HC Deb 13 April 1965 vol 710 cc1308-14

10.43 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)

I beg to move, That the Land Drainage (Scotland) Amendment Order, 1965, a draft of which was laid before this House on 31st March, be approved. I hesitated to rise because I thought that this could be a matter to which the House might agree without discussion. I am, however, delighted to have the opportunity of explaining the purpose of the Order. It is to increase the maximum estimated cost per acre which limits the power of the Secretary of State to make an improvement order without the agreement of all the owners involved.

It was the intention of Parliament in passing the Land Drainage (Scotland) Act, 1958, that subject to the Secretary of State's approval a majority of interested proprietors should not be prevented from improving their land by the opposition of a minority, but it was also thought right that some limit should be placed on the powers of a majority to coerce a minority.

Accordingly, the Act provides that where there is not unanimity, the Secretary of State shall make an improvement order only if a majority of the proprietors concerned agree, and only on two conditions. The first is that the majority are liable to meet more than half the cost of the work, and the second is that the estimated cost of the work does not exceed £20 per acre of land to be improved.

This limiting figure of £20 per acre was first mentioned in the Duncan Committee Report, 1950—hon. Members will recall that the late Dr. Duncan, who did excellent work in his time, has not long left us—but the Report said that the figure of £20 related to the then current conditions.

Although £20 was, possibly, on the low side by the time the 1958 Act was under consideration, it was accepted by the National Farmers' Union and Scottish Landowners' Federation as being a figure unlikely to meet with any adverse criticism. Since 1958, the cost of drainage works has risen steadily and £20 is no longer realistic. Experience has shown that of the 24 improvement orders which have been made under the Act, only two were estimated to cost less than £20 per acre, and of 111 schemes which never got beyond the investigation stage only 13 were estimated to cost less than £20 per acre.

It is important that the Act should work effectively, since it is the only Scottish Act for dealing with larger scale arterial drainage works.

I know that hon. Members will recognise that I cannot argue a case outside the Order, or in relation to Acts which might have been, or Acts which ought to have been. I can only argue a case within the context of this Order, and I regret that as much as hon. Members do. This is the only Scottish Act for dealing with larger scale arterial drainage works, and therefore we as a Government seek to make the best of what is the only job that we have on our hands.

The Secretary of State has no authority to coerce owners or occupiers to undertake drainage schemes, however necessary or desirable they may be, and, unlike England and Wales, we have no river authorities responsible for arterial drainage or flood prevention measures who are able to levy funds for these purposes by means of precepts on local authorities within their areas. Hon. Members may recall the opposition of local authorities during the passage of the Bill to us following that procedure, and that is why we have our present system.

The coming together of proprietors with a common drainage or flood protection interest to propose a drainage scheme for the Secretary of State's approval and for grant-aid is the only remotely parallel arrangement in Scotland compared with England and Wales. It is clear that the figure of £20 is a definite limiting factor in preventing more drainage being carried out, and we are satisfied that it is not now a realistic figure in relation to present-day costs. I recognise that there is probably room for argument as to whether £40 is the right limit, but the Government consider that it is reasonable in relation to the increases which have taken place in drainage costs since 1958. Both the Scottish National Farmers 'Union and the Scottish Landowners' Federation have agreed to the change, and accordingly I commend the Order to the House.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. J. A. Stodart (Edinburgh, West)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his explanation of the Order, and I agree with his comments on the costs of drainage today.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned Dr. Duncan, I should like to say that the death not long ago of one of its great stalwarts was a great loss to Scottish agriculture. Dr. Duncan did extremely valuable work for the industry.

From the figures which the hon. Gentleman gave, it was clear that £20 was not adequate for the number of schemes which were carried out. It seems that the scope of the Order was being severely restricted by this limitation. Having said that, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can tell me what acres are involved. I know that this matter was discussed when the Bill was being considered, but when an Order is made involving this kind of expenditure per acre—£40 maximum—we should be told what acres are involved.

During the Second Reading of the Bill the then Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said that an improvement area was the actual area to be improved. That seems to be over-simplifying the case, and it is important, when we are giving the Secretary of State power to increase the amount of expenditure per acre, to know what experience has been gained since the Bill was passed in 1958 in dealing with what seems to be a somewhat ambiguous matter.

