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 Cledwyn Hughes Mr Cledwyn Hughes , Anglesey 12:00 am, 7th February 1964

We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) for enabling us to have this comprehensive debate on the problems of the rural areas. About 12 months ago he initiated a debate on the national parks, in which I had the pleasure of taking part. Today he has ventured much further afield. In his wide-ranging speech, he mentioned most of the problems which affect the countryside today. I should like to refer to a number of them.

Having listened to the speeches carefully, it has seemed to me that there are three major questions implicit in the problem of the rural areas today. The first is one to which reference has been made in practically all the speeches delivered so far, namely, how is the depopulation which still continues in so many areas to be abated, halted and possibly reversed? Secondly, how are the amenities and beauties of the countryside to be protected? Thirdly, what new machinery, if any, is required to ensure that the best use is made of land during the crucial years which lie ahead? The question of land use has not been mentioned much in this debate, but it is basic to any general consideration of the rural areas.

The hon. Member for Devon, North referred at the start of his speech to the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath. Depopulation and the unplanned growth of the industrial sprawl started then. Depopulation has been going on for a very long time during periods of Conservative Government and during long terms of Liberal Government as well. I think it true to say that depopulation as a national problem has never been tackled urgently and constructively by any Government. We have had distribution of industry legislation, the Local Employment Acts to try to solve the problem of unemployment. We have had green belt and new town legislation to try to deal with the problem of over population, but there have been no comparable Measures to try to deal with depopulation. This probably is because of its negative quality.

As has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members we in Wales have suffered grievously through depopulation. The figures bear eloquent testimony to what the country has suffered. In 1921 the population of London and the South-East was 9,100,000. In 1962 it was 11,149,000, a very considerable increase in 40 years. In the Midlands and the Birmingham conurbation in 1921 it was 3,277,000, and in 1962 it was 4,845,000, another very considerable increase. In Wales in 1921 the population was 2,421,000 and in 1962 it was 2,651,000. Our proportion of the greatly increased population is negligible. The increase of population which has occurred in Wales has occurred in certain industrial centres.

Depopulation in Mid-Wales, particularly, has been acute. The census report of 1961, which I have been studying in the last few hours, contains this comment, which reflects the core of the problem: Among the counties which have not kept all their natural increase or which have actually suffered a decline in population are Northumberland, Cumberland, Durham, Westmorland, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cornwall and all the counties in Wales. The further we get from London the worse the position becomes. If we can translate these figures into human terms—and most hon. Members who have spoken have made speeches in human terms—all this has meant the break up of communities and a great deal of unhappiness over the years.

As has been stressed by the two hon. Members from the Liberal Party, there is the other side of the coin, an increase in the chaotic housing, traffic and social problems of the London region. The Barlow Committee's Report, over 20 years ago, gave ample warning of all the ills which affect the rural areas at present. Professor Colin Buchanan has given further warning in his two interesting articles in the Observer in recent weeks.

I agree with the hon. Member for Devon, North that the depopulation problem of Mid-Wales, the South-West, the North-West and Scotland should be tackled positively as a matter of urgency by the Government. At present there is no policy, apart from the Development Commissioner policy which the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) mentioned. There is no other machinery. The Government's policy in relation to the North-East and Scotland, laudable though much of it may be, has caused me considerable concern because it must mean that priority is being given to the North-East and Scotland; and if priority is being given to these areas, inevitably other areas which suffer from unemployment and depopulation must take second, third and fourth places in the queue.

We have been told in Wales that an inquiry has been undertaken by the economic unit of the Ministry for Welsh Affairs in Cardiff. Wales has been divided into five regions—South Wales, Pembroke, Mid-Wales, North-West Wales and North-East Wales. The first report will be published in 1965. Presumably, at that rate the subsequent reports will appear in 1967, 1969 and perhaps 1971.

