HC Deb 16 July 1964 vol 698 cc1590-8

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

10.46 p.m.

Mr. John Brewis (Galloway)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to raise the personal case of Mr. Thomas McWhirter, whose sheep farm at Borgan, near Newton Stewart, is due to be resumed by the Forestry Commission for planting, but at the same time I am sorry to have to raise it for it will fan the embers of what has been a dying controversy about land utilisation between sheep farmers and foresters.

It is now generally accepted that there is a place for forestry alongside agriculture in all the upland districts of Scotland, and indeed forestry can be a most valuable new industry. Trees can be most beneficial when planted as shelter blocks and much ground which is virtually useless for farming can grow a valuable crop of timber. Latterly, there has been a major break-through in forestry practice, resulting from the draining of deep peat by caterpillar tractors.

This land can now grow a useful crop of spruce suitable for the pulp mills. It has also been found that trees will grow at a somewhat greater altitude than had previously been supposed. The result is that the reserve of potentially plantable land in Scotland has been greatly increased.

With these few introductory remarks, I come to the case of Mr. McWhirter, who owns the farm of Larg of Bargrennan. To give credit where it is due, this farm was sold to him by the Forestry Commission in I960, although, he had previously been tenant for many years.

Larg of Bargrennan is not an easy place to handle. It extends to 2,700 acres of hill at an altitude of 2,300 ft. and is thus somewhat high to plant. On its own, it carries a stock of 28 score of black faced sheep which, taking into account the extent of the farm, is too much for one man to handle, but it could not economically support two men.

Since 1947 Mr. McWhirter has been tenant of the neighbouring farm of Borgan, which extends to 1,200 acres of which 850 is plantable. Borgan is at a much lower altitude and is, therefore, a far more desirable farm than Larg. Together, the two farms make a fully economic holding, carrying a stock of 42½ score of black faced sheep and 35 hill cows and employing Mr. McWhirter and a shepherd. They give ample employment to Mr. McWhirter and a shepherd. The combined holding is undoubtedly an excellent sheep farm.

Over the last few years wedder and ewe lambs straight from the hills have sold for an average of about £5 5s. Selected ram lambs have figured promin- ently at the Newton Stewart and Castle Douglas sales, often making £500 each and on occasion as much as £1,000. The Under-Secretary will perhaps agree that the hallmark of a good sheep farm, however, is the price of cast ewes. In the last six years they have topped the sale at Newton Stewart twice and been second four times. To put it bluntly, here is one of the best sheep farms in the Newton Stewart district scheduled for planting.

Who advises the Secretary of State on these questions of planned land use? Is there an impartial panel or committee in St. Andrew's House to which Mr. McWhirter can appeal, or is the decision final because the Forestry Commission bought this land for planting before the last war when conditions were entirely different? I hope that the Under-Secretary will clear up this point which is worrying many people in Galloway. We have come a long way since, centuries ago, a landowner could use his land as he willed. It has become increasingly accepted that land use must be planned, whether for housing development or anything else, in the best interests of the country.

If Borgan was excluded from the rest of the planting in Glentrool Forest of which it forms the boundary, the Water of Minnoch would form an excellent fire break. The Forestry Commission would use 850 acres of plantable land which would be reduced to 670 acres as Mr. McWhirter has freely offered 180 acres of other land for planting. Some 350 acres of Borgan are not fit for planting and they are likely to be sterilised in the category of unplantable land of which far too much is held by the Commission in Scotland already.

Is 670 acres so importont to the Forestry Commission? At 30th September, 1963, its plantable land reserve in Scotland was 166,719 acres and in Glentrool Forest alone, 7,298. In the same Newton Stewart area a very substantial acreage of plantable land is yearly becoming available for planting as cooperation between the sheep farmers and the Forestry Commission increases. I refer to such recent schemes as the planting of the Moss of Cree and Knockishee. Is it worth the while of the Commission to jeopardise this co-operation by insisting on its legal rights to destroy this excellent sheep farm? I ask the Under-Secretary to look into this case personally before he agrees to the Commission's proposal.

