HL Deb 22 November 1945 vol 137 cc1157-71

4.28 p.m.

LORD CRANWORTH rose to call attention to the large acreage of good agricultural land lying derelict on redundant aerodromes and to ask His Majesty's Government how they propose to deal with these sites; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion that stands in my name, and the question which accompanies it, are not only designed to satisfy my personal curiosity but to enable me, in an authoritative way, to answer the almost innumerable queries that I receive on this point. The public, I think, are somewhat perplexed about this matter and their perplexity has not been much diminished by answers given in another place. There are several aspects of this question which might well he considered; indeed I think I might roam from the atomic bomb to the great inconvenience, and sometimes the loss, which the public are suffering by having to avoid those main roads they have used all their lives to go into their homes and to carry their goods to their businesses and by having to go round longer distances by by-roads. But the point to which, as far as I am concerned, I wish to stick mainly concerns the agricultural side of the matter.

As your Lordships are only too well aware, this is not a very large island and the amount of agricultural land in it is strictly limited. Prior to the war, for a good many years there was a continual encroachment on that agricultural land. I have some figures here, taken from the Committee on Utilization of Rural Areas, which I think are extraordinary and somewhat perturbing. During the last twelve years there were lost for building and general construction 572,000 acres, for sports grounds 129,000 acres, for aerodromes 64,000 acres, for the War Office 18,000 acres, and for other purposes 10,000 acres. That makes a total of 794,000 acres, or an average of 66,200 a year. That is to say, this country had lost, prior to the war, over 100 square miles of agricultural land every year. That is a somewhat disturbing fact in itself. With the coming of the war, that process has been enormously accelerated Aerodromes, battle-schools, camps, ranges for artillery and small arms, hutments and gun-sites have all taken their share. How much the whole amount may he I do not know, but I know that in one county alone, Norfolk, it amounts to over 40,000 acres.

Of these sources of depredation, aerodromes have been very considerably the greatest, and that not only on account of their size, but also because, for some reason, they seem always to be put on the best land. Why that should be so I cannot say. I have made a point of asking my old friends and my new acquaintances in the Air Force, and I have never yet had an answer. Some of them have been so indiscreet as to say that there is no reason for it at all. It is certain that where the Air Force have agreed to take heath land and light land of various kinds they have got on remarkably well, and I believe those aerodromes to be a good deal more popular with the Air Force than those built on heavier and better land. I do not know how many aerodromes there are now in the country; I have heard many figures, but I do not know how accurate they are. It is quite certain, however, that they amount to an enormous area. Germany used to say that we were one enormous aircraft carrier, and that was not, perhaps, very much of an exaggeration. We know to what splendid use those aerodromes were put. But for our airmen and our aerodromes we should not have won the war, and your Lordships would not now be sitting in this House.

But, although we find it sometimes difficult to believe it, the war has in fact been won and is over. We arc told that, although the war has been won, the war against famine is very far from being won. We are told repeatedly by the Government that there never was such a need for food production as there is to-day. The Ministry of Agriculture are continually emphasizing that fact. We have even been told to go slow with bread; and, as another example, the little playing fields which belong to our village schools, and which are really vital to the youth of this country, must, we are told, he retained for food production at present. For my sins—which I fear I must conclude must have been very heavy— I am, and have been for six years, a member of a war agricultural executive committee. Our main job has been, and I presume is now, to maintain the maximum supply of food. During the war that was an easy task. The farmers cooperated splendidly and effected a wonderful result, mainly through their sense of patriotism. When you went to a farmer and asked him to take over and plough a, piece of land which it would be unremunerative to plough, and said to him "If you take this over and plough it, you will be saving the lives of our sailors in the Royal Navy and Mercantile Marine, who are bringing food over here," invariably he would reply, "Of course I will do so." He took it and made the best of it, though he nearly always lost money on it. It is not so easy now when you ask a farmer to do this. You tell him that never was there such a demand for food, that food was never so short, and production of it was never so much needed. If he is a polite man, he will say to you "Oh, yeah. Well, I find that a little difficult to believe when within two miles of my farm there are 600 acres of the best land in the parish producing absolutely nothing, and to which nothing is being done."