The fact is—and the House and the country must face it—that if the hon. Member's Department and the Government are canalising their efforts in the direction of the North-East and Scotland, it becomes increasingly difficult for other areas to induce suitable industries to establish themselves there. It is Government policy—but not a policy which we advocate. Our distribution of industry policy in the post-war Labour Government was very different, because in a very short time, and under very difficult conditions, we succeeded in distributing industry over a wide area of Great Britain and in solving a number of intractable problems which before the war were thought to be insoluble.

The hon. Member for Devon, North made a number of interesting suggestions. The creation of four rural development areas is one which both the Government and the Opposition might consider.

The causes of depopulation and unemployment are the same—the decline of the old traditional industries. The depression in the North-East, for example, is due to the decline of the old traditional industries of shipbuilding and coalmining, and in the rural areas unemployment and depopulation are attributable to the fall in the numbers employed in agriculture and in rural industries and crafts. In North-West Wales it is also due to the decline of the slatequarrying industry.

The number employed in agriculture has fallen from 731,500 in June 1955 to 572,000 in June 1963—a drop of 160,000 in eight years. We know the reasons for this. In the main it has been due to the increased mechanisation of the industry. But this was predictable. The Government have known about it for a long time. The same comment can be made about the North-East and shipbuilding and coalmining. The Government have known about it and could have anticipated it. This is where I think the Government are most vulnerable. They have had over 12 years to counteract the trend, but they have done nothing positive, and after 12 years of Conservative Government depopulation is still a major problem in this country.

Mid-Wales, which was discussed at length by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, is a classic example of Government inaction. There have been reports, discussions and delegations over the years on depopulation in the mid-Wales counties. There was, for example, the Second Memorandum of the Council for Wales in 1953, followed by the Mid-Wales Investigation Report, followed by a Government White Paper on Rural Wales. But the problem persists.

Last night I read the debate which we had on these reports in the House on 8th December, 1953. Speeches were made by hon. Members for the Welsh rural areas and by Mr. Clement Davies, the predecessor of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. The debate was wound up by Aneurin Bevan, who said: We are witnessing the fact that if urban civilisation is not corrected by artificial methods, rural life is destroyed and we get a dangerous unbalance in the community. Consequently, artificial means have to be adopted, special legislative action has to be taken, in order to prevent urban development from sucking all the vitality out of the rural community."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th December, 1953; Vol. 521, c. 1916.] We are more than ten years on since Aneurin Bevan uttered those words, and the unbalance in the community is worse today than it was then. It seems to me that as a first step the Government should consider this proposal; that areas which are afflicted by proven, chronic depopulation should be scheduled to receive some measure of assistance under the Local Employment Act. Some formula could be worked out whereby those areas which have lost a percentage—to be decided by the Government—of their population over a period of years should receive some of the assistance which is provided under the Local Employment Act, including the provision of advance factories and the other provisions of that Act.

We have had a reference to magnet towns and new towns in selected places. We in the Opposition have been and are giving consideration to these ideas, and as part of our policy we have a proposal that there should be a new town in Mid-Wales, either as an addendum to an existing market town or as a new town in a new location.

We also believe that as far as possible industries ancillary to agriculture and forestry should be encouraged to start in these areas of depopulation. I disagree with the hon. Member who said that there was not much future in this idea. I believe that these industries which are ancillary to agriculture, such as canning factories, or to forestry, should be sited in these small localities.

Indeed, I believe that forestry can play an enormously important part in future development. The Fort William pulp mill is a good example of a project providing 2,500 jobs in an area of chronic depopulation. I hope that the House will find it interesting news that many of the great forests of Wales are approaching maturity. From 1965 new timber consumers will be needed in Wales. Next year 4·6 million cubic feet of timber will be available in North Wales. In 1970 the figure will be 5·8 million cubic feet. In 1975 it will be 8·7 million cubic feet. In 1980 there will be 12·5 million cubic feet of new timber. We shall therefore need a vastly increased capacity to deal with this new timber. Forestry in Wales for the first time will be able to support new ancillary industries and to provide permanent jobs in the very areas where there is now chronic depopulation. I should like to know what steps the Government are taking to prepare for those industries. It is no use waiting till the trees are being felled.