HL Deb 02 July 1918 vol 30 cc497-509

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a measure to amend the Land Drainage Act, 1861, and to make further provision for the drainage of agri- cultural land. The Act of 1861 was in itself an amending Act, and dealt with the laws which had been passed from long periods ago dealing with the same subject. We have a record from the date of Henry VIII, who made the first great advance in land drainage by appointing Commissioners of Sewers. The lineal successors of those Commissioners still act, but along with them, under the principal Act of 1861, have been appointed Drainage Boards with the same powers as the Commissioners of Sewers; and as they are elected bodies they are probably more in keeping with the spirit, of the age, and any new areas are put under their control.

The purpose of this drainage legislation has been to bring under cultivation and otherwise improve for agricultural purposes areas of low-lying wet land which, owing to their waterlogged condition, are incapable of producing to the fullest possible capacity. Great works have been carried out in the past under these different Acts, particularly during the middle part of the nineteenth century, which was a great time for agricultural improvement and also a great period of agricultural prosperity. It is, I think, worth noting that these agricultural improver rents have always gone hand in hand with the prosperity of the industry. But the circumstances which followed the middle part of the nineteenth century led to a want of energy in initiating new drainage schemes and a certain amount of carelessness, or possibly inability, in maintaining the schemes which were already in existence, with the result that large numbers of estates, particularly in the maritime districts of the country, bear marks of drainage schemes. Some of them still bear the burdens of the cost of those schemes, but in too many cases any beneficial results from these works are non-existent.

The causes for this are, I think, mainly two. There is an economic or agricultural cause and there is also a legislative cause. The great prosperity of agriculture led to a considerable activity in drainage improvement, but the following depression of the industry in the later third of the nineteenth century led to a discontinuance of all these schemes. No man had the heart, and, what was perhaps more important, very few people had the money, to carry on these improvements, and authorities found it impossible to levy a rate upon this much-harassed industry which had lost practically its all in attempting to produce under almost impossible circumstances. Arising out of the same cause—this depression of agriculture—the need for drainage itself became less. Owing to force of circumstances— bad times, low prices, foreign competition, and the total neglect by the nation of the agricultural industry—we were compelled to abandon arable cultivation and start on grass farming, because the arable cultivation, owing to these circumstances, had become highly speculative and in most cases quite unprofitable. We embarked upon that grass farming, and as the result of getting into grass farming the need for drainage became less. I need not, of course, point out to your Lordships that you can carry on the farming of pasture land on land which is in a quite unsuitable condition, through wet, to be used for corn production.

Just as the problems which were existing at that particular time caused this alteration in our agricultural system, leading to less need of drainage, so the totally different set of problems at the present moment—which have no connection with the profit or loss of the agricultural industry itself, but are entirely connected with the present imperative needs of the nation—are sending us back to the former course of corn production, which necessitates a much larger attention being paid to the drainage of the country. That is, I think, the agricultural reason. But in addition to that there is a reason connected with legislation itself. The legislation of former days down to the Act of 1861, while no doubt suitable to the particular times in which it was passed, is too cumbersome, too inconvenient, and in many respects too expensive for the needs of the present day. In so far as the areas requiring drainage are not under the charge of the Commissioners of Sewers drainage districts have to be formed under the control of Drainage Boards, but there is no one person and no one authority charged with the duty of initiating the procedure for bringing these Boards into existence. It is left to a chance collection of a certain number of people, the proprietors of one-tenth of the area of the district to be drained, and unless it happens that among these proprietors there are sufficient men of energy, public spirit, foresight, and knowledge of agricultural requirements, it is quite likely that no drainage district will be initiated or constituted even in those places where it is most required.

I hope under this measure to alter that one of the main defects of older legislation, and also to introduce other amendments which will make drainage more possible and more satisfactory. Whatever the actual causes may have been which led to tire discontinuance of drainage schemes, there are certain facts quite clear. One is that there is a very large area of land capable of corn production which, owing to such causes as the blocking of the outfalls and the choking of the drains, has relapsed into an almost unimproved state, and consequently we have large areas which are withdrawn from that food production which is most urgently needed at the present time. Very careful inquiries have been made in different parts of the country as to the extent of this land, and the War Agricultural Committees have almost unanimously, I think, pointed out that defective drainage is at the present moment one of the greatest obstacles in the way of increased food production.

