HC Deb 01 May 1952 vol 499 cc1821-30

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

11.56 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Hollis (Devizes)

I wish to take the opportunity to raise a particular instance of a general problem which, to some extent, is found in every part of the world.

We are all aware now, I think, of the great fact that when the first industrial expansion took place people were allowed to build factories or build homes almost regardless of their position, and it was thought right enough that agriculture should be allowed to look after itself. That, as we have now come to realise, has created a very serious problem in these days when the first of our needs is to conserve as much of our agricultural land as possible. There can be no county in England, I am sure, where it would not be possible to bring forward difficulties which we could ask the Minister to face, but I want to put before the House the case of one particular county whose livelihood is very seriously threatened, the County of Wiltshire.

Wiltshire has been, as we know, traditionally one of the most important agricultural counties in the country, and now, by a series of different converging events, the agricultural land of that county is very seriously threatened. To begin with, for reasons which I do not in the least wish to challenge, it happens to be the part of England which is most convenient for military use, and so we have to start off by facing the fact that no less than one-seventh, not merely of the agricultural acreage, but of the total acreage of the county is in the occupation of Government Departments.

It is perfectly true, of course—nor do I suggest the contrary—that not all the land that is in War Department occupation is totally unused for agriculture, but, nevertheless, it does mean that very far from the full use of it is being made, and of the 100,000 acres that is in the Government's occupation the National Farmers' Union suggested two years ago that at least 10,000 more acres could be made available to farmers for use on a year to year basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. J. Morrison) put down an Amendment to the Motion for an Address in reply to the King's Speech in 1950, and the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), who was then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and replied to that debate, did recognise the very special problems of Wiltshire; and it is fair to say that only the other day Lord Carrington, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, visited the county and held out hopes of very full co-operation with the authorities of the War Office in the future.

I do not wish to suggest that the authorities are not prepared to do as much as they can, nevertheless, there is no doubt that it is a natural tendency of all Government Departments to take more land than they really need, and it is the duty of other Government Departments to make certain that all the land is used for agricultural purposes that is not absolutely necessary for military purposes under Schedule 3, or some other plan.

The Ministry of Supply is, in one part or other of the county, in occupation of more than 40,000 acres. There is the great area of Imber, from which the general public have been excluded, and Portland and Boscombe Down and the operations they are carrying out near the Beckhampton range. The Ministry of Supply are engaged on a study of mysteries into which we are not permitted to enter, which doubtless most of us would not understand if we were. If I were shown them I would not be able to say what amount of land was needed for tests of atomic energy.

The Ministry of Supply clearly needs land. We are not disputing that, but there is doubtless a tendency to take more land than it strictly needs. I hope my hon. Friend will give an assurance that from his point of view he will keep a close watch on the Ministry of Supply and the War Office to make certain that they are not taking more than is absolutely necessary for national purposes.

In addition to this Government occupation, there are a number of others using agricultural land. At present there is a plan to build a gigantic sanatorium for mental defectives which will take up a considerable acreage in the Vale of Pewsey, and there are housing projects which, if not checked, will interfere with a considerable amount of small holdings in two villages to the north of Devizes. Wiltshire has very much more than its fair share of other activities going on in the county on land which could otherwise be used very fully for agricultural purposes.

We perfectly understand that these things have to be done. Important as agriculture is, we are not so foolish as to suggest that nothing but agriculture can go on in this country. The reason I am glad to be able to raise the composite picture of Wiltshire in regard to this problem—we have raised the question of military land and that of the Swindon extension before—is that while, one by one, there is obviously a good deal to be said for these projects, I wish to point out that altogether the effect on Wiltshire's agricultural prospects is very serious.

There are already all these invasions of the agricultural life of Wiltshire, and others are taking place or are threatened. There is a new plan for a gigantic extension of Swindon with the importation of large populations from London and elsewhere which, in the form it was put forward, would mean 2,700 acres of very good agricultural land to the south of that town would be lost to agriculture.

The Swindon plan has received no kind of backing or agreement in detail either from the county planning authority or from the Ministry—as the Parliamentary Secretary has assured me in private. I want him and the House to realise that Wiltshire is a county that has been called upon to make very serious sacrifices of agricultural land—more serious probably than any other county—and that therefore when the Swindon plan comes up, whatever plan may be agreed, great care will be taken to ensure that it involves only the minimum of sacrifice of agricultural land. We simply cannot afford to lose any more.

