Skip to main content

Derelict Common Land

Volume 527: debated on Friday 14 May 1954

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

2.30 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House, whilst recognising the complexity of the problem of derelict common land, calls the attention of the Government to the pressing need for securing greater production from common land which is cultivable, whilst at the same time protecting the rights of the commoners to enjoy their present right of access.
In giving notice of this Motion, I forgot to add the words:
"and also to protect the rights of the public to enjoy the amenities of these open spaces."
I have raised the question of waste land in Great Britain on many occasions in this House, but this is the first time I have been fortunate, by the luck of the Ballot, and able to move a Motion on the subject. There is a tremendous waste of agricultural land in this country. I hope that we shall have a full debate, but many of my colleagues felt that in even mentioning the question of common land I was dealing with political dynamite. I want, therefore, at the very start to reassure hon. Members who may be waiting to criticise what I say about common land. I hope that at the end of my speech they will thank me. I see in front of me one very formidable protagonist of the rights of the public. He has warned me that he is here to look after their interests. I warn him, if he has a drastic speech ready to pull to pieces what I say, that he must get ready now a speech of congratulation.

I am not proposing to do anything which will prevent the public enjoying open spaces. I have discussed the position in years gone by with many commoners, and they have agreed with me that it was time that derelict common land was brought into a state which would be some good to them. I have also had correspondence with the secretary of the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society. If the Government accept the Motion, I shall probably receive a letter of thanks from the secretary for what I have done. At the moment, many commons are completely covered with bracken and bushes and are not available for ramblers to enjoy. In an article which they sent to me dealing with common land, the society said they were prepared to acknowledge that if some of the commons were improved agriculturally they would at the same time be improved for the public and the rambler.

If anything is done to open up common land so that people can enjoy them, I hope that the leaders of this society will take steps to induce the public when they use commons not to leave a frightful mess of litter on them. I saw in a Nottingham paper the other day that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) was proposing to speak in this debate to protect the interest of the commoners. I quite expect that in so doing he will also support what I propose to say.

It would be well if I gave figures of the extent of common land in Great Britain. I think the figures are correct, because I had them from the Ministry of Agriculture. Commons run to some 3 million acres, of' which 1 million are in England, and 8.000 of these are in my own county, Hereford. I am sure that any hon. Member who knows my county will be aware of the great agricultural value of it, and will agree that it does not make sense that there should be 8,000 acres largely covered with fern and bracken and doing nothing to provide food for the country. I assure hon. Members that there are many commons that are of no use to ramblers and holiday-makers.

Going from Worcester out into the West Country, hon. Members would pass about 600 acres of more or less derelict common land, although the area is scheduled as containing some of the best fruit growing land in Great Britain. That is borne out by the fact that squatters have at some time improved the pasture and planted trees in the middle of the commons. Some of these small holdings in the middle of commons are worth several hundred pounds per acre, whereas the land round about is not worth more than £1 per acre. That fact should be sufficient to encourage any Government to tackle the problem.

There is a great variety of common rights. In one area in my constituency are 120 acres of arable land, one-third of which becomes common each year and is lost every year by becoming fallow. It is of no use to the tenant fanner because he cannot plant it with a crop, and it is no use to the commoners because they cannot graze it. I do not think there is much demand for the Ramblers' Association to walk round a barren field of 40 acres producing nothing at all. That scandal has been going on during the war, but no Government have been prepared to tackle the question because of treading on the corns of the commoners. There was a scheme for grassing down a portion of that land and giving it to the commoners so that they could get value out of it, but the scheme was not proceeded with. Somebody should deal with cases like that, in the interests of production and of the commoners themselves.

The amount of common land which was requisitioned during the war and was brought into cultivation was something like 22,000 acres. Some of it has been handed back, but there is still a lot in hand. The Government have to face the fact that they must hand the land back, and I hope that this debate will give the Ministry of Agriculure an opportunity of letting the country know exactly where we stand in regard to requisitioned land, and when and under what conditions they propose to hand the land back.

As the law stands, the Minister has no power to compel anybody to keep this land in good condition, and there is no authority for anybody to take steps with regard to common land. It will be interesting for the House to realise the value of some of this common land from the agricultural point of view. I had something to do with one common during the war. After it had been cultivated it grew two tons of wheat per acre. The county war agricultural executive committee had been afraid to take the common land, because of the commoners, and they said to me, "Thank goodness you are going to use it. We want it brought back into food production."

When I raised this question of waste land and common land some time ago in the House, I had a letter from the vice-chairman of the Bromyard Rural District Council, which covers the area of the common land which I previously mentioned. This is what he wrote:
"The picture of our Bromyard and Bringsty Commons is this. Six hundred acres of excellent rolling land covered entirely, with the exception of some green strips leading to cottages, by impenetrable seas of bracken and the whole tenanted by few scraggy sheep. Occasionally in spring someone sets a light to the bracken and then there are left huge black patches of burnt sticks.
In the summer time the inhabitants of Birmingham and Worcester come at week-ends to visit the Commons, and are prosecuted if they park their cars more than 15 yards from the highway. Those then are the existing 'amenities.' In what way would public amenity be jeopardised if, instead of bracken, our visitors could roam freely over a rolling plain of flourishing grassland populated by healthy flocks of sheep and cattle?"
That is the common sense way of looking at the problem, and I hope that the writer's views will receive attention. What he says about the fires is correct. When the bracken is dry someone sets it on fire thinking that it reduces the strength of the growth. Instead it increases it. There is often danger to the surrounding area, and frequently the fire brigade has to be called out at considerable expense to extinguish the fire.

