HC Deb 07 May 1926 vol 195 cc620-34

Order for Second Reading read.


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

There is no subject which has received more attention from agriculturists in recent years than the waste which is due to badly drained land. We have recently conducted a census throughout the country, and we find that there are 1,200,000 acres of land in urgent need of drainage and 500,000 acres which would be capable of great improvement if more efficient drainage operations could be undertaken. Every agriculturist realises how much is lost with crops and grass land by the shallow rooting and loss of fertility which come from waterlogged ground, and how livestock suffers from such diseases as foot rot and liver fluke under the same conditions. We are considering these problems very carefully. The House will have read the Report of the Commission on the Ouse drainage problem, and we hope next year to bring forward proposals to deal with the major issues in a larger Bill. This little Measure to which we ask the House to give a Second Reading to-day is quite distinct from the problems which we have to consider in connection with large areas which are controlled by statutory drainage authorities.

The object of this Bill, which has passed through all its stages in another place, and has been considerably amended and, I think, improved in certain details, is to deal, not with the statutory drainage authorities at all—I have explained, we are leaving that over till next year—but to make more efficient and to extend the powers of the county councils. The first Clause would transfer to the county and county borough councils the powers now possessed by the Ministry of Agriculture under Part II of the Land Drainage Act, 1918. There is at present the power to delegate those functions, but for various reasons, chiefly financial, that power has so far been of very little application. The first of these duties which we would transfer to the county and borough councils is to enforce the liability to repair drainage works where that responsibility for repair already exists. The second function would be to exercise the powers of the local drainage authority where their failure has caused injury or where inadequate drainage could be remedied by the county council. The third power, and perhaps the most important, is to carry out and maintain small drainage schemes, up to a maximum expenditure of £5,000, in areas where statutory drainage authorities cannot conveniently be set up. All those powers are now entrusted to the Ministry of Agriculture and will be transferred under the provisions of the Bill to the county and county borough councils, which are far better qualified to exercise them than we are, and which have recently, in carrying out drainage works, for the relief of unemployment, obtained a great deal of valuable experience in working out these voluntary drainage schemes.

Clause 2 would enlarge the drainage powers of the county and county borough councils where no drainage authority exists, and it would enable the local bodies to serve notices requiring owners and occupiers to put drains in order where their acts or defaults are injuring other land. This is a new power, but we believe that there is a strong case for this enactment. The remaining six Clauses make incidental provisions, such as power of recovering expenses, power of entry, service of notices, etc., which are really more suitable for discussion in Committee upstairs than on the Second Reading of the Bill. I believe that this Bill will do a good deal to make more efficient the administration of our existing drainage system, and, pending the larger amendment of the law, which we hope to pass at an early date, I trust that the House will give this Bill a Second Reading to-day.


Perhaps I might reinforce the argument I ventured to use just now against the taking of these Agricultural Bills. What I said as to the difficulty of dealing adequately with them, applies surely more to the Drainage Bill than to the Weighing of Cattle Bill, because some of my hon. Friends have a special knowledge of the peculiar circumstances and drainage conditions in the north of England and elsewhere, and I would like to urge that it would be far more appropriate if we had an adequate opportunity. This is not a small subject. It is a very large subject, and one of the greatest and weightiest matters affecting the resources of the country. Is it not most desirable that Members who are informed and concerned should have been present before we debated the Bill? In another place questions were raised such as, whether the powers of compulsion and compulsorily ordering expenditure by an owner might not act unfairly? Those are points which would appeal to Members on the other side perhaps even more than on this, but those points, which were raised by representatives of the Opposition in another place, are lengthy and debateable. We must take what we can get, but we do rely on the Minister's assurance that the fullest possible opportunity for discussion will be given elsewhere.


This Bill has been very carefully considered by the organisation which represents owners of land, large and small—the Central Landowners' Association. There were certain objections which we felt to the Bill as it was originally introduced in the House of Lords, but Amendments were put forward, and have been substantially embodied in the Bill in another place. As the Chairman of that organisation which represents the owners large and small, I welcome the Bill and hope the House will give it a Second Reading. It is true that orders may be made upon owners of land to execute improvements, or to pay for improvements carried out in their default by local authorities, but the present situation is that in many parts of the country drainage works carried out by owners and occupiers—and very necessarily carried out for the fertility of the soil—are rendered abortive by the failure of an adjoining owner or occupier to carry out similar works. It is no use draining your own land properly if the man immediately below you does not drain his, and the water gets held up. This is for the maintenance of the drainage of our agricultural land, which got sadly into arrears during the War period and the period which immediately followed, and it is now particularly urgent that general drainage work, not only on a large scale, but on a small scale, should be resumed and maintained. This Bill I believe, will be a very valuable help to that work, and will lead by degrees towards a greater fertility of the soil of the country.


