HL Deb 01 July 1953 vol 183 cc64-114

4.18 p.m.

EARL WINTERTON rose to call attention to methods for the utilisation of derelict land suitable for producing crops and timber in the Southern counties of England; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I understand that ten of your Lordships desire to take part in the debate either on my Motion or on that of my noble friend Lord Albemarle, which will follow it, and which deals with an analogous subject. Therefore I propose to curtail the observations which I had intended to make, and I must ask your Lordships to excuse me if my speech appears in somewhat tabloid form. That is not to say that I object to the time taken up by the previous Motion which, as a matter of fact, fits in rather well with the Motion which I am moving to your Lordships' House. Indeed, in the course of the discussion on the previous Motion my noble friend Lord Airlie—who is not in the House at the moment—made the observation that in the British Commonwealth in general the question of food was the most important question of all.

I was rather amused to read in bed this morning, with my early morning tea, an observation by Sir Don Bradman in the columns of the Daily Mail about the Test Match, in which he said that this was "drama almost beyond endurance." On the same page was a picture of Mr. Watson who, I frankly admit, is a very fine cricketer. I happened to be able to see him yesterday at Lord's. The article said that he had "saved old England." It is difficult to get the people of Australia, or of Britain, to attach more importance to food production than to the Test Matches. If I may be excused a feeble pun, it is a real "test" for the future of the people of the British Commonwealth whether in the next: twenty or thirty years we shall be able to produce in that Commonwealth, in the Colonies, and in these Islands sufficient food to feed the people of the Commonwealth, and especially to feed the people of these overcrowded islands. Though it would be out of order, even under the lenient rules of your Lordships' House, for me to refer to the position in Australia, those of your Lordships who are familiar with Australia will be aware that the situation there with regard to the food supply keeping pace with the population is by no means a satisfactory one and is a source of considerable concern to many Australians.

I shall not venture to address your Lordships on the question of agriculture in general, because this House is, perhaps, unique among the Second Chambers of the world in having a greater number of genuine experts on the subject of agriculture than any similar Chamfer. I shall confine myself to a particular aspect of the subject—not the productivity and progress of British agriculture and forestry in general, but to one particular aspect. My Motion is concerned solely with what has been done in a small way, and with what could be done in a much bigger way, in one particular part of England—an area comprising Weald land and the downland country of West Surrey and East and West Sussex and part of Kent—to bring derelict and unused land into use for tillage and productive forestry.

Three years ago I initiated in another place a debate on a similar Motion to that which I am moving this afternoon I asserted then that more land could be seen on a rail or road journey of about forty miles west or south of London which could grow food, but which does not do so in any form, than would be seen in 400 miles of a similar journey across the Channel. The then Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Tom Williams, admitted in his reply that my statement was in general true, although he said there were reasons for this state of affairs. There is a most extraordinary contrast, as any of your Lordships who have made the journey will be aware, between the intensity of cultivation in Western Germany, France, Belgium or Holland and that in Southern England. That is not to make any reflection upon the farming methods in Southern England; it is probably true that the actual productivity per acre of land in cultivation in Southern England is as great as, if not greater than, anywhere on the Continent. But I am speaking of the land which is not used. If I may be allowed to mention an autobiographical detail, I have some reason to know this land because I think I must have been one of the few members of the other place during my forty-seven years of service there who, partly in the course of my Yeomanry service and partly in the course of fox-hunting, entered almost every field and every wood in my somewhat large constituency. In my lifetime I have hunted with between thirty and forty packs; I believe that I have hunted with every pack in the Midlands except one, and with other; in the South and North, and I know something of how this land of England is comprised.

It is found on railway embankments, on the road verges, in the area under review. For reasons into which I have not time to go to-day, most of the roads in this part of the country have very wide verges. The width of some of them is equal to two or three times the length of a cricket pitch. The commons are remote from centres of population, away from villages, and they are little used, or not used at all, for recreational purposes. They were once grazed by commoners' cattle and sheep; now they are overgrown with gorse, thorns or bracken. On our downland—chalk hills—a quantity of land once close graced by sheep has, since the depression of the 1880's, deteriorated into scrub. Much has been done since 1939 to reclaim such land, but much more remains to be done. In the Weald, there, are many instances of individual fields on existing farms which, since the depression of the 1880's, have similarly degenerated into scrub and thorns The Weald—I am speaking of East and West Sussex, part of Surrey and part of Kent—is not only a natural forest, it is a natural breeding ground for quicks and thorns and gorse. It is a fact that if you leave a field for four years without cutting or grazing it, at the end there is enough gorse and thorns to find a fox in. There are derelict woodlands of standard wood or Underwood, or a mixture, where standard timber has been cut or under-wood has become worthless from neglect, or a mixture of both.

I can quickly dispose of the first two categories of unused land. In almost all European countries, railway embankments are used to grow vegetables or grain or to produce grass for hay. You can see that all over the Continent. But the minimum of British railway embankments are so used. In almost all the European countries, cattle, sheep and goats are tethered on the road verges, or looked after by small children. If the reply by the Minister to this point is that our educational system forbids the latter process, and our system of agriculture, as well as our dislike of goats as milk or cheese producers, prevents tethering, my reply in turn would be, "All right, be it so. I do not wish to dispute with the many experts in this House on this matter, but it weakens the very proper protest of the agricultural industry against the constant drain of British land away from British agriculture for the purposes of making aerodromes, widening roads, building houses and factories, if the land which could be grazed is not." I am supported in this by many Continental farmers and land owners. They cannot understand why we should leave so much of this land unused. They say they could not afford to do it in their countries, and that Britain must be very well off to be able to do it.

The case of the commons is a much more difficult one. I should like first to give some figures which I think are rather remarkable. Within eight miles of where I live, on the borders of Sussex and Surrey, there are roughly 780 acres of various commons, little if at all, differing in soil texture from the farms bordering on them, of which only two are partially grazed on about thirty acres. Only two of these commons are near villages, with cricket grounds on them. Yet the 700 acres of this area now not used were once closely grazed by the commoners. They are covered with grass, thorns, and bracken.

Whilst I am on figures, I should like to give your Lordships some figures on another aspect of the subject. Here is an extract, which is a very alarming one, as I think the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, will agree, from the official survey report of the East Sussex Development Plan: Sussex, as a whole, is the most wooded county in England, yet the quality of woodlands in East Sussex, at least, has been allowed to decline sharply in the past twenty-five years until vast tracts have become devastated and uneconomic. In a recent census of woodlands exceeding five acres, carried out by the Forestry Commission, it was found that of 78,203 acres of woodland only 19,709 acres (about a quarter) fall into the highly valuable high forest category. In the rest of Great Britain the proportion is about a half. More than half the total acreage—45,867—is of simple coppice. … A further 4,402 acres have been devastated by having the best trees picked out. … Some 4,000 acres are just scrub land. The authors of the survey report comment that 16 per cent. of the woodland area in East Sussex is at present useless from an economic point of view. Much of this land, they say, has produced good timber in the past, and could do so again; but at present it is derelict. They suggest that 20,000 acres, including some of simple coppice, could be replanted to form economic units. My comment on those observations is this. No doubt the same considerations would apply to West Sussex, where I live. Advances have been made in modern times in afforestation, through the agency of the Forestry Commission, and there are at the present moment individuals like the noble Viscount, Lord Cowdray, and others, who have some of the best forestry estates in both West and East Sussex; but there are some very bad ones as well.

I will return to the question of commons. I have some tentative suggestions to make, without, I hope, any dogmatism. First of all, I think the law relating to commons should be brought up to date. The relationship between the Lord of the Manor, the commoners, in the true sense of the term, the local authorities and the public, are in some respects indeterminate, and much of the law on the subject is mediæval and quite unsuited to modern conditions. I think that commons near large centres of population should be designated as solely for recreational purposes, as many are, and have been so made by special Acts of Parliament in the past. On commons near villages, sufficient space for cricket, football and recreational purposes should be protected from grazing and the incursion of motor trippers and others from outside. Parts of such commons, and all commons remote from large and small centres of population, should be put to their proper and original use of grazing, wherever local farmers are prepared to use them.

I think the local agricultural executive committees should have power to clear scrub from the commons and to put down permanent ley, after, perhaps, a clearance cereal crop, and fence temporarily portions of the common in turn, leaving the public free to wander over the rest at will. Local farmers, other than commoners, who would probably resent any such charge for grazing rights, which they regard as their traditional rights, could be found to recoup the agricultural executive committees by payment for grazing rights. There should be grids on the roads to carry light and heavy traffic and to prevent stock from straying. A local inquiry under the Ministry of Agriculture should be held before any such plan came into operation, to hear objections. If the Minister decided to make a scheme the local highway authority would, by the plan which I advocate, have to conform and erect grids. There would have to be warning signs by night and day. Motoring organisations would, of course, object, but they would have to be sharply told that the production of food in this country was at least as important as the motoring and automobile industry.

Next, I should like to come to the question of individual fields in the Weald and portions of downland which reverted to scrub in the 'eighties and 'nineties, and later. Most of them reverted to scrub in the bad days of the 1880's, following the year of the agricultural depression in 1879. Much admirable clearance has already been done in the area in question and some notable efforts have been made over hundreds of acres by land owners, yeomen and tenant farmers alike. Two friends of mine, one a land owner and the other a yeoman farmer, both of whose families have lived in Sussex between 400 and 500 years, have done notable work in West Sussex, but large areas remain to be cleared. I think the agricultural executive committees should be asked to press farmers to use Government grants for the purpose, and the delicate question arises whether compulsory power should not be imposed by law for this clearance work. I understand that at present it is not possible, for reasons into which I have not time to go, to compel farmers to clear fields on their farms which were once agricultural land, if they have not borne crops during the last fifty years.

If I may interpolate one remark here, I think the Minister of Agriculture should actively fight people who have been designated in a speech in another place as "pretty-pretties." They are people who comprise within their ranks many "old women," of both sexes, who scream shrilly or write letters to The Times whenever a hill growing gorse, thorn, heather or bracken is cleared to allow cereal production, beef production or modern forestry. These enemies of land production have not even the merit of possessing the artistic perception which they claim to have. They think that a well-cultivated hillside, bearing good crops of conifers which are a joy to behold, must necessarily be uglier than one covered with useless gorse or heather. If we as a nation were really land-conscious, and had not lost the art of satire, which I am glad to see is being brought back by Punch,we should long ago have designated these people as they should have been. We should describe them as enemies of humanity and friends of scarcity: people who try to prevent the land of England from producing the food and timber that it could.

