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 Henry Brewis Mr Henry Brewis , Galloway 12:00 am, 7th February 1964

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) who, in a commendably short speech, mentioned about 12 different subjects, from forestry villages to shipping in the Highlands. I hope that during my speech I may be able to take up some of the matters he mentioned and comment on them.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) on introducing this Motion, but I assure him that the problem is by no means confined to Devon. It is a disease in all the remote areas of the British Isles. In the last ten years, Pembrokeshire has lost over 10 per cent. of her population; Ross and Cromarty has lost 4·2 per cent.; Cornwall has lost 5·6 per cent.; and as to the area which I represent, Kirkcudbrightshire has lost 6 per cent. and Wigtownshire 7·9 per cent. Those are high enough figures, but the figure for the landward area of Wigtownshire is 15·1 per cent. In a period of just over 100 years, 50 per cent. of the population of that county has migrated, mostly to the large urban areas.

Hon. Members have referred to the problems of depopulation, such as the closing of hospitals, and the closing of village schools. I should like to call attention to one thing which is worrying my constituents very much, and that is the rise in rates due to a reduction in resources because of depopulation. No one can say that the Wigtownshire County Council is by any means over-extravagant, but according to my calculations, over the last 7 years rates have doubled. At the same time, one should note that no less than 70 per cent. of the expenditure is provided by Government grant, compared with 48 per cent. in Scotland as a whole.

The present situation is causing great heart searching among ratepayers in remote areas, and it is among the effect of making them criticise such services as education, which to my mind are essential. It is most important that in these areas the educational provision is kept up to the standard of the rest of the country. The last thing we want to be is second rate areas for education, because I feel that the future of this country depends very much on education.

The hon. Member for Leith mentioned agriculture. I entirely agreed with his remarks about the winter keep scheme. I rather wish that we could have more support from hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent English and Welsh constituencies, where one meets the problem of the marginal hill farmer. The winter keep scheme is most important One of the main objections is that not enough is being pumped into the really remote farming areas of the country, and I wish that on this matter we had a little more support from the English and Welsh.

It is important that the income of agricultural communities should be kept up, but, at the same time, if we want to cure depopulation and unemployment in remote areas, we must remember that agriculture is not the answer. According to the N.E.D.C. Report, it is estimated that between 1961 and 1966 agriculture will lose about 96,000 workers, and that coal mining, a semi-rural industry, will lose 85,000 workers.

Alternative employment will have to be found for those people. Tourism has been mentioned. It is a most useful industry for bringing money into the rural areas, but it is not a big employer of labour, though I must say in passing that it seems that there are possibilities of using our own labour rather than employing foreigners to do such skilled work as catering and cooking in hotels.

The hon. Member for Leith mentioned the Tourist Amenity Council. I think that this is a good idea, and an imaginative one, because we must appreciate that as the industrial sprawl continues, the unspoiled sea coast, and the unspoiled countryside, will be in short and rationed demand. I therefore earnestly support the idea of a Tourist Amenity Council.

At the same time, however, if that Council is to have funds, the Government must be prepared to contribute much more than the £25,000 which has been suggested, which in terms of Government expenditure amounts to virtually a farthing. It amounts to perhaps half the cost of a tank, or just enough to buy a few spares for an aircraft.

I know that the idea of the hotel levy is that it should be a charge against gross profits, but I do not regard that as satisfactory. The Government should provide larger funds, possibly on a decreasing scale, so that, as time goes on the hotel industry and tourist industry can gradually take over their own financing.

One thing that we do not want in rural areas and in unspoiled countryside is massive overspill. Nor do I think that new towns are a particularly good idea. The only effect of a new town in an area of sparse population is to draw people from the existing towns which already need help. What we need is alternative employment in small towns within travel to work distance of many of the villages.

The hon. Member for Leith mentioned the village of Ae in Dumfriesshire. I am not sure that I agree with his remarks. It is very difficult in remote villages such as Ae to produce the sort of amenities which people in the countryside want today. I think that his suggestion is perhaps the reverse of what is wanted and that one has to have more travel to work from existing communities and perhaps less isolated new settlements like the one which he described.