I hope that I have indicated some of the complexities of this common land. Even on adjoining commons the rights are rarely the same. It is a difficult problem, but is this generation any less able to deal with it than were our forefathers? Though our forefathers got into a bit of a row about it, but we must realise that at one time all the cultivable land was common land, and had it not been enclosed I do not know how we should have become a nation of 50 million people supporting so great an industrialisation. It is startling to think that in 500 years the population has increased from about 4 million to 50 million and is still increasing.

What steps are we to take to avoid a possible food shortage? We must not be obsessed with the idea that the present apparent surplus of food will continue. That surplus does not result from the production of a lot of cheap food. In North America it is a high cost surplus, and the American taxpayer is tired of subsidising farmers to grow that wheat. As a result, both the United States and Canada have offered their farmers the choice of either reducing their acreage or accepting a lower price. The farmers have, wisely I think, agreed to limit the acreage, in the one country by 15 per cent, and in the other by 25 per cent. If a succession of bad harvests should follow the last three good harvests those huge surpluses may vanish. We must not rely on the existence of such a surplus to make good our own deficiencies.

In this period when we are passing from controls to a free economy, we may be in a somewhat awkward position and have fears as to how we shall exist, but we must not let up on agricultural production. We must increase it, and this Motion suggests one way of doing it. The Chancellor has a difficult job in deciding to what extent he can pay deficiency payments to farmers and to what extent, if he does not pay them, the Treasury will be called upon to buy food from abroad. I suggest that it is better and safer to keep the fanners going with deficiency payments than to reduce prices and production which may prove difficult to increase again.

It may be argued that we have not the time to introduce the necessary legislation. The Government are spending time on Bills which they might well forget altogether. They could spend some of the time saved to deal with the resuscitation of common land. In addition to the common land there are some 12 or 14 million acres of rough grazing, but I cannot refer to that, I know, without being ruled out of order

How best can we deal with the problem? We do not want an Act of Parliament cluttered up with too much detail. All that is necessary is to give power to the county executive committees, the rural district councils, the commoners, the Ramblers Association and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England to form a committee. That committee would deal with each common on its merits. No two commons can be dealt with in the same way.

Such a committee is necessary because, although the majority of commoners may want to do something with the common, nothing can be done if one or two oppose such action. We may be sleepy in my part of the world, but in this instance we are ahead of a great many other districts with common land. We have formed a commons management sub-committee which, amongst other things, has bought out the rights of the lord of the manor, and is now itself lord of the manor. I think that is essential before any common is dealt with. There are good lords of the manor—in my area there is one who is co-operating with the commoners to get back from the Ministry land which is at present requisitioned. There are other lords of the manor who are obstructive, but the value of their rights is so small that they should not be allowed to be obstructive.

The hon. Member says their rights are very small, but in many cases the lords of the manor not only own the timber but also minerals and things of that sort.

I am divulging no secrets by saying that in the case I have quoted the lord of the manor sold those 600 acres for £100, so he did not think them of much value. I agree that the lord of the manor has the right to fell timber, but if he wants the right to the timber he should be compelled to plant some trees. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke), who is a great authority on forestry, will say something on this matter if he gets the opportunity.

It is important that many of these commons which are not cultivable should be planted with trees and thus improve the amenities and help in the rainfall. It is wrong that large areas of land should be completely devoid of trees. If my hon. Friend wishes, I will show him the minutes of the first meeting of the sub-committee on common land to which I have referred, whose members I think should be congratulated on what they have done. I suggest that they should be regarded as a pilot committee for dealing with common land.

In some instances there are small commons adjacent to a village or a small town, measuring only a few acres in extent and which do not require to be interfered with. They provide open spaces for the local inhabitants, and they should not be touched. A great deal of the common land in London is at present controlled by the L.C.C. which. I believe, has powers to ensure that the public have the right of enjoying this common land. All I am anxious to do is to ensure that there is no idle land in this country. We cannot afford to let our land do nothing.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary may say that no legislation is necessary as powers are already given to rural district councils under the Enclosure Acts, 1845 to 1852, and the Commons Act, 1899. I do not imagine that the Enclosure Acts, 1845 to 1852 will be very acceptable, but I believe that under the Commons Act, 1899, the powers of district councils for developing their commons are pretty full. It seems to me that all that is necessary is to stir up those district councils which are not aware that they have these powers, and ensure that they take steps in this matter.

I ask the Ministry to deal immediately with the question of common land at present under requisition. Some nine years have elapsed since the war ended, and it is about time that the Ministry took some action to hand this land back to the commoners. I have a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary in reply to an application that I made to him about a common which the commoners were clamouring to have returned to them. I do not suppose my hon. Friend will mind if I read part of this letter, which said:
"… Since then we have been considering whether it ought to be retained after the end of this year, and if so, for how long. The requisitioned part of the common is no longer used for arable cropping but has been sown down to grass and is let on licence to a Committee of Commoners."
That is excellent, but it cannot continue indefinitely. The Ministry cannot continue to let it on licence to these commoners. The commoners have been very quiet about it up to now. They have been asking in a gentlemanly way but, knowing what goes on among commoners. I suggest that if the Ministry does not take some steps to hand the common land back to the commoners, the commoners may well take control of the situation.

