HC Deb 15 February 1965 vol 706 cc966-80

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

9.47 p.m.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to raise the plight—and it is a plight—of many tenant farmers in this country. The problem of paying fair and adequate compensation to tenant farmers whose land has been compulsorily acquired for development purposes has been with us for a long time. But the need to deal with this problem is rapidly getting more and more acute.

The demand for land increases. Land is required for roads, motorways, schools, hospitals and universities; and large areas of it are needed for housing estates. I am informed that over the country there is an annual loss of agricultural land of between 40,000 and 50,000 acres. It is an alarming fact that the area which would be lost in a period of seven years is comparable to the size of the whole County of Worcester, which is not a small county. No one feels that these necessary amenities are not essential, or that it would not be wrong to hold up progress. Nevertheless, something must be done, and done rapidly, to ensure that the tenant farmer and his family are properly compensated when, through no fault of their own, their livelihood is removed.

Today, the situation is very different from what it was and is greatly aggravated by proposals to create new towns. In my constituency, for example, in Red-ditch, there are 48 farmers, farming 4,420 acres, who will be affected when the new town is created. Those men and their families will lose their homes and their businesses as a result of the proposed acquisition. Then there is the whole question of farmers whose farms are severed. Some would find themselves land outside the designated area, but no farmhouse. Others might find a farmhouse outside the designated area, but with little or no land.

I understand that in Buckinghamshire the county council proposes to designate 23,000 acres near Bletchley, which will mean the displacement of about 100 farmers and their families. The same pattern of events can be seen throughout the country. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. William Yates), whose area includes Dawley, and my hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle), hope to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, so that they may raise their particular problems.

It must, therefore, be obvious that if many hundreds of tenant farmers find themselves displaced in a short period of time the demand for farms in an already limited market will be immense. Again, it must be obvious that it will be quite impossible for many of them to find other farms to carry on their lifelong activities, certainly impossible for those over 40 years of age, who are just in the prime of their life.

Farming is a specialised business. One cannot learn all the arts in a short time. In most cases, the farmers have worked on the land and lived on it for generations. What hope is there for them if they are told to get out of their farms? They then lose not only their livelihood, but the whole life which they have been brought up to love and to understand.

The case of displaced shopkeepers or businessmen is very different. The chances are that they can find alternative premises and, provided that they are helped over two or three years by compensation, they can build up a profitable living in new premises. This does not apply to the tenant farmer of today, who, with all the good will in the world, simply cannot find alternative premises or land to carry on his work.

The vast majority of tenant farmers do not want compensation. All they want is another farm comparable to the one from which they have been evicted and to be allowed to carry on their farming interests. As I have pointed out, however, these alternative farms just do not exist. This being so, compensation must be paid and it must be fair and realistic.

A tenant farmer cannot resist a notice to quit when it is given for development purposes. He is then entitled to compensation for tenant rights—that is to say, growing crops, unexhausted manurial value and stacked hay—and for the value of long-term improvements carried out at his own expense. Compensation for loss of his business and his home, however, is virtually non-existent.

It is true that in addition he is normally entitled to compensation for disturbance to enable him, in theory, to move into another farm, but when that other farm does not exist this compensation, which in some cases may be up to two years' rent, is of no great value. It is obvious that this is of no help to a man who has lost his home and his livelihood.

Governments in the past have realised that something more should be done, and Section 22 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1963, states that all acquiring authorities are given power to make ex gratia payments, in addition to the strict legal entitlement, of such reasonable allowances as they think fit towards his removal expenses and the loss which, in their opinion, he will sustain by reason of the resulting disturbance of his trade or business.' It was thereby recognised by the Government that hardship and unfairness could not be met by measuring a man's real loss solely by the yardstick of the market value of his legal interest.

The National Farmers' Union has never accepted that it is fair in principle to leave entirely to the discretion of the acquiring authorities the decision as to what, if any, extra-statutory compensation payments should be made. The views submitted to Ministers in 1962 by the union have not been shaken by the introduction of the permissive legislation—and that it is permissive is the whole point—of Section 22 of the 1963 Act.

It is still considered wrong that an acquiring authority should be judge in its own cause. We cannot ignore that this submission, that it shall be a positive duty rather than a discretionary power, was accepted by another place in hearings on a Bill concerning the joint authority for a Welsh reservoir whose name I cannot pronounce. After very exhaustive arguments that was accepted. Although the attitude of the late Government was that we must await the result of the provisions of Section 22 before judging how far they fall short of Government intentions, grave weaknesses are already apparent. The very fact that farmers feel themselves to be at the mercy of the acquiring authority creates a sense of unease and mistrust.

