HL Deb 29 January 1946 vol 139 cc57-66

5.43 p.m.

LORD MESTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government to clarify the position relating to the payment of compensation in the case of agricultural land which was requisitioned and used for aerodromes and then subsequently derequisitioned; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion which stands in my name, and I will do it in a very few minutes. Supposing an airfield has been derequisitioned, what is the next stage in the proceedings? The landowner has got back his land, but he finds himself the possessor of large buildings and many acres of concrete runways. Who is going to undertake the removal of those works? Under Sections 28 and 29 of the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945, the Minister has power to remove war works from land and to restore the land to its original condition, such power to be exercised within two years from the end of the war period. I should like to know whether five years should be substituted for two years, in view of certain recent emergency legislation. However that may be, the removal of these works from airfields is a very important question. No private individual will ever be able to find the labour or the machinery to undertake these works of removal, quite apart from any question of expense.

The matter does not end there, for it may take several years to carry out the removal of these works from airfields. In the meantime, as I understand the position, the compensation rent (which, incidentally, never exceeds £28 per annum per acre in the case of agricultural land) will no longer be payable, for the simple reason that the period of requisition has come to an end. That is a very important factor, which I ask the Government to take into consideration. I read in the newspapers in December, 1945, a paragraph stating that owners of derequisitioned hotels and boarding houses may now claim compensation to cover up to three months' rent for repairs before business can be restarted. It is submitted that a similar principle should be applied to agricultural land which has been requisitioned and used for airfields, although of course the period of three months is far too short in the case of airfields. Even when the buildings and runways are removed there will still be a great deal more work to do before the land is rehabilitated and brought back into complete cultivation. In some cases the top soil has been removed over large areas, and this will have to be restored; work on drainage and making ditches will have to be done; boundaries must be restored, and walls and fences remade. During this further period of restoration some parts of the land may perhaps be put into cultivation, but there will not be complete cultivation of all the land for some considerable time. In other words, landowners will still be suffering loss directly flowing from the taking of the land by the Government Department. I should like to know who is going to undertake these further works of restoration—the Government or the private individual?

Then there is the question of restoring the fertility of the soil. For some years the land has been partly covered with buildings and with concrete and tarmac, and the uncovered portions of the land have been loft uncultivated. I remember the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, who is now the Leader of the House and to whose speeches I always listen with profound interest, saying on a previous occasion that he believed there still was a great deal of fertility left in the soil in this country. I am very glad that that is so, but at the same time I doubt very much whether a mixture of concrete and tarmac can compete successfully with nitrogen, phosphate and potash as an element for invigorating the soil. In other words, landowners in this country will have to spend considerable sums of money, over and above what they would have spent in the ordinary course of events in purchasing fertilizers. I hope that is a fact which the Government will take into consideration. Then there is the question of putting up new buildings in the place of old buildings such as barns which have been entirely removed in order to clear the site. There is no doubt that under the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945, the expression "the doing of work on land" includes knocking down buildings. It is, therefore, quite clear that landowners whose buildings have been entirely removed will be entitled to compensation.

That brings me to the very troublesome question of the adequacy of the compensation. As we all know, under the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, the measure of compensation for damage done during the period of requisition is limited to the value of the land. However, in Section 52 (1) of the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945, the Minister has a discretion, in the public interest, to make a payment of some compensation over and above that which may be recovered under the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939. In the case of a building requiring repair it will seldom happen that the cost of repairing the building exceeds the original value of the building, but where a new building has to be put up to replace a building which has been entirely removed it will inevitably happen that the cost of the new building will exceed the original value of the building which was destroyed. In the case of land, as distinct from buildings, difficulties will always arise, especially in the case of agricultural land which has been requisitioned and used for the purposes of an airfield. Suppose 200 acres of land are worth £20 an acre, then the total value is £4,000. At the end of the period of requisition it may cost the landowner £20,000 to restore that land to cultivation, but under the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, he is only entitled to £4,000. For the balance of £16,000 he is entirely in the hands of the Minister under the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945. It is not unnatural, therefore, that landowners throughout the country are very anxious as to the attitude which the Government are going to adopt in dealing with the subject of compensation.

