HC Deb 24 July 1946 vol 426 cc180-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Pearson.]

11.10 p.m.

Lord John Hope (Midlothian and Peebles, Northern)

The matter which I wish to raise should be looked at from two aspects. One is that of the destruction of valuable units of food production, and the other is that there is an infringement— and a serious infringement-—of the rights of the individual citizen. Before I refer to specific cases—and one in particular— I wish to bring to the notice of the House that in the County of Midlothian, 640 acres have been, in the period 1945 to 1946, earmarked for building development. Some 98 acres have also been earmarked for opencast coal mining. All these acres consist of some of the best agricultural land in the country.

I pass to the specific cases in which, in my estimation, things are going wrong through the way in which the Department is handling this matter of requisitioning agricultural land for building purposes. The first case concerns a farm called Craigour of some 150 acres. The intention of the authorities was to take that part of the land which included the farm buildings, and to leave the rest of the farm to be worked without buildings. That was the first intention, simply stated. As a result of complaints, there was a slight amendment, to the extent that the land, which includes the buildings, was not to be taken over, for the time being. The farmer does not know where he stands. In the case of another farm of some 52 acres, a note was received from the appropriate authorities by the farmer, or by the factor of the estate, worded "It is intended to use this site." As a result of that information, the farmer, who had lifted his potatoes and was ploughing ready for wheat, stopped ploughing. The land has not been taken over by the authorities, and, in fact, the field has been derelict since last year. The third case concerns Niddrie Mains, where a potato field which was entering on the lifting stage, was broken into and largely spoilt by a bulldozer, for the purpose of making a road.

There are two more cases. One is at Newbridge, about which the hon. Gentleman already knows. In that locality, a road was built in the standing com, spoiling a lot of it, but I understand that the arrangements have been held up as a result of representations. I am glad to hear that. The other case concerns a 9½ acre field, the tenant of which is a market gardener. This was in potatoes in 1945, and the tenant had planned to plant various vegetables last spring for the 1946 crop. He heard one day, purely by accident—by local rumour in the village— that his field would probably be taken over. He had heard nothing officially. As a result of this rumour, he telephoned to the authorities. They said that it was quite true that his field was to be taken over. There was nothing in writing, and, so far as I know, he has had nothing in writing since.

Finally, there is the case of the farm Mordun Mains, Liberton, of which the hon. Gentleman has had notice. In this case the farmer, Mr. McKendrick, is aged 57. He came on to the farm in 1937, and his lease expires in 1951. He made that farm up from absolutely nothing, from derelict, rotten, useless land. He made it up to a farm carrying a very fair amount of stock, in addition to which he has a milk round, and sells what is surplus to the round to the Milk Marketing Board. It is not disputed that this farmer has put up an extremely fine performance in the improvement he has made in this farm. He wrote a letter to me on 16th February saying that he heard rumours—again, rumours—that his farm was to be taken over for building. He said he did not pay much attention to these reports, but that week he had had a call from an official from the Department of Agriculture who warned him to look around for another farm, as he considered it likely that the corporation scheme would go through, and they would start in possession in six months' time. He replied that he had still a long period —I think about seven years—of his lease to run, and that at his age it would not be easy to get another place. He had nowhere to go, and he considered it unfair. The points I would bring out about this letter are that, first, this is a man of 57 who worked this farm up from nothing, as I have said; secondly, an official from the Department of Agriculture comes up without any notice in writing having been given—no letter saying that he intended to go to see the farmer—the official simply walks in and tells him to look around for another place, and that he has to go. I say that is not the way to conduct affairs. It is discourteous, to say the least. It is also demoralising to farmers, because this is not the only case in which this sort of thing has happened.

As a result of that letter I advised Mr. McKendrick to write to the Edinburgh Corporation and find out if the threat was real. He did so and found it was. I therefore wrote to the Secretary of State on 21st March asking whether the local agricultural executive committee had been consulted in this case, as I suspected that it had not. The Secretary of State replied on 30th March, and in the course of his reply said that the agricultural executive committee was not consulted about these proposals, but the land was inspected by a planning officer of the Department of Health and by a land utilisation officer of the Department of Agriculture to ascertain whether the land could be approved for housing development. After full consideration of the circumstances with the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health notified the corporation that it would be prepared to approve acquisition of the land by agreement.

