HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc1181-91


Mr. Rowlands

I beg to move Amendment No. 57, in page 23, line 12, leave out subsection (6) and insert: '(6) Without prejudice to paragraph 2 of Schedule 3 to this Act, the Welsh Authority may acquire by agreement, or be authorised by the Secretary to State to acquire compulsorily, any right to use water in Wales and any estate or interest in, or right over, land in Wales which is associated with water for the purpose of using the water or land for the purposes of recreation; and the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act 1946 shall apply to any compulsory acquisition under this subsection as if—

  1. (a) the water authority were a local authority;
  2. (b) this subsection had been in force immediately before the commencement of that Act; and
  3. (c) any reference in that Act to land included a reference to any such estate, interest or right.
    • (7) A compulsory purchase order under subsection (6) above may provide for the acquisition of rights, estates or interests by creating them as well as for the acquisition of rights, estates and interests already in existence, and regulations under section 66(6) of the Water Resources Act 1963 may make the like provision in relation to the acquisition of rights, estates and interests under this section by creating them as they may in relation to the acquisition of rights and interests under that Act by creating them'.
At least there is one respect in which the amendment cannot be criticised. It is the traditional Government criticism of Opposition amendments that the drafting is defective, but that cannot be said here, because the amendment is, verbatim, in the terms of the original Bill, before it went into Committee. The amendment seeks to restore the Bill to its pristine state, in particular in relation to this clause and the reserve compulsory powers proposed by the Government for the Welsh water authority.

If we are to have a Welsh water recreation plan which is to be reasonably comprehensive there will be circumstances in which the Welsh authority will propose to acquire, for the purposes of recreation, land or water which is not under its control or under the control of the Severn-Trent authority. Under most circumstances the interest in this land or water will be acquired by agreement, but situations may occasionally arise when it will be necessary for the Welsh water authority to seek to acquire land but when consent for such acquisition is unreasonably withheld. In such circumstances, we feel that reserve powers of the kind that we propose in the amendment are necessary, essentially as a fall-back arrangement in cases where consent to the acquisition of land to make possible the development of a water recreational plan in Wales is unreasonably withheld. However, in order to ensure that the rights of individuals are safeguarded, any such compulsory acquisition will be subject to the provisions of the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act 1946.

That is the statement of our case. However, it is not in our terms. What I have said to the House repeats almost verbatim the notes on Clause 19 given to us by the Government at the beginning of the Committee proceedings. Those are not my terms. Those are the words used by the Minister of State and by the Secretary of State in recommending to the House the amendment which I have now proposed.

We need a water recreational plan, and it should be comprehensive. There may be occasions when the unreasonable withholding of consent to the acquisition of land would thwart the development of a comprehensive plan for water recreation, and there should be reserve powers to deal with such a situation.

What will happen now that the Government have buckled under certain pressures and withdrawn the reserve compulsory powers which were available under the full and detailed control of the acquisition of land legislation? The development of a comprehensive water recreational plan could be thwarted in one area or another by the unreasonable decision or bloody mindedness of one or two landlords not to agree to the voluntary acquisition of land. Water recreation proposals put up by the Welsh authority could be thwarted by the unreasonable withholding of permission to transfer the ownership of land to the authority. What will happen in such cases now that the Minister has buckled down to pressures and withdrawn the reserve powers of compulsory acquisition from the Bill?

Initially there was some mystery about why the Minister of State had decided to withdraw the powers of compulsory acquisition. I made accusations at the time and I shall repeat them now because I think that they are true. The Minister was nobbled by a variety of pressure groups. I did not realise then what the pressure groups included, or what operation or campaign was being conducted, not so much at an all-Welsh level as at a local level, until I saw an extract from the Radnor and Brecon county weekly newspaper.

I propose to read the extract because it provides one reason why the Minister wished to be so accommodating and withdraw the reserve powers as set out in the original Bill. According to the story in the weekly newspaper of Saturday, 28th April, a Mr. Lloyd Harvard Davies said that he raised the issue when he declared that fanners and organisations such as angling clubs were rigidly opposed to the compulsory land purchase plan which he claimed was nothing more than a form of land nationalisation.