It is remarkable that not until 1926 have we discovered the need for proper drainage of the land. This Bill comes from the Lords. The Bill which dealt with mining subsidence also came from the Lords. In neither of these Bills is adequate provision made. Sub-section 4 (b) of Clause 2 says that the condition of the drain is not due to any act or default. Take an area where mining operations are going on, and there is deflection in the level of the drain, which brings about a stoppage. There is nothing in this Bill or in the Mining Subsidence Bill which deals with a point like that. What was dealt with in the Subsidence Bill was simply the question of the interests of the railway companies, the landowners and the coalowners, but the common interest of the public, the common interest of the preservation of our land by keeping it properly dry, has been altogether lost sight of. I want to know from the Minister exactly what steps he can promise now, in order that every point urged so far as responsibility is concerned is going to be dealt with adequately in this Bill. I warn the House, against putting in a Clause that may be applied or may not be applied, and I warn it, again, against putting in very loose language, so that the lawyers can drive a horse and cart through the Measure. If we are to get certain areas lying half of the year in water, and good land being thereby destroyed, because there are not powers to compel the owners to drain the land, then we shall have to have some other Measure in order to enforce it.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of an act of default injuring other land. What is to be done in relation to the overflowing of a river in the area of an owner who claims the land through which the river flows? I know of areas where it would only require continuous attention to the embankments, but these things are left alone. Banks of rivers are allowed to get into decay, and when there is a heavy shower of rain on the hills, down the water comes, and the man who has been to the expense, of draining his meadowland, says, "What is the use of draining my land w hen I get a surplus from the river?" I am not an agriculturist, but if it were left to me I would give a guarantee that in five years from now there would be no land under water. I do not care whether the land is 10, 30, or 100 feet below the sea level, I will give you a guarantee that I will make that land dry.

Surely if there is anything worth doing in this country in this matter nothing is more important than getting the condition of our land such that we are able to make use of it to the fullest extent ! I hope that when this Bill comes from the other place we shall find that there has been some more recognition of the needs of the case, and that some of the wording has been put right. I have discovered that in this Bill there are types of sentences from men who have no practical knowledge of the subject until we get down to the practical man and the knowledge of the practical man is embedded in legislation. You will not go anywhere, but have disputes between one man who says "I have drained my land," without any thought or knowledge for the general situation, and others, Where is the sanity in a nation that claims to be civilised doing things in this way? Why not in this Bill once and for all say—what is required—shall compulsorily be done? There is one other point. I should like the Minister to remember that you have got to make provision for who says that he owns the land. I hope that the things I have brought forward will get some attention on the part of the Minister. I have given great attention to this matter, and I know that if we get a proper system of drainage in this country you will get a condition of crops of which at present you little dream.


This Bill depends upon the co-operation of the County Councils, and I should like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman has been in consultation with them, whether there has been any reply, and whether in their belief the methods that have been put into Clause 2 are likely to work satisfactory? The second point is in regard to the right hon. Gentleman's plans for further legislation. Can he give us any idea when we are likely to have it? At present you are leaving practically untouched a County like my own—Wiltshire. Can the right hon. Gentleman give any indication of the form the permanent measures are likely to take, and whether they will bring in a county like my own, where the drainage is of the highest importance?


The county councils have been consulted, and this Bill has been approved by the County Councils' Association. The more important Bill has involved a large amount of consideration and consultation and it has been found necessary to make big changes in the drainage law. It is quite impossible to state at what date it will be possible to present the results of our consultation to Parliament, but I think there is certainly not the slightest chance of passing this larger Measure during the current Session of Parliament, and the earliest date I can hope to deal with the matter will be next Session.


Has the right hon. Gentleman consulted those who are practically working drainage schemes in the country, such as county drainage officers? Have men like that had an opportunity of putting before the Ministry their views and their experience?


We have endeavoured to consult all authorities and persons in a position to give us the benefit of their knowledge and experience.

