HC Deb 15 February 1940 vol 357 cc995-1001

4.9 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte

I beg to move, in page 16, line 33, at the end, to insert: Provided that an owner by whom any sum is so payable may by notice in writing served on the Minister within one month after the date of a demand in writing by the Minister for the payment thereof elect to pay the said sum, together with interest thereon from the said date, by such number of equal annual instalments not exceeding five as may be specified in the notice, so, however that—

  1. (i) the first such instalment shall be paid within one year from the said date; and
  2. (ii) the rate of interest shall, in default of agreement between the owner and the Minister be fixed by the Treasury."
This is simply a repetition of a provision which occurs in Clause 14. It is true that the sums dealt with will probably be very much smaller in this case than in the other. On the other hand, they may in some cases be large, and as a rule they will be due from small men, who will find it quite impossible to raise large sums of money all at once.

The First Commissioner of Works (Mr. Ramsbotham)

This seems to be a very reasonable proposal, and I have pleasure in accepting it.

Amendment agreed to.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Wilfrid Roberts

I beg to move, in page 16, line 39, to leave out from "Institution," to the end of the Subsection.

The Clause at present provides that in the case, for instance, of building land an owner who receives his land back after the war will not be charged on an improvement in the agricultural value of the land which has been made by the work which the War Agricultural Executive or its tenants have put into the land during the period of war and the year afterwards.

The purpose of my Amendment is to prevent that exemption occurring. It appears to me that if the community have in fact improved the land for agricultural purposes, the owners should pay for those improvements. Last night I moved an Amendment which would have made it possible for the Minister to retain that land, and this Amendment is moved in very much the same spirit. I think that the agricultural land of this country is an asset to the country and that it should be used for the purpose for which it was intended, namely, to produce food; and if some speculative builder has bought a piece of land, not for the purpose of agriculture, but for putting up buildings, I am not particularly interested in that.

If the community, because of the need of the country for food during the war, has improved the agricultural value of that land, I think the owner of the land should pay for that improvement. The land in any case is of so much greater value for building purposes, and this is a very small thing. The owner at present would probably have bought the land and left it absolutely derelict, as so much land around London is left at present. He is not interested in the small value that he can get for it from letting it to a farmer to grow food, and it has now to be taken out of his possession and used in the national interest for growing food. I do not see why that owner who is misusing his land now should be allowed by these words at the end of the Clause to continue to misuse the land after the war. If my Amendment last night had been accepted, there would have been no need for this Amendment, but as it is I strongly object to this licence to the speculative builder to misuse agricultural land.

4.16 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Terence O'Connor)

I hope to be able to persuade the hon. Gentleman that the proposal to leave out these words is not a reasonable one. He referred throughout to agricultural land, but it is to be noted that this Clause does not deal wholly with the acquisition of agricultural land. It deals with possession being taken of land and its use for agricultural purposes. In the present emergency of war it may be desirable to use for the production of foodstuffs land which was not suitable in normal times for that purpose. For example, as the hon. Gentleman men- tioned, there is land in the neighbourhood of towns which is awaiting building development which cannot take place because of the war and on which a building scheme might have been about to take place, but which is not very good land from the agricultural point of view. The State in the exigencies of the emergency takes it over, and, on a long view uneconomically, uses it as agricultural land. It appears to the Government to be unreasonable at the end of the war to hand that land back to a man who has never had the slightest intention of developing it as agricultural land when the land was never suitable in peace-time for that purpose. To say that because the State has made use of it during the war for the production of foodstuffs the owner should pay the whole of the expenditure incurred by the State during the period of the emergency seems an unreasonable proposition. These words have been put in to meet cases of that kind.

It is not difficult to think of other cases which, equally with the case of 6uilding land, require to be excepted from the case where the State can reasonably make a claim. I will give an example that has occurred to me. Suppose an owner has 50 or 60 acres of land which is unsuitable for agricultural purposes. No agricultural produce is being grown there, but it is adjacent to some land which the State thinks it advisable to take and use for the period of the war. It is possible that the State might, for the purposes of the occupier whom it puts into the larger area of land, need to utilise the smaller area for putting up some form of building—a dairy, for example—which would be of no use to the owner of the smaller piece of land when it is handed back to him. It would be very unfair if the owner of the 50 acres, which it might be impossible to use in connection with the dairy, should have the dairy premises planted on him without any means of making any use of them. These are the kinds of instances which, in our view, make it necessary to include a provision of this sort. The principle which is embodied in these words was applied continuously in dealing with claims against landowners which arose after the last war. I do not think there was an exact legislative provision of this kind, but this principle was embodied in every arbitration. By putting these words in, therefore, we are doing nothing in practice which was not done in the course of the last war. Probably even without these words the arbitrators would interpret the obligations that lay on them of determining increased value by reference to the principles to which I have referred.