The report says: Acknowledging Mr. Harvard Davies's concern on the issue, Mr. Gibson-Watt said that the Government had been impressed by the weight of opposition to the clause. In heavy black type the story continues: The Minister said he was grateful for Mr. Harvard Davies's interest in the matter and for being one of the first to raise the issue with the Welsh Office. Mr. Harvard Davies is then quoted as saying: If nothing else this is a victory for common sense and is a lesson in democracy, proving that even a good Government can change its mind ". Who is Mr. Lloyd Harvard Davies? He just happens to be prospective Conservative candidate for Brecon and Radnor. We have witnessed a rather sordid local party political manoeuvre carried out by the Minister of State in conjunction with a Conservative candidate to the sacrifice of Welsh interests—the interests of Welsh angling and the plan for comprehensive water recreation—and of the need in certain circumstances to have reserve compulsory powers to acquire where the landlord might unreasonably withhold the land. The vital national involvement is given away to a petty party political manoeuvre in Brecon and Radnor by the Minister of State and a prospective Conservative candidate. That is what has been going on in the last couple of months.

Mr. Lloyd Harvard Davies is quoted as saying that angling clubs were rigidly opposed to these powers. Hon. Members will have seen Monday's report in the Western Mail in which the fears and worries of the Welsh Anglers Association were expressed. If any individual angling club opposed the original proposals, then the Welsh Angling Association and the Welsh Fly Fishermen's Society were in favour.

I explained some of these worries and fears in Llandrindod Wells on Monday but the hon. Gentleman is not willing to listen. That he is, however, willing to carry out a manoeuvre on a local basis with his neighbours in Brecon and Radnor rather than heed the national interest in water resources is not our fault, but the House should realise what is behind this operation. According to the Western Mail report Welsh anglers were in danger of losing fishing rights put up for sale on the open market because they could not compete with prices offered by exclusive clubs, and they were losing water by this means because they could not compete with clubs. The report told of one three-quarter mile stretch of fishing sold for £45,000. These are the problems facing democratic angling associations in Wales.

As I said in Committee, fishing is a vital and intrinsic part of most of the tourist industry in Wales. Yet some of the best fishing rights in parts of Wales have been carved up, not in the interests of the local communities or in the general interest but for the benefit of small exclusive minorities which are buying stretches of river at very high prices for their own small group interests. The Minister of State is prepared to sacrifice the general Welsh interest. He is not willing to take even the modest reserve powers orginally proposed in the Bill to ensure at least access to the waters.

I quote the example of the Lower Usk estuary, where a local farmer who did not own the fishing rights, which were Crown rights, put up for sale the acquisition of footpaths to the banks of the estuary for £20,000. What will happen if, here, there and everywhere, in the development of Welsh water recreational facilities, individual landlords unreasonably withhold access or the acquisition of land, thus thwarting the comprehensive development and use of water recreation?

That is the case the Minister must answer. We want no more squalid party political manoeuvring but genuine answers to problems. Why is he willing to listen to the prospective parliamentary candidate for Brecon and Radnor and one or two angling clubs but not willing to listen to the Welsh Angling Society, the Welsh Fly Fishermen's Society and the Dee and Clwyd River Authority— which, incidentally, supported the original provisions?

The Minister has caved in under the pressures to which he has been subjected. Why has the Minister not bothered to go to the Welsh people who have objected, to the National Farmers' Union and to other organisations and explain that these measures were not just another form of land nationalisation, as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Brecon and Radnor said?

Did he disabuse the candidate or the NUF of that impression? Did he explain the modest powers of the original subsection (6)? Did he try to allay the fears and scaremongering about the wholesale acquisition of land and fishing rights? I do not think he did. He was only too happy to sit back and allow the scaremongering to continue and to buckle under the pressure from small exclusive groups.

Whatever the Minister of State says now, his behaviour has cast a reflection on himself and his Department. Under these pressures he has been willing to sacrifice the general interests to a particular interest.

I hope that even at this late stage he will reconsider the matter and at least include the powers which he thought necessary when the Bill started out. Welsh rivers should be in the ownership of angling associations and available to tourists. They should be part and parcel of the responsibility of the new Welsh River Authority. The Minister may not want to go that far, but I hope he will go as far as saying that where landlords unreasonably withhold the acquisition of land and thereby thwart the development of recreational facilities there must be a modest last reserve power of acquisition of land. By accepting the amendment he will be doing that, and it is nothing more than was contained in the original Bill.

