HL Deb 17 November 1955 vol 194 cc655-77

4.4 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill is not only useful and desirable; it also has the merit of being brief and to the point. It aims to help the improvement of certain upland roads to meet the needs of agriculture and forestry. It does this by empowering the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland to make grants for the improvement of unclassified and unadopted roads in livestock rearing areas.

Adequate rural roads are more than ever essential to modern farming and forestry. Without them modern farm machinery cannot be got on to the farm nor can lorries bring fertilisers or carry away produce. I am sure many noble Lords will be familiar with the type of road with which this Bill is concerned —roads which are usually in remote upland areas and which are difficult to negotiate at all times of the year; in winter they become almost impassable. In part this is the result of inadequate upkeep, but to a large extent it is because these roads were built for horse and cart transport and have always been unsuitable for modern farm traffic. In fact such roads constitute a handicap which prevents the farms which they serve from producing as much food as they otherwise could, even though large sums of public and private money may have been spent on reorganisation schemes under the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts. The Council of Wales has pointed out that this applies particularly in Wales, and indeed this Bill has its origin in the two Reports made by the Council in 1950 and 1953.

Landowners, who are in theory liable for the upkeep of unadopted roads serving their land, are often quite unable to find the money to improve or even maintain them. At the same time it is precisely in these upland areas that the highway authorities themselves are the poorest. The small unclassified roads, which are most important from the standpoint of the Welsh hill farmers, receive no grant for maintenance or improvement from the Ministry of Transport, and it inevitably follows that very little can be, and is, done to them.

For these reasons the Bill will make the sum of £4 million available for the improvement of unclassified and un-adopted roads—in the latter case on condition that they are adopted by the highway authority concerned. This money can be spent over a period of seven years. Bearing in mind the type of road and the type of area concerned, I think your Lordships will agree that this is a substantial sum, and we estimate that it should enable 2,000 or 3,000 miles of road to be improved to a good agricultural standard. That would make a considerable difference to the remote upland areas. We expect that about half of the available money will be spent in Wales. The Bill is primarily intended to meet the problems of agriculture and forestry, but the Government have clearly in mind that it will also be available in improving amenities and so to some extent checking the steady drift of population from these upland areas to the towns.

May I now turn to the clauses? Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill contain the essence of our proposals. Under Clause l highway authorities may submit proposals for the improvement of unclassified and unadopted roads where it appears to them that the proposals will help agriculture or forestry. By the same clause the agricultural Ministers may approve such proposals. It is, as I have said, a condition of approval that unadopted roads must not be improved until they have been taken over by the highway authority. Clause 2 enables the Minister to pay grant. There is no rate of grant prescribed in the Bill. We have been pressed to fix a minimum rate, but we feel strongly that it would be much wiser not to do so. We should like to preserve a certain amount of flexibility so as to be able to deal with each case on its merits. But in order to give the highway authorities some idea of what to expect, I can say that we intend the maximum grant on unclassified roads to be 75 per cent. of the cost of improvement to a good agricultural standard. In the case of unadopted roads we will pay an additional 10 per cent. because in this case the authorities will be taking on new burdens because of the increased mileage for which they will be responsible. We should normally expect proposals from the poorer counties, relating to areas where the need is greatest, to qualify at once for the maximum grant, and we hope that this generous rate of assistance will cause highway authorities to put forward schemes where they are most wanted. It is in this clause that the £4 million has been provided and the time limit of seven years has been set.

Clause 3 of the Bill follows a similar provision in the Highways (Provision of Cattle Grids) Act, 1950, and permits highway authorities to accept voluntary contributions from anyone who may benefit from an improvement. We hope that this will help highway authorities to put forward schemes which they might otherwise not be able to afford. Although this Bill extends to Scotland, the seven crofting counties of Scotland which are listed in the schedule are excluded from its scope because provision is already made in the Congested Districts (Scotland) Act. 1897, for the improvement of roads in these counties. The definition of livestock rearing areas in the interpretation clause, Clause 5, is similar to the definition in the Livestock Rearing Act, 1951, but we have taken care to be rather more general so as not to exclude the roads which partly serve farms which, for example, because they produce milk, would not fall within the earlier Act.

Some interest has already been shown in the way in which we propose to administer this Act. The main point I should like to make here is that county agricultural executive committees will give highway authorities all the help they can on agricultural aspects of the work involved, and, at the same time, officers, of the Agricultural Land Service will place their knowledge at the disposal of the local authorities. The Ministers will also consult the agricultural executive committees on the agricultural merits of each proposal, so there will be quite an amount of local agricultural knowledge to draw upon.