In the same Report the Committees give us the estimated area of land which can be reclaimed or improved, and it amounts to a very large figure. As one may expect, it is largely in the eastern parts of the kingdom. In Yorkshire and Lincolnshire alone there is an area of 500,000 acres which is capable of improvement by proper drainage. In Norfolk and Cambridgeshire there are 100,000 acres. There is a somewhat similar amount in three counties in Wales, and there are various other districts where larger or smaller amounts require to be brought under survey for the purpose of improvement by drainage. Altogether we estimate that the land to be dealt with amounts to close upon 1,000,000 acres. It is so large a figure that if it is correct—and there is no reason to doubt its substantial accuracy—I think it raises this measure at once to a position of very great importance among all those Acts and Regulations and Orders which, during the past four years, have been passed into law for the purpose of improving production from the land.

The Board of Agriculture have already taken some powers to deal with the matter. Under the Defence of the Realm Act they have obtained powers to enforce the cleaning of drains and of streams and repairing river banks, and also powers to put pressure upon drainage authorities to get the necessary work carried out. This has had such an effect that we can show that 80,000 acres are at the present moment in process of improvement. To this extent it has been improved that already a very considerable number of aeres ate under crop of this year, and it is hoped for the year 1919 drat there will be a very largo amount, put under cultivation. I have endeavoured to show that there is in the country a very large area capable of being improved for corn cultivation. that drainage is essential for the purpose, but that the present law is not sufficient, and if your Lordships will allow me I will, by reference to the Bill itself, show the steps which are proposed.

The most important clauses of the Bill are Clauses 1 and 2. Under the old system, and also under the new, drainage districts require to be formed where any system is going to be put in operation under the Drainage Boards, but under the old Act as I have already told your Lordships, they can be initiated only by the proprietors of one-tenth of the area included in the scheme. No other body has power to bring them into operation, and, further, any scheme can be vetoed unless it has the consent of two-thirds of the proprietors within the area Where it is opposed, or unopposed, it has to proceed by the somewhat cumbersome process of Provisional Orders, to be confirmed by Parliament. Under Clause 1 and Clause 2 the necessary alterations are made. In the first clause power to make Orders constituting drainage districts is given to the Board of Agriculture. They may by their own Order constitute an area a separate drainage district, and it is only if it is opposed within thirty days that it requires any confirmation by Parliament. They can also make Orders for altering the boundaries of any drainage area. Under the older Acts no drainage area could be altered except by carrying through a Provisional Order, in exactly the same way as constituting a new district. The Board could make an Order defining the limits of the Commissioners of Sewers. The Commissioners of Sewers have charge of the maritime districts of the country—a phrase which I understand has no meaning either in law or practice, with the natural result that in most of these cases they are unaware, or ignorant, of the area which they control. There is no power at present for defining that limit. Under this measure the Board take power to make the necessary definition. They also have power to make an order for conferring upon the drainage authority certain additional powers in respect of the provisions of any local Act muter which they are constituted. At present they would have to go to Parliament and pass through a new private Act to get an alteration of those powers.

As I have said, these drainage districts cannot he formed unless one-tenth of the proprietors petition for it. That is very largely altered in this measure. To constitute a drainage area, or to alter the boundaries of an existing area, the Board may proceed on their own initiation; and in addition to that county councils are authorised to petition the Board for the purpose, or, as by the original scheme, one-tenth of the proprietors can make the application. Therefore we have three bodies any one of whom can put this into operation. The same bodies can apply for the alteration of private Acts, and the Board can make the necessary Orders. The proposal for the definition of the limits of the Commissioners of Sewers must come from the Commissioners themselves. These are, I think, large alterations, and they should make the carrying out, of this Bill very much simpler, less costly, and much quicker than before.

