HL Deb 03 April 1873 vol 215 cc506-17

rose to move that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the facilities afforded by the existing law for the investment of capital in the improvement of land, and to report whether any alteration of the law is requisite in order further to encourage such investment. He did not think that in making this Motion it would be necessary for him to attempt to justify it at any length; but he wished to place before their Lordships a few figures in justification of the statement he made last year in moving the second reading of his Bill (the Limited Owners Improvement Bill) when he pointed out the serious difficulties under which in the present state of the law the limited owner was placed when he desired to lay out his money in the improvement of his own land, and he at the same time suggested that the fact of only a comparatively small use having been made of the provisions of the Act of 1864 was due possibly to the conditions which the Act required and to the constant tutelage in which the landowner availing himself of it was kept by the Inclosure Commissioners, to whom the working of the Act was entrusted. Since last year Returns had been issued of the monies lent under that Act, and also under what were called the Companies' Acts—Acts which empowered Companies to override the ordinary law of settlement and entail in order to obtain security for money they might advance to the owners of estates for improvements. These Acts gave such greater facilities to landowners desirous of borrowing, that large amounts of money had been advanced under them; while the Act of 1864, which only enabled limited owners to invest their own money in the improvement of their estates, had operated to only a very limited extent. He found from the Returns to which he alluded that under the Companies' Acts the amount spent in farm buildings was £1,833,000; while for the same purpose the amount spent under the Act of 1864 was £71,000. Under the Companies' Acts the amount spent on labourers' cottages was £336,000, and the sum spent for the same object under the Act of 1864 was only £8,000. He could not believe that landowners spontaneously preferred paying interest to Companies—which must include profit on their capital and the cost of their staff—rather than employ their own money in the improvement of their own estates. He could not but think that there was something in the mode of working the Act of 1864 which accounted for the facts shown by the Returns, and that was the chief ground on which he introduced his Bill of last year. When it became evident that he could not hope to carry the Bill through Parliament that Session, he intimated his intention of re-introducing it this year, and to get it read the second time as early as possible, in order that it might be referred to a Select Committee, who would inquire into the whole subject. The terms of the reference he now proposed were large enough to enable the Committee—and he hoped they would undertake the task—to go into a somewhat wider inquiry. An idea was spread abroad that settlement and entail were arrangements adverse to the improvement of land. He believed the fact to be exactly the reverse. He believed that the greatest bane under which any agricultural system could exist was a state of heavy mortgages—especially when the money had been raised, not for the improvement of the land, but for extravagance. While the system of entail might, to some extent, and in an indirect manner—and only in an indirect manner—hinder the sale of land, it was an actual bar to extravagant mortgages. But as ideas to the contrary had been so industriously spread abroad, he thought that a Committee of their Lordships' House could do no better than inquire into the matter and elicit the opinions of those practically acquainted with it. This, however, was only a subsidiary object of the Committee. The main object was that which he ventured to bring under the notice of their Lordships last year—namely, to give to limited owners proper facilities for investing their own money in the improvement of their own land. Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the facilities afforded by the existing law to limited owners of land for the investment of capital in the improvement of such land, and to report whether any alteration of the law is requisite in order further to encourage such investment.—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)


said, that no one was more anxious than he that facilities should be given to landed proprietors to improve their own land. He must remind their Lordships that when landowners borrowed money under the Companies' Acts they put themselves under the control of those Acts. There could be no objection to allowing a limited owner to spend his own money in the improvement of his estate, and to charge that money on the estate if he did so under proper safeguards—and if they placed themselves under the same rules as were laid down by the Companies' Acts, they would have no greater difficulties. But the Bill introduced by the noble Marquess last year would have relieved the landowners of all responsibility as to the way in which the money was laid out. Now, anyone who borrowed money under the Companies' Act was obliged to declare the object for which he desired to borrow, to lay it out under inspection, and to make such yearly payments as would extinguish the whole debt in 25 years. There could be no objection to the Inquiry into this subject which the noble Marquess now proposed; but as to the second head of inquiry he did not think much good would arise from it, because, as the prejudices of their Lordships' House were supposed to be in favour of the existing law of settlement and entail, he did not think the Report of their Committee would have much weight out-of-doors. He did hope that there would be no inquiry by the Select Committee into the relations between landlord and tenant. He trusted nothing of that kind would ever be thought of. There was at present an excellent feeling between landlord and tenant in this country; and nothing should be done to bring the law in between them.


said, that though from the remarks of the noble Marquess it would appear that the scope of the Inquiry would be larger than was expressed by the Notice, he had no objection to offer to the Motion.


