HL Deb 10 July 1952 vol 177 cc1005-10

2.53 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the object of this Bill is to provide a more effective and speedy sanction against those who, for commercial gain, strip the top soil off agricultural land, sell it and leave the land useless for further cultivation. This practice is going on in several counties—I believe in Kent, Surrey and Essex—and I am told that the profits are quick and substantial. But the result is that the land is left quite useless for agricultural purposes at a time when we need the greatest amount of agricultural production that our Island can produce. Some of your Lordships who were present in the House may remember my referring to this matter in the food and agriculture debate which took place on April 30 last. The case I then had in mind was one taking place in Surrey. A company which has apparently been formed with this as its main activity had bought a large field of good agricultural land, and had proceeded to remove and sell the soil, leaving the land derelict. The Surrey Agricultural Executive Committee tried to stop it; the transgressor company were given a direction, and were later fined £50 for ignoring the direction imposed upon them. My Lords, that did not deter them at all; nor indeed would the maximum penalty that can be imposed under the Agriculture Act of 1947. The maximum penalty is one of £100, and I believe that the profits are considerably more than that.

There is a second way of trying to deal with a case of this sort; that is, under the Town and Country Planning Act. I am told that soil stripping of this magnitude is a form of development for which planning permission is required. Indeed, in this particular case the God-stone Rural District Council served an enforcement notice under the Town and Country Planning Act. The company denied that removing soil constituted development and appealed against the notice. While the appeal was pending, as they were quite entitled to do, they continued to remove the soil. In other words, the procedure under the Town and Country Planning Act is, at any rate in my submission, too slow to stop at its inception a malpractice such as this.

Under the Town and Country Planning Act, when an enforcement notice is served upon an operator, he can apply to the planning authority for permission. Several weeks may elapse before the appeal is heard. Meanwhile, because he has applied for permission, the operator can go on taking the soil away. If that permission is refused, then he can appeal to the Minister and concurrently he can appeal to a court of summary jurisdiction. In either of those cases the effect of the enforcement notice is in abeyance while either of those appeals is pending. As a result of this procedure, the operator, if he has the most modern machinery to take away the soil, can have completely stripped the ground before anything can prevent him from doing so. In the case that has been particularly brought to my notice the ground has been largely stripped of its fertile soil I am told that the Oxted magistrates have determined the appeal, and have held that the removal of the top soil from the land constitutes development under the Act and requires planning permission. They have now ordered the company to plough and fertilise the land, and sow to ley. Of course the eventual result of that remains to be seen, but your Lordships will soon realise that if the company went into liquidation, or did anything of that sort, there would be no remedy whatever by which this land could be put back into its proper use.

My Lords, with those words as a background, I now come to what this Bill seeks to do. As noble Lords will see, if they look at Clause 1 of the Bill, no restriction is imposed, for there are prerequisites to any action under this clause against operators: first, under Clause 1 (1) (a) a person must have removed the surface soil from agricultural land with a view to the sale of that soil; and secondly—it is not "or," it is "and"—the removal of that soil must constitute development within the meaning of the Town and Country Planning Act and must have been carried out without the grant of permission under that Act. It will be seen, therefore, that no new restriction is imposed, but that a new summary offence is created. Because, instead of the sanction under the Town and Country Planning Act, this Bill substitutes a fine in a magistrates' court of up to £100 for a first offence and, on the committal of a subsequent and similar offence, a period of either three months in prison, or a fine of £50 for every day on which the earlier offence is repeated.

I think that at this stage I need add only two or three further sentences. First, under Clause 1 (2) the cutting of peat and the cutting of turf are excluded from the operation of the Bill. No doubt those of your Lordships who were in the House at the time will remember that when we had the Town and Country Planning Act before us there was a considerable argument about peat, and eventually it was decided to exclude it from any development charge. It does not take away—at least, only in exceptional cases—from the agricultural value of land to strip it of peat or, indeed, to cut off the turf. Secondly, I think I ought just to refer to Clause 1 (3). That closes a gap because if it were not for that subsection a man could say: "This land is not agricultural land, because I have bought it, and I do not intend to use it for agricultural purposes." That might be a defence. Clause 2 (2) makes provision in, I think, an unexceptionable manner for dealing with cases where this operation is carried out by a company. Under this clause directors who consent or connive at such an operation are liable to be proceeded against.

