§ Bill considered in Committee.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Clause 7 be added to the Bill."
§ (5.14.) MR. SHAW LEFEVRE (Bradford, Central)
I desire to point out to the House that under the clause as it stood it was open to the War Office to shut up the roads over the whole of the Aldershot lands. But the Select Committee inserted very important Amendments, by which two tracks across the centre of these lands shall not be closed to the public, except during the time of of rifle practice. The effect of that will be that the War Office will not be able to fence these two tracks, and the enjoyment of roads across the Aldershot lands will be secured to the public, except during the time of rifle practice. That being so, opposition to the Bill has been disarmed.
§ (5.15.) MR. BUCHANAN (Edinburgh, W.)
There are one or two matters I should like to bring before the Committee in reference to this clause, which I think are worthy of attention. I would first of all point out that, notwithstanding the reservations that have been put into the Bill, the public rights have been seriously interfered with at Aldershot. Although it is impossible at this period of the Session to make any effective opposition to the Bill, I do not think this clause ought to pass without some notice being taken of the fact that we protest against the encroachments made by the Secretary for War on the public rights. The clause also provides for compensation for the abandonment of certain rights 379 way, but that compensation is not to the public whose pathways have been abolished, but to the owners and occupiers of the adjoining lands. I venture to say that, in the opinion of the general public and of the majority of this House, the individuals who will really suffer from the removal of the existing rights of way are not the owners and lessees of the adjoining lands who have hitherto had the right of user, which is now being so seriously restricted. I should like to ask the Secretary for War in what form it is proposed that grants of money for compensation purposes are to come before this House. Are they to be inserted in the Army Estimates or in what other form? In future, when it is proposed to grant public money for such a purpose, I think the Government will find that their proposal, if not hotly opposed, will be seriously criticised by hon. Members, and we certainly ought to be informed as to how the money is to be voted, and all the conditions of the proposed compensation. Another point is this: In Sub-section 2, Clause 7, the tribunal to which those who deem they are suffering under any grievance will have to appeal will be the Chairman of the County Council of Surrey and the Secretary for War. It is satisfactory to those who, like myself, have striven to put the control of the public rights of way into the hands of the County Councils of England and Scotland to hear that in this Government Bill the County Council is to be made a joint arbiter with regard to questions of right of way. In conclusion, I have to say that I accept, under protest and with very great reserve, the clause that has been here inserted.
§ *(5.20.) THE FINANCIAL SECRETARY TO THE WAR OFFICE (Mr. BRODRICK,) Surrey, Guildford
I am glad the hon. Member approves the tribunal that we have formed. Any compensation under the Bill will be provided in the Army Estimates, and I trust the Committee will find that the operation of the clause will prove by no means so dangerous to the neighbourhood as the hon. Member supposes.
§ Clause agreed to.
§ *(5.22.) MR. SHAW LEFEVRE
The object of the clause I have to move is to prevent the War Office from selling or 380 alienating any of the land of Alder-shot without the sanction of Parliament. A few years ago these lands at Aldershot extended over 11 square miles of common, and was subject to the ordinary common rights, being practically inalienable; that is to say, it could not be sold by the lord of the manor and could not be enclosed without the sanction of Parliament. When the War Office were authorised to purchase the rights of the lord of the manor, they asked power to buy up all the rights over the land. There were a number of old footpaths, and as long as they existed it was difficult for the War Office to deal with the ground. Since the War Office became owners of the fee of the land, and have been enabled to extinguish the commoners' rights, they have sold a number of outlying pieces of the common. There are a great many bits of outlying land which form features of great beauty to the surrounding country, and are therefore much appreciated by the public; but a considerable number of these have been sold by the War Office during the past two years. The neighbouring landowners are exceedingly anxious to get these outlying pieces, some wanting them to add to their game pre serves, others in order to get nearer to the high roads, while others may desire them with a view to speculative building. I do not think the War Office should be allowed to part with these lands without regard to the public interest; and therefore I propose this clause, under which they shall not be allowed in future to sell these outlying pieces except with the sanction of Parliament. This would practically give the public the same security which they have had in the past. The practical effect of my Amendment would be that the War Office might exchange portions of the Aldershot land for adjoining pieces where desirable for military purposes; but where they wish to sell the land outright, they will have to come to Parliament for leave to do so, just as if they had been in the position of the lord of the manor. I do not think this is asking too much of the Government, who are undoubtedly obtaining a valuable addition to their property in obtaining the right to use the land for rifle practice, which hitherto they have been prevented from doing by the existing rights of way.