The next clause to which I wish to draw your Lordships' attention is Clause 4, subsection (2). This provides for differential rating. It is quite obvious that in almost all of the schemes different portions of the land are affected to different degrees. Formerly there was a level rate upon all; now they can be rated in accordance with the benefits they receive. Clause 5 enables the local authorities, either the public health authorities or the highway authorities, to contribute towards drainage expenses. There are a considerable number of instances where drainage is of importance to the health of the locality, and also where it is of great advantage to highways. In such circumstances the local authorities can contribute to the expenses such an amount as the Local Government Board, having regard to the public benefit derived therefrom, may sanction. Clause 7 of the Bill enables a drainage authority and a navigation authority to enter into arrangements for carrying out the duties of the navigation authority. There are cases where the navigation authority, having charge of rivers, or waterways, find that they are under their Acts bound to keep up a certain head of water for navigation purposes, although those purposes are no longer required. The result of keeping up that head of water means that the lands further back become flooded and spoilt for agricultural purposes. By arrangement with the district authority, subject to the approval of the Board of Trade, this drainage can he carried out. Clause 9 requires a report of the proceedings to be placed before the Board every year so that they may see that the drainage authorities are carrying our their duties. Clause 15, which is the first clause of Part II of the Bill, enables the Board to step in if the drainage authority is not fully exercising its powers.

Clause 16 is, I think, the only new feature in the Bill, and it is one to which I invite the attention of your Lordships. It brings in the power of compulsion— Where the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries are of the opinion that any agricultural land is capable of improvement by drainage works, but that the same cannot be conveniently dealt with by an order under Part I of this Act and that the expenses of executing and maintaining such works will not exceed the increase in the value of the laud arising therefrom, the Board may, in accordance with the provisions of a scheme made under this section, enter on the lands and execute such drainage works as appear to them desirable. This provides for cases of small areas which are not properly looked after by the owners. Where improvements might result from drainage works, then the Board takes upon itself the power to enter in and carry out the works, and charge the cost of the same to the owner or owners. Section 17 allows a delegation of the powers of the Board to the Committees. Those, my Lords, are, I think, the important sections of this Bill. We believe that the Bill as a whole is of considerable importance, and that, if your Lordships are good enough to pass it, it will remedy some of the very considerable defects which now arise from the faulty drainage of agricultural land. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill he now read 2a(Lord Clinton.)


My Lords, I was not able to be present in the House the other day when my noble friend Lord Clinton first spoke as representing the Board of Agriculture. Therefore I hope he will allow me to take this the first opportunity I have had of welcoming him to his new post. There is no member of your Lordships' House who is more qualified by his experience, and study, and complete knowledge of all agricultural questions to represent the Board of Agriculture here, and I think that we are very fortunate to have bad him selected by His Majesty's Government to represent hen) for this purpose.

I doubt whether it will ever be my noble friend's luck to bring to the notice of your Lordships a modest Bill which is really more important than the one which he has asked you to read a second time to-day. This is a subject which has during the last two years come before me constantly in my capacity as Chairman of the Agricultural Policy Sub-Committee of the Reconstruction Committee, the Report of which was laid on the Table of your Lordships' House only a few days ago. We had many witnesses of great authority on all sorts of agricultural matters summoned before us, one to speak on one subject and another on another subject, but it rarely happened that a man finished his evidence without asking if he might say something more, and that something was always connected with drainage. I assure you that my noble friend has in no way exaggerated the urgency of this problem. It has never been dealt with in England or Scotland in anything except the most haphazard and piecemeal fashion. I believe that we are almost the only civilised country in which any attention has been given to agriculture where the question of drainage has not been dealt with in a thorough and systematic manner.