Perhaps, before I conclude, I ought also to refer to Clause 2 (3). Under this provision it is a complete defence to show that planning permission has been given. I ought perhaps to say, too, that this Act is intended to apply to Scotland, but not to Northern Ireland. I hope that your Lordships will agree that this Bill fills a gap that should be filled, and that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading to-day, thereby showing your determination that no more of the land shall with impunity be taken away from agriculture, which is, in my submission, the most vital of our industries at the present time and, so far as I can see, is likely to remain so for some years to come. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Llewellin.)

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, while supporting this very admirable Bill which has been moved by my noble friend, I wish to take the opportunity of raising the exact opposite of the matter dealt with in the Bill. This is a Bill to make it an offence in certain circumstances to remove surface soil from land. To-day, in this country, the exact opposite is occurring, and surface soil which ought to be removed from land is not being removed. I have in mind, particularly, the new towns. If my eyes do not deceive me, in the new town of Crawley I have seen several fields used as dumping grounds for from four to five feet of clay. Before that clay was put upon the fields, the sensible and natural thing would have been to sell the surface soil to some such despoiler as my noble friend has aimed his Bill against. So far as one's eyes can discover, no such thing is done, and I suggest that the Minister might call the attention of the authorities of the new towns generally, not only to the terms of this Bill but also to the matter in its opposite sense—in other words, say that it is a gross waste of topsoil to bury it under four or five feet of clay when there is a market for it.

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, I feel certain that no one will object to the principle of this Bill. In this very small island, with its dense population, we simply cannot afford to lose valuable agricultural land unnecessarily, and the object which the noble Lord desires to secure in this Bill is one which I feel certain will meet with general support. There may be details which we shall have to look at hereafter. I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, that this Bill does not really go far enough, though perhaps it is designed to deal with the greatest abuse which occurs at the present time and which does appear to call urgently for action. Noble Lords may like to know that there is a very interesting precedent for legislation of this kind in one part of the British Commonwealth—namely, the Island of Malta—where for quite a number of years past, it has been part of the law. And Malta, of course, is an island which is even more densely populated and more dependent upon its soil than this island of ours. In Malta it has been part of the law for some time past that whenever anyone wants to do anything—to build a house, for example—on a site where there is agricultural land, he must remove the soil and deposit it somewhere else to the satisfaction of the Department of Agriculture, so that the total area of cultivable land shall not be diminished.

It may be that we do not need to go quite so far as that, but it does seem a great pity that valuable soil should be lost as an incident of other operations. This Bill is directed to the cases where it is lost because of the carrying out of a deliberate policy of selling it for profit. It may very well be lost in other cases which are not covered by this Bill at all. I am not suggesting that it is possible to amend this Bill to deal with those matters, but it is something which Her Majesty's Government might very well have in their minds for future consideration. Meanwhile, I am certainly very happy to support the Second Reading of the Bill.

3.9 p.m.


My Lords, I rise on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to express our thanks to the noble Lord who introduced the Bill, which remedies a defect not so much, perhaps, in the 1947 Act as in its operation. There is no doubt that this defect has enabled considerable damage to be done, and, from the agricultural point of view, it is very disturbing to consider the amount of additional damage that might be done in the future. It is certainly the case that some immediate action is needed to stop this. For all these reasons, we welcome the Bill. So far as the technical aspects of the Bill are concerned, we have tried to help by making available the services of the Government draftsmen. We give the Bill a warm welcome and hope for its speedy passage through the House, so that it may find its way rapidly to the Statute Book.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, first of all I should like to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, for my absence during his speech. I had an engagement which I had hoped would be shorter than in fact it proved to be. I think the substance of this Bill is such that no one will take exception to it. It appears to provide the safeguards which are necessary for agriculture without interfering in any way with the reasonable activities of private companies. I daresay that some people would like it to go further, but we know the difficulties that arise when members of either House try to go a long way in a Private Member's Bill. There is only one problem about procedure to which I should like to refer. The great difficulty with Private Members' Bills is the shortage of Parliamentary time. May I say, on behalf of the Opposition in this House, that we shall do everything we can to facilitate the passage of the Bill, and that we shall not hold it up by the use of arguments, whether they may be desirable or undesirable? I sincerely hope that everyone else who is interested in this Bill will try to facilitate its passage in this way.

On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.