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Requisitioned Land, Peacehaven

Volume 531: debated on Monday 26 July 1954

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Wills.]

11.28 p.m.

Last week we discussed the case of Crichel Down. Tonight I want to deal with the case of Peacehaven, an area of land on the South coast of Sussex. I believe that this case has in it all the principles which apply to the case of Crichel Down and require the justice required in that case, and possibly more so. The constituent of mine, whose land is being threatened, has not the means nor the money that Commander Marten had. She has no other assets than the one-fifteenth of an acre which the Ministry is proposing to take away from her.

The history of the case briefly is that in 1916 a large area of the South Downs was split up for building purposes, and was sold, or given away as prizes in some cases, for development. It was as a prize that my constituent got her small parcel of land. It was requisitioned during the 1914–18 war, and was not handed back in the state it was taken over. My constituent's land was not developed between the wars, although a large number of plots of lands were developed and are now built on. In 1940, the war agricultural committee requisitioned this land. Miss Walker, my constituent, did not know of this, and only found out some time later when visiting it. She thought she would get it back when the emergency was over.

Under the Act of 1947, the then Minister of Agriculture in the Socialist Government decided to take away the freehold of this land from my constituent, Miss Walker, together with that of other owners in the area. This decision was in order that this small plot should continue to be farmed and food be produced. Throughout the whole of these proceedings there has been no suggestion that food should not be produced on the land, if that can be done. The objection is that a Minister or the State should take the freehold away in order to do so.

These matters have been put to the Ministry and to Ministers over a number of years. In 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1952 at least 14 hon. Members have, at one time or another, taken the matter up with the Minister and at least two Parliamentary Questions have been asked about it. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Major Beamish), in whose constituency this case is, has been most active in pressing the Minister on it. I would quote from a letter which he sent. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend, who has been ill, will soon be back again with us here. He wrote:
"I do feel very strongly indeed that the owners of these plots have been treated in a most high-handed fashion—although, admittedly, within the law "—
I will query that point later on—
"I particularly hope that in your review of this case you will bear in mind the large number of plot owners who would be affected if this compulsory purchase order is proceeded with."
This has been done to a large number of these plot-owners for whom we are speaking.

I have written to the Parliamentary Secretary on a number of occasions on behalf of my constituent. The latest letter I had from him was dated 13th July this year, in which he decided finally not to go back on the decision which was taken that my constituent must lose her freehold. This is the reason why I am raising the matter before the House tonight. I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary of the words of the Home Secretary in the debate last week. They sum up the point which I am putting to him now. The Home Secretary said:
"Every citizen of good will sees his land go in time of emergency for Government requirements with as much good will as he can muster; but it is taken for a specific purpose, for a specific need of the State. When that purpose is exhausted, when that need is past, what is wrong, on any consideration of morality or justice, in allowing the person from whom the land was taken to have the chance of getting it back?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th July, 1954; Vol. 530, c. 1296.]
That is exactly the point I wish to press upon the Parliamentary Secretary.

As I understand the matter, the Parliamentary Secretary has produced two arguments. The first is that a tribunal was held in October, 1951 under the Agriculture Act and decided that the Minister should take the land; therefore the Ministry must stand by that decision. The second argument is that under the Town and Country Planning Act the land cannot be developed, and therefore the State must take it over. On the first argument, the tribunal was a similar sort of tribunal as was remarked upon by Mr. Justice Stable recently in the case of a Mrs. Woollett. From discussions which I have had recently, I am not satisfied that the tribunal in 1951 was properly set up by the instructions of the Minister. It was at the time of the General Election and it is quite doubtful if the strictures of Mr. Justice Stable would not also apply in this case.

I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to assure me tonight, or, if he cannot do that, will look carefully into the matter to see what the facts are in this case, because there is a good deal of disturbance. I would quote to the Parliamentary Secretary a very forcible leading article in the "Daily Express" last week, in which they say:
Coupled with Crichel Down, the story of Mrs. Woollett's four acres builds up to a shocking picture of official casualness towards a citizen's rights. Muddle, delay, and injustice seem to be general.