The Bill does not only apply to agriculture; it applies also to forestry, both to private and State forestry, though there is one exception here: where a road is needed almost entirely for State forestry, assistance will not be given under this Bill. The Forestry Commission will, in appropriate cases, make such contributions as they already have power to make. In areas where there is some State and some private forestry together with hill farming, the Forestry Commission will be in the same position as any other landlord.

I am confident that your Lordships will give this Bill general support. It was criticised in another place only because it was thought not to go far enough. I cannot agree. It is an experimental measure, and £4 million to, be spent in seven years in the districts: which we have in mind is surely nor unreasonable. Our object is to help to make upland farming and forestry more Productive and prosperous, especially in Wales. We are also trying to stop the drain of population from these areas. If we can improve the communications I am sure we shall be helping in a realistic way to make it possible for those who live in these remote districts to lead a fuller life. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl St. Aldwyn.)

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Earl opposite for his clear and short explanation of this Bill which has such an important bearing on life in the countryside. The object of this Bill is to complete the job that has been started under the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts. Those are not my words: I am quoting the words used by the Minister during his Second Reading speech in another place (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 542, col. 1321). No one could sympathise with this object more completely and sincerely than those of us who sit on this side of the House. Your Lordships will remember that the Livestock Rearing Act and the Hill Farm Act were both passed under Labour Administrations. May I remind your Lordships that I had the privilege of commending the Livestock Rearing Bill to the House? We are grateful to Her Majesty's Government for carrying on the good work which we began, for, as the noble Earl pointed out, there is no doubt whatever that lack of access is preventing schemes already approved under these Acts from increasing, to the fullest possible extent, the keeping of livestock and the improvement of farms which are benefiting from public expenditure. The same difficulty is stopping other land, which would qualify under those Acts, from benefiting from the grant. The various improvements which could be brought about on this land, all of which depend on the improvement of roads, are essential if we are to get more hill sheep and store cattle. There is, too, the necessity for proper use of public money already allocated.

Our only doubt, just mentioned by the noble Earl (it is a very serious doubt) is whether this Bill will do what the Minister expects, judging by the words I have just used, and complete the job. I believe that there is a great deal more to be done—more than can be done under the terms of this Bill—in the way of road improvement before the job is completed. I should like to give your Lordships, quite briefly, my reasons. The official estimate of the mileage of roads that will be eligible for grant is 4,500. I hope that this figure is accurate although I am not altogether happy about it. Such a large proportion of this total mileage will be in Wales that I cannot help wondering whether a survey equally as accurate as that covering the mileage in Wales has been made in respect of Scotland and the Uplands of England. Even if Her Majesty's Government have not underestimated the magnitude of the problem (I hope they have not, but I am not very happy about this matter and perhaps the noble Earl can satisfy me in his reply), the amount of work needed on the roads serving the areas which Her Majesty's Government have in mind will, I anticipate, be considerably more than can be done with the help of a contribution of £4 million from the Treasury, spread over a period of seven years. I doubt very much whether, in itself, this contribution will be sufficient to induce local councils, who are all extremely poor, to do more than a small part of the work required.

We have been told by the Minister that if the average cost of this work is £2,000 per mile, a 75 per cent. grant would cover 2,500 to 3,000 miles. I believe that to be the correct interpretation of what the Minister said in another place. Here I am in a quandary and I should like the help of the noble Earl opposite. He said that the maximum grant in the case of unclassified roads would be 75 per cent. and in the case of unadopted roads, 85 per cent. I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary said in another place that, in the case of unclassified roads, the average grant would be 75 per cent. I am speaking from memory as I have not got Hansard before me. I may be mistaken, but it is a matter of fact, and it is a matter which, obviously, should be cleared up. I shall be much obliged to the noble Earl if he can clear it up when he replies. If the maximum grant were 75 per cent., then the average grant would be something less.