My last category concerns derelict woodland. In the area in question, despite public and private forestry schemes, there are still enormous areas of derelict woodland, ruining into thousands of acres. This is partly due to circumstances which are peculiar to the south of England. In the years of the agricultural depression—not that to which I referred after 1879, but the one after the Napoleonic War—the prices for agricultural produce were low and there was a great demand for what I would call coppice crops: hazel, ash, and other things, especially hazel for making hoops for barrels. Large areas in the Weald which had hitherto carried foodstuffs were planted with trees—for instance, in the parish in which I live there is twice the area of woodland that there was 120 years ago. There is no longer the demand for underwood that there used to be; and in addition much of the land has been denuded of timber, so it ought to be reclaimed. The reason why more has not been done is that the owners, or many of them, are too poor, or too apathetic, to replant or to bulldoze their land into agricultural land.

In regard to the Forestry Commission, I do not think the Minister would deny (though I believe no official statement has been made on the subject) that the Commission have such huge commitments on land which they already own in various parts of England, or which they have leased, to be able to contemplate compulsory acquisition on a large scale, perhaps for ten or fifteen years, in these huge areas of woodland. Perhaps I ought not to give your Lordships the origin of my information because it comes from official sources in an indirect way. Much of this land could, with the aid of various Government grants, be profitably turned into farmland by bulldozing, gyro-tilling and drainage.

I must apologise for having failed to notify the noble Lords that I would bring their names into the debate; I quite forgot to do so; but I should like to pay a tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, for what they have done in their respective properties in East Sussex and West Hampshire. Before there was any question of a grant, they reduced the scrub on certain land and turned that land into profitable farmland. That was done before there was any grant; and to-day a great deal of such land can be turned into farmland.

I understand the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, is going to take part in this debate. He warned me that he would want to ask me what the statistics were, or rather what the accounting would be, for such conversion. It is difficult to give more than a general reply. Wealden land where I come from is generally worth £40 an acre, and, under favourable conditions, allowing for the Government grant, it should be possible to convert that land into agricultural land for about £10 less than that capital value. Therefore, it would leave you with a capital profit of £10 on the transaction. There are two farms in the neighbourhood in which I live, and there are no doubt others in other parts of the area to which I have referred, where this has been done. I should like to quote a paragraph which appeared in a local publication about a farm at Charleshurst, Plaistow. The Minister of Food, Major Lloyd George, went there at my invitation last October and, as this paragraph states: saw a 37 acre holding, owned and farmed by Mr. and Mrs. C. W. Baker, on which about £15,000 worth of food is being produced yearly from land which six years ago was virgin forest. When the Bakers took over the land there was no through road, no house or buildings, and the land produced virtually nothing. To-day every acre is in full cultivation and the holding carries 10,000 poultry and produces up to 300 bacon pigs yearly. That land is not particularly good land; it is land on which there had been a certain amount of timber and poor coppice wood; but that is what that land has done and what I believe could be done in other parts.

My respectful suggestion to my noble friend the Minister is that the Ministry should in every way stimulate this process, which could mean scores of new farms in the Weald. There should be investigation into and dissemination of knowledge about the cheapest way of conversion For instance, the old-fashioned method of bulldozing is not satisfactory because it leaves, in the case of underwood, "stubs" as they are called in Sussex, "stools" as they are called elsewhere—a certain amount of under-roots in the ground which make it difficult to plough afterwards with an ordinary plough; but there is now a new method by which an implement is attached behind the bulldozer and pulls out those roots.

I would ask for the support of your Lordships on this point, especially those of you who occupy, as so many of your Lordships do, a very important position in the agricultural world. There should be a simple process by which the Ministry of Agriculture, and not other Departments, should alone have the power to authorise a pioneer farmer anxious to make a farm out of a wood to erect his house and buildings. That would prevent his being enmeshed in the octopus-like red tape plentifully supplied by town and country planning authorities, local housing authorities and the Ministry of Health. Your Lordships who are landlords cannot fail to know what that octopus is like. I had a painful example not long ago, and but for the help of several of your Lordships in the Government I should not have got permission to build the cottages I am now building after a long agitation.

I should like to end on this note. We have had debates in your Lordships' House on points analogous to the one contained in my Motion, about marginal land in Wales, Scotland and elsewhere; and, if I may say so in parenthesis, highly instructive and interesting debates they have been. Criticisms or comments have been made to the effect that it is at least doubtful whether the efforts and time and money, both public and private, spent in the rehabilitation of such land would not be used to better effect in raising the productivity of farms in more favoured districts. I have not sufficient knowledge on the matter to expres an opinion, nor is it anything to do with my particular Motion. I wish, however, most earnestly to impress upon your Lordships that the situation in the districts covered by my Motion is an entirely different one. Here, there is no case of land of dubious quality above a certain sea level being contrasted with rich lowland and vale farms. All the categories of unused land to which my speech and Motion refer and which probably comprise 20,000 acres in West and East Sussex—sufficient land to supply on a basis of the usual acreage in the area, anything from 80 to a 100 farms, assuming it was all clear and given to cultivation—liesalongside land of the same soil texture which is being put to good use. Is it right, in a densely populated island which needs to produce every ton of food it can, and in a world suffering from lack of sufficient food in so many lands, leading to so much misery and malnutrition, not to use every acre that we can for production? The dictates alike of self-interest, humanity and, indeed, Christianity seem to me to supply an emphatic "No" to that question. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, with the noble Earl's permission and with your Lordships' permission, I wonder whether it would not be more convenient if I answered the noble Earl's speech at the conclusion of the more general debate on the Motion to be moved by the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle. If the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, would withdraw his Motion now, he would still have the opportunity of making any remarks after I have made my speech on the Motion of the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I gladly fall in with that suggestion. I formally beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

4.48 p.m.

THE EARL OF ALEEMARLE rose to call attention to the loss of agricultural land yearly, and to measures which could be taken to make good such loss; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. We have all enjoyed the remarks of my noble friend, Lord Winterton, which he has just delivered in his unrivalled manner and which form an admirable prelude to the line that. I hope the debate will take. He knows better than anybody what the countryman feels, and we shall certainly hope that some of his remarks on the points to which he has drawn attention will not fall on deaf ears. I have felt great hesitation in addressing your Lordships for the first: time, and I should never have ventured to do, so except on the subject of the dwindling world sources of food supply, which has on various occasions been cogently placed before your Lordships by, among others, the noble Viscount, Lord Bruce of Melbourne, and the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Orr.

I should perhaps declare my interest, as an owner of some marshes, and that I happen to be chairman of a county council coast protection committee. The yearly loss of land suitable for husbandry has given rise to so many sets of figures being pressed upon our notice that we are in danger of being made dizzy by them. I think it will suffice of we take note of tendencies—as, for instance, that 2¾million acres fewer are at the farmers' disposal than was the case in 1887. Again, the yearly loss between the wars seems to be agreed at about 24,000 acres, while during the last five or six years the annual loss stands at 50,000 acres, and demands of all kinds of development, including the re-housing of half the population during the next twenty years, are expected to be of the order of 100,000 acres a year. From these figures it is evident that food acreage is very much a wasting asset. One does not have to be the managing director of a quarry or a gravel winning company, who finds his reserves beginning to show exhaustion, to decide what one should do. The first thing is to set on foot a prospecting campaign to disclose fresh reserves of basic material. We cannot continue giving lip service to the idea that we must increase food production, and yet continue to take good agricultural land for other uses at this rate. Concurrently with this diminishing food plot, there is an acceleration of the world's birth statistics—70,000 extra mouths to feed each new day. This rate greatly outstrips the growth of new food production. The figure and statement were given a fortnight ago in Rome by the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

I will say just one word now, about loss and gain of land around our coasts. Over a period we have lost over one million acres, but over the same period this loss is offset by a gain of about the same amount on our West and South-West coasts. I should like to know if it is possible to say whether, by embankments or other means, such accretion has been made into serviceable land. Let me now give two instances of the rate of destruction on our East coast by the sea. In 1838, at Overstrand, the sea was distant 220 yards from the present undermined coast road—an average attrition of nearly two yards a year. That is vouched for by an old tithe map and parchments. In our own times, on a Suffolk shore the northward return of the tide, and the periodic surges which are caused by wind velocity, have rubbed off the projecting land known as Covehithe Cliffs, between the years 1925 and 1953 (for which measurements have been taken), so that the land owner has lost a farm at the rate of 30 feet a year and a set of farm buildings. My Lords, we have suffered these losses in the past. It is clear that we can no longer continue to deplore them, but must now decide upon action. This Victorian attitude of laisser faire we must now outgrow.

I wish next to advert to various classes of misused or disused land, to each of which I would attach a question—and I hope the noble Lord who is to reply will be able to answer them. First, can we afford so low a density of housing as formerly? The Dutch are notably pinched for space: enormous programmes of modern flats have recently been carried out there. May we not be forced to recast our ideas and our preferences as to flats? Can we afford single-storey schools, or such wide verges as are seen along trunk roads—the cause of many unprofitable hours spent in their maintenance? Many a losing battle has been fought over the requirements of the Services. They must exercise somewhere, of course—but where? Surely the last place where an R.A.F. bombing school should remain based is the southern shore of the Wash, possessing silt soil now ripe for embankment—the richest soil in England.

Then I would ask: Are the Government willing to offer grants to the authorities who are now trying to free what used to be first-class arable or grass farms from the superimposed slag heaps and other industrial waste? Are businesses which now hold land surplus to their requirements to be allowed to leave these acres idle? Should they not accept direction from officers of the National Advisory Agricultural Service? Has the Minister of Housing and Local Government power so that he can insist on the "in-filling"(a horrible new term, now often used) of unbuilt on spaces in towns, before he will sanction the acquisition of slices of neighbouring rural areas for dormitories? In the case of catchment areas for town water supplies, has the Minister power to direct that stock must be allowed to graze, provided they are fenced off from streams which they might contaminate? When development plans are all in the possession of the Minister concerned with planning, will he consider himself accountable for the land that has to be allotted for public uses, so that he can tell the farming community how much agricultural land the Government find they can spare for food production? If the foregoing comprises most categories of land for which Ministers are willing to seek powers, in order to preserve land capable of use for producing food, may we not expect to achieve some reduction of those yearly figures of loss which I gave earlier?