12.6 a.m.

Mr. John Morrison (Salisbury)

I welcome the opportunity of supporting my hon. Friend, and I am glad he has raised the matter. Wiltshire has had many calls from the Service Departments, and we realise the necessity of training for our forces. But we also realise, especially on the evening following two days debate in another place on the importance of agricultural production, that we should grow as much food as we can. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate that, although he is not an agriculturalist.

So far as military training is concerned, the recent conference between the G.O.C., Salisbury Plain District, and the War Office tenant farmers has considerably helped in regard to agricultural production on that land. I am sure that if we can proceed upon the friendly basis established recently, rather, perhaps, than as in a few years past, both the needs of the military and farming can go hand in hand.

My hon. Friend and his Ministry cannot suggest to either the War Office or the Forestry Commission the planting of trees, although they can stop the cutting down of trees. In my lifetime, as I said in the Army Estimates debate, Salisbury Plain as a training area has suffered detraction from its usefulness because most trees have now disappeared. If more trees could be planted on the Plain, it would be much more advantageous for all sorts of training.

12.9 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

The House in general and Wiltshire in particular will be most grateful to my two hon. Friends for raising this important issue. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. J. Morrison) I will bring to the Forestry Commission's attention his remarks about the lack of trees on Salisbury Plain. The initiation of any move should come from the Forestry Commission and I shall make certain his views are known. I shall myself write a letter to inform them of what he said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) has raised this subject before, and he always raises it with the lucidity we expect of him. Although I am not an agriculturist, I have a vested interest in consuming what is produced, and for that reason I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, who said it is important in this very small island that we conserve every acre of agricultural land that it is possible to conserve from other uses. I agree with that. A major object of planning—whether it is carried out successfully or not is another matter—is surely to prevent the undue diversion of agricultural land from agriculture to other uses which are not so vital.

I want to say a word or two about Wiltshire and give one or two figures to the House. The total acreage of Wiltshire is about 861,000 acres, and it is practically all agricultural land. One-eighth of that, roughly speaking—not one-seventh—amounting to 114,100 acres is taken for the purposes of the Service Departments, which is a high figure, as my hon. Friend says. But I am not sure that it is a fair comparison to compare one county with another. Some counties have suffered grievously, and Wiltshire, quite frankly, has given more land to the Service Departments than any other county.

But, surely, the test is whether in any county the use of agricultural land for other purposes is justified. One must balance the needs of housing with those of the Service Departments. If I may I will analyse what the Service Departments hold in Wiltshire. They now hold 114,100 acres, but they held 105,000 acres even before the war so that there has not really been a disproportionate increase in the acreage taken from agriculture during and subsequent to the war.

Mr. Hollis

But does not my hon. Friend appreciate that, since the introduction of live training, land, such as Imber, which could be used for cropping at the same time as it was used for training in the old days, cannot now be used for cropping?

Mr. Marples

I do, but that does not apply to all the land which the Service Departments have taken, but only to specific instances which are the minority and not the majority of the acres they have taken.

It might be of interest to the House to say where the increases have taken place. Most of the increases have been at air-fields and in connection with the extension of the Ministry of Supply experimental station at Porton. But the Ministry of Agriculture and the Wiltshire County Council as the responsible planning authority have in both cases agreed to it. This allocation of agricultural land has not been carried out, as it were, over the dead body of agriculture, but with its full agreement.

In some cases the tenacity of the agriculturists in Wiltshire, which is known to all hon. Members here, has resulted in a number of proposals being modified and certain of them being withdrawn. Concessions have been made, and I think those concessions are reasonable, but I do not think the agriculturists have much cause to complain about the result of their negotiations in Wiltshire. Just because Wiltshire has the most land taken over by the Service Departments that does not mean that the increases in acreage which the Service Departments take should be considered with less care than elsewhere. If anything, we should consider them with more care because of the losses they have already suffered.