Clearly, there must be uniformity about this matter. What I am afraid of is that in many cases the county councils concerned, particularly in Wales, and rural authorities in areas of very small rateable value, will need not a 75 per cent. grant or even an 85 per cent. grant but something more towards the total cost of the work if they are going to undertake it. After all, it is optional for the local authorities to put up these schemes. It seems to me that, in the case of unadopted roads, for example, local authorities will not only have to shoulder the cost of improving the roads but will also have to bear the expense of maintaining them indefinitely in the future. This is indeed going to be a heavy burden for these very poor authorities. If this is the sort of problem with which they will be confronted, I cannot help feeling that many of these rural authorities will either not submit schemes for road improvements, because they feel they will not get sufficient by way of grant, or, if they do, that the Government will find themselves obliged to pay more in grant than they expect, and the result of that will be that there will be less money to go round, so that a smaller total mileage will be covered and the amount of road improvement done under the Bill will be much less than the official estimate. It may be, as I say, that I have misinterpreted what Ministers said in another place, and perhaps the noble Earl can reassure me by saying that this is a ceiling which he has given, and in no circumstances will the grants exceed, in either case, 75 per cent. or 85 per cent.

I am not alone by any means in expressing these doubts and fears about the effectiveness of the Bill. They were expressed by Members sitting for rural constituencies all over the country when the Bill was discussed in another place. I hope that to meet those doubts and fears the Government will, at any rate, review progress under the Bill within the next couple of years, and if they find, after review, that local authorities are not making as much headway as they had hoped, or that really a great deal more financial help is required if this sort of work is to be done by the authorities in Scotland and Northern England as well as Wales, they will be able to come to Parliament to ask for some increase of the £4 million available under the Bill from central funds.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Bill may be in dealing with this great national problem and as a means of completing the job of reviving hill and upland farming all over the country, I am sure that it will do a great deal of good, particularly in Wales, if local authorities are willing to make the best use of what it offers. I do not think that anyone who has visited hill farms in Wales can fail to realise the urgency of their need for better roads. I think it is still customary in the Ministry for the Parliamentary Secretary in the Lords to do, for visiting purposes, the long-distance journeys which involve being several nights away from London, because, of course, the pressure of business here is less than in the other place. That, as no doubt the noble Earl has found, and as I certainly found, is most useful. In my case, it enabled, me to spend a few days touring South and Central Wales,. and my experience of conditions there certainly supports everything said in the Reports of the Council of Wales, in the White Paper and, now, by the Government about the conditions and the need for this Bill. There is no doubt that;, circumstances being what they have been in the past, the road system in the Welsh countryside is far worse than it is in England. Better access to and from these upland farms in Wales will not only increase their productivity but will encourage farmers to switch from dairy farming to rearing of livestock. Dairy farming there, as the noble Earl well knows, is very often, in fact, uneconomic.

I feel that a real drive by the rural authorities to provide these small farmers with better roads will give many of them tremendous encouragement and long-term hope for the future on which they will be able to base the planning of their farms. I am sure your Lordships will not forget that there are wide bill farming areas in Wales which are not accessible by road but only by earth tracks. The difficulty of carrying fertilisers to these areas, which can be overcome in the case of farms with roads which can be improved, will not be removed by this Bill in the case of these more remote places. So I hope that the Government will again consider the practicability of helping hill farmers in these remote parts to spread their fertilisers from the air as they now do in New Zealand. This suggestion is not really revolutionary. Indeed, your Lordships' House is the least revolutionary place in the country and it was mentioned here—on both sides I think—about two years ago, or, at any rate, a long time ago. The suggestion was put up to the Government, and I do not know whether it has been examined. If it has been I have not heard the result. I certainly think the idea is worth going into, and perhaps considering in relation to the possibility of getting the assistance of the R:A.F., because I cannot see how otherwise these remote areas will be able to use fertilisers in the way that is required to improve the quality of their grass. Certainly they will not be helped by the terms of the Bill for it will not apply to places where no roads, even in very rough form, exist at the present time.

I am particularly glad that the Government in this Bill are linking upland farming in Wales with forestry and that the grant will serve both these industries. I think it is scarcely possible to exaggerate the importance of forestry for the rehabilitation of rural Wales. I know that the Welsh are suspicious of forestry, because they are afraid that it will bring foreign Englishmen into their country, and that the invading forestry experts will encroach on the rough grazing of their hill farms. But this difficulty. I think, could be overcome if more Welshmen would accept employment by the Forestry Commission and also if Welsh farmers could be persuaded—as I am sure they could be over a time—that farming and forestry are in fact complementary and not competing industries. If it is not impertinent for a mere Englishman to offer some friendly advice, based on his regard for the fine qualities of the Welsh countryman, I would say that the future of rural Wales will depend on how far the farmers, the local authorities and the Forestry Commission can work in partnership for the good of the country and for the good of the people. If this view is shared in Wales—as I believe it already is by many people—this Bill will certainly be a substantial contribution to that object, both by providing more access roads for the expansion of forestry and also by serving the requirements of the upland farmers. I believe it offers Wales, at any rate, a great opportunity, and I hope that this opportunity will be grasped.

