HC Deb 18 July 1949 vol 467 cc1120-8

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

10.52 p.m.

Brigadier Medlicott (Norfolk, Eastern)

It has been said that one of the keys to the solution of the economic problems with which we are faced is a great expansion of agricultural production. Perhaps, therefore, it may not be out of place if, for a few minutes, we consider some of the ways in which we can increase the total area of land available for agricultural and horticultural purposes. I would like to say how sorry we are that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, who was to have replied to this Debate, is indisposed, and we wish him a speedy recovery.

I want to make it clear at once that I do not intend to range over the whole of the ground involved, if I may so put it, but to give just three examples, and three examples only, to show that the total amount of agricultural land is not as large as it could be. On 12th April, the Minister of Town and Country Planning, in reply to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Sir J. Barlow), gave the figures of the annual loss of agricultural land in this country. It was I think, helpful that those figures were given because some very exaggerated suggestions are made from time to time. Figures as large as a net loss of 50,000 acres a year have been mentioned and it was reassuring to be told that, after all, the average loss each year is not more than 8,000 acres, although that is large enough.

I understand that the Minister of Town and Country Planning is, in fact, considering how a more accurate method of disclosing the variations in agricultural acreage can be devised, and it would seem to be necessary to have some such method because, for example, we find that during the year 1946–47, 73,000 acres of agricultural land were lost to agriculture. But during the following year, 1947–48, 80,000 acres were gained. These are large figures and without analysing them, one cannot deduce any very accurate lesson except that it is quite clear that when 80,000 acres come back into agricultural use, they are not immediately available for food production and may well be lost to effective agricultural use for some considerable time longer.

I mention these figures as a necessary background to the particular points I want to make. During the last war a large number of aerodromes were constructed in this country and a particularly large number of them were sited in East Anglia. Perhaps few counties contained more, certainly few could have contained more in proportion to their size, than Norfolk. It was clear when the war ended that there could be no question of an immediate decision as to which would be retained and which could be released. These matters inevitably take time and I am most anxious not to appear to be critical of the Service Departments, whose work is directed to our welfare and defence, but I do suggest that the time lag has been longer than it might have been. There might have been a rather more speedy release of some of this land for agriculture. We are now four years from the end of the war, and some of these sites are not yet cleared up.

At the same time it is only fair to say that progress has been made in Norfolk. The agricultural executive committee have taken over, with the co-operation and assistance of the Air Ministry, some 13 of these aerodromes and the committee have done valuable work in clearing up rough ground and bringing land back into cultivation, either by themselves or by means of sub-tenancies granted to local farmers. There is no need to mention the number of air stations in the county which have been retained for operational purposes. There are, however, still five in respect of which, apparently, no very definite plans have yet been made for their future agricultural use. I understand that these five have recently been de-requisitioned and I want to suggest that de-requisitioning of air stations, with the fairly large acreage involved, can and does afford a special opportunity for bearing in mind the needs of smallholders. Smallholding is a feature of the countryside which is particularly popular and successful in Norfolk. A great deal has been done, but there are still some 400 to 500 people waiting the opportunity of securing smallholdings in this county. Is enough being done to put land at their disposal as quickly as possible?

The case I have particularly in mind is that of the aerodrome at Ludham, or Fritton as it is sometimes called, which was originally the centre of a large smallholding area. The Minister will agree that there has been rather a lot of delay. I do not know that blame can be attached to anyone in particular. This is one of those situation where so many interests are involved, but if anything can be done to see that, in other cases, the procedure is quicker than it has been at Ludham, I am sure many people will be very grateful.

The second of the three points I want to raise is the question of dispersal sites. I have no official figures and I want to make it clear that I have not been asked by any local body or individual to raise these matters. The figures I give are those I have collected from my own observations and inquiries in Norfolk. It would seem that each of these dispersal sites occupies a minimum of 50 acres, or at least the average size of these sites is not less than 50 to 60 acres. There are some 18 air stations in the county which have either been handed over to the agricultural committee or have just been de-requisitioned and passed back into private hands, and in connection with each of them there is a dispersal site of the average size I have mentioned.

The result is that there may be anything up to 1,000 acres—it may be a little less—in the county of Norfolk involved in these various dispersal sites. Presumably figures of that order would be applicable throughout the rest of the country. I appreciate that the major difficulty with these sites is that they are now covered with concrete, and that the cost, in money and labour, of removing this tremendous quantity of concrete is formidable. I also agree that many of these sites were put on indifferent quality land, that the top soil was removed, and that even if the concrete could be taken away tomorrow the land underneath would be poor. There are, however, some exceptions, and I think it is generally agreed in the county that some of the land used was among the best in that county of good agricultural land.

