Development in Rural Areas

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th February 1964.

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Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon 12:00 am, 7th February 1964

I beg to move, That this House, concerned that living conditions in the countryside fall short of those enjoyed in most urban areas and believing that the prosperity of agriculture and the development of rural areas are essential, calls for farming policies calculated to maintain an efficient and expanding agricultural industry and for the formulation of regional plans designed particularly to achieve in rural areas better communications by road, rail and air, increased provision of electricity, water and drainage, adequate programmes for schools, hospitals and homes, and increased and varied employment opportunities to prevent rural depopulation. The debates which we hold in this House which are of interest to hon. Members from rural areas for the most part touch on specific agricultural measures like the Farm Improvements Scheme, the Livestock Rearing Acts, the Price Review and so forth. The object of this debate is to afford an opportunity to review the countryside as a whole, to analyse the trends and to try to suggest a pattern for the future. I am fully conscious that this is a vast subject, and I shall therefore be in the debt of the House if I do not touch on every matter which is contained in the Motion. It is deliberately drawn as widely as possible to afford any hon. Member from a rural area the opportunity to touch on the topic which is of interest and concern to him.

I am convinced that only by the concerted efforts of hon. Members in rural areas, from all political parties, shall we be able to achieve our objectives in regard to the rural community. In this connection, I had hoped that we might have had at least one back bench Member from the official Opposition, indicating their interest in the countryside.

The problems of the countryside are not as apparent as those of industrial areas. One can see a deserted factory and queues at the employment exchange. Slums in the country may be picturesque, but slums in industrial areas are just slums. I believe that our success in tackling the pattern and problems of our rural areas will be crucial to the pattern of our society. Ever since the Industrial Revolution change has been taking place in the rural areas, but these changes have been accelerated in the last 25 years. We have had increased mechanisation and efficiency in agriculture which has caused a rapid decline in the number of people in permanent agricultural employment at the rate of 1·8 per cent. per annum, so that while in 1936 more than 700,000 people were engaged full-time in agriculture, in 1962 the figure had dropped to 460,000.

Agriculture has become a highly specialised and efficient type of employment, and today the average "nit-wit" in the town would find it impossible to comprehend the technical skills which are the everyday work of the farm labourer. Every year 35,000 acres of agricultural land are devoured for urbanisation, and in many villages—indeed in most—many craftsmen such as the thatcher, hurdler, the carrier and the blacksmith have ceased to exist. The village itself has ceased to be a self-contained economic unit, and more and more people who live in the villages rely on the nearest country town to provide them with their schools, their amenities, their social services, and, more important, alternative employment to agriculture.

That is inevitable, and in so far as it is indicative of efficiency and progress and modernisation, it is to be welcomed. But where those country towns are inadequate to supply this demand there is a migration not from the village to the country town, but from the village to large industrial centres. Once people have left these country districts they do so never to return. Depopulation is the greatest single social evil we experience in the countryside today. It is not only a social evil in the countryside but a national evil for the urban areas.

In the South-East we now have 1,150 people per square mile, and the British Road Federation has suggested that we lose more than £500 million a year in unnecessary traffic congestion. The price of land for housing has rocketed up to £12,000 per acre and in some areas there is only two or three years' supply left. The Minister of Housing and Local Government has suggested that between 1961 and 1981 there will be a 20 per cent. increase in the existing population in the South-East.

What is the position in the rural areas? Mid-Wales during this century has lost 17 per cent. of her population—37,000 people. In this connection, I am delighted to learn that the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) will be winding up this debate from the Opposition Front Bench. He did that on the last occasion when I was privileged to be drawn in the Ballot, and I look forward to hearing him on this occasion.

In parts of Scotland the population has been halved, and in this century my county of Devon has seen persistent depopulation, particularly from mid-Devon. This is not something that has happened in the past. In one rural district in my division, South Molton, in the last ten years there has been a fall of 12½ per cent. in the population. And with depopulation we have the situation today that in this small island areas which may be only 200 miles from London are now regarded as remote. This has left behind an ageing population, and the more remote an area becomes the lower the wages that can be earned. This trend is, therefore, not only socially wrong but calls for an increasing Exchequer contribution to maintain the infrastructure of the rural area. But no one can work out the social cost of the congestion to which this depopulation has contributed in the urban areas.