said, he was in favour of an Inquiry by a Committee. He would express no opinion on the subject of what his noble Friend (the Marquess of Salisbury) called the "subsidiary object" of the Inquiry; but as regarded the Inquiry respecting the state of the law in relation to the investment of capital in land, he thought it might prove useful. Certainly there could be no objection to allow limited owners to lay out their own monies in the improvement of their estates with greater facility if the risks to the estate from loss arising from such investments were not at the same time increased. He thought that the noble Marquess's observations in respect to the law of settlement and entail were very extraordinary and very wide of the main subject. No doubt opinions were freely entertained abroad on those subjects; but he did not see how they could be brought within the scope of the Inquiry of a Committee appointed to inquire into the investment of a man's own money in his own estate. If that proposition were omitted, there could be no reasonable objection to the Motion.


said, that from the terms of the Notice he had apprehended that the Inquiry contemplated by the noble Marquess would be of a restricted character, that it would have reference only to the investment of his own money by a limited proprietor in the improvement of land. From the noble Marquess's speech he was, however happy to learn that the Inquiry would have a wider scope. The solicitude of the noble Marquess was aroused for the limited proprietors who had money to invest. There was another and a larger class who deserved the interest of the noble Marquess in a greater degree—the class of limited proprietors who had no money, but who were anxious to improve their land and to obtain money on fair terms for that purpose. It was unnecessary to enforce the great importance of increasing the productive powers of the soil. That object could be attained in two ways—by improving the cultivation of the land already under tillage, and by increasing the area of cultivation. In regard to the first, it had been affirmed by competent authority, ratified by the opinion of a noble Earl opposite, whose judgment was deserving of the greatest respect, that the produce of land now under cultivation might be doubled by the highest application of capital and skill. It was more difficult to say what result could be attained by the reclamation of lands now lying waste. We had no accurate knowledge of the amount of waste which could be brought under cultivation with profit, but no doubt the area was considerable. In the agricultural returns there were more than 24,000,000 of acres which were not brought under any head of crop or produce in England and Scotland. Of course that land was not all lying waste, nor was it all susceptible of profitable improvement. Much was mountain pasture of an excellent quality, very profitable in its present form. Much, on the other hand, was moor and bog, lying at a high elevation, which no amount of expenditure would render productive; but it was equally certain that a large extent existed which was not profitable in its present condition, and which might be rendered remunerative by a judicious outlay. A considerable area was indeed unprofitably appropriated to the purposes of sport. In Ireland 4,250,000 acres returned as absolutely waste—not used for the purposes of pasture in any shape. He contended that the proprietors of land under settlement were subjected to conditions which greatly limited their powers in prosecuting agricultural improvement so necessary to the welfare of the whole community. They could only borrow money from the Companies at rates, including interest and sinking fund, amounting to between 6 and 7 per cent. Proprietors of entailed estates ought, in his opinion, to have the power of borrowing at the market rate of 4 per cent for substantial improvements, and of making the outlay a permanent charge on the estate. It was true that the substantial improvement might not be an everlasting one. The improvement might in the course of years be absorbed or worn-out, but it would last two generations; it would last as long as the settlement under which it was effected, and that was all that the law need require, for though the proprietor of an entailed estate was bound to transmit the estate unimpaired in value to his immediate successors, he was not bound to transmit it with an increased value for ever. If the poorer order of limited proprietors were enabled to obtain the means of effecting improvements on terms such as he had indicated, he believed that an immense development in the productive power of the land would shortly be attained. While the poorer order of limited proprietors lay under grievous disabilities with reference to the amelioration of the land, their situation was still worse in regard to the improvement of the habitations of the labourers. To reclaim the land was difficult, but to rebuild the cottages was impossible. For the latter purpose money could only be got at 7 per cent. That rate was almost prohibitive, for cottage building was in many cases absolutely unremunerative; indeed, the new cottage was sometimes rather an additional charge than a source of profit to the estate. Nor could money be obtained for every class of cottages. The Commissioners would only sanction loans for cottages directly necessary to the farm on which they were situated, but it was obvious that it might be desirable to reconstruct many cottages generally necessary for the welfare and convenience of the property and the neighbourhood which were not strictly requisite for the farm in which they were placed. It must also be remarked that the Commissioners, even in cases in which sanction was granted, impeded the course of improvement by insisting on plans and specifications far beyond the local standard of comfort and convenience. The cottages erected in Scotland, under the sanction of the Commissioners, cost on an average £140 a-piece, when £80 or £90 would provide a habitation commensurate to the wants and resources of the agricultural labourer. While such were the discouragements and impediments to the reconstruction of rural habitations, the necesssity for this work was most pressing. In Scotland one-third of the agricultural population, according to the last Census, were lodged in tenements comprising only one room, while another third inhabited houses composed of two rooms. In Ireland there were more than 80,000 habitations of one room. In England statistical information was wanting, but the agricultural Reports disclosed a lamentable want of good accommodation for the rural classes. With a view to the performance of a sacred duty and the remedy of a deplorable evil, he claimed for the limited land owner the power of borrowing at the current market rate, for the reconstruction of agricultural labourers' dwellings and the power of making a permanent charge on the estate for that purpose. He could not allege that the improvement would always be a profitable one to the estate in a pecuniary sense, but it was essential to the honour of the proprietor and the welfare of the people. We had fallen on times when duties of a social and sanitary character could no longer be neglected with impunity. The country was strictly investigated by sanitary officers, by whom every neglect and abuse would be dragged to light, and by whom proprietors who did not conform to the requisitions of the age would be held up to public reprobation, though their failure might be far more owing to want of means than to want of good will. If the noble Marquess would include all these matters in his inquiry, if his object was to promote by every possible means, the investment of capital in the improvement of land and the reconstruction of dwellings, and to afford these facilities to the poor and burdened owner, as well as to the more favoured members of the same order, then, indeed, his Inquiry might issue in great and lasting benefits to the community, and it would have his (Lord Napier's) most unqualified and cordial support.


