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 Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomeryshire 12:00 am, 7th February 1964

As I listened to the interesting speech of the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Brewis) I could not help reflecting that this is the first occasion on which I have heard four consecutive speeches from the benches opposite with which I found myself largely in agreement. It is a pity that their ideas cannot have greater effect on the policy of the Government. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) not only on his luck in the Ballot and on selecting this subject for debate but on his excellent speech, with which I entirely agreed.

When we discuss the problems of our rural areas it is important to remember that in almost every country rural depopulation is happening. Indeed, this process is accentuated in modernised, developed countries and it is inevitable that the technical progress in agriculture will result increasingly in the need for more agricultural capital and less labour. This is an unfortunate fact of life which we must face.

I have always passionately believed that it is the duty of any Government, of whatever complexion, to have a policy designed to revitalise our countryside and its life. Not for years, at least the last 50 years, have we had a Government who have considered this their duty.

The first question which hon. Members who represent rural constituencies and who believe in the revivifying of the countryside must ask themselves is this: what justification is there for a Government taking action to reverse the natural trend of depopulation from the countryside? Unless we tackle this question and give a reasoned justification for it, we are not even off the ground. My answer is that we cannot count the social and economic cost of the congestion of our population in the great conurbations. We have only to look at the social life of this great city—children herded together, the constant traffic jams which we have here and which are repeated in other conurbations—and then look at our great open spaces. I am not in a position to analyse this social and economic cost, but I think that it is very great.

There is also the great social and economic cost of allowing great areas of our countryside to become depopulated. Once we have the process of depopulation, we have the great and ever-increasing cost of services. Our rate deficiency grant goes up all the time. This is true. I think, of the constituencies of every hon. Member, save that of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy), who has spoken in this debate. It is costing the country a great deal. If this trend continues, it will cost the country a great deal more.

In addition, there is the underemployment of resources in the country areas—the resources already existing which are not utilised. Building resources are often not utilised to the full. In my constituency, we pride ourselves on having very excellent schools, and it is a sad reflection that perhaps the greatest export from my constituency is highly-trained, intelligent children. But even our schools are now under-used. We have schools built since the war which could accommodate many more children. There are hon. Members who have summer cottages in my constituency. They love to go there. It is a beautiful area in which to live. Hundreds of people—even millions of people—living in the large cities of this country would love to live there, but they cannot because there are no jobs available.

I believe passionately that we owe it to our country and to future generations to make sure that our countryside, not only in Mid-Wales but elsewhere, is revivified. I believe that one day we shall have a generation which will curse us for our lack of foresight in allowing this small island to develop in such a way that nearly all the population are living in great conurbations, where life cannot be as pleasant as it is in the countryside.

I have no doubt of the justification of a policy for revitalising the countryside. I have no confidence that this Government have or had any intention of revitalising the countryside nor that any of their predecessors had. I accept that hon. Members of every party representing rural constituencies may think this about the Governments which have been in power over the last half-century. What I think is wrong is that the help which Governments have given has been a kind of passive help. Their approach has been a passive one and not a positive approach. May I illustrate what I mean from my own area of Mid-Wales? As my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North stated, the population of Mid-Wales in 1961 was 17 per cent. less than it was in 1901. As a matter of statistical information, the population of Wales as a whole had risen 34 per cent. during that period, and the population of England and Wales has risen by 42 per cent. Between 1951 and 1961 the rate of depopulation of the five counties of Mid-Wales was an average of 714 per annum. This is an increase in the rate of depopulation before 1951 which was 640 people per annum.

What happened in Mid-Wales? Up to 1957 very little help had been given by any Government. Then one of the county councils proposed the setting up of the Mid-Wales Development Association. The other county councils joined in and that Association was formed, partly financed by the county councils but also with a grant from the Development Commissioners. May I stop for a moment to pay a tribute to those unsung heroes, the Development Commissioners? The Government keep them in some back office, I think somewhere in Whitehall. Were it not for the Development Commissioners giving grants out of the development fund there would have been virtually no industrial development of any kind in my constituency over the last 10 years. I wish hat the Minister would give a little more publicity to their work. I think it is right to say—no doubt the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that over the last 10 years seven factories have been built by the Development Commissioners in the Mid-Wales area and one factory was built by the Labour Government before that, so we have eight in all, and without these our problem would have been very much worse than it is now. They could be used very much more than they are used.