To give examples, I think that the stations at Swannington, Oulton, Seething and Ludham are instances of air stations at which dispersal sites have taken a lot of good land, and that some means ought to be found of bringing that good land back, ultimately, into production. I am not minimising the immense difficulty of dealing with these acres of unwanted concrete, but I ask the Minister what is the long-term view with regard to these sites. Unless something is done—and I am not suggesting that it can be done immediately—it will mean that these acres of concrete will be left on hundreds of acres of land, possibly for generations.

It may well be that the Air Ministry are keeping an eye on these concreted sites against the unhappy possibility that the Air Force will need to use them again. If that is so, I suggest that the Air Ministry ought to take some measure of responsibility for the sites—if only for the reason that they are becoming quite a danger from the point of view of weed infestation. Weeds are growing up and becoming an inconvenience and nuisance to the good agricultural land surrounding the sites. A further question I would like to ask is what is happening in the case of air stations which the Air Ministry are retaining for operational purposes. I believe that the Minister will have no difficulty in giving us a satisfactory assurance, but if he can give any up-to-date statistics as to the amount of cropping and the agricultural use made of the land available on some of the stations retained for the Air Force these figures will be received with interest.

Finally, I want to make one other point which does not affect the Air Ministry alone. I refer to the continuous acquisition of agricultural land by various departments and local authorities for a great variety of purposes such as housing, school playing-fields, road widening, sewage disposal, factory extensions and other purposes. For each of these purposes a good case can be made out, and those of us who are Members of this House are perhaps in a measure responsible, because we all play our part in urging that this or that scheme should be initiated by the local authority. But in the result there is a great loss of agricultural land, and it all contributes to that gradual whittling away of the agricultural acreage to which I have referred.

I want to say, in conclusion, that these pieces of land taken away from agricultural holdings may not always be large in size, but they are sometimes the most vital part of the holding. I have instances, with which I will not trouble the Minister now, but of which I can give the fullest details, showing where farms of 100 acres or so have had a vital piece of ground taken away from them; in one instance the farm buildings have been separated from the rest of the holding, with results that can well be imagined.

These are the three points I wanted to urge. Certainly in the case of Norfolk there has been an immense amount of work done by the agricultural executive committee and by the smallholdings committee of the county council and their officers, and they have received great encouragement and sympathetic help from the Ministries concerned, but there is this question of the slowness of the procedure, as well as the three specific points to which I have referred and on which I hope the Minister will be able to give us some further reassurance.

11.7 p.m.

Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South-Western)

The hon. and gallant Member has raised a problem of some concern to the people of Norfolk. A large amount of land had to be taken for airfields, and we can now see into the future far enough to know that we shall want both airfields and agriculture to continue in a county like Norfolk for a number of years. Therefore, the problem that concerns us is how quickly the Air Ministry can dispose of those airfields which it will no longer require, either for immediate operational use or for the possibility of some future use of the runways, and the getting back of that which is not wanted to its fullest and best agricultural purpose.

It is not correct to assume that because certain land has been taken for use by the Services that it is not bearing good crops. There is land in Norfolk still under the Ministries that is growing better crops than it did before the war. The War Office and the Air Ministry have done some good work to enable local farmers to make good agricultural use of certain land which comes under their Ministries. But, on the other hand, there have been in certain cases delays which we hope can be shortened, so that the land may be brought back to agricultural use. It is not good enough just to continue on a year-to-year basis. If we are to make the best use of the land it must be planned for a number of years. There must be not only rotation of crops, but if possible there must be stock and crops on the land.

The Air Ministry will continue to have certain bases in the Eastern Counties. I am concerned to know whether on some of these very large airfields the Air Ministry can combine cultivation of the soil, and if necessary the grazing of sheep or cattle where they are covered with grass, so that we can get out of that land in between the runways that which the nation, and indeed the world, needs, for with the rapid increase in world population at the rate of 55,000 a day we must, in our island home, make the utmost use of every piece of land surrounding the runways and between the runways, if we are to make the utmost use of the soil. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will do his utmost, while maintaining the upkeep of the runways for present and future use, to see that the land is also used to produce the food we so urgently need.