Before I turn to the search for further areas which could be developed for agriculture, I would pay my humble tribute to the success which the hill farming and stock-rearing Acts have achieved, for which an appropriation of £22 million was stipulated. Of that sum, I understand that £9 million has been disbursed in grants on marginal land improvement, and I feel that, in common fairness, a comparable sum should be found for the reclamation of better lands which will produce higher output—I am referring to the insufficiently drained valleys, to estuaries and harbours. It is my hope that the Minister of Agriculture will send out teams of soil surveyors to sample these areas. Where these samples are promising, schemes of embankment may well prove an economic proposition. I need not remind your Lordships that some of the richest bearing soils of England are found at these levels.

It may well be that in certain estuaries and creeks, no longer traversed by barge traffic, the entry of sea water could be regulated by locks set in a barrier at the mouth, or at a distance from it, to exclude the higher tides which at present drown these potentially good lands. A reinforcing argument for this is the economies that could be made on river wall maintenance, so saving a headache for the river boards who cannot now obtain sufficient funds on their restricted precept-money to ensure ample safety of the banks. I know what I am talking about. The other day £25,000 had to be cut off the budget of the local river board with which I am concerned, because they had not got the money, and they had to make economies of £25,000 on maintenance. An East Coast estuary, on the average, has between 25 and 60 miles of river walls. No Government grant is available for their maintenance. It is capital works which attract grants.

Returning to these suggested harriers. I would point out that they could also carry roads across river mouths and thereby greatly shorten communications. Naturally, I am thinking of my own county when I make that remark; I am not familiar with conditions in other counties. I am well aware that if the measures which I advocate were taken, there would be an outcry from fishermen and wildfowlers, as indeed there was in the 17th century over the matter of draining the Fens. In the reins of James I and Charles I projects in this connection, which had been set on foot by adventurous spirits, were withstood by all sorts of people who did not like new ways, and in the troublous times preceding the Civil War the commoners and the fenmen saw their opportunity to break down sluices and undo the good done by these adventurers. It was left to Oliver Cromwell to foster and favour the Act that completed the work of drainage. The foreshore and land over which the tides move are Crown property, vested in the Crown Lands Commissioners, and not within the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Board of Trade, I understand, have jurisdiction in certain respects, as have the Ministry of Transport in regard to keeping open channels of navigation. Perhaps there is thus an obstacle to the action which I am suggesting should be undertaken by the Ministry of Agriculture, for there appears to be a plethora of Ministries concerned. It seems that the Government may have to consider and decide how to enable the Minister of Agriculture to make a start with schemes of reclamation. When the Minister of Agriculture is empowered to proceed, perhaps he will offer grants to private reclamation schemes, in order to show that he will back and encourage frontagers who are willing to adventure their resources in this direction.

Finally, to recur once more to the loss of land on our coasts by attrition by waves, I would point out that security there from is bound up with the care of the foreshore, doctoring it with groynes, thereby widening and flattening the beach. In my submission it is these foreshores and these beaches that the guardians of Crown rights should take over, for no one else will have the money needed for more or less frequent series of groynes, which are the best builders of safety. This soft eastern edge of England needs continuous inspection and an integrated plan throughout its length. Problems vary with each stretch of beach, but the minds which direct must be in liaison with one another; techniques must be pooled; lessons learned from experience, and applied. This unity must be imposed by the Government as the senior partner and chief paymaster. This friable coast needs comprehensive attention. It should be dressed n a one-piece suit, not a tattered garment through which unprotected cliffs and shore are seen to remain vulnerable. The aggregate of coast protection authorities have not the financial scope, nor the staffs to cope with these technical and large contracts. Most of these authorities are necessarily self-centred and largely occupied with their tourist attractions, their bungalows and their camp sites, and sometimes with schemes which they will need to link up with river board action; that means dealing with two Ministers—two Ministers for the sea and the coast.

In short, it would seem better to have a master plan under one Minister—after consultation with the local coast protection authorities, of course. Often after storm damage action has been delayed too long. Wind and waves wait for no one. Often action taken by a promenade-owning authority has remitted a legacy of beach damage to its poorer rural neighbour further down the coast. In such cases, wise overall direction would appreciate that the two authorities were, so to speak, not a matched pair, and that they would be better bracketed together for purposes of a joint scheme. We read that in the times of the Romans, to check the incursions of the Saxons it was found necessary to appoint a Count of the Saxon Shore. In our day, to keep the sea out of the same coasts it is considered that one commander is not enough, but that it is necessary to have at least two Ministers for the job. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.7 p.m.


My Lords, I hope it will not be thought presumptuous of me, so much his junior in years, to congratulate the noble Earl on his most interesting maiden speech. The noble Earl listens to our debates very regularly. It is perhaps even more meritorious to listen than to speak. I know that we are all delighted that he has taken the plunge and, in view of his long experience of this matter in East Anglia, we hope that he will contribute again to our agricultural debates. We are also grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, for drawing attention to some glaring examples of the wastage of our soil at the present time. May I, before going further, thank the noble Earl for furnishing the Opposition with a copy of his notes. It was a most unusual step, but a very welcome one, and one which is perhaps typical of the total lack of Party spirit which prevails in this House when dealing with matters of agricultural policy.

Derelict land, with which the noble Earl was largely concerned—clear-felled, scrub or heath—is perhaps the worst example of this wastage of land and food production. Another example to which the noble Earl referred at some considerable length results, I think, in even greater loss of food or timber. I refer to the present misuse of common land. I maintain—and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, will take my plea into consideration—that it would be extremely valuable, both for forestry and for agriculture, if there were made a fresh survey of the common land in the country. A survey was made a long time ago, but it is now completely out of date. If we had an up-to-date survey we should at least know the amount of land still available as common land, how much of it is properly managed and reasonably productive, and the different uses to which that land is being put. I should be greatly surprised to find that more than a small fraction of our common land was being used to the best advantage at the present time. After all, the villagers who graze their stock on the neighbouring common lack the capital required to improve the quality of the grass which a land owner or a farmer may be able to afford. Again, villagers who use the common usually have not enough livestock or sufficient skill in animal husbandry to take full advantage of the available pasture or rough grazing.

It is difficult to know what the remedy is. The noble Earl, Lord Winterton, suggested one. I do not believe that half measures will be sufficient. I think the Government will have to ask Parliament for powers to acquire land that has been wasted in this way, compensating the commoners, of course, for their loss of rights and providing access wherever that is practicable and desirable. If this were done, it would then be possible for the public authorities to lease the commons to farmers or land owners or, where the soil is too poor for crops or grass, to the Forestry Commission for the planting of timber. In this way we should get more livestock and we should add to our scanty supplies of home-grown timber. I do not see how we can get what we want by voluntary agreement. We have gone as far as we can along that line, and I think the Government must now take firm action and ask for compulsory powers to use in cases where this kind of land has been grossly neglected over a long period of time.

In his Motion the noble Earl is mainly concerned with the rehabilitation of derelict land is the southern half of the country. I do not think he over-estimated the magnitude of the problem. We all want this problem solved, as keenly as he does, but I very much wonder whether we have envisaged the scale of the problem or the magnitude of the remedy which will be required if the problem is to be solved. I think we must have a much larger capital investment in agriculture. Briefly, that is the only answer to under-production. At present, in my view, agriculture is not receiving a sufficiently high priority in the capital investment programme. This is a matter for the Government to decide. Of course, the capital needed for the rehabilitation of large areas of marginal and derelict land would be far beyond the means of the ordinary farmer and land owner, and I think it would be unreasonable for them to accept the risk.

If I may draw attention to the statement of policy on agriculture that has been published recently by the Party to which I adhere, I would point out that we have said in that statement that: Reclamation schemes will be operated as public enterprises, with farmers as tenants. We are convinced that there is a great deal of land (I am not quoting row, but broadly this is the, proposal) in Wales and in the Scottish Highlands, as well as in Southern England, that could produce more food if more money were spent on it. Only the State can find sufficient money for the conversion of large areas of marsh land, arid heath and bracken-covered hillsides into fertile farms. We believe that home food production could be greatly increased by Government-sponsored schemes of irrigation, drainage, and ploughing up and re-seeding of derelict land. It is for schemes of these types that we maintain a much greater volume of capital is required.

Perhaps I may be allowed to give two examples of the sort of reclamation schemes that we have in mind. In the valleys of the Test. Avon and Itchen there are about 10,000 acres of waterlogged but potentially fertile land. By dredging these rivers, and by the use of other measures for preventing floods, this land could be made available for crops and livestock. The river boards, however, lack the resources and the powers for this work at the present time and, therefore, have failed to put this land into full production. Here is my second example. In Somerset there is an area of 150,000 acres of potentially good land which is largely wasted because no serious attempt has been made to dispose of the water which drains into the central plain from the surrounding hills. Here again, a comprehensive drainage scheme is needed for the whole area. This would be a very big operation, and money would have to be provided by the State. My short point here is this. It is now part of the official policy of the Labour Party to increase capital investment in agriculture by the reclamation of marginal and derelict land. I hope that noble Lords opposite will be prepared to borrow this item of our policy. We should be highly honoured and favoured if they were to do so. Unless this is done, I do not believe that we shall see a substantial increase in production from this type of land. The present system, to which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, will refer, of providing grants to farmers on marginal land or under livestock-rearing schemes, is far too gentle a stimulus to make much impact on production.