said, he could not agree with the noble Lord who had just sat down that there were grievous impediments in the way of the limited owner of an estate borrowing money for improvements. He must say he had never heard of money being borrowed for the purposes referred to at so high an interest as 7 per cent. He had known large sums borrowed on conditions involving annual payments of £6 12s or £6 14s. per cent for improvement of land; but those sums included not only the ordinary interest for the money but the sinking fund for the extinguishment of the debt in 25 years. The noble Lord, if he understood him correctly, wished to diminish the annual charge by relieving those who borrowed for improvements from the necessity of providing a sinking fund to pay off the debt. He trusted this would not be allowed. He hoped Parliament would never permit a limited owner to borrow money and charge it on the estate without obliging him to contribute a sinking fund. No proprietor should be permitted to burden with a permanent debt an estate in which he had only a life interest. It seemed to him that nothing could be more injudicious than to do anything calculated to burden the land with permanent charges. There was no greater evil to a country than that a large portion of its land should be held subject to mortgages. Neither could he concur with the noble Lord that a limited owner should be permitted to borrow what sums he liked in open market, and subject to no conditions such as those imposed on those who borrowed under the Public Companies' Acts. To prevent gross abuses it was absolutely necessary to provide some means of ensuring that money professedly borrowed for improvements should really be so applied. And he denied that there was any evidence that the existing system failed in affording great facilities for improvement. He thought, on the contrary, that everyone who had carefully watched what was going on in the country would concur with him that since the repeal of the Corn Laws the march of agricultural improvement had been more rapid than could have been anticipated. The change in the character of the farm buildings and cottages and the improved skill in the cultivation of the soil were, to his mind, very remarkable considering how little the science of agriculture was understood until within a comparatively recent time, and how much ignorance was still to be found both among owners and occupiers of land. The noble Lord said that it was specially necessary to make some change with reference to the improvement of cottages. No man felt more strongly than he (Earl Grey) did the urgent necessity that there was for improving the dwellings of the poor, not only in the country, but still more in the towns—because if there was a grievance in this respect in the country, he was persuaded that that grievance was infinitely greater in the towns. In the country they did not find four or five families crammed into a single room, as they found in the great cities. The improvement that had taken place within the last few years in the habits of the population in the country, and in their houses generally, was something that was very remarkable indeed. Such an improvement, however, could only proceed by degrees, and in the agricultural districts the progress was considerable—but a great and general change could not be effected in a day. But when the noble Lord said that the great want of better cottages would justify Parliament in enabling the owners of land to put a permanent charge upon it for improvements which he admitted would not be remunerative—so that the work would be done partly at the charge of their successors—it appeared to him (Earl Grey) that this would be simply to enable the present generation to be generous and charitable, not at their own expense, but at the expense of others. He thought this could not in justice be allowed, though he admitted there was a great difficulty about building cottages, because the rents working men could give would not in general pay a fair interest on their cost. But proprietors in some parts of the country at least found that it was absolutely necessary in their own interests to have good cottages, quite irrespective of their being directly remunerative. In Northumberland—and he believed it was pretty much the same in Scotland—the custom was to have a certain number of cottages attached to every farm, and it answered to spend money in improving these cottages, because from experience it was found that they could not get good farm servants without having good cottages for them. This accounted for the marvellous improvements that had taken place in agricultural dwellings in the county of Northumberland within his recollection. He remembered the time when almost universally each cottage in that part of the country had only a single room, and in some few cases he had even seen a part of this one room cut off with wickerwork for the cow. The old Northumbrian cottages were kept very clean, all things considered; but still they were very wretched habitations. They had, however, been fast disappearing, and very few were to be found now. Even the small minority of the owners of land who were not willing to make improvements in the cottages on their estates were driven into doing so by the fact that good farm servants could not be got without good cottages being provided for them. But it was not because there ought to be better cottages that they should depart from all sound principles, and enable landlords to charge their estates in perpetuity for the purpose of effecting these improvements. Almost the only point upon which he concurred with the noble Lord who had just spoken was that he thought that there was reason to doubt whether the Commissioners had not been somewhat too strict in their requirements as to the accommodation to be provided in cottages built under their authority; because practically the question was this—whether you would be content with cottages falling somewhat short of what you would wish to have, or go on with the miserable ones you found standing—because if you insisted on too costly a cottage as a condition for charging the expense on the land, none at all would be built. It was a mistake also to attempt too violent a change in the habits of the people. He was therefore of opinion that till lately the Commissioners had been too severe in reference to the cottages which they had required to be built. But within the last two or three years this mistake had been to a great degree corrected. The inquiry into the condition of the agricultural population in Northumberland had been very ably conducted by Mr. Henley, the Assistant Commissioner, and in consequence of his Report there had of late been a very considerable relaxation in the requirements of the Commissioners with respect to cottages. As to the figures which the noble Lord (Lord Napier) quoted in reference to the large amount of land that was capable of cultivation, but which was left useless or only partially cultivated, he confessed that he always listened to these statistics with the very greatest possible suspicion. When you demanded details you had great difficulty in finding where this improveable land was. According to his experience, wherever it was practicable to improve land, there was now a very great desire to improve it. Then they must remember that a great outcry had been raised of late as to the enclosing and dividing of commons; but unless they did this, then in reference to common land in many cases the improvement of land was practically impossible. Further, he did not see how they could interfere in reference to the land which was kept for the purposes of sport, unless they were prepared to interfere also with the merchants and other persons of wealth who took agricultural land, and turned it into pleasure grounds and gardens. All these things were consequent upon the increase of wealth, and could hardly be interfered with—especially as we now opened our ports to the introduction of food from all parts of the world. As to the Motion of the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury), it seemed that one of his main motives for bringing forward this Motion was that he believed that persons having money of their own had not the same facilities for investing it in the improvement of their estates as those enjoyed by owners who not having money of their own to invest, borrowed money for that object. If this were really the case such a state of things ought to be altered; but he could not help thinking that the small sum spent by the former class of owners in improving land under the Act of 1864, as compared with that spent by the latter in the same kind of improvement carried on under the Companies' Acts, arose from another cause than that to which the noble Marquess attributed it. He believed the real reason was that the number of owners who had money of their own to lay out was small as compared with the number of those who had not. But, be that as it might, the subject was one which might usefully engage the attention of a Select Committee.


