HL Deb 09 May 1946 vol 141 cc121-38

4.12 p.m.

VISCOUNT LONG had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government how many acres in the Imber training area have been released and ploughed up and sown to corn; and, further, in view of the grave world shortage of foodstuffs, what is the policy of His Majesty's Government in regard to a further 2,000 acres of land now derelict in the northwest corner of this training area. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government the question which stands in my name, and I make no excuse to your Lordships for raising this question once again on the floor of the House. I am sure your Lordships will agree with me that we are living in grim and tough times, especially with a world shortage of food, and that every step we can take to encourage our farming community to increase our food production in this country should be taken by all of us, but especially by those renting land under any Government Department.

On the first part of the question I have no doubt the noble Lord who will reply will be able to tell your Lordships how many acres of this vast estate belonging to the country, over 20,000 acres, have been once again ploughed up and used for wheat and other crops. I really want to draw your Lordships' attention this afternoon to the conditions under the first part of my question. A big farmer in the north-east corner of this vast estate was asked if he would undertake at the eleventh hour at the beginning of this year to turn first-class land which had become covered with rank grass back to corn land. He was supposed to be given 200 acres, but actually it was 175 acres. When he asked the War Department if he could have his two cottages for his workers to live in he was told, "Oh no, you cannot have those cottages; we want them for the rabbit-catchers in order to keep down the rabbits on this estate." So in consequence this farmer has been put to great expense and a vast amount of time has been lost, as well as labour, in transporting his workers from one part of his estate right across to this other part. I mention that as one example of the way in which this great body of patriotic farmers are being encouraged to get on with the job.

To go to another quarter of this area, there is a farmer there who has two stacks of corn unthreshed since 1943. I am not here to try and fix the blame or to say whether it was his fault or the fault of the war agricultural executive committee or whether some other department should be blamed. I am here to ask why such things are allowed to go on. Suddenly, a fortnight ago, he was rung up on the telephone and informed that he could at long last—I want to lay stress on those words "long last"—thresh those ricks. He was given three days to do five clays' work. That was bad enough, but the three days named were Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I cannot help thinking that somebody must be gravely at fault to have even suggested those three particular days to an agriculturist. Nevertheless that was a fact, and I quote those two examples to show exactly what is going on at this moment in this estate.

There is one other example I would like to quote. Farm buildings are very costly affairs. There are many farm buildings on this estate and close to a portion of land which is not being reclaimed. Those farm buildings still remain derelict, and the farmers are unable to use them or leave their cattle there and, which is far more important, they are unable to use the water facilities which many of them have laid on.

I turn from that first part of my question which deals with the difficulty of conditions under which these farmers are working, to the second part, and I ask what is the future policy of His Majesty's Government over the north-western corner of this area. Right up to the edge of the Downs they have allowed farmers to plough up their land for arable once again. Then there comes a distance of anything up to three-quarters of a mile or a mile due south, where hundreds of cattle and hundreds of sheep can be grazed with the utmost safety, and in fact were grazed during the Army occupation until 1943. Now, alas, there is not an animal of any sort, and even the wonderful nesting grounds of the plover have all gone. What I would like to ask is how much more of this land can these farmers be asked to take up? Arising out of that, surely it is unfair to ask a farmer, even if he is a tenant, in a military training area, to take on a two years' tenancy. Scores of farmers there would be only too glad to get to work and grow more corn and graze sheep and cattle, but especially grow more corn.

I know the noble Lord who is replying has seen much of this area himself. They have ploughed it up and it is in an awful condition. I have walked over miles of it within the last three weeks, and it has still got to be cleaned. It can only be sown next autumn, and the harvest will be reaped next year. It was hoped it would be a good one, though the farmers were very sceptical about it. Now by order of the War Department it has to be put down to grass. No farmer down there is going to take on a two-year contract under those terms, and I do beg His Majesty's Government to reconsider what I asked on the floor of this House some seven or eight weeks ago.