Now, may I say a word about the forestry side of the noble Earl's Motion? I think it is no less important than his references to agriculture. I will be as brief as I can, because many noble Lords with great knowledge of agriculture want to take part in this debate, which unfortunately began rather late; so I will cut down what I had intended to say. The Forestry Act of 1951 has now been in operation for two years, and most owners who are either managing their woods privately under approved schemes or are willing to part with their land to the Forestry Commission have already done so. Therefore, there is a growing shortage of plantable land that can be acquired on a voluntary basis, and this shortage of land for planting will ultimately result in an acute shortage of home-grown timber unless more derelict or unplanted private woodlands are secured by the Forestry Commission. The only way in which this unplanted land can be acquired, failing the agreement of the owner, is by using the power of compulsory purchase which is incorporated in the Forestry Act, but that power has not been used except in a small way for adjusting boundaries. I hope the Government will consider this matter very carefully. I hope they will think seriously about the desirability of using compulsion where persuasion has not been successful, before we are faced by an inevitable timber shortage. It must be done in time, otherwise the woods will not be planted and the timber will not be mature when we want it.

That is a general statement which I should like to amplify by examples from the area with which the noble Earl was dealing—the southern counties. In no part of the country is compulsory purchase more clearly needed than in some of the counties in the South and South-East, to which the noble Earl referred. May I give one or two figures, as few as I can? Only 2.6 per cent. of the private woodlands in the South-Eastern Conservancy of the Forestry Commission are either dedicated or managed according to the approved plan. It follows that 97.4 per cent. of the private woodlands in this area are not fully productive, and this includes about 70,000 acres of completely derelict woodland, clear felled or scrub, or whatever it may be, where the trees have been felled at any time since the First World War and where there is still no prospect of replanting. It should be noted that in none of the other four conservancies into which the country is divided is less than 10 per cent. of private woodlands fully productive, so that there is only one-fifth in full production in the South-East, as compared with the worst performances in other parts of the country.

Of course, the reason for this bad record in the Home Counties is that these properties have so often been required for reasons not connected with agriculture or forestry—for sporting reasons and so on. Although it may be exceptional for land owners not to exercise a sense of responsibility, if this sense of responsibility is not shown then it becomes all the more necessary for the Government to step in and secure the national interest in good forestry which cannot be secured in any other way. I hope that one of the results of this debate may be that people will become more aware of the dangerous situation into which we are drifting, owing to the fact that such areas of plantable land are being left derelict and unused because owners cannot afford to plant, or do not wish to part with them, at the present moment.

5.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am pleased to intervene in this debate for a few moments, if only for the purpose of congratulating my old friend the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle. It is good to see that in the later years of his middle age—at all events, he is a mere chicken compared to me—he has at last come forward to address us. I am sure your Lordships will agree with me when I express the hope that, now that he has once tasted meat, he will regale us on many future occasions, because I am sure we have all greatly appreciated what he has had to say.

This is not the first time that this subject has been debated in your Lordships' House nor do I expect it will be the last; and it has been debated not only here but in many places. I have read, as have no doubt many of your Lordships, articles by great authorities, and listened to some notable speeches on this point by that great man and practical agriculturist Sir James Turner. He repeats his point again and again. He draws attention to the fact that we are an over-populated island, that we cannot feed ourselves, and that our agricultural land is going down in quantity. But, more important, he brings forward the point that the exportable surplus of food is getting scarcer, and that in Asia and in North and South America there are no longer large surpluses, because the population of those areas is increasing even faster than our own, and they are demanding (and why should they not?) a higher standard of living and more food. If all those things are true, it is a serious state of affairs with which we are faced. Yet it seems to me sometimes that we take it very lightly.

Having read those articles and listened to those speeches, I still do not know what is our annual loss of agricultural land. I heard a new figure today which interested me. The figure which was given to me originally, and which I used to quote, was 60,000 acres a year. That is a convenient figure to quote, because one can go on to say that it represents about 100 square miles a year which sounds a good deal more impressive than when you mention it in acres. Then, feeling that that was too large, I came down to 50,000 acres a year, and I endeavoured to get some authoritative information on the subject. But the most authoritative information I could get was the statement by the Minister of Agriculture in February of last year, when he said in another place that during the last sixteen years the average loss of agricultural land had been 45,000 acres. He went on to say, however—which I did not quite understand—that during the last six years, owing to land being restored to agriculture, the average loss was only 13,000 acres a year: and that, of course, is a more manageable figure.

We have already heard to-day some of the causes for this loss of agricultural land. To go through them briefly, there is housing, which probably accounts for the greater part; there are reservoirs; the Forestry Commission take some—and although we all know how exceptionally important it is to grow full quantities of timber, may be even more important to grow enough food to feed ourselves; there is opencast mining of coal and ironstone. Then there are the Ministry of Supply and the war Departments; the educational authorities, with their demand for more and more playing fields; and the Ministry of Transport, demanding bigger and wider roads on which people can go faster and faster and kill more and more of their fellow men. All those Government Departments are what we may call land-grabbing Departments; they grab agricultural land, nearly always for the best of causes, and use it for their own purposes. The only land-saving Department is the Ministry of Agriculture, which has to fight them one by one and often has to fight a conglomeration of them, because they have a habit of backing each other up. I was interested last week to hear a weighty speech by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, on satellite towns. He upbraided the Ministry of Agriculture for the vexatious and trivial objections which they made to the taking of land for towns, and he earnestly appealed to them that they should not stand in he way, but should allow each of these towns to have all the land they required, where and when they required it. The poor Ministry of Agriculture have to do their best. We have heard of the various people who have taken this land.

I was glad to hear the noble Earl who moved this Motion refer to one other thing—namely, nature, who, when put to it, has shown that she can do in a few hours more in the way of food destruction than the people of this country are able to do in as many years. I yield to no one in admiration of what the Government did after the great catastrophe during the winter, in the way of alleviating suffering, restoring damage and paying out compensation. But, like the noble Earl, I am bound to say that I feel a certain doubt as to the long-term policy that is now being adopted. For my sins—and they are many—I was chairman of a catchment board, and I know of no more frustrating job than that. We had a very good board and a good engineer, and we knew our dykes, ditches, sea walls and sea defences as well as they could be known. We knew what had to be done; we knew the danger, and what would happen if it was not done. But we could not do it. We were frustrated, first, because we had nothing like enough money to do what we wanted to do and we had no means of getting more and, furthermore, we not only did not get the co-operation of other bodies, but often suffered their enmity and opposition. No doubt the new river boards, stronger bodies with more resources, will do much better than we did. Nevertheless, I feel sure that some of the river boards will find the same frustration, and will not have enough money.

I would recall to your Lordships that towards the end of the Second World War a resolution which had been agreed to by every major agricultural body in England was sent to the Ministry. It was to the effect that sea walls and sea defences should be a national charge. I believe I seconded that resolution, and I see no reason to go back on that opinion, which I still hold. After all, to those of us who live on the East Coast the sea is just as much an enemy as a national enemy. She wages unceasing war. Sometimes it is only what might be called patrol action. She gains a trench or two here, and occasionally we get a trench or two back. But this year she made a prolonged onslaught and took away hundreds of thousands of acres at an estimated cost of £50 million. I feel very strongly that we should eventually see that these sea walls and sea defences are a national charge.

In the same way, if this emergency is as great as we are led to believe by the highest authorities, surely this is a national matter rather than a sectional one. Those of your Lordships who work, as many of you do, on local government committees, county councils, planning committees and urban and rural district councils, know, as I know, that not one week-day during the year goes by without some demand being made on our agricultural land. And, what is more, they are highly defensible demands: they are all for things that are needed. They are all for things that one would support were it not for the other overriding conditions. When the demand comes forward, shall we say, for a new playing field, the members of the education committee, without a doubt, will support it, as will quite likely the majority of the council before whom it comes.

I feel that the time is ripe when this matter should be considered on a national basis. I should like to see a plan or survey covering all the land we must lose during the next ten years (we must lose some land every year, though we might lose a great deal less than we are losing now) and indicating how we are to replace that land. Several ideas have been put before us to-day, but, broadly speaking, the replacement must come from utilising land which is not at present being used, such as land taken from the sea, marginal land and things like that. The other method is to step up production on the land we have. I feel that the noble Earl has reintroduced a matter of really grave importance on which a big decision will have to be taken sooner or later; and, for my part, I support the noble Earl in thinking the sooner the better.

5.34 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to deal essentially with the first Motion on the Order Paper, as moved by the noble Earl, Lord Winterton. Before I come to that, I should like to make one or two remarks of a local character from this side of the House, with regard to what the two noble Lords from the other side, who come from Norfolk and Suffolk, have said about the catastrophe which has overtaken East Anglia during the last few months. I have no doubt that those remarks will have been heard with interest by, at any rate, one noble Lord who sits on the other side of the House and who is interested at this particular moment in what is likely to happen in the future in regard to sea erosion and protection. Interested as I am in protection from the sea in my own area, I could not put the case better than, or as well as, the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, has just done. On two recent occasions we in the Fenland country have suffered greatly from flooding, and it is a little ironical that, in that area of country which is so productive, so well farmed and so well used by the agriculturist, we are always at the risk of the elements and the tides. All I wish to say about it—because I do not want to state our own case, which is already known—is that I hope that, whatever happens in the future, sufficient money will be forthcoming from the Government, not only to safeguard agriculture for the generations of the future but to safeguard that very fine area of land for the national purposes of food production.

The noble Earl, Lord Winterton, referred to a problem in the southern counties, but the problem which he has in mind is not peculiar to the southern counties; it is common to us all. I wish to impress upon the Government that greater steps should be taken to put this matter right. I hate to think that the non-cultivation of land, the waste of good farming land, is nobody's business at present. It surely must be somebody's business. It is the business of all of us to see that our lands are properly cultivated, stocked and cropped. The noble Earl, Lord Winterton, made mention of a rail journey. We have all made rail journeys, and we all look at the farming lands on either side—it is the customary procedure. I believe that a rail journey can be taken through any part of this country, and acres and acres of badly cultivated land can be seen. I think I am right when I say that we are taking steps forward in cleaning our arable land and growing better cereal crops; we are taking steps forward in regard to stock rearing and the like; but there are thousands of acres of pasture land which need attention at the moment.

