeding; but they also sold the manorial rights over the common of Esher; and his hon. Friend pointed out the dangers to which the common might be exposed by that sale. That danger was nearer than his hon. Friend imagined, for it shortly afterwards came to the notice of the Commons Preservation Society that a small inclosure was being carried out by the owner of property abutting on the common. Representations were made by the Society, and in the result an equivalent bit of land was thrown into the common. It was a trifling quantity of ground, not more than a quarter of an acre; but size did not affect the principle, and it was through these small encroachments that our commons were rapidly disappearing. It was a defence made by the Secretary to the Treasury that it was the duty of the Department to look to the revenue, and that they could not forego, in the interest of the locality, an amount of profit to be made for the nation at large; but if they went on sacrificing one local interest after another, how much, in the end, would there be left of the aggregate interest of the public at large? Another instance had recently occurred in the sale of Crown waste land in Anglesea at a nominal price. The purchaser inclosed it. The Woods and Forests sold the land, of course, subject to the common rights; but the commoners had a right to complain that, by the sale without any guarantee for their rights, they were left pretty much at the mercy of the incloser, and could only defend their rights by costly litigation. Another case was the sale of property in the parish of St. James's, in Little Pulteney Street, which had recently attracted some attention. On the expiration of the subsisting leases an area that had been densely occupied by some 500 persons, mostly of the poorer classes, was cleared for the erection of new buildings; and the Vestry of St. James's, seeing the favourable opportunity which that clearance would afford for providing suitable dwellings for the families of workmen, entered into communication with the Office of Woods and Forests. The incumbent of the neighbouring parish of St. Peter seconded the action of the Vestry in a matter so vitally affecting the welfare of the parishioners. The Crown officials appeared to approve the views of the Vestry; and subsequent communications with the Department warranted the Vestry in concluding that arrangements were being made with one of the artizans' dwellings companies; but it afterwards oozed out that the ground had been actually let in great part to a person who had been in private negotiation with the Office, and who had been five times convicted of serious offences in respect to the sanitary condition of property belonging to him in the district. There had been no competition for the site in question, either by public auction or tender by contract. This was contrary to the recommendation of a Select Committee upon Crown Lands which had sat in 1834, and had recommended that there should always be a public auction, except in cases where it was obviously inconvenient or unfair. There was another branch of the subject to which he would call the attention of the House—namely, the administration of the Duchy of Lancaster, as instanced in the case of the foreshore at Southport. The offer which the Corporation of the town made for the purchase of the foreshore, though fully equal to, if not better than that of lords of the manor, was rejected in favour of the latter. The news of the sale to the lords of the manor was received with general dissatisfaction throughout Lancashire; and the great Corporations of Manchester, Salford, Birmingham, Derby, Brighton, and many other local Governing Bodies memorialized the Prime Minister, deprecating the injury which had been done to Southport by the alienation of its foreshore into private hands. The Chancellor of the Duchy, replying to a Question put by him (Mr. Cheetham) in the House at the close of last Session, said that the Memorialists must have been under some misapprehension as to the facts, and that there was a dispute as to title between the Duchy and the lords of the manor. He was not aware that there had been any previous dispute; but the question of title was really beside the question, because the Corporation of Southport in their offer had undertaken to accept the title, and to be at the sole cost of its defence and maintenance. The Papers laid before Parliament had sufficiently proved the injustice done to Southport. It was, however, found impossible to undo what had been done in the matter. The agreement with the lords of the manor was binding, and could not be set aside. He was able to gay that the people of Southport had accepted the settlement proposed by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with the greatest possible reluctance, and only as the lesser of two evils. They were of opinion that if the public property in the foreshore was to be disposed of at all, the rightful recipients could alone have been the Corporation, as the local representative of the public interest. They considered it a great hardship that they should be denied possession of more than one-fourth part of their own foreshore, and that for the price of that fraction they should have been assessed—he might rather say mulcted—in a value which was really the product of their own enterprize, and of the immense outlay they had made in seeking to render their town the most attractive resort in Lancashire. But for their great outlay those barren sands would hare had little or no commercial value. He considered that the action of a responsible Department of the State, resulting in consequences such as these, could only rightly be characterized as a serious miscarriage of public justice and a grave error of public policy. He was persuaded the instances he had adduced afforded sufficient evidence of the failure of some of the Departments charged with the administration of the public property of the Crown to have due regard to the public interest, and of the need of that Parliamentary inquiry for which he had now the honour to move.