I believe that applies to the case of my constituent.

I have a growing suspicion about whether the notice was properly given. I understand Saltdean Estates Limited, one of the local estate companies down there, stated that they had the names and addresses of the owners of this land. So far as I know, the officials dealing with the matter did not take up their offer of these names and addresses. I believe that where the freehold rights have been taken away it is the duty of those doing it to take every reasonable step to see these people are notified. I believe that was not done.

Notices were placed upon the land, and I understand that under the Act notices would have to be placed on every plot. I understand the figure of 4,000 has been mentioned as the number of plots. My information is that notices were not placed on each plot. It may be that a number of these notices themselves were bad. I feel, while the case of this tribunal may be looked at again, my constituent cannot accept it without some degree of qualm.

The second argument is one of development. As I understand the Minister's letters to me and to other hon.

Members, his argument is that at the moment the land cannot be developed under the plan for this area under the Town and Country Planning Act. He did not mention in a recent letter, nor say at any time, that under the Town and Country Planning Act there could be a five-year review of these development rights. Whether or not this land could be developed in five years' time, I do not know, and I do not think even the Minister could tell. Therefore, the argument that he must acquire the freehold, because the land cannot be developed, is definitely misleading, because it may be that in five or 10 years the land could be developed.

The crux of the point is that it seems to be wholly unnecessary for the State to take the freehold of land, whether it can be developed or whether it cannot, in order to produce food. I believe that my constituent and a large number of others on these plots are willing, and have always been willing, for their land to be farmed. I know that food production should be kept to a maximum, and I am not putting forward any suggestion that there is no need for food. What I cannot understand is why our Conservative Government should say that in order to produce food the State should own the property.

I can quite well understand hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, who introduced this general idea in 1947 and 1948, saying that according to their philosophy there should be nationalisation of the land. I cannot believe that that is the true Conservative line. Where do we get to if we follow that line of thought? Here is a case where my constituent's land is admittedly only one-fifteenth of an acre and the war executive agricultural committee say, "It is too small to be farmed by itself. It must be bought out and put into a bigger plot." But sooner or later someone may come and say that two acres is too small—or four, or 10 or 20 acres is too small. Where do we stop with this principle that where, in the opinion of the Ministry, the land is too small it can be bought and added to other farms? Where do we stop? I think this principle that the State can perfectly well arrange for agricultural production without acquiring the freehold of the estate must be stopped.

I wish finally to quote to the House the statement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) —the Minister of Agriculture, as I imagine he still is at the moment. I believe that what he said in the closing remarks of his speech last week may very well influence not only my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary but any Minister coming after him. The words used were: "…and it is our policy progressively to get rid of emergency powers which permit private interests in land to be overridden. With this freeing of the economy, and the material improvement in the food situation today, it is possible to contemplate taking action in the interests of liberty…"
I stress that—
"and free enterprise which the national economic situation would not have permitted two or three years ago."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th July, 1954; Vol. 530, c. 1187.]
That I believe to be the most important statement to be made from that Box last week. It gives me hope that in this case a large number of small plot-holders at Peacehaven will have a review of their case, and may find that at some future date it will be possible for them to have their freehold land back again.

I would ask my hon. Friend three sets of questions. If he can answer them satisfactorily—and I very much hope that he can, because they are not very difficult to answer—I shall be quite satisfied with the way the debate has gone. First, is he satisfied that the tribunal set up in October, 1951, by his Socialist predecessors was properly set up? Is he satisfied that the notices given for that tribunal to be held were properly served upon the owners of the various plots of land? If he is not satisfied, will he look carefully into it, reconsider the whole question and let me have the results of his search?