Which Ministry is responsible for problems of depopulation? The Ministry of Housing has been carrying out a survey in Mid-Wales. A report was received by the Minister more than a year ago, but it has still not been published. When will it see the light of day? Who is concerned about the problem of depopulation? Is it the Ministry for Industry, Trade and Regional Development? From the presence of the Parliamentary Secretary, I assume that he is. Is the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food concerned; and what about the Ministry of Housing and Local Government? What sort of study is being made of the rural depopulation pattern?

The object of this debate is to ask whether this exodus from the land is inevitable or whether the Government will attempt to cheek it. Will they afford opportunities to sustain rural population, not necessarily in rural pursuits but to give employment so that people will not be forced to leave the rural areas? In my constituency, nearly two-thirds of the graduates from the technical college leave the area because there is no suitable employment to match their skills. We must face the position that while the number of people who will be employed in agriculture will continue to decline, as national standards rise, so will the ambitions of people in the rural areas rise. This makes it all the more important to provide for their employment.

I wish to suggest some ways by which we could develop the economy of the rural areas, not merely to benefit those areas but to ease the pressure on our urban centres. To those who say that development will change the nature of the rural areas, I say that rural beauty is not dependent on depopulation or poverty. I am certain that the present trend will be reversed only by conscious and intelligent planning. As a Liberal, I am in favour of regional administration for the whole country. I believe that we should have a far greater diffusion of power from Westminster and Whitehall to the regions. But one must be realistic. I do not intend to make a party point, but it is true that after all these years of administration by Conservative governments we have had only two plans for regional development, in the North-East and Scotland, plans which are largely crash action programmes to cure unemployment where other palliatives have failed. I suggest a modified scheme. If the Government are determined to prevent depopulation and this ridiculous imbalance—whereby an area 200 miles from London is remote; another area is suffering from chronic unemployment, and yet another area is so overchoked that 2,000 to 3,000 families are having to be cared for by the local authority—and are determined to redress this balance, they should, I suggest, select four rural areas to which they will deliberately and consciously pump red blood. They might be the Highlands of Scotland, the Borders, Mid-Wales and the South-West.

If the Government are prepared to do this, I suggest that they create rural development agencies. I appreciate that some hon. Members take the view that this work already could be adequately done by the existing county councils, but I believe that these problems will call for co-operation between county councils and that we may see a regional structure growing up of its own volition. These agencies would firstly have to consider what population they wanted to sustain in the rural areas and what suitable employment would be required to keep the people there.

N.E.D.C. suggested that we will need 200,000 new jobs in the next four years. To achieve that will cost £20 million. It is a lot of money, but when one considers that in 1962 we spent £37 million on unemployment pay and National Assistance, it is not a great deal of expenditure. The agencies would then have to consider what essential services are needed in the areas and ensure that any programme is matched by the provision of schools, houses, hospitals, adequate facilities for further education and amenities, such as libraries, cinemas, theatres and proper transport.

Amenities in some rural areas are extremely bad, particularly basic services. Some hon. Members who represent industrial constituencies would be outraged if they saw the conditions in some rural schools, schools which were erected in the middle of the last century, often with four outside lavatories for 100 to 120 children. Some of these buildings have no electricity, others are without hot water; many are decaying. There is no doubt that rural education will need a tremendous amount of money spent on it, with new buildings and facilities, if we are to keep people in the rural areas.

Many village schools have been shut down in recent years. In many cases this has been inevitable because by closing down village schools one is able to give children far better education in the towns. Neighbouring country towns can usually provide better facilities and standards of teaching, but I would like to feel that, wherever possible, the village school will be maintained for primary education, because it is vital that a child should be brought up in its own village, whether or not he or she will follow an agricultural pursuit.

