HC Deb 30 April 1918 vol 105 cc1491-506

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

This is a measure to amend the Land Drainage Act, 1861, and to make further provision for the drainage of agricultural land. It is not a heroic measure. It does not profess to deal with the rivers of England in any other way than the natural drains carrying away the water off the land. It does not, in the first part, propose any change in well-established principles. It leaves the person interested in the land to make the expenditure that really may be necessary, and it does not offer any State aid. It leaves it to his decision, as he is the man who pays the money, whether or not the drainage measure should be adopted, and, generally, it acts on the principle of helping the land-owner to help himself. But though it is not, as I say, a heroic measure it is a measure that is most urgently needed in the interests of food production at the present time, and it is in all its details a practical attempt to use the existing drainage authorities and to make the operations of existing powers more simple, less expensive, and more effective. With regard to the need of the Bill, everybody who cares about agriculture knows, vaguely perhaps, that very large areas of the country are much in need of drainage. They are for long periods of the year often covered with water, and they are thereby rendered unfit for arable cultivation, and grass is spoiled by rushes. I confess that I myself had no idea of the extent to which that deterioration of land, owing to floods, had been carried in England and Wales. We have asked our War Agricultural Committees to take surveys of the country and to let us know what areas in their opinion require drainage. We find, on the returns already completed, that there are something like one million acres in this country for which drainage is seriously needed. In Yorkshire, for instance, there are 300,000 acres which might be enormously improved by the operation of some such Bill as that I am proposing. In Lincolnshire there are 200,000 acres, and they are described as rich fen land; that is to say, some of the richest land in this country. In Norfolk and Suffolk there are 77,000 acres, and they are described as good alluvial soil. Similarly, in Wales there are very large areas, three counties alone contributing something like 100,000 acres. Altogether, there are within sight, so to speak, 1,000,000 acres, which, if promptly handled, might probably either be brought into arable cultivation or be enormously improved grass by the harvest of 1919. I should like to point out the bearing that this extension of cultivable land has upon the employment of labour and the placing of soldiers and sailors after the War upon the land.

Last year the Board of Agriculture, under the Defence of the Realm Act, took certain powers for dealing with drainage. Those powers included the power to call upon occupiers to clean out channels and ditches on their land. If they did not do it, the Board took power to do it themselves and charge the expenses. The Board also took power to make drainage authorities exercise their authority if, in the opinion of the Board, they were nor, properly doing so; and the effect has been very considerable. Within the last nine or ten months we have tackled something like 80,000 acres in this country. A large part of that acreage is brought into cultivation for the harvest of this year, 1918, and we intend to continue that work under the Defence of the Realm Act and to bring the remainder of the areas that we have marked down into cultivation for the harvest of 1919. The exercise of those, powers has shown us that they are in certain ways insufficient, and it has also shown us, by the way in which they were welcomed in the countryside, that those powers ought to be made permanent and ought not to be allowed to expire with a temporary measure like the Defence of the Realm Act. We have had a considerable number of petitions from county councils all over the country in favour of the present Bill.

The main reason why the Bill is wanted at the present moment is that there are a number of existing drainage authorities which, for various reasons, either do not or cannot carry out their work. Those drainage authorities are of three different kinds. There are Commissions of Sewers, who are appointed under a Statute of the reign of Henry VIII. Their area, which is marked out for them in the Commission under the Royal Manual, is often so vague that the Commissioners do not know where it extends, and their actual exercise of power is often over a very small area within the larger area to which their powers extend. Then there are drainage authorities set up by private Acts of Parliament under the Enclosure Awards and in other ways. Those Acts also are, many of them, very ancient. The powers are obsolete and inconvenient, and very often they are unaccompanied by the power to rate the inhabitants, and the expense and the inconvenience of getting an Act amended has prevented them from exercising their powers at all. There are also navigation authorities—again, some of them are very ancient—who have to main- tain a certain head of water in the river. Although the river itself, for all navigable purposes, has long teased to be used, yet, because they are under this statutory obligation to hold up a head of water large areas of the country are improperly drained. Finally, there are the drainage boards, set up under the Act of 1861. Where these boards have been set up a great deal of good has been done, but when we come to work that Act practically it is seen to have certain grave effects. The procedure under that Act for setting up the drainage board is this: It commences, and can only commence, when a petition by the proprietors of one-tenth of the area to be drained is presented. It requires that there shall not be less than the proprietors of one-tenth in acreage of any bog, moor, or any other area of land that requires draining. The proceedings have to be initiated by that number of proprietors. The drainage required has to be a combined system. That has led to the creation of small districts, which are really too small to bear a district beard. There are certain other provisions for making an inquiry, which we incorporate in our present Bill, and the actual consent of two-thirds of the proprietors is required before you can proceed further. On the petition an Order is made. Whether the Order is consented to, or is not consented to, it has to go before Parliament to be made an Order. Up till the time of confirmation it is merely a Provisional Order, whether it is agreed to or not.