I want to say a word about expenditure. If many of these commons are to be brought into cultivation in order to give some worth while return, a certain amount of expenditure will be required in the form of drainage, in some cases bulldozing, the clearing of bracken and so on. I do not suggest that the taxpayers of this country should be called upon to pay anything towards that work, any more than they have to pay the marginal land grants. I do not suggest that a Government Department should have a hand in it. I do not want the taxpayer or a Government Department to take a hand in it.

All I ask is that a committee of the commoners should be given powers to act. I know sufficient of the commoners to be able to say that if they have powers to act and to keep out any commoners who are not prepared to pull their weight, they will be able to tackle these problems on their own, so long as they can have the benefit of a grant. I suggest that they might be given loans—not free of interest —which can be paid while they are getting this land into production, and which in due course they can repay by instalments when the land is in production.

We in this country are living dangerously. Our economy is completely unbalanced. We are a great industrial nation, but we are not feeding one half of our population. It is time we woke up to the fact that if we do not produce more at home, some day we may suffer and we may have to take measures which may not be so effective as we could take if we took our time about it.

2.57 p.m.

I beg to second the Motion.

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) on the manner in which he has introduced this subject. I know that he has very strong feelings about it, and I think he has been very restrained and has put forward a very balanced argument.

It is just a year ago today that I moved a Motion dealing with another agricultural problem, that of rough grazing. This is a more difficult problem than that because, as has already been pointed out, these commons are owned by different people and they come under different forms of management and partial ownership. Therefore, I do not think it would be possible to introduce one Bill which would deal with all the commons in the country. Separate legislation would be necessary for each common. I speak from experience because we have quite a number of these commons in Dorset, and each one differs from the others and each presents different problems.

I should like to refer to the need for commons to be properly managed, first from the point of view of road safety. The number of road accidents which occur through animals straying from commons on to the highway is surprising. Unless we do something about this problem we shall get further trouble in our scheme for tuberculin-tested cattle. A man may have tuberculin-tested cattle in a field near a common, yet any sort of animal can be put on to the common. There is a grave risk to animal health if we allow commons to continue to be treated in the lackadaisical way in which far too many of them are treated today.

I was very interested in the figure of 3 million acres of common land. It is the first occasion I have heard a figure for it, and I do not think that the Ministry of Agriculture have one. Being common land no one is responsible for filling in an agricultural return for it, and I would have thought that the figure would have been very much more than 3 million. We have a good deal of common land in my county and I do not think it can ever be said that Dorset has lagged behind other counties in this matter.

I was about to mention that we had one common of over 700 acres which has been dealt with very efficiently indeed. It and another one close by were requisitioned during the war. The agricultural committee wondered what was going to happen to this land, which had produced first-class crops. The commoners said, "What a shame it would be if it were to revert to what it was before." The landowner came forward and they worked out a very satisfactory scheme. The agricultural committee ascertained how much the leases had been sold for, those that were sold, before the war, and that was the agreed rent for the commoners. They had the right of grazing the common.

This is what happened recently. The lord of the manor came along and said. "It would be such a pity if we had to go back to the previous position. I will tell you what I will do. I will cultivate the common and take over the land. Those who have the right to graze animals on that common can graze them on my land, which is more suitable, at an agreed rent under the settlement that was made at the beginning of the war." That is working very happily indeed. In fact, the commoners are much better off because they are to get first-class pasturage rather than the alternative system year after year, and in addition to that, the landowner has put up sheds on the land so that in the winter time the cattle can have shelter.

Furthermore, he is prepared, while common grazing is restricted, to have grazing over the whole year. I see the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) becoming perturbed at something I have said. The rights of the people are being preserved and their right of ways still exist. Notices have been set up and the people have as much access to the land as in days gone by.

I was not at all perturbed. I was very interested, but what I should like to know is, are these graziers who get these benefits the people who had common rights and rights of pasturage before, or are they a wider section of the community? Has a person who was a commoner before, an inherent right in the new scheme?

Yes, these people all had common rights before, and one interesting case concerned a small area of land which the Dorset County Council bought to erect a cottage for a policeman. That house has with it the right of grazing on the common for some 33 sheep. The rights are there, running back into the centuries, and no fresh people have come to it. I would commend this idea to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary with the idea of trying similar schemes to bring land back into cultivation.

Nearby we have got the New Forest. A great deal has been done there in the New Forest, which is common land in a wide sense. There have been many schemes of reclamation, and only recently when I was driving through it I was very interested to see the amount of progress that has been made during the last few years. My hon. Friend mentioned the expense of clearing this land. There is a great deal to that, but what we want to do is to create a very much greater pride of ownership in this land than we have had, so that the people who have a right to go on to it will do so. I believe that if that is done the cost of clearing it will not be so great, particularly if there are people with the right ideas of co-operation.

