HC Deb 15 February 1940 vol 357 cc1069-75

If the Minister during the period of the war is satisfied that the agricultural production of any land is being diminished by reason of the condition of the roads leading to such land and if he is satisfied that the cost of improving such roads or access to the land is reasonable, in view of the increased production which will result from such an improvement, the Minister may direct that the county council may prepare a scheme for the improvement of the roads concerned and after submitting the scheme to the Minister may, with his approval, charge to the owners of the land benefited a sum equivalent to the increase in the value of the land; the scheme may provide that the cost payable by any owner shall be spread over five years.—(Mr. W. Roberts.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

8.48 p.m.

Mr. W. Roberts

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

I only wish that my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild) were present to move this Clause. This is a problem which is very real in several of the Eastern counties. I can do no better than read a few sentences describing the condition of some of these roads, written 50 years ago, which I believe accurately describe them to-day: In place of roads there are droves. A drove is a broad course, straight as an arrow, by means of which communication is had between one farm and another, and people pass from one village to another. These droves have ditches one on each side, dense in summer with bullrushes. No attempt is made to consolidate the soil in these droves other than by harrowing and rolling them in summer. In winter they are bogs. In summer they are dust. Wheeled conveyances can hardly get along the droves in winter or wet weather as the wheels sink to the axles. Without further elaboration, it obviously presents a problem for the occupiers of both sides. I believe that in one district 1,000 tons of sugar beet were left in the ground because the roads were made impassable in the autumn and when the frost came the factories had ceased to deal with sugar beet. There are 40,000 acres in Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely which are affected by conditions of this sort. Clearly they are conditions which affect a large area of land and are reducing the capacity of that land to play its part in the Government's food production campaign. On an average one mile of road serves some 400 acres, and, as there are 40,000 acres involved, it is a substantial problem. As one mile serves as much as 400 acres, it will be realised that many private owners on either side are involved in any substantial mileage of road.

I understand that one of the county councils concerned arranged to have one piece of road dealt with on a basis in which the owners paid one-third, the county council one-third, and the Ministry of Transport one-third. One of the obstacles to extending that way of dealing with this problem is that it is difficult to get a large number of owners to agree voluntarily to such an arrangement. Broadly speaking, the arrangement in the new Clause follows the type of arrangement used by catchment and other drainage boards, which make it possible for them to levy on the owners who border a new road or who will gain advantage from the road. It is likely that the Minister will tell me that the form of this new Clause is unsatisfactory from many points of view, but I would like to ask whether he can give some assurance that this problem will be dealt with by some more suitable Clause between now and the Report stage.

8.53 p.m.

Mr. Pickthorn

Quite a long argument could justifiably be made on this point, because tens of thousands of acres are involved, and it is probable that there is no single step which would do so much to increase food production between now and the harvest of 1941 as this step. We have had a long Committee discussion, however, and I shall detain the Committee for as little time as I can. I rather agree with most of what was said by the hon. Gentleman who moved the new Clause, more particularly with his deprecatory remarks at the end of his speech. I feel that this Clause would not do what he wants. He used a phrase about land being diminished and said that we could do anything for any land except where production was actually going on at this moment. For that and other reasons, this form of words would certainly not do. Nor is it easy to see what form of words would do. It is, however, essential that some form of words should be found in this Bill, or some way ought to be found outside the Bill, for providing roads in the Fenland mainly, and also in some other parts of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, and other counties.

I would like to say a word about the definition of "road," because in discussions that I have had with various people it is often assumed that "road" means the sort of thing which carries traffic from London to York. If we were to ask for that kind of road, it could not be done economically, but that is not in the least what is wanted. The most that is wanted is the narrowest possible light concrete road, although possibly even less than that would do; or there could be the sort of concrete railroad which is used particularly in France, and consists of two narrow tracks of concrete laid down to the gauge of farm carts. The more expensive of these two methods has been carried out in some parts of Cambridgeshire for as little as £1 a yard. I do not think there can be any doubt that it ought to be done, and done quickly. I beg the Government not merely to tell us that this new Clause will not do, but to tell us some way in which this practical difficulty will be met, because it will be a great reproach to the Government and to all of us here if, for want of doing this work, there is in the autumn of 1941 considerably less food in England than there might have been if the work had been put in hand this month or next month, when it ought to be begun.

8.55 p.m.

Mr. Ede

It is clear that this new Clause is put down to raise the issue, because I can hardly think that the hon. Gentleman who moved it could imagine that in this form it would be welcomed in the agricultural districts. The Clause means that, except to the extent to which the land has improved in value, the cost will fall on the local ratepayers. That might mean in certain cases in, for instance, the county of Cambridge, that the town of Cambridge and other towns would pay a substantially increased rate in order to provide these roads. I imagine that some of the constituents of the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) would object if the charge were too heavy. I imagine that that difficulty might also prevent anything being done on the Report stage, because anything which is introduced in the Bill to increase the charge on the rates will be out of order, it is clear that there is an agricultural problem represented in this new Clause which demands the urgent attention of the Government. This particular solution of throwing the whole cost on the ratepayers would evoke resentment even in the districts that benefited. The problem is so large in various parts that we must hope that the Government will do something from the Exchequer or in some other way to provide the kind of roads suggested by the hon. Member for Cambridge University, or by some other means to make this land accessible when it is in the position described by the hon.

Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts). While my friends and I cannot support this new Clause, we realise that there is an agricultural problem that should be remedied, and we trust that the Government will deal with it.

8.59 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

All hon. Members who have spoken on this matter have relieved me of part of my responsibility, which is to deal with the terms of the new Clause. It seems to be agreed on all sides that it is not practical as it stands. It deals with all roads and does not distinguish between the roads with which we are trying to deal as part of this problem and other roads. There is another provision, as the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has pointed out, as regard the surplus cost falling on the rates. It would impose a novel burden on county councils, namely, the obligation of looking after what in many cases are private roads, and there is no provision as to the cost of upkeep.

Mr. W. Roberts

Part of my proposal is what the county councils concerned have asked for.

The Solicitor-General

I am not at all certain about that. The hon. Gentleman will, of course, recognize that the proposed new Clause went on to the Paper only the day before yesterday, and that there has been no opportunity of discussing this matter with the county councils. I will not go into technical details and weary the Committee by showing why the Clause just would not work as it stands, but it is obvious that the feeling of the Committee is that that is not a sufficient answer to the case that has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn). My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Captain Briscoe) has also raised that case for a considerable period of time past. I have some personal interest in and knowledge of the matter, as I was a boy on Sedgemoor, where very much the same kind of problem existed—acres of fertile land which were unproductive only because they could not be reached in bad weather along the bad grass roads which alone led to them.

I want to give an assurance to the Committee that this problem is present to the mind of the Government and that it is by no means the intention of my right hon. Friend, at a time when we are most anxious to bring into cultivation every acre of good land that we can, that we should concentrate our efforts on the comparatively poor land and leave rich, fertile land untouched merely because it is difficult to get at. I know that that assurance will be welcome to the hon. Gentleman and to others who have taken an interest in the matter. The question of how to deal with the matter is being explored very carefully. It is highly probable that we shall be able to deal with it without recourse to any added legislation. Suppose one takes two cases that present different problems. In one case there is a piece of fertile land uncultivated, at the end of a grass road which is owned by the owner of the land. If that were the situation it would be possible, in my view, to deal with it under Clause 22 of the Bill. One of the pre-requisites that the land is not being cultivated or is not being cultivated in accordance with the rules of good husbandry as denned by the Act of 1923 is there, and therefore it will be possible for the work to be carried out.

That does not exhaust the matter, because there remains the case where access is by a long road over which either there is only an easement or ownership exists in somebody who is not the owner of the land that you want to cultivate. I do not think we can deal with that case under Clause 22; but under No. 51 of the Defence of the Realm Regulations we have power to carry out any necessary work. I can repeat the assurance that I have given that the precise methods by which we shall approach the matter are under active consideration. Hon. Gentlemen can rest assured that we are obliged to them for calling our attention afresh to the problem, and that we do not intend to let its significance escape us.

9.4 p.m.

Captain Briscoe

I wish to thank the Solicitor-General very warmly for the announcement that he has just made. I have been chasing this matter for many years with many Ministers of Agriculture and Ministers of Transport. I purposely did not endeavour to speak before the Solicitor-General, because I felt that I could not agree with the terms of the proposed new Clause. My main reason was that which was put forward by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), that if there was a loss, and the money could not be recouped from the owners of the land, the loss would fall on the ratepayers. That seemed to me to be most unreasonable. The matter ought to be dealt with either by the internal drainage boards or by the war agricultural committees, but it really does not matter to us how it is done, so long as it is done, and done fairly.

I would say one word about the unique proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn). He thought that wheel tracks would do. I can assure the Minister that they would not do at all in many Fen roads, unless you wanted the horses that went along them to be drowned between the tracks. Hon. Gentlemen must not think that that is all it is necessary to do in order to make these roads fit for carrying loaded vehicles. I again thank the Solicitor-General for his announcement, and I hope there will be no delay in carrying it into effect.

9.7 p.m.

Mr. Haslam

I would add my own appreciation of what the Solicitor-General has said, and would call attention to a small point relating to culverts. In many parts of the country the culverts need to be brought up to date, because they have to carry the heavy vehicles which are now becoming increasingly common and which are a necessity for the modern cultivation of the soil. I hope that the Minister will not forget the question of strengthening the culverts.

The Solicitor-General

That point will be borne in mind.

9.8 p.m.

Mr. W. Roberts

I also would thank the Solicitor-General for the assurance which he has given. The main thing, of course, is to get the work done, but the way that it is done is also of some importance. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the proposed new Clause.

Motion, and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

First, Second, Third, and Fourth Schedules agreed to.