I do not consider it right to say that agricultural considerations have been kept fully in mind when the agricultural executive committee of the district had not even been told about this being done. Finally I would ask the hon. Gentleman five very short questions of which I have given him direct notice: First, what yardstick do the Government employ in deciding how much good agricultural land they are going to destroy, and how much they are going to preserve; secondly, will the Government overhaul this inhuman and overbearing system of requisitioning so that farmers will be given the earliest possible notice in future, in writing, in a decent, courteous way, and shall not have an official coming to the door and saying, "You have to clear out," so that farmers can feel that things are not being done behind their backs; thirdly, is the Secretary of State fully prepared to override; fourthly, why is the agricultural executive committee for Midlothian not consulted in so many cases, especially in Moredun Mains; fifthly, and finally, will Mr. McKendrick now foe left in peace to carry on until 1951 when his lease falls in?

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Snadden (Perth and Kinross, Western)

I have a certain amount of sympathy with the noble Lord who has raised this question, but I want to be fair in my criticism, because I realise it is a very difficult problem to solve. I would look at it rather more generally, and the first thing that occurs to me is that the development of housing schemes constitutes a real drain on agricultural land. The second thing we have to remember in Scotland is that, although our country is much better farmed than England, we have a very small arable area. Out of 19,000,000 acres we have only 4,500,000 acres of arable land, but our yield per acre is much better than our friends south of the Border can show, in spite of the fact we have a much more rigorous climate. So I conclude from that analysis that it is imperative that we in Scotland should hang on to our 4,500,000 acres of high quality land and endeavour, in regard to housing, to preserve all the best of our land and to build our houses on the poorer ground.

The difficulty is to find sites for halt a million houses—I think that is the figure—and yet at the same time to preserve our best land for agricultural purposes. We know that on the borders of some of our towns we have dairy farms. These dairy farms, if they are split up, become uneconomic units and fail to serve the town. It is a very difficult problem indeed for any Government or for any Minister, when he is faced with the need for taking away part of one of these farms, in order to meet the demands of the local authority. But I would say, from my experience that it is better to take away a complete unit and be done with it, than to indulge in mutilation and leave a large number of uneconomic units. In any event it is not an easy job, and I think that the noble Lord who has just spoken would admit that the old law of supply and demand cannot operate today because of the acute need in our country for houses. With all respect, there does not seem to me to be any yardstick that we can employ at the present time. Each case, so far as I can see, must be treated solely on its merits. For that reason we have to emphasise that when these cases are being taken on their merits we should have proper consultation between the various Departments concerned. First there is the local authority; then there is the agricultural executive committee; then there is the Department of Agriculture for Scotland, and also the Department of Health for Scotland; and, finally, perhaps as a result of one or two letters to the hon. Gentleman opposite, we have the Minister.

What we want to get at tonight is that, although agriculture is our greatest single industry, all circumstances must be taken into account in these consultations. I must say that the Joint Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), so far as my cases are concerned, has been extremely helpful in this respect. In spite of that, there is dissatisfaction today in certain parts of Scotland, and I think that what we want to get at tonight is what is the procedure that is followed. If he can tell us that there is proper consultation between the Department of Health and the Agricultural Committees, and if proper publicity is given, I am certain that will remove a certain amount of the ill-feeling which results from the splitting up of country against town and that sort of thing. Then, we shall have gone a little way along the road to clearing up our difficulties.

11.26 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Thomas Fraser)

I have no complaint to make against the tone of the speeches of hon. Gentlemen opposite. Indeed, I should observe that the hon. Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) has just answered some of the questions put by the noble Lord. [HON. MEMBERS: "Only one."] Well, he answered one fully, and he partly answered some of the others. He said that we had a serious housing problem to solve in Scotland. We have, indeed, to find some 500,000 new houses. Recognising the urgency of that problem, I should have thought that it would have been appreciated on all sides of the House that there ought to be a minimum of delay in acquiring sites, so that the building of houses could proceed. It is true that there are cases, and perhaps a fair number of cases, of farmers, such as the constituent referred to by the noble Lord, who have worked very hard indeed, and have brought their farms to a good state of health, only to find at the end of it, that the local authority requires the land for housing purposes. But the housing authority, as all hon. Members are aware, is not allowed merely to walk in and acquire that land without anyone's permission. As most hon. Members must also be aware, the housing authority, which is a democratically elected body, is not likely to be grossly irresponsible in its method of acquiring land for housing. When they have decided on a site they make application to the Department of Health, so that they may get the approval of the Secretary of State through that Department; and the Department of Health never approves a site on agricultural land without consulting the Department of Agriculture. It may be that only the land utilisation officer will go and inspect the site. In the case referred to at Moredun Mains the Planning Officer of the Department of Health also went and looked at the site. They were looking for a suitable alternative site, but they were unable to find one, and having regard to all the circumstances, including the disadvantage to agriculture, the Secretary of State was forced to the conclusion that he had to approve this site.