I would rather approach the problem from that angle than to try to do it through legislation. I suggest to my hon. Friend that he or someone else in the Ministry should tackle this problem seriously, because it is a question of management. We must produce more food. We are losing land year by year as a result of house building, and much of this land could be brought back. The spendid harvest last year, which produced greater yields from each of the crops than ever before, must be some incentive to people to try to bring back into cultivation a part of our heritage which has been wasted for such a long time.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) is much more qualified to deal with afforestation than I am, but I must say that much of this land would be more suitable for afforestation than for agriculture, and it would add to the beauty of many of our commons.

In conclusion, I ask my hon. Friend if he and his right hon. Friend will be bold about this problem. Too many words have been spoken and written about it, but no one has yet tried to tackle it. When he gets down to the problem I believe that my hon. Friend will be able to make his presence felt, so I ask him to do all he can to reclaim this land which we have been wasting for centuries.

3.8 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) for his Motion, and probably the best way of showing my gratitude to him is to be brief. I agree with two points which he and the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) made. The first was that we should not be complacent about the food outlook of the world. I agree entirely that we must keep our land under the fullest cultivation. The second was that the problem of dealing with common land varies from district to district, from common to common, and cannot be dealt with entirely by general legislation.

I hope I shall be forgiven if I speak about Scotland because two-thirds of the common land is in Scotland and, as you know, Mr. Speaker, it is an essential part of Highland agriculture. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not be able to reply, but I hope that my remarks will percolate through to the Scottish Office.

Every true croft in the Highlands is composed of some arable land and the right to allow sheep, ponies or cattle to run on the common grazings. Even so far as the arable land is concerned, in the crofting counties the gates have to be opened after the crops are in, and the beasts can wander where they like. So, in a sense, the whole of this land is common land.

A very good Report has been published on this subject by the Commission of Enquiry into Crofting Conditions and some of it may apply as well to England as to Scotland. Dealing with this matter the Commission said:
"There are many districts in which the area of arable land per holding is so small, and its quality so poor, that no great advance can be expected, but where the common grazing is capable of spectacular improvement. This is already a matter of demonstration in certain parts of Shetland and Lewis. A development of (his kind is generally set afoot by the younger and more active members of the township, who deserve and should receive encouragement and reward for the exercise of those qualities of initiative and resource which the crofting communities so sorely need. It is a matter of urgent necessity that they should be freed from the shackles which at present encumber them."
The full implementation of that Report may take a long time. It is, however, very important to improve these grazings quickly, and a great deal of the present general agricultural legislation does not get that done. It is not easy to get drainage, fencing and road construction done on these common holdings, and I think that the Report is right in saying that the ultimate way of doing it is to set up a commission empowered to make decisions and to press on with the matter. When such a commission is set up, I hope that it will be given discretion to deal differently with different holdings according to local needs. I hope, too, it will be given powers to lay out the money available to the best advantage of each district.

The second problem is concerned with the crofter's right to apply to the Land Court for apportionment. He am then be given a part of the scattald to himself if the court approves. This is a difficult matter. It is extremely important that the survey which the Taylor Commission has recommended should be carried out. If apportionments are to be made, and in some cases I certainly think that they should be made, the common should be surveyed and it should be discovered whether a certain amount can be apportioned without destroying the whole economy of the township. The rights to run sheep should be safeguarded where necessary. I believe that the land should be apportioned as far as possible at one time, otherwise one man gets the best land because he happens to come first.

In Scotland, of course, we do not have the problem of public access. We have a much better form of law in that respect than exists in England and any time that the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) wants to go and wander at will over our land he can do so.

I was afraid that the right hon. Gentleman might have to save some money before he could raise the fare to Shetland.

We are troubled like England with the general problem of securing co-operation. It is important that the co-operative features in our agriculture should continue. If they are to continue we must take notice of the psychology of the people concerned. It is sometimes said that it is difficult to get crofters to combine, and the same thing may be said of people with rights on common land. But I do not agree that the crofters are always at fault. These rights, after all, provide their livelihood, and if things go wrong they are left to bear the result. They may well want to examine new experiments very carefully. It is all a matter of dealing with the particular problems of each common and township and of obtaining the maximum amount of agreement on a sensible scheme rather than the forcing through of some scheme in the teeth of local opinion by people sent to the locality from Edinburgh or London.

3.15 p.m.

I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) on having chosen this subject, which is a very relevant one, and also my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Crouch) for so ably supporting it and giving extremely interesting details about commons in his county. My approach, however, will be slightly different from those of my hon. Friends and such recommendations as I make will be slightly different also.

Since commons are in such infinite variety in size and quality of pasturage—a point which has already been made—and the custom, using that word in its agricultural tenancy sense, which controls their use varies so much from county to county, I want to confine my remarks to what I might term typical ordinary rural commons, not those which are subject to Section 193 of the Law of Property Act or those which are regulated. Nor do I want to say anything about commons which were temporarily requisitioned during the war.

With regard to rural commons I support all that has been said as to the disquiet in the minds of agriculturists and the public interested in commons and the way in which many commons are rapidly growing, not only into bush-clad areas, but actually into scrub forest. In Surrey I know many commons, portions of which are today hardly distinguishable from woodland. First, patches of thorn appear and then acorns and other seeds are allowed to grow among them, and so the commons become practically indistinguishable from woodlands.