Only this morning I saw a herd of cattle in a pasture field, nearly the whole of which was covered with scrub. On the other side, I saw another pasture field which was half covered by thistles, nettles and such like. That is the type of land which I think we should try to tackle and put right. Perhaps some are 100 per cent. all right, but there are probably very few farms where there is not an acre or two of land such as that to which I refer, which could not be better treated, which could not be cleaned and made to carry a greater head of stocks. I do not want to deal with large areas, because I think those are areas which may have to be tackled by the Government as a whole; I am thinking in terms of these fields, some small and some larger, on individual farms. We should try to devise some ways and means whereby we can help the occupiers of these lands not merely to window-dress but to bring these fields back into profitable cultivation. I know that it is a matter of money; I know that there are certain Government grants which help; and many of your Lordships were present at a debate some two or three months ago when I referred to the Elyeden enterprise. The noble Earl, Lord Iveagh, happened to be here and he intervened in the debate and said, "It is all right: I have made a wonderful experiment; but the whole thing turns on money, more money, and still more money."

Now, my Lords, it is quite impossible, in these times at any rate, for the individual occupier of land, whether he is a tenant or an owner occupier, to pour a lot of money into reclaiming land which possibly should never have fallen sown, whether to had turf, bushes or what-not. Therefore the Government should, if possible, step in and make some sort of financial contribution in the way of a loan or of cheaper money than we are able to obtain at the present time, to the occupiers of land under the control or, if you will, the direction of the agricultural committees. I am all in favour of doing it by mutual arrangement, rather than by force; I am all in favour of the agricultural executive committees surveying this land, meeting the occupiers, and so on, in order to make arrangements whereby the land can be put right. But I want to ask the Government, if they possibly can, to give aid to British agriculture in this direction. I am quite sure that the occupiers of land will respond very readily if only they have the means whereby they can bring this land back into productive cultivation once again.

At this hour, when so many noble Lords wish to speak, I do not wish to make any further points. I was anxious to deal with the matter which was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, with regard to individual fields. He dealt with the commons and the roadside wastes, and also the railway embankments and the rest; but I think our concern is to make full use of the land which now requires attention. In conclusion, I would say that in the Fen country, where land is valuable, uncultivated land is hardly existent. People in the Fens cultivate the land they know the value of it; and one can often find, even in the ditches, apple or other fruit trees growing, and potatoes growing right up to the edge of the banks. I want to try to persuade the agricultural community as a whole to make use of their land in the same way as these people in the Fen country do.

5.46 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, has said, this subject of agriculture has been the theme of debates in your Lordships' House on many occasions; but the question that worries me is whether, as a result of all these debates, we are "any forrarder." The history of the loss of agricultural land is, very briefly, as follows. In the inter-war years we lost a certain amount; during the war we lost a very great deal, largely because of the requirements of the Services, which we were unable to prevent; and after the war, I think it is fair to say, very largely as the result of the work of Professor Stamp, among others, many people in the country began to realise the danger that faced us and the extent of our loss of agricultural land. But, unfortunately, that has not prevented in The Minister of Agriculture was placed, theoretically, through the reforms that we made during the war, and afterward; in the 1947 Act, in a more powerful position—theoretically, at all events, as I say; but in fact I think he would be the first to admit that he has been very largely defeated in detail. I think probably the time has come when the suggestion put forward by Lord Cranworth is worthy of serious consideration—that is, whether we cannot get some national machinery which would make a general survey and determine, over a sufficiently long period of years to be worth while, how much land can, in fact, be afforded by agriculture to other pressing needs.

I think there is a danger in suggesting that, by some means, if you lose 10,000 acres of land from somewhere you can restore the position by reclaiming another 10,000 somewhere else. That is not the case in the great majority of instances. What is being taken by these various authorities is the best land—land that is absolutely irreplaceable; land, for example, around London. I quoted the other day the remaining horticultural land close to London for the production of vegetables for the people there. It is no good saying that that could be made good by reclaiming 10,000 or, if you like, 50,000 acres in the hill land of Scotland. It cannot: that land has gone, and gone forever. What we need, therefore, is some body with power to say to these great Corporations, "You are not going to take this particular land; you have got to have alternative land of less agricultural value." I think a different outlook is required, probably, on the part of the public.

I was shocked to read in the papers, last week I think, that the Chairman of the London County Council announced quite calmly that London would require more houses for 311,000 families. He seemed quite satisfied—I hope I am not being unfair to him—that that statement by itself entitled him to send his minions travelling round London to take any land to build houses for this number, irrespective of the value to agriculture of the land concerned. I quoted in the debate last week a case of the acquisition of market-gardening land in Slough. There is another case at Rainham. I quoted a year ago a case in the Black Country, when by the expenditure of a certain amount of money, with the addition of modern machinery, slag heaps, pit dumps and derelict buildings could have been reclaimed. If that had been done, it would have served the double purpose of beautifying the towns and removing blots from the landscape, and providing enough housing land for the next ten years, without the need to go into agricultural land around Warwickshire.

I suggest to my noble friend that he should see whether he cannot get the Minister of Agriculture to set up some general survey; and, above all, get the agreement of his colleagues, because it is perfectly clear he is fighting to-day a lone battle. Apart from the handicap of not being in the Cabinet, he is exposed to attack from half a dozen different Ministries—the three Service Ministries, the Ministry of Supply, the Board of Trade and a whole lot more. The only body we have saved is the Forestry Commission. Before the war the Forestry Commision was one of the greatest sinners. I remember being shown with pride by the chairman at that time the excellent agricultural land that he had bought at a knock-out price and which he was planting with trees. One of the things that gave me the greatest pleasure during the war was when I took 600 acres of land that he had planted four or five years previously and ploughed it up, and the committee obtained a good crop of wheat from it. That is an example of the sort of land the Commission took in the past when the Minister of Agriculture had no veto. Now things are slightly better, because the Forestry Commission is under the Ministry of Agriculture and it should be possible to arrange for a proper division of land into land for planting and land for sheep farming in the hills.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Wise, both seem to visualise some future when, if ever they got back into power, they would be able to use an unlimited amount of public money for the reclamation of land. Believe me, a fairly long experience has shown that the provision of money is not the most important thing. If I wanted to be controversial and take up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Wise, raised about land on either side of the railways, I would ask him why when his Party was in office and the railways were nationalised, nothing was done. The fact of the matter is that for the most part railways in this country were built up valleys, and the creation of embankments interfered with normal drainage. Through the effluxion of time the land has sunk, and the inverts to the culverts which were meant originally to provide exits for the water on either side have now become higher than the surrounding land. The cost of remedying this state of affairs would be simply fantastic. My experience during the war showed me that it was certain that the cost of putting the rush-covered fields on either side into a proper condition would far exceed the productive value of the land when it had been done.


I think the noble Viscount has misunderstood me. I was not referring to the pieces of land, half water and half rush, on either side of the railways, the reasons for which I know. I was referring to farm land which was in occupation and in use, and which was not as clear as it might be.


I am sorry if I misinterpreted the noble Lord. He talked about the railways and what he had seen, and I assumed that he was referring to the acres of land one sees whenever one takes a journey by train.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the vast areas of land that could be reclaimed. I beg leave to doubt whether, however much you spent, you could do it, and whether the return would be commensurate with the expenditure. So far as the Sussex Weald is concerned, I am reasonably certain that if he offered the land to the Forestry Commission to be replanted the Forestry Commission would say, "Thank you very much, but we will not take it, because it would be wholly uneconomical." On the other hand, there is much to be said for the view put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, that a good deal of this land could be reclaimed for agriculture because it is fundamentally good, strong land. The only question that arises is economics. He quoted a figure of £33. I am not qualified to say whether it is correct or not, but it is quite clear that the test is whether the cost of bulldozing the land is greater than its ultimate value for agriculture. If it is lower it is worth it; if it is higher it is not. I should say it would be very much better that such money as we can afford, which is definitely limited, should be spent on product on, though I do not believe in production for its own sake, or that production irrespective of cost is worth while. No doubt we could produce bananas in this country if we were prepared to spend the money, but it would be completely uneconomic.


I think the noble Viscount is really criticising what I said. I never suggested for a moment that it should be done if it were not economic. I said there should be an investigation. Since the war there have been great improvements in the turning over of land, and all I ask for is an investigation. It has been done, and I hope the noble Viscount will not give the impression that we cannot afford to turn good land into agricultural land.


I still say it depends on economics, but I do not think there is any difference of opinion between us. There are some cases where it could be done, and some where it could not. We want to look into these questions, particularly the question of marginal land; and my own personal opinion is that a good deal of money spent to-day on marginal land is in the long run fundamentally unprofitable. The same amount of money and energy devoted to these schemes for so-called marginal land, if applied to arable land already in existence and under cultivation in the lowland areas of this country, would produce very much greater returns in the national economy.

5.59 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to support the Motion I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Albemarle on his long and eargerly-awaited emergence from a state of innocent, demure maidenhood to fully-fledged maturity. I think noble Lords will agree that he has taken the hurdle with singular grace and charm, and think he will feel that his speech was well rewarding. I should not ordinarily venture to align myself with the very formidable phalanx of agricultural experts that are always, as to-day, available in your Lordships' House, but it so happens that loss of agricultural, land is occurring on my own doorstep, and in the circumstances I think it right that public expression should be given to the matter.

Being somewhat closely involved, I should perhaps declare an interest, even though not quite in the usually accepted sense. Seventeen years ago, I was looking for a small property, secluded and rural. I found it, a Georgian house with twenty acres set down in the middle of some of the best agricultural land in East Anglia. With the exception of one cottage and two farms a quarter of a mile distant, there was no house nearer than half a mile away on the approach road to the neighbouring county borough. A field road, bordered by hedges and crops, was the only approach: a perfect example of peaceful, rustic serenity, security and productivity. In so far as it was possible to guess, and in the opinion of those best qualified to judge at the time, any tentacles thrown out by the town in question would be on the far side of the town, where there were hundreds of acres of rough heath land, useless for any purpose other than for building and, moreover, in the direction of existing factories and their possible extensions. The agricultural land and I felt pretty secure.