Lastly I turn from that question of what is to be the future of this vast area, which could so easily be producing more corn or wheat, to another matter, which is slightly outside the scope of my question. I must refer to it, and I think the noble Lord who is going to reply has had notice of this question. What orders have been given with regard to national monuments? We are very proud of our Anglo-Saxon Castle of Bratton. It is a very wonderful old place. It is very precious to us and to the people of this country as a whole, who, alas, can no longer go any further than that Castle. They have been forbidden to go across that vast and wonderful piece of our land—Salisbury Plain. To my horror, when I was there the other day, I found that tanks had at some time been using the outer escarpment and in consequence damaged it. As I say I am not interested in trying to fix the blame on anyone, but I do hope that the noble Lord who is going to reply will be able to assure us that where our national monuments are concerned all military operations will come to an end, and that such places will be "out of bounds." There were no "out of bounds" notices when I went to see it recently.

And now may I turn to the position of our agriculturists in this area? Most of us remember how before the war, when we visited the land of the Huns, the notice "Ist Verboten" was so commonly to be seen. That is the prohibition from which we are suffering now down in Wiltshire. All round this lovely part of the country one sees nothing but one seething mass of red flags. Whether one goes by day or by night along the main roads one finds the red flags are still there. Not a shot is being fired over the land, and not a farmer is allowed to graze his beasts upon it. The red flag is a perpetual reminder to us of the appalling war through which we have just passed. It is not a very nice sight to greet you when starting your day's work on the hill or in the valley. I appeal to the Government to take this matter really seriously and to give our agriculturists some hope for the future. I do not believe that this is an isolated case. I believe that there are many more which are probably known to some of your Lordships. I myself remember this—and perhaps I am now the only member of your Lordships' House who can speak of it.

In 1900, when Mr. St. John Brodrick was the Secretary of State for War and Mr. Walter Long as he then was, was also a member of the Government, I was asked by all those living in the neighbourhood of Salisbury Plain to write Mr. St. John Brodrick and ask that the damage then being done by the guns and the shelling should not be continued. Mr. St. John Brodrick replied—I have his letter at home—"Your friends need have no anxiety. Every shell-hole made on Salisbury Plain will be filled up and the English turf will be replaced." Now all those of your Lordships who know Salisbury Plain and all who love it—I am speaking not merely for the landlord class now but just as much for the workers and in fact everyone in the county—are aware what the position is to-day. I beg His Majesty's Government to say that this wrong is to be righted. The area is too small for military training, but it is truly superb land for agricultural purposes.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Viscount has raised this question to-day. He has raised it in respect of one particular part of England. I believe, in fact I am quite sure, that there are many other parts of England where restrictions such as those of which he speaks are still in force, and for some of us it is very difficult to find a real reason for this state of affairs, I realize very well the difficulty which any particular Ministry must be up against in removing restrictions and in returning land or roads or anything else to its previous use. I think the cause of one of the many difficulties is that it is not yet known what the future strength of our Armed Forces will be, what our commitments are, and therefore what definite establishments in the way of houses, quarters and so on will be required. I think that the only remedy for that is to ask His Majesty's Government if they will endeavour to come to a decision on this point as soon as they possibly can, because the inconvenience and the uncertainty which is being caused is really becoming very serious.

The noble Viscount spoke of Salisbury Plain. I wish to mention a small case relating to my own home county of Buckinghamshire. There, a house with some acreage of land round it was requisitioned, and is still requisitioned. It was used during the war by some organization—I am not supposed to know what that organization was, but I believe that it was a very "hush-hush" organization and justifiably so—and restrictions were put on completely forbidding any entry to a certain radius around the focal point. Beyond that, there was a further radius where entry was very closely restricted to people with passes. That probably—in fact, certainly—was more than fully justified. Within the restricted area to which I have alluded there was one public road and at least two public footpaths. Nobody could have the slightest complaint about that, and I am not trying to say that these restrictions should not have been put on. But some time ago the use to which the place was being put was changed, and the whole requisitioned area was empty for a matter of several weeks. It was quite definitely unoccupied by anybody. It is now occupied by a unit of British soldiers. I do not pretend to know exactly what they are or what their job is, and I do not think that matters.