As one interested in agriculture I deplore the loss of agricultural land and. as a member of the public, I regret that many of these commons are rapidly becoming of little use as amenities. Often when away from home I have been glad to walk on a common where I knew that I should not be trespassing, but would be able to enjoy the countryside. From both points of view something should be done about these commons.

Land is rapidly being lost to agriculture and to the public. The reason is that the number of animals on commons has decreased, partly because of motor cars, partly because in these days people living by a common are better off and are not so dependent on the cow or two which used to be kept, and partly because children go to school and cannot now be employed as herdsmen. The whole result is that there are far fewer animals and the scrub is not grazed, but rapidly increases. I feel that some action should be taken because at present the only person gaining is probably the lord of the manor to whom the trees belong, but actually such trees are generally of very poor quality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North referred to forestry and I think that is a possible use of common land. But on practically every common it would be against the custom and the law of the common for the lord of the manor to plant as that would interfere with the grazing rights of the common. We also have to remember that large-scale afforestation on commons would take away a great deal of the amenity provided for the public.

The more I have thought about it in the last few years the more have I realised the highly explosive nature of the whole subject. Unfortunately, there is a deep-seated opposition to any interference with the commons. That is based on memories of the enclosures in the 17th and 18th centuries. I will not go into the rights and wrongs of that, though I believe that but for those enclosures our present agriculture would not have developed, nor would we have won the Napoleonic Wars.

Unfortunately, the somewhat blind memories of unfortunate things that happened remain, and one has to be extremely careful when any change or any alterations are suggested for commons. Therefore, I do not go quite so far as my hon. Friend in asking for legislation at once. I should like to see the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Agriculture start a full-scale public inquiry into the whole subject, so that the public could be educated about the real facts of the situation.

There is great ignorance about the whole position of commons. Many people think that they belong to the public. I believe I am right in saying that in most cases the public actually have very small rights indeed. They are, naturally, allowed to use footpaths and bridle paths, and under an Act of 1876 there is a rather vague obligation on the Minister of Agriculture to make sure that if any change takes place in the user of a common the change shall be of benefit to the neighbourhood as well as to the lord of the manor and the commoners. The actual rights of the public, however, are very small indeed, but that is not generally known, and it should be made clear. I therefore believe that we should be proceeding in the best way by starting with a full-scale public inquiry.

The hon. and gallant Member has forgotten to mention the rights which the public can acquire under the Law of Property Act, 1925, Section 194, when the Lord of the Manor makes a deed giving them the right to air and exercise over the common.

The right hon. Gentleman will perhaps recollect that I began by saying that I was not then talking about commons that were regulated or came under that Section. Knowing the difficulties of this subject, I wished to confine what I was saying to the simplest case—the ordinary rural common.

As I have said, I feel that the first step is to have an inquiry of this kind. Until that inquiry has reported and the whole position is clear for everybody, particularly the public, to appreciate, no further action should be taken.

If and when action is taken, however, I suggest, with great deference, certain principles on which I think it should take place. First, no common should be allowed to become the private property of an individual or corporation of individuals in the sense that agricultural land is ordinarily owned. If possible, the rights of commoners, the lord of the manor and such rights as the public have should be preserved in whatever is done. A possible approach would be to remove the inhibiting Section which prevents the Agriculture Act, 1947, affecting or being of effect on commoners, because I believe they are technically supposed to be not direct occupiers.

If they could be compelled to make use of their agricultural rights, it would be a good thing, taking into consideration that a common should not, except for the purpose of improving grassland by temporary leys, be converted into permanent arable ground. I believe that fencing should be allowed, provided that it is of a temporary nature for a period during which the grass is being improved; but that the fences put up should be properly gated to allow access to the public. I repeat that commons should not become permanent arable land; they should go back to grass as soon as possible.

Commoners should be encouraged to form syndicates as they are doing over a number of commons, and, if they do not exercise their rights themselves, to let those rights in the form that the Syndicate agist the cattle of people other than commoners; and any benefit in the form of rent for so doing would go to the commoners. I realise that many commons or portions of them have a high amenity and natural history value. They may be the only places where it is possible to see what is supposed to be the natural flora of the country still growing.

I suggest that that is not always the case because these commons are mostly in a state of transition. But if it is considered that they are of great importance from that point of view then I think that they should, after compensation to the lord and commoners, be handed over to the Nature Conservancy or some other organisation. But we should not attempt to combine the two things, to give to the commons the highest amenity value and leave them as nature reserves and, at the same time, try to make them agricultural land.

I wish to repeat the warning I have given. I think it very important both from the point of view of agriculturists and of ramblers. One cannot hurry this matter too much, otherwise there will be a danger of misunderstanding arising in the country which might prevent anything from being done. I believe that a public inquiry would provide an opportunity to educate people, and enable them to understand what commons really are; to whom they belong; what rights are possessed by various people who are interested in them and how much more valuable those rights could be made both to the agriculturists from the point of view of food production and to others from the point of view of amenities.

3.27 p.m.