In 1944, the local authorities decided to build a vast new housing estate. Did they go to the rough ground, the rough unproductive ground to the east, land calling aloud to be put to its one useful purpose—building—but valueless for anything else? No; they turned covetous eyes on the agricultural land to the southwest of the town of which I have spoken. A compulsory purchase order was made in 1948; it was objected to by those who owned and farmed the good land. Their objection was strongly supported by the National Farmers' Union. The usual dreary procedure followed: a public inquiry by a Ministry of Health Inspector; objections ruthlessly overruled; the compulsory purchase order confirmed by the Ministry of Health; and, to-day, complete obliteration of what was first-class agricultural land, and a scene of utter desolution, as the bulldozers lacerate the good earth, uproot the trees, flatten the hedgerows and prepare to build. I quite realise that in many parts of the country this sort of vandalism is unavoidable: discrimination is impossible; there are no alternatives to despoiling the land. But here is a case where alternatives existed but were callously ignored, and what I cannot understand is how the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food can have allowed such a crime to be perpetrated against the countryside. It is the enormous stupidity of it all that stag- gers one. It is "like a great monster eating its own flesh," as one newspaper put it.

The example I have mentioned, a mere 300 acres out of the 50,000 acres that we are told is being lost annually, is, of course, no responsibility whatever of Her Majesty's present Government. The enormity was perpetrated long before they assumed power. All one can do is to express the hope that the most urgent attention is being paid at the present time to preventing a recurrence of such melancholy and suicidal actions. I hope, now that the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, has emerged from purdah, we shall hear from him frequently in defence of the land he knows and loves so well.

6.5 p.m.


My Lords, at this late hour I want to restrict my contribution to one aspect of the subject of the Motion. I have listened with great interest to the arguments which have been put forward to restrict the use of farm land for other types of development, and I must say I cannot raise quite such enthusiasm as most of your Lordships have for that cause. I base that view entirely on the fact that we are not making proper use of the land which is at the moment available to agriculture; nor, I am afraid, for the same reason, can I raise such enthusiasm for the cause of bringing into cultivation commons, marginal land and other types of land which have been mentioned. I believe also that fairly good economy in the use of land is being exercised on the part of the Government, and that the machinery for examining each of the requests for taking land for the purposes of other types of development really works quite well.

Whenever you want to take a piece of land it always seems to become the most valuable land, the one field that grows more than any other in the district. Of course, there must be cases where good land has been taken and where other sites might have done. We are a highly industrialised country, and, if we are going to remain competitive in the world markets, we have not only to renew and modernise existing industries but constantly to develop new processes and new projects. Obvious examples are the big oil refineries, the big chemical works that have been built for production of artificial fibres, and the power stations and other similar projects which have been undertaken since the war, nearly all of which demand some using up of land which was formerly available to agriculture. We have to face the fact that there will be this continued loss of land; but, in saying that, I do not want to give the impression that there is any reason for not exercising the greatest economy in the use of land. It is essential that the people who are planning building works and such-like projects should, so far as possible, think in terms of remodelling the existing built-up areas, pulling down obsolete buildings and rebuilding within the bounds of existing towns rather than encroaching further upon an ever-diminishing area of agricultural land.

If I may turn to the aspect of the replacement or the making good of the loss of land, I would suggest that the, way in which we can quite easily make good the loss is by increasing production from the land which is at present being farmed, and thereby make up for the loss of food production we are suffering through the reduction in acreage. The point which stands out above all is that the potential increase of production from our existing acreage is so enormous that the loss of land for other purposes really falls into relative insignificance. There is the often quoted example of grassland. Your Lordships have heard it referred to in many debates in this House in the last two or three years. There are 17½ million acres of grassland in this country, and conservative estimates have suggested that production could be increased by 25 per cent. without any great difficulty. That is equivalent to about 4 million tons of grain which, at to-day's import prices, is worth about £100 million a year. While these vast, untapped sources of production are left, I do not see why one should get too concerned about the loss of land, which I believe is put at somewhere around 50,000 acres per annum. In making that observation I am rather more concerned with the fact that we should produce more from the acres that are left than that we should play down the importance of conserving the land. But I feel that in regard to that aspect of the problem the possibilities of increasing production are much greater than is the need to worry about the acres which are being stolen from the farmer.

As I see it, the whole problem is to decide how much importance we attach to food production in this country. What value do we set on the use of land for farming as compared with its use for other purposes? If we view the whole economy, the amount of capital investment which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to, the amount of resources which we are setting aside for agriculture is really at a very low figure. About 4 per cent. of the total annual investment at the present time is directed into agriculture. Our target of eventual production on the present programme is, in my opinion, very low; and although the rate of increase in production may well be up to the programme, it is also very small.

I know that we have had a number of production subsidies and other measures which have secured increases in livestock and in other directions during the last few years, but there still seems to be a lack of overall policy as to how much food we intend to produce in this country and for how much we, are going to rely on imports. We must remember that food which is imported has to be paid for by the export of goods abroad and their sale at a profit. Anyone who is concerned in business, in manufacturing or exporting, cannot fail at the present time to be somewhat apprehensive of the rise again of the industrial power of both Germany and Japan. In parallel with that, this afternoon, during the debate on an earlier Motion, we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Airlie, of the tremendous increase in population in the West Indies. There is the same problem all over the world. The noble Earl, Lord Airlie, said that the world is going to starve. It is not an exaggeration to sly that a great deal of the world is starving now, and it is merely a matter of how long people are going to continue starving or how many more people are going to starve as populations grow and food production falls behind. I think that the great need to decide on a long-term plan and decide how much of our effort and resources we are going to devote to the increase of food production here as part of a general economic plan, over-shadows all the other problems which face us.

I am probably one of the youngest Members of your Lordships' House and I more or less grew up during the last war. From all I have heard, listening to my elders and betters talking, and from what I have read of the events which led up to the last war, the point which impresses me most is the fact that had we faced up early enough to the rearming of Germany and to the problem of preparing ourselves, the whole catastrophe might well have been avoided, or at least might not have been so disastrous. I have a feeling now that the same sort of conditions are working in relation to this appalling problem of food and the readjusting of the economy of this country. One gets a feeling that everyone agrees; people will listen to the argument and agree that something ought to be done. But it is almost impossible actually to get a major and complete readjustment of outlook in order to re-shape the pattern of our economy in the next fifteen or maybe twenty years. It appears impossible to get a new outlook brought into the broad policy of government. I only hope that we wake up to the realities of the post-war world and take the necessary steps before it is too late.

6.16 p.m.


My Lords, I must first apologise to the noble Earl who opened this debate because I was not here when he spoke, which I very much regret. But I should like to take up and discuss very briefly three points which have been mentioned this evening. In the first place, there is the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, when he asked why something more could not be done to reclaim land in some of our tidal estuaries. My Lords, if nothing can be done in the Wash on the Dutch plan and model—and yet I believe a little is being and has been done—surely something could be done in the lesser of our estuaries. The noble Earl discussed those on the East coast. Naturally, we can deal only with those that we know, but I should like to suggest that some of the estuaries on the West coast of this country could be, in part at least, reclaimed from the sea.

On the West coast there is a large range of tide, the consequence of which is normally, I believe, to leave an enormous expanse of sand and mud at low water and very poor harbours. I feel that in some of these places, with the expenditure, I must admit, of a considerable amount of money, much good could be done in more ways than one; and I believe that such expenditure would pay dividends. In some of these estuaries the mouth of the river is not very wide, and I feel that a dam of no great length put across the mouth could enclose a vast area of land which could be turned into agricultural land. Indeed. I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, could kill two birds with one stone, because he could have on this reclaimed agricultural land all his wonderful agricultural implements, and in the channels of the river which he would have deepened he could have his fishing boats plying up and down, thereby adding to the prosperity of the fishing trade, in which we all know he has just as much interest as agriculture. I find it fascinating to look at a large-scale map and to think what could be done in that direction if the money, the energy and the enterprise were available. I am bound to confess that I do not see why they should not be available.

Next, may I refer to a point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, when he dealt with common land. This is a controversial subject, but I agree with the noble Earl that it is one that simply must be tackled. I can conceive of no more inefficient way of cultivating land than when it is done under rights of common. No doubt there are excellent reasons why this method was right centuries ago; I can think of no reason why it should be right now, and, subject to a reservation which I must make in a moment, I think there is an urgent call for a complete review and revision of the law on common land. Of course this must be said: that there are vast differences between conditions in one part of the country and those in another. I am referring particularly to the value of commons for recreation purposes—for what, I think, the law calls "air and exercise." That is a most important point, and it must be borne in mind. With a common in or near London that point becomes of very great importance. It might be—and I think it would be—that in some cases of that kind agricultural interests would have to be subordinated to the interests of the large masses of townspeople, who would be deprived by agricultural interests of their "air and exercise." On the other hand, in other and more distant parts of the country, there are commons to which that does not apply to any appreciable extent. There are commons which are nothing less than a disgrace, and to which the public would never dream of going for "air and exercise," in any event. Who is responsible for this state of affairs? No doubt it would be pleaded that the law in its present state does not allow improvements to be made. I cannot help feeling that in some of these places, in distant parts of the country, the agricultural executive committees should tackle this problem. So I would support a plea for review and revision of the state of the law respecting our commons, provided always that proper facilities remain, in the shape of public footpaths and other such matters, to preserve the rights of recreation for large numbers of people. I believe that the two things could be done, and that they are not incompatible.

Finally, I should like to say a few words about forestry. For long I have thought that there should be closer links between agriculture and forestry. We have, at the top, the same Minister responsible for both, but when you go down the scale of offices you find that they separate; and when you get down to county level—if I am correct—you find that the county agricultural executive committees are in no way responsible for forestry. If that is correct—and I shall be delighted to be put right if I am wrong—then I think that certain of those committees should have at least one member who is responsible for forestry in the county. Something has been done in this direction, I admit, The most noticeable amount of waste land, in the shape of felled woodland which has never been replanted for a great many years, is being tackled to a small extent—though I think on rather too small a scale.