I realise that many new town corporations are definitely sympathetic with the plight of the tenant farmer, and I know that Sir Edward Thompson, whom I have met on many occasions, and who is Chairman of Redditch New Town Corporation, has their problem very much in the forefront of his mind. Nevertheless, I do feel very strongly that new town corporations should not be placed in this difficult position where they can make special allowances but are not forced to do so by Act of Parliament.

I must say that I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), the present Minister of Agriculture, gave his full support to this proposal, as he stated in his reply to a questionnaire from the National Farmers' Union before the General Election. He was asked by the N.F.U.: What changes are you prepared to make in existing laws governing compensation for land taken over for non-agricultural use, to ensure that no farmer is worse off because the country needs his land? His reply was: In principle, I accept that adequate compensation should be given to a farmer who suffers because of the takeover of his land for non-agricultural use. In previous legislation it was the practice to make ex gratia payments. This should be obligatory. These are the Minister's words: On this matter further consultations should take place between the Government and the industry. Unfortunately, his Joint Parliamentary Secretary was not so forthcoming in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker). The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said: My right hon. Friend, when he answered some questions in the Press … made the promise that consideration would be given to making the ex gratia award a statutory one."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd February, 1965; Vol. 705, c. 1061.] Not that it should be made obligatory.

I can only hope that the right hon. Gentleman will press his election views on his colleagues in the Cabinet.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Dance

The whole question of fair compensation is highly complicated, and I think we all appreciate that, but if a tenant farmer cannot find a suitable alternative farm the Government must see that he is as well off—certainly not worse off—as a result of having to terminate his tenancy and give up his home and business.

I therefore support the N.F.U. proposals, which are as follows: That where a tenant quits the whole of a farm, or so much of it that the remaining land cannot afford a reasonable livelihood, compensation should be based upon five year's expected profits"— I emphasise the word "profits", because that should be the basis, and not rents as in the past— discounting sums representing the existing rent and the interest on working capital employed on the farm; or The acquiring authority might undertake to reinstate the tenant in a holding affording a reasonably equivalent livelihood; —if he can find another one— or, the displaced farmer could apply to an official arbitrator to determine what extra compensation he should have, having regard to his interest in the land, the length of time which it would be reasonable to expect him to continue in occupation and the extra costs likely to be incurred where reinstatement was contemplated or, where it was not, the extent to which his retirement from farming had been rendered premature by the acquisition. There is one other very important aspect, and that is the continuation of good husbandry. Clearly, no landlord whose land is scheduled for take-over will be prepared to spend substantial sums on farm improvements. Less still, the unfortunate tenant. Nevertheless, new techniques in agriculture are being produced every day. More modern buildings, and yards for the rearing of calves, are required. In horticulture, irrigation schemes are essential, more glass is wanted, and generally through the whole range of agriculture hedging, ditching, and draining are essential.

But who, the landlord or the tenant, can be expected to make this capital outlay if he knows that he is standing under the Sword of Damocles, which is exactly what he is doing? In other words, he knows that all he does, and all that he spends, will most certainly be under the bulldozer in a few years' time.

This is an urgent matter. New towns are already being planned, and a small section of the community is suffering grave injustice. These are the people who, in the past, have saved us many millions of pounds in imports by what they have produced from the land. It is they who helped to feed us in time of war. They demand a fair deal, and I hope that when the hon. Gentleman replies to the debate he will give them a positive assurance that they will in fact get a fair deal.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) and the Minister for allowing me time to make a brief intervention. As the Minister knows—since he represents a constituency next to mine—Runcorn was designated an area for a new town about 12 months ago. I realise the need for new towns, but it is important to appreciate the difficulty which is faced by farmers farming land which is to be acquired in order to create a new town in their area.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to the size of the problem as it affects tenant farmers in the Runcorn area. In respect of the land originally designated for the Runcorn new town, 37 farmers were affected, of whom 31 were tenant farmers. I realise that the size of the new town was slightly altered as the result of the inquiry, but about 30 tenant farmers are faced with dispossession and the loss of their livelihoods owing to the Government's decision to do what they believe to be for the good of the community. When a decision of this kind is taken, I urge the Government to do their utmost to see that all possible assistance is given to tenant farmers in the matter of obtaining new farms of their own, and also to see that they receive adequate compensation.