Secondly, can he give an undertaking that there will be, so to speak, a standstill order upon the processes which are now going forward for the acquiring of this land until the new Minister of Agriculture, whoever he may be, will have had time to consider the matter thoroughly As I understand it, as at the present moment negotiations are going on for the compulsory purchase. So far as I know they may be going on today or tomorrow. I think that it would be very sad and most unfortunate if, this week or next, action were taken which might make it difficult for the Minister to reconsider the matter in the future.

Thirdly, will the Joint Parliamentary Secretary use his best endeavours to impress upon the Minister, when he is appointed, and on the officials who serve him, to accept the two points of principle which I have quoted from the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary and also of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Richmond? I believe that if those points of principle are accepted by the Ministry and by himself, the only conclusion which can be drawn is that the freehold rights of this innumerable number of plot-holders will be preserved. The time has come when the conditions which prompted him and his predecessors have changed; that now we feel that the liberty of the individual is more important, and that the necessity to produce food can be met by some other method.

My constituent is willing for the land to be farmed, so long as it cannot be developed, and willing to allow what arrangements the Minister thinks necessary to do that. There is no question of the land going derelict as far as she is concerned, but she wants to preserve the right to maintain the freehold if, at some future date, it becomes possible to develop it, so that she can either build a house herself or make arrangements for someone else to do so.

I believe that I am speaking not only on behalf of my constituent but also for a large number of other people in the same position in this large area at Peace-haven. If my hon. Friend can give a satisfactory answer to this question, I am certain that he will lift a burden of anxiety from those people. He will be showing that the principles of liberty and the rights of property are still of vital importance to hon. Members who sit on this side of the House, whatever may be the views of those who sit on the other side. I believe he will go a long way, if he will give those satisfactory replies, to assuring us and the public generally that we really mean now to protect the rights of the small individual, so far as property is concerned, against those who feel it is in the national interest to nationalise the land and for the State to buy up these areas. I hope, therefore, that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give me a satisfactory answer, and I assure him that he has, and will have, the goodwill of all these people in that area.

11.47 p.m.

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

I would briefly confirm the description that my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley (Mr. P. Roberts) has made of the circumstances of this land, that it was in fact acquired in 1916, a small area of about one-fifteenth of an acre, that it was requisitioned in World War I, and farmed by the authorities. It stood idle, derelict and undeveloped between the two wars, and was requisitioned again in World War II, farmed again by the authorities—this time by the Ministry of Agriculture, through their agents, the East Sussex War Agricultural Committee. It is still under requisition by the Ministry of Agriculture and has been farmed more recently by being let to neighbouring farmers who have got it in production. I should say that it is part of a very much larger area. A total of some 2,000 acres was under this requisition, and rather more than half of it has been, or is being, derequisitioned and returned to its previous owners.

Their remains, however, an area of about 890 acres which it is at present proposed to purchase, if possible by agreement on price, by the exercise of compulsory powers. The difficulty that my right hon. Friend had to face, and, indeed, has to be faced by anyone who is Minister of Agriculture, was to discharge his responsibility of keeping in production land which is productive at the present time and potentially productive for the future, and to find a proper balance between the necessities of full production on the one hand and private ownership on the other.

There is this point that has to be considered in this particular area, and my hon. Friend has made reference to it, and that is the bearing of the planning authorities in their intentions for this particular land.

At the present time this land is scheduled to remain as agricultural land. It is true that the county plan is susceptible to review every five years but, in determining whether or not it is likely to be amended, we can but consult the planning authorities in the neighbourhood and ask what is their intention for this area. They have informed us that they do not intend that this area shall be developed for building purposes. As is quite clear from the figures, they have allowed development on over a thousand acres of that land which was originally requisitioned, and they evidently consider that that is enough to meet the needs of the neighbourhood. Although I cannot rule out the possibility of this land being developed, I can say that on the best opinion we can get the present view is that it will not be developed.