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to follow the noble Earl who has just spoken, in congratulating the noble Earl on the Government Benches upon the clarity with which he has put forward this excellent little Bill. It is a little Bill but it is a very important and far-reaching one. To declare something of a personal interest, may I say that I hope that the great emphasis which has been put upon Wales will not overweigh the interests of other parts of the country and I hope that when the noble Earl comes back from his next trip he will be speaking with a Cumberland accent as much as with a Welsh one.

There is one small point that I wish to put forward with regard to Clause 2 of the Bill, a matter which I hope may be put right at a later stage. As a layman, I am not quite clear at what point the local authority know whether the Minister will or will not give assistance, and it will probably be difficult for either a local authority or a local subscriber to the scheme to go ahead until there is some guarantee as to what amount. 75 per cent. or 85 per cent., is to be forthcoming. I would say one word about Clause 5. Here I should like to give a particular welcome to the inclusion of cattle grids under the definition "improvement." Those who know these remote farms, where the amenities the noble Earl mentioned are linked with agriculture, will know that some well-meaning but absent-minded walker may leave a gate open and cause a farmer to trudge fourteen or twenty miles to find his livestock. I am therefore glad to see that the provision of cattle grids is included in this Bill under the heading "Improvement." With these few words, I welcome the Bill from these Benches.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, I too should like to welcome this Bill. It is a small but important Bill, which breaks new ground in that it is an effort to deal with the difficult problem of unadopted and unclassified roads in our poorer counties. As has been said by several noble Lords, it attempts to complete the work of the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts. I feel that we should welcome it, too, as a pioneer, because it touches the fringe of a problem which affects not only the areas covered by these Acts but also a number of other counties. I think noble Lords will agree with me that nowadays there is a tendency to underestimate the value of roads generally and agricultural roads in particular. People do not realise sufficiently how essential good roads are in modern farming. The tonnage that goes on and off the farm is staggering, both the fertilisers and lime taken on to a farm and the produce taken off. What people also do not realise is that a great deal of this is transported in 10-ton and 12-ton lorries, which need good, sound roads, Nowadays, it is almost impossible to farm efficiently at the end of a muddy lane which is passable perhaps in the summer but passable only with the aid of a tum-bril in winter-time.

While this Bill is a big effort to solve this problem in particular areas, I hope the subject will now be considered on a far larger scale. I do not think it can be done by this Bill, because it is a national problem. There are all kinds of green lanes which ran about the countryside. They have fascinating histories, but the laws that govern them deeply involve the rights of grazing on them and say very little about the passage of traffic. Many of these are public rights of way, and many go to serve remote farms. In East Anglia, there are the Fen roads which were put down during the war to open up large tracks of land at that time completely unproductive. At the moment these roads are beginning to break up. They opened up land which is now making a major contribution to the food production of this country. In one rural district council area alone, some 12,000 to 15,000 acres which were rough grazing are now producing valuable crops and a large number of cattle. Houses have been built in these areas and it has become an urgent problem to deal with these roads. This is not only an agricultural problem; it is also a social problem, because a considerable number of people now depend on these areas for their livelihood.

I will not weary your Lordships with details, but at the moment responsibility has been given to an internal drainage board, which one cannot believe is the right authority to deal with all the manifold problems, agricultural and social, which arise in these areas. Although in these areas one cannot plead the extreme poverty of the hill farms, the counties are not rich and highly rated, and I feel there should be some means by which the county councils can take over these responsibilities, helped, where necessary, in some such way as this Bill provides, feel that by investing money in roads for agriculture we are making a good investment for the countryside and for the people who live and work in the countryside. I hope that the Government, having broken the ice with this Bill, will seriously consider the problem on a national scale, and that, if it is not possible to increase the scope of this Bill, it will be the forerunner of another and more comprehensive measure in the future

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, we should be unappreciative indeed if we did not welcome this Bill. Admittedly, it is mainly concerned with. Wales and Scotland and, so far as I can see, most of the money will be spent in Wales and Scotland, and very little will be spent in England. In fact the noble Earl did not mention England in his speech at all, though that was probably a mistake on his part. We are all very happy, however, to support a measure which will help people in remote country districts, whether in Wales, Scotland or England, to lead fuller lives and to join the rest of the country in producing a prosperous agriculture.