This Bill alters that procedure in four different ways. Instead of only the stated number of proprietor being able to initiate proceedings, the Board itself may initiate proceedings. The reason for that is that when you deal with a large number of persons there is a great deal of passive inactivity about them. It is everybody's business to begin, therefore nobody begins. Everybody thinks that it is his neighbour's and not his own work to drain his land. The result is that you cannot, in the ordinary way, under the Land Drainage Act, 1861, get your drainage scheme initiated. When you have got it initiated, you are in a difficulty, because when the Board sends down to inquire into the circumstances, they may find that it is not a district which requires, in the accepted interpretation of the phrase, a combined system of drainage, but that something much larger and more comprehensive is wanted. But supposing you have initiated the petition, supposing you have found that the circumstances are such that the Board makes a draft Order constituting a drainage district, then you have to get the consent of two-thirds of the proprietors in acreage. If the district is large, to get that two-thirds requires a very great amount of active canvassing. We propose in the changes that are contained in the Bill to turn it round and to say that the Order shall go forward unless one-third dissent. If there is going to be inactivity at all, let it be on the part of the opposition. The Board initiates the scheme as well as the one-tenth proprietors, and to county councils we also give the power to initiate a scheme by petition to the Board. Then it gets started. Let the Board make the necessary inquiries; let them draft an Order, and then let it go forward unless one-third dissent, instead of vetoing it because two-thirds do not consent. The fourth change we make is that when an Order is unopposed it need not come before Parliament. The reason for that is that an unopposed Order has very often taken twelve months to get through Parliament, and that there is some amount of expense and a great deal of delay. Every opposed Order, as before, we propose should go to Parliament, Those are the four principal changes in the procedure of initialing the proceedings which our Bill proposes to make.

There are other grave objections to the existing system of working the various drainage powers. To alter the boundaries of a district is very difficult. You can only alter the boundaries—that is to say, increase your area—by gelling a new drainage district established in which the small separate piece you want to incorporate shall be merged. You have to go through the whole process over again in order to obtain an enlargement of the boundaries. We propose to give the Board power to define the limits of any Commission of Sewers. As I said before, the limits of area of the Commissions of Sewers are often vague and indeterminate, and the Board wants power, for instance, to define what is meant by "the maritime parts of a county." That is a form of words which is used in these Commissions of Sewers, and as no other drainage authority can be set up within the limits occupied by any already constituted, that vagueness of area is very difficult to deal with. Again, we say that where under some private Act or local Act fresh powers of levying drain- age rates or borrowing powers are in our opinion expedient, we want the power to alter and supplement those powers. The House will realise that in all those powers we have to proceed in the method that I have pointed out—that is to say, in constituting an area a separate drainage district we have to get either the initiation by one-tenth of the proprietors or we can initiate the proceedings on our own behalf, or the county council can initiate the proceedings, and then we proceed after the proper inquiry in the form laid down in the first Schedule to this Bill. An Order is only made effective if it is practically agreed to. If it is not agreed to, it has to come before the House for confirmation. Similarly, when we propose to alter the boundaries of any drainage district, or the limits of any Commission of Sewers, we cannot begin to act unless the drainage district itself asks us to, or unless it initiates the proceedings, or, in the case of Commissions of Sewers, unless the Commissioners of Sewers ask us to do so. When we initiate proceedings the procedure goes, as before, through the various stages. When it comes to defining the limits of any Commission of Sewers, we cannot do that on our own motion; we have to be asked to do so, and have to be sot in motion by the Commissioners of Sewers themselves. Similarly when any drainage authority wants to increase its powers it has to ask that they should be increased, and we ourselves cannot initiate that proceeding, but they alone can do it. Then the procedure for making the Orders is set out in Clause 2, and you will see there the various methods in which these petitions can be brought forward and the necessity of having in each case the authority already acting there supporting the petition in the first instance. The expenses follow the existing rules, and are unaltered. That is Clause 3.