I am afraid that there is an impression, which is increasing, that the War Department have taken as their motto "What we have we hold, and we hold it for holding's sake." I know that to be untrue, and it should be categorically denied. At the same time, when we see these large numbers of men, and perhaps still more when we see these large numbers of women, in uniform, and apparently doing nothing, and when we see all these acres lying idle, and when we see all these requisitioned houses standing empty, at a time when there is a need for houses everywhere, and when we see large quantities of vehicles, of agricultural implements, and of stores of all kinds standing idle, we cannot be surprised if that impression exists and is increasing.

I well appreciate that there are many difficulties. There is the difficulty of the runways, first of all. An enormous number of acres is immobilized by runways, and what is going to be done with them I do not know, though I should very much like to know. I have heard it said that they are going to be covered over with earth, and that an endeavour will be made to grow either grass or crops on them. I hope that that information is incorrect, because I do not think that that would be a great success. I know also that the top soil has been removed over large areas, and that means that a great deal of work will have to be done to restore it, and it may well be that use in other directions will be made of the aerodromes. At the same time, I would point out that there are factors on the other side. All these aerodromes have water laid on; they all have electricity; they all have huts and houses, some of which would be suitable for the housing of live stock and others of which, with very little adaptation, would be suitable for farm workers; and they are at least adequately roaded. I feel that there must be very large areas that are fit for cultivation and which could be readily taken over.

It may be that the noble Earl who is to reply will tell me that much has been done. I hope that that is so, but in an answer given in another place it was stated that 29 aerodromes out of these many hundreds had been derequisitioned for agriculture. That is not very encouraging. It was also stated that 78 had been used for storage purposes for other Government Departments thought that that was very cold comfort indeed. I submit that if one hangar in each aerodrome was utilized for the storage of surplus supplies belonging to other Departments, it would be ample even for the surplus supplies which the Civil Service can manage to collect.

There is one matter which has caused me considerable perturbation. On November 14 the question was asked in another place whether aerodromes would be offered first to previous tenants. The answer was No, and it was said that the practice was to offer them for public tender for agricultural purposes. I find that very difficult to believe, because, if so, it is surely a monstrous injustice. We take away a farm which was very probably an "A" farm, because "A" farmers, like the Air Force, have a great liking for the best land. Very likely the farm had become an "A" farm chiefly through the efforts of the farmer. His land was taken away from him just at the moment when farming, for the first time in twenty years, was becoming a fairly profitable undertaking, and was taken away from him for national purposes. He had no choice in the matter, but he accepted the decision readily for the sake of the nation. What harm has this man done? What wrong has he committed that his land should be taken away from him and given out to public tender? If that answer is correct, I say emphatically that this is a monstrous injustice. I find it so difficult to believe that I hope the noble Earl, when he replies, will be able to give a categorical denial.

Finally, I venture to say that the public require, and should get, a full and complete answer upon these matters. I think that they deserve to know what the Government have done, what they intend to do, and when they intend to do it. After all, the war in Europe for which these aerodromes were, I presume, set up, has been over for five months. I venture to suggest that it is time that common sense once again took a hand and that these vast areas of fertile land were used to produce the food which we know to be so urgently needed. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to say a few words in support of the Motion. I wish particularly to draw your Lordships' attention to the financial implications of the matter, because I believe that the financial implications of this question are probably impeding Government action. When the Requisitioned Land (War Works) Bill was before your Lordships' House in the Committee stage, I moved an Amendment—needless to say quite unsuccessfully—in order to draw attention to this state of affairs. As your Lordships well know, under the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, the measure of compensation for damage done during the period of requisition, in the case of agricultural land, and indeed in the case of other land, is limited to the value of the land. However, it is satisfactory to know that under Section 52, subsection (1), of the Requisitioned Land (War Works) Act, 1945, the Minister has a discretion—and let me underline the word "discretion"—in the public interest to make a payment of compensation in excess of the maximum amount of compensation that is recoverable under the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939. Now no serious difficulty is likely to arise in the case of buildings as distinct from land, for the simple reason that it will seldom happen that the cost of restoring a building is greater than the valuation of the building. But in the case of land very serious difficulties are likely to arise, especially in the case of agricultural land which has been requisitioned by the Air Force and used for the purpose of an aerodrome.

