HC Deb 09 February 1953 vol 511 cc180-90

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

10.42 p.m.

Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

The matter to which I wish to draw the attention of the House is to be debated in this Chamber shortly, but I make no apology as the subject of tonight's Adjournment debate was brought to the notice of the House before this debate was arranged. We are today bombarded, and sometimes bored, by the statements of economists and newspapers about difficulties due to balance of payments and the gap between imports and exports.

This country's target, I believe, is to grow only 60 per cent. of the food she eats. The other 40 per cent. we have to import. It is somewhat unusual, but I claim to have been consistent on all occasions when I have spoken in public outside this Chamber. I have always said, and I repeat, that the salvation of this country lies in three main things—in the use we make of our people, namely, the ingenuity and ambition of our people; in the use made of natural resources, notably coal; and in the use made of the land.

How are we, as a country with limited space, to use the land? The first thing we can do is to increase productivity until ultimately we are all growing appetising stuff and corn from damp blankets suspended in mid-air in magnetic circuits. Secondly, we can bring into cultivation what has become known as marginal land. In a recent debate, the figure of 2 million acres was given for moorland, heathland, and rough grazing. But the point with which I specially wish to deal is land preservation.

The present position in this country is briefly this. Every assault that is made on our land resources is vetted and approved by the Minister of Agriculture, who expresses what he thinks. However, the final decision is taken by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and this, in my view, is somewhat analogous to the situation in a court of law when there is a bad advocate and a bad judge. The situation which we have reached today is one which in my submission we cannot long accept without grave disquiet.

It has been estimated that we are losing 50,000 acres of land annually. This can only be a guess, but I think it is the National Farmers' Union who have made that estimate. Fifty thousand acres each year represents a loss to this country of a farm of 150 acres each day. It means that in 20 years' time at that rate we shall have lost the equivalent of half our wheat crop or the whole of the potato crop in one year.

In this matter we are bound to consider certain things. The first is, are we using to the utmost every acre of land for agriculture? Anybody who has travelled—as I do fairly regularly—between Birmingham and Wolverhampton cannot but have noticed the acres of land that have lain derelict for many years and probably for the best part of a century. This is not a discussion between town and country. That is not the argument at all, but there is one thing that can happen. The Press of this country could give this problem a great deal more ventilation that at present. I think the Press can do a great deal to make the public, both in the town and in the country, far more conscious than they are at present of the absolute urgency of this problem.

There are always arguments against whether in building we should spread upwards or outwards. The argument against spreading upwards is that of additional cost in building, and that I can understand. The National Farmers' Union have suggested grants from the Government. That is only a suggestion. I do not plead for it; I do not plead against it. To a far greater extent than in any other country in Europe, there is a great prejudice against blocks of flats for dwellings.

I live in the borough of Chelsea, and I suppose within 100 yards of where live there are five or six blocks of flats between nine and 10 storeys high. They are not by any means all privately owned, because there are council flats as well. At the same time, I suppose that that part of the City is one of the most highly rated parts of residential London. The argument that flats are distasteful and noisy is something that we can discount

I said earlier that this is ultimately a decision for the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It is my view that if there is any public enemy in this matter, it is the Minister of Agriculture; but I realise, of course, that ultimately the judge is the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The Minister of Housing shows a greater realisation of the problem than does the Minister of Agriculture. I think it was the Minister of Housing who spoke about "sprawling cities with blighted centres." That is true, and it is a danger; and we have got, as a result of the last war, blighted centres of cities with sprawling boundaries.

In August last year, the Minister produced a circular—one of many circulars—from which I should like to make two short quotations. The first—I agree with every word—says: authorities must take every care to conserve farm land—by building, wherever possible, on poorer land. … Later, the Minister says: a housing authority should be prepared to incur some additional cost where that will enable them to keep off good agricultural land. That is good, but it is only a circular, and I am afraid that it will achieve and mean very little.

One must wonder why certain things happen. One reads of examples of how. in the Services, certain houses that are to be occupied by officers for only short periods have anything up to one and three-quarter acres. We find that during the last few years schools have been built only one storey high. I wonder why that is? I am informed that Eton College is two or three storeys high. and as far as I know that is quite a good school.

In recent months it is only quite recently—I believe that the Minister of Education has started to require "require," I think, is the appropriate word—that schools become more compact. I presume this means going up to the first floor, and, perhaps, the second. That is a good thing, but there is a good deal of land which is wasted around schools, which is not necessarily used for playing fields or other recreational purposes but is just a cordon sanitaire which is created round the school.

A year ago last June, I was one of a Committee of four which sat to consider a Private Bill in the House, and I think that it is worth giving some of the figures. It was the Rochester Corporation Bill, and it proposed that Rochester Corporation should take within their boundaries some 5,600 acres. Under the Land Utilisation Survey, that land was divided by what one calls an agricultural expert into three categories, 1, 2 and 3, each category being divided into two.

In Category 1 (a), the United Kingdom average of Class I (a) land was 6.8, but in that particular area it was 41 per cent. That was some of the best agricultural land in the whole country, and yet solemnly a Bill came as far as this House—I am glad to say it was rejected by that Committee, of which I was a Member—which proposed to take over for housing and other purposes land of such a quality as that. As that agricultural expert said to the Committee, if we in this country build on land of that quality, we deserve to starve.