381 New Clause (Secretary of State may exchange but not sell land without sanction of Parliament,)—(Mr. Shaw Lefevre,)—brought up, and read the first time.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed' "That the Clause be read a second time."
§ *(5.28.) MR. BRODRICK
I have no doubt the right hon. Gentleman has an admirable object in view in promoting this clause, but I think he will see it is one to which the Government cannot assent. I should be sorry, therefore, if he were to press the clause, as I can assure him there is no desire or intention on the part of the Government to sell any of those lands, and there is no proposal for that purpose before the War Office; but it is possible that the necessity of acquiring new land in place of some of the outlying portions of the present land may arise. The hon. Member has anticipated that possibility by providing that the Secretary of State should have power to exchange. That power does not, however, meet the case of the Government's desiring to acquire land from one owner and sell to another. To insist upon the clause would be to unduly fetter the hands of the Government, who, it must be remembered, are pressing this Bill solely in the interest of military efficiency, and not with any commercial object. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not press the clause.
§ (5.30.) MR. STUART RENDEL (Montgomeryshire)
As one of the Members of the Committee who voted in favour of the clause now proposed, I desire to say I think it would be a most unfortunate thing if the War Office were put under the necessity of carrying on a large land-jobbing business. We had it in evidence before the Committee that probably the value of the land when it first became the property of the Government was not more than £4 an acre. There is evidence that the effect of this Bill in extinguishing common rights will be to raise the value of the land to £50 an acre. It must be borne in mind that, whilst the use of the land for the specific purpose contemplated is not meant to be a use of a temporary character, future changes in the Service may render some new arrangement necessary, and the land may then have to be dealt with in some other manner. Undoubtedly, if they 382 find they have any superfluity of land the War Office will be bound to sell, and they will, perhaps, be able to sell at £200 or £300 an acre. The local public are making great sacrifices in regard to this Bill, and I think it is only fair that Parliament should be consulted before the land is dealt with in any way that has not obtained the special sanction of Parliament.
§ *(5.35.) MR. BRYCE (Aberdeen, S.)
I hope the Government will accept the Amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Stuart Rendel) has shown that this is a matter which circumstances are very likely to change. Not only may the War Office find that there is no occasion for this land, but new arrangements may be made under new conditions of rifle practice which may make it necessary for the Government to buy back land which they have already sold. If the Government do not intend to sell, as the Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Brodrick) says, there surely can be no great hardship in their accepting this Amendment. The Committee must remember that the land was originally subject to common rights, and that it could only be divested of those rights with the consent of this House. The natural thing would have been that it should revert to its prior condition in which it could not have been sold except with the authority of the House, and I do not see that any reason has been given to prevent the House from exercising that authority, considering how improvident some of the bargains made by public departments have been——
§ * MR. W. H. SMITH
I think the right hon. Gentleman is hardly justified in making statements of that kind without giving instances.
§ * MR. BRYCE
We have frequently had cases in which sales by the Woods and Forests Department were questioned in this House as being improvident. I shall take the first opportunity open to me of substantiating the remarks I have made. I make no imputations on the War Office in this matter, but, in view of the fact that imputations have been made, I think the War Office should 383 not have the opportunity of making these sales without the consent of Parliament.
§ (5.40.) MR. CONYBEARE (Cornwall, Camborne)
I think most of us on this side of the House will be able to give illustrations of the improvidence of bargains made by public departments. I myself can promise to give one with regard to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners when the time serves. I venture to support this clause, and I would point out that it was rejected in Committee simply by the casting vote of the Chairman. We all know that when a Committee is equally divided on a question it is the rule for the Chairman to give his casting vote against a new proposal. There is one important circumstance which should not be lost sight of in connection with this matter. It was stated in evidence that, in consequence of the ranges of the National Rifle Association being established at Bisley, Purbright would probably become a large centre of population. If that be so, as the rights of the neighbouring population have been so materially curtailed in respect of the great tract of land over which shooting will now take place, I think it highly important that something should be done with the view of benefiting the people in the locality. The question of using these outlying bits of land for shooting purposes does not arise in the minds of those who have inspected the plans. There is one considerable plot of land on the south-east of the main tract, and in my judgment it would be very likely to become an important site for a public park or recreation ground in view of the increased population of the district. It was in view of preserving the rights of the public, and of giving them the chance of acquiring such pieces of land for the public benefit that I voted for this clause in the Committee, and I shall vote for it again if it is pressed. Cannot the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill undertake that; in the event of any considerable plots of land being sold a right of preemption shall be given to the County Council? I do not think the objection of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Brodrick) to the clause that it would tie the hands of the War Office too much would apply to this suggestion.