When he opened this debate, the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) said that he was handling political dynamite. He handled it very carefully, and it did not explode in his hands. I regard the Motion as objectionable, because I think that the hon. Member should have included something to ensure the continuance of the rights of access to these common lands by people who are not regarded as commoners in the generally accepted sense of the term. Had he done so, I should have supported his Motion instead of expressing the hope that the House will not adopt it.

This is a topic on which there is still a measure of controversy which is considerable, but certainly nothing like as bitter as that which raged in the last century and at the beginning of this. There still is a diversion of opinion. Some people think that we ought to enclose, cultivate and rent out the commons, or ensure the continued cultivation within fences of this type of land. Others consider that the policy of enclosure was carried much too far in the last century and the preceding century; that such commons as were left in the hands of the people away from the grasping landlords of that period ought to remain, so that the commoners can have free access to them and establish and continue their rights in them.

Whatever point of view we hold on this matter, there is no doubt that many of the 1½ million acres—which was the figure given to me when I occupied the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture—are neither being used for a sound agricultural purpose nor for the recreation of the people. It is a fact that much of the land held as common land is being used for neither purpose. That is a serious loss of a valuable asset which we ought not to allow to continue.

Part of the difficulty that we have in this matter is that there is no up-to-date survey of this problem of the land and its use. Here, rather surprisingly perhaps, I find myself supporting the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke). The time has come when there ought to be undertaken by some body to be set up by the Government—a Royal Commission or something like that—a complete survey of the land held as common land or regarded as common land. I believe that such a survey, such a consideration of the whole problem involved, would be of assistance to this House in deciding what ought to be done and, as the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead said, in forming public opinion on this question.

Some of the questions which I should like to hear answered are these. How are these commons owned? How much of the land is reasonably productive? How much is being well-managed under existing arrangements? How much of the common land is in fact being used for a real recreational purpose of value to the nation? What is, and what would be, the value of the land if it were properly farmed? What is its potential agricultural value, and what would be its potential value if it were under timber? Quite a lot of the land that I happen to know, which is certainly not used for recreational purposes or for good farming, could be carrying timber which would be of great value to the nation.

How much of the land would it be possible to fence temporarily, to plough, to fertilise and to re-seed and then to remove the fences and allow the land to go back to the commoners under some system by which they would have placed upon them an obligation to keep the land reasonably well farmed when once it had been so improved?

Also I think that it should be part of the job of a Royal Commission, or similar body conducting such an inquiry, to make a survey of the existing legislation covering the whole of these common lands. There was a tremendous amount of legislation through the last century culminating in the Property Act of 1925. Perhaps the time has come when we ought to examine that legislation and introduce into the House a Measure which would replace much of it.

There is one point which I specially want to put. I want to see if it is possible to have something done about the mountain and hill grazings to which a number of farmers have access. In my lifetime I have seen in South Wales a tremendous decline in the agricultural value of much of this land. Much of it has been encroached upon by bracken. Bracken has been a creeping paralysis, and no one has done anything about it.

The trouble is that each farmer who has rights of access and grazing upon the hill tops and mountain tops feels that the business is the other man's and not his. As a result, nothing is done to destroy the bracken. Nothing is done to lime the land or to give it artificial fertiliser or something which would put back into it some of the value which undoubtedly it once had. In the course of such an inquiry and of its report I should like to have made known to us the cost of reasonable compensation to owners where land could be fully used only when fenced in and under one ownership.

These are problems which we have to tackle. It is true that the use of much of this common land at present is wholly out of step with the needs of the nation, both for recreational purposes and for the production of the food which we so badly need.

I realise that the Parliamentary Secretary will be unable to answer this debate fully today, but I hope he will bring to the notice of his right hon. Friend the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead, in particular, and I hope, by myself—that the time has come when there should be a survey of all this land, conducted by some body set up by the Minister of Agriculture, and that its report should be presented to the House and should be fully considered in all its relationships, particularly as to the proper use which can be made in the future of this common land for both agricultural and recreational purposes.

3.37 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries
(Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

This debate, although short, has been very interesting. I want to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) on his good fortune in drawing a place in the Ballot and on the able way in which he moved the Motion. If, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) remarked, I am unable to deal with every question which has been put to me or with every aspect of this difficult problem, it is not because I am not interested in it but because the complexities are very great and the conflicts of opinion which arise are also very great.

Before I deal with the general problem I want to reply to the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). I have taken careful note of his remarks about the problems of the crofters. I was glad to hear him welcome the recently published Taylor Report and I will certainly commend to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the various suggestions which the hon. Member made and the questions which he put.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire. South-East suggested that a survey should be made. I recognise that it would be a great help to us if we knew precisely what was the acreage of common land and of what it consisted. The last survey which was presented to Parliament was in 1874 which is, of course, some years ago. Nevertheless, it would be right to commence on such a survey, which would be a very big job and. naturally, of interest to people locally, only if we were already prepared to take some action following it, and I have to acknowledge that we are not yet in that state of preparedness.

According to the best figures which we have at present, there are about 2 million acres of common land in England and Wales. There are about half-a-million acres in Wales. Much of it, I concede to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East, consists of these mountain grazings, which in many cases are steadily going back through lack of co-operative effort by the farmers who have common rights upon them.