Mr. Alec Jones (Rhondda, West)

I support the amendment, but my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands) is asking for the impossible when he says that the Minister must provide genuine answers to questions. He is asking in vain, as those of us who have had experience of dealing with the Minister earlier today have cause to appreciate.

One reason why issues like this are taken at this ridiculously late hour when so few people are present is that it enables the Government to get away with murder. It is important to realise that all that we are asking for is that the original Government proposals should be restored. It is unbelievable that the Government should have put such proposals into the Bill in its original form without having considered seriously their full implications.

When the proposals which we are now seeking to be restored were put into the Bill in the beginning, they were put in by the Government because they believed that they were necessary for the well-being of the authorities in Wales. Of course, it is quite reasonable that even this Government should change their mind. They have changed their mind on so many occasions that we have become more accustomed to them changing their mind than sticking to their policies.

Mr. Winterton

Very adaptable.

Mr. Jones

Very adaptable and very persuasive. I accept the point. But if the Government are prepared to change their mind, the people are entitled to know why they have changed their mind. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil mentioned his suspicions, which do the Government no credit. Not only have my hon. Friend and I our suspicions, but so have many other hon. Members. There is considerable suspicion throughout Wales about why the Minister of State changed his mind. If he wishes to retain any sense of integrity in this matter he must speak out now and say exactly why the Government have changed their mind on this important aspect.

We are entitled to know and have placed on record the full reasons for the change of mind because of the deep concern which has been felt and is being expressed throughout Wales.

My hon. Friend referred to a county weekly newspaper. A good many hon. Members were sent copies of that newspaper because we were startled to find what the newspaper contained. We found that the apparent reason for the Government's change of mind was, first, the intervention of the prospective Conservative candidate for Brecon and Radnorshire, and, secondly, because his intervention was supported by authorities such as the Country Landowners' Association. Of course, neither the prospective Conservative candidate for Brecon and Radnorshire nor the Country Landowners' Association can be held to be the voices of Wales on this matter. There are many more people and organisations in Wales which should be considered before them.

The newspaper article suggests that the Minister of State indicated in a letter that the Government had been impressed by the weight of the opposition. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stand at the Dispatch Box and spell out the long list of that tremendous weight of opposition. When he measures its weight he will find that it is lightweight compared with the majority of people in Wales.

My hon. Friend referred to the suggestion made by the unfortunate and unlucky prospective Conservative candidate that it was a victory for common sense and democracy. Let us consider that. Is it a victory for democracy when the hon. Gentleman has buckled under the pressure put up by one prospective Conservative candidate and the Country Landowners' Association? What a wonderful example that is of the present Government. If that is a victory for democracy, I hope that he will shout the message loud and clear from the Dispatch Box.

I doubt whether the true democratic organisations in Wales will support him in his change of mind. The majority of people in Wales who are interested in the use of water for recreational purposes, and the Welsh authorities, should be allowed the reserve power to purchase compulsorily land which is necessary for recreational and other purposes. I do not suggest that anyone would want to purchase land in a higgledy-piggledy manner. I merely suggest that they should have the power to purchase the land which they consider necessary. That is the point of the safeguards which my hon. Friend mentioned in his opening remarks. Unless the Minister of State is able to satisfy the House on the suspicions which we harbour about the Government's change of mind, then the people of Wales will be entitled to draw the conclusion that once again this is an example of a sell-out by the Tory Government to vested interests.

1.0 a.m.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

This part of Clause 19 was thoroughly debated in Committee. The speech by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands) was a total replica of what the hon. Gentleman said in Committee.

Mr. Rowlands

So is the clause.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

That may be so, but I am saying that there was nothing new in the hon. Gentleman's speech. It was a replay of the gramophone record. It was repetitive, long and—to use the hon. Gentleman's own adjective—squalid.