said, that in seconding the Motion he should deal with certain special points only with which he was personally acquainted. Before he dealt with those points he would call the attention of the House to the history of the Civil List as dependent upon the Crown lands. On the accession of Anne an Act was passed that prohibited all grants from the Crown except for short terms. At that date the income derivable from the land revenues of the Crown was only about £10,000. Although no Commissioners were appointed for dealing with Crown lands, this Act was worthy of notice as an illustration of the right of Parliament to step in and interfere with the absolute right of the Sovereign to deal as he pleased with the Crown lands. It was also the first record in legislation that the Crown was only the life tenant of a property of which the nation were the trustees, and were to insist that the lands should be managed so as to make the largest profit out of them. On the accession of George III., the revenues were handed over to the State, and a Civil List was provided. It was not until 1794, when leases began to fall in, that any large increase in value began. From that date, however, up to 1829, a very rapid increase occurred—namely, from £20,000 per annum to £172,700 per annum. In 1850 the income had risen to £205,700, and at the present day it amounted to £380,000. The point which he would bring before the House in regard to these facts was the manner in which the Commissioners of Crown lands were, in the time of George III., the champions of Parliamentary rights. They appeared then as the servants of the Crown, not as against the rights of the commoners, but they had to main- tain the principle that the Crown was not an absolute owner. It was a question whether the Treasury was bound to accept the high and dry principle of being a trustee to the Heir Apparent to the Crown, though they had often acted on that principle. Mr. Howard, the Chief Commissioner of Woods from 1850 to 1881, said, in reply to a question in a Parliamentary Committee of 1875— "We want to get as much as we can out of the forest." On the other hand, Sir Thomas Farrer, in an official Minute on the question of foreshores, admitted that a great deal of the prejudice which existed upon the subject of leasing or selling the foreshore arose from the fact that the Office of Woods had been bound to get the best possible price, and it was not unnaturally alleged that they had been ready to sacrifice important public rights if they could only get high prices. If these were the principles upon which the Crown was bound to act, the case of his hon. Friend in moving for a Select Committee was clearly proved. The law could be placed into more harmony with public policy. But he regretted to say that the danger under the existing state of things was not an imaginary one. Last Session a Crown Lands Bill was brought forward which, by Clauses 7 and 8, made provision for the compulsory purchase and extinguishment by the Crown of the fuel rights in the New Forest, and by Clause 4 extended the power of the Crown to dispose by lease of the public rights over the foreshores of the United Kingdom. Although the Crown, upon a technical plea to the Petition being presented too late, refused to hear the Petitioners against the Bill, who were to be compulsorily deprived of their rights, public opinion induced the Treasury to strike out the fuel right clauses, and the Bill as amended this Session was without those encroachments; but it asked for powers to lease common land for roads. In 1877 an effectual stop was put upon further inclosures. But before a Resolution in that direction, proposed by the Postmaster General (Mr. Fawcett), was passed in 1871, 4,000 acres of perhaps the most beautiful natural woodland scenery in the world was cut down. Great stress had been laid upon the difficulty of providing for the fuel rights of the commoners, because it necessitated an injurious interference with the timber; but this was absolutely untrue. The area for the supply of fuel rights comprised, according to the Report of Her Majesty's Commissioners of Woods, 1871, at least 8,500 acres of disinclosed plantation not ornamental, and 5,000 acres of wild woodland to supply annually less than 400 loads. Fuel wood was annually sold by the Crown which would more than suffice for the supply of the fuel owners. Upon a very careful analysis of figures extending over 30 years, he found that the proportion of the fuel wood, as compared with the annual sales of wood of all sorts in the Forest, was as one to 68. One of the most interesting features in the New Forest was the history of the commoners. He could not speak with statistical certainty; but, so far as he could gather from various computations, there were about 900 owners of common rights in the New