HL Deb 08 February 1951 vol 170 cc255-68

4.6 p.m.

LORD MOYNE rose to ask His Majesty's Government how many holdings administered by the Land Settlement Association on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture are untenanted as smallholdings because the dwelling houses have had to be occupied by essential technicians and central farm workers for whom no other accommodation can be found; whether the Land Settlement Association have not found the local housing authorities unable to provide housing for such essential employees of their co-operative groups of holdings; whether the present demand for smallholdings does not considerably exceed the supply; what is the average cost per holding of setting up new smallholdings under Part IV of the Agriculture Act of 1947: and, whether the Government could not by building houses at relatively small cost set holdings free for their proper purpose. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to ask the somewhat lengthy Question which stands in my name, I must confess that it was not without reluctance that I felt obliged to put it down again after it had stood for such a long time on the Order Paper last summer before I removed it to make room for an important debate on foreign affairs. I had thought, in my innocence, that it was only necessary to draw the attention of the Government to the considerations raised by my Question to produce instantaneous action, but, strange to say, such has not proved the case; therefore I have to return to the charge.

I am counting not a little on the patience which the House always shows to any attempt to apply plain common sense to a question arising out of the direct experience of one of its members. My personal knowledge of land settlement affairs is a local one. Ever since, during the depression, the Association brought some thirty-five families of miners from Durham and Wales to become smallholders at Abbots Ann, near Andover, in Hampshire, I have served on their local advisory committee, the members of which are so chosen as to form a link between the estate manager and the surrounding community, notably the county councils, the agricultural executive committees and the Ministry's advisory services.

I must not now go into details of how the Association's admirable system of co-operative farming has grown and flourished, nor how their tenants are no longer drawn from mining areas but from waiting lists of those with ordinary smallholder's qualifications. I will say only that their tenants, to the number of something over 700, on twenty different estates throughout the country, have been earning by their own hard work an average of about £450 a year, apart from what they and their families consume from holdings which average as little as ten acres for livestock and five acres for horticulture. It is fitting that I should add that all this has been possible only by reason of the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, who are now in the position of landlords for whom the Association act as managers, and that the Ministry naturally expect the Association to work to a budget for their capital expenditure. Most of this has to be spent on essential projects for the well-being of existing tenants, such as water supplies, packing sheds, and glasshouses; but—and I want to be quite fair to the Ministry on this—it is open to the Association to spend all or part of their budget on housing.

The Association obviously sees with regret that a number of its holdings— my old friend the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, will tell us how many, but I believe it may be over 100—are sterilised as smallholdings because their dwelling houses have had to be occupied by central farm personnel: tractor drivers, and packers, pig and poultry specialists, or the horticultural experts who raise from seed the plants which the tenants grow in their glasshouses. These jobs are sometimes doubled together—for instance, at Andover our pig man has been running our packing shed—but there is on every estate a minimum of these central farm people which can be regarded as irreducible and which, owing to the present housing shortage, has had to be put into dwelling houses which belong to holdings that are equipped with all their expensive appurtenances of glasshouses, pig houses, and so on. I want to emphasise that it is this nucleus of central specialists which has made possible the prosperity of the tenants. We have all sometimes seen the sad plight of people trying to earn a living off five or ten acres by themselves.

Now, the Association's first duties are to pay its way, to look after its existing tenants and to develop its production. It cannot afford to devote to building houses more than a small part of its capital budget, which is urgently needed for the purposes I haw mentioned. It is, I maintain, not for the Association but for the Government, by some special grant, to take into account what I call the national aspect: to recognise the crying need for more smallholdings. Your Lordships will recall that Parliament decided by Part IV of the Agriculture Act of 1947 to set up by local authorities or, under Section 56, by the Ministry itself, a number of holdings limited only by the demand and by the availability of land without detriment to the general interest of agriculture. When we gave our support to the Government for that measure we certainly did not suppose that we were voting for a mere piece of window-dressing. But progress by local authorities has been painfully slow. One can only suppose that it is the acquisition of suitable land which is holding up the scheme, since the Government have, I think, pledged themselves to stand by the Agriculture Act of 1947, and I am not accusing them of wilfully failing to put it into operation.

I am told that the demand for smallholdings is enormous, that ex-Servicemen have been waiting for them, in many cases, for years, that agricultural colleges are very properly being developed, and that in the future the demand is likely to be greater still. I hear talk in Hampshire of over 500 applications for one ordinary smallholding, and I am told that, when the Association were able not long ago to advertise some vacancies in the Midlands, 600 inquiries were received. What I am proposing is the most economical way possible of relieving some small part of this terrible queue. I am not at all saying that local authorities ought to stop setting up their holdings of fifty acres or so under the Act, at a cost of £8,000 or £10,000 a time—on the contrary—but simply that when existing resources can be made available by the expenditure of only £1,600 on a house for a technician, this money ought not to be grudged as an addition to the ordinary capital budget of the Association.