I know that the Runcorn Development Corporation is anxious to do all it can to alleviate the difficulties of the tenant farmers. I know that the relationship between the development corporation and the farmers is good, and that it is extremely sympathetic to their position. Like my hon. Friend, however, I cannot help feeling that the position of tenant farmers would be far better safeguarded if the present discretionary powers provided by Section 22 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1963, to pay such reasonable allowance as they think fit towards … the loss which, in their opinion, he"— any farmer— will sustain by reason of the … disturbance were made mandatory.

I know that in practice it may make very little difference where, as in the case of Runcorn, there is a good relationship between the development corporation and the farmer, but it would enable farmers to feel that they were no longer in the hands of the authority and that they had clear statutory rights. I, too, ask the Minister to consider stating, in statutory form, what compensation should be paid on the basis of so many years' loss of profits.

I shall make my other point more briefly still. It refers purely to the question of assisting the tenant farmer to obtain a new farm. Some land is owned by the Ministry of Agriculture. This is the case in the area near Runcorn. That land is tenanted, and from time to time farms become available. I ask the Minister to urge on his right hon. Friend the proposition that when that happens, rather than putting those farms out to tender the Ministry should give preference to farmers who are being dispossessed due to administrative decisions.

I ask the Minister to treat sympathetically and as matters of urgency the two points that I have raised, since Runcorn new town is already in the process of being planned.

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

I want briefly to add my voice to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) and my hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle). My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. William Yates) and I are faced with this problem in its most immediate and urgent form in respect of the new town of Dawley, where no less than 11,000 acres have been designated for a new town. We all appreciate the reason for the difficulty which faces the tenant farmer, namely, the virtual impossibility of finding tenanted farms.

When the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure was in Committee my hon. Friend and I put forward an Amendment to make this payment mandatory instead of optional. I am sorry to say that our Amendment was not accepted, because we had foresight which has been justified in the conditions that face us today. Even in the short time that has elapsed since 1963 the conditions facing our tenant farmers have become very much more difficult.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. F. V. Corfield (Gloucestershire, South)

I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene shortly on this difficult problem. I think it a very real problem. It is important to realise that it arises largely, if not entirely, from our curious tradition in England and Wales by which agricultural land is almost invariably held on an annual tenancy. The Scots do these things rather more sensibly; I understand that generally they run on a 21-year lease. The result is that the tenant farmer's legal interest for which, strictly speaking, he is entitled to compensation, is only a year's tenancy although in practice the security of tenure provisions in the 1948 Act have, subject to interference by these new towns, etc., given him what is, in effect, a life tenancy. He gets nothing for the much longer tenancy then he would expect to have but for this intervention.

I think it appropriate to speculate on what might, or most certainly would, have happened had there never been the security of tenure provisions in the 1958 Act. It seems to me absolutely inconceivable that, with the enormous advance in agriculture in the last 15 years or so, any tenant farmer farming a holding of any size could contemplate putting up the capital required today on the basis of only an annual tenancy. It is almost certain that had it not been for those security of tenure provisions, we should have seen forced on both landlord and tenant something similar in England and Wales to what goes on in Scotland, namely, leasehold in interests of at least 21 years.

As a result of this we find ourselves today in a situation in which a tenant farmer is entitled only to compensation based on a annual tenancy when in practice, had he been left alone, he would have had a life tenancy. The problem is much aggravated by the fact—as has been pointed out by my hon. Friends—that every time a farm is acquired for develop- ment the number of farmers looking for farms is increased and the supply of farms is decreased. I believe this to be a problem of redundancy, and that is the way to look at it. With respect to my hon. Friends, I do not think that we can find an answer by making discretionary provisions mandatory. If we are to have mandatory provisions, we must lay down some code—my hon. Friend suggested five years' profits—on which compensation could be assessed. I do not believe that it makes sense to say that a local authority or a new town must give a discretionary payment. They could fulfil that condition in a derisory fashion and in so many different ways in different parts of the country that we should create more unfairness than we should cure.

I am a little disappointed to note that we are not to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources. This goes very much to the root of what I imagine the Land Commission will be about. Clearly, if we are to do anything even remotely resembling what the party opposite said that they would do, the whole basis of compensation for land will be altered. At the moment the redundancy problem applies most particularly to the tenant farmer because the owner-occupier gets the full market value and though he may not he able to find another farm, if he is beyond the age at which he is able to find alternative employment he has some capital.