The second thing which I wish to bring to the notice of the House is an example of a development plan of a county authority. It is a good, sound plan, and as a development plan I do not argue about it, but it is worth seeing what that plan does. In the first place, in the next two or three years it proposes to take over 260 acres for administration. The Post Office take a little, a hospital accounts for 12 acres, and education alone takes 203 acres.

In addition, within the next 20 years I believe another 330 acres are proposed to be taken over under this development plan. I wonder what the development plan for agriculture over the same year is. Of course there is not one. The Council for the Preservation of Rural England has made strong representations on many occasions about this. They wrote in 1950 to the then Prime Minister, the present Leader of the Opposition. They received a letter in reply dated 18th May, 1950, which I think is worth quoting. It stated: In the last paragraph of your letter you suggest an official inquiry into the whole question of land use, with the object of assessing the amount of agricultural land likely to be required for development of all kinds over a given period. I cannot see that any inquiry directed to such a question could achieve any useful results. I have addressed the same question in another form to the present Prime Minister and the present Minister of Agriculture. When I asked the Prime Minister how long we were going on losing 50,000 acres of agricultural land a year and increasing the population by 300,000 a year, he sent me a copy of HANSARD of a debate in another place, and the Minister of Agriculture sent me a reply which was one hundred per cent. evasive.

I do urge the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister of Agriculture to consider the possibility of setting up some form of inquiry. We have got sitting today Royal Commissions on various subjects. I suppose a Royal Commission can be considered sometimes a method of shelving a matter, but never was an impartial inquiry required more on a subject than on this particular subject at the moment. When the hon. Gentleman comes to reply, I hope he will give me something more than the Departmental answer. It is very hard to get figures showing whether there has been a net increase or decrease of agricultural land. But, assuming over recent years there has been a decrease, how long are we going to let that state of affairs continue? I like to think a conclusion has been reached about it.

The Parliamentary Secretary may use any period he likes. What extra acreage does he expect to bring within the agricultural sphere? What percentage increase in production is it hoped to produce during that period? How many acres of agricultural land is it expected will be lost during that period? I am prepared to bet, if it is within the rules of order, that neither of the two hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench will be prepared to answer any of these questions. Does that letter from the former Prime Minister to the Council for the Preservation of Rural England still form the basis of Government policy? If it does, I implore both hon. Gentlemen in their own interests, and the interests of the country, to change their minds.

11.0 p.m.

Colonel Alan Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) has raised this vitally important matter tonight. I only want to ask the Minister whether it is or is not a fact that food is the most important thing in this country, or in any other country in the world. Coal is excellent, houses are splendid, and schools are all most desirable and very necessary, but without food they are all completely useless.

Therefore, if it comes to a question of whether good agricultural land should be taken for other purposes or left for the production of food in this small island which we cannot extend, then the answer must be food every time. That is where I think the Ministry of Agriculture has failed so badly as has the Department of Agriculture for Scotland. As my hon. Friend said a moment ago, it is not only the Ministry of Housing and Local Government which is at fault, because the Ministry of Fuel and Power is even worse with its opencast coalmining.

Does anyone believe that we are going to get the volume of food from abroad which we used to get? We are not. Therefore, we must get more and more from our own land, and that is the argument that must carry the most weight. I hope the Minister is going to agree with that, because every Minister responsible for the wellbeing of this island must say that whatever is required food must come first.

Brigadier O. L. Prior-Palmer (Worthing)


11.2 p.m.

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

I am sorry I cannot allow my hon. and gallant Friend to intervene, but I have only 10 minutes in which to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) who was fortunate enough to secure this Adjournment debate.

The Government realise the seriousness of the subject raised. There is no doubt that in this country we must be more self-sufficient as far as food is concerned than we have been in the past. I was a little distressed to hear my hon. Friend accuse my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture of being a bad advocate and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government of being a bad judge, and when he went on to say that Eton was a good school, I was tempted to remind him that my right hon. Friend is a worthy product of that good school. He went to Eton, so he cannot be a frightfully bad judge.

My hon. Friend asked certain questions involving a number of figures. I am bound to say that had he given notice of these particular figures it would have been much more easy to give him a precise, accurate and prompt answer than it is on the spur of the moment.

Mr. Langford-Holt

I apologise to my hon. Friend for not having given him notice of that, and I would not expect him to answer at this moment. I would be more than delighted to get a reply on the point in the course of the next two or three weeks.

Mr. Marples

I can do better than that; I will give my hon. Friend a reply in the next two or three days, and we will look at HANSARD in the morning to read what he has said so that we may give him the precise answers to the questions he has asked.

I would like to divide this subject into three parts. First, what is the Government's policy; second, what are the methods of administering that policy; and, third, who is responsible for the policy? The answer to the first part—what is the Government's policy?—is that it is to safeguard agricultural land. That is a prime object of planning, for planning is an abject and lamentable failure if it does not preserve agricultural land where it is possible to do so.

