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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Mr. Hoosou:

The activity is under an Act passed in 1909 by a Liberal Government and if it was not used before 1950 or 1951 it certainly ought to have been used. I am very grateful to know that the right hon. Gentleman initiated the first post-war use of that Act.

My criticism of this kind of development is that it is always piecemeal. It merely fills in a gap here and there. The Mid-Wales Development Association realised that nothing would be done unless it took the initiative. I pay tribute to the work of its members, and to the co-operation they have had from the Welsh Office. They have been trying to attract industry to the area, in the teeth of competition from development areas with far greater resources. Nevertheless, the whole development has been piecemeal. We have had no positive approach; no saying, by the Government, "Let us really set this area on its feet." That is the weakness throughout.

In spite of the increase in forestry employment, it provides in my constituency only 10 additional jobs per annum, so that there will be another hundred jobs in 10 years. That is chicken-feed compared with the real task, and it does not begin to replace the wastage from agriculture. Nor does the tourist industry help sufficiently there. It is an important adjunct to our economy, but it does not begin to replace what has been lost in the countryside—jobs.

The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) thought that the first priority is transport, and my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North nodded his head in agreement. I do not agree with them. Transport is very important, but people have left the countryside because they did not have jobs there. The first thing is to provide the jobs, after which the transport will be greatly improved. I do not think that the provision of transport is the very first priority.

The Government could take very much more positive action. Why do they not accept the suggestion put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North to set up key rural development areas—one, say, in Scotland, one in Wales, and a couple in England? Why not tackle the job in that way? The Mid-Wales Development Association has done a great deal of work and knows a great deal about the problems of Mid-Wales, and the Parliamentary Secretary's own Department has had a report from it. When is that Report to be published?

The background information for positive action already exists—why not create a development corporation for the area? It would not need a great deal of resources compared with those needed by other parts of the country. If we had £1 million a year for 10 years we could absolutely transform the picture in Mid-Wales. Would it not be a very good thing for the country as a whole if this very large area in Mid-Wales were transformed in this way?

I do not believe in harking back to the past; what we need is a new attitude. Life in the countryside will be different in the future from what it has been in the past. We cannot expect people to return to some of the remote farms—though I myself love remote farms—to get employment. Potentially, the small country town is much more important to the economy of the area. If the Government are not in favour of new towns in rural areas why do they not set about building up the existing ones?

In my area there are towns like Welsh-pool, with a population of 7,000, and Newtown, with a population of 6,000. The populations of each could be built to 10,000 over 10 years, and there could be brought in the kind of factories we need that employ between 15 and 200 or 300 people. That is the kind of development we need. After all, we are not really a remote area—we are only 60 miles from the Midland conurbation. I should have thought that there was a good deal to be said for that kind of investment from the national point of view.

What is also sadly lacking in the countryside is co-ordination of activity. Several hon. Members have said that one Government Department often seems to be doing something that is diametrically opposed to the policy of another. For example, over the last two years there has been a proposal in my constituency to close the hospital in Llanidloes. It is proposed that the patients should go to Aberystwyth, on the coast, which is 30 miles away. There is no rail service between the two places, though I believe that a bus does run on a Saturday. During inclement weather, such as we had last year, the roads are cut off for weeks, sometimes months, and the road between the two towns leads over Plynlimmon. People in Llanidloes would often be unable to visit their relatives in a hospital at Aberystwyth.

I know that highly-specialised services can be provided only in the larger hospitals, but we, too, need hospitals—maternity hospitals, and hospitals for the less serious cases—in areas where patients can regularly be visited. Therefore, while one Department claims to be trying to build up Llanidloes, get industry to come back, and provide necessary amenities, another Government Department is closing down an essential service.

Nothing can be done to arrest depopulation unless there is a considered plan, administered regionally, and Mid-Wales is an example of where regional administration is necessary. There must be an agency to pump in capital, there must be co-ordination of activities, and we must have in mind the kind of society we wish to see. Surely, in the 'sixties, we can plan ahead. No longer is development a matter of luck, something done haphazardly. We can plan for the kind of community we want, and we should now be planning the kind of Britain we want in the 'seventies 'eighties and 'nineties. Governments, of whatever complexion, that allow this trend of depopulation to continue all over the country while the large industrial conurbations build up, are doing a great disservice to the generations that will follow.

I had intended to deal with agriculture, but as there is no representative present from the Ministry of Agriculture there does not seem much point in my doing so. Nevertheless, perhaps the Minister will be good enough to convey my reflections to his colleagues. I agree entirely with what the hon. Member for Torrington said in what I considered to be a very able speech. Indeed, there is no Member on the benches opposite with whom I find myself so consistently in agreement, but as the hon. Member is as often as not in disagreement with his party himself, this is not surprising.

He spoke of the importance of co-operation in agriculture, and it must be the great hope of the future that small farmers—and large farmers, too—will increasingly learn to co-operate. It is interesting to note that over the last decade the distributive costs of agricultural produce have so increased that the gap between the price paid to the farmer at the farm gates and the price paid at the shop counter has very greatly widened. One way of getting over that is very efficient co-operating marketing. Countries like Denmark and Holland, with their agricultural disadvantages, or seeming disadvantages, of small farms, have got over those disadvantages by highly-skilled marketing and selling.

I should like the Minister to convey to his colleagues the suggestion that far more grant should be paid to farmers who are forming co-operative groups. I have been responsible for starting a meat marketing group in my constituency. It is a co-operative farming effort, and I am chairman of it—I am therefore disclosing an interest. The producers supply the animals, and we slaughter at a number of small slaughterhouses over Mid-Wales and North Wales, and we also use some Midlands slaughterhouses.

We have now reached the stage when we think that we should build an abattoir and food-processing plant in Mid-Wales, but no resources are available for us to do that. A grant is available for the building of a county or public abattoir, but development nowadays sometimes requires a factory-like abattoir, with food-processing plant, which a farmers' co-operative could easily set up. There should be a grant for that kind of development, because it is from the by-products of such an industry that we can set up so many rural industries.

In my own town of Llanidloes where there was in the last century, and has persisted in this, a very flourishing meat business, a leather factory was set up to take the hides. It now employs over 100 people. During the last war refugees from Germany came there. They had great skill in handbag-making. They were given an attic in the factory and they established a flourishing handbag industry which now employs about 120 and they have a new factory. All that development stems from the native sheep. This is one of the developments ancillary to agriculture which we might have. I hope that the Ministry of Agriculture or the Board of Trade, whichever is the appropriate Department, will consider the availability of grants for that kind of development.