It is possible to have employment in small towns, and such employment can often become self-generating. In 1960 a factory making steel radiators came to Dalbeattie in my constituency. It was a tremendous boon to the people in the area and employed about 50 men. Now, three years later, it has expanded and the work force will probably grow up to more than 100 men. In Newton Stewart, Cree Mills making mohair rugs is expanding into a neighbouring village. Once one has a new industry in a small town, it often expands, and I do not think that we should regard such a project as being necessarily uneconomic.

There is a distinct gap here between areas of depopulation and developed district. Almost by definition they are not development districts because a development district has a high percentage of employment and that is not likely in an area of depopulation, for the simple reason that a large proportion of the population have gone somewhere else. There is a distinct gap here, and we have to look at the question of giving development district status to areas which are losing population.

I know at the moment the Government's policy is to develop growth points, and this policy has been set out in such documents as the White Paper on the development of Central Scotland. I do not disagree with that idea but I think that it would be unrealistic to expect that employment from such growth points as Irvine, Cumbernauld and Grangemouth will overflow into areas like the Highlands and the Solway counties for many years indeed. Nor do I think that in South Wales the employment from growth points will reach very far up the valleys into constituencies such as that of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson).

I think, therefore, that in addition we must have a policy of attracting small industries to towns in the country. This policy is feasible. It has been put into force by the West German Government, and they are by no means fools. I think that what the growth areas are really interested in is not a small form which is likely to employ about 50 people, but a big firm like the motor industry, or the Skefco Ball Bearing factory which is starting at Irvine. These sort of factories are not of much interest to the rural areas, which do not want to be destroyed by the presence of great organisations employing thousands of people. They do not have sufficient populations to begin with and there is no attraction in these places for such factories.

I would like to see the Board of Trade, as a conscious policy, instead of concentrating on growth areas for all industries, to remember that many of the smaller industries are more suitable to be induced to go to areas of relative depopulation. One retrograde step was taken by the Government on this point. When the Local Employment Act, 1963, was passed it confined the building grant to 25 per cent. Prior to that legislation the more remote areas could get a 40 per cent. building grant. The 40 per cent. rate should be returned for certain areas, such as the Highlands and the West Country, which badly need these small industries.

We could do much by initiating a further programme of advanced factories of about 10,000 sq. ft. and by putting many of them in our small towns and rural areas. In addition, there are certain industries which are particularly suitable to the rural area; for instance, those which require clean air, which can agricultural produce and which are connected with forestry.

The hon. Member for Leith mentioned Fort William, which will be a wonderful thing for the Highlands. However, that plan went ahead accompanied by a great deal of Government money. It is an open secret that there is another forestry industry floating around, so to speak, in the Border area. If that industry is to have a similar amount of Government money I hope that the Government will agree that it should go into an area in which people have laboured for 20 or 30 years in the planting of trees and now want to see the consumation of their work. I would regard it as absolutely lamentable if this new factory were induced by the Board of Trade to go to one of the big growth points such as Newcastle-on-Tyne or the West Cumberland development district, which have little connection with forestry.

Several hon. Members have referred to the subject of communications and I agree that this is one of the most important matters when opening up the remoter areas. One of the great fallacies of the Beeching Report is that one can close down railways simply because no industry has been going to an area for the last 50 or 100 years. That is stated in page 57 of the Beeching Report. That statement is entirely beside the point, because distribution of industry has not been the subject of any policy for as long as 50 years and we must put our transport needs into the pattern of the development we want to see.

Another fallacy of what I might term the "metropolitan mind" concerns the question of adequate alternative facilities for travellers who previously used the railways. Many people, including some in the Government, think that it is possible to run a sort of express bus—the type that runs between London and Birmingham along the motorway—in quick tine on country roads. This is utterly impossible. Nearly all country roads are narrow and twisting and bus routes must often go through villages to pick up and put down passengers before returning to the main roads.

For those who live in, for instance, my constituency the journey of 80 miles in a bus from, say, Stranraer to Dumfries is a punishing performance and one which no express bus could do much to improve. I regret that so little expenditure is intended on roads where railway closures have been suggested. It would be better in many cases to keep the railways open. In the case I have been citing it would mean a capital expenditure of about £2 million to provide means by which an express bus could run satisfactorily—this would save about £30,000 in terms of the present loss to British Railways. To any economist this cannot add up. Indeed, with more efficiency on the railways and with more people prepared consciously to use them—with, perhaps, the closure of a few rural stations—even this £30,000 loss could be wiped out.