I have noted the figure, which is, I think, reliable and which is given in our Agricultural Returns, of about 1½ million acres of rough grazing returned as common land; so that gives us a rough guide as to what these 2 million acres consist of. I think we would all say from our own personal experience that much of this 2 million acres of common land consists of moor, heath, and so on, which would be of very little grazing value at all, even if large sums of money were spent upon it.

We would also recognise that, in the nature of things, the fact that it is still common land and was not enclosed in the 18th century is evidence that most of it was not very good land, because, otherwise, it would have been collared along with the rest. Although I recognise that, in the constituency of my hon. Friend, there is some very good land on the commons, in the main, this land is not good, and much of it probably could not be brought into profitable agricultural use. I accept, however, that much that is now classed as rough grazing could be greatly improved if the management of it could be improved.

The difficulty with which we are confronted is that there axe three main interests in common land. First of all the ownership of the soil, which is usually, but not always, vested in the lord of the manor. The owner of the soil has limited rights, varying from one manor to another and from one common to another, but, usually they include mineral rights and the right to grazing. They usually also include a right to timber, but not always, and there are immense variations.

Next, there are the commoners. As far as I can discover, some of the commoners derive their original rights from the lord of the manor of other parts of which they were tenants, and, at the time of the enclosures, the lord of the manor granted them these particular rights over what was left of the manorial waste. They had such rights as grazing, cutting bracken and underwood, and, in some cases, I believe, cutting timber. There are all kinds of restrictions and variations of the different rights of commoners.

Finally, and not by any means least, there is the position of the general public. On most commons, the public have no rights actually vested in law, although, on some commons, they have. On some of them, they have a right by dedication by the lord of the manor; on others, they have statutory rights, which have been mainly conferred under the Metropolitan Commons Act, but there are others as well. The general public, although in some cases they have a statutory right, in others have acquired a claim to access by long custom lasting over the centuries.

These common rights, as we all acknowledge, are of enormous value to millions of people in their recreational amenities. That is the position; we have these three parties with interests that are interlocking and varying from one particular common to another. It is quite impossible, on the face of it, to contrive a new management of any particular common without, first of all, getting the agreement of all these three parties, and it would seem very difficult to get it without in some way interfering with the interests of those parties.

In looking at the record of what has happened, there seems to be only one consistent principle which has guided past Governments, and that has been one of intense caution in handling this matter. The law, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East said, is diverse, antique and complex in the extreme. As the law stretches over centuries, he would be a bold man who said he knew or understood it all.

This is a problem of enormous complexity. Each of us may feel particularly interested in one aspect of it, but when we apply our minds to the whole picture we must confess that it is not easy to see which way to move to make a general improvement. Our wartime experience was valuable in showing what can be done with some of the commons, and was extremely valuable from the point of view of food production. But it is no guide to what can be done in peace. Members of the general public are willing to sacrifice their interests of amenity and access during time of war for the general good and to help food production, but that does not mean that they are agreeable to do it in peacetime.

I remember visiting a common—but I must not refer to the part of the country. There was a very fine open space where there were large areas of open common land. One particular piece of several hundred acres had been enclosed and cultivated very successfully during the war. There was a proposition that this piece should remain permanently farmed and should have buildings on it for all time. The proposition was put to the people in the locality. It is extremely inprobable that many of the people had ever used the land, but now they loudly complained that this piece of 200 or 300 acres, set in the middle of tens of thousands of other acres of common land, was the lungs of the locality and that they could not do without it. We had to give way, and now that piece has gone back to be once again the lungs of the locality, and I doubt whether it is now much more than that. This illustrates the strength of the public interest, and we must give full weight to at in considering the general picture.

The figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster of the wartime acreage were right. About 20.000 acres were cultivated during the war, and 10,000 acres of them have been returned to the commoners and the general public. All of them are now producing more than they were. They went back with good pasture on them, whereas previously there had been little or nothing on them. so that some benefit has been derived. I am bound to admit that in many cases this land is progressively deteriorating, in the nature of things. In some cases the commoners have tried to do their best, but they are up against the fundamental fact that once land reverts to common nothing can readily be done to improve it. Even ploughing is impossible because it is technically enclosure. Once the land becomes common land there is no way, as the law now stands, of renovating the pasture.

The remaining 10,000 acres are still under requisition. Some are let to the commoners under various arrangements to enable them to have the benefit of the land. So long as it is requisitioned it is enclosed. The position legally is that the land is requisitioned under Defence Regulation emergency powers which are renewed from year to year. They now run to the end of this year, and after the date when the emergency legislation comes to an end will be a period of two years during which the requisition continues to run so as to enable such winding-up operations to take place as are needed.

That is the position as it now stands. Wherever we can we do all that is possible to bring the commoners together so as to make management arrangements with them for their benefit and that of the commons. Now that we are coming back to peacetime conditions there is, naturally, a growing pressure to have these commons returned so as to give full rights of access, of amenity and of recreation to the general public

When I was looking at the records of this difficult but very fascinating subject I turned to the general course of events in the 18th century when the great enclosures were taking place. I read how very strongly the wretched commoners and the general public, who saw the land disappearing from their use, felt about the enclosures.