Forest. The theory, the official theory which pervaded Whitehall and its underlings, that the Crown ought to make the most out of the Forest, was one which was opposed to the rights of these people. He congratulated the President of the Board of Trade upon having spoken out against the policy pursued in the past of robbing the poor of their rights in commons. The earliest record that he could find of Parliamentary interference with the commoners was in 1698. An Act was then passed to inclose a portion of the wastes for the growth of ship timber, whereupon the commoners petitioned against the Bill, in which they described the Forest as immemorially "a great nursery for breeding cattle." The effect of this Petition was to obtain an insertion in the Act to the effect that that land only should be inclosed which could be best spared from the commons and high ways. The Crown had endeavoured to substitute the view of the New Forest being a nursery for ship timber to the exclusion of the view of its being a nursery for breeding cattle. He might be told by the Secretary to the Treasury that the rights of the commoners were respected, and that the Office of Works did not intend to deprive them of their rights. They knew perfectly well what all that meant, and they were not to be lulled into confidence by official assurances. The fact was, the rights of the commoners were, in spite of any legislation, in spite of any assurances to the contrary, being insidiously encroached upon. The old policy of diminishing the rights of the commoners in order to increase the value of the Crown's interest was as active as ever; and if it was not as successful as it had been, it was only because Parliament had placed more obstacles in the way. There was a very insidious form of encroachment going on, which was that of leaving Scotch firs that were planted as nurses on the outside of the inclosure plantations to self-sow the waste. By that process whole wastes of good pasturage to the commoners were being gradually covered with Scotch firs, to the exclusive interest of the Crown, to whom the timber belonged. An unanswerable argument against any policy of interfering with this system of rural economy was not merely the value of the system on public grounds, but the fact that commutation of common rights was not compensation. The Clerk of the Ringwood Guardians stated, before the Committee of 1875— To a fair specimen of the industrious forest labourer forest rights are invaluable; and, as many are owners of their little freeholds, any action with the most liberal compensation would be a serious blow to their present prosperity. Moreover, you could not appreciate the value of a commoner's rights; and, if you could, compensation to the owner would be no compensation to the tenant, and the value of these rights was greater to the tenant than to the owner, and to one tenant than another. According to the seasons, one might profit more and another less in proportion to circumstances and individuality. It might be possible in some cases to commute fairly the common rights to a commoner for his life; but the man was bribed by money down to part with the secret of his thrift, and to sell the birthright of his successor. There were over 500 commoners owning less than 10 acres. Mr. Esdaile said he had not found one small commoner who would willingly agree to be compensated for the right he had. On the question of foreshores, the traditions of the Board of Trade were far more liberal than had been those of the Office of Woods and Forests; and Sir Thomas Farrer's Memorandum was animated by a wise responsibility for the interests of the nation; but the Board of Trade was placed at a disadvantage by the state of the law. Where there were local Acts it could not enforce public rights. Sir Thomas Farrer re- commended, in 1867, that a Bill, or Bills, should be brought in— To enable the Board of Trade more effectually and summarily to protect navigation and other public interests, to give the Board express powers to compromise disputed titles to the soil on the footing of reserving the rights and enjoyments of the public, and to enable the Board of Trade to deal more liberally with the title of the Crown in the case of works of public utility. These recommendations had never been acted upon. The state of the law, as regarded foreshores, remained the same as it did in 1867. Since then the importance of maintaining the rights of the nation in its foreshores had increased, and it was increasing. At present the public had the advantage of being served by so public-spirited a public servant as Sir Thomas Farrer; but he complained of the state of the law as prejudicial to an intelligent policy. The nation should not rest satisfied with the happy accident of so vital a matter being intrusted to reliable hands. Prudence demands that it should legalize, and render it impossible in the future, to abuse the present traditions of the Board of Trade. His hon. Friend made a very moderate request. All he asked for was investigation, and that, he hoped, the House would grant.