There is one other question I should like to ask the Government, but I do not expect an answer to-day. Against which Government Department or Departments should a claimant make his claim for compensation? It is a very simple question to ask but a rather difficult one to answer, because there may be numerous Government Departments concerned, such as the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and possibly others. I will only make one further observation in conclusion. There is a tribunal called the Claims Tribunal which exists for the purpose of assessing compensation. It would be quite improper on my part to ask what the tribunal should do in this or that particular case, and likewise it would be improper for me to ask that the Government should vary any existing statutory provision in order to interfere with the jurisdiction of the tribunal. All I am asking to-day is for the Government to state their general intentions with regard to the rehabilitation of agricultural land which has been requisitioned and used for the purpose of an airfield, as having a special bearing upon the subject of compensation. I beg to move for Papers.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord has asked a very specific question. It concerns an airfield which is on agricultural land, which was requisitioned, and which has since been derequisitioned. He asks me to clarify the position with regard to compensation and I am very pleased to do so. May I say first, in reply to his question, that a claim should be made against the Government Department which holds the requisition on the land. This is a difficult subject, and if I do not make it quite simple it will be my fault; and therefore I would ask the noble Lord, if I have not made it plain, to interrupt me. The answer depends on Section 2 of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939. Compensation is payable under four different heads. First of all, during the occupation the person concerned receives an annual sum equal to the rent which may reasonably, be expected. Secondly, at the termination of the requisition he is entitled to a sum equal to the cost of making good any damage to the land. Thirdly, he has received a sum such as would be paid in respect of an ordinary agricultural tenancy by an incoming tenant in respect of unexhausted manurial value, fertility and the like. Fourthly, under subsection (1) (d) he is entitled to "a sum equal to the amount of any expenses reasonably incurred … for the purpose of compliance with any directions given. …" The Government are giving, with the approval of the Treasury, rather a wide and benevolent construction to (d), in respect to agricultural land, and they are in fact including under it as an expense what is commonly called a rehabilitation expense; they are including something—sometimes up to as much as two years compensation rent—in respect of the fact that there will be a substantial period of time daring which the land which is the site of the airfield will not be usable.

There are, however, two provisos. The first is that the appreciation in value since 1939 is to be disregarded, and the second is that the payment is not to exceed the value of the land at the date of the requisition. When a man's land, which has been badly interfered with by the construction of the airfield, is handed back to him, he receives back his land, and he also gets the cost of making good the damage, which sum may be equal to the original value of the land. That is the effect of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939. In the case of a grass airfield—and there are many such—it is very unlikely that the limit will be reached, because the compensation will be largely in respect of the restoration of the buildings. I agree with the noble Lord that the land includes the buildings. It will probably be largely a question of restoring fences and the like, because you find in nearly all these cases that the land comprising the airfield was in the hands of several owners and a large number of tenants.

If when the airfield is no longer required certain buildings remain on the land, the Minister can, under Sections 28, 29 and 30 of the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945, either remain in possession and maintain them or, having given up possession, cuter and remove them. In the latter case depreciation of the land caused by the buildings upon it is dealt with under Section 46 of the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945. That is to say, the continued presence of the buildings is disregarded for the purposes of Section 2 (1) (a) of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, and is dealt with separately under the provisions of Section 46 of the Act of 1945. That is the answer, and I hope the noble Lord will agree that it is tolerably clear. It depends mainly on the construction of Section 2 of the Act of 1939 and the sections of the 1945 Act which I have mentioned.

I want to pass now to something else, because His Majesty's Government have been giving a great deal of consideration to this matter, and I want to say a word or two about airfields with concrete run ways. Since the debate on November 22 last, further consideration has been given to this question, and I want to suggest to your Lordships what can be done in these cases, and to tell you the conclusions to which we have come. I accept the doctrine that just as the State should act as a good employer and as a model landlord, so the State should show due consideration to people whose land or property it has requisitioned. I accept that doctrine to the But there is no reason however why the State—because, after all, the State's money is the taxpayers' money—should behave like a half-witted landlord. Let us consider what would be the position if any one of us was confronted with this situation. We have an airfield with runways upon it, with a perimeter track, with hard standings and bomb bays. Let us assume that we have an airfield of 500 acres, to take an average size. Let us assume a price for agricultural land of £50 an acre, and that is fairly generous. That land would then be worth £25,000. But it has runways and other things on it, and therefore instead of £25,000 it is worth, let us say £12,000. To bring it up from £12,000 to £25,000, what would have to be done?

I took the trouble last Sunday—it was a nasty, foggy day when I got there, but I could see enough—to see two of these airfields, one at Chipping Ongar and another at Rivenhall. I hope that some of your Lordships will take the opportunity of going to see them. After a large practice at the Bar in engineering matters, I have some knowledge of engineering problems, but I took experts with me, because I wanted to form an impression of how much it would cost to restore those airfields to their previous condition. A very rough estimate is that there is something of the order of 100,000 cubic yards of concrete, and certainly not less of hard core. If you take a figure of 10s. per cubic yard to remove this stuff, you get a cost of £100,000. You then have to consider where you are going to put it. There would be unsightly dumps, and even then you would be left with the hard standings and the bomb bays. I do not believe that you would get all that material cleared away for less than between £100,000 and. £200,000. Who in his right senses, using his own private money, would contemplate spending £100,000 to bring into being an asset worth £25,000? It is absolutely inconceivable, and therefore if you face up to this—as we have to do—I think you will not fail to realize that we have not the money and certainly not the labour at the present time to embark on it. It is quite impossible, at the present time, to contemplate the removal of the concrete or the hard core from these places.

Let me add one further fact. If we did so, as the noble Lord himself has pointed out, we should not have dealt with the whole problem. The character of the surface in many instances has been altered by the removal of the top soil. The perimeter track at Chipping Ongar which I have mentioned was built up by using the top soil. Then, of course, there is the runway, in the construction of which the higher ground is levelled, thereby taking away the top soil, and used for filling in the hollows. So you have two layers of top soil in the hollows and none on the higher ground. So, as I say, if you move all the concrete and the hard core, you will by no means have solved the problem.

