HL Deb 07 June 1921 vol 45 cc457-63

LORD FORESTER rose to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture if he will furnish the farm and estate balance sheets of the Heath Hill Small Holdings Colony for the year ended 31st March, 1921; also a Return showing the amount of the total loss incurred to that date; the number of houses completed, and whether there is a supply of water within a reasonable distance; the number of ex-Service small-holders at present accommodated; whether it is contemplated to expend further moneys; also whether the Ministry intend to continue direct fanning of all or any part of the land, and to retail' the services of what, if any, officials; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question that stands in my name and to move, for Papers, having been asked to do so by the Salop County Council, of which I have the honour to be a member. The Salop County Council and a few other county councils have begun to realise, though perhaps somewhat late in the day, how their independence has been, and is being, undermined by the hordes of officials who have been sent into the counties by various Government Departments to administer such institutions as Heath Hill Colony and others of a similar nature, as well as by the inspectors and super-inspectors who look into every department of the Council's work. The Salop County Council made an effort recently to discover the number of officials so sent down by the Government, and I was asked to put a Question to your Lordships' House as the only means of obtaining the information and of finding out what is going to happen to this Heath Hill Colony.

There was a Report issued by the Government in February of this year, Command Paper No. 1184, in which the Director-General of the Lands and Supplies Department says that "a commercial undertaking such as farming must be cannot conveniently be mama gecl from Whitehall." Later in the Report, he says The experiment has not, I think, been justified in respect of those parts of the scheme which involve the direct farming of land by the Ministry itself. The particular colony about which I have asked this Question is a property consisting of about 1,259 acres, of which 1,150 were purchased for £40,000 by the then Board of Agriculture, vi ho obtained vacant possession in April, 1918. An additional property, comprising 53 acres, with two houses, one set of farm buildings and two cottages with gardens, was acquired in June, 1919, for £4,130. And a further 56 acres, including a farmhouse and a set of buildings, were purchased for £2,500 in December 1919.

This settlement of the Ministry of Agriculture was established under the Small Holdings Colonies Acts, 1916 and 1918, the County Council not being consulted at all, although it is prescribed by the Act of 1918 that no additional land shall be acquired except after consultation with the chairman of the county council or with a committee of the council. I should like to ask the noble Earl, Lord Ancaster, why the 'Ministry of Agriculture did not consult either the chairman of the county council or any committee of the council when they bought this additional land. The Ministry of Agriculture admit a loss of nearly £6,000 on the first two years farming and of over £1,400 on the estate account up to the end of March, 1920. In March of the present year the Ministry had a dispersion sale of their stock, but apparently a portion of the staff, consisting of the director, a bailiff and a clerk, are to be retained. It is for these reasons that I ventured to put down the Question that stands in my name. I beg to move.


My Lords, in the course of his speech the noble Lord asked a number of questions which he did not put on the Paper and, if I may say so, answered a good many of them, because he proceeded to give your Lordships what seemed to be, so far as I could follow him, a very accurate account of the acreage of, and the amount of money paid for, the land of which this Heath Hill Colony consists, and as to which he wants particulars.


If I may interrupt the noble Earl, I am asking for particulars and Papers for 1921. The details I have mentioned are in regard to 1920 only.


What I meant was that the noble Earl has given us particulars of the price at which the farms and so on were purchased, and not of the losses. I was going to inform the House of those particulars, but not go into them. The farm and estate balance sheet for the year ending March 31, 1921, are in course of preparation, but are not yet completed. The loss incurred up to March 31, 1920, the latest date for which the figures are available, was £7,344 18s. 6d. Details of the accounts and balance sheet will be found on pages 19 and 20 of the Report, Command Paper No. 1184, to which the noble Lord referred.

I come now to the noble Lord's Question about the cottages. Eight new cottages have been completed by the Ministry since it acquired the property, and four remain to be finished. A permanent supply of water has not yet been obtained for the new cottages. The tenants of the two which are at present occupied are obtaining the necessary water from the wells of adjoining cottages. It is hoped that arrangements will shortly be made with the late owner of the property, to whom the waterworks situated on the farm belong, to obtain a permanent supply from the mains in the immediate neighbourhood, in which he is directly interested. At the present time thirty-five ex-Service men are occupying thirty-three small holdings on the settlement. Ultimately, when the central farm is completely given up, there will be thirty-five holdings, which will probably be let to thirty-seven ex-Service men.