Let me explain, or attempt to explain, my meaning by the aid of a simple illustration. Suppose 200 acres of land are worth £20 an acre. Then the total value is £4,000. Now suppose that land is requisitioned for the purpose of an aerodrome. At the end of the period of requisition it may cost the landowner £20,000 to rehabilitate that land and restore it to cultivation. The landowner is entitled to recover £4,000 under the provisions of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939. For the balance of £16,000—that is the difference between £4,000 and £20,000—the landowner is entirely in the hands of the Minister, under Section 52, subsection (1), of the Requisitioned Land (War Works) Act, 1945. The Minister need not exercise his discretion at all. On the other hand, the Minister may exercise his discretion and grant the landowner any sum up to a total of £20,000 by way of compensation. If it be not improper for me to do so, I would respectfully ask His Majesty's Government what machinery have they devised to exercise their functions and duties under the Requisitioned Land (War Works) Act, 1945? Have they appointed engineers, surveyors and valuers, to get into touch with landowners and personally to inspect the land and agree compensation with the landowners? Are the Government going to remove the buildings and the concrete runways from aerodromes or are landowners, in some cases, going to be compelled to make their own arrangements to do that themselves?

Further, has the Minister addressed his mind to the question of whether he is going to exercise his discretion in this or that case and make any award of compensation in excess of the maximum amount payable under the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939? I think I know what the answer to that question may be: "Sufficient unto the day." At the present time, owing to doubt and uncertainty, landowners are in a state of financial fluidity, not to say embarrassment. Although I am not a landowner, I am permanently in that state myself, but I am not suggesting that anyone else should follow my example. Now let us suppose, for instance, that land is mortgaged, and mortgage interest is still running. The landowners may well find themselves in serious difficulty to find revenue to meet the mortgage interest until such time as the land is brought back into cultivation and is producing revenue—I will not say making a profit because no one to-day must in any circumstances make a profit! Finally, in the public interest, I would submit that agricultural land should be brought back into cultivation as soon as possible. I ask what machinery designed to achieve that admirable object have His Majesty's Government devised or are they about to devise? How do they propose to exercise their functions under the Requisitioned Land (War Works) Act, 1945?

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, if I may, to add one or two words to what has already been said in support of the Motion which my noble friend Lord Cranworth has moved, because I was for a period of years in the unfortunate position of very frequently having to agree that certain farms should be given up for the purposes of an aerodrome. The guiding principle of the Government and of the War Cabinet during the war was one with which I do not suppose anybody ever disagreed. It was that every acre of land must be put to the best use possible for winning the war. It was for that reason that so many of our acres were taken from agriculture and placed under the control of the Air Ministry for furthering air operations. I wish only to suggest to the Government that the operational need for those aerodromes then was for aircraft to fly against the enemy, while now the operational need of that land is the production of food for this country and the other countries of Europe. That is all I wish to say to remind the Government that it was once the policy to use the land to serve the greatest need and the purpose for which it was best suited. To my mind to-day these aerodromes should as and when it is possible—and the sooner the better—be put back into the hands of the farmers of this country.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, coming as I do from quite a different part of the country I can reinforce all that my noble friend Lord Cranworth has said in urging this Motion. I happen to know a farmer who, with his son, invested the whole of his savings in a farm which, owing to his very wide experience in drainage, he brought to a very high state of fertility. When the war came, as my noble friend said, the best of his land was utilized for an aerodrome and the ancillary buildings. The other land was disregarded, probably for reasons of camouflage. Now he is in this position to-day. He will either get his land back, if it can be restored, or he will not. It will either be sold to somebody else and he will be compensated, or it will be permanently retained. Now what is his position? He, who has put the whole of his savings into agriculture and has improved the nation's resources by his knowledge and experience, who has given up without protest some of the best of his land for purposes of winning the war, will receive a totally inadequate sum for the land he has lost and he will find absolutely no market for the rest of his land. He will be left with only a small amount of land and that not his best land. This, which is a Scottish example, deserves a little attention from His Majesty's Government because the farm is situated in my own county in which is one-fifth of the arable land of Scotland. The illustration is so apt to what my noble friend said—and he comes from a different part of the country—that I thought I would call attention to it.