I think the entire House will be in agreement on that policy, and I am only sorry that the Opposition are so disinterested in this subject. It really is important that we should agree on this policy. The second thing is that when we are presenting a balanced argument on this, it is unfair not to mention that this is a crowded island as well as a highly industrialised community. This inevitably leads to a clash of interest between housing, agriculture and industry.

In many cases, it is a choice of evils, but we would be lacking in our duty to the present generation as well as to posterity if we did not preserve as much of our agricultural land as possible. Thirdly, there is the question of administering that policy and getting it over in the country. My hon. Friend said it was merely a circular, but my right hon. Friend—that worthy product of Eton—issued in 1952 Circular No. 65, paragraph 5 of which said: To select poorer land in preference to good land may, the Minister recognises, involve higher development costs. The question at what stage the additional costs may make the choice of an alternative site uneconomic must depend on the particular case, but a housing authority should he prepared to incur some additional costs where that will enable them to keep off good agricultural land. In other words, my right hon. Friend recommends that additional costs should be incurred to preserve agricultural land.

Mr. Langford-Holt

It is not being done.

Mr. Marples

If it is not being done, it is up to my hon. Friend or anyone else in a particular case to object.

My hon. Friend mentioned a development plan and said that in this development plan education had its say, housing had its say, and I think he said the Post Office had something to say. But any interested party—the National Farmers' Union or any individual farmer—can object to that plan, because it has not been approved and it is not final.

Mr. Langford-Holt

What about the Minister?

Mr. Marples

The Minister of Agriculture can do it. So can the hon. Gentleman if he wants to. So can any individual association in the constituency. The local branch of the National Farmers' Union, on behalf of its members, can object. I am bound to say that I, personally, have objected to the County of London Plan because it affects some of my own personal interests. Every person in this country has a right to object to a development plan if they want to, and it is wrong at this stage to say that the development plan is wrong, because it has not been finally approved. Any hon. Member can object to any part of any development plan. That is how we have tried to implement the policy.

Two recent booklets, one "The Density of Residential Areas" which my right hon. Friend issued in 1952, and the other "Design in Town and Village" which came out in 1953, have again emphasised this. My right hon. Friend really means this in his capacity as judge. In "The Density of Residential Areas" the first paragraph of the foreword written by my right hon. Friend. in his inimitable style. says this: Many thousands of acres of land have been taken for development every year and much of this is good agricultural land. Some loss of agricultural land cannot be prevented if we are to have more houses, schools and factories; if we are to meet the requirements of defence and if we arc to get the minerals we need. But is is essential that the amount of land taken should be kept as small as possible. That is the opening paragraph written by my right hon. Friend himself.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

Who takes any notice of that?

Mr. Marples

If my hon. and gallant Friend knows of any individual and particular case where no notice is being taken of that, where agricultural land is being taken which ought not to be taken, then, quite frankly, it is his duty to tell my right hon. Friend of that particular case rather than make generalisations.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

When a case is put up and apparently completely ignored—the case I intended to quote had I been fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye—of 25 acres of the best agricultural land taken, when there is a gravel pit next to it being used as a rubbish dump, it is difficult to understand what my hon. Friend is trying to say.

Mr. Marples

All I am saying is that if my hon. and gallant Friend will send me particulars of that case I will look into it and try to discover the facts. But the hon. and gallant Gentleman must make his arguments known before the land is taken in order that my right hon. Friend can weigh all the pros and cons of the particular case, and it is a wee bit unfair to generalise after the event instead of objecting before the event in a particular case.

Mr. Langford-Holt

I said the plan was a good one. I was not objecting to the plan. I was saying there was no national plan. The county plan was a good development plan.

Mr. Marples

If it was a good development plan it should have included proper provision for agricuItural land. If it does not include provisions to preserve the land then, to my mind, it is not a good plan. If it is a good plan merely for building houses and wrecking agricultural land I cannot see that it is desirable for the community, and any person who wants to object should certainly do so.

It is quite clear that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government is responsible, and before he makes any decision of any sort he has consultation with the Minister of Agriculture, either at headquarters or at regional level, whichever is appropriate. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture generally makes representations fairly vigorously. One difficulty, as far as the public is concerned, is that generally speaking the Ministry of Agriculture consults directly the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and does not give evidence in public at the public inquiry. Consequently, the public think it has not made its objections known. That, I think, is a weakness we might look at.

In the case of private development, the local planning authority consults local representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, and after consideration of the agricultural implications makes a recommendation. It is the responsibility of the local planning authority to determine, and balance, the merits of the application in the light of all the facts, and taking this recommendation into account. If it is going to prejudice agricultural interests, the Land Commissioner gets a sufficient appreciation of the agricultural considerations involved to enable the authority to judge the strength of the agricultural objections. I think the weakness in the system is that the public does not know that agriculture makes its representations. We will go into that point.

As far as development by local authorities and statutory undertakers is concerned, the provincial Land Commissioners are consulted before planning permission is given. The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject. We agree in policy. Where we disagree is that in some cases my hon. Friend thinks that instructions have not been obeyed.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twelve Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.