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 am most interested to hear that. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, in spite of what the President of the Board of Trade said, that having thought over this problem recently, I think it is a subject which might well be looked at again. I will put it no higher than that. It is undoubtedly true, as one knows, that one's costs increase today because of traffic conditions, and one would think that this would be well worth while looking at again.

To turn to the problem of rural transport. The Jack Committee's Report came out some years ago. We have had one debate on it, initiated by a back bencher on a Friday or in private Members' time one evening. That was the only time we have debated this subject although this is surely one of the fundamentals if we are to have a prosperous countryside in the future.

I should like to start what I have to say about this by quoting from the preliminary Report which has just recently been published on Rural Transport Surveys, one of these surveys being carried out in a comparatively small part of the 700 square miles of which my constituency consists. This is what it says: People were asked if they were hindered by local transport difficulties … Overall between about half and three-quarters of persons in households without private transport said they were hindered in some way. The proportion of persons in households with private transport reporting difficulties was much lower but still substantial, commonly about a fifth. I draw the attention of the House to Appendix E of the Jack Report. Hon. Members will find that in the four years from 1958–61 inclusive there was a reduction in total weekly mileage run by buses of 46,000 miles. Table 1 of this preliminary survey shows that only 44 per cent. of the households which were surveyed in the area of my constituency had some form of private transport other than a pedal cycle; only 44 per cent.

So there is no doubt at all that the lack of public transport facilities causes hardship, particularly, as the hon. Gentleman said, to the elderly who have never learned to drive. It creates a sense of isolation. I do not say that this is of paramount importance. In fact, in an area of my constituency which shall be nameless there was a petition got up that a bus should be run between A and B. The Devon General ran a bus. For three years they ran a bus, and in that three years exactly three people used the bus. So they took the bus off again. Whereupon the local inhabitants got up another petition to ask that the bus be kept on. I still believe that up to a point there is a feeling of isolation, and one can see the object of the exercise there. They wanted the bus in case they wanted to use it. The trouble was that they did not use it.

There must, however, be a case for a stage service, both for work and for recreation, a very important point mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. To support this premise, and the premise in the Jack Committee's Report, I think one should look at what the Committee said on page 27, that we think that any solution involving financial assistance should be related to the circumstances of each case, including the hardship and inconvenience which would arise if the service was to be withdrawn, and that it should not be based on any general formula of overall costs per vehicle mile or even of operating costs per vehicle mile. This is a view with which I very much agree. This is why after all the talk of subsidies the reduction of fuel tax—which. I think, is a palliative—should be used till we have a proper rural transport system worked out which makes sense.

Eventually the solution of the rural transport problem must be on a local basis, and it is for this reason that I would suggest that there should be for each reasonably sized rural area a deputy traffic commissioner. The House will know that at the moment the Traffic Commissioner for the South-West deals with at least five counties.

It is fairly common that if a small bus operator who probably is a garage proprietor puts in to run a service—he makes money out of excursions as well as a stage service—the big boys will put in an objection, and this frightens him off. It is perfectly possible under Section 62(2) of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, to have a deputy traffic commissioner. There might be two or three for Devon, for example. They, seeing the needs of the area, can allocate routes to those who are prepared to run licensed services, whether with minibuses or whether with small buses, in the interlacing areas in the hinterland, or the bigger companies on the main routes.

It is perfectly ridiculous that the Minister of Education lays it down that local education authorities must accept the lowest tenders for school transport even if as a result—and it often is so—the contract goes to somebody who is not even licensed to run a bus when he puts in his tender. He gets the contract. It should surely go to a person who is prepared also to run a stage service during the day. If this were done I think we could rationalise our rural transport, and I believe that subsidy should be paid—for subsidy will be necessary somewhere—through local councils which, after all, know the needs of their areas. Therefore, although I agree with much of what the Jack Committee says, I disagree that the county council should be the arbiter of the subsidy.

It depend; so much, I agree, on the size of the county, but if the local council, precepting maybe on the county rate, in conjunction with a deputy commissioner were to deal with the problem, we should be going a long way towards solving the difficulty that people have in getting from one place to another in the countryside.

I have spoken for longer than the hon. Member for Devon, North and I apologise for doing so, but this is the first time since I have been a Member of the House that I have had a chance to speak on all the subjects that always concern me and it is very likely that it will be the last.

I want also to mention the Devon county plan for key settlements, which will be larger villages and small towns having the essentials of schools, village halls, shops, bus routes and communications and priority for housing estates. There are too few of them, and more are required. It may defeat the object of the exercise to have too many, but, looking at my constituency, I think there are too few.

Still, it is the right approach. It makes sense. One must have magnets—towns as magnets for industry and recreation, large villages and small towns as magnets round which people will live and in the communal life of which they will play their part, in the church, chapel and village hall.

Speaking of the South-West, one must also mention the tourist trade and holiday industry. In 1961 5 million people poured into Devon and Cornwall, and we want them to continue to do so, but they will not unless communications are good. That is the first essential. Also, we do not want to see coastal sprawl as we have seen urban sprawl. I hope that the authorities responsible for coastal areas will ensure that development occurs only in certain places. I am delighted that certain areas in the constituency of the hon. Member for Devon, North are now part of the National Trust and cannot be built on. This is excellent. We have seen too much coastal sprawl, and, apart from the fact that it is most unpleasant to see, if it goes on I am afraid the holidaymakers will go abroad.

Another essential for the holiday trade is staggered holidays. At the moment the great weight of holidaymakers comes to our part of the world in the very short period of August and early September. Great efforts have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew), who has now been elevated to a junior Ministerial post, to have school holidays staggered. This is a "must". I am sure that the examinations problems will be overcome. From the point of view of holidays and entry into industry, I am sure that staggered school holidays are essential.

I quote two sentences from the Report dealing with regional development in the north-east of England: The over-riding need is to diversify the region's economic life—to broaden the economic base by the development of a wider range of enterprises. This will require a sustained effort over many years. This could equally well be said by any region in the country which is mainly rural.

We are talking about something we want not just to preserve but to rejuvenate. A great deal has to be done, but if it is done properly we shall no longer see articles like that in The Times the other day, the heading of which was: The drift from Devon's dying hamlets.