The Act has promised, as it were, a large number of slices of cake, few of which have been forthcoming. I am suggesting that the Government might at least produce a limited number of slices of bread which happen to be available at comparatively little cost. To say that cake and not bread was promised would afford no crumb of comfort to the hungry multitudes who at present stand no chance of getting anything at all. I admit that these Land Settlement smallholdings would not suit all applicants, and that we should be taking, as it were, an exceptional measure to help the humblest part of the queue. But I am happy to think it is not foreign to the philosophy of any of our great political Parties to want to help the small man. To spend this money would be an emergency measure to meet an urgent need, and yet it would provide for essential staff, houses which are, in any case, required from a long-term point of view and which will sooner or later have to be built.

I want to cut a long story as short as possible. I am proposing simply this: that the Ministry should send such officials as their own Land Commissioners round Association settlements to work out on the spot the minimum, rockbottom, number of additional houses for central farm personnel which will be permanently required and which would immediately set holdings free, so that the Ministry can then, like the good landlords they are, finance the building of those houses. It is simply a common-sense way of helping to meet a very real need. If the noble Earl is going to reply that times are difficult and dangerous, I would answer him by saying that this is only an additional reason for bringing as much land as possible into the most intensive cultivation possible as soon as possible; and that true economy may sometimes lie in wise spending.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I know we all appreciate the support which the noble Lord opposite has given for so many years to the very good work of the Land Settlement Association. We all share his desire to do everything possible to help farm workers to get on the land as small-scale farmers. I should like to answer at once the first part of the noble Lord's Question. At the present time some 121 dwelling houses on Land Settlement Association smallholdings are occupied by members of the Association's staff, including farm workers employed in connection with the cultivation of the land. There are 747 holdings let to tenants as self-contained units.

I listened very carefully and with much interest to what the noble Lord said— and I may say, moreover, that he was good enough to give me the benefit of his views on earlier occasions. I therefore hope very much that I shall not misrepresent his argument. If I do, I trust he will correct me. I think the noble Lord's main argument is this: that the Ministry of Agriculture have only to undertake the erection of sufficient new cottages on the Land Settlement Association's estates to add substantially to the total number of occupied smallholdings, and to do so more cheaply than by creating new smallholdings through county councils. I take it that I have given an accurate account of the noble Lord's contention.


Yes, except that I do not mean "instead of," I mean "in addition to," because of the failure of the Act to produce enough smallholdings.


That is what I intended to say—that these would be new houses in addition to the existing houses.


I am not saying that the operation of the Act should be held up for this work, but that these houses should be additional, because the Act is working so very slowly.


I do not think there is any difference between the noble Lord and myself. The Government are just as anxious as anyone else to improve the opportunities of agricultural workers to become farmers on their own account, and for this purpose to provide as many additional holdings as possible under the present conditions. Present conditions are the limiting factor. It is the common experience of all concerned in any way with agriculture that the demand for land greatly exceeds the supply. I agree with the noble Lord on that point, and also that keen and efficient young men are often unable to obtain the start they desire. But I venture to suggest that the noble Lord has oversimplified the problem by suggesting that the Government would do far better to build houses on Land Settlement Association holdings than to allow county councils to spend the money on new holdings.


What I tried to emphasise just now was that I am not saying it would be better to do that, but that both are required.


I should like to answer both points, because I think the one about the work of the county councils is also relevant. What I should like to make absolutely plain is that the choice of method as between the county councils and the Land Settlement Association is not available to the Government. They are not alternative methods of providing holdings; they are complementary.


I assure the noble Earl that we are at one on this point.


I should like to make this matter absolutely clear, because I feel there may be some misunderstanding in other quarters. The county councils are already, in practice, restricted in the number of holdings they may create under the Agriculture Act, 1947, because of the need to limit the scope of capital investment, shortage of materials, and, of course, the difficulty of finding suitable land at reasonable prices. Those are difficulties which all county councils encounter at the present time. But they are under a statutory duty to do what they can to cater for the heavy demand from agricultural workers, and we cannot expect them—and I am sure the noble Lord will agree on this—to be willing to cut their already modest programmes any further in favour of the alternative method of providing small-holdings on the estates of the Land Settlement Association.