There was an amusing little jingle which illustrates the state of mind of people who feel that they are not being properly treated. The jingle goes:
"The Law doth punish man and woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose,
That steals the common from the goose."
I see that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) knows the rhyme better than I. We cannot risk returning to a state of affairs in which people would again have such cause for complaint.

In commenting on the general preservation and care of the commons, I would like to pay my tribute to the Commons Preservation Society for the very enlightened interest it takes in trying to maintain the commons, not only in the interests of the general public but also of food production. The interests of the general public must be particularly before us.

I do not hold myself out in any, way as an expert on the law of common land, and I cannot do more than just comment on one or two aspects of a very complex affair. The law as it affects us today is mainly to be found in the Enclosure Acts, 1845–1899—there are quite a number of them; the Metropolitan Commons Acts, which affect a number of commons, and the Law of Property Act, 1925. Those seem to be the main legislative provisions.

There seem to be two procedures for dealing with the management of commons, one designed in the interests of the commoners—who would normally have agricultural interests—and the other designed in the interests of the general public. I suppose that there is a third one under Section 85 of the 1947 Act which, in certain circumstances, would permit purchase by the Minister. As far as the commons are concerned in regard to the trend of this debate there are the two procedures; one enabling a management scheme to be set up in the interests of the commoners and the other a scheme in the interests of the general public.

The interests of commoners, or of the lord of the manor, can be provided for by schemes promoted under the Act of 1876, which lays down that not less than one-third by value of those with interests in the common can make an applica- tion to the Minister for an enclosure or regulation scheme. They have to satisfy the Minister that the scheme will benefit the neighbourhood as well as themselves. It is interesting to see that before 1876 they had only to have regard to the benefit of the neighbourhood as well as the benefit to themselves and that there were a great many more enclosure schemes before 1876 than after.

The result of the 1876 Act was that a certain number of schemes came forward in the latter part of the 19th century. Since then there have been hardly any. If the Minister is satisfied that a case has been made out he embarks on a lengthy procedure which includes a public inquiry. At some stage he has to get the consent of not less than two-thirds of those interested. The procedure culminates in the Minister coming before Parliament with a Bill and if Parliament is satisfied that the public interest is to be catered for the scheme is approved and the Bill becomes law. This is a very long, complex and costly process, so it is not surprising that it is not often initiated. The last one was in 1918, in Gloucestershire, and since then one has been considered in Northumberland.

The general public's interest can be promoted by a scheme of regulation more particularly by county district councils initiating regulation schemes under the Act of 1899. I am glad to say that particularly in my own county of Surrey, several of these regulation schemes have been proceeded with. Incidentally, these schemes can also be proceeded with under the Metropolitan Commons Acts.

These schemes are really mainly for the benefit of the general public, giving the county district councils concerned the necessary powers to manage the common in the interests of the general public, to spend public funds on such matters as clearing the common, making roads and shelters, draining it and so on, and generally improving it for the public amenity. I am proud to be able to claim that we have contrived to do that in respect of the common in my own village after a good deal of trouble, when I personally had to acquire the manorial rights before we could do it. I made it over to the district council so that it could be preserved in perpetuity.

I think I should comment, in passing, that as the ownership of manorial rights gradually leaves the hereditary families who have held k for many years, and the property becomes just anybody's property, the interest of the public, apart altogether from agricultural interests, may suffer severely because there is nobody to look after it, to collect fees for different rights of access and keep it clear or drain it. Indeed, it may fall into the hands of unscrupulous people who may cut off all the timber and even strip off the turf and ruin it for everybody for ever. Therefore, there is everything to be said for county district councils initiating such schemes.

I have not had time to do more than call the attention of the House to the great complexity of this matter and to the three main interests that we have to keep in mind in approaching this very difficult and complicated problem. I should like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster that I am fully aware of the desirability of making better use of these commons for the production of food and timber, and I fully recognise that there is scope for that. My right hon. Friend and I will give most careful attention to what my hon. Friend has said today, and we shall certainly study the matter and see what means can be found to meet the views that he has put forward.

We certainly wish to make full use of these commons. We recognise that in our present position we cannot afford to have commons which are lying idle when they could be producing more food, so long as we do not interfere with the public's interest of recreation and access. With those few comments, I thank my hon. Friend for moving this Motion, and I am glad to be able to tell him that we shall he very pleased to accept it.

3.59 p.m.

I must express my profound disappointment that the Parliamentary Secretary has not seen his way to accede to the request made by the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) that there should be a proper inquiry into the very complicated matters which he has mentioned. In fact, if I may say so with due respect to my hon. Friend and to the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the Parliamentary Secretary made a better case for the inquiry than even they did.

As a Vice-President of the Commons and Footpaths Preservation Society, I can tell the Parliamentary Secretary, what he already knows, that they have made a request for such an inquiry. I sincerely hope that this is not the last word to be said on this matter and that the Government, which, in this matter, has professed the ignorance that it displays on every other, will take severe steps to enlighten itself and the country on the various ramifications of this question.

As the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) forgot to include the interests of he general public in his Motion, it would be quite wrong to allow this Motion to go through without strong protest. If he had added that, I would have joined with the hon. Member—

It being Four o'Clock, the debate stood adjourned.