The Bill is limited, and we should have been happier if a more comprehensive Bill could have been brought forward at this time. It has been before the other place for a long time, a good deal of discussion has taken place upon it and it has been amended in certain ways. It was amended, for instance, in regard to the limit of time of seven years. For my part, I should have been happier if that time had been reduced even more, possibly to five years, or thereabouts. A sum of £4 million spread over seven years is only £600,000 a year. If we are to accomplish anything in the improvement of roads, and to make conditions better for people, £600,000 a year spent throughout the whole of the United Kingdom—I take it that Northern Ireland is excluded—is not a Very large sum. I shall refer again to that figure in a moment in relation to another matter.

There are one or two points that I should like to mention in relation to the Bill itself. First of all, I should like the Government to reconsider the definition in the Bill of "improvement." It seems to me that the definition is rather limited, and the improvement of the roads may be handicapped by the limited scope of that definition. I may be wrong about that. I can see that the Government have no intention of bringing maintenance into the Bill, but it may be possible at a later stage to extend the definition of the word "improvement." I want merely to cover any future eventualities which possibly the Bill, as drafted, does not cover. Then there is no definition of "forestry." Whether that is appropriate, or whether it should be in the Bill, I am not certain; but in Clause 1 forestry is linked with livestock-rearing areas, and it may be that the Bill should contain some definition of "forestry." The noble Earl referred to the question of estate roads through the forests. We realise that they are not covered by the definition of unadopted roads and so forth, and it might be better if the meaning of "forestry" were made clear in the Bill.

There is another point that I think should be raised, even at this stage. It will be in the minds of noble Lords who have read the proceedings in another place that there was a doubt whether the amount of money provided under this Bill—and perhaps here I may talk about money, even in this House—might be reduced by the request of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the spending by highway and other authorities should be lessened in the years to come and should not exceed the 1954–55 expenditure. I do not think a clear answer to that question was given in another place, and I should like the noble Earl to state categorically whether or not this £600,000 a year is to be in addition to the expenditure which highway authorities incurred in 1954–55, or whether, in order to spend the £600,000 on roads under this Bill, some other improvement in another direction which may be envisaged by highway authorities will have to be curtailed.

We are all concerned with increasing production in agriculture, and the improvement of these roads will help towards that end. It is my hope that the Government will do nothing in the two or three years ahead to minimise the improvement of agriculture in the livestock-rearing areas which they envisage as a result of the passing of this Bill. These areas have their protection at the moment under the Hill Farming Act, the Livestock (Improvement) Act and the rest, and they have their protection under the various subsidies now enjoyed by agriculture. I hope that nothing will happen to agriculture in the next two or three years which will make this Bill of no effect, and that the roads which will be provided under this Bill will lead to a prosperous countryside, and not to one which is once again in depression.

I would call the attention of the noble Earl to two Amendments moved in another place on the Report stage—no doubt he is already conversant with them. The first dealt with Clause 1 (6) (b) and sought to ensure that the landlord or the owner is not entirely freed from the obligation which he now has to keep his roads in repair; it was aimed at collecting from the landlord some payment (not necessarily a voluntary contribution, referred to in a subsequent clause of the Bill) in respect of the resultant betterment of his property. Under the last sentence of this clause as it stands, it is certain that the obligation at present on the owner will be extinguished. I myself am an owner, and I am not sure that that is fair either to the taxpayers or the ratepayers of the particular county in which the improvement of roads is carried out. In another place the Minister was uncertain about the Amendment; I think he rather wanted it, but that he could not find a proper form of words to bring it into operation. I would ask the Government to have another look at it and, if it is acceptable to them, to deal with the point on the lines suggested. The other Amendment to which I would refer relates to Clause 3 (1), which deals with voluntary contributions, and to the situation arising where a scheme is produced by a highway authority and some owner does not come into the scheme and so holds it up. That may be a matter which can be dealt with under the Bill.