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the management of the Crown Lands, and the principles to be followed in selling or leasing the same,"—(Mr. Chectham,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he desired to direct attention to an aspect of the administration of our Crown lands which had been overlooked in this discussion — namely, the development of small occupancies and small ownerships, or what might be described as peasant holdings and peasant proprietorships. Those who had carefully watched public opinion during the last year or two must have been struck by the feeling evinced among the masses, and especially the working-class population, in favour of a change in the land system of the country. He doubted whether Members of that House were aware of the deep and growing dissatisfaction which prevailed, and which might at some future time assume volcanic forms unless it were dealt with by wise legislation. It was quite true that the movement originated by Mr. George had, to some extent, subsided, and that his revolutionary measures had been so exposed as to have lost their hold upon the public; but still there was a residue of strong dissatisfaction, which might give us trouble in future. There was an increasing tendency to the consolidation of holdings in large farms, accompanied by a steady decrease in the rural population. To some extent those tendencies arose from causes which legislation could not remedy, such as the increase in the price of meat and the decrease in the value of cereals, which led to the extended laying down of pasture; but he believed it was beginning to be recognized that the system of large farms in this country had been carried much too far even upon economical grounds. He believed that many proprietors would gladly return to the system of small holdings if they had capital enough to provide the requisite farm buildings. The Crown had in its hands a large property which it might experiment upon in the interests of the nation; and he strongly recommended that, instead of letting these Crown lands in farms of 500 to 1,000 acres or thereabouts, the Commissioners intrusted with the management of them should steadily keep in view the importance of making an experiment in the direction of small holdings. He believed there existed in the country a demand for these small holdings which ought to be gratified in a legitimate manner. The peasantry suffered much from the want of stepping-stones towards improving their social condition; this was due, to some extent, to causes that were beyond legislation. There was a great gulf between the farmer and the agricultural labourer, and the Crown lands might be let out so as to be a ladder from one class to the other, and as a means of furnishing the stimulus of hope to the class that most required it. It was most desirable to give facilities to the rural labourers to obtain small holdings, and, when possible, to become peasant proprietors. The example of France and Belgium showed that peasant proprietorship encouraged thrift and industry; and although he could not hope that our institutions should be framed upon that model, it was earnestly to be wished that the number of peasant owners and cultivators should be largely increased. He looked forward with considerable apprehension to what England would become if present tendencies continued to develop. England would consist of a large number of huge overgrown cities, while the rural part of the country would become deserted. There was serious danger that the present drift of things might lead to a widespread agitation of a Communistic character. He thought, therefore, an endeavour should be made to arrest this dangerous tendency. It might be said that the Crown lands, after all, represented only a few hundred thousand acres, and even if they were all cut up into email holdings of 10 acres each they would not make up more than 30,000 or 40,000 holdings; but he believed if the example were once set by this public Department its advantages would speedily be seen, and it would be imitated. In his opinion no better use could be made of Crown lands—in part, at least—than to sell them in small parcels, and to apply the money so obtained to the diminution of the National Debt. He believed that proprietors of land were finding out that it was a mistake to expose land for sale in largo lots. It was within his own knowledge that land which was sold in parcels of six or eight or 10 acres brought a much higher price than when it was sold in large blocks of 1,000 acres or more. He gladly supported the Motion.