In Clause 4 there are various provisions as to rating. The first Sub-section removes the doubt which has been judicially expressed as to the basis of acreage or the basis of annual value. It puts it beyond question that where either practice has been adopted that is to be deemed to have been empowered under the principal Act. All the change that is made is that it may be embodied in the Order. As to the powers of local authorities to contribute to drainage expenses it very often happens that the sanitary authority is anxious for drainage works to be carried out but cannot contribute, although the health of the neighbourhood is going to be immensely improved. Similarly, the highway authorities often find that their roads suffer immensely from the want of drainage, but they cannot contribute to a drainage scheme at present. The fifth Clause empowers them, with the consent of the Local Government Board, to contribute in those cases. The sixth Clause meets another very great difficulty. Two drainage authorities at present cannot join together to execute joint works or pay for or contribute towards the doing of works which benefit them by another drainage authority. Power is therefore given to enable arrangements to be made between drainage authorities. Then comes the question of the drainage authority and the navigation authority. I stated how some of these very ancient navigation authorities are obliged to hold up a head of water under some obsolete Act, and thereby the drainage of a whole district is ruined. By arrangement between the Board of Agriculture and the Board of Trade, navigation authorities can enter into agreement with drainage authorities and carry out necessary drainage works. That, again, I think from my own experience will be a very useful power. The eighth Clause is that where owners of land within a drainage area are authorised to invest money on real security they may do it on a first mortgage of the drainage rate. It very often happens that the owner has a very large interest in the drainage of a district, but cannot advance money towards the execution of the work if he has a trust because these investments are not trust securities. The Crown, on its own property, cannot invest in drainage rates because they are not trust securities, but in a considerable area of Crown land they would be glad to do it if these drainage rates wore made trust securities. Then there follow certain definitions. There are certain minor Amendments in the Schedule which can be followed easily enough with the Drainage Act by your side.

The second part begins with Clause 11. This is an important Clause, more important perhaps, in the second part than in the first. The first part of Clause 11 gives the Board the same powers to compel persons who are liable for the maintenance of banks, drains, etc., in their district to fulfil their obligations as is possessed by the existing drainage authority. Where there is no such body the Board will be able to do it. Sub-section (2) is very useful, as we have already found. It enables the Board to take action itself where the drainage authority neglects to exercise its power of drainage. Clause 12 is a new principle altogether and I frankly own it is a matter on which the opinion of the House may differ widely from mine. The object of it is to enable the Board to deal with small areas where the constitution of a. drainage board is not convenient but where drainage works are desirable for the production of food and would be profitable, but that the owner or owners cannot or will not agree to execute them. This is the one compulsory Clause in the Bill and the one new principle. The Board is to formulate a scheme and, after hearing the objections, if it decides to go on it is to settle and confirm it. In that scheme are to be set out the works which are proposed to be executed, the area which will be improved, the cost of the work and the manner in which the expenses are to be apportioned among the various lands in the area. When the Board has settled and confirmed this scheme it can carry it out with all the powers of a drainage board and can recover the expenses, subject to the limits specified in the scheme, from the landowner either in a lump sum or in the same manner as a private improvement rate, and it is proposed that the rate should be collected by the local authority with its other rates. I have in my mind a number of cases in which the areas drained are so small that they could not be dealt with by a drainage district, where at the most two, three, or four owners are concerned, and where it would be manifestly to the interests of food production that the drainage works should be carried out. In that case what is to be done is that the Board calculates the expense, definitely puts down a sum of money that the works will cost, and is entitled to go in and do the work as if it were itself a drainage board. Clause 13 allows the Board of Agriculture to delegate its powers, but not the power just mentioned, to any body which may be constituted to carry them out. In other words, it may delegate them to a committee of the county council which may act as its committee, or it may delegate its powers to a war executive committee. Clauses 14 and 15 and the remainder of the Bill do not call for any remark.