I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government will press on his right hon. Friend when a Bill is produced that if the compensation provisions are to undercut substantially the compensation payable to the owner-occupier, he too will be just as redundant and come into the same category. I believe that we need to think out some better provisions than exist at the moment. I grant to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that this problem is not an easy one.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) has suffered from me a good deal in the past, but this is at least one subject on which I never would have attempted to badger him. In regard to his dig about my right hon. Friend the Minister of Land and Natural Resources, I can assure the hon. Member that what I say is the result of long and anxious consultation which I have had with my right hon. Friend's Department about the problem raised in this Adjournment debate. What I say very much represents the views of my right hon. Friends in both Departments. Of course, I have also had some discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture.

I think that the first point which one has to make about this—not perhaps a very popular point, but one which has to be made—is that this is a question of holding a balance. In the first place, one has to keep a balance between the rules for compensation in the case of new towns and in the case of other forms of public development. It would not be possible to have special rules to apply to new towns which did not apply to other public bodies acquiring land. That is one of the difficulties about direction, because it is quite possible for the Minister to give directions to a new towns corporation about how they were to interpret the rules about the making of payments.

I am not sure about that, but I suspect that it would be possible to do it within the New Towns Act. However, it would be quite impossible for him to issue directions to highway authorities or to planning authorities requiring land for comprehensive development. It would be impossible to issue directions to them. They are acting within their powers under law, and they are entitled to do so. Therefore, it would not be fair to apply a different code in the case of the new towns to that applied in other cases.

Mr. Dance

Surely the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is a difference between the taking over of complete farms and the taking over of parts of farms. I had experience of this in my constituency for example, where the M.5 admittedly divided farms, but the farmers were given bridges in places where they could at least carry on their farming activities. When a whole farm is taken over, the situation is completely different.

Mr. MacColl

The hon. Gentleman himself spent a long time talking about the faults of severance where a farm is lost. In the case of a new town, the corporation is nearly always taking a whole farm, if a part of it is not within the designated area. Housing authorities are nowadays fortunately requiring very large sites for redevelopment.

The other point is to hold the balance between the tenant, the landlord-tenant, taking him as one unit, and the owner-occupier. When the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) raised this matter in the time of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South, he made the point that, on the whole, he thought that the owner-occupiers were reasonably well treated, and that it would therefore not be right to have an adjustment of compensation which substantially increased the share that went to landlord plus tenant over what went to an occupier. I think one has to hold a balance between the two. In a written Answer to the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture on 2nd December, said: It is one of the items my right hon. Friend is considering as part of a general review of the agricultural landlord-tenant legislation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Wednesday, 2nd December. 1964; Vol. 703, c. 67.] We shall want to study this matter very carefully before deciding upon whatever is necessary.

One of the elements in the review of this problem which is taking place is the relationship between the landlord and tenant. It may well be that it can be argued that the immediate interest of the tenant is too small compared with the interest of the landlord. That is one of the reasons why he is not getting a fair share of the compensation being paid out.

Mr. Corfield

This is a valid argument, but it does not cover the whole range. For instance, if land is acquired for a reservoir, the landlord merely gets agricultural value and any readjustment of the compensation between the two would simply not cover that sort of case. One has to try to find a code which will cover all types of public acquisition. I do not believe that it is possible to differentiate.

Mr. MacColl

I entirely agree. I said that this was a problem in which the interests of the landlord and tenant might require consideration in order to see that the allocation of compensation between them was fair.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

May I give the hon. Gentleman another example?

Mr. MacColl

I have no doubt that the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. William Yates) wishes to help us greatly, but I feel somewhat obliged to help the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and to give him the answers to which he is entitled.

Another point was concerned with equivalent reinstatement and the suggestion about allowing five-year profits. Neither of those would apply to owner-occupiers and injustice would be done if they were applied without covering the owner-occupier.

Another balance to be held is that between agriculture and other occupations. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove drew attention to the fact that in the 1963 legislation, with which the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South was closely associated, it was recognised that the farmer was in a special position. However, the non-farming tenant, the ordinary business tenant, was already receiving protection under the Land Compensation Act, 1961, whose provisions went back to 1959. What that Act was doing was bringing discretionary payments made to the agricultural tenant into line with those already available to the non-agricultural tenant.