Amendment negatived.

4.21 p.m.

Sir Lindsay Everard

I beg to move, in page 16, line 43, at the end, to insert: including any use other than agriculture. It would appear from what the learned Solicitor-General has just said that this point is covered. He has pointed out that land taken over may not necessarily be agricultural land and that the owner may prove that the land is no use to him for agricultural purposes. It might be building land, or part of a playing field, or of an aerodrome. That should be taken into consideration and the owner should not be charged the extra amount which it had cost to turn it into agricultural land.

4.22 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I am afraid that I cannot accept my hon. Friend's Amendment, which goes too far in the other direction. We have laid down in the provision that the arbitrator is to have in mind any reasonable use to which the owner proves that he intends to put the land. The words which my hon. Friend wishes to include would enable the landowner to allow his land merely to go derelict and to become a rabbit warren, or a place for shooting. When my hon. Friend reflects on it in that light I think he will see that that would not be reasonable. When the State has expended money on improving the agricultural value of land and the landowner wishes to make some use of the land after the war, which is unreasonable in the light of that expenditure, it is not unfair that he should be asked to pay some part of the cost which has been incurred in restoring it as agricultural land.

4.24 p.m.

Brigadier-General Clifton Brown

I do not think the Solicitor-General has quite understood the Amendment. We only want to make sure that the phrase "any reasonable use" will apply in such cases as land which is building land or part of a playing field. Land which is allowed to become a rabbit warren would be an unreasonable use of the land.

The Solicitor-General

I am obliged to my hon. and gallant Friend for making the point a little clearer. The instances he gave are, of course, cases of reasonable use. All that I intended to say was that the inclusion of the words in the Amendment would do what he and I would agree would be unreasonable.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

4.25 p.m.

Mr. W. Roberts

It seems to me that this ought to have been an important Clause of the Bill because there is a great deal of land which is not being used to the best advantage. The Clause is intended to deal with the worst types of that land, where the owner-occupiers, chiefly owing to financial difficulties, are incapable of making even a small use of the land. I am afraid that the directions which have been sent out to the committees concerned have minimized the possible use of this Clause, and it will be difficult to those who will have to administer it to make very wide use of it. There is a great deal of land which could produce enormously more than it does now, and I believe that if the war goes on the Government will have to take additional powers to deal with this problem. There is ample knowledge on how to treat derelict land. There are experts who know how to do it in Wales, on the moors of Scotland and on the downs in the Southern counties. This Clause, however, will deal only with the really glaring cases of neglect. The land which is considerably under-farmed and where the output could be three or four times the amount it is will not be touched, and it is that type of land which needs a much bigger provision. We accept this Clause, although we believe it to be an inadequate contribution to a vast problem.

4.27 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams

I do not welcome -Clause 22 because it cannot, even combined wtih Clause 24, go nearly so far as the Government already had power to go under Clause 2 of the Agriculture (Land Utilisation) Act, 1931. They will do less under these two Clauses than they could under that one Section which is already Statute law. I agree with the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) that the Government are merely toying with the problem. This is a continuation of typical Tory legislation. They find that a person is deliberately neglecting his land—because the condition before the State can take possession is that he is not cultivating it in accordance with the rules of good husbandry—and then, having taken possession and used fertilizers, machinery and the latest science to recondition the land in order to restore its fertility, the Government hand it back to the negligent farmer or owner and then starts to claim by a very tedious process some compensation for the improvement which the Government have made in the land. It is a ridiculous proceeding. I could have understood Clause 22 if the hon. Member's Amendment yesterday had been accepted. This would have provided that where land is taken over because of the neglect of the owner to restore its fertility the Government should retain possession for an indefinite period and so teach the owner a lesson. Although we are bound to accept the Clause, I do not think it will do anything like what the Government expect of it.

4.29 p.m.

Mr. John Morgan

What situation does the Minister think will arise if, on the decision being taken to hand over the land and the assessment of the improvement having been made, the landlord or farmer is unable to pay the charge? Does testate then re-enter into possession of the land?

Colonel Burton

Who knows whether this scheme is absolutely final?

Sir Joseph Lamb

What will happen if the land happens to be in a worse state when it is handed back again?

4.31 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Colville)

I do not agree with the argument of the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) that the Clause is too narrowly drawn. The Clause is wide enough to enable Ministers to take possession of land not being cultivated or not being cultivated in accordance with the rules of good husbandry. In regard to the handing back of the land, perhaps hon. Members will look at Subsection (7) of Clause 22. As to the point about what will happen if the man is unable to take it back, that does not apply, of course, during the time of emergency, but there would be the power to sell the property.

Question, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.