The point is that these restrictions are still operating. That road and those footpaths are still closed to the general public. Well, that may be necessary for some security reasons, but I cannot think so because of certain things that happened over Easter. I had better explain to your Lordships that the requisitioned area is divided into two parts. There is the house and grounds around it and behind that is a camp, which was put up during the war in a wood at the back. During Easter, if my information is correct, as I believe it to be, a large number of holiday-makers in cars went up this forbidden road. There was no notice on it at that particular point, and they held picnics and thoroughly enjoyed themselves all round the houses—I would not like to say in the houses, because that is probably not true I am not objecting to at all, because the house was empty and they were not told that they were breaking any regulations. The troops who were there, and who had taken over the camp at the back, merely looked on and said: "We have not taken over the house and grounds. They are nothing to do with us." Yet the house and grounds, my Lords, are still barred to the public; the people who live there may not go back. The holiday-makers, on the other hand, who are entirely irresponsible people, in that they are under no control, were allowed to go there without anybody having power to stop them. I only quote this case because I think it must mean that the security reasons for which restrictions were necessary cannot now be so very strong.

That road, which has been closed for several years now, is a public road. It was built and has been maintained by public money, and it is meant for public use. I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, and made representations to him about this particular road. I think that now, doubtless as a result of those representations, it is possible for a very limited number of workpeople, and also a very small number of residents, who want to use that road to obtain passes. These passes have to be shown to a guard, and they are eligible for the use of the road between eight o'clock in the morning and seven o'clock in the evening. I am extremely grateful for that, but I am wondering if it is really essential to continue to inflict these inconveniences on the public generally. I am perfectly certain there are other cases throughout the country where roads have been closed, and where, I should think, there is no real reason for keeping them closed now, except that they might be wanted at some time in the future. Would it not be possible to open some of these roads, and remove the inconvenience to the general public, even if the roads have to be shut again later? At the moment they would be extremely useful.

In discussing this matter I have been told this is not a matter for the War Office. I do not know who it is a matter for; presumably it is the Security Committee or somebody. This question to-day has been addressed to His Majesty's Government. I would like to make it plain that I am not attacking the War Office, and there is no hostility in this question. I am simply asking His Majesty's Government if they cannot see their way to remove as many of these restrictions and inconveniences as possible, even if only temporarily.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to say a few words, partly as an ex-Minister of Food. The Government, I think rightly, have seen fit to ask the Lord President of the Council, one of the most important members of the Government and the Leader of another place, to go to the United States on this very important and difficult food matter. That only gives point to the anxiety which many of us have long felt in regard to the food situation. It would not be in order to expand that matter here in the House to-day, nor would I want to do so. We have given a lead to the world in imposing upon our people more restrictive practices than have, as far as I know, been imposed on any other country which took part in winning the war. I do not want to discuss this question from that angle, however. I want to look at it in a constructive way, to see whether in any part of this country we can produce more food than we did during the years of the war.

If you consider the land which played its part in food production during the days of the war—and I am certain the noble Lord, the joint Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture will agree with me in this—you will find that we cannot produce very much more than was produced from that land over the war years. In some cases, in fact, we have grown on that land too many cereal crops running, speaking from the agricultural point of view. There is some land which did not play its part in food production during the war. That was land which in those days was needed for the equally vital purposes of training our troops or of providing gun or searchlight sites, or for some other war purpose. From the point of view of agriculture, that is virgin land, land upon which, if you get it back to agriculture, you could produce one or two good cereal crops straight away. I think that the time has come when the Government—and it is only the Government who can do it—should take a survey of this land. I know, in fact, that a survey has been going on for some time, but I would like some conclusion to it. It may be that the Government could immediately say, "Whether we want this land for military training later or not, we can release it now." I hope it would not be released only for a period of one year, or even two years. That would be no good for the farmer. What is needed is that the land should be released for a period which would enable the farmer to have a succession of crops from it. That, I believe, should be done, not only with these wide areas which have been referred to by my noble friend, but with all sorts of small areas as well.

