HC Deb 29 May 1913 vol 53 cc459-64

I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."


The question I want to raise has particular application to Question 77 on to-day's Paper, which is as follows:— To ask the Secretary of State for War if he will state bow much the War Office paid for the Dreghorn estate; what is its extent; what purposes it is to be put to; and how much it was rated at. The right hon. Gentleman was unable to give the information asked for. This estate is within four miles of the centre of the city of Edinburgh and is adjacent to the Dreghorn barracks, which are in process of erection by the War Office. The estate is an historic one. It is connected with the Covenanting life of Scotland. It is also connected in many ways with the literary life of Scotland. In addition to these two attractions, it is one of the most beautiful spots in the immediate vicinity of Edinburgh. It includes a mansion which was erected by the master of works to Charles II. It includes a glen which is perhaps one of the most beautiful spots in Scotland, it contains a large farm, and also 100 acres of woodland, and what we want to know is the purpose to which the War Office is going to devote the estate. It is rumoured that the purpose for which it has been bought is to form rifle ranges. We in Scotland have no objection at all to the development of the War Office arrangements in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh or in any other part of Scotland, but one would like to know whether those amenities will be preserved to the people of Edinburgh. I should like an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that that will be so. I should like to know also whether the War Office alone are engaged in this transaction—whether or not another Department of Government have their eye on a certain portion of the estate. I have heard it rumoured that it was intended that the Board of Agriculture should have that portion of the estate which is covered with wood. That is an important point to those who represent Edinburgh, because the question of forestry schools is still under discussion, and it probably depends on the accessibility of areas of that kind whether or not forestry schools may be established in Edinburgh University or one of the other universities. I think we are entitled to know the purchase price of this estate. I cannot understand why this House should not be told what amount the War Office are paying for this estate. I do not know why we should not be told the amount of money this estate is paying in rates now. We have a lively recollection of the money already expended by the War Office and the Admiralty in the purchase of land. A place on the Clyde was bought at 200 years' purchase. [An HON. MEMBER: "Two thousand."] If it was 2,000, it makes the case very much worse. If that was so, we do not understand why a similar occurrence should take place. I think it is intelligent that we should know before any harm is done, rather than that we should be told afterwards that the thing has been done and cannot be avoided.


In a former case when a question was asked, the answer was that it was not in the public interest to give the information asked for. I can hardly conceive how it is not in the public interest to give information on such a point as whether the public are to continue to have access to certain parts of the estate. As I understood, it was said to be undesirable to state the price paid for estates, because negotiations may be in progress with regard to the purchase of other estates. That is a mistaken view of the public interest. It is said that the information will be given to the Public Accounts Committee, but that will not happen for two years, when it will be utterly impossible to exercise any check upon the transaction or create any public interest with regard to it. In view of the previous transactions, what is most desirable in the public interest is that the people of the country should know when land is required for public purposes what is the attitude which the landowners take up. They lead us to believe that they take a patriotic interest in the affairs of the country. The experience at Rosyth, and the experience of the other estate where 2,600 years' purchase was given for land, shows that their attitude is that the nation's need is the landlord's opportunity. The greater the need of the nation the greater the demand of the landlord. Apparently we have now reached this stage, that the demand made on this occasion is so great that the War Office, requiring the land for public purposes, is compelled to pay a price which is so high that it is afraid to disclose it, because of the rapacity of landowners, when it would be necessary to negotiate for the purchase of other land. I suggest that there should not be two values for land. In the transaction of landowners with the nation the price at which land is rated should be the price at which the nation is entitled to buy the land when the nation requires land for public purposes. That is a reform which cannot be long delayed if the Liberal party is to attack this problem. The House is entitled to be informed in a transaction of this kind what is the price paid for the site and what is the rateable value, so that we may be possessed of that information and able to act upon it in the efforts which we make to secure an alteration in the law with regard to the purchase of land for public purposes. I hope that, in view of these considerations, the hon. Gentleman will reconsider the attitude which he took up this afternoon, and give the House the information which was asked for.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Tennant)

So far as the purpose for which the land is being purchased is concerned I may inform the hon. Member for Edinburgh that we do propose to make a rifle-range of considerable size, and to have not only a rifle range, but a long range for big guns as well on this estate. It is also intended to put the estate to use as a training ground. I am sorry that I did not tell the hon. Member this at Question Time, but I thought that his question was principally directed towards obtaining the information with regard to the purchase price, and I stated that I did not consider it in the public interest that that information should be given to the public. I am sure that the hon. Member will acquit me of any desire to be otherwise than courteous to the House. My first reason is that this purchase is not yet completed. That is a very good reason in itself, but I go further. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, speaking not a quarter of an hour ago, said it was highly undesirable that this House should become an executive body constituted for such a character, and I so far agree with that that I venture to say that I think it highly undesirable for a great Department of the State to consult this House in the process of negotiations, with matters of great delicacy of this kind, because it invariably must render the price which the public have to pay for the article which is needed for the public service all the higher. I would ask this further question. Supposing the landlord, who is not a popular person in that quarter of the House happened to possess other portions of land, and we at the War Office happened to purchase this estate at a very fair price—it is an extraordinarily good price in this instance—it would not be fair to the owner to divulge the price, and it would operate to his disadvantage in the other case which I have in mind, where a public Department itself is desirous of acquiring more land in the vicinity. The more my hon. Friend thinks over the matter the more he will become seized with that point. I think the hon. Member is in error in supposing that this property has been used by the public in the past. That is not the case. It has been absolutely closed to the public. There is much more chance of the public having some right over this estate while it is in the occupation of a great public department than there would be if it was in private hands. I am quite aware that it is a very difficult matter to exclude the public, because we should have to obtain an injunction against every individual, there being no law of trespass in Scotland. I hope I have given a satisfactory answer: it is the only answer I can possibly give.


What about the rating?


I am afraid I have not got the information about the rating. If the hon. Member puts down a question I shall be glad to answer it.


Whatever access the public may have there, will the War Office keep in mind that that will be preserved, and that it will not be diminished?


My hon. Friend must be aware that there is such a thing as a danger zone, and during rifle practice or large gun fire I should recommend the hon. Gentleman and his friends to keep clear of the ground. As to divulging the price, we have done much more in regard to that than has ever been done in the past.


I noticed that the hon. Gentleman smiled when the figure was given for the purchase of land at Greenock. I am quoting from memory, and the sacrifice of annual rental there was £11 and the figure paid for that small bit of land amounted to £27,000. It is in view of a purchase like that that many of us feel very great anxiety as to what the Government is paying in this case. The hon. Gentleman says it is remarkably cheap, but that depends on what relation the figure bears to the rating value of the place. With regard to the rights to the Pentland Hills there are certain rights which cannot be closed. The War Office may take power, but still it is a disputed point. The hon. Member suggested there were no rights there. There are certain rights.


I did not say there were no rights of way. I said there was no general access to the Pentland Hills.

Mr. PRICE (was understood to say)

I hope those rights will be observed by the War Office.


I will certainly bear that in mind.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned at Twenty-three minutes after Eleven o'clock.