I gave in Committee a detailed answer to the Opposition's amendment on this part of the Bill. I do not intend tonight to weary the House with it a second time, nor will I repeat the list of those who have written against the sentiments expressed tonight by the Opposition— except to say this: both the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil and the hon. Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) were selective in the organisations which they said were against this compulsory purchase. Some of the organisations which were strongly against it and which made their views known to us in the Welsh Office were as follows: the Angling Association of Llangollen, the Joint Committee of the National Anglers Council, the National Federation of Anglers, the National Federation of Sea Anglers and the Salmon and Trout Association and also the United Usk Fishermen's Association—

Mr. Spearing rose

Mr. Gibson-Watt

This is essentially a Welsh amendment, and I shall be grateful if the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) will allow me to continue.

Mr. Spearing rose

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I do not want to detain the House, but if the hon. Gentleman insists I will give way to him.

Mr. Spearing

The Minister will recall that in Committee, as reported in column 909, I asked him a question to which he made no reply. My question then was whether the Minister or his colleagues sent to the organisations which he has just mentioned the notes on clauses setting out in precise terms the reasons for these clauses. He did not answer that point in Committee. Will he now say whether that was done to enable the organisations to which he has referred to be aware of the reasons for this compulsory purchase provision?

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I regret that I did not answer the point made by the hon. Member for Acton—one of the many points he put in Committee. The answer is "No". One does not send to individuals the same sort of notes on clauses as one sends to hon. Members on both sides of a Committee. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would know that very well.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Gibson-Watt

I hope the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make my speech in my own way. I am giving him an answer to his question.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil also complained that I had answered one of the letters written to me at the Welsh Office. I thought it a little small-minded of the hon. Gentleman to complain just because the person to whom I wrote happened to be a Conservative candidate and to suggest that in some way this was undemocratic. That was a pretty low-level sort of argument for the hon. Gentleman to deploy. If the Opposition think that the angling associations are in favour of the sentiments expressed by the Labour Opposition in favour of compulsory purchase of water and the land that goes with it, they are living in cloud-cuckoo land. I advise the House to reject the amendment, as it was rejected in Committee.

Mr. Rowlands

That was a disgraceful and unworthy reply. The Minister did not begin to answer some of the points that have been made. Indeed, he did not even bother to tell us what he proposed to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) rightly said that the Minister's manner when replying to debates on Welsh matters is a disgrace. However, I should like to challenge the hon. Gentleman on one point. What does he propose to do in cases where landlords unreasonably withhold the acquisition of land from the water authority and thereby thwart one aspect of the water recreational plan? That is the terminology that the Government used in preparing their justification for the proposals in the original Bill. What alternative will there be to the case where a landlord unreasonably withholds the acquisition of land from the Welsh Water Authority?

My hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) may not be a Welsh Member, but he put a pertinent question which I also posed. The Minister did not give my hon. Friend an answer. He said that he did not send notes on clauses to people other than hon. Members. Did he write to the prospective Conservative candidate explaining the limited reserve nature of these proposals? Did he try to disabuse him of the view that this was land nationalisation? I presume that the Government would not be party to any proposal for widespread land nationalisation. The Minister may not have sent out these cautious notes on clauses, but he might have called these people together and said, "This is what we are trying to do. This is why we are asking for this reserve power. We do not intend to take over land wholesale. We intend only to hold this as a reserve power."

We have sat here until nearly 10 minutes past one to debate this issue. We deserve rather better treatment than we have had from the Minister in replying to the debate. Surely he has a duty to the House to answer at least the specific question: what powers will the water authority have in cases where landlords unreasonably withhold permission for the sale of land and thereby thwart an aspect of the water recreational plan for Wales? That was why the provisions were in the original Bill. They have now been removed. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what is to happen if that situation arises?

Mr. Gibson-Watt

The hon. Gentleman asked me the specific question: what powers will the water authority have? Clearly it will not have any compulsory powers.

Secondly, he asked whether I called together those people who objected to what was in the Bill. The number of organisions and individuals who wrote to the Welsh Office was such that that would have been beyond the realms of possibility.

Mr. Alec Jones

How many?

Mr. Gibson-Watt

There was a large number of organisations.

Since the Committee stage, in which the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands) had pretty good coverage in the local and national newspapers in Wales, only one individual has written to the Welsh Office saying that he favoured the compulsory purchase powers within the Bill—and he came not from Wales but from Essex.

Amendment negatived.

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