I personally do not know anything about the Imber area. I do know, as the noble Lord will know that I know, something about an area in Dorset. The Secretary of State for War was good enough to spend part of a day of the Easter Recess—I think he had a pretty short recess—seeing that area. I was one of those who were glad to be asked to meet my old colleague in the House of Commons when he came down. That area had two or three or four farms in it, and when it was necessary to extend the range for the Armoured Corps during the war, the people had suddenly to go out. What does that mean? It means, first of all, that a most delightful part of the Dorset coast has been barred to a large number of people who formerly took their holidays there and who used to go there to enjoy that part of the South Coast every summer. Apart from that, there are farms which are not occupied, because they are in the danger area, and into which, in consequence, nobody is allowed to go and work. Practice on that range—because one knows about these things—only takes place at most infrequent intervals now, although it took place daily during the war. Surely farmers might be allowed to go back and grow food in this area, which is now growing nothing but weeds.

There is another reason why they should be allowed to go back. Here I am talking from first-hand knowledge, because my sister, who was a member of the Women's Voluntary Services, was one of the people who were asked to go round to persuade the people living there—some of them having lived there all their lives—to evacuate from this area. She went and did it on the instructions that were given, as it happened, not from the War Department, but by a Ministry of Health official who was put in charge of the evacuation of the area. The promise that my sister and a large number of other people with her was allowed to give to these people was that this was only a temporary evacuation necessary so long as the war lasted.


That is Tyneham?


That was a promise she gave in all sincerity and which she was told she could give. Now VE-day was a year ago. These people at the moment have had no great encouragement—except a visit of the Secretary of State, which I hope will produce the results we want—to go back. I think that, when we find this range is not really being very much used in these days, we ought to let these people go back to their own homes, and we ought to let this land go back to agricultural work. I believe there are many other similar sites throughout the country that could make their small contribution to our food position at this time. I know of another—again quite near my own home, so here also I am speaking not from any remote knowledge—which was a gun site during the war. It was very important that we should have guns around that Dorset coast to try and intercept the bombers that went up to the Midlands, to Bristol, to Liverpool and other places over that bit of the southern coast.

Of this very small area of about 15 acres, about seven acres have been occu- pied by huts. It may be necessary to keep these huts there for a while, but there are another eight acres where the guns once stood which are not occupied at all at the present moment. It is the best bit of that particular farm. The farmer has applied to be allowed to plough up these eight acres, and get them back into agricultural production. I am not asking my noble friend for a reply to this to-day, but I ask him to look into it. This is at a place called Slepe, near Poole in Dorset. All that has come so far from the War Department is a vague statement that the site may be retained permanently, and a recent letter from the land agent: at Southern Command, Salisbury, on February 20, says: I have now had a definite reply from higher authority that no part of this site can be surrendered. I do not know what they are keeping that site for. It was very essential during the days of the war for a gun site. If, however, one wants a site for training personnel in days of peace, there is plenty of heath in Dorset. There are sites which could be taken without any great detriment to anybody, and certainly not to our food production. I am not saying the huts which are there at the moment should be removed. My complaint is that the land is not occupied. There is nobody occupying these huts. There is nobody doing anything with regard to that ground. That is the kind of place in respect of which something should be done. Really I do ask that somebody should go into these cases and find out what they are, and get these matters settled, because priorities have changed.

In the war the first priority was to win the war and to defeat our enemies. The first priority now is to feed the world and to feed our people as well as we possibly can. Priorities have changed, and the priorities for the use of these different parcels of land have changed. It may well be that no decision has yet been taken as to how many armoured divisions we shall have to keep or what the numbers of our troops may be. One appreciates that there are difficulties in dealing with the matter, but if the Government give back these bits of land now there is no reason why, if eventually they are wanted again for Government purposes, they should not be taken back. But the thing to do at the present moment is to restore to their proper productive purposes as many as possible of these bits of land over the country, and if eventually you find you do want some of these areas, well then take them back again.

