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 Commander Sir John Maitland Commander Sir John Maitland , Horncastle 12:00 am, 7th February 1964

I do not think that, even if I tried very hard, I could fail to follow the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) or my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne). I do not for a moment say that in criticism. They covered such a wide area, and an area with which I so much agree, that it would be impossible not to follow at least some of the points they made.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Devon, North on his very good fortune in winning the Ballot, and his great sense in selecting this subject for debate. The hon. Members who are in the Chamber at this moment demonstrate that the battles which we countrymen fight for our countryside are not just a matter of party politics. They are sometimes fought, I regret to say, against our own colleagues. They are non-party to a very large extent. Those of us who understand and believe in country life and wish to preserve it have a passionate determination to protect it.

I want to refer to one aspect which is absolutely essential to the well-being, prosperity and happiness of the countryside, and that is the preservation of the small market town. Rather like the hen and the egg, it is not easy to decide which is the more responsible for the other, the small town or the countryside. But both are inseparable from the problem that we are discussing.

A great deal of all that is best in country life is centred in the small old market towns which for hundreds of years have provided the neighbourliness and hospitality which are a part of our British way of life. They give the British countryside its character and dignity, and to any countryman it is unthinkable that they should pass away. Yet if one looks beneath the outward appearance of peace and contentment, the small country towns are today facing a very real and dangerous problem.

The populations are ageing. The numbers are decreasing. The statistics show no unemployment, but when one really examines the situation one finds that that is because the unemployment is being exported and is adding to the problems of the already over-populated areas. In the areas where there is unemployment, this is making what is deplorable even worse. So, really, there is, in fact, unemployment in the countryside.

The boys and girls of the countryside are leaving to take jobs in the already overcrowded areas. As has been said, the opportunities to work at the old skills and in the traditional manners of the countryside are fading away. The saddlers, the blacksmiths and other crafts which seemed in the past to be inseparable from our countryside are going. The stock and produce markets are in danger from modern methods of marketing. Who can say how long the stock and produce markets of our small country towns will continue in view of the advance in so-called modern marketing which is pervading the whole of our national business?

The small, friendly, cottage hospitals are perhaps not frightfully efficient but they are part of the small country market towns and mean a tremendous amount to the people who live in them. I sometimes wonder whether this passion for efficiency pure and simple is really the answer. I used to study economics at Manchester, and in those days I was very taken with the idea of efficiency for efficiency's sake. As I got a little older and more experienced, I realised that commonsense and adaptibility are far more important when considering the wellbeing and happiness of any area than the pure, hard bitten economics one learns when young.

I was interested in what the hon. Member for Devon, North said about departmentalism and the regional idea. The Government have gone a stage further in the appointment of my right hon. Friend as Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Regional Development. But my right hon. Friend really must shoulder the responsibility. We do not want excuses of departmentalism to upset the duties which we desire him to undertake. We need him to take all the problems of the countryside under his wing and to realise the humanity and the human problems which exist under the hard headed economics preached by his Department.

The diminution of business in small country towns has led to lack of public transport from outlying villages, while even some of the age-old grammar schools, so essential to these towns, are being taken away, presumably in the interests of centralisation or progress. These things are happening in very many of our small market towns. I have generalised, and it may well be that it would not be easy to find a market town in which all these things were happening at once, but some are to be found in every town. They are symptoms, and unless something is done now they will mean desolation tomorrow.

As a nation we are not very good at being in time, and there is not a good deal of time left for us to tackle the situation. It has not yet gone too far, however. The country market towns are still happy places to live in and there is still plenty of opportunity to deal with the situation, but if we leave it too long then, of course, it will become irreparable.

The nation has a rising population and a congested south of England. Not only must we concentrate on that planner's paradise, the new town, but also repair the old towns. We have to bring suitable industries back to the small market towns. We must help them with tie provision of amenities, to re-attract. We must tackle the re-organisation of Government boundaries in a more sensible and human way than is sometimes the case at present. We must enable these places to maintain their civic pride and use the adaptability which is the pride of the British nation.

So often we see things which do not appear to be right from the purely economic point of view and are quite insupportable logically but which are nevertheless working extremely well. We may well find, however, that many of these may be swept away by local government reorganisation.

I want us to look at these things in a much more common-sense and practical way, and it is on the shoulders of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade that the responsibility firmly lies. We have to apply the same process of common-sense in tackling transport problems. We must stop robbing ratepayer Peter to pay taxpayer Paul. We are doing great harm in our attitude towards transport in that way.

I would recommend local authorities to consider more carefully perhaps than in the past the Cambridgeshire scheme, for which I have great admiration. There, country schools are given slight extensions, not at a great deal of extra expense, and become community centres at night. That is a good thing in the smaller country towns in providing the recreation and happiness to which we all have a right.

If we do these things we shall reap great benefits, but we must do them now. Just as in education we are hoping for a great national dividend by offering to the not so obviously bright children opportunities for full secondary and higher education, so by recreating our small market towns we shall be exploiting a great new source of industrial output and wealth and—not the least important—we shall be instrumental in preserving one of the loveliest features of our country life and our national heritage.

This is election year, and I hope that the great parties, in issuing their manifestoes, will realise the importance of this. I hope that all who live in the country, whether they be Conservative, Socialist or even Liberal, will accept that these small market towns which are such a feature of national life should be preserved. I hope that in the party manifestoes these things will be mentioned when they ask for the confidence of the country.