HL Deb 05 April 1916 vol 21 cc623-5

My Lords, I rise to ask the President of the Board of Agriculture whether, having regard to previous experience during periods of rapid industrial expansions and to the high rate of earning in munition and other establishments, the Government propose to take any steps to prevent the savings of workmen, sailors, and soldiers being exploited by land speculators and land development companies who, by means of highly coloured advertisements and false statements as to amenities and attractions, induce them to purchase plots of land which are entirely unsuitable for building and small holding purposes. It would, of course, be wrong to describe such a period as this as one of rapid industrial expansion, but it does present certain features in common with a period of that kind.

A large number of the people of this country are earning salaries and wages far in excess of anything they were previously enjoying in time of peace, and the question is how that extra money will be employed or invested. Unfortunately, it seems to be true that up to the present these extra savings have not been largely employed in buying Treasury Bills and Exchequer Bonds, in spite of the invitations of the Treasury, and I understand that these people will have no opportunity of investing their money in Premium Bonds because the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on high moral rather than on financial grounds, has decided that none of such Bonds shall be issued. It is common knowledge that one of the first subjects for investment—or shall we say for speculation—of those who enter the investing classes is land and houses. It is obvious why that should be so. They have not much experience of less tangible securities, and prefer to have their money invested in something solid and palpable.

But those who enter this investing class are very ignorant, unfortunately, with regard to investments of this kind, and there are a number of clever gentlemen who are quite ready to take advantage of that ignorance, and who, by means of posters and advertisements and in other directions—lunches, and so on, not unaccompanied by a good deal of champagne—are able to attract the simpler investors who put their money into these companies and then find the whole of their savings squandered. I am familiar myself with one or two cases of the kind. I will not, of course, detain your Lordships with the details of them. One is a "promising" estate in Essex which was to be laid out as a building speculation, but at present, although a great deal of money has been invested in it, it is absolute waste. Another case is that of land which was advertised to be laid out as a new town—there were beautiful plans and maps of streets and houses, and so on—yet at the present moment this land is in the condition of waste heath. In that case the only difficulty that arose was that the speculators had omitted to state, and the investors forgot, that water is required in order to supply a large town. No water was forthcoming, and, of course, nothing happened.

It is pretty certain that these experiences will be repeated. And all the more because there is a great deal of talk of settling returned soldiers upon the land. In these schemes there will be an element of philanthropy mixed up with the element of speculation, which always attracts a large, and not always the most ignorant, portion of the population. It may be said that to ask that the Board of Agriculture should take a matter of this kind in hand suggests rather a paternal effort, and that investors should be the best judges and should take any risks to which they may be exposed. I venture to think that any one who holds language of that kind is really ignorant of the class of persons who invest in projects of this kind and of the conditions which apply to such investment. I should like to appeal to the President of the Board of Agriculture and ask him whether he cannot use the powers of his Department to prevent these enterprises being set on foot, and to provide such warnings as will save intending investors from being "taken in" by highly-coloured and valueless propositions.


My Lords, I am fully alive to the dangers to which the unsophisticated possessor of more means than common sense is exposed by the recrudescence of the land speculator and of the land development company. What is wanted is to prevent ordinary people making foolish bargains of this kind, and I do not think it possible to do more than utter a public warning against the dangers to which my noble friend has called attention. The Board of Agriculture is fully aware of the possibility of a recrudescence of speculative land and building operations after the war, and it will keep a look out and do its best to protect possible victims from the speculator. In the event of anything of the kind being started I shall be glad to receive communications on the subject, so that the Board can take such action as may be possible. I would invite my noble friend to let me know where anything of the kind occurs within his knowledge, and if other noble Lords and members of the public will do the same it will assist my Department. It may also be well—this is rather a kindred warning, which I am glad to be able to give at the same time—in view of the tendency of many to believe that fortunes are to be made by poultry-keeping on a casual plot of ground bought for that purpose, to point out to them that this form of farming requires just as much experience as others if there is to be any chance of success, and no sensible person will invest his money in poultry-farming until he has gained experience. I am much obliged to the noble Lord for calling my attention to this matter, and I can assure him that we will do our best to avert the danger of which he has warned the public, and I trust that the public will assist us by giving timely notice of the recrudescence of speculations of this sort.