4.52 P.m.


My Lords, I wonder if I might intervene for one moment before the noble Earl opposite replies, to say that about two years ago I brought up a similar Motion which was supported by my noble friend Lord Cranworth, as regards the compensation received. As I remember it, what we were told by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Simon, who replied, was that we were to be given compensation and could have the land if the local agricultural committee—perhaps my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk will bear me out—said that that land was suitable or necessary for the cultivation of food in this country. I think that that, roughly speaking, was the undertaking we were given. I asked the question particularly because I was interested in certain fields.

This question of land being taken away and given to the highest bidder is nothing new on the part of a Government. It happened in the last war. I remember that just after the last war my father was very ill and I was reading out to him some things in the paper. I read out to him a statement that a certain farm which belonged to him had been put up for auction. He revived very considerably and said he had never had any knowledge of it at all. He discovered that it had been put up for sale. It was his own land on which an aerodrome had been built; the rest of the farm was arable land. This was put up by the Government at the time to sell to the highest bidder. I was always grateful for the Government doing that because the doctor had practically given up hope of my father, and this restored him and added ten years to his life. He wrote a letter to The Times with considerable effect, with the result that the Government had not only to withdraw his farm from sale but also to alter their method of disposing of other people's land.

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, I think we first of all owe a debt of gratitude to the mover of this Motion for having brought up a question which has obviously agitated a good many people in this country. It is very understandable, I think, when people go past airfields arid see land not being used, particularly where aerodromes are apparently no longer in use, that questions should be asked and criticism voiced. I should like to reassure the noble Lord that in the first place the Government are very well aware of the state of things and that they have been and are taking energetic measures to deal with this land which is now not being cultivated. I am very grateful to the Duke of Norfolk who has stressed the point that during the war the one principle of the Government was to take land which would, best serve the purposes of the Air Force. In other words, we had to give land, wherever it was, to the needs of the Royal Air Force and the American Air Forces to use as they decided was best. As a result, land all over England was taken for aerodromes, sometimes the best agricultural land, particularly in the South of England, in East Anglia and in parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. I submit that that is something which is past, and I doubt if anyone will question the wisdom or necessity for having given that land towards fighting the Germans, which ultimately helped to their defeat and our victory.

I do not think that that is the question; what is troubling the noble Lord and other people is the question of food. What I take to be the underlying point of his Motion, is that, at this time, when we are urging people to grow food and produce all they can, and when the need of food in Europe and in this country is vital, that obviously it seems an anomaly that land anywhere, even on airfields, is not in use; land which should apparently be cultivated. That really is the question that the Government is being asked to-day. I think I can deal with it and I hope to the satisfaction of the noble Lord. In the first place, however, I should like to deal with two points raised in the debate. The first point is the question of land which has been requisitioned from private owners and which will eventually be derequisitioned. There is no intention, when that land is derequisitioned, for it to be taken away and sold to other people. It will specifically go back and revert to the original owner. However, in the meantime there may be a question of leasing or loaning that land until the aerodromes have been derequisitioned.


