HC Deb 07 May 1952 vol 500 cc394-6

3.57 p.m.

Mr. J. K. Vaughan-Morgan (Reigate)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it an offence to carry out any development consisting of the removal of surface soil from land used for the purposes of agriculture without the grant of planning permission required in that behalf under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. In short, the Bill is designed to stop the spoliation of good farming land which is continuing all over the country at the present time, and particularly in the Home Counties. It does not in way prohibit such accepted trades as the sale of turf or, indeed, the sale of top soil when it takes place in reasonable quantities. Soil is now being taken from good farming land in large quantities and is being used to fill the flower-pots and window-boxes and gardens of the cities. I understand that it is also used on greyhound racing tracks. It cannot be right that good farming land should have its soil filched for such purposes.

I can best explain to the House the reason for the urgency of and necessity for this Bill if I recount what has happened recently in my constituency at Bletchingley. A speculator bought in early February some 46 acres. He proceeded to install a mechanical grab and to remove the surface soil to a depth of about 18 inches. Today he has devasted some 15 acres. On 18th February I got into touch with the Ministry of Agriculture when I learned what was happening. The Agricultural Executive Committee acted with great promptitude and started proceedings, as far as they could, on 22nd February. However, it was not until the 21st April that it was possible to bring this soil pirate to court. It then happened that Mr. William Henry Stevens, who ironically describes himself as a landscape architect, was fined £50 and £3 costs at Oxted Court for failing to comply with the direction made requiring him to cease removing turf and topsoil on land at Bletchingley.

In view of the fact that the speculator in question is making, at a conservative estimate, a profit of £180 per acre on each of the 15-20 acres which he has despoiled, this £50 fine has merely acted as a spur to greater activity. Yesterday I received a telegram from a neighbouring farmer as follows: Spoliation of land at Bletchingley continues rapidly. Six lorry loads left in 20 minutes this morning. Lorries still queueing for filling. The farmer in question continues with a request that action should be taken to end this as speedily as possible. Meanwhile, under the other Act involved, the Town and Country Planning Act, the local council also initiated action, but that has proved even slower and the case will not come into court until 19th May.

I hope I have said enough to explain to the House that the present machinery is undoubtedly too slow and too ineffective to stop this trade, and the Bill which I ask leave to bring forward will therefore make it an offence to remove top soil without planning permission. I should explain that it will be necessary for the penalties to be commensurate with the threat which this trade represents to a basic industry of our country, and on a scale sufficient to take profitability out of continuing to trade after legal action has been taken.

I hope I have proved to the House the urgent need of such a Bill. I have the support of hon. Members of all parties. Let me add that the Bill has a sporting chance of reaching the Statute Book by the end of this Session. I also understand that the intention of this Bill has the approval of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I end by appealing to all in this House who appreciate the need at this moment to see that we use our land effectively, to help to end this squalid traffic.

4.3 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I rise to oppose this Bill. It seems to me to relate to a matter of principle which may well involve legislation, but it should not be ill-considered legislation. There can be no greater mistake than the casual creation of new crimes. To take a certain bad case and to say that we will have a general law about it, without considering all the spreading results that such a law may have, is the wrong way to legislate and the wrong way to create crimes.

We have been told by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Vaughan-Morgan) that already it is an offence under some agricultural Act, that it is already an offence under the Town and Country Planning Act, but that these Measures are too slow. I do not know why the creation of a further crime should create a speeding up of the process. These things want proper consideration. If new crimes are to be made, it is for the Government of the day, after proper consideration, to say, "This thing shall be a crime." With their organisation and machinery they can look into the matter and see, not if it affects one land pirate, but how it affects every other kind of perfectly legitimate proceeding. This cannot be dealt with in a casual private enterprise way of saying, "Here is a thing to which I object; therefore let us make a general crime which makes not only this man a criminal but perhaps also a series of perfectly law-abiding citizens doing perfectly reasonable things who have not even been thought of."

Therefore, I object to this Bill upon the general principle. Let the hon. Member take it to the Government, and if they do not regard their criminal machinery as being sufficient, let them, after due consideration, bring in the necessary Measure. The creating of crime should not be a matter of private enterprise by back benchers.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Vaughan-Morgan, Mr. Crouch, Mr. Champion, Colonel Ralph Clarke, Mr. Philips Price, Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Grimond, Mr. Baker White, Mr. Peart, Mr. Deedes, and Mr. Gooch.