But let us realize—and I hope the War Office and the whole Government will realize—that the big priority at this present time is to produce more and more food, and that these lands, which have not been over-cultivated during the war, which have not had too many crops taken off them, as has happened with regard to so many, are the only extra reserves we have got. They ought to be thrown into the real vital effort that lies before us at this moment. I ask the noble Lord (I am not asking him to give me any definite answer to-day) to see that these matters are gone into, and that something is really done to restore a large amount of this property, which has been taken over by various Service Departments during the war, to the purpose for which it is most needed at the present time.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, the discussion has ranged over a wider field than I had anticipated in view of the rather limited and specfic terms of the question upon the Paper in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Long. I think, on the whole, in view of the course which the discussion has taken, it will be most convenient—if the noble Viscount will not think it improper—that I should deal first with the rather special and separate question of the noble Lord, Lord Chesham. With regard to some of the particulars which he gave to your Lord-ships, such as the Easter holiday-making in Latimer House, let me say at once that I am completely uninformed as to that. The information which your Lordships received from the noble Lord is as great as mine upon that subject. But I will certainly look into it and see whether there is anything that I can usefully say after-wards to the noble Lord upon that aspect of the matter which he raised.


In connexion with security—that is the only point I made about it.


I quite understand that. On the more general aspect, let me say that, apart from roads and footpaths within training areas and ranges, in total 935 Closing Orders relating to specific roads or footpaths have been made by the War Department during the war. In 425 cases the roads or paths have already been officially opened and action is in hand for the re-opening of many more. Each case is dealt with individually, as soon as local circumstances permit. I am not able to give corresponding figures for roads and footpaths in training areas and ranges, as bulk Closing Orders were made in such cases and no detailed statistics are available. I must stress that a road or footpath is not necessarily completely closed where an Order is still in force, and indeed I think the noble Lord opposite made that clear in the case which he mentioned. The various Commanders-in-Chief have instructions that, although necessary barriers must be erected, the road or footpath should not be kept closed unnecessarily.

I have had some correspondence with the noble Lord with regard to Latimer House, and I must repeat, as I have previously told him in the course of very agreeable correspondence, that the reopening of the roads cannot be authorised at present but, as the noble Lord has mentioned, passes can be, and arc, issued to local residents who might otherwise suffer inconvenience. There are practical objections to re-opening the road at the present time. It would give the public access to the camp itself, which is undesirable on security grounds and would involve considerable alteration to the system of electric cables in the area. They are purely practical reasons and reasons of security. I do not think the noble Lord will wish me to state here the precise purpose for which these premises are being used, but I may tell him that I anticipate that that user will come to an end in July and that then the whole question of re-opening will fall to be reconsidered with, I hope, results not unsatisfactory to the noble Lord.

Now I come to the question put by the noble Viscount, Lord Long, and I hope to be able to answer not only the question that he put upon the Paper but also the various subsidiary matters to which he referred, with the exception of one which related to some cottages of which I do not recall previously to have heard. Then, if I may, I will make some general observations arising out of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin. So I start with the specific question of the noble Viscount. The position is that at Imber some 1,320 acres of land have been made available for agriculture. The extent to which it is ploughed up and sown to corn rests with the war agricultural executive committee, who are in fact supervising the cultivation. I understand that 394 acres are now under corn, that 125 acres have been fallowed and that the remainder of the land is being used for stock.

As the noble Viscount knows, much of it is downland and unsuitable for ploughing, but its return to the original tenants for grazing will enable them to plough up some of their other more suitable grassland. The further acreage to which the noble Viscount referred is used for military training with tracked vehicles and live ammunition. It is obvious, therefore, that this land could not be usefully cultivated, as extensive damage would be caused to the crops when training is in progress. Moreover, this area at Imber of which I am speaking is in the danger zone for regular and frequent training in the immediate neighbourhood, and would be unsuitable on that account either for cultivation or for grazing. In this particular instance release could only be effected at the direct expense of necessary training.

Now as to the length of tenancy, a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, also referred incidentally. The short-term licence—it is not really a tenancy in the strict sense of the term—which the War Department offered to farmers in this particular instance to cultivate 1,320 acres for the 1947 harvest, represents the most that can be done at the moment. We have promised further information to the farmers in the spring of 1947, when it is hoped that the training requirements of the area after 1947 may be more accurately known.


May I interrupt the noble Lord? Is he aware, as regards getting further information in 1947, that the farmers themselves up to this very moment have not been told that?