§ *(5.47.) MR. W. H. SMITH
I wish to point out one effect of the proposed clause. The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down said the Local Authorities might desire to acquire some of this land. But if this clause is inserted and the Local Authorities wish to purchase half an acre of land for a school or a recreation ground or anything else they will be unable to do it. It is quite certain this clause is far too stringent in its effect, and it would be impossible for any Government to assent to it.
§ (5.48.) MR. SHAW LEFEVRE
The answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that the public enjoy this land for recreation now, and there is not the least chance of the Local Authorities desiring to buy them for these purposes. No answer has been given to my statement that the War Office may sell these bits of land. A considerable number of them have been sold in the past and no doubt will be sold in the future, although, perhaps, not by my hon. Friend (Mr. Brodrick), because he is a Surrey man, who knows the value of these lands to the public. I hope the House will assent to the Motion.
§ *(5.49.) MR. BRODRICK
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that during the four years I have been in office no pressure whatever has been brought to bear on us to sell. We have no desire to sell. We want to keep our property. But if this clause be adopted we shall be fettered as no public department is fettered.
§ (5.50.) MR. CONYBEARE
The suggestion I make is that the Local Authorities should have a voice in the disposal of this land, so that they might prevent the War Office from disposing of little bits of land which might be available for public purposes. Is it not possible to defer further consideration in order to provide a means of meeting these scruples?
§ * MR. BRODRICK
I fear the proposal of the hon. Member does not meet cases such as I have referred to, where we should possibly buy from one owner and sell to another.
§ (5.51.) COLONEL NOLAN (Galway, N.)
I think the contention advanced by the right hon. Gentleman is most reasonable, and his proposal a necessary one. We are giving the Department great power to close roads, but that I 385 think is quite right in view of the new range. But such an Amendment as this is necessary for this reason: A number of rich people have built houses in the neighbourhood where land could be had cheap, and these are people who will be quite ready to buy up pieces of land, and, being on friendly relations with the general and other officers, to make advantageous arrangements for themselves in this way. I think the hands of the Secretary for War should be tied in this way, because it may be that some Secretary for War in the future, after this land has been sold at a cheap rate, may want to buy back the land for another range, or an artillery range, or some other purpose, and then we should have to pay 10 times the price at which the land was sold. I think an Amendment such as that proposed, or in the modified shape suggested by the hon. Member for Camborne, is extremely necessary. If any hon. Member has been to Aldershot and seen the houses there, he will find they are owned by exactly that class of people who would be willing to buy up public land at a cheap rate for adding to their gardens and pleasure grounds.
§ (5.52.) MR. SHAW LEFEVRE
I understand that the Government are willing that the Local Authorities should be consulted.
§ MR. SHAW LEFEVRE
If there is a provision requiring that notice shall be given before selling, I shall be content with that as an alternative clause.
§ *(5.52.) MR. BRODRICK
It would be extremely difficult to provide by a clause for any considerable interval before selling, but there is every disposition to consider the Local Authorities in every possible way.
§ (5.53.) MR. CONYBEARE
The proposal is simply that notice of the desire on the part of the War Office to sell should be communicated to the Local Authorities, leaving to the latter the option of coming forward with an offer to acquire the land. We do not seek to have them called into council on the subject; but it is fair in such cases that, such sales of land should not be 386 conducted by private contracts behind the backs of the people. I do not, as I did in Committee, suggest that the sale should be by public auction; that might be detrimental to the public. What we want to secure is that these sales should not be simply conducted in an office by the War Department, but that the County Council or Highway Board should have the opportunity of putting itself in competition with private buyers to acquire the land for local purposes on behalf of the population generally.
§ *(5.24.) MR. W. H. SMITH
We will consider the suggestion, and, if it is possible to meet it, we will introduce an Amendment for the pnrpose in another place. Hon. Members are aware' that we have to send the Bill there, in order that it may be considered by a Select Committee. The suggestion is not an unreasonable one.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill reported without Amendment; read a third time, and passed.