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 Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton 12:00 am, 7th February 1964

The debate has covered such a vast expanse that one has to be a little selective in the aspect with which one wants to deal. I congratulate the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) on casting his Motion so wide as to give considerable scope for debate on specific issues. I should also like to do, what I am sure all hon. and right hon. Members here would want to do, and that is to express our sadness that at the coming election my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) will not be standing again and that future Parliaments will not have the benefit of his great knowledge which he has always presented in such a charming way to the House. This is a source of personal grief to many hon. Members as well as a source of great regret to the House as a whole.

Any question of the nature we are discussing today boils down to the fact that, whatever the quantum of sums of money available, there must be a number of critical choices as to the priorities, and the fact that these choices are not always explicitly taken does not mean that they are not there in the background all the time. All it means is that if these specific choices are not taken, whatever policy emerges is unlikely to be a consistent policy. Whatever choices face the policy-makers, whether national or local, or individuals who turn their minds to the problem, there are a number of outstanding ones.

In the first category comes the conflict, for instance, between rural beauty on the one hand, and on the other the recreational requirements of the population and the income that flows in locally from some manifestations of recreation. These two are necessarily in contradiction. To have wide open spaces is contradictory to filling those spaces with people. More specifically, there is the conflict between amenity in general and in particular.

A classic case of this was the bitter opposition in some quarters to the erection of a large TV relaying aerial in the middle of Dartmoor. One can understand the sentiments of people who had grounds for objecting to it. But we should compare that with the tremendous amenity brought to people living in remote areas with quite inadequate facilities to get them to centres where other amenities are available. The difference to the farmer, farm-labourer and cottager in a rural area in being able to turn on a TV set in the evenings and have the same facilities as those available in more sophisticated surroundings to my mind must completely outweigh the definite but minor aesthetic blemish of a TV structure on a tor which, anyway, is covered in light cloud or fog most of the time.

Again, it necessarily follows that where industry is brought to an agricultural area there will be greater competition for the labour available in that area. This does not mean that it is undesirable. It means, however, that it produces difficulties for the agricultural employer which were not there before. Therefore, our attitude should not be the negative one of saying, "Let us keep industry away", but the positive one of saying, "Let us attract industry and consider how we can ameliorate the problems which attracting industry necessarily brings"

As a positive suggestion, it was pointed out with considerable force to me by one of my constituents that, although a great deal of money is spent on agricultural colleges and on giving people a far better training than was available a quarter of a century ago, far less money is given towards creating a structure whereby trained people could pick up practical expertise, not necessarily on a farm of their own or as a tenant, but in helping farmers who greatly need trained assistance. This they could do if only for a year or two before moving on to farms of their own. If we could have a specific agricultural employment organisation rather than just the general Ministry of Labour facilities, which are not designed specifically for providing suitable agricultural labour, some of the opposition to the attraction of industry to rural areas might be found no longer to have the basis it once had. I put that forward as a constructive suggestion.

Another basic conflict of priorities, which has arisen before and will continue to arise in future, is the conflict within a given quantum of resources between curing unemployment which exists at a given moment and preventing unemployment arising at some future date. Generally speaking, I am sure that it will be agreed that in many cases it is cheaper to prevent pockets of serious unemployment arising than it is to cure them once they have become manifest, with the rather discouraging aura which surrounds an area that has become notorious as an area of unemployment.

This affects the granting of industrial development certificates. There are those who say that certificates should not be granted unless the total and percentage unemployment in a given area is more than a specified figure. I appreciate that line of thought but I do not agree with it, particularly in circumstances where there is a rapidly expanding school population. That population is not unemployed at the moment, but it is essential to put it into creative and satisfying employment when it comes out of school so that there is not a dreadful hiatus between coming out of school and commencing a career or vocation. If we wait until these young people have come out of school and there is a severe unemployment problem before there is a grant of an industrial development certificate, much of the damage is done and much of the money that could have been saved has been wasted.

It is essential to bear in mind not only the areas which have unemployment but also those which may have unemployment. I confess that to some extent this is a problem which more particularly affects areas where the population is expanding. It is not, therefore, specifically covered by the Motion, but it is the sort of conflict where beggar-my-neighbour tactics can be adopted and where one hon. Member may block development in the constituency of another not because of altruistic reasons but because he would prefer to have the development in his own constituency. A consistent choice of priorities must be made.

Another question which has been touched on already is the problem of the large employer. The reason why a given industry goes to a rural area—for instance. Devon—is often that there are local factors conducive to efficiency in the industry. For instance, in many parts of the West Country there is an abundance of water. Once upon a time this was used for power. It is also used for the washing of materials. This is very suitable for the textile industry and for the paper-making industry. In my constituency over 1,000 people are employed in the paper-making industry because of the large supplies of water available. This carries with it not only the danger of competitive factors altering the suitability of that industry to employ a large number of people. By competitive factors I mean such a thing as the substitution of man-made fibres for natural fibres. Other things, such as alterations in tariff rates, can change the position of an industry from being a profitable one into one which has to lay off a large proportion or the whole of its labour force.

One way of guarding against some but not all of the dangers of such a situation is by a process of vertical integration, by taking more and more of the processes and putting them into a given area so that it is less vulnerable to alterations in costs or the comparative advantages of some of the ancillary processes, part of which are carried out in the locality. This necessarily means that a higher proportion of the local population will have their eggs in the same basket.