Brigadier-General BROWN

I welcome this Bill, not because it goes into the bigger drainage schemes but because it is a matter of immediate practical importance to the farmer. One cannot, in a railway train or a motor car, go up and down the country without seeing rushes growing in the fields, and those fields are not looked after because the drains have become ineffective, and the places need redraining. The practical difficulty with which those concerned are faced is that the draining of an acre of land costs now about £25, and that makes the matter very difficult. I am referring, of course, to heavy land and not to light land. For heavy land there is a scheme of drainage which ought to be available. I refer to the Mole drainage scheme, which ought to be not only cheaper but ought to be quite effective. I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should look into this matter with a view of getting the county councils to take up this Mole drainage and provide ploughs in the various districts which can be hired out, especially by the small farmer, so that the cost of draining an acre of land by this method would run to about 25s., the farmer, of course, being helped by his two or three horses, or by a tractor.

I welcome this Bill because it applies to these small drainage schemes which are more necessary than anything else at the present time to help the small farmer on poor land. In reference to the bigger drainage schemes referred to by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hurd) as to liaison between the County Councils themselves and the big statutory Boards I may say this: I happen to be a Member of the River Mole Drainage Board, set up under an old Statute of Queen Elizabeth, having been put on by my county agricultural committee to represent them. That arrangement is working perfectly well, and is the sort of system which, I hope, will continue to be worked, because a county, like any other ratepayer, gets proper representation in that way. I think if that system were to be extended in any future plan it would be a sound way of dealing with our land drainage scheme.


I, like other speakers, welcome this Bill so far as it deals with purely agricultural districts. I think it is an entirely right principle to entrust county councils with the formation of schemes and with the enforcement of the cleaning of private drains; but in those districts which comprise a number of urban councils or county boroughs—even though the county boroughs may be some way off—there is likely to be great injustice to the rural districts through lack of proper financial provisions. May I give one illustration, it is a concrete case, to show the House what I mean? The county borough of Sheffield comprises a population of 500,000 people. It has a water supply scheme which brings into the town of Sheffield something like 500,000,000 gallons a week or a day—I am not sure which—from a watershed in the county of Derbyshire.

In the ordinary course of things that water, after use, is discharged down the sewers of Sheffield. The enormous rainfall that ordinarily descends on the borough of Sheffield is also carried off down those same sewers. All that water finds its way down natural watercourses, over a distance of 20 or 30 miles, to the River Ouse, and the whole expense of cleansing those watercourses and keeping the drainage system open falls on the local authorities between Sheffield and the River Ouse, and, after the water has been discharged into the Ouse, falls on to the county councils and local authorities of the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire. Everybody who is acquainted with the West Riding knows that throughout the semi-rural parts of it there are large urban authorities and large county boroughs, and the same ob- servation applies to Lancashire. Under the finance of this Bill, the whole cost of any proceedings taken under this Bill is to fall on the local authorities taking those proceedings, and not on the urban authorities or the county boroughs who are really the culprits. Therefore, if this Bill is carried out as it stands, great hardship and expense will be imposed on the owners and occupiers of agricultural land which they ought not to bear.

On another aspect of this matter I would like to know what is the policy of the Government. The whole expense of the administration of this Act is to fall on the county councils. Hitherto, the expense of drainage Acts has been paid, as I understand it, by the State by contributions to the county councils. I understood, according to the announced policy of the Government, that something like £1,000,000 was to be handed over to the drainage authorities, but I see no provision in this Bill for any of that money being given to carry out the provisions of the Bill when it becomes an Act. I believe it is a fact that hitherto something like 80 per cent. of the cost of agricultural education has been paid by the State, and that the cost of the administration of small holdings has been paid by contributions of the State, and I do not understand why the Government have suddenly changed their policy, and propose that the whole cost is now to be thrown on the county councils. It will be a very heavy charge upon the smaller councils, and will not induce them to put the Act into operation.

It must be borne in mind that the improvement of the drainage, system does not solely benefit the occupier or the owner of the particular land drained. The better the drainage system, the better the health of the people who live in the district. The more effectually one can get the water away, and the drier one makes the land, the better it is for everybody concerned. Further, the more of these schemes we carry out the more employment do we provide. So far the State has made a considerable contribution to drainage schemes as a means of providing employment for the people who would otherwise be unemployed and I wish to know why there has been this sudden change in policy. I say again that I welcome the powers which the Bill gives to county councils in purely agri- cultural districts, but there are great possibilities and probabilities that those who live in semi-rural districts will be heavily mulcted for advantages which they do not themselves derive.


