HL Deb 26 March 1970 vol 308 cc1507-12

11.41 a.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Hill Land Improvement (Amendment) Scheme 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on March 18, be approved. With permission, I hope it will be convenient to consider the Amendment Scheme for Scotland at the same time, as it is on practically the same lines.

The Scheme is made under Section 41 of the Agriculture Act 1967. It implements one aspect of the increase in capital grants announced as part of my statement on the Annual Farm Price Review. The announcement then received a generous welcome in this House and I trust therefore that the provisions of this Amendment Scheme will also be welcomed. The Scheme provides that the rate of grant for hill land improvements should be increased from 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. for a period of two years. It is proposed that this higher rate of grant should be paid on all applications received and all approvals given during the two-year period commencing March 19, 1970. The 10 per cent. supplementary grant for all drainage work benefiting hill land will continue unchanged. Since the general rate of field drainage grant will be 60 per cent. the 10 per cent. supplement now means that hill farmers will have their drainage works grant-aided at the rate of 70 per cent. for the next two years.

Hill farmers throughout the United Kingdom have carried out many land improvements with the aid of 50 per cent. grants under the principal Scheme. In fact since its inception in August, 1967, there have been over 30,000 applications in the United Kingdom at an estimated cost of £11 million. In addition, there have been over 10,000 applications for the 10 per cent. drainage supplement. The rate of applications under the main hill land Scheme has been well maintained throughout 1969–70, and is still running at over 1,250 a month for land improvements and nearly 400 a month for the drainage supplement.

The Scheme embraces a very wide range of land improvements, including re-seeding, reclamation, fencing and roads. The increased rate of grant, together with the other measures which have been taken at this year's Annual Review to help hill farmers, will give a substantial incentive for expansion in the hills. I am sure the Amendment Scheme will further help the amount of useful investment in hill farming, to the benefit both of the farmers and of the nation. I have pleasure in moving that this Scheme be now approved.

Moved, That the Draft Hill Land Improvement (Amendment) Scheme 1970 laid before the House on March 18, be approved.—(Lord Beswick.)

11.44 a.m.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for explaining the purpose of this Scheme to us, and assure him that we shall give it a warm welcome here. Where so much additional financial grant is to be handed out there are seldom any refusals. One of the few places where farming demonstrations are not taking place at this time is probably in the hills!

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for giving us an indication of how these Schemes are progressing. I should like to ask him a question which immediately poses itself. These increases are substantial and valuable. Can the Government make any concession to applicants who apply just before March 19 and who, therefore, would seem to be in danger of losing the valuable increase made in the Price Review?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for making plain that the 60 per cent. rate for the general unified schemes and the 70 per cent. for the land drainage schemes will run for two years. I thought that paragraphs 51 and 52 in the White Paper were not entirely clear, but now the record is clear. I wonder whether the noble Lord could give us some indication of, first, what has been the record of farms in the hills which have taken up these grant-aided schemes and made the substantial improvements on their farms? What has been their record over recent years in increased production? In other words, how well has the Scheme as a whole paid off?

I think noble Lords on all sides of the House will be aware of the major problem we have to face of keeping farmers farming in the hills at all. It is a splendid life but a pretty rugged one, and unless a good deal of financial subsidy is given in the way of assistance for capital purposes, and indeed for current purposes—it is put in with the very big subsidies on hill cows, and so on— it would just be impossible for farmers to stay there at all. It is very much in our interests, both sociologically and economically, to keep farming going in the hills. This is the source of much of our livestock, both of cattle and sheep, and therefore these Schemes have a very special value. Therefore, it would be of great interest to us to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, some record of the performance of farms that have received the benefit of these Schemes, and perhaps also what scope the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food see for further grant-aiding these hill farms in order to strengthen the economy of those who have not already had grants.

There is one small technical point about which I should like to ask the noble Lord, and that is fencing schemes. Noble Lords will be aware that we have recently passed through this House, under the able guidance of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, an Animals Act which has changed the obligation of farmers with regard to the care of their livestock straying on the highway. We on this side of the House expressed some anxiety about cattle which strayed from the hill farms (which in the main, of course, are fenced) on to the roads. Will this form of grant aid cover fencing schemes—fencing being extremely expensive—where hill farmers decide that because of the increasing volume of traffic on the roads through their areas they had better fence their farms? If the answer is, "Yes", it would seem to me that with the rate now at 60 per cent. for the next two years hill farmers in such areas would be wise to get on with their fencing while the Government are willing to pay 60 per cent. of the cost. My Lords, with those few comments and queries I have much pleasure in supporting both Orders.


My Lords, I welcome these Schemes. I think that any Scheme which improves land is a subsidy well spent and is much better than subsidies which are given on stock, and that kind of thing. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, one particular question. If one improves land next door to the open hill, is the deer fence which one will probably need to erect in order to protect the improved land from the deer eligible for the 60 per cent. grant on the total cost of the fence, on part of the cost of the fence, or not at all?


My Lords, may I also ask the noble Lord whether these grants apply to cattle grids across side roads, to prevent cattle straying on to the main road?


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guild-ford, for the welcome that he has given, and I suspect, because I have had no criticism either from the noble Duke or the noble Viscount that they, too, welcome it. I construe their absence of criticism as being a welcome.

I was asked about the position of farmers who had applied just before March 19—that is to say whose application had been approved before March 19. Clearly, there would be an unfairness if someone had made an application on March 17 or 18 when the scheme came into operation on March 19. The point has been considered. If they were to withdraw their original application and to submit a new application, then it would rank for the increased rate of grant. I hope that that explanation will be helpful.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for the concession he is indicating. Could he indicate further how far it can go back? There obviously has to be some limit, and presumably it cannot go back past the point where the application has been formally received.


My Lords, one draws a line in any of these matters and someone is always going to be on the wrong side of it. I think that where the line would be drawn would be in those cases where the farmers have already started work. Otherwise one would try to be reasonable.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, by the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, and indeed by the noble Duke, about fencing. I can say that fencing will attract the 60 per cent. grant over the two years, and I see that amongst the list of eligible improvements I have the following: making improvement, renewal and removal of permanent fencing, including hedges and stiles; and the provision of gates and sheep and cattle grids. That satisfies the noble Viscount; I am not sure about the noble Duke's deer, but if it does not satisfy him I will write to him about it.

I was asked about what results we are getting from the records. It is a little difficult to give a sort of end-of-term report on all the farmers who have received the grant in the past. As the noble Lord knows as well as I, there is a certain amount of, not supervision but co-operation and liaison, through the advisory services, and the general impression is that the grants have been well used. As for maintaining the number of hill farmers, the fact is that over the last three months the number of applications has gone up. All appearance is that we are succeeding in making it possible for these people—who, as the noble Lord knows, have quite a hard, austere, hard-working life—to carry on. I have a note that something like 210,000 acres of land have been improved; 162,000 acres of land have been specifically improved through drainage; and the cow herd has gone up. There has been some disappointment on the sheep in the hill areas, but I believed that the figures are again on the upturn. I think we can say that this money is well spent, and I am glad to think the new Amendment is well received. I hope that we can now adopt this Order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.