10.54 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. J. A. Stodart)

No one could have presented the case of a constituent more painstakingly than has my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway (Mr. Brewis). If it is any consolation, I say to him here and now that I have already, I hope with equal painstaking, reviewed this case personally as he expressed the hope that I should do. I very much welcome the chance of explaining to him and to the House the reason for my right hon. Friend's decison in the case of the farm at Borgan.

Forestry has long been a part of the Scottish scene and its extension since the war has provided, is still providing and will continue to provide more jobs in the rural areas and now a vast new industry in the Highlands. I think that my hon. Friend and all of us accept this. Where he and I fall out is whether the farm at Borgan should play its part in this. He thinks not, and it is my duty to try to convince hon. Members that it should.

Borgan Farm was acquired by the Forestry Commission in 1939. It marches with the farm of Larg, which also plays a part in this narrative. About 1950 a further area of land extending to some 11,500 acres was sold to the Secretary of State for forestry. This area included the farm of Larg, which had been tenanted by Mr. McWhirter under its previous owner since 1947. Mr. McWhirter's tenancy of Borgan from the Forestry Commission had also dated from then. Thus, in 1947 we have Mr. McWhirter renting two farms, one from the Forestry Commission. In 1961 he bought one of them, namely Larg. But it is with Borgan that we are most concerned.

Mr. McWhirter tenanted Borgan farm from 1947 until the expiry of his notice to quit at Whit Sunday, 1964. The lease in his favour was for a period of 14 years from Whit Sunday, 1947, until Whit Sunday, 1961. It was continued beyond this last date by tacit relocation.

The lease provided for mutual breaks at Whit Sunday, 1952, and again at Whit Sunday, 1957, and contained the following clause: In respect that the lands hereby let have been acquired by the Proprietor for the purpose of performing their statutory duties and powers under the Forestry Act, 1919, and subsequent Acts amending or extending the said Act and are intended to be utilised for these purposes in due course. … In 1946 and again in 1947 the Department of Agriculture reviewed properties which had been acquired, or, to use a good Scottish word, feued, by the Forestry Commission before the passing of the Forestry Act, 1945. The Department then agreed that Borgan should be planted. In August, 1961, Mr. McWhirter indicated to the Department of Agriculture that he would like to have an opportunity to buy Borgan and he was immediately told that the Forestry Commission did not wish to sell this farm but that they intended to carry out their original plan of planting. As Borgan was being managed by the Department of Agriculture on behalf of the Secretary of State, the Department issued Mr. McWhirter with a notice to quit on 10th May, 1963, and that notice took effect at Whitsun of this year.

I have gone into rather a lot of detail because I am most anxious to establish that Mr. McWhirter can at no time have been unaware of the future which was planned for Borgan. It is true that in January of this year Mr. McWhirter made an offer to the Forestry Commission of 180 acres of land, half of which was in Borgan and half in Larg. This particular area would be very expensive to fence and plant, and road work alone would cost about £60 an acre. The Commission felt bound to decline it and, in any case, this area would have been an altogether inadequate substitute for the 850 plantable acres at Borgan.

I wish to make it clear that we have all along recognised Mr. McWhirter's ability—and here I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend—as a sheep farmer. It is quite outstanding and his name is famous far beyond the boundaries of Galloway. So is his sheep stock. I believe that Larg by itself, the farm of which Mr. McWhirter is the owner-occupier, could be made a viable unit. Obviously his hill farming activities in this district would have to be on a somewhat smaller scale, but I believe that Larg by itself, which is a thoroughly good sheep farm, could provide a full livelihood to a working farmer. It has some high ground at its eastern end, but it does have a substantial carry of hill sheep and cattle. I gather that it has about 40 beef cows.