I wish to say a word or two with respect to the observations of the hon. Baronet the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope). Although I agree with him that the drainage of our fields fell into great disrepair during the War, I think the House ought to know what is the great cause of urgency about this Bill. In my opinion it lies in the breakup of great estates. On those estates, before the War, the drainage as between one farm and another was looked after under a comprehensive policy. There is no need for any interference with the local authority if the owner of the lower land keeps his drains open, and does not interfere with the drainage of his neighbour. On the property of any well-managed estate all that is looked after without any expense to the local rates, and in considering the urgency of this Measure we should recognise that it is almost entirely due to the breaking up of large estates which has taken place since the War. The Minister of Agriculture did not mention this aspect of the question, and I thought it it was only right on the Second Reading that I should put this view forward in order to justify the action which the Minister is taking.

Lieut.-Colonel HENEAGE

I welcome the introduction of this Bill. The Drainage Boards sometimes deal with two or three county areas. Is it possible under this Bill that the county council will issue different instructions to those issued by the Drainage Boards? I want to know if the Minister of Agriculture has power to deal with this problem of co-ordinating the action of the Drainage Boards and County Councils. Another point I wish to mention is in reference to what the hon. Baronet the Member for Rye said with regard to the question whether the county council are going to spend a considerable amount of money on behalf of the county boroughs, and thus throw the extra expense on the agricultural community. If that is done by the county council, I presume the Minister of Agriculture may hold an inquiry, and then apportion the cost between the respective county councils and the county boroughs interested in the undertaking. I think that will remove a considerable amount of apprehension amongst the agricultural community, because while welcoming this Bill they feel that they may be forced to carry out expenditure which is not their business, but which is really the business of the county borough lower down their own watershed. I call attention to these two points because they are points of substance to the agricultural community.


Although undoubtedly in a great part of the country there is a need for more efficient draining, yet in some parts, and particularly in the Eastern counties, the drainage is being very efficiently carried on at the present time by the Drainage Board. I would like to know from the Prime Minister whether there will be any undue interference by the county council with the action of the existing drainage authority?


While I support this Bill, I would like to ask one question. I understand that the county council will get no grant whatever from the £1,000,000 which has been allotted to land drainage. I should like to know whether a county council like that of Wiltshire will get any grant from this particular fund. I would like the Minister to reconsider this matter, and grant a fair proportion of that money towards the administrative expenses of the county council. This has been done already in the case of small holdings and agricultural education. I know the Minister of Agriculture has been pressed not to put any fresh claims on agriculture, and I hope he will be able to carry out that policy.


The hon. Member who has just spoken does not appear to have fully realised that this Bill, as I explained before, only deals with one aspect of the question. I have been asked whether under this Bill the County Council of Wiltshire will get any share of the £1,000,000. I wish to point out that this Bill does not deal with the£1,000,000 which has been voted for drainage schemes of a capital nature, and it deals with an entirely different question which is how you are to administer these quite different small drainage operations. The hon. and gallant Member for Lindsey (Lieut.-Colonel Heneage) appeared to think that this Bill was going to interfere with the operation of the statutory drainage authority, but that, is not the object of this Measure. I know that powers are entrusted to the Minister of Agriculture in regard to this question but under this Measure those powers would be transferred to the county council. It is a small change to transfer definitely to these local authorities those powers which can now only be given in specific cases by delegation from the Minister of Agriculture, but neither under the present or the future system could there be any question of interfering with the duties of the statutory drainage authority which is doing its work well.

The hon. Baronet the Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Gautley) made various criticisms of this Bill which are also based on the fact that it is limited in its scope, and he pointed out the hardship in regard to the Ouse Drainage area. But this Measure does not profess to touch that large problem, which has been specifically committed to the inquiry on the drainage of the Ouse area.


I mean the other Ouse.


We are trying to apportion the cost of drainage operations between the various interests concerned, and as my hon. Friend is no doubt aware, the recommendation of the Ouse Drainage Committee may equally be found suitable to any other areas of the same kind in order that there may be a certain charge on the whole watershed. We are not touching the difficult question of contribution by other means from local authorities in this Bill at all, and that is one of the large and difficult questions which we shall have to tackle next year. The hon. Member asked why we were not going on with the unemployed scheme. I think he has not realised that the £1,000,000, which does not come under this Bill and which has been granted for schemes of a capital nature, will probably prove of greater advantage in these matters than these unemployment grants which we have had in the past, because these unemployment works were done, not mainly from the point of view of necessary drainage, but more from the point of view of finding people work. We hope we shall get better value by having the work carried out, not spasmodically, not for other than drainage purposes, but after careful consideration at the best season of the year, and as part of a comprehensive and well-considered local programme.