said, that as far as his experience went he had found no difficulty whatever in borrowing money for the improvement of an entailed estate, or in spending his own money for the same purpose, when he had any to spare. All you had to do was to go to the Improvement Commissioners if you had money of your own, and when they had made inquiry the thing was settled. On the other hand, if you wanted to borrow money, you got it through a Land Improvement Company, though the land could not be burdened for more than 25 years.


feared that if the order of reference were made in its present form the Committee might think that the scope of its Inquiry was much wider than his noble Friend really intended it to be. He would suggest that his noble Friend's object would be answered if the Committee were appointed "to inquire into the facilities afforded by the existing law to limited owners of land for the investment of capital in the improvement of such land."


said, he would accept the alteration suggested. The debate had shown that, under the reference as it stood, some questions might possibly arise as to the relations between landlord and tenant, and there were various reasons why this House should undertake no such inquiry. He was not going to reply to the speech of the noble Lord opposite (Lord Napier), which had, indeed, been admirably answered already by the noble Earl on the cross-benches. He would, however, just mention one instance as to the value of the statistics which had been published by the Government, which made him doubt if their figures were entirely trustworthy. If they looked to the Returns that came from Belgium they would find that the extent of cultivated land stated to be in Belgium was greater than the whole extent of land that there was in Belgium; and he did not think that this was likely to be the case.

Motion amended, and agreed to. Resolved, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the facilities afforded by the existing law to limited owners of land for the investment of capital in the improvement of such land, and to report whether any alteration of the law is requisite in order further to encourage such investment.—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)

And, on Friday, April 4, the Lords following were named of the Committee:—

D. Richmond. L. Vernon.
D. Bedford. L. Meldrum.
D. Cleveland. L. Colchester.
M. Salisbury. L. Stanley of Alderley.
M. Bath. L. Egerton.
E. Derby. L. Houghton.
E. Airlie. L. Kesteven.
E. Grey. L. Ettrick.
E. Kimberley. L. Hanmer.
L. Dinevor.