In conclusion, may I say how pleased I was to hear the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, refer to the concrete roads in the Fens. I know that both he and I are trespassing on what is in this Bill, but I am encouraged in what I have to say by what the Minister said on the Third Reading in another place. [OFFICIAL REPORT (Commons), Vol. 545 (No. 44), col. 948]: My honourable friend and I have stressed throughout our debates that this scheme is really a new departure and very much of an experiment. If it proves a success as I hope it will, it may have many lessons which will be relevant to conditions in other areas. I am concerned with "other areas" at the present time, and I want to endorse exactly what the noble Lord said about the Fen concrete roads. At the moment, under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1940, an obligation is thrown upon the internal drainage boards, who are drainage authorities and not highway or road authorities, to repair these concrete roads. Many of them are through-roads serving not just the farms. Some, of course, are cul-de-sacs to the farms, but many are used for public purposes as through-highways. It does seem, therefore, that some alteration in the law should be made and that the cost of the upkeep of these concrete roads (which are now getting into a very bad state of repair) should be throw n upon the Government or some other highway authority.

The cost to the Government when these roads were put down was no more than one-eighth of what the Government are spending under this Bill, and, as a way of reimbursement the Government of the day obtained a good deal of betterment charges from the owners who were served by those roads. The upkeep of these roads is now becoming a matter of importance, because if they are not kept up, we shall be dealing in the future not with derelict hill land but with derelict land which is at the moment some of the finest producing land in the country —and the noble Lord will bear me out in that. I know that that matter cannot be dealt with under this Bill, but I throw out the suggestion to the Government that they should consider what steps they should take to improve the concrete roads which now run through the Fens. I have seen these roads in the last few days, and I have seen tracks on the side where the heavy lorries go down empty; they use the concrete roads only when they come back full, because they want to preserve the roads and do not use them for more traffic than is absolutely necessary. The matter is getting very serious, and I hope, therefore, that the Government will act in unity with both sides of the House and do something about putting those roads in order. I commend the Bill, and I hope that many farmers in out-of-the-way places will receive great benefit when it is brought into operation.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading told us that about half the benefit under this Bill well go to Wales. The noble Lord who has just sat down seemed to believe that England would receive virtually no benefit under the Bill. So to a Scotsman, at any rate, it would seem probable that some benefit will accrue to Scotland under the Bill. Therefore, I hope your Lordships will bear with me for a moment or two before this debate is closed. Here, like the noble Lord opposite, I must in all fairness declare my interest. As the noble Earl said in opening the debate, farming in these upland areas is very different from what it was. Thanks largely to the Hill Farming Act and the Livestock Rearing Act, large quantities of lime and fertilisers have been put on much of these land. But instead of coming by horse and cart, for which most of these roads were designed, they come in huge lorries weighing with their load as much as twelve or fifteen tons, and very often the drivers are forced to ignore the existing weight restrictions which apply to these roads. The consequences to the foundations and surfaces are only too clearly to be seen. The greatest mileage proportionately of this type of road in central and southern Scotland is in the areas of those local authorities who have the lowest rateable value and, therefore, are least able to meet the cost of upkeep and improvement of these roads.

Much of the damage to these roads is the direct result of tie Government policy as laid down in the Hill Farming and the Livestock Rearing Acts. It is only natural that the roads wear out, carrying these heavy loads. Therefore I think it is only right that the central Government should be proposing in this measure to make their contribution to enable the local authorities to discharge their responsibilities. I welcome this Bill, even if the total sum provided does not prove sufficient over the period. But, after all, there is nothing to prevent the Government from extending the Act or increasing the amounts provided under it.

May I just draw attention to two possible dangers in its operation? The first refers to this matter of the contributions which a local authority may ask proprietors of land affected to make towards improvements. A similar provision was included a few years ago in an Act called the Highways Provision and Cattle Grids Act. My personal experience of one local authority is that where they have demanded a contribution from an owner, that contribution has been one of 100 per cent. I hope that in carrying out the provisions of this Bill, when it becomes law, local authorities will perhaps be a little more generous and shoulder at least a proportion of their responsibilities. In this connection, there is a small point which I think it wise to raise here. Under that Act to which I have referred, it was made possible, where an owner had to make a contribution towards the installation of a cattle grid, for him to claim the amount of his contribution as part of the cost of a hill farming scheme which he might be carrying out and, therefore, to obtain a 50 per cent. grant towards that contribution. An Amendment was made to that effect in the Hill Farming Acts. I do not see any similar provision in this Bill. It may be that it would also require an Amendment of the Hill Farming Acts, but I ask the Government to bear that in mind, because contributions towards road improvements required from owners may he quite considerable.

