HC Deb 07 March 1968 vol 760 cc156-8W
Mr. Hazell

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he proposes to take on the recommendations of the Wise Committee's First Report on statutory smallholdings.

Mr. Peart

The Committee advised that statutory smallholdings should be used as a gateway for new entrants to farming. They recommended reorganising existing holdings to form larger units without any general expansion of the national smallholdings estate. Their views on the need for reorganisation and amalgamation are in line with the Government's farm structure policy. I accept their recommendation that smallholdings authorities should be required to submit to me comprehensive plans for the reorganisation of their smallholdings. These plans should not provide for any considerable expansion but I should not object to modest acquisitions of land to improve the structure of existing smallholdings or to replace land lost for development, provided they can be financed from the authority's own resources.

As smallholdings policy is closely allied to national agricultural policies, I think it necessary to retain general powers of control over the reorganisation of the estates and the creation of new smallholdings. Subject to this, however, I believe that authorities should be left to manage their own affairs and I do not propose to follow the Committee's recommendation that some of the members of local authority smallholdings committees should be appointed by the Minister. Nor do I wholly accept the emphasis the Committee lay on formal technical training as a necessary qualification for smallholdings tenants. While I appreciate the value of such training, experience of farm work must, in my view, be the prime requirement. Young men who combine such experience with the ability to succeed on their own farms should not be excluded from tenancies solely because they may have had no formal training.

I accept the Committee's recommendation that assistance towards reorganisation should take the form of capital grants, and not that of contributions to authorities' annual losses as the present smallholdings grants do. Farm amalgamation grants are already available under the Agriculture Act, 1967, and smallholdings authorities should look primarily to these. Statutory smallholdings have, however, the special function of catering for new entrants, often of limited capital and experience; and I propose that grants analogous to those now available under the Farm Amalgamation Scheme should be made available to a few holdings on each estate which will remain at rather less than full commercial size.

Under the Farm Improvement Scheme 30 per cent. grants are already available for improvements. For a transitional period of five years I propose to provide for an alternative grant, at 40 per cent., for the improvement of statutory smallholdings below commercial size; but I accept the Wise Committee's view that after this period there should be no further special financial assistance for improvements to smallholdings.

The Wise Committee recommended that authorities should pay to the Exchequer part of their future receipts from the sale or appropriation of land. I do not think this is fully workable. Instead I propose that any proceeds from the sale of smallholdings land, over and above its agricultural value, should be regarded as reducing the total estimated losses on an authority's smallholdings which are still the subject of Exchequer contributions under the Smallholdings legislation of 1926 and 1947. This will reduce Exchequer commitments while leaving authorities free if they wish to devote part of their proceeds to acquiring replacement holdings.

I wish to thank Professor Wise and his committee for their valuable and comprehensive report. I intend to introduce legislation to implement the proposals above. Meanwhile smallholdings authorities can begin to draw up their reorganisation plans and can apply for the existing amalgamation grants.