I want to say a word about the War Office. The War Department hold more land in Wiltshire than any other Service Department. They are using 95,000 acres at the moment. Of those 95,000 acres, 8,000 are for Bulford and Tidworth where there are permanent camps. Then 21,000 acres, that is, nearly a quarter, are used for normal agricultural purposes, and if any disturbance takes place compensation is given. Forty thousand of the 95,000 acres are used for agriculture at a low rental. Of those 40,000 acres, 8,000 are free from disturbance as compared with 5,000 acres which were free from disturbance last year, so that while the point made by my hon. Friend in his intervention that live ammunition is adversely affecting the ability of the agriculturists to use the land for cropping is a good one, it has less force this year than it had last year. The area has been visited recently by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and his Ministry regards the arrangements as being satisfactory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes referred to the Ministry of Supply and the amount of agricultural land they have taken from Wiltshire. What he said is perfectly true. They have taken at Imber 15,000 acres used jointly by the War Department and the Ministry of Supply. The War Office use it for battle training and the Ministry of Supply for testing new weapons. When that land was taken over in 1949 there were no objections by the Ministry of Agriculture or the local authorities. I regret to say that as the range is in continuous use any cropping of land has to be confined to a relatively small area on the fringe. There is also some land at Boscombe, Allington, and Porton, and altogether there are nearly 40,000 acres in use.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes that my Ministry is the co-ordinating Ministry in this matter. It is up to a Government Department, spon-soring a specific section such as the agricultural community, to make representations to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and he, ultimately, will decide what use should be made of the land. I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend will keep an eye on this matter. This is a question of fact, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury have any specific cases they think ought to be considered by my right hon. Friend I shall be more than grateful if they will provide full particulars, and my right hon. Friend will see what can be done.

The Pewsey mental defectives' colony referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes has been in existence for many years and has never been fully developed. I presume that was because of lack of clients in the olden days, but in these modern days when democracy has seen the light of day there are more clients than there used to be. The proposal is to use more accommodation by taking 84 acres of land. Sixty-six acres of these are agricultural land and these will continue to be farmed by mental defectives and will still remain in production. On the assumption that supervision is good and the defectives carry out their work with reasonable efficiency the land should yield the same amount of food for the nation as it did in the past.

Both the Minister of Health and the Wiltshire County Council are in favour of the extension, but it is opposed by a local council on the ground of difficulty of providing a water supply and a sewerage system. A meeting of the parties has been arranged for 30th May. I sympathise with the county upon having so much of its land taken from it.

The last point concerns Swindon. The Minister has approved in principle the expansion of Swindon for the reception of overspill from London. This is in accordance with proposals in the Towns Development Bill now before the House of Commons. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes has taken a great part in the Committee stage of that Bill. Swindon is regarded as a suitable place for expansion for two reasons. First, it it a "one industry" town. It depends on the railway works only and the introduction of new population and industry will introduce a greater degree of balance in the town's industry. The second reason is that the train services are good and, therefore, the area is one where it is reasonably easy to decant the population of London. That is the principle on which it is being made an expanded town. But no decision has been taken on the extent of the expansion or the amount and location of land required to house the addition population.

A great agitation has arisen as a result of certain statements made by the Swindon Town Council, and I think those are the statements which have disturbed my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes. His figure of the increase was given without the authority of my right hon. Friend or of the Wiltshire County Council who are the local planning authority. The present population of Swindon is about 70,000 and the Swindon Town Council propose an increase of 60,000 which is nearly 100 per cent. The question of the size of the expansion is a matter, in the first place, for the Wiltshire County Council, and they asked for the advice of the Government Departments concerned particularly in the matter of the introduction of further industry into Swindon, because it is hopeless to plan for the expansion of Swindon merely by introducing houses and making it a vast dormitory for London. We must introduce industry into the area to form a balanced community.

The matter is now being considered by the Department, and it is hoped that a statement on their views will shortly be available to the county. My right hon. Friend feels sure that the county will take into full account the effect of any expansion upon agricultural land. I think it ought to be realised that provision must be made somewhere for London's overspill, and I think my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes agrees in principle.

Mr. Hollis

indicated assent.

Mr. Marples

I am glad that my hon. Friend assents to that principle.

The alternative would be the evil one of building on London's Green Belt, and London is already large enough. We are trying to prevent the expansion of what they call congested areas such as London and Manchester; "conurbations" is the word used by the planners. It is necessary to expand some of these existing towns, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be wise if the authorities would be careful not to inject a note of alarm into the statements that they make. I hope my hon. Friend will be satisfied. I can assure him that if he will give my right hon. Friend particulars of any agricultural land which he thinks is being built on unnecessarily the matter will be carefully considered.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.