Anybody knowing the impatient championship of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary would know that in any review of this problem they would want to fight very hard for agriculture to be given special rights in this matter, and I suspect that some other Ministries, possibly including my own, might feel it necessary to put the other point of view and to say that in many comprehensive development schemes, the shopkeeper, for example, with a very short tenancy, sometimes a weekly tenancy, could be in a very hazardous and difficult position. This is not peculiarly an agricultural problem. I am not saying that that is a reason for not doing anything about it, but it is a reason for looking at the problem as a whole.

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South gave me my text when he said that we have also to hold the balance between the interests of business as a whole, whether agricultural or commercial, and other people who, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase, were redundant. Problems of redundancy are big problems in social and industrial legislation today, and we cannot necessarily pay no regard to provisions which are made for people, skilled men, or others in any special position, who are displaced through an act or policy of the Government and who have to be given some compensation. In the wider solution to this problem, some regard has to be paid to them.

I do not want that to imply that I or my right hon. Friends in the other Departments are indifferent to the importance of this problem. We are consulting about it and considering what can be done. We are under no obligation to approach the problem in a committed way and we can come to it afresh and, we hope, with fresh minds.

However, having said that, it is only fair to the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South to mention that in the days of his responsibility the Ministry took this matter seriously. I will read the contents of a circular which was addressed to all general managers, Chairmen of Runcorn and Redditch Development Corporation, New Towns Commission. Dated 12th June, 1964, it stated: Attention has been drawn recently on a number of occasions to the possible hardship to tenant farmers who are dispossessed in the course of development. The point has arisen particularly during recent public inquiries into draft designation orders for new towns. The Minister has therefore asked that the attention of Development Corporations should be drawn to the discretionary powers given by section 22 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1963 to make payments to occupiers of agricultural land who are displaced in the course of acquisition of land. Copies of the Minister's circular No. 36/63 dealing with this were sent formally to the Development Corporations at the time of issue but I now attach a further copy to bring it to your personal attention". I thought that that was worth reading to the House. Since there is a little longer for this debate than is sometimes the case for Adjournments, I thought that hon. Members who have constituents to advise would be glad to know that what was stated by the Ministry at that time is something which we entirely accept and we are anxious that full use should be made of these powers.

As was said when the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South was in office, we urgently want evidence of the shortcomings of the present position. We hear a great deal about fear, injustice and hardship which appals, but I am advised that we have in the archives very few, if any, cases of really serious hardship which have been established as cases. We had one case quoted of someone who was afraid of what would happen, but in that case the general manager took a sensible view. We hope that all general managers will act similarly.

Mr. Dance

Might I point out that this is in its infancy; that new towns are being created and we look forward to being able to help people who are really worried?

Mr. MacColl

The hon. Gentleman is rather bad in his history. There was a Labour Government before, he may remember, and we had a large number of new towns. They were started, so this problem is not an entirely new one. All the problems surrounding the acquisition of rural land have been with us for a good time. I am not trying to evade the issue or saying that we will not do anything about it. I am not saying that at all. I am merely stating that to help us in our discussions and to fortify us in our inter-departmental discussions hon. Members should let us know of any cases where the bite has been felt, so to speak, and injustice has been done. As I say, at the moment we have a lot of talk but very few cases.

I have done my best to answer the points that have been raised. This may not be a subject on which I move with ease—perhaps I am a little better on the subject of development charges and so on—but I have done my best to explain the position as I see it and, considering the facts, I do not think that I am seriously at issue with the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South about it.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. William Yates

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) for raising this subject and to the Minister for his reply. It is clear that the circular of June, 1964, has helped a great deal and that the major dispute is where there are marginal decisions to take; for example, a tenant farmer with a milk round. What will he be paid? What about his goodwill?

Mr. MacColl

He was not a tenant farmer. He would still get the same compensation for his milk round, although it would not be very much because he would be a short-term tenant.

Mr. Yates

In the minds of the people concerned these are serious problems. There is plenty of State land with State farms on it. I suggest that the Minister consider that matter and make a certain number of them available for tenant farmers to take over in place of being paid compensation. I started this business in a Private Member's Bill many years ago, but I could not get the necessary mandatory power because, as a private Member, I was not permitted to ask for Government legislation. I handed my Bill to the Government and so far—

The Question having been proposed at 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 half-past Ten o'clock.