Moreover, to many agricultural workers this alternative would not be acceptable. The Association's holdings are let under special arrangements which some prospective smallholders would regard as restrictive, and they are smaller in size than the county councils' holdings. That being so, my noble friend's proposal that we should build a substantial number of houses on the Association's estates would, therefore, in practice mean spending more capital on smallholdings as a whole than at present. Anxious as the Government are to develop their smallholdings policy and to get more farm workers on to smallholdings, it is obvious that economic conditions at the present time are not likely to permit an increase in the volume of capital investment for this purpose. I have no doubt that the noble Lord realises that the rearmament programme will make heavy demands on the building industry. There simply is not the additional capital available for investment in new building for domestic purposes.

To overcome this difficulty, it might be suggested that the Association should build houses instead of carrying out other improvements of a capital nature on their estates, in order to increase the total amount of capital available for expenditure on the estates of the Land Settlement Association. But I am sure the noble Lord will agree that the Association has a duty to the existing tenants as well as to others who wish to become tenants. There is no doubt that, unless capital improvements are made to the Association's estates, the existing tenants' success in earning a living, which is bound up with the efficient working of the centralised services, would be immediately in danger under the more difficult conditions now facing the small man in the horticultural industry. I know the noble Lord will be the first to appreciate positive examples of this kind. There is much work still to be done in providing better water supplies, improving packing facilities and many other similar improvements that are necessary for the production and sale of crops. All the same, I should like to point out that since the Department which I represent assumed control of the estates in 1948, ten houses have been erected for the accommodation of staff, and within the capital which can be made available each year it is proposed to erect further houses for permanent members of the staff whose work requires them to live on the estates and who cannot live elsewhere.

It would, however, obviously not be desirable to build houses in the near future for all the staff of the Association at present occupying houses on estates. I think the noble Lord will agree with that. The policy agreed between the Department and the Association is that, while housing should be provided on the estates for essential staff whose duties make it necessary for them to live there on the spot, those who can live elsewhere without detriment to their work should find their own housing accommodation. Most of these employees have their names down on the waiting lists of the local housing authorities, although few have been able to obtain houses so far, on account of the long waiting lists which most local housing authorities have of people in their respective localities. My Department keeps in contact with these housing authorities in the hope that the needs of such people on the estates may soon be met. We naturally press their claims as hard as we can.

There is another reason why we do not want to go in for wholesale building of staff houses on these estates. There is at the moment some uncertainty as to the number of "key" workers who are likely to be permanently employed on the Association's estates. The future organisation and staffing of the Association are at present undergoing review, as the noble Lord is fully aware. So we do not yet know precisely how many people will be required for technical and other work done by the Association, and who will have to live on its estates. Of course, this is another point with which the noble Lord opposite will agree. It does not necessarily follow that if possession is obtained of a smallholding house occupied at the moment by a member of the staff, that holding can be let to a tenant. On some estates there is at present an insufficient water supply to enable more holdings to be let and brought into full production. On other estates, where the holdings are too small to be entirely self-supporting in food for livestock, feeding-stuffs supplies under present conditions would not be sufficient to enable more holdings to be let as economic undertakings for incoming tenants.

For these reasons, as I have attempted to put them, my right honourable friend the Minister is not faced with the simple alternatives of approving a new fifty-acre smallholding under Part IV of the 1947 Act, at a cost of perhaps £7,000, or erecting a new house on one of the Land Settlement Association's holdings at a lower cost. The problem with which the Minister has to deal is to allocate to the best possible advantage the small amount of capital available for smallholders on these estates—the best possible advantage both from the point of view of those who are living on the estates now and from the point of view of future tenants. Other more essential demands on these capital resources will make it not possible to build houses very quickly, but progress has been made and—as I know the noble Lord will recognise—will continue. In June, 1949, 181 houses were occupied by staff. By January of this year, that figure had been reduced to 126. There has also been a steady increase in the number of holdings occupied by smallholders. The figure has risen from 650 in October, 1947, to about 750 to-day— 100 more—and we hope to add another twenty new smallholders to this total by the end of the current year.

I am sorry we cannot accelerate the pace of cutting down the number of houses on these estates occupied by staff and of providing new tenants with smallholdings. But, much as I regret that we cannot proceed as quickly as the noble Lord opposite desires, I hope that he appreciates the very real difficulties that make this course, which we should all like to take if conditions permitted, impracticable.


I am not sure whether the noble Earl has answered my point about the cost of smallholdings under the Act.


It is £7,000 per holding. I think I did give that figure.


My Lords, I should like to raise one question which perhaps is of wider implication. I have been immensely interested by the speeches of both the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. The noble Earl talked of the number of houses which were being built, as I understood it, for the staff of the Association in connection with their agricultural operations. Are these tied houses? It seems to me that this question has a certain bearing —I do not say it in any controversial sense. There are a great many other holdings in the country of a much larger character where the essential staff should perhaps have the same facilities. I should be interested to know whether these houses can or should be described as "tied."