I should like to refer for a moment to what I believe is called—at any rate in my part of the world—the Llandovery project. Briefly, it is this. Officers of the Forestry Commission select an area on the map, comb it most carefully and thoroughly to see whether there are not in that area many small bits of land which ought to be put to a better use. Then, if there is no other more appropriate use than forestry, they go to the owner and say very politely, in effect, "Will you plant this lard, or shall we?" I think that is an excellent idea, and I hope that it will be pursued and extended to other parts of the country. I think that is the right way to go about tackling this problem, and the right way to deal with these areas of felled woodland about which nothing whatever is being done. If it is right that the county authorities can go to a farmer and say, "If you do not farm this land you will have to go, and let someone else do it, "why is it not also right for the Forestry Commission to go to an owner of felled woodland and say, "If you do not plant this land, you must let someone else do it. "I do not follow why here should be this difference between the two classes. I agree with all those who have said that in some cases farmland has been taken for trees, and that, in other cases, land which ought to be covered with trees has been taken for agriculture. There is fault on both sides, and if one man was responsible at a lower level, I believe that there would be less fault on both sides. So I would appeal for closer liaison work between those responsible for farming and those responsible for forestry, the result of which, I hope, would be that, in the years to come, there would be far fewer of these small bits of land—some of them far too steep to be used for farming—covered with bracken and gorse which, though they may look very pretty to the artist, are an eyesore to the practical agriculturist.

6.28 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad, as I am sure all your Lordships are, that the noble Earl, Lord Winterton and the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, should have introduced these two Motions for discussion this afternoon, and I should like respectfully to join with all those of your Lordships who have congratulated Lord Albemarle on his speech. If one has to make a maiden speech—and I know how disagreeable a task it is—I can think of no better subject on which to make it than this; and may I add that I cannot remember a maiden speech on the subject better made. I think it is right that your Lordships should concern yourselves with the problem of losses of agricultural land, and what can be done to make good these losses. This afternoon's debate has ranged over a good many different aspects of the problem, and I will do my best—I hope at not undue length—to say something about each of these in turn.

I think, from what has been said, that probably the greatest concern expressed by everyone is with regard to the loss of agricultural land for purposes of development: houses, factories, airfields, schools and the like. I realise, as everyone must, that we cannot grow the food we need unless we see that enough land is preserved on which to grow it. Moreover, I know as well as most people—and a good deal better than some—how a farmer feels when he has to give up some of his land for development. It is exasperating to him, and, in many cases, more than that—it may mean some serious difficulty in his farm economy. It ought to happen as seldom as possible. I would only ask those who have shown their concern about this problem to face it squarely, and to accept at the start that we cannot stop development. There are, so far as I know, no exact figures to show how many acres of land are used each year for development, but the most frequently quoted estimate—we have had it this afternoon—is one of about 50,000 acres a year. I do not suppose that that is very far from the mark—though I do not think it includes the requirements of land for the three Services. Development at about this rate has been going on for a good many years, but it seems reasonable to suppose that it will not continue at that pace indefinitely. But, even assuming that the rate of development will fall off later, I think it would be unwise to expect that we should lose much less than 2,000,000 acres over the next sixty years. So, obviously, there is no room for complacency about it. It is against this background that the Government approach the whole problem of preserving our farm land, especially the good land.

By far the greatest demand on our land comes from housing—housing and everything that goes with it. This makes by far the biggest single demand—up to about 70 per cent. of the total. Mining and mineral extraction take about 15 per cent., industrial development 10 per cent., and miscellaneous items 5 per cent. This is rather a rough and ready division, and it is important to remember that a good deal of the land taken for surface mineral works is later restored to agriculture. But that is the size of the problem we have to face. If, as I have said, we accept that we cannot stop this kind of development, it remains to be decided what we can do to minimise the loss.

As I see it, the functions of the Government, and of the Minister of Agriculture in particular, are threefold. First, we need to see that, wherever possible, development takes place on land which is agriculturally less valuable. We must do all we can to save the good agricultural land. Secondly, we must ensure that those who develop land do not use it wastefully or extravagantly, and that each development is planned so as to interfere as little as possible with the work of food production on neighbouring farms. Thirdly, we need to do all we can to make good the losses by encouraging the reclamation of land which is not at present being used for agriculture, and by achieving a higher production from the agricultural land which is left.

The Ministry of Agriculture are consulted on all proposals to take farmland for development. Such proposals are resisted unless we are satisfied that there is for the particular development no alternative site that could reasonably be used with less interference with food production. I may say that our views and recommendations carry a great deal of weight, and no decision is reached without the most careful consideration of the whole matter. We rely on this investigation of each and every proposal as it comes along to achieve the object of cutting the loss of agricultural land to a minimum.

Beyond this the Government are constantly encouraging and warning developers to pay the greatest possible attention to the imperative need for conserving farmland. I should like to give your Lordships two examples of what has been done in this direction. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in a circular issued last August to local authorities, urged them to select poorer land in preference to good land for housing, even if it involved higher development costs. Clearly, at what stage the additional cost might make the choice of an alternative site uneconomic must depend on the circumstances of the particular case; but, generally speaking, housing authorities should be prepared to incur some extra cost where that would enable them to keep off good land. That is the Government's advice to them. Also the Minister of Housing, in a foreword to his Department's publication, The Density of Residential Areas, pointed out that in the past an unnecessary amount of land had too often been used for creating residential areas. Close and compact development saved land and every acre was important.

I think the procedure for consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture on all proposals for development is, on the whole, working well. The system has its successes from the agricultural point of view, but I suppose it is in the nature of things that we should hear very little about the successes and a great deal about cases where good agricultural land is lost. I was horrified to hear the story which the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, told earlier on this afternoon. Naturally, I do not know the details, but if he will be good enough to send me them, I shall be glad to look into this and see why clearance was given for this piece of land. As I have said, our policy must be, and can only be, to strike the right balance between competing demands; and we will certainly be very ready to study any suggestions that might be made to lessen still further the effect of development on our food-producing land.

One of the suggestions made This afternoon has been that we should have some kind of land budget—nobody called it that, but I think that is what it amounted to. The suggestion is that some central authority should each year decide how much land should be used for housing, schools, roads and various other forms of development. On the face of it this is an attractive suggestion, but it raises all kinds of difficulties. To make the budget effective, we should need to introduce a system for licensing land use in addition to the existing control of development, and a great deal of work would have to be done in keeping the necessary records and issuing the necessary licences to various authorities and individuals. Then again, we could not have a land budget in terms of acreage alone. If we did, an acre in the middle of Dartmoor would count the same as an acre of fertile market garden land in the Fens—and nobody would disapprove of that more than the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson. We should have to take account of the actual or potential food producing capacity of each parcel of land required for development and, of course, this would add very considerably to the complications of the scheme. I am sure that a scheme of this kind would mean a great deal of work and form filling, and in the end would probably be ineffective in reducing the rate of loss of agricultural land.

The noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, has discussed another very interesting aspect of this problem. He spoke about losses of land through flooding from the sea and through coast erosion, and about the possibilities of reclaiming land from the sea. So far as protection of agricultural land from inundation or erosion is concerned, the lane drainage and coast protection authorities between them have the power to do protective works. They are set up as local authorities where initiative rests with local people, who are regarded as the best judges of the needs of their areas. There is, of course, a good liaison between the authorities and the Ministers concerned, and it is a feature of our public life that a great deal is achieved by this sort of co-operation, which, nevertheless, is a far cry from Government direction. Crown ownership of the foreshore relates, broadly, only to the areas between ordinary high and low water marks, and I do not think that this Crown ownership hinders the activities of land drainage authorities, coast protection authorities or would-be reclaimers of land from the sea.

My noble friend Lord Albemarle seemed to think that the division of responsibilities among these authorities was unsatisfactory. My noble friend Lord Waverley and his Committee have been specially asked—I quote the terms of reference: to review the lessons to be learned from the disaster"— that is the flood disaster— and the administrative and financial responsibilities of the various bodies concerned in providing and maintaining the sea defences and replacing them in the event of damage; … and to make recommendations. My noble friend would rightly ask why we had bothered to give him this task, if we were going on to alter the arrangements without waiting for his Committee's advice.

My noble friend Lord Albemarle also referred to the idea of barring the mouths of estuaries, so as to reduce the amount of work which has to be done on river banks. Work of this kind naturally interferes with the public right of navigation and, therefore, cannot be carried out without regard to these rights, which apply to all the public for all purposes. The authority of Parliament is needed before any work can be done that interferes with these rights. It is true that the recent Coastal Flooding (Emergency Provisions) Act gives certain river boards power, with the approval of the Ministers of Agriculture and Transport, to construct dams in creeks for the purposes of emergency work; but this is only for emergency work, and I do not think it would cover large-scale, long-term schemes. In any case, even under this Act, public advertisement is required, and any objections have to be considered jointly by the Ministers of Agriculture and Fisheries and of Transport. Each proposal for barring an estuary mouth would have to be considered separately on its merits, and would probably require a Private Bill to be passed through Parliament, with all the resultant complications and time which would be spent on it.

This work of reclaiming land from the sea is, as my noble friend has pointed out, one of the ways in which we can make good losses of land, but we ought to remember that the scone of this work is limited. There are, I believe, about 45,000 acres of saltines round the coast of England and Wales, and in practice much of this land is not suitable for reclamation. Often it is not yet ready, either because the deposit of silt is not deep enough or, perhaps, because the necessary works would be uneconomic, owing to the size or shape of the areas of land, or for some other reason. It is only the areas where building up has taken place and vegetation has become established that can be reclaimed. My Department have estimated that the area with genuine possibilities for reclamation over the next ten to twenty years is not likely to be more than 15,000 acres.

As I have said, not only is the area of reclaimable land distinctly limited, but reclamation must also be a gradual and continuous process, depending on the way in which silt is building up the seashore and bearing vegetation. The amount of capital to be invested is relatively high per acre, and consists not only of the cost of the embankment enclosing the area, but also the cost of draining the reclaimed land. At present, Government grants on the usual scale—which are normally 50 per cent.—are available for the drainage of the land, and expert advice is also given on technical problems that may arise. So far this has proved sufficient to lead to quite a number of schemes on the Wash and elsewhere. In the light of this debate and what has been said, we shall, of course, give further consideration to the ways of off-setting the unavoidable loss of land for development, and we shall be very ready to examine whether any land ripe for reclamation from the sea is being left through lack of the necessary capital.

My noble friend Lord Winterton has spoken this afternoon of a third way of tackling this problem of land losses; that is to say, reclaiming derelict land that can be used for producing crops or timber. I must say that I agreed with almost everything that he said. No one can deny that, in spite of the considerable amount of reclamation that has gone on in the past, there is still a great deal of land lying idle that could be made more productive. The chief obstacle to the reclamation of much of this land is, of course, the difficulty of finding the necessary money, labour and equipment to do the work. The Government are already doing a great deal to help in this direction, and we intend to go on helping.