Many of our hospitals are incredibly out of date, some of them having been built a century or more ago. It must be realised that amenities just as much as employment must be improved in the rural areas. If we work out the social and other costs of the urban provision for people who leave the rural areas, coupled with the increased rate deficiency grants needed in the depopulated rural areas, we see that it would be cheaper to pump red blood back into our rural communities.

I should like to mention the position in the county of Devon, because there, I think, the county planning officer is very realistically tackling the problem of rural planning. May I say, in passing, that we are not merely concerned with depopulation in the rural areas. Depopulation is simply a way of exporting unemployment to urban areas. But there are many rural areas which have chronic unemployment. In my own division, a rural area, it has in one centre reached 10·9 per cent. In the neighbouring constituency of Torrington—I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) in his place, because he always adds lustre and practical knowledge to our agriculture debates—unemployment is 5·9 per cent. Therefore, we are not only dealing with depopulation, which exports unemployment, but we are dealing with actual chronic, numerical unemployment.

How is the county of Devon tackling this problem? I make no apology for referring to one county, because it is the largest administrative unit in the county. We are principally rural in the centre, and we have more branch lines under threat of closure than anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Highlands, and we have two scheduled areas of high unemployment. It has been suggested that we should create in the county of Devon four regional centres—magnet towns—and that they would provide the best education, industrial sites and cultural activities, backed by first-class communications. These would be magnet towns for the surrounding rural areas.

There should be then 12 key inland towns where there would be encouragement for industry and residential development—the coastal resorts speak for themselves—and finally in 19 rural districts key settlement villages which would be the focal points for the rural districts in a radius of 8 to 10 miles. They would provide the public utilities needed, industrial development on a small scale, and, more important, social services, such as the doctor, the community centre, the police, primary education and, sometimes, secondary education, but more often not. They would be the magnet area for the surrounding villages and rural communities. I believe that is the type of development we must have in our rural areas.

There may well be a case in Mid-Wales, and, possibly, in the Highlands, for building new towns. It would be interesting to know the Minister's view on that. We know that Lord Craigton, in another place, has suggested that new towns in Scotland would be valuable because, although they would draw off population from certain rural areas, they would keep people in Scotland. We know that Lord Brecon, for precisely the same reason, has opposed new towns in Wales. So, although we expect a little controversy in another place, where there is a greater spirit of independence, it would be interesting to know the view of the Minister on the policy of new towns.

What sort of employment do we want? What sort of employment should we try to attract? I think that the first thing we must realise is that the provision of 100 to 200 jobs can revolutionise the economy of a rural area. The secretary of one development association pointed out to me that the provision of 200 jobs in a rural area can have a direct economic effect on 2,000 people living in that community. The Fort William Pulp Mill will give employment, directly and indirectly, up to 2,500 and will, therefore, revolutionise the economy of the west coast of Inverness.

In Mid-Wales, there is a case where the employment of 50 women in a small town turned a net population loss of 3 per cent. per annum into a net population gain of 3 per cent. per annum. So it does not take a tremendous amount to revitalise a rural economy. The Mid-Wales Development Corporation has had very great success in the last six years. It has formed itself into a body representing four or five counties and it has attracted 20 new firms providing 600 jobs. But I am certain that if we are to tackle the task of directing industry and employment to rural areas, although Mid-Wales may have done it on a voluntary basis, these rural development agencies will need certain powers similar to those under the Local Employment Act.

I believe that they should have powers to make improvements in the basic sevices rather like those under the provisions of Section 7 of the Local Employment Act, which has been all too little used. They should have powers to build advance factories rather like those under Section 2 of the Local Employment Act, which, again, has been far too little used, and they should be able to make building and machinery grants, and be prepared possibly to guarantee the provision of a particular labour force in order to fulfil requirements of an industry. I think that they will need these financial inducements, and if the Government are really serious about pumping employment back into these areas, it is not too much to ask them to give these agencies the powers of inducement.

The Government will have to be far stronger over the issue of industrial development certificates. Here, as the Minister will know, I have had a particular battle in the past, and I shall not go over that ground again at the moment. But it is interesting that in France it is virtually impossible to set up industry in what is known as Zone 1, which is within 22 kilometres radius of Paris. There, if one is given planning consent, it is necessary to pay a tax of 200 New Francs per sq. ft. of office floor space and 100 New Francs per sq. ft. of factory floor space. This is a very real disincentive for developing in the conurbations and industrial centres.