The only fault that I have to find with the Bill that my noble friend has just introduced is that it can only in my judgment be a stop-gap Bill. It may serve for the purpose of the war emergency, but it will not settle the question. I do not believe that the question can be settled by any less scheme than the establishment of drainage authorities for the whole country, so that the whole country may be dealt with. I will give your Lordships only two examples. There is no adequate power existing which would enable me, if my farm or my estate is water-logged by the indifference of a neighbour, to get him to remedy the grievance and allow me, by the expenditure of money and the execution of proper works, to free my land from that water-logging which is caused by outlets on my neighbour's land. I do not say that there is no provision for that purpose; there is a provision passed about the middle Of the last century, but it is quite inadequate. Again, there has never been, except in the case of a river like the Thames, an attempt to deal with a whole watershed or with a whole riper as one thing. A case was brought to our notice of one small river of which there were no fewer than forty-one drainage authorities. I ask your Lordships to consoler what would be the natural result on the land drained by that river when there were forty-one different authorities to act in a circumscribed area wholly independent of each other and usually with entirely different ideas as to what ought to be done. The result, of course, was that the land was flooded. Therefore I welcome very heartily the introduction of this Bill. I have not had time yet to study the details, but I am quite sure that your Lordships will be well advised to give it a Second Reading.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words upon this Bill during the consideration of the Motion for its Second Reading. I will only attempt to deal with such parts of it as affect county councils. No doubt some of the more ardent members of those councils desire that county councils should be made the drainage authorities for their respective areas. This Bill does not go to that length, the drainage power being entirely retained by the Board of Agriculture, but when the Bill was introduced by the President of the Board of Agriculture in the House of Commons there were hardly any provisions in it —or none at all—which enabled county councils to take part in this work. During the passage of the Bill in the House of Commons, however, the President of the Board was most ready to meet the wishes of the County Councils Association in this respect, and as a result you will find in the Bill most valuable provisions under which county councils are given a status.

For instance, in the first clause, subsection (2), on petition from the county councils the Board, after consultation with the Local Government Board, may by Order make the county councils the drainage authority. Again, in Clause 2, subsection (1), the Board may by Order constitute a drainage district, or alter the area after consultation with the county councils. Further, subsection (2), paragraph 1, says that county councils may petition to alter or supplement a Drainage Act. In my opinion Clause 9 is a very important one. It decrees that the drainage authorities shall in every case render to the Board of Agriculture once every year a report of their proceedings in such a manner and under such conditions as the Board may require. A copy of this report is to be sent to the county councils who, therefore, when they get the report of these Drainage Boards in their different areas, will be able to see and judge for themselves whether the work that they are carrying out is efficient, and, if not, they will be able to appeal to the Board of Agriculture to remedy the state of affairs existing.

We know now that it is most desirable in the interests of the country that all possible land should be drained, and should no longer be water-logged, so that the output of crops may be increased. In Part 11, Clause 17 of the Bill says that the Board may authorise and delegate their powers to drainage bodies, in which case at least a majority of members shall be members of the county council. That is a very important clause, because the county councils interested in the particular drainage area will thereby secure at least a majority of the members of that Board.

There is also the very important provision that county councils may combine for the purposes of the Act. There was no provision before in any Act by which they could combine for this particular purpose. Finally, in the First Schedule the Board before making an Order must cause notice to be sent to the county council. So that under these various clauses the county councils will be really brought in for active and useful work in helping the Board of Agriculture to see that the drainage within their respective areas is sufficiently and properly maintained or improved. In these circumstances I think that the measure is a very useful one, and I hope that your Lordships will pass it.


My Lords, though with other noble Lords I fully recognise that something will have to be done in the near future as regards the drainage of agricultural land, at the same time we should be very wrong to suppose that the matter is a simple one, or one that can be dealt with by an Act of Parliament passed rapidly through both Houses of Parliament in war time. At any other time this is certainly a road which would be a very difficult one to tread, because there are a great many interests concerned and the matter requires the very greatest consideration.

I am fully aware that there has been a considerable demand in the country for greater powers to be given to some authority, whatever it may be, to enforce the better cleaning out of streams and the better drainage of land. All of us who are acquainted with lands which are likely to be submerged, and which very often are submerged, know that there are many authorities and private owners, who should clean out the streams and do the drainage, who do not do their duty. This Bill is a step in the right direction in compelling those authorities and private individuals to do their duty and to benefit the drainage of their neighbours' land.