The Bill no doubt touches a vast number of points in which Members will be interested. It is the sort of Bill which in the old days, in happier times, would, I believe, have gone upstairs. It is a Bill full of practical suggestions which can only be explained with great difficulty unless you explain them across a table; but we have in the present circumstances to bring it before this House, and my great argument in favour of this proposal is that every suggestion that is made here is a practical suggestion to meet practical difficulties. The practical suggestions as well as the difficulties we are trying to face in the proposal which we are now making. They will, we believe, facilitate in a great degree the work of drainage in this country without disturbing the existing drainage authorities, and at the same time without in any way attempting to anticipate the far larger measures for dealing with the waterways of this country in their broader aspects which must come some time or other. This Bill is confined to treating the rivers as the natural drains which convey the water off the land. It follows the old principles of the Drainage Acts except as regards Clause 12 to which I have drawn particular attention, and I hope that it will so far commend itself to the judgment of the House that they will give it a Second Reading. It is a measure which is designed to meet a real need which was never more urgent than it is to-day.


I wish to thank the right hon. Gentleman for having brought in the Bill to the extent to which it goes, but I regret that, as he says, it is not a heroic measure. I wish it were. Of course, I understand the difficulties he is up against. He has a good many interests to conciliate and a good many interests which may clash, but I do regret that this Bill seems not only to perpetuate but to increase the number of small local bodies, which, to my mind, have been the curse and ruin of our drainage throughout the country. This Bill, though it sets up many new small drainage authorities, does give power to the Board to act in default and to delegate its powers to bigger bodies, such as the county council, and that all involves delay. I regret very much that the right hon. Gentleman has not been able to set up some permanent broad system by which there should be some definite county official permanently there dealing regularly with the problems as they arise and dealing with any neglect he may discover. There are many counties where the problem is small. In those cases these powers could be handed over to the county surveyor or any other county official it is desired to give them to; but in many counties it will involve the whole-time work of one man to deal regularly and consecutively with all the problems arising out of drainage. If we had had that we should have been saved the trouble which is arising now which is due to the constant neglect of many years. In many districts the admirable work done by our forefathers and the splendid work done by the old Dutchmen in the Eastern Counties has been absolutely ruined by sheer neglect.

This Bill appears to contemplate a good deal of new work. I do not think there is much new work wanted. The problems of drainage are old problems. Our forefathers did this work very effectively, and what we are suffering from now is the neglect to maintain the work so well done by them. If we had had a definite authority responsible for the maintenance of old work, and to save the blocking of drains which exist, we should not be in the miserable position in which we find ourselves in many parts of the country to-day. We have had little local drainage authorities, and in some cases, no doubt, they have done good work, but in a great many cases those authorities have been composed of very worthy but sleepy old gentlemen whose idea was to save money and to worry nobody. Excellent principles under certain circumstances. The principle of letting sleeping dogs lie applies very well in some cases, but it does not do to allow what should be a running drain to stand. That is what has happened in many cases, and now that it is discovered all over the country that food production is necessary, we find that the result of the neglect of years is that many hundreds of thousands of acres are lying practically derelict and it is not possible to turn them into food production until they are drained. The result of the accumulated neglect of many years is that large works are required at a time when labour is scarce and supervisors and gangers are almost impossible to find. You have tribes of German prisoners up and down the country, but apparently there is an impossibility of finding large gangs to deal with the work. At this time, when this heavy expenditure is necessary, it falls with particular hardship on a particular class, and the main grievance which occurs in the matter of drainage is not dealt with in this Bill. The difficulty which many authorities have come across is that owing to the continued neglect to clear out the various streams and drains the work has become very expensive, and it appears that the cost can only be charged to the immediate frontager, the occupier whose land abuts on the drain or stream itself. That may appear a very small matter. I can give an instance of a widow whose farm was sold. The estate was sold and the tenancy changed. Some work on a stream which abutted on her land was undertaken by the war executive committee, and she was charged with the cost which related to that particular part of the drainage which ran through her land. Having lost her land, she will not get any benefit from the work, but still, in this particular case, a bill of some £35 is due, and will have to be paid by this particular widow. I heard of another case, in which a man, who was only a road mender and had a couple of cows—I hope the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong about this—


If you ask me the question, I think it will not be the effect of this Bill to rate only the occupiers who abut on the river. That will be altered.