I do not see what the alternative is. One cannot with one breath say that one wants to see a healthy industry employing more and more of one's people who need employment and say with the next breath that one does not want it to get any bigger or there will be too many eggs in one basket. For competitive reasons, particularly if an industry has an export trade, it is necessary for it both to expand its size horizontally and also to extend its processes vertically so that it can have a greater control over its costs structure and be less vulnerable to suppliers and subsequent processors.

This question must be faced. The implications of it must be accepted. The advantages of the greater security of a large firm against collapse outweigh in many cases the disadvantages of lack of competition from the point of view of different employers. It is an observable truth that in attracting employment nothing succeeds like success. An area which has one large very healthy employer will tend to attract other employers to it, rather than to deter them from coming there. The fact that Tiverton has one very large factory and subsidiaries has not deterred other industries and firms from wishing to come there. A new brewery bottling plant is going up at the moment. I hope that there will be a number of other new types of industry coming there.

Another conflict which must be resolved in terms of relative advantage are different means of transport. We have read recently that the railways are attempting to secure a much greater proportion of the coal trade to the West Country from sea transport. This is a perfectly legitimate thing for them to attempt. The greater utilisation the railways can get from their rolling stock and lines the better. The greater utilisation they can get out of it the greater the mileage which is likely to be retained economically in the area served.

Against that, it must be remembered that seaborne transport has many advantages. It does not cost anybody a penny to keep up the sea as a medium through which things can be transported. Nobody can claim that our resources for building ships and maintaining them are over-taxed. If more demands are made on our shipbuilding industry, employment will be brought to many areas. Seaborne transport would take off the roads the type of load with which the roads are already particularly congested—that is, very large bulk loads.

Whilst recognising the great advantage that accrues from the railways attracting more trade so that they can get their unit costs down and maintain services which they would not otherwise be able to maintain, we must bear in mind and face the price which necessarily has to be paid for that. Part of that price is the creation of additional difficulties in shipbuilding areas, and even for shipyards in the same area—for instance, in Falmouth or in Plymouth.

Another question which arises on priorities is where one should build. I doubt if there is an hon. Member in the Chamber at the moment who has not, to his own disgust, encountered rather too frequently the attitude of people who are very anxious to have electricity supplies laid on to them, but who, once they have got their electricity supply through, are the first to ring up and complain when there is a minute voltage drop. The attitude—"Pull up the ladder. I have got my supply, so do not connect anybody else up if it means I might have a voltage drop"—is unfortunately fairly prevalent.

This problem must be faced with the limited resources available. They always will be limited for any given type of capital development. There must be a certain amount of give and take between the sections of the community which already enjoy the basic facilities of life and that section which has yet to enjoy them. I believe that it is fair to say to people who want to build new houses in remote areas which do not have the basic services—I do not mean people who inhabit existing houses in areas which have not got the basic services—that it is not altogether right that they should elect to have the advantages attaching to remote areas—there are some advantages in comparative isolation, privacy, and the view—yet expect the rest of the community to bring extremely expensive services to them at far less than the economic cost.

This again is a matter of balance. A factor which must be recognised in the granting of planning applications is that, where a house goes up where there is no sewerage, sooner or later somebody, even if it is not the person who has the house erected for his occupation, will say, "Here is a basic service which I as a ratepayer am entitled to and which somebody else should provide". This is another factor which must be watched and balanced. One way of balancing it would be to say that, when a new house is erected in an area remote from basic services, the person who asks for the services to be connected should pay a higher proportion of the cost of bringing public services to that house than that borne by the occupier of an existing house who wishes to have such services connected. In other words, put a surcharge from the point of view of the provision of basic facilities on a class of planning permission which it could be acknowledged would involve the local authority or the electricity board, say, in a far greater than average cost.

Finally—not "finally" because there are not so many more aspects which could be covered, but "finally" because many more Members wish to make their contributions in the debate—I want to say a few words about agricultural incomes. One cannot isolate the income of any section of the community, because it necessarily finds its way to other sections of the community. Inadequate purchasing power in rural areas is necessarily reflected in a smaller demand for the products of local industry and of urban manufacturing industry.

The huge sums of money, the colossal sums of money—running into well over £500 million a year—spent by the agricultural community on the goods and services by which other members of the community earn their living is a measure of this very significant factor. There is much more harmony between the interests of the agricultural section of the community and what one could call the commodity-manufacturing section of the community than necessarily appears at first sight. It is quite undeniable, if one studies the figures, that over the last 10 years net agricultural incomes have fallen behind the national average very considerably indeed.

This is partially a reflection of the fact that in terms of proportion of the national income there has been a transference from business ownership to wage earning. Farming as a business has not escaped this. Even eliminating that consideration—which is a significant one—there can be no doubt that the profitability of it has fallen behind to such an extent that many of the reasons for taking up agriculture as a profession are reasons not entirely related to farming. They include, for instance, the value of farm land as a capital investment in terms of potential appreciation for building purposes and the fact that it attracts a lower rate of Estate Duty than other forms of investment.

Considerations of this kind should not be those which attract people into this very important industry. I hope very much indeed that this transformation of the emphasis on agricultural policy will mean that this year and in the future we shall be able to restore considerably the net purchasing power of the agricultural community without becoming still deeper involved in intractable problems resulting from gluts of some agricultural produce. That position, incidentally, we have met in terms of eggs. This problem will become much more acute if some plans of a very small group of people with a fantastically large production potential, come about.

Once again I congratulate the hon. Member for Devon, North on his choice of topic and on the width with which he framed his Motion; I commend to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench the proposition that the list of competing priorities of which I endeavoured to remind the House is a list of conflicts which have to be resolved positively. They do not become less important or less urgent because one cares not to have them in mind.