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 Percy Browne Mr Percy Browne , Torrington 12:00 am, 7th February 1964

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Perhaps I may at this moment say that what I am trying to do is to point out in the first part of my speech that I believe that on the amenity side the position is now fairly well under control. The long-term problems of industry, communications, and so on, to which I shall come later, are the problems that we have to solve. Once wealth is brought back into the countryside, the remaining problems of electricity and water will solve themselves.

As to electricity, I will take the West Devon area of the South Western Electricity Board as an illustration of what has been done in the past five years. Five years ago 46 per cent. of the farms were connected. Now 85 per cent. are connected. In the same area, in 1959–60 48 per cent. of other premises were connected. Now 90 per cent. of other premises are connected. This again shows a very marked improvement, with an expenditure of about £1 million.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a great deal of trouble to look into the problems connected with the Section of the Act which he mentioned. I understand—I am open to correction—that in fact the Central Electricity Generating Board from its central funds specifically provides rural development funds for the area electricity boards, including the South Western Electricity Board.

I turn to sewerage. I thought that the only remark that the hon. Gentleman made in the whole of his speech which was entirely and absolutely unnecessary was the one about "affluent" and "effluent", but I have heard him make it before. I hope that he will now forget about it. In the largest rural district in my constituency—Okehampton—out of 33 possible villages and hamlets which could be connected to sewerage systems, but which can only be connected when the main water comes—that must be remembered—18 schemes have been done and are satisfactory; seven are in the process of being done; three have to be improved; this leaves only five which are impractical. It is essential to bear in mind that in rural areas there are bound to be hamlets which are so scattered in nature that it is impossible to carry out any form of sewerage work.

So much for the three main points of water, electricity and sewerage on the amenity side.

I turn now to what I call some halfway houses—that is, services connected with the rural problem. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the hospital service. Here we are making great strides in the right direction. Not only have we got in our part of the world a hospital which is now on the drawing board and which will shortly, we hope, be started, but it is recognised that people wish to be able to visit their relatives in hospitals. To this end more specialists are being brought in to more local hospitals so that people are not taken miles away if they require some specialist operation. This is a good point.

As to housing, in the rural districts the lack of rate deficiency grant for council house building is resulting in quite long waiting lists, in spite of rural depopulation. We hear and read in the Press that the average earnings are £16 10s a week, or whatever the figure may be, but it must be borne in mind that the average earnings in rural districts are probably much nearer £9 to £10 a week. A rent of 42s. a week, which would be the economic rent which a rural district council would have to charge is entirely beyond, and is out of proportion to, the amount which any person should be expected to spend out of his income on the rent of his house. Obviously there is no great demand for large new housing estates, but there is undoubtedly a need for a greater rate deficiency grant in the rural areas.

On education I think I can give perhaps the most remarkable example of rural depopulation. In my constituency since I was elected in October, 1959, nine primary schools, one all-age school, and one secondary modern school have been closed. That is a remarkable number. One new secondary modern school has been opened. This, interestingly enough, is in the purview of Exeter and in the only part of the constituency which has increased its population in the past five years. I agree with the hon. Member I have been fighting this battle for the retention of village primary schools which are part of the fabric of their particular community.

I am not sure that I have not been behaving like Canute, although in this case the tide is not coming in but going out, and one has to expect to see the closure of more village schools. I hope that local education authorities in all rural areas concerned will think very carefully before they close village schools. I agree with the hon. Member that secondary education is not feasible unless the children go to larger centres of population. But in Devon alone, talking of the standard of schools, it is a fact that for the period 1964–65 we have had our proposed building and improvement to schools programme cut by 90 per cent., which is a very large figure. One has the problem in rural areas of the distances which not only primary school children have to travel, but which those who wish to take part in specialist or technical education have to travel.

To sum up the first part of what I want to say. I think that in the normal amenities the improvement has been rapid recently compared to 10 or 15 years ago, but the fundamental problems, which I believe to be better communications, prosperous agriculture, industry and rural transport, have neither been solved nor co-ordinated. In between there are certain short-term palliatives to consider before one comes to these four basic problems. In the interim period we have had certain crash programmes. Development districts themselves are part of those programmes. In the recent allocation of money for increased classrooms and the like in the educational programme which is to be completed by the end of March there is another example. Grants have been given for various particular projects such as improvement of village halls or the change-over of the village school to a village hall, but these are palliatives in the short-term.