supported the Motion, and wished to draw particular attention to the River Tees, which was exempted from the Act of 1866 relating to foreshores, and where there was a vast quantity of reclaimable land capable of high cultivation. In order that this matter might be investigated, he trusted that the Government would consent to the Motion of his hon. Friend.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,


said, that while he admitted that the subject was a very fit one for discussion, he had not heard any arguments which convinced him of the necessity or expediency of appointing a Select Committee. He was willing to accept the principle that the Crown held these lands as trustees for the nation; and he did not find that the manner in which they were at present administered was at all at variance with that principle. The technical legal position was that these lands had been relinquished by the Crown during the life of the Sovereign in exchange for a Civil List, and the power of the Government over these lands was limited to this lifetime; but he was bound to say he did not lay much stress on the technical argument. At the same time, to deal with that property in such a manner as had been suggested by the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. S. Smith) would involve very great changes; and it was impossible to approach such a proposal without recognizing that, if adopted, it would altogether change the relations between the Crown and the nation. It was true the Commissioners of Woods and Forests held the property as trustees for public purposes; but he would ask what was the meaning of the words "public purposes?" He felt that the issue turned upon that. Were they to understand that the Commissioners were to administer the land solely in the interests of the persons who resided in the immediate vicinity of the Crown lands? He said last year, and he repeated it now, that the Commissioners held this property for the benefit of the nation at large, and that their first duty was to administer it in the interests of the nation at large, though not without paying due regard to the advantage of the persons who lived in the immediate neighbourhood of the property. The national property was most unevenly distributed; and if they were to disregard the interests of the nation at large, and to prefer those of the particular persons who lived in the neighbourhood of the national property, they would administer what was a great national fund upon a haphazard principle. His hon. Friend the Member for North Derbyshire (Mr. Cheetham), in his criticisms on the administration of the Crown lands, had referred to three matters—namely, the Crown interests, the manors, and the foreshores. To the latter he need not allude, as they were administered by the Board of Trade. His hon. Friend praised the policy and action of the Board of Trade; yet it was remarkable that the noble Lord, who seconded the Motion, persistently opposed a Bill now before the House because it was designed, among other objects, for the purpose of strengthening and confirming the power of that Board in respect of their administration. With regard to the Manor of Esher, he might remind the House that he spoke on that subject last year. The reversion of the manor was held by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, who sold it to the Crown, and the claim of the hon. Member for North Derbyshire went to this extent—that whenever the Crown happened to be possessed of a manor it should not sell it at all. It was impossible for the Crown to sell a manor and yet to reserve to itself the whole control over it, and the property sold would pass to the new proprietor without derogation in any respect of the rights of the commoners. Reference had been made by his hon. Friend to the case of a piece of Crown land situated in the parish of St. James's being let to a person in the neighbourhood, who had been summoned four or five times before the magistrate at Marlborough Street, in consequence of his property being in such a bad condition. According to the person's own statement, however, he had been summoned at his own instance, in order to oust those who had got hold of the fag ends of his leases, and over whom he had no control. It had been further objected that this transaction with this person had been made secretly behind the back of the Vestry; but the fact was that those who were responsible for the management of the Crown property felt themselves called upon to give a preemption to those who had been tenants of the Crown on the land cleared, and this person had been for many years a respectable tenant of the Crown on this particular property. He regretted, however, that the whole matter had not been fully inquired into before this particular lease was granted. As to Epping Forest, the grave fault committed some 16 years ago was that the rights of the Crown were given up too readily for a nominal consideration; but that had now been remedied. As to the New Forest, he believed that the action of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests was governed by a desire to preserve the forest character in its entirety. On the whole, he did not think that the cases which had been brought forward would justify the appointment of a Committee. He doubted very much whether the Crown lands could well be utilized for the purpose of developing peasant proprietorship on a large scale. It would involve a large expenditure with an uncertain return to break up land to let it in small plots in the fashion advocated. Still, the sale of land in small plots might be carried on with advantage in some localities. A suggestion had been made some time ago that part of Delamere Forest might be broken up in this way, and the Commissioners of Woods and Forests had been quite willing that the experiment should be tried; but no one had ever made a practical offer to put the experiment in motion. On the whole, no sufficient case had been made out for a Select Committee, and he hoped it would not be granted.


said, that vague general statements were not enough; general principles required to be considered in and tested by their application to some particular cases. Those who were in favour of the appointment of a Select Committee by no means contended that the interests of localities were mainly to be regarded. What they did contend was that the Treasury and the Commissioners of Woods and Forests had, in their management of Crown lands, shown no adequate consideration for the interests of the public. Two years ago they sold the reversion of the Manor of Esher, and for £1,000 they put it in the power of the private purchaser to inclose and to destroy the rights and interests not only of the commoners, but of all the people of London. He maintained that the hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the Treasury had misrepresented or misconceived the contention of the hon. Member for North Derbyshire (Mr. Cheetham), and had failed to meet the instances brought forward; so he hoped the House would agree to grant a Select Committee.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at a quarter after Eleven o'clock till Monday next.