I am very glad to hear that, and I do hope it is clearly laid down in the Bill that not only the occupier immediately abutting on the drains or streams concerned, and not only the occupiers around will be rated, but that the charge will also fall on the owners. Up to now it has been a great grievance, and has been a great obstruction to the carrying out of drainage work, that only the immediate occupiers, who may be very small men occupying a very small portion of the land, have been rated. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not resent the friendly criticism I have offered. I wish to welcome the very valuable provisions in his Bill. I wish he could have been more heroic, although I quite realise the difficulties he has had to meet. I am quite certain that, so far as they go, the provisions of the Bill will make a very serious problem much easier to solve.


I think this Bill will be cordially appreciated, not only by the landlord, but by the tenant farmer, but I agree with the last speaker that it is a pity that the measure is not more drastic in its provisions. No one is now in doubt as to the absolute necessity for the production of food in this country, and it is becoming generally known, through the War executive committees, what an enormous area of our available land has been lying waste in this country during the last few years, mostly on account of the fact that the drainage system has been allowed to go out of repair, and has not been looked after. But, if I am not mistaken, the powers already delegated by the right hon. Gentleman to the War executive committees are rather stronger than the powers which he asks under the present Bill. I hope he will reconsider that matter. I am rather sorry to hear the conditions that he has imposed with regard to Clause 12. As a member and a one-time chairman of a War executive committee, may I point out that one difficulty we had was not with the larger areas, but with the smaller areas, and in particular with individual farms. We found, very often, that one farm or two farms adjoining could not be drained because, lower down, nearer to the sea, the land was in the possession of an owner who, for certain reasons, and occasionally from a question of title, could not be induced to interfere. The result was that the tenant of the adjoining farm, or the farm but one, could not interfere himself, and his land therefore became waterlogged. That kind of area is too small to form a board, the expense would be too great; and I do not quite understand that the question of expense can be effectively dealt with under the proposal made in Clause 12. Unless I am very much mistaken, the expense will be considerably too high for any tenant under these circumstances to make an appeal to the Board for their interference. I make this suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman, that the power now vested in the War executive committees—in any event in these individual cases, and I speak of individual farms, where the area, consequently, is very, very small—should be vested in the county council, to enforce the same authority and insist on the same drainage in the fields and districts. If that were done a very great deal could be dealt with at once, because there is also the danger, when the War is over and things resume their normal course in this country, of the same opposition and objection to expenditure, to which we have been so well accustomed, especially on the county councils, in past years. I am afraid that with the usual flow of imports of food into this country the tendency will be once again to forget the absolute necessity for drainage. That will be particularly so with regard to these small areas. There is many a farm, owned sometimes by the cultivator, and no doubt forming part of a very small estate, which could and would have been properly cultivated had they been able to insist upon the opening of the river a little lower down. With this criticism, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will not resent, I wish to thank him on behalf of the Committee with which I am connected for this Bill.


I am quite sure every Member of the House will generally be in entire agreement with the object of the right hon. Gentleman has in view in bringing the Bill before us. If a million acres of cultivable land can be added to the present cultivable area in this country, much of which, as he suggested, being of very good productive quality, that would be a potential addition to the opportunities for food supply, which would be a very great service at the present time. In so far as his Bill secures that object I am sure he will have entire support and agreement, but I am bound to say that I share the regret of the two hon. Members who have just spoken, that the measure is not somewhat more drastic in its provisions, and that it does not make a little more certain that the objects which he has in view will be attained. I should like to ask him whether any estimate has been formed as to the amount of land which will absolutely be reclaimed as the result of this measure. As I understand it, he does not expect to reclaim a million acres, but that these million acres are, however, reclaimable, if in every case the provisions of the Bill are fully taken advantage of, and nobody objects. That is as I understand it. I should like to ask whether any estimate has been formed as to the proportion of the million acres which it is expected to secure under the provisions of this Bill.


I hope it will be all.