11.11 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas)

In the 10 minutes I have, I will try to answer all the points raised in this Debate. I think I should first deal with the point raised by the hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate and by my hon. Friend—namely, the use the Air Ministry is making for agriculture of airfields they still hold. During the war there were 640 airfields in this country, and about half of these—350—are still in use. Agricultural use of these 350 airfields is arranged by using the grass areas between the runways, in the case of runwayed airfields, and the airfield generally in the case of grass airfields, for grass-drying, and in this we employ the most modern methods. The work is usually carried out, not by us, but by the people who really know the job—neighbouring farmers.

On land adjoining airfields, we have schemes for growing vegetables for use on the stations, and for small-scale farming. The hon. and gallant Member asked me for some figures on this. I can give him two, which I think will satisfy him. Last year, the acreage and value of crops produced on R.A.F. stations rose in each case, by 50 per cent. compared with the previous year. At last year's R.A.F. horticultural show, Horsham St. Faith, a station in the hon. and gallant Member's constituency, more often praised for its fighter pilots, was highly commended for the vegetables which it had grown.

What I have said concerns the 350 airfields still in use. I now come to the 290 no longer in use as airfields. They fall into two categories. One hundred and twenty of them have been de-requisitioned and returned to their owners. The remaining 170 have been made available to the county agricultural executive committees for unrestricted agricultural use, pending either and de-requisitioning and return to their owners, or purchase by the Air Ministry for transfer to the Ministry of Agriculture for rehabilitation and management under the Agricultural Land Commission. I was asked about the use made by the county agricultural committees of these 170 airfields. Nearly all of them—80 per cent.—are let to neighbouring farmers, preference being given to the former occupiers. The remaining 20 per cent. are farmed by the county agricultural committees themselves.

The point was made, both by the hon. and gallant Member and my hon. Friend, that the Air Ministry was slow, that there was a long delay in dealing with these 170 airfields. We were slow. We could have been very much faster, but we could only have been faster if we had resorted to powers of compulsory purchase. We were slow because each of these airfields has many owners, and we are going ahead by negotiation with each one of these owners. I admit it has not been so fast as we would like, but I think speed would be bought at too high a price, because it would involve compulsory purchase. We should remember, however, that although the ultimate future of these airfields may not yet have been decided, they are in the meantime being used productively for agriculture.

Norfolk, particularly, was mentioned by both hon. Members, as their constituencies lie within that county. I think we should have the figures for Norfolk. One out of every 20 war-time airfields was in that county, or just over that proportion—namely 37. There are 19 airfields which we still use, and 18 which we no longer require. Five of these 18 have been de-requisitioned and returned to their owners, and, as the hon. Member mentioned, 13 which have been made available to the county committees for unrestricted agricultural use pending either de-requisition or purchase, for handing over to the Ministry of Agriculture for management by the Agricultural Land Commission.

A particular point was put about the dispersed sites near the airfields. I think it would help hon. Members if I describe the procedure to which we work for these sites. If we want the buildings where they are, we buy the site. If we do not want the buildings where they are, we remove what we want, and then we ask the Temporary Defence Works Committee, which is an inter-departmental committee under the chairmanship of the local Ministry of Works regional officer, to consider whether restoration is necessary in the public interest. This committee considers such things as the hon. and gallant Member mentioned in connection with the airfields in Norfolk. It considers, in consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture's Land Commissioners to whom it always goes for advice on land matters like this, the cost of restoration, balanced against the quality of the land, and the other agricultural aspects. The cost of removing concrete, as hon. Members may imagine, is enormous. I have not figures relating to runways, which are usually 12 inches thick; but I have seen a figure of £4,000 for removing ordinary three-inch concrete from the floors of six or seven 60-ft. huts. This will give hon. Members some idea of the cost of removing concrete. If the committee decides in favour of restoration, the Ministry of Works restores the land and the Air Ministry then de-requisitions. If the committee decides against restoration, the Air Ministry de-requisitions, and the owner can claim against the Air Ministry for compensation under Section 2 (1, b) of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939.

The last point which the hon. and gallant Member made was a general one about development of agricultural land. It is Government policy that, in planning the use of land, as much agricultural land as possible shall be kept for the production of food. Under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, machinery is set up for the preparation of long-term development plans by the local planning authorities, and administrative arrangements are made and function daily, so that at all levels up to Ministers, and the Cabinet if necessary, the Ministry of Agriculture is brought into consultation on every scheme involving the use of agricultural land. In conclusion, I can assure the House that the very greatest care has been taken by the Minister of Agriculture to see that at all stages the Government's policy of preserving agricultural land for food production is carried out.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.