The noble Marquess has put forward a very difficult legal point. In order to be quite certain of the position in law I should have to consult with my advisers, and perhaps I could reply to the noble Marquess by letter. I can tell him that these houses are built for the staff of the Association, will belong to the Association, and will be used by the staff of the Association. In regard to the conditions attached to the occupation of those houses, I think I ought to be allowed to inquire before giving a reply which might lead me beyond any brief that I have received up to now.


With great respect, it really is not a legal question at all; it is a simple question of fact. Here are some employees of the central Association who are going to be put into houses while they are so employed by the Government or the agency which operates under the Government. May I ask the noble Earl the simple question: When one of these employees vacates his employment under the Government or the Government agency, does he or does he not retain his house?


I will very gladly find out the answer to the question posed by the noble Viscount, but in view of the importance of the issue that has been raised I think I should be better advised to take time to consider it.


I entirely understand that it is impossible for the noble Earl to answer now. If he would let me know, I should like to put down a Question when he has an answer.


The answer which has been passed up to me relating to the noble Viscount's question is, No.


Which way does that answer operate? Does he or does he not vacate the house?


He vacates the house.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that the noble Earl's answer has been rather disappointing. I think it is a great pity to separate the Land Settlement Association from the smallholdings and take them as distinct units. After all, they are complementary and it is quite immaterial who provides the smallholding so long as the smallholding is there. In the course of his remarks the noble Earl said that he did not want to stop the county council smallholdings committees from carrying out whatever plans they have. Nobody does. But the great difficulty that county councils have at the moment is that of getting any land at all. If there is a farm with vacant possession nobody can possibly pay the price because no one can go up to the vacant possession scarcity value. The price which has to be paid is enormous —£4,500 for putting up the buildings, and £2,000 for buying the land. Surely it would be better to put up a house on Land Settlement Association land and let the buildings which are already there come into use, rather than spend this enormous sum of money on putting a smallholding on bare land. The noble Earl gave, as one of the reasons why he cannot do that, the fact that the holdings of the Land Settlement Association are too small and that they are not an economic proposition for the men who occupy them. But I think there is a prejudice at the moment in the Ministry of Agriculture against part-time smallholders. They do not like them at all. If only they would reconsider the matter and allow these part-time smallholdings, I think they would largely overcome the problem.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that Lord Carrington mentioned the part-time smallholdings, because I am certain that they are a most desirable feature of the countryside, particularly for retired people. Once it is admitted that there should be no prejudice on this account, I simply cannot follow the arguments that the noble Earl has put forward. If Lord Moyne's facts are correct, we have apparently at least 121 ready-made smallholdings waiting to be tilled as smallholdings. At the moment they are being cultivated by an Association. On the other side we have an enormous queue of people who want smallholdings of various sizes. Four or five hundred people are already making what they consider to be a satisfactory living out of similar holdings, but, like the 121 who could be satisfied, others are not allowed to get anywhere near a. smallholding because, apparently, there are various reasons why a different form of smallholding is preferred. The capital outlay on the second type of smallholding must be infinitely greater than that which would be required in this case. I gather that 121 families can be made happy smallholders for the expenditure of, at the most, about £2,000 on each holding; whereas under the other scheme the outlay on each will run into £4,000 or £5,000. I simply cannot understand the argument of the noble Earl for completely rejecting Lord Moyne's proposal.


My Lords, I can only speak again by leave of the House, and I will do so only if noble Lords who have just spoken wish me to reply to their arguments. I think there is a misunderstanding as to the nature of the two types of scheme for providing smallholdings. They really are not alternative or interchangeable. The county councils provide smallholdings under Part IV of the 1947 Act, and they have a statutory duty so to do. Even if the Government wished to deprive the county councils of that statutory duty, they clearly could not do so. The county councils are perfectly entitled to provide, under the authority which has been given them by Parliament, that which they consider is of great importance to people in their neighbourhood. Apart from that, as I pointed out, the facilities and the requirements under the county councils' scheme are very different from the facilities and requirements under the Land Settlement Association scheme, and there are many smallholders who would prefer the county councils' scheme to that of the Land Settlement Association. But I hope I can impress upon noble Lords opposite—because it really is a fact and not just a biased opinion—that the two schemes are absolutely distinct and it is not possible, even if it were desirable, to substitute one for the other. They are complementary methods of helping people to get on to the land as smallholders, and, whatever the economic implications may be, it is not possible to use one instead of the other.


The noble Earl does admit that if he built 121 houses he would have 121 more smallholdings?

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes before five o'clock.