I wish to put my point in a plain way. Of course, obviously if any owner of derelict or water-logged land should happen to own one-third of the whole area which it is proposed to deal with in any district, he can, by merely saying that he objects, and without being required to submit to any tribunal any reason for objecting, thwart the whole scheme. I understand that is so, and I am afraid that past experience of the attitude taken up by sections of those who own the land of this country does not justify the anticipation of the right hon. Gentleman that he will be able to do all he hopes with these obstacles in his path. I suggest it ought not to be possible for one individual acting in this way to be able to thwart a whole scheme. It ought, at any rate, to be required that a majority of the landowners—at least 50 per cent.—shall state that they object to the scheme, and I agree, of course, that they should have an opportunity later on of being heard if they have reasonable objection. But to stop a scheme I do suggest it shall be necessary for at least 50 per cent. of the owners to raise the objection.

10.0 P.M.

I think much unnecessary delay is likely to arise from the provision which, as I understand it, enables one occupier with a very slight interest to insist on a Provisional Order with all the expenses of Parliamentary procedure. One contentious individual could in this way not only cause considerable inconvenience and considerable expense, but, what is much more vital from the point of view of food production, it could cause very great delay. Here again I suggest it ought not to be possible for this consent of Parliament—by means of a Provisional Order—to be insisted upon unless a reasonable proportion of those affected so desire. I would put it that the desire should be expressed by 25 per cent. of the owners. It certainly should not be in the power of one or two individuals to put these great obstacles in the way of attaining that object which the right hon. Gentleman has in view. I know the views which I am expressing are entertained in other sections of the House. I think that in this matter one carries with him not only the whole House but public opinion throughout the country as well, in declining to deal tenderly with anyone who out of sheer obstinacy or sheer self-will stands in the way of the full utilisation of the land, and if the right hon. Gentleman will take his courage into both hands and claim power to deal drastically with those who interpose obstacles to that utilisation, I am sure he will have behind him both the House and the country. I should like now to put a point which no doubt the right hon. Gentleman expects to come from me. He will not be surprised to learn that those who think with me view Clause 5 with a considerable amount of suspicion. I do not intend to trouble the House with a long historical statement of how the landowners of this country have tried to pass the burdens which should fall upon them on to the general population. It is true that in the course of a generation that has gone a very long way, and we are naturally apprehensive of any change in the law under which it may be possible that a considerable portion of the cost of this new scheme may be transferred from those who will benefit by the increase in the value of their land as a result of the drainage operations and imposed on the local authority as representing the whole community. I do not suggest at the moment that we shall propose to delete Clause 5 entirely, but we think it should be made clear beyond doubt that for any contribution made by the local authority, that authority shall get an absolute equivalent in the form of better conditions which make for the health of the district, and I would like to suggest that before either the local sanitary authority or the highway authority are called upon to contribute towards the expense of the scheme there ought to be some valuation taken as to how far the result of the operation has tended to increase the value of the land affected, and if the value of that land has been increased by the whole sum expended, then the owners and occupiers should in the first instance be called upon to meet the whole expenditure before any contribution is asked for from the local authorities. I am glad to understand that to some extent, at any rate, I have the assent of the right hon. Gentleman to that view and that he will be willing in Committee to consider favourably some such proposal.

With regard to Clause 12, I do not so much offer opposition to it as ask for information upon it. I understand that the cases referred to by the hon. Member for Barkston-Ash (Major Lane-Fox), where the occupier is saddled with the whole cost, are cases which are dealt with under the Defence of the Realm Act.


That is so.


I should like an assurance that there is full power under this Section to call for a contribution towards the cost from the owners of the land in proportion to the benefit which they receive from the improvement. That is a point which I and those who think with me regard as fundamental. We, indeed, would carry it very much further than this Bill proposes to do. I do not profess to have mastered the phraseology of Clause 12, but I hope it does continue the provision of the original Act, which throws the whole cost on the owner who benefits, and, if he does not pay, the occupier can be charged; but then the occupier is entitled to deduct from his rent any payment he may be called on to make. I hope that that provision is continued here. I hope also that any rate which is imposed will not be a rate which has no regard to the value of the improvement as it affects different proprietors. It must be obvious to the right hon. Gentleman that one property which may at present be entirely water-logged may benefit to a very great extent, while another property may benefit only to a, slight extent, and, therefore, the contribution ought to be in proportion to the benefit which the owner receives. I should like some assurance from the right hon. Gentleman either that that is so or that he will favourably consider in Committee any Amendment to the Clause which may be proposed with a view to carrying out that object.