The sub-division of the central farm has entailed a certain amount of additional expenditure which has not yet been completed. The Treasury have authorised an expenditure of £40,000 on the development of the settlement. Of that £40,000 only £700 had been expended up to March 31, 1920, and consequently the printed accounts include only this sum as expenditure on additional equipment. The work is being carried out by the Office of Works on behalf of the Ministry, and the total expenditure to date is believed to be nearly £19,000. That is, on equipment. It is probable that the scheme of development may be, to some extent, modified, and the total expenditure actually incurred may be less than the £40,000 for which Treasury authority has been obtained.

The Ministry does not intend to continue direct farming of any of the land, and it is hoped that it may be possible to arrange for the letting of the whole area, with the exception of a few acres, by Michaelmas next. I believe that on the few acres that are being maintained it is intended to keep a boar and a bull for a short period. In any case, no land whatever will be farmed by the Ministry after Lady Day, 1922. The present director has resigned his post under the Ministry, and his services will terminate at the end of October—that is when the harvest is finished—and it is not intended that his post shall be filled. It will, however, be necessary to retain at Heath Hill a clerk at 70s. a week so long as the Ministry's responsibilities for administering the settlement continue.

With regard to the remark of the noble Lord about undermining the County Council, perhaps I may say that negotiations have been opened with the Shropshire County Council with a view to the settlement being taken over by the Council and treated as part of its small holdings undertaking. It is hoped that the Shropshire County Council will take over this farm from the Ministry, and work it with their other small holdings.

In conclusion, I should like to say that I am afraid almost all these schemes have been costly, but there was a strong desire on the part of Parliament that ex-Service men should be settled upon the land, and that this should be done in certain cases direct by the Ministry itself. The Ministry set about this work, and I think they have done really well considering the difficulties with which they had to contend, t think your Lordships will agree that they have worked in an efficient and fairly expeditious manner when you remember that they had to buy land for this purpose when it was rising in price, and that in many cases they had to put up cottages and farm buildings and make roads when labour and materials and. everything else were at their very highest price. It is only natural in such circumstances that there should be a loss on these undertakings. The only thing upon which we can console ourselves for this loss is that we have the satisfaction, at all events, of knowing that on almost all these colonies, and especially at this one, heath Hill farm, we have settled a large number of ex-soldiers who are doing well, and who are contented with their avocation in life. That it has been an expensive thing for the country cannot be disputed, but the taxpayers have the satisfaction of knowing that ex-Service men have been settled on the land.

The noble Lord made some statement about the authority of county councils being undermined by Government inspectors. I do not think that point occurs in his Questions. Up to the present time the County Council has had nothing to do with this Heath Hill farm. It is one of the Ministry's settlements, and it was set up by the Ministry under the power given to them by the Act of Parliament. It is not a county council small holding. I thorough I y agree with the conclusion arrived at by Sir Lawrence Weaver in his report, that, farming from Whitehall has not been a success, and I do not think it is ever likely to be a success. It is the intention of the Ministry, therefore to wind up farming from Whitehall as speedily as Possible.


My Lords, I can hardly regard the reply of the noble Earl as quite satisfactory. Apparently what has happened is that the Ministry has started this Colony and found that they cannot run it, except at an enormous loss, and now they are trying to hand it over to the County Council. I take it that they will let the County Council know as soon as they can do so what the loss on the working has been up to 1921. The noble Earl also did not answer my Question as to wiry they bought this additional land without having first done what is prescribed in the amended Act of 1918—namely, consulted the chairman of the County Council or some portion of the County Council.


My Lords, I cannot answer that immediately, because the noble Lord has given me no notice of it. I was under the impression that this Act gave the Ministry the power to acquire land for this purpose, and I was not aware that there was anything in the Act making it necessary for the Ministry to consult the county council interested before they purchased land. As the noble Lord did not give me notice of this particular matter I am unable to tell him precisely what happened. If it was necessary to consult the County Council, I have not at present any evidence as to what passed between the Ministry and the County Council on the subject.

As to the question of handing over the farm to the County Council I merely stated that in this case, as in other cases, it is hoped that the Ministry will be able to hand this settlement over to the County Council, because we believe the County Council, being on the spot, will be able to look better after the small holdings, and to manage them more cheaply than can be done from Whitehall. When that is done, if any loss occurs, the Government make themselves responsible for that loss. The idea is that the County Council shall take them over at their value as small holdings, and shall not pay back to the Government what has been spent on them. That has never been proposed. There is no wish to take advantage of County Council in the matter. It is a bargain between the two. There is to be a. valuation not of what the land is worth and of what has been spent on it, but of its worth as a small holding.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.