Without the option of the landowner? Can anybody take it?


Perhaps I have not made the point clear. The land, when derequisitioned, will automatically be given back to the landowner who owned it at the time of requisition, but during the period when it is still under requisition by the Government, it would be almost impossible—if you visualize an airfield with great runways and hangars, and with the previous farm boundaries demolished—to make the land available to the previous occupiers for farming under purely temporary arrangements. It seems more practicable to place the land at the disposal of the county war agricultural executive committees so that they can make arrangements for its agricultural use in the national interest.


It was the occupier and not the owner in whom I was principally interested.


Yes, in the case of the occupier, it will go back to him, but, in the meantime, until it is derequisitioned, it will be let out by tender to different people through the agricultural committees.


I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl, but could I ask whether he means the agricultural committee, as a committee, will cultivate the whole of the aerodrome areas, or are going to divide it up, and, if so, how are they going to let it if they do not know how long they can offer a lease because requisition may come to an end quicker than they think?


That is a very difficult problem and will, of course, vary according to circumstances. I think I can make it clearer during the course of the debate when I describe the plan in regard to the land on aerodromes. To pass from that rather contentious point for the moment, I should like to point out the fact that the Air Ministry has been, during the war, co-operating closely with the war agricultural executive committees. In fact, this co-operation has been so beneficial that, at this moment, 40,000 acres of land on airfields have actually been let either for grazing or hay cutting, that is, one-sixth of the total area of land not covered by tarmac, concrete or buildings which is owned or requisitioned by the Air Ministry. I think that is a good start. In addition to this, parts of airfields have been used for growing vegetables and for various horticultural cultivations. I went to an exhibition recently where they showed the produce of different stations, and I was tremendously impressed by its quality. It had been grown by the actual airfield staffs on the different bits of outlying land.


Would the noble Earl say whether the one-sixth referred to the total acreage requisitioned, or the acreage uncovered and remaining capable of cultivation?


One-sixth of the acreage owned or requisitioned, but not covered by concrete, buildings, or tarmac; not one-sixth of the total land. As your Lordships will appreciate, changing from a war-time lay-out—which was necessitated in the war—to peace-time needs cannot be don; overnight. A plan cannot be made in a week or a month, or probably two or three months, but the Government are now carrying out a review to determine the best means of meeting post-war requirements for airfields—service, civilian, or industrial—and I should like to add that this review will take full account of all the interests affected, including agriculture, of course, and will have regard to the size and character of post-war Defence Services and civil aviation plans.

At the moment, therefore, I am not in a position to make any statement on the long-term use of airfields, but, in the meantime, the number of airfields required for flying has been very much reduced. At present, there are one hundred airfields surplus to requirements, and with regard to these the Government are making arrangements so that they shall be used to the best possible advantage by a system of "dual user." In this respect, I would stress the point that not only is there an urgent demand for food, but there is, unfortunately, an urgent demand for storage and accommodation. The question has been studied, and it is considered that these buildings on aerodromes can be of immense use to troops, so that hotels, houses and schools, requisitioned during the war, can he freed and the troops occupying them placed instead in these aerodrome buildings. They can also be used for storage so that factories that have been requisitioned can be released. These buildings will now be used, largely, by the Board of Trade, the Admiralty, the War Office and the Ministry of Works, or else used as living quarters for prisoners-of-war engaged in agriculture or work of national importance. At the same time, in order that this land shall be used to the very best advantage, it will be placed, apart from the buildings, at the disposal of my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture. He is now engaged in arranging for the maximum possible use of such land. Normally, it will be farmed by the war agricultural executive committees, but, in suitable cases, the land will be let out to neighbouring farmers who may, in many cases, also be the former occupiers.


Will not a former occupier have any priority at all? Is the farmer who has been dispossessed of his land to have no priority in the matter of its return?