And might I, before the noble Lord replies to that, ask if they cannot possibly do it in August of this year? It really is the autumn sowing that is the important one.


I will certainly see that the information is given at the earliest possible moment. I am fully conscious of the importance of this matter, but I was confining myself for the moment to the specific points which I thought it was convenient I should answer. I ought to say that the arrangements we have made have the approval of the local war agricultural executive committee, and the fact that the land is being taken up by farmers would seem to be an indication that they do regard it as worth while. The noble Viscount mentioned a particular case about some threshing of corn. I have been careful to make enquiries on this, and my information does not in all respects tally with that of the noble Viscount opposite. My information is that the farmer requested permission to remove certain ricks from where they stood with a view to the corn being threshed. This request came through the war agricultural executive committee, and the range officer was asked to allow three or four days for the work. He agreed to this and offered to allow a further two days, if necessary, and I understand that the corn has now been moved it does not seem to have been, as I gather the noble Viscount thought, a requirement upon the farmer to thresh, but a request by the farmer that he might be allowed to take away his ricks for the purpose of threshing elsewhere.


May I tell the noble Lord, without desiring to enter into an argument, that the farmer only asked for permission to take his ricks away when he had been given three days in which to thresh them—Friday, Saturday and Sunday? It was only after that period had been given to him.


The noble Viscount was good enough to tell me verbally a day or so ago that he would raise this question, and I have made my inquiries on the basis of the information given to me then by the noble Viscount and which he has repeated, and I am told that the noble Viscount was mistaken and that his information is inaccurate. It was not a question of the farmer being called upon to thresh, but seeking to remove his ricks for that purpose. The period of time of three days which the range officer offered to extend by a further two days was not for the purpose of threshing but for the purpose of enabling the stacks to be removed. The noble Viscount's information and mine differ. I have done my best to verify the facts. The noble Viscount speaks on all these matters relating to that area as one who lives there and who has a long tradition associated with that part of the country, and he always greatly impresses your Lordships with the sincerity with which he seeks to safeguard the interests of those who live there. He has mentioned on previous occasions the question of national monuments. I think it unnecessary for me to say to the noble Viscount that no request that national monuments shall be respected will be disregarded by those who sit on this side of the House.


Do you realize that there were no notices there?


As regards Bratton Castle, instructions have always existed that care should be taken not to damage what is recognized as being an ancient monument. The damage which was done occurred when the area was being occupied by Allies for operational training before and for the purpose of D Day, but I am advised, as the result of inquiries I have made, that British troops using the area since then have observed the instructions. Steps have certainly been taken and will be taken to ensure that respect shall be shown to this as well as to other ancient monuments. The noble Viscount also referred to another area of land which I think I identify as the Wylye Valley area. This land is still retained by the War Department under Defence Regulation 52 and is for that reason available for training as required. The notice to which reference has been made in relation to this land—that it would be used for military exercises between March and 30 June—specifically stated that the land would be used for infantry training only.

There is, therefore, no possibility of damage by tanks as has been feared locally. It is the normal practice for land held under this Defence Regulation 52 to be fenced and cultivated in the ordinary way. Precise instructions are issued to troops on the precautions to be taken to avoid damage to crops, and compensation is, of course, admissible if any damage in fact occurs. The noble Viscount will be glad to hear that, not 17,000 acres as I informed him some little time ago, but 19,000 acres of the area have already been given up and only about 2,000 acres are now held. I hope that in making that statement I have covered not inadequately the various specific points put to me by the noble Viscount.


I wonder if I might ask the noble Lord if he has any idea of what is being done about the red flags which abound on all our main roads.


I assume that I know the kind of red flag to which the noble Viscount is referring. I will make inquiries about the red flag and see if it is possible for it to be removed at times when it is not needed for the purpose of safeguarding the public from immediate danger. Now I come to the more general observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin. Let me say at once that I think I can safely and properly accept and adopt the phrase which fell from his lips during his speech just now—that priorities have changed. I accept that statement in the sense that it is more than ever necessary that we should look around with a view to ensuring that within the all too limited area of these islands the best use is made of the land for whatever may be the most urgent public purpose. It is unnecessary for me, at this point of time, and in the light of information given in the Press this morning as to the visit of the Lord President of the Council to the United States of America, to say to the noble Lord that of course His Majesty's Government are fully conscious of the urgent necessity not only for maintaining but for increasing the supply of indigenous foodstuffs as far as may be possible. It is a main preoccupation of His Majesty's Government that that object and purpose shall be achieved.