It is very difficult to isolate precisely an improvement area. I should like to give the House my experience in this matter, and I am sure that this will be borne in mind by those on both sides of the House who farm and have to attend to drainage matters.

I have just carried out a drainage scheme on an 18-acre field. If it is of any interest to the Minister, it has worked out at almost precisely a gross cost of £40 an acre. But of the 18 acres that I have drained only about four were in quite glaringly obvious need of draining, and I can imagine that not only the 18 acres in the field but an area in the vicinity, of perhaps 50 or 60 acres, will be improved by this operation.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

The hon. Member is going rather wide of the terms of the Order. It applies only to the adequacy or otherwise of £40 in the light of increased costs.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members being present—

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Stodart

I immediately bow to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I have finished with that point. All I would say in self-defence and in mitigation is that when we are considering an expenditure of the size which is allowed by the Order it is important to know the possible acreage involved.

My final question is this: can the hon. Member say whether there has been any evidence of hardship to a minority of these cases—that is, objectors—in operating the scheme at £20 an acre? If there has been any evidence of this, with the somewhat disastrous recent Price Review, which has made money even shorter within the industry than it was, it is quite clear that that hardship will be increased.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will answer those questions.

10.52 p.m.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I very much doubt whether I could improve on the definition which one of my predecessors gave on the question of the acreage involved. What happens under the Order is that the acreage is defined as an area of benefit, which is by agreement in relation to any improvement scheme that is being proposed, and it is agreed between all those who are concerned. We hope that the majority can be persuaded to act accordingly, even though the interests of a minority may be affected.

The hon. Member asked a fair question about evidence of hardship. If we look even at the improvement that we are making here in doubling the amount of money per acre, this is in respect only of the works carried out, and not in maintaining the schemes which are so financed. It may be fairly said that this represents hardship, and that in many cases it is impossible for some quite genuinely concerned persons to proceed with an improvement scheme. But that is not a criticism of the Order; it is a criticism of the Act from which the Order flows.

I very much regret that as a Government we cannot make any speeches or any promises for the future. It involves legislation, and we are confined at the moment to an Order. Within the existing instrument which we were left by our predecessors, that is all that we can do. The hon. Gentleman is right, there is some evidence of hardship here. That is why our progress in these matters has been so slow. As I said earlier, there are 111 schemes which have been discussed but with which we have proceeded no further, compared with the very small number with which any progress has been made. This is, of course, a reflection of the absence of principal legislation parallel with that of England and Wales.

The House may be interested to know what money was spent in successive years since the Act was passed, under the Order which this Amendment seeks to alter. In 1958–59, 1959–60 and 1960–61, nothing was spent; in 1961–62, £1,555; in 1962–63, £310; in 1963–64, £6,997; in 1964–64, £8,772. The total in all these years was £17,634. That compares, although it is perhaps not a completely fair comparison, with, let us say, the money spent under the Agricultural Drainage Scheme itself, which amounts, in the same years, to £128,521. I think, therefore, that all hon. Members will readily recognise that while all that could be done is being done under the existing arrangements, none of us can be satisfied that those who are not seeking to co-operate are simply being obstreperous or difficult. There is genuine concern about this, and this is something which the Government will have to look into in good time.

But the Government, with its sense of priorities, must take all these matters as they come. This is the best guarantee at present, and I hope that the House will agree that this is generous and reasonable.

10.58 p.m.

The Earl of Dalkeith (Edinburgh, North)

This Order could be of considerable importance to Scotland. Scotland is a strange place and a land of contrasts: some places have too much water and others not enough. When I was a member of one county council's water committee people overhearing our meetings might have thought that we were talking about the Sahara Desert; while in other parts of the country there is too much water. One of the biggest problems in increasing our productivity from the land is that of getting rid of surplus water. This Order is extremely important in this respect, because it is bringing this operation into line with costs. If we are to encourage people to do the right thing, this is the sensible way of doing it.

The slightly ironical point is that while we are still gasping from discussing the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Bill, we spring straight into another Measure which may encourage further pollution. However, that is just a point in passing. I think that the hon. Gentleman is doing the right thing in this Order.

Question put and agreed to.