I welcome this opportunity to raise a matter of some considerable importance to my own constituency, namely, the question of the supply of electricity to a community on the Western seaboard of Ross-shire. I shall try to be as brief as possible, as I hope that we shall be able to elicit something of the policy of the Hydro-Electric Board in relation to these remoter areas.
Perhaps this is an appropriate time to raise this matter. The area about which I want to speak is Torridon, where the people have been promised a supply of electricity for some considerable time. In fact, over the last six or seven years this has been a rather troublesome question to them. I thought that this was rather an appropriate moment to raise the matter, especially in view of the reply given only yesterday by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who said:
My right hon. Friend is at present discussing the adjustment of the Board's plans to meet the Government's proposals on investments, and is not yet in a position to reply."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th October, 1957; Vol. 575, c. 15.]
That was said in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) about the plans of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, and whether they were likely to be affected by the new restrictions on investment. I realise that this matter is to a certain extent involved in the subject of the debates which have been taking place over the last two days.
Despite that, I believe that the Highlands have a lot of leeway to make up. Though cuts in capital expenditure and investment are announced, essential services in the Highlands, whether roads or electricity, for instance, should not be affected at all, because in the Highlands years of neglect have to be made up. Moreover, we must not forget the obligations of the Hydro-Electric Board under the Act of 1943. Section 2 (1) of the Act,
concerning the general powers and duties of the Board says:
…it shall be the duty of the Board so far as practicable…to meet the demands of ordinary consumers…(including isolated areas)…
Subsection (3) of that Section says:
The Board shall, so far as their powers and duties permit, collaborate in the carrying out of any measures for the economic development and social improvement of the North of Scotland District or any part thereof.
That puts a fairly strong obligation upon the Board, and that was legislation passed by this House.
I have been writing for years about this question of supplying electricity to Torridon. I have written to the officials of the Board at the regional office, and then to the Chairman of the Board, and finally to the Secretary of State for Scotland himself. I hope that the Secretary of State will acknowledge his responsibilities in this sphere. We cannot leave all to the Hydro-Electric Board in the present circumstances, and I hope that the Secretary of State will look very carefully into the matters which I am raising tonight.
I have in my file here a petition which was drawn up by the people of this area as long as four years ago, in 1953. This is not a case of an isolated house or a farm or anything like that. We are dealing with a whole community. I recently calculated the numbers affected. Over 100 houses are involved, two large lodges, an enterprising boat building industry, a farm, a youth hostel, and four shops. For a remote area in the Highlands, it is quite a community with which we are dealing.
The galling thing is that they have seen electricity come fairly near, within five miles on either side of them, to Sheildaig to the south and to Gairloch a little farther away to the north. When electricity was brought to the area of Applecross it was announced—by the Chairman of the Hydro-Electric Board, I think—that the supply of electricity would go to the Torridon area. Of course the inhabitants were encouraged by this news and went to some considerable expense in wiring their houses.
I know of many instances of this and have letters about it. I shall quote only one because I want to be brief. This is a letter from the proprietor of a large lodge.
I got it just before the Recess. This is what he says:
In January, 1955, I wrote to the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board saying my battery—
he generates his own electricity in the lodge—
was showing signs of age and asking their advice as to renewing my battery or waiting for the main. They strongly advised me to wait for the main saying they hoped to commenace construction in autumn, 1955, but that we could not look for a supply at Torridon until late in 1956. They assured me that I should find their terms for a mains supply very reasonable.
That was rather encouraging to this chap, and, being a legal man, he let everyone know.
He goes on:
During the summer of 1955 the Board's representatives were here with maps…
I will not bother to read more, but here is the point that affects him, like so many others. He happened to be doing some plumbing in the house and, to make the thing more economical, he thought, "I will put in the wiring and adapt my house for the mains which the Board has already assured me are coming in, at the latest at the end of 1956." He spent £250 on that adaptation, on switches, and so on. Before doing so, being a sensible man, he thought it reasonable and prudent to find out just what the supply would cost. He therefore asked one of the representatives to assess the house. He was quoted a supply of current and was asked to guarantee £52 per annum. He accepted that and he asked whether the Torridon scheme was still on.
The Hydro-Electric Board then replied, after acknowledging his letter of acceptance. The Board spoke of the recent financial crisis and said that the scheme was still on, but that completion would be delayed. I ask the Joint Under-Secretary what the delay now will be. This has gone on far too long. It it up to the Board to make a more reassuring indication. The Board has already given assurances, and that is the disturbing point about this matter. The Board has very nearly made a promise, judging from the correspondence that has taken place. Can the Board go on saying that the supply will not now come to the district because costs are rising? We know that every year the cost of these things goes up. That is one of the main excuses made by the Board.
But what happens now is far more serious, and this is a point which has been raised by many hon. Members. Under the appropriate Act, the Board used to bring electricity free to these areas. That was going to happen in the initial stage in Torridon. The supply was to be brought free to the gable ends of the houses, but now the Board is demanding extortionate capital charges from individuals, to such an extent that the demand amounts to a refusal to bring the electricity to the area, because these people cannot possibly afford these extortionate charges.
Now we have a position in which the Chairman of the Board writes to me—and I have sent his letter to the Secretary of State—asking whether grants could not be given to individuals, as was done in other European countries as he puts it, to have the electricity brought in. I should like to ask the Under-Secretary whether this is a complete change of policy on the part of the Board. The Board expends vast sums of money—millions of pounds—and it is surely very strange if the Board has to call upon the Government to give individual grants to bring electricity to these areas.
I should like to develop that further, but it would need another debate altogether. I ask the Secretary of State to make an inquiry into this case. It is similar to cases raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) on previous occasions. After all, the Act of 1943 was introduced to deal with the remote areas, and those are the areas we are trying to develop. We are trying to deal with areas which are becoming depopulated because of the lack of amenities.
Today, we shall not get housewives to light lamps or to use candles because young people have been away in the Services and have seen the modern appliances in other areas. The lack of amenities is one of the main reasons why they are not staying in the remote areas, yet the Government are spending vast sums of money in various ways to try to keep them there.
Shieldaig is supplied with electricity and it is only five miles away. I understand that under the distribution scheme for this area mapped out by the Board the supply will come through Kinlochewe. I will not go through all the names, but this is an area where there is only one house. Yet the area around Shieldaig is a little more populated. I think that the Board has slipped up and I would like the Secretary of State of look into this point.
In bringing the supply of electricity to Shieldaig the Board has used lightweight poles, with only two phases. Surely that was a complete lack of foresight. They ought to have brought heavier poles, so that the distribution could be continued for the short distance of five miles into the Torridon area. I do not expect the Under-Secretary of State to tell me tonight, but I would like him to let me know how much the current has increased in this area since 1952, because there is a great deal more current now available there.
I know that this would cost about £50,000, but it is not much in comparison with the figures we have heard bandied about in the last two days. It is galling for these people to read that the Hydro-Electric Board proposes a scheme costing £14 million.
I will not speak longer, because I want to give the Under-Secretary of State time to reply, but one important factor also involved here, apart from the amenities to the local people, is the value of the tourist industry in this area. We have a thriving and developing tourist industry in the Highlands. We have no other industries. In this area we have our marvellous, beautiful scenery which is a raw material that costs nothing. The Tourist Board is doing all it can to encourage visitors and the crofting communities are playing their part in this development. Yet this crofting area is being denied electricity, and that is an important factor if we are to get people to take tourists into their small houses.
This is not altogether a local matter. For the reasons I have given, and also because of the tourist industry, it is a matter of national importance. I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State will tell the Board to get on with the job and to start immediately to bring electricity to Torridon.