If it were to be developed it would be developed for building purposes, and there would be no question about maintaining the requisition, or the Minister of Agriculture wishing to retain control; but when land is not going to be developed for building purposes, there is a clear duty upon the Minister of Agriculture to see that the land is capable of being kept in production.

My hon. Friend really must face the practical necessities of the position. He talks freely about the land being kept in production without an acquisition of the freehold, but, as I have said, with four large pieces of land fragmented into the ownership of hundreds of different owners—as is the case here—and the individual plots being so small, the problem of keeping the land in production in its individual pieces is overwhelmingly difficult. How is the State or any private individual to hire that land by tenancy from the individual owners, if the land is left with them? At present it is simple; the Government, and the Minister of Agriculture specifically, have requisitioning powers under Defence Regulations, so that there can be compulsory occupation. Those powers expire in a few years' time, at the most, and then there is the problem of keeping the land in production in the future. Some of this land is very good, and is commanding, as bare land, £3 an acre. We really cannot contemplate 800 acres going back into the condition in which it was between the wars. Those are considerations that my right hon. Friend and myself had to bear in mind in coming to the decision to go ahead with the purchase of the land. In the majority of cases purchase has been achieved by agreement as to price.

With regard to the point made about the tribunal, I should remind my hon. Friend that Miss Walker did not appeal to the tribunal. She decided it would not serve her interests to do so.

Miss Walker states that she has always objected to that allegation. She was inundated with a lot of forms which she did not understand, and she may have omitted to do something, or she may have done something she ought not to have done, but she has always been adamant that she did not want to lose her land.

I can only give my hon. Friend the facts. While he may perfectly well maintain the view of Miss Walker, the facts are that on 19th June, 1951, she was served with a notice that the Minister proposed to give the certificate, and that she might appeal to the Agricultural Land Tribunal. On 11th July, 1951, she replied saying that it would be useless to appeal against the proposal to purchase her land compulsorily, and she requested that compensation should be assessed at the market value of building land. The fact is that she did not appeal to the tribunal. Therefore, the Woollett judgment has no great bearing, and possibly it has no direct bearing at all, on this case. So I can clear my hon. Friend's mind on that point at least.

With regard to the serving of the notices, it is clear that notices were served on Miss Walker, and that notice was given in the proper fashion. I assure my hon. Friend that, as far as I can make out from the records, the serving of notices in this difficult matter has been done with all the care that humanity could command. More than 800 owners have been contacted, many of them having done nothing with the land for 20 or 30 years. It has been difficult to trace them. The land was in plots which some people had acquired for nothing, or won as a prize, or gained in some other way. An enormous job has been undertaken in contacting these owners. Where they have not been contacted, notices have been posted on the land.

The third question asked by my hon. Friend was whether the new Minister of Agriculture will accept the principles laid down by the Home Secretary and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale). The answer is that they certainly will. At the same time, there is the need to maintain full food production. While I am certain that the new Minister of Agriculture will wish to examine in detail this complicated and difficult case, I cannot commit him on the view he will take. I ask my hon. Friend to bear in mind the general responsibility which the Minister of Agriculture must have. He cannot lightly say that his land can go back to the owners. Obviously, it would be practically impossible to maintain it in production, and the probability is that it would go back to the derelict condition in which it was in for more than 20 years between the wars, with potentially good land producing nothing.

Does the hon. Gentleman mean that wherever there is derelict land the State must buy it?

I do not. I resent my hon. Friend's imputing that motive to me. He knows as well as I do that if land is in one ownership it is possible for that owner to equip and farm it in the proper way; but here we have land in small pieces. He knows, as well as I do, that it is not possible to negotiate 700 or 800 leases. We must look at this practically.

Surely the Ministry has a responsibility in regard to the rights of individuals to deal with their own land. This is a shocking argument. You ought to be ashamed of it.

I will conclude by asking my hon. Friend to observe the facts. When the future Minister of Agriculture is appointed he will have these facts before him—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Two Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.