In a limited area. You are excluding Wiltshire?


Certainly not. Wiltshire is not excluded from the opportunity of obtaining money. This £1,000,000 does not arise under this Bill in any way and many of these criticisms are based upon other matters than those with which this Bill is concerned.


In view of the fact that Wiltshire has practically no drainage authority it will get practically nothing under the Bill.


Did the Minister say he was introducing a Bill to deal with the £1,000,000 grant?


I do not think it will be necessary to have a Bill. We are dealing with this matter in the Agriculture Estimates, and any matter in connection with administration should be raised there and not upon this occasion. There was one point raised which does clearly arise and that is the fear that there may be greater expenses thrown upon local authorities in connection with administration. I do not think that that fear is well-founded because it is provided in the original Act that all expenses, including those of administration, are to be recovered from those persons who are benefited, so that there really ought to be no fresh expense thrown upon the local authorities.

1.0 P.M.


The right hon. Gentleman said he was not now dealing with the question of the main arteries. My point is that in draining an upland you must make provision somewhere for taking away the increased flow of water. It seems to me to be a silly thing to give £1,000,000 to deal with the upper part without making provision for taking the water away.


The water, in the case which the hon. Member mentions, now passes through the lower areas and this Bill is quite consistent, because it lays responsibility on the man who is not keeping his water-course clear to allow a freer flow from the uplands. This Bill is to deal with a small local drainage problem while the larger problem which affects several drainage authorities, the problems which affect the statutory drain- age authorities in general, are not dealt with. They are to be dealt with in a larger measure which will also probably deal with other points.


I have a drainage question in my constituency which I have been trying to get remedied for a very considerable time. What power will Clause 2 confer on such an authority as the Newcastle City Council? There is an obstruction in the upper part of a stream that is continually causing an overflow on land owned by the Newcastle Council which is let out as allotments. The consequence is that these lands are being absolutely soured. I have made representations to the Council, and they have made representations to the other authorities, but we cannot get anything done. I have tried the unemployment grant scheme and still we cannot get anything done. Will this Clause confer power upon bodies such as the Newcastle City Council to make the people responsible for the obstruction in the uplands clear away that obstruction?


It will give them no powers outside their own area.


What good will it do if it enables this obstruction to be continued? We are charging for these allotments although they are soured land.

Rear-Admiral BEAMISH

I understood the Minister to say that there was a possibility of a larger and wider Measure next year?

Mr. GUINNESS indicated ossent.


I think the Minister said there will be no further expense. What, then, is the meaning of Clause 3?


At the present time, when these schemes are carried out, current expenditure has naturally to be met from some source. The county council have to advance it, but they are fully empowered to recover the money from the persons who benefit.


Yet you make provision for defraying this expenditure and you make provision later on that that expenditure shall not be beyond the rate of 1d. per pound. You also give the county councils power to borrow.


The Council have these powers, but it does not mean that they need spend their own money. The penny rate, as a matter of fact, was put in in another place; it was not in the Bill as originally drafted; and that is a matter which I shall certainly discuss in the Standing Committee. My own feeling is, if I may say so, that any such figure is undesirable, because there is no thought on the part of the Government that any such sums will be involved, and there is the danger, of course, if such a figure is left in the Bill, that what was put in as a maximum may tend to become the standard. It is certainly not the intention of this Bill to add to the cost of local administration, and I think that that is quite consistent with giving powers to local authorities to spend money and to advance money where in their own discretion they consider it would be useful to do so.


We have not dealt with the question of upland obstruction, of which my hon. Friend the Member for East Newcastle (Mr. Connolly) spoke. What is the use of doing something underneath when you leave something above that ought first to be removed? I would like to know where the intelligence or it comes in. The right hon. Gentleman may smile, but, unless things are relieved in the uplands which cause these overflows when, say, there is a cloud-bust or anything of that kind, all the money that is being spent is of no use. Why cannot an assurance be given now?


The hon. Member does not seem to realise that this matter is urgent. We cannot, in a small Bill, provide for one local authority going outside its area and dealing with the whole watershed; but the fact that We have not yet been able to reach agreement with all the authorities whom we have to consult on this large problem is surely no reason for withholding from the areas that want to carry out these small schemes the opportunity of doing so.


I do not want to withhold anything.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.