For a start, greater use could be made of a little-known Act, the Development and Road Improvement Fund, 1909—a beneficial Measure introduced, needless to say, by a Liberal Government—which gives the Commissioners the power to make grants for purposes which would improve agriculture and rural industry. I think that far more use could be made of the provisions of that Act.

What type of employment do we want? Immediately one will be told that the industries should be associated with agriculture. I do not think that there is much scope for that. We may be able to develop forestry, which at the moment employs only 11,000 men. We are importing 90 per cent. of our timber requirements and we could probably grow a good deal more timber in this country. If we were to expand our forestry, I should very much hope that kindred industries, such as chipboard and pulp mills, which would follow, would be sited in the rural areas, thereby being close to the raw material and providing rural employment.

The Government could make a contribution by moving offices and records into some of these areas. The research by Mr. Wallace of the School of Agriculture at Cambridge is interesting. It has shown that what is really needed are firms with a maximum employment potential of approximately 200, so that we do not urbanise and spoil the character of the countryside. He has pointed out that what is important is not the particular process in which a company is interested but its communications with head office. There will be no problem where one can have a completely self-contained unit or a completely self-contained subsidiary of a large company with headquarters elsewhere. I know of one large firm in Somerset whose production has expanded nine-fold, and it now has nine subsidiaries in different parts of Somerset. In the morning, vans deliver raw materials to those works and in the evening they collect the finished product. The advantage here was that the labour was already in the rural areas, and the local authorities were only too pleased to provide the housing to accommodate the workers. We must also realise that by providing alternative employment we help to raise the general wage structure, which in many rural areas is already far too low. Strangely enough, one of the deciding criteria is whether the directors are prepared to make the journeys between head office and the subsidiaries. This really comes down to communications, to which I now turn.

The majority of the branch lines that it is proposed to close are in these remote rural areas; there are exceptions, but for the most part these lines are in our rural communities. No one in his senses has suggested that, whatever their social cost, all these branch lines should be kept going in perpetuity. But we cannot decide what railway pattern and what rail pattern we want until we have decided what development we want at the end of the line. To decide what we will close down before we know what we want to develop is an argument which, in the Devon phrase, is completely "Backsi-for."

We have the example of the pulp mill at Fort William. The railway line between Glasgow and Fort William was to have been closed, but fortunately British Railways had not got down to that when the pulp mill came on the scene. The pulp mill people said, "We are prepared to expand and give employment to all several thousand people, if the railway is kept on." The result was that British Railways changed their minds and kept the line, but there is no doubt that had they "axed" the line a year before the pulp mill project came forward that pulp mill would not now be at Fort William.

I have mentioned a similar situation in my division, and I do not apologise for repeating it now. We had an area scheduled as being one of high unemployment and able to call on Board of Trade grants—we never get anything, but it keeps us occupied in paper work for six months. The railway line to that area is threatened with closure, so we have one Ministry prepared to pump red blood into the area while another wants to cut the arteries through which it can flow. We cannot decide what the communications are to be until we know what development we want.

The same is true of roads. The trouble we have always had with Ministry of Transport thinking is that the Ministry's criterion for road development is based on the amount of industrial traffic the roads will carry, but what I implore the Government to realise is that one of the major supporting industries in these areas is tourism. In 1961, 5 million people—or 17 per cent. of those who took their holidays in the United Kingdom—came to the South-West. I hope that they will not feel insulted if I say that they are the raw material of the tourist industry.

Obviously, if they are to continue to go to these areas—and it is vital to the economy of those areas that they should do so—we must have a massive road development programme in our rural areas. The provision of roads from, say, Bristol to Plymouth and Land's End; to East Wales and West Wales, and improvements in the Highlands right up to Caithness and Sutherland, could do more than any other single thing to open up all those areas to increased employment. British European Airways loses £⅓ million a year on the Highlands and Islands service. The Jack Report—about which nothing has been done—has suggested that, for social reasons, a subsidy may be needed for bus services. If the Government want to open up these areas they must spend a lot of money on improving communications.