There is another consideration which is to be borne in mind. If we are driven, as I believe we are, to hand back the air- fields in their existing conditions to the previous owners, in almost every case we should have to deal with what are known as "multiple owners." In one case there are, I am informed, no less than 46 different tenants. I think I am right in saying that in the case of Chipping Ongar and Rivenhall there are about ten. If the airfields were handed back in their present condition it would be most inequitable. It would be like dividing a leg of lamb between a number of people, bone and all. One man would get a piece of bone and another would get a piece of meat. One unfortunate tenant at Chipping Ongar would possibly get back an area covered with hard standings and bomb bays, and another would have an area fit for agricultural purposes. Therefore, it seems to me quite impossible to contemplate removing the concrete, and it would be grossly unfair to hand back an airfield in its existing state. I feel convinced that if any of your Lordships will go down and look at these sites for yourselves, you will not feel disposed to dispute that what I have said is a matter of plain common sense.

The policy which we believe to be the right one is to treat each of these airfields as a complete unit. So treated they have substantial advantages. On many of the sites water is now laid on, there are sewage systems and very good roads. We have to consider each of these places separately in order to see what is the best course to follow. In some cases it may be possible to use an airfield in connexion with a town planning scheme. In other cases it may be possible to set up holiday camps. I know of one or two cases in which manufacturers are contemplating the acquisition of an airfield. The policy which His Majesty's Government propose therefore is that we should apply under Section 6 (1) (a) of the Act of 1945, to acquire these airfields. That, as your Lordships appreciate, brings in the War Works Commission. We cannot acquire the property if the owner objects unless we apply to the War Works Commission for approval of the scheme that we have for developing it. That is, we intend to acquire these airfields under Section 6 (1) (a) of the 1945 Act. In cases where there is no objection, there will be no difficulty, I imagine, but if there is objection, the War Works Commission being seized of the matter, will, if they consider it right, be able to refuse the application. That will be final. If, however, on the other hand,—and this I feel sure is what will happen in most cases—it is decided that what we propose is the right course, then we shall proceed with the acquisition of the land and develop it as a complete unit.

In some cases, it seems to me that the runways may be rather useful as roads. I know of one or two instances where the runways, if they were extended for comparatively short distances at either end, would form very useful links between villages which hitherto have had very poor road connexions. In some cases we may do that, but of course it may not be possible to do so in many cases. In some instances, the Ministry of Agriculture might undertake some large-scale farming operation—for example, connected with artificial insemination or pig farming or something of that kind on a large scale. There are possibilities too for stock breeding, as some of these build-clings might be very useful for housing stock or for storage. The hutments, I am afraid, are not of very good quality. They would require a good deal of repair and attention, and their roofs would have to be constantly tarred. Some of the hangars, on the other hand, seem very good from the point of view of storage, and they would provide vast accommodation.

Those are some of the things which we propose to do. I would answer the noble Lord's question, therefore, by saying that we do not contemplate attempting to remove the hard core and it is also very unlikely that we shall avail ourselves of the provisions of Section 29 of the 1945 Act, which give us power to do so, or of Section 52 which empowers payments to be made to the owners for such purpose. But, of course, it is possible that one or other of these powers may be used in respect of certain small detached areas which were requisitioned for purposes ancillary to airfields in respect of which no difficulty of reinstatement or of providing access can arise. I summarize the matter by saying, it is not our intention to derequisition "runwayed" airfields, except possibly in those very few cases where there is single, or substantially single, ownership. Where that is so, there is no reason why we should not derequisition them, but, generally, we wish to acquire them—A the War Works Commission give the necessary authority—for agricultural or other purposes. Agricultural land would be developed by the Ministry of Agriculture, who, would, of course, be able to lease it or sell it, to appropriate persons. In the case of grass airfields, there will be general derequisitioning, and compensation on the lines I have indicated will be paid under the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939.

I may tell my noble friend that there has been no extension, so far as the Service Departments are concerned, of the period of two years specified in Section 29 of the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945. I think he has in mind the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act which extends the period for holding land in requisition by civil departments for a further period of five years. Our policy, therefore, in regard to surplus airfields, that is, those not required for defence purposes, is to acquire them under Section 6 (1) (a) of the Act of 1945. If the War Works Commission allow the purchase it is effected by the combined effect of the Acquisition of Land Act, 1919, the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944 and the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945. I hope I have made that clear to the noble Lord and that I have both answered his question and informed your Lordships of the policy His Majesty's Government has thought fit to adopt.


My Lords, I am sure we are all very grateful to the noble and learned Lord Chancellor for his courteous and clear reply and for the great trouble he has personally taken over this matter. I am only wondering what will happen to the runway airfields that the War Works Commission decide should not be bought. It seems to me they will be rather a problem in the years to come and possibly an eyesore to the countryside. However, "Sufficient unto the day—." I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, with drawn.