I turn now to the long-term view to see if it is possible to find what must be done in order to get a resuscitation in the countryside. I mention first the Report which was got out by the Joint Committee for the Economy of the South West. This is the sort of effort of which I should like to see more in future. Here I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Member in that he wants to see regional government or much more regional control than I do. I should like to see the initiative for improvement and change coming from the councils and officials in the area itself. I believe that there must be central control, because it is only by central control that the necessary balance between regions can be maintained rather than that one region should fight for more for itself than another region within the concept of the country as a whole. That is why I welcome particularly the appointment of my right hon. Friend, not only as President of the Board of Trade but as the Minister responsible for regional development. I believe that this is the greatest step and the greatest hope for the countryside there has been since I have come to this House.

I wish also to draw attention to a paragraph in the Report I mentioned. It says: The principal handicap in the development of the area … It is talking about the South-West of England as a whole— is the poor communications both within the area and between the area and the rest of the country. When I was trying to decide which of my four main points I should put first, I finally came to the conclusion that the priority must be given to communications. I wrote down, "Roads, roads, roads". All the councils to which I wrote before this debate replied saying that the main priority, setting aside all the other things that have been mentioned by the hon. Member and so far by myself, is better communications.

That is so for obvious reasons. It is so because we have to open up the countryside, but it is so for three broad reasons each depending upon the other. Without diversity of opportunity the young will be sucked into the large cities. Without good communications industry will not come to these areas and give that diversity of opportunity which will keep people in these areas, and unless we have good roads and railways the young folk will not put down their roots in rural areas surrounding the towns in which the industries settle. So I feel it essential to concentrate first on communications.

Of course the ideal in the South-West would be a continuation of the motorway, as the hon. Member suggested, to Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth and down to Land's End with a spur to North Devon, but this, I am afraid, is in the distant future. I stick, therefore, to the essential improvements which we need now. We are not spending anything like enough on our classified roads even if we are to bring them up to the Ministry of Transport standards of today, let alone for the future. Figures from a traffic census taken between 1954 and 1961 show an increase of 50 per cent. in the number of private car units in the 16-hour day. The traffic growth over the whole country is normally 5 per cent. compound increase a year but in Devon it is 6 per cent. compound increase per year, partly of course because of holiday traffic.

This means that if we were to bring up our trunk and classified county roads to the Ministry of Transport standards we should have to spend £90 million, £38 million on trunk roads, and £52 million on county roads. If we were to make sense of this and to say that we could plan for growth in the future and look forward over the next 20 years we should have to spend £136 million at the rate of £6¾ million a year.

I am indebted for these figures to a very good report which the county surveyor has produced and which I am sure the hon. Member has read. It shows conclusively that if we continue spending at the rate of £1¼ million a year in this year, and project it at that rate over the next five years, we shall get further and further behind with the road programme in the South-West.

I do not want to say much about this because I was fortunate enough to be able to make a brief intervention in a speech of 4th December in our debate on regional development, when I put communications first, but I must impress on my right hon. Friend the urgency of this question. Here, as in the other main themes, I want to make one suggestion. I agree that many of our branch lines will have to be closed. There is one railway line which ambles through my constituency which takes £10,000 in receipts a year and costs £100,000 to run. Nobody in their senses would expect this railway to remain open, and I do not believe that there will be an objection to its closure when that takes place. But I should have thought that it was a reasonably cheap possibility to do what has been done in one place in the Eastern Counties, and that is to turn these railways into roads. I am talking about single-line running. I fully accept that there is the problem of viaducts and tunnels, but these roads can be one-way for some classes of traffic. This would take such traffic off the main arterial roads and would benefit the communications in our part of the world.

I turn to the second main problem, which is that of agriculture. It is rather impertinent to quote from one's own speeches, but I should like to do so on this occasion because I do not think that I can put it any better than I put it then, and because I should like to repeat what I said in a previous speech. Speaking of farming, I said: Evolution towards larger units is taking place, but what the House must ask itself is this: does it only wish to deal with it in £ s. d. or does it think, as I hope it does, that the social pattern of our countryside should be taken into account as well? This social pattern centres on the local village or market town. This is a heritage which we should not lightly throw away. We should cushion this evolution. We do not want to drive farmers and farmworkers wholesale from the land. I believed this to be true. I still believe that what I said then is equally true today, but I cannot pretend that these criteria are being properly fulfilled today. One can make anything one likes of figures about farming, and I do not want to dwell on present-day farming in any detail, although it forms a major part of the Motion. But it is a fact, as the hon. Member said, that farm incomes have at best lagged badly behind the incomes of other sections of the community and at worst, taking the most favourable view of the farmers' case, have dropped over the past eight or ten years.