The second danger that I see is the effect of the present credit squeeze and the restrictions on capital expenditure which local authorities have quite rightly been asked to make, in common with individuals. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wise, I should like to ask the Government for some assurance that the sums to be provided under this Act will be over and above the amounts to which local authorities are restricted on account of their normal capital expenditure on roads. I do not believe that this state of financial stringency is with us for ever or, indeed, for very long; so I welcome the Bill, not necessarily for what it can do this year or next, but for what I believe it can do over the next year or two beyond that.

5.1 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to all those noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon and have, by and large, given this Bill a warm welcome. Most noble Lords have raised various points, with which I will endeavour to deal to the best of my ability. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, raised the question of the survey in Scotland and England and whether it was, in fact, accurate. The survey in Wales was done in considerable detail. Although the survey in England and Scotland was not done in the same detail, I am absolutely confident that it gives us a clear picture of the position. The noble Earl also raised the question of the average grant being 75 per cent. and the remarks of my right honourable friend the Minister in another place saying that the maximum grant for unadopted roads would be 75 per cent.


I think that what I said was, in fact, that the Minister in another place had said that the average grant for the unclassified roads would be 75 per cent., and I understood the noble Earl to say that the maximum grant for unclassified roads would be 75 per cent. That was what I was bothered about. I hoped I might be made clear on that point.


No. May I make this clear? The figure referred to of 75 per cent. for the average was the average of the grants on the unadopted and the unclassified roads—the two together.


I see.


So that, although some grants would be below 75 per cent., with a certain number at 85 per cent., there would be an average somewhere about 75 per cent. It is anticipated that the majority of the grants will be up towards the 75 per cent. figure, but it is important that we should maintain the freedom to lower that grant in certain circumstances. May I give an example? In Wales there is a certain road which we consider, if it were done up to agricultural standards, would require so many thousands of pounds. The Welshmen might feel that, for amenity purposes—for tourist traffic—it would be to their advantage to raise the standard of that road to their normal county standard. Obviously, we should not be expected to give a 75 per cent. grant up to the level of county standard, so we should give a lower percentage which would be more or less equivalent to the 75 per cent. on the agricultural standard.

The noble Earl also raised the question of the spreading of fertilisers from the air. This is a matter which we have under close observation. It is very much in the experimental stage at the moment but, as things are, it is an expensive way of applying fertilisers to that type of land. Your Lordships will appreciate that it is not like putting fertiliser on a level plain; there are hills and valleys and the aeroplane often has to fly a great distance before it can land to take on another supply of fertiliser. However, we are treating this with great concern and I hope to be able to tell your Lordships about any developments as and when they occur.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, raised two points. One was about when the local authority would k now whether or not their grant was forthcoming. The answer is that before the statutory procedure is got under way, there will be consultation between the officials of the local authority and the Ministry. I am quite confident that all those problems can be ironed out before the statutory procedure is started. Cattle grids are not grant-aided as such, but under this Bill, of course, they will receive an indirect grant, in that they are part of the road. That is included in this Bill. While I am on the question of cattle grids, may I refer to a point which was raised by my noble friend Lord Polwarth. The answer to his problem is that in respect of the cattle grids to which he was referring there is no grant at all to the local authority, whereas here the local authority is getting a considerable grant, and therefore the owner cannot really expect to receive a grant as well as the local authority.


Perhaps I did not make myself clear. I was using the grants for cattle-grids as a parallel. I was referring to the contributions required from an owner towards the cost of a road improvement and whether those contributions could be made allowable for a grant under the Hill Farming Acts, just as at the moment, if he is required to make a contribution towards a cattle-grid under that earlier Act, he is allowed to include his contribution towards that cattle-grid for grant under the Hill Farming Act. Perhaps I did not make it quite clear.


I am afraid that that is not possible, under these conditions.


Would the noble Earl clarify the point about whether cattle-grids are not grant-aided and will continue not to be grant-aided under this Bill?


They are grant-aided under this Bit in the sense that they form part of the road, and will come in, so to speak, under the umbrella.


I understand that.


My noble friend Lord Amherst of Hackney, and the noble Lord, Lord Wise, talked a good deal about Fen roads. They are, of course, a special problem. I am well aware of this problem of the Fen roads which were hardened by my Department during the war. This hardening was done to enable the area to be turned over to arable cultivation, and was completely successful. Even to-day hardly any of the land served by those access roads has gone back to grass. As the noble Lord said, out of the 130 miles of hardened road, some forty miles which had a through traffic value were adopted by the highway authorities and have become a useful part of the public road system.