The noble Lord must not think, and I know will not think, that because the Service Departments may not be using at a particular moment any particular area of land, that that land thereby and thereupon becomes available for the production of food. I had occasion myself to look into the matter of how far land used by the Service Departments can be applied to the production of food, and I was amazed to find what I certainly had not sufficiently realized before, namely, that large areas of land, though no longer required for any immediate military purpose, cannot be surrendered for other purposes because of the "blinds" on the land which are a danger to the public and to the cultivator and which take an astonishingly long time and much labour to remove. It is clearly essential that the land should be made safe for the cultivator before he begins his cultivation. The most energetic steps are being taken for the purpose of making safe land which at the moment is unsafe by reason of "blinds." As soon as it has been cleared, then the land will be made available for whatever may be its most appropriate purpose.


By "blinds" does the noble Lord mean "duds"?


I think "blinds" may be taken as being the equivalent of "duds." I do not think it is necessary for me to stress the danger either of "blinds" or "duds" not only on the land but elsewhere! I should say to your Lordships that in the case of the various training grounds such as Imber, a choice has in some respects to be made between whether the land should continue to be applied to training purposes or to some other national purpose such as agriculture. Priorities have changed, and the matter has to be regarded from that stand point, but I am advised that in the case, for instance, of Imber, it would be a matter of some few years at least, say three years, before the land could be put into sufficiently good heart to make it really agricultureworthy. So it would not be any answer to any immediate problem. The position with regard to Purbeck is this. Not only has the Secretary of State, my right honourable friend Mr. Lawson, visited the area, but I have also been there myself, so I speak having looked at the situation from its various stand points. Of a considerable area, I think I am right in saying that Tyneham, relatively small in area, is the only one about which any question arises of its being used for agricultural purposes. I think that is so; the rest is mostly heath and moorland.


There is the Clayland area.


Yes. I recognize that it is a great pity that a village which is intrinsically a beautiful village, and which is from the economic point of view an important agricultural community, should be sterilized, if the noble Lord likes that word, for the purposes of agriculture. But I am told—the noble Lord is a gunner of great experience, which I am not—that: the danger area makes it requisite that. Tyneham should be retained unless the Army is to surrender its use of that area in Purbeck altogether as a tank and anti-tank gun training ground and range.


I think the noble Lord is not perhaps quite accurate about that. Although it was sterilized by the War Office, and all the civilians were removed, when it was necessary to have a Royal Air Force establishment there, the Royal Air Force personnel lived in Tyneham. They had a camp site in the midst of this danger area. It is quite true that the War Office did not know they were there, and they did not know that the War Office was firing over them for a long time, but nobody got killed there at all so that: danger area is a bit too much.


I am glad to think that nobody got killed there, but were His Majesty's Government to invite the local inhabitants to return, they would be incurring a very great responsibility which, having regard to the advice which has been given, I doubt whether the Government would be justified in accepting. The point to which I wish to come is this. There is no particular virtue in this particular place so far as he War Office is concerned. Some other area offering the same facilities would do equally well if it could be found. I am bound to say to the noble Lord that on the best estimates I have obtained, the removal and re-erection elsewhere of similar accommodation and associated installations would involve an expenditure of £4,000,000, a very large sum, which clearly involves a problem which has to be taken into account before any decision could be taken. Let me say in general to the noble Lord that of course in these times, situated as we are, His Majesty's Government appreciate to the full the importance of making all land available for agriculture which can best be made available for that purpose. As regards, for instance, the particular case of Slepe which the noble Lord mentioned, and which he said he would not expect that I should answer standing here at this moment, I assure him that that and like cases will be looked into, and if I may I will communicate with the noble Lord and let him know the outcome of my inquiries without any long delay.