I want to touch on some of the basic amenities that we need to keep people in the countryside, because it is no good providing employment for them if they are to leave the area. I come right down to bedrock with what I call, "Mains, drains, and a glimmer of light". I wonder how many hon. Members present here today have been in a village with no mains water, no main electricity, no main drainage, no bus service, the village school closed down, and the nearest railway station two miles away—on a line that is under threat of closure?

These villages exist today—in the second half of the twentieth century. I can take hon. Members to a village like that in my own constituency, and the hon. Member for Torrington has them in his, and so, possibly, has the hon. Member for Anglesey. People just do not realise that these conditions exist today. Perhaps hon. Members from industrial areas do not know what it means to have to rely on one's own generator for an electricity supply with the disadvantage of waiting for fuel to be delivered from outside or, perhaps, if one is old and living in a cottage and cannot afford electricity, having to rely on gas lighting or on paraffin lamps. In these cases there is no question, of course, of having a television set—that is a modern acquisition that is years into the future. But these conditions exist today in our rural communities.

What is the position with regard to electricity? The only farms, the only rural areas, which can claim 100 per cent. electrification are the 82 farms in the London area. Apart from that, we have achieved 85 per cent. electrification, but there are still black spots in the South-West, South Wales, and Merseyside and North Wales. What I have to say is by no means a criticism of the electricity boards. They inherited a shocking, an appalling, situation, and have done a staggering amount since vesting date. If only the electricity industry could have been nationalised years before it was we should probably by now have cured the problem of rural electrification.

The Select Committee Report has pointed out that rural electrification costs each board an average of £ ½ million a year. By Section 13 of the Electricity Act, 1957, each region has to make a profit, or break even, taking one year with another. Therefore, each region can afford only as much rural electrification as it can subsidise from the urban consumers, so the less the profit from urban receipts the slower the rate of rural electrification. I should have preferred to see the criterion stated in the Hydro-Electric Development (Scotland) Act, 1943, which is that the Board should have regard to providing electricity for … the social and economic betterment of sparsely populated areas. The story of Scottish rural electrification is one of tremendous success.

It is true that farmers are able to get grants for rural electrification, but farms represent only between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent. of rural dwellings. The members of the Select Committee, with all the assurance and confidence of urban-minded people, have suggested that there must be a limit on the capital spent by the electricity boards, and a possible review of agricultural tariffs, rather suggesting that a good job is being done and there is nothing much to worry about.

Let us break that down into ordinary terms. I represent a rural division which, in November, 1963, had 65 per cent. electrification. That will rise in March, 1964, to 70 per cent., and will reach 80 per cent. in March, 1965. I therefore know that, in two years time, one-fifth of the rural areas in my constituency will still be without electricity.

It is true, and I accept it, that receipts from rural connections are very often lower than those in urban areas, but I believe that there is a tremendous job to be done in encouraging rural users to increase their consumption. We are yet in the infancy of crop-drying and soil heating, and conveyor belts are used in many different processes of agriculture. Difficulties can be overcome by means of publicity and propaganda.

I am quite certain that if we are to revitalise the countryside we must have very nearly 100 per cent. rural electrification. If the Government are determined to stick by Section 13 of the 1957 Act—the profitability criterion—we must decide as a matter of national investment by Exchequer grant that by a certain year we shall have 98 per cent. electrification and no nonsense about it. It can be done, and many European countries have done it. It must be a thing of the past that people are expected to live by gaslight and paraffin lamps.

As for piped water and main drainage, it may interest the House to know that there are no ministerial figures of the number of houses without main drainage and without piped water. I rang up the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. There are no statistics available. Presumably they have never been compiled. Perhaps this is indicative of the attitude which has made so many of our rural areas into rural slums in the conditions of the last century. I have, however, obtained some figures and I find that 53·6 per cent. of our farms have piped water, 12·7 per cent. have a private pipe supply on the estate, 17·4 per cent. have a piped source on the farm but not to the farmhouse, 10·8 per cent. have a supply on the farm which is not piped, and 5·5 per cent. have no supply at all.