May I remind your Lordships of some of the things we are doing and some of the schemes that are in operation? It should be well known, for instance, that grants of £5 and £10 per acre can be had for ploughing up grassland and sowing it to approved crops. The higher rate of grant of £10 per acre is specially useful to help finance reclamation. It applies to land which has been continually under grass since before the war and which is usually expensive to deal with. The definition of grassland is liberally interpreted, and grants can be had for ploughing old scrub, infested grassland and derelict woodland, provided there is some natural grass. Then there are the lime and fertiliser subsidies, and field drainage and water supply grants, all of which are still available.

But the scheme most directly concerned with reclamation is the Marginal Production Scheme. My noble friend suggested that we might stimulate farmers to use this scheme. The amount of money that, as a result of the last Annual Review, we can spend on the scheme, has been increased by £560,000 in England and Wales. I am sorry that no noble Lord in the debate noticed that, or mentioned it. It means that now, in 1953–54, we shall have a total of £1,220,000 to spend on the Marginal Production Scheme. That, I feel, should prove of great assistance. So far about 40 per cent. of the assistance approved under this scheme has been for the reclamation of derelict land. Since my noble friend's Motion is about the Southern counties, he might be interested to know that in those counties the, greater part of the grant available is used for this purpose—rather more than 40 per cent. A grant like this of up to half the cost of the work is well worth taking advantage of, and I am glad to say that a great many farmers have done so. In the Southern counties—by which I mean Dorset, Hampshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex—nearly 8,400 acres have already been reclaimed, at a cost to the Exchequer of £83,000 in marginal production grants alone, and schemes have been approved since then relating to about another 7,000 acres.

The cost of reclaiming varies greatly from area to area, according to the nature of the land, the density of growth and other factors which are obvious. Much of the land is poor from the agricultural point of view, and costs have to be carefully investigated to decide whether the ultimate value of the land when it is reclaimed will justify the expense. I do not think there was any difference of opinion between my noble friend Lord Winterton and my noble friend Lord Hudson, but certainly we agree with both of them on this matter. Several noble Lards have mentioned the need to get more food produced from common land. A certain amount of common land was brought into production by the use of emergency powers granted during the war, and my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture has said that he intends to keep this land in production as long as he has the power. There is a good deal of rough grazing on common land but, as has been said, owing to the difficulties of controlling the stocking of land of this kind and improving the grazing, the land is probably not as productive as it could be. It is possible to regulate or enclose commons under the Commons Act, 1876, at the initiative of the commoners, but the procedure is cumbersome and lengthy, and it involves a Parliamentary stage. An Amendment to the existing law would involve complicated legislation, and at the present time I am afraid there is no prospect of Parliamentary time being found for it in the foreseeable future.


Before the noble Lord leaves the question of common land, would he say whether he will ask his right honourable friend to look into the desirability of making a survey of common land as the first stage before legislation is even considered?


Yes, I most certainly will discuss that point with my right honourable friend. As regards afforestation and reafforestation, the Forestry Commission are making steady progress. As your Lordships know, they now have the power to make the issue of a felling licence conditional on restocking the felled area, but they have no power to compel owners to restock woodland felled before the Act of 1951 was passed. Neither can they compel owners to afforest bare land. However, they can and do offer incentives for work of this kind in the shape of grants for planting (£14 per acre) and initial maintenance for owners who are prepared to dedicate their woods to the permanent production of timber, while owners of small areas of woodland are offered planting grants subject to subsequent maintenance but without the obligation to dedicate. Here I should just like to take up a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in his remarks. He quoted some figures arid said, I believe, that only 2½7 per cent. of the woodlands in the Southern province had been dedicated. He drew from that the inference that they were very bad, and that, therefore 97 per cent. were bad woods Just because a woodland is not dedicated does no: necessarily mean that it is bad. There are a great many woodlands which are not dedicated but which are managed very well and are producing excellent timber. I am sure the noble Earl did not mean that, but I should just like to correct him on that point. The Commission's conservancy officers are also available to give free advice on forestry matters.

As a guide to the amount of progress that has been made since October, 1946, I may say that the Commission estimate that in the Southern area, which is different from the agricultural Southern area—it consists of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex, Berkshire and Hampshire—5,650 acres of private woodlands have been planted or replanted. Also, since that date the Government have acquired a plantable area of 13,000 acres, and have planted or replanted 11,200 acres. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in his speech, said that he thought the amount of land which the Forestry Commission were acquiring was too little, and that they should make much more drastic use of their compulsory powers. I think I can say that the Forestry Commission themselves are concerned about the amount of land that they are acquiring and that they are thinking of ways and means of overcoming this difficulty. Perhaps one of the reasons is that the amount of money they offer to private owners is rather small at the present time, and it may be that they will think of that in the investigation they are carrying out into the ways and means of helping things along. But I do not really like the idea of the drastic, widespread use of compulsory powers. Certainly on the occasions on which they have been used in the past—and I feel sure the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, will remember them—it has led to considerable complications. I think there is plenty of room in this country for both forestry and agriculture to prosper side by side. I know of several places, particularly in the North of England, where forestry has been of great service to agriculture. In one particular case, on a good sheep run, the Forestry Commission have planted trees in strategic places which serve as shelter belts, and which everybody up there agrees will, in time, increase the agricultural production from that area. There is close collaboration between officers of the Commission and of the Ministry of Agriculture before any land is devoted to forestry, and since the Forestry Commissioners do not themselves hold land, which is vested in the Minister of Agriculture, he (the Minister), after considering the needs of food production and forestry, can decide whether areas are to be put at the Commissioners' disposal.

My noble friend Lord Hudson mentioned derelict land in the Black Country on which he thought houses could be built. I looked into this point, as he kindly gave me notice that he would raise it, and I am told that since 1945 good progress has been made in the Black Country, and that at least one-third of the land which was derelict in 1945 has now been restored. I hope that the noble Viscount will be pleased with that result. The noble Viscount also mentioned again this afternoon, as he did last week, the question of some horticultural land, first-class market garden land, somewhere near Slough, which was taken for development. I have been unable to trace any clearance recently given by Department to any land in the Slough area, except at Langley. I do not know whether it was Langley to which my noble friend was referring, but if so, the clearance was given in 1947, and the responsibility, if any, should rest with the noble Earl opposite. But if the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, will tell me where the land is, I will most certainly look into the matter and let him know the explanation.

I do not suppose that I have answered all the questions which have been put to me, but if I have not I will read through the debate and write to the noble Lords concerned. May I say this in conclusion. The Government believe that somehow or other the effects of these inevitable losses of our agricultural land should be made good. I have mentioned some of the ways in which we are tackling the problem—the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts, the development of the marginal production scheme, and so on. I assure your Lordships that we are by no means complacent about what we have been able to achieve so far, and we are continuing to seek out ways and means of securing a greater production from the land which is left to offset the losses of land which we have had to release for housing, schools and other forms of development. I hope that having heard what I have had to say, my noble friend, Lord Albemarle, will withdraw his Motion.

6.53 p.m.


My Lords, I lost the right of replying to my own Motion owing to the fact that, for technical reasons, I withdrew it, and so I just rise to make two observations only. My main purpose in rising is to congratulate my noble friend of fifty-six year' standing, Lord Albemarle, on his maiden speech, and to say, I think on behalf of all your Lordships, that we have had a most admirable speech from the Under-Secretary who has dealt so fully with all the points raised. Secondly, I should be the last to deny that a great deal has been done by the Government to encourage us, especially in the south of England, where the particular conditions apply, to put land back to its proper use—land that had reverted from its use as farmland into scrubland. I have taken full advantage of the grant, and I saw a field of mine which was being turned from scrubland into wheat land two years ago, and it was doing very well.

I wish to take up a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I entirely agree with him that there should be a survey of the commons of England. I am a little disturbed to learn that it is not possible to bring forward legislation, because the former Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Williams, in a debate which we had in another place about three years ago, admitted that the whole question of common land needed the most urgent attention. He did not say that the then Government were prepared to bring in a Bill to amend it, but he said that it was under consideration. I hope that before the end of this Parliament it may be possible to do something about it. My third point is this. I feel that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, possibly inadvertently did not do justice to the woodland owners in the south of England—and here I agree entirely with my noble friend the Minister. For good reasons, many of us have not dedicated our woodlands there, and have not got them officially under advice. But we do in fact—and I know that other noble Lords and land owners, besides myself, are in this position—obtain advice from the Forestry Commission. So I do not think that the picture which the noble Earl painted was an altogether fair one. I should like to express my gratitude to the Government for the reply which they have given.

6.56 p.m.


My Lords, before I thank the noble Lord who has answered for the Government, I feel I should first thank noble Lords who came here to give their contributions to this debate, which has been an extremely interesting one. Also, on the personal side, I wish to thank my noble friends for being blind to my faults and congratulating me on my speech, which I am sure I do not deserve. As to the Government's reply, am aware that the Parliamentary Secretary has taken the greatest interest in this debate and a great deal of trouble, for which I thank him. Although we are well aware of how much the Government have done in hill farming schemes and in other respects, I was not impressed by the way the suggestions I attempted to make have been answered. I do not think it discloses any new thought in the Government. I do not think we are any nearer to a long-term plan. I do not think any steps have been taken bringing us to the brink of decisions to show that that is coming along. I am not satisfied. The noble Lord was short of time and he did not deal with my argument of why so many authorities are required. No doubt he will be kind enough to accord me a minute at some time and will show me where I am wrong.

I was not impressed by the statement that, because it is the old-fashioned duty of the Minister of Transport—of course it is—to keep open channels of communication, it was net thought possible for him to review cases where barge traffic is no longer using estuaries. The noble Lord did not mention that, but I should have thought it would be worth the while of the Minister of Transport to show that there may be instances where he is willing to dispense with the hard and fast attitude he has taken up. Therefore, while thanking the Parliamentary Secretary for his kindness, and although I am not altogether satisfied, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, with-drawn.