There are, however, some provisions in the Bill on which I should like to make some remarks. For example, Clause 4, as I read it, will give the Courts of Sewers who have the power of dealing with coast defence the power of raising rates on land to stop erosion from the sea. In the parts of Lincolnshire with which I am acquainted I believe that in a very large number of cases where lands would suffer if the sea broke in and submerged the hinterland a great deal of that hinterland does not pay rates towards coast defence; whereas higher land does pay rates though the higher land very likely would not be submerged. As I read the provisions of the clause the Courts of Sewers would have power to raise a rate on all land likely to be submerged, whether that land was subject to be rated or not. This appears to be a fair and proper way of dealing with the matter, but we have to consider that within the last two or three years an enormous amount of that land has changed hands. I think there has been as much dealing in this marshy land as in any other land—it is very valuable land—and at the auction sales it is almost always stated what the drainage rate for the past year has been. Land which has been free from rates perhaps for centuries has been bought up at a very high price, whereas other land which has always been held to be liable for rates has fetched a much lower price. In that respect you may have a certain amount of difficulty. You will have to convince those people who have recently purchased land which has not been liable in the past that in future they will become liable and will very likely have to pay a very heavy rate.

The noble Lord in introducing the Bill referred to Clause 15 dealing with the compulsory powers of the Board to enter and drain land, and enabling it, having taken steps to drain the land, to call upon the proprietors to pay a rate to cover the cost. That, again, sounds very well, but I am quite certain it is a clause that will want a considerable amount of watching. I profoundly mistrust any engineering or expert opinion in dealing with water. I have had the honour of sitting on several Private Bill Committees upstairs, and have heard a good deal of expert evidence from water engineers, and I think it would be the experience of most noble Lords who have had anything to do with drainage or water that in almost every case the engineers' and contractors estimates are doubled, and sometimes trebled. I think that before compulsory powers are given to make people drain waterlogged land you ought to make it very plain that there can be absolutely no doubt that the experiment will be a success. It will be very hard if some war agricultural committee or county council or other authority complain that a certain area of land is in a waterlogged state and ought to be drained, and an expert engineer makes an estimate of the cost, and then when the work has been carried out it is found that the value of the land will not pay the drainage rate.

I do not think this is an extravagant fear, because I have known a good deal of the land in the Fens of Lincolnshire which in days gone by scarcely paid the drainage rate. It was a very close thing whether the people who owned the land were not better without it altogether owing to the very heavy drainage rate upon them. At the same time I fully admit that it is most important at the present time that we should grow food, and corn is fetching a big price. The expense of carrying out these works will certainly be double what it was before the war, and after these expensive drainage works have been carried out, when the price of agricultural produce falls again to its normal level— which I expect will occur at no very distant time after the war is ended—we may find ourselves in the predicament of having very heavy drainage rates to pay while the produce of the land is not sufficient to pay them.

For these reasons I thought it desirable to utter a word of warning. At the same time I feel that it is most important, where it can be clearly proved that owing to the want of energy and public spirit either of public authorities or private individuals, water is being held up, that Parliament should compel those people to carry out their duty. I hope, however, that in the administration of the Act compulsion will not be employed with the idea that marshes can be turned into wonderful corn-growing land at very little expense and with the certain prospect of success. I have always heard the story—I do not know how true it is—that the draining of Whittlesey Mere ruined three lots of people. Three different lots of people tried it and all went bankrupt one after the other, and it was not until the fourth man stepped in and reaped the benefit of what had been done by his predecessors that this rich Fen country was successfully drained. I am a little afraid, therefore, that there may be an inclination with such wide powers as are given that authorities may think it is easy, if every marsh in this country is drained, to obtain corn-producing land which will pay for the previous expense.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord in charge of the Bill whether there are two proportions of landowners who have a right to be consulted, the one-tenth who initiate the scheme or the one-third who object to it? As far as I can understand the Bill it must mean one-third and one-tenth in area, and it seems to me that the fairer way would be to make it one-third and one-tenth in value. That is not clear as vet, but I hope it will be made so in Committee.


The proposal in the Bill is that one-tenth in area can initiate the proceedings for the formation of a drainage district; then there is the power of veto conferred upon one-third in area.


Also in area?




I think it would be fairer if it were in value.

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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