I believe that it is fundamental to the prosperity of the countryside that the main industry of that countryside should prosper, otherwise the volume of wealth spent in the countryside decreases and decay and decline must follow. I hope that in the Price Review we shall see a real injection into farming incomes and that in dealing with the new plans for the control of imports we shall see that the home farmer gets a larger share of the home market as time goes on.

There are many grants specifically aimed at helping the smaller farmer and at trying to sustain the smaller farmer, in spite of the evolution which is taking place. But let us make no mistake that there is an evolution. Interestingly enough, in Devon, in the 150–300 acre group of 8,000 farms—indeed, in all farms in Devon—over the past five years there has been a decrease of approximately 100 farms, but the decrease in the number of farm workers has been considerably more—not just 100 but a decrease of 2,500 on figures between over 18,000 and over 15,000. That is a very large decrease indeed. One is allowed to ask whether this is forced efficiency. One does net keep a dog and bark one-self, but I am not certain that there are not too many farmers who have to be shepherd and sheepdog at the same time; that mechanisation is not being taken too far; and that too much land is not being badly farmed because of lack of labour on the land.

I have disagreed with the Minister of Agriculture on three of the last four Price Reviews. When I was able to agree with him absolutely it was when he started syndicate co-operative grants, because I believe that co-operation is essential. The alternative is that many farmers will be driven off the land as the farm workers are being driven off it today, and we shall be left with huge fields and comparatively few farmers. We shall then have complete rural depopulation and a complete drift from the land once and for all.

In this respect I should like to make one suggestion: we should consider how else we can introduce co-operative grants and encourage co-operation. I believe that the young farmers of today are much mere ready to co-operate and believe much more in co-operation than did their fathers. Let us suppose that a group of farmers will work together. If farmers will do this, let us give them worthwhile financial grants to do it. On six farms, possibly of an acreage of 500, it seems to me that, in Devon parlance, there would now be shippons and parlours for 20 cows. Let us give a worthwhile grant so that one farmer looks after the milking, and there is a milk parlour and covered yard of the size which would take the herd which could be carried on the much larger unit. The same criteria would apply in other forms of husbandry.

By this means the farmers could all stay on the land and much of the drudgery which is so common on the smaller farms today could be taken out of farming. This is one way in which help could be given in the future; it would be a worth-while encouragement to co-operation, which is the lifeline for the future if we are to maintain the rural population.

I have been very interested in the proposals put forward by the Labour Party. I do not disagree with their suggestions that we should allow the elderly farmer, who cannot afford to leave his holding, to live in his farmhouse and to have a worthwhile standard of living. My disagreement is that the land would be taken over by the Land Commission. But this is outside the terms of reference of the Motion. It is right that all parties should be thinking about this problem, because agriculture is the main industry of the countryside, and it is no good our talking about anything else if we do not have a prosperous farming community.

May I turn to the diversification of industry? Not long ago I was able to make a short speech on this subject, and I do not want to say too much about it today, but it is true that many of our intelligent young people from the country leave the countryside because there is a lack of diversity of opportunity. For this reason we have emphasised that we must have many more industries, not too large in size, moving into the smaller towns.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Devon county plan, and I should like to come back to that a little later on, but talking of towns I think it is important that towns should be sufficiently close so that we do not leave a hinterland area from which it is too far to travel to work, but sufficiently far apart so that they do not overspill into one another and the object of the exercise is lost. Then within we should allow diversification of businesses as the hon. Member suggested.

We find to our cost in my part of the world that too often one has all one's eggs in one basket, and if that particular basket of eggs is dropped, as happened recently in my constituency, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, then we have a sudden increase in unemployment, which in our case was 7 per cent. overnight.

I think that here there is a strong argument, having got the industries down to these areas, for subsidising the transport of goods for the industries thereafter. I understand that this is done in Germany today for the simple reason, and a very good economic reason, of the amount of time which is wasted by industrial goods travelling around in the congestion in the conurbation if these industries come and increase on the periphery of the conurbation. We might well save that money if we were to subsidise their transport costs and force them further afield. I think that this is something the Government might well consider.