They have been taken over in some counties, but not in others.


The information I have is that the roads which have not been taken over cannot really serve a useful contribution to the general road network. But there are some roads in South West Norfolk which also serve through traffic. I do rot know whether those are the ones that the noble Lord has in mind.


There are some in South West Norfolk and in other parts which have not been taken over by the county council.


We feel that this particular section should become part of the general network. Up to now the Norfolk County Council have not felt able to adopt this particular stretch, but I hope it may be possible to reach an agreement which will solve this problem. The remaining eighty or ninety miles of road has no other purpose but to provide access to the surrounding farmland. So far, practically all of it is in a reasonably satisfactory state of repair for this limited purpose, but repairs will, of course, become necessary, and then the problem will become more serious. The internal drainage boards are the responsible authorities; they have a power to levy a rate on the owners of the land benefiting from these roads, and I am sure that the noble Lord will appreciate—in fact, he more or less said so—that the production from this land is so high that these owners are in a strong position and should be able to afford to make such a contribution as the drainage board consider necessary.


Yes, but my point is that if the Government are prepared to spend money on making roads for hill farming purposes, where the production is not so high, surely they can make some contribution towards, or even take over, roads which are not through roads. As the noble Earl says, they could make some contribution or take over roads which serve land of high productivity.


I cannot agree with the noble Lord. If the land is highly productive, surely it should be able to support its own road system. Up in these hill farming areas, where the farmers, even with the aid of all the help we can give them, are having considerable difficulty in making a decent livelihood there is a very different problem. It is a different matter from the case of the extremely prosperous farmers down in the Fen country. As the noble Lord knows, we have had discussions with a number of individual internal drainage boards and also with the Association of Drainage Authorities. It would be too much to say that they have become reconciled to their statutory responsibilities, but I am sure that the discussions have made it clear to them that these roads can be kept up at much less cost than they had envisaged. I think they were thinking much more of county standards than of an agricultural standard. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, also asked me about the definition of "improvement." These items were really inserted in the Bill to make quite certain that they would in fact be eligible. We wanted to be quite certain that these items should not be left out, because there was doubt as to whether they were in fact improvements. With regard to improvements in the ordinary course of events, I am sure the clause is wide enough to cover everything.


Would this definition cover normal improvements, such as improvements in the surface of the road, although such improvements are not specified in the definition?


Yes, I think we can all accept those as normal, straight- forward improvements. But it was important to mention these things, to make sure that they were not omitted.


The operative word in that particular clause is "includes."


Yes. The noble Lord also asked for a clearer definition of "forestry." I do not feel it is necessary here to have any more detailed definition of "forestry." We have a clear definition of the type of land with which we are dealing, and if a forest in any form is being grown in the area it would be treated in the same way as the farmland. The noble Lord felt that seven years was too long a period. I cannot stress too much the fact that we do not in any way expect this money to be spent, as apparently the noble Lord does, at the rate of £600,000 a year. Here we have a figure of £4 million which we want spent within seven years. If local authorities come forward with their schemes, and the schemes are sufficient to use up all the money in a lesser period, we have no objection at all. The noble Lord raised the matter of an Amendment which was moved in another place on the question of compulsion on owners to contribute. The Council of Wales recommended strongly against this, on the basis that in any case it would be difficult enough to get the Welsh owners to contribute (particularly the smaller ones), and they felt that any form of coercion would discourage them all rather than assist in bringing in the small minority. Of course, the noble Lord is perfectly free, if he should so feel, to put down an Amendment, and we will again give it careful thought. My Lords, I do not think there is anything more that I can usefully add to this discussion. As I said before, I am most grateful to noble Lords for the reception which they have given this Bill—


I hope I am in order in rising. The noble Earl has not replied to a question which I asked and which was endorsed by a noble Lord on the other side, in regard to whether or not the expenditure under this Bill was to be in addition to the expenditure on the 1954 basis.


My Lords, I am sorry; I omitted to answer that question. The position there is that local authorities are perfectly free to make their own cuts where they like. In this particular case, they are in a position now to receive a grant towards roads for which, if they were dealt with before this Bill was passed, they would have had to bear the entire cost. Therefore I think it fairly safe to assume, that where a local authority can get a 75 or 85 per cent. grant, whereas before they got nothing, it will be made full use of.

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