It has been suggested that the arrangements which resulted in the decision to plant Borgan are defective since there is no impartial and informed body to hold the balance fairly between forestry, in particular the Forestry Commission, and the farmer. The suggestion is that all we do is listen to the Forestry Commission and give it more or less all it wants. That is very far from the truth, and I shall not be surprised if, in the debate which will take place next week, certain hon. Members say that it is the Forestry Commission which does not get its fair share.

Responsibility for the proper allocation of land between farming and forestry—or, as I prefer to put it, for the proper integration of farming and forestry—rests in the last resort with the Secretary of State, who takes his decision only after receiving the views of all his advisers. The procedure for reconciling the interests of agriculture and forestry involves the reference by the Commission to the Department of Agriculture of any proposals it may have for securing land for planting as soon as it can submit them, with an indication of the extent to which it would regard the land as suitable for the planting of trees. The Department then examines the area to assess its agricultural quality and potential, the standard of current husbandry and, in the light of these, it assesses how much land could be set apart for forestry generally with the aim of leaving a reasonably economic agricultural unit.

In some cases, of course, the choice lies between retention in agriculture entirely or allocation to forestry absolutely. The position is then the subject of discussion between the Department and the Commission, the Department's main interest—a perfectly natural one—being to safeguard, to a reasonable extent, the agricultural use of the land, while the Commission's aim—again, quite naturally—is to obtain the largest amount of plantable ground. In the event of any unresolved difference between the Department and the Commission, the matter is referred to Ministers for decision.

My hon. Friend has said that there are 166,000 acres in reserve in Scotland. He suggests that this is quite enough to support a planting programme of about 30,000 acres a year. In fact, a reserve of five times is by no means too much for economic working and forward planning. Much of the land is tenanted, labour is not readily available for some of it—and will not be so until houses are built—and with a smaller reserve the problem of redundancy might arise in later years, and so on.

But, in any case, what we must look at here is the reserve in the neighbourhood, and I say this to make it clear that a reserve of land in, shall we say, Argyll does not particularly help planting in Kirkcudbright. But planting programmes in the Glentrool area is 1,300 acres for next year, and will run down to about 900 acres in 1968, after which, unless the Commission can lay its hands on more land, there will be only 450 acres left. The reserves of plantable land already take into account the developments in techniques and machinery that have gradually evolved since the war and have made it possible for the Forestry Commission to plant in deep peat, and at higher altitudes than were thought possible some years ago.

There will always be room for argument about the wisdom and justice of decisions of this kind because, after all, they are matters of judgment, but I would ask my hon. Friend to believe that my right hon. Friend and I myself have considered as fairly and impartially as we can the arguments on both sides. The Commission needs land for planting, but my right hon. Friend will wish to be satisfied that it is land which, in the national interest, will be put to better use under trees. That is the criterion that he has observed in this case; he has taken into account both the need for planting and the interest of agriculture—which include the interests of the tenant.

If one takes into consideration the large areas which the Commission has secured in the Glentrool district, there have been remarkably few complaints—and this is a point on which my hon. Friend rightly touched—by the farming community. No one could be more anxious than I that the best of relations should exist between farming and forestry, but a mutual respect for agreements and conditions accepted between parties must be the foundation of good relations and trust in this as in any other sphere.

I have quoted the clause in Mr. McWhirter's lease to the effect that the Forestry Commission had acquired Borgan for the purpose of carrying out its statutory duties, and I cannot believe that Mr. McWhirter ever had any grounds for believing that the Commission did not intend to use the land for the purpose which was explicitly stated in the lease, and accepted by Mr. McWhirter as a party to it. I believe profoundly that the absolute foundation of confidence, trust and good relations between farmers and foresters lies in the faithful observance of understandings. Accordingly, although I have listened carefully to all that has been said by my hon. Friend tonight it would be, quite frankly, dishonest of me if I did not say here and now that my hon. Friend has not managed to convince me that the decision which has been arrived at in this case should be reversed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten minutes past Eleven o'clock.