This is a temporary measure until the laud is derequisitioned.


By which time the farmer may be dead.


I will make a note of that point. This land, as I said before, will be loaned for at least one, and perhaps two years. Airfields which will definitely not be required for flying purposes will be made available for farming without any restrictions whatsoever. As far as possible they will be derequisitioned as soon as the temporary occupation of their buildings or hangars is ended, or even sooner if circumstances allow.


There are two separate things—the land and the buildings. Are we to understand that the land is, in no circumstances, to be given back, even if not needed, because the buildings may be used for storage by Government departments?


It is a very complicated issue, because an airfield is divided into runways, buildings and land; and it is thought to be simpler in most cases to use a system of loaning the whole out until derequisitioned and then various portions will be given back to the same owners as owned it before. In some cases, however, it is hoped that it will be possible to derequisition the land even though the buildings may still be occupied. Now, on a number of airfields with concrete runways—a point which was raised by the noble Lord—some arable farming will be allowed, as well as grazing and hay cutting, even though these airfields may be required again for flying purposes. Obviously, the question of these concrete runways is one of extreme difficulty. They are immensely big and powerful, and would take a tremendous amout of labour to break up. The question is under consideration, but it would seem advisable, as far as possible, that civilian or Service aviation should make use of the airfields with concrete runways, although we do not yet know how far that will be possible in all cases.


What steps have been taken to secure investigation by research departments and others to see if any hitherto unthought-of way can be devised for breaking up the runways and assisting in the restoration of the land to agricultural purposes? If modern methods have not been devised to do this, it would seem that this is a pressing matter for research.


I will take notice of that question, which I cannot answer offhand. The noble Lord will understand that that problem has been receiving very earnest attention. I should also like to point out that the plans I have mentioned have only recently been completed, and, therefore, some airfields have not yet found tenants. This explains why you may, perhaps, pass what appear to be redundant, abandoned or derelict airfields, on which land is uncultivated. The reason is the R.A.F. has moved out and that new arrangements have not yet been made for the land to be farmed.

Now the "dual user" system—using the buildings for stores and the land for cultivation—will be extended, and it is hoped to have a further 100 airfields, as well as the original 100, used in this way. That, again, will bring more land of one kind or another into cultivation. However, apart from these airfields which are temporarily surplus to requirements, there are a number of airfields which, for various reasons, are obviously unsuitable for future flying at all, and on which, incidentally, the storage buildings are either unsatisfactory or will not be used. Of these airfields, already seventy have been released by the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and these are available for unrestricted agricultural use. All remaining airfields are in use for flying or are earmarked for use of some kind in the very near future.

Now the noble Lord, Lord Meston, raised the question of compensation. No previous notice was given to me of the subject, but I will convey the point to my right honourable friend. If the noble Lord likes to put down a Motion later on, no doubt we will do our best to answer it. In conclusion, I hope I have been able to convince the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, at least, that the matter has been the subject of investigation and of very earnest attention by His Majesy's Government, and that it is being very energetically tackled in an effort to solve the problem.


May I just ask the noble Earl one question before the noble Lord replies to the debate? Who is actually going to be responsible for removing these big buildings and concrete runways? Are the Government going to do anything, or are they going to leave it to the landowners to get labour to do it?


All I can say is that that matter is receiving attention. I will bring the point to the attention of my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture.

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Earl for his most courteous reply to me, but I fear I shall not be able to answer the numerous inquiries that I get on this subject in the the way that I should wish. And I must say this: I think the noble Earl's reply to the question about the position of the turned-out occupier is most unsatisfactory. I will repeat that, to my mind, it is a monstrous injustice that a man who has had his land and his livelihood taken away in the interests of the nation for six years of war, should not have the first opportunity of utilizing that land when it is given back. I think it is quite incomprehensible, and I say to the noble Earl and to your Lordships that I hope I may have an opportunity of raising this question again at a later date. With your Lordships' permission, I beg to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.