After all, it was the city of Edinburgh that wanted the site. They, like other great cities in this country, have a housing problem, and my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend and colleague are always being pressed by hon. Members on that side of the House to get on with the job. Edinburgh has been pressing my hon. Friend very hard indeed to get on with the job of providing houses. Well, if we should give way to the noble Lord and say in answer to his last question that we would leave this man in possession of this holding until the lease runs out in 1951, where would my right hon. Friend stand? Although he is being pressed by hon. Members in this House he would have to say "I cannot approve this site until 1951 and so the housing must stand over." He would be in a quite indefensible position.

Lord John Hope

May I put this point? Of course that is the case so long as it is certain there is no alternative to pushing this man out. The hon. Gentleman will agree I do not complain of what is being done. I complain of the way in which it is being done. I thought he would say something about that.

Mr. Fraser

I take it the housing authority in Edinburgh have their regular meetings, and it will be proposed from time to time to seek to get permission to acquire another site for housing. And some member of the housing committee will say to a friend of his or hers that the housing committee are proposing to the corporation, who will doubtless approach the Secretary of State, that somebody's farm is to be taken over. That somebody has not been informed officially that the farm is being acquired for housing. We are not responsible for the date on which the local authorities will start negotiations with the owners of agricultural land for the purchase of that land for a housing site. We are not the governors of that at all. All we are concerned about is seeing whether or not it is right that that site should be approved and I do assure the House that the Secretary of State does not lightly turn aside the claims of agriculture when deciding whether or not a particular site should be approved.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

May I interrupt the hon. Gentleman? I think the point the noble Lord is trying to make is that it is grievous for any man who has worked up agricultural land suddenly to be dispossessed. He wishes to be assured there are consultations. Now he is asking—and can the hon. Gentleman say?—that these decisions are conveyed to these farmers as politely and as kindly and timeously as possible.

Mr. Fraser

I think this information is given as politely, as kindly and as timeously as possible. Perhaps not always, but I think in the majority of cases.

Mr. Snadden

Can I put one point? The real crux of these cases is that the first information the farmer got was when the contractors entered upon his land, the agricultural executive committee not being informed.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Buchanan)

Where was this? I do not want to interrupt but will the hon. member give us the case? The case probably happened under the last Government.

Mr. Fraser

Really we are not aware of any great hardship or of any great dissatisfaction with the present procedure. There are one or two isolated cases of people being annoyed. I do not blame the farmer at Moredun Mains for being annoyed. I would be annoyed if I were in his place, after all the work and energy I had put into the farm to find it was going to housing. It must be a great disappointment to a man of 57 years of age to know that in a few more months, or next year, he will be turned out, but, really, he is not turned out the following morning. I was trying to say that when approval has been given, then, presumably, the local authority will get into touch with the owner of the land, and, in the vast majority of cases, they are able to negotiate a voluntary purchase. In many cases, we have not had to invoke the powers that this House gave to housing Ministers recently under the Acquisition of Land Act for the speedy means of acquisition. We have not been doing that, and the noble Lord is not objecting to it. He is objecting to the cases where the very slow, cumbrous procedure is engaged in, where a sale is voluntarily carried through between the housing authority and the person concerned.

I think in the few minutes at my disposal I ought to answer the direct questions which the noble Lord put to me. He asked me, first, what yardstick the Government apply in deciding how much agricultural land to destroy, and how much to preserve? As the hon. Member who represents West Perth rightly said, it is impossible to have a yardstick. We have to consider the applications for site approval from the various authorities as and when they come forward. We have to consider each on its merits. The second categorical question was whether the Government would overhaul the inhuman, overbearing system of requisitioning so that early warning in writing is given. I can answer that by saying that we do not consider that the system is inhuman or overbearing. Then he asked whether the Secretary of State is prepared to override his officials in hard cases. Of course, the Secretary of State is the Minister responsible. On occasion, he has to act as the arbiter between the housing department and the agricultural department. He would have to take into account, when deciding hard cases, what hardship there would be on the authority as well as on the individual concerned.

The next question was why the agricultural executive committees had not been consulted in very many cases. The agricultural executive committee is not a proper instrument to be consulted at all in these cases. The Secretary of State is advised by his Land Utilisation Officer; he is the person to advise the Secretary of State. If he should refer those matters to the agricultural executive committees for their deliberation and decision, I wonder how long he would have to wait before he got that decision and in how many cases a committee would actually say, "This land is of no use for agriculture and, therefore, we can give it up." These people, quite rightly and correctly—I do not object to it at all—would merely put forward the case for the agriculturist. That is a case often put forward by the Land Utilisation Officer of the Department of Agriculture. If we should agree to consult the agricultural executive committee as to the agricultural need of the community, or the agricultural value of the land, we might very well be forced into the position of consulting other interested people as to the need for housing in the area.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order made upon 16th August.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-one Minutes to Twelve o'clock.