It is true that there is a 35 per cent. Exchequer grant towards the cost of main water connection, subject to the deduction of the equivalent urban charge. It is true that the Government will say that drainage and water connections are, respectively, a matter for the local council or water board and that they can always turn to the Government who will give them a 35 per cent. grant. It is very often the rural district councils or water boards who need to spend most on main water connections and drainage schemes who have suffered most from depopulation and, therefore, have a far lower rateable value or low income subscribers. I am convinced that we shall need to tackle the question of piped water supply and drainage on a national basis and have a crash programme for both.

Again, there are no figures giving details of drainage. The only reason why I am able to give the House a few figures which may be interesting is that a colleague of mine, a prospective Liberal candidate in Hertfordshire, Mrs. Dangerfield, has circulated all the rural district councils in England and Wales. She found that out of a total of 474 councils, 371, or 75 per cent., replied that 3,582 villages have main drainage, 1,080 have partial main drainage and 2,288 have no main drainage at all. Some depend on Elsans, some on buckets, and some on septic tanks which are drained free only once a year with certain exceptions.

The ordinary drainage cost is between 17s. 6d. and 30s., and ideally the tanks should be drained once a month. I have been in villages where the drainage overflows and runs down the village street. These are the people whom the former Prime Minister might more truthfully describe as living in the effluent society. This is a shocking situation in a rural area. Therefore, not only must we have the basic services but we must realise that if young people are to live in these rural areas they must have the amenities of education, the arts, libraries, and theatres, with perhaps only four magnet towns in areas the size of Devon for recreation and entertainment. They must also have buses which will enable them to go into the towns and return the same night. This is very important.

I hope that I have indicated some of the reasons why I think it is vital that we prevent rural depopulation, as much for the sake of our urban communities as for the rural areas. I hope that I have indicated some of the powers which will have to be provided to attract industry of the kind we need, and why we must improve the infrastructure in terms of roads and railways, power supplies, water supplies and drainage.

The one vital industry in the country is agriculture. When it is realised its goods and services are worth £1,800 million a year, no one can doubt the extreme importance of agriculture to the well-being of the countryside. It is a sobering thought that the real net income of the farming community has progressively declined. When a survey was carried out on 5,000 farms in 1960–61 it showed that 32 per cent. had an income of £600 and under, and 45 per cent. an income of £800 and under.

This is not the occasion for branching out into what I might call farm policy, but the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade might tell his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture that the net next Annual Price Review will be of crucial importance to the agriculture community, because it will indicate quite clearly whether the agriculture community will be allowed to catch up with the income enjoyed by other parts of the community and whether, for example, the small farmer will be able to obtain a fairer price for his products. At the moment, the standard quantities concept in agriculture has a restrictive effect on farm policy. Again we must realise that marketing is becoming far more technical and highly skilled and that the farmers must have more help in this respect if they are to be competitive.

We shall discover from the next Price Review whether we are to have a healthy countryside in which we can raise the standard of living of the countryside or see it depopulated and turned into a sort of game preserve for shooting parties and safaries. The Industrial Revolution killed some of the small craft industries in the country and we have never yet made a conscious effort to redress the balance between town and country.

I do not want to paint the picture in over-black tones, but today many parts of the Highlands have been deserted by the crofters. In the slums of Glasgow there are many of the descendants of Highlanders from the clearances of the last century, which were one of the most wicked acts of landlordism ever perpetrated in this country, and far worse than anything, that happened even in Ireland. Today there are villages with a smaller population than they had 100 years ago. There are hamlets which have decayed and in some cases ceased to exist while towns are swoller, and overcrowded. This process can be reversed. Once young people have left the rural areas they never return, and with Oliver Goldsmith we can say Even now the devastation is begun,And half the business of destruction done;Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand,I see the rural virtues leave the land: If we share Goldsmith's devotion to the countryside let us resolve as a nation to stop this wanton bloodletting from the rural areas.