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

The policies of the Labour Party are well set out in documents which are available to the hon. Member, and I hope that he, as well as the farmers, will study the policies carefully, because it is the aim of the Labour Party to place agriculture in this country on a secure footing, to enable the farmers to plan ahead with confidence—a thing they have not been able to do for many years—and to enable the farmers to have a share in the national prosperity.

This, too, should be said of the farmers of Britain: they are amongst the most efficient in the world. Their productivity record is excellent, better than the productivity record of many other industries. Our balance of payments position—I say this to hon. Members opposite and to some hon. Members on my own side—would be infinitely worse today if it were not for the contribution made by the farmers.

The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) dealt at length with rural amenities, as did the hon. Member for Devon, North. One must be fair, and on the whole I think, this is a very much happier story. Both political parties can share the credit for the revolution in the countryside in the progress in the provision of amenities, piped water and electricity, for instance. Although as the hon. Member rightly said there are still difficult areas, there has been this revolution, although there is still much to be done. There are still more than 250,000 dwellings without piped water in rural areas. There are still the areas which the hon. Member mentioned—the South-West, South Wales, North Wales and Merseyside—where rural electrification must be accelerated. The position is worse in the areas of depopulation than in others.

We believe that more resources must be devoted to improving amenities in such areas. Water, electricity, housing, education and roads have been mentioned. I agree very much with what has been said about rural schools, for the condition of many of them is appalling. I fully support the statement about the importance of primary schools in our villages. In some cases primary schools are closed for reasons of which we are aware—such as a decline in the number of children attending, the difficulty of forming a class or having one teacher only to teach children of different age groups. But I believe that even more important than retaining the primary schools in such villages is the retention of an infant section when a decision has been taken to close a school. My experience is that what worries parents most of all is small children having to travel considerable distances to school. Most parents Like their children of 4, 5, 6 or 7 to come home for their midday meal.

We have had a number of debates on rural transport, but we are no nearer a solution. I recall speaking at the Dispatch Box about the Jack Committee's Report on rural bus services a considerable time ago. It was an excellent Report; it outlined the problems carefully and made first-class recommendations. But the Government have done nothing about it. The Parliamentary Secretary ought to tell us whether the Government have shelved the Jack Report recommendations permanently or whether something will come of them.

We are on the threshold of large-scale closures of rural railways, which will make certain areas far less attractive to industrialists. How can the Government say that they are anxious that industries shall go to rural areas and at the same time cut rural transport services to the bone? It is paradoxical and does not make sense. When industrialists come to North Wales, one of the first questions they ask is what transport facilities there are in the area.

The Fort William pulp mill proves beyond doubt that railway transport is necessary. What will British Railways do, and what will the Government do, if a pulp mill is opened in Mid-Wales to process the timber which I mentioned after the railway lines have been closed? Will it mean that the pulp mill will not be able to go there or that the railway line will have to be reopened? These are considerations which the Government should have in mind when considering their policy towards the rural areas.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) is not in the Chamber at the moment, but I noted in the Western Mail today a report that: More bus services are to be withdrawn in Montgomeryshire because they are no longer economic … Buses will be taken off the Welshpool-Newtown, the Welshpool-Shrewsbury, Shrewsbury-Four Crosses and Newtown-Adfa routes from March 1. These routes are to be closed because they are uneconomic. Railway lines are also to be closed because they are uneconomic. If there were a report along the lines of the Beeching Report, on the basis of the same terms of reference, dealing with bus services, how many bus routes would have to be closed because they are uneconomic? Many bus routes in rural areas are as uneconomic as the railways are. The result of the present policy will be that railway lines will be closed because the criterion has now been reduced to that of hardship alone, and bus services as well have been closed.

The Government will convert huge areas of the country into a wilderness without any form of public transport. I remember one of the Parliamentary Secretaries to the Ministry of Transport stating in a debate that people without cars must try to cadge lifts from people with cars. Is that the Government's policy? If so, it is a disastrous and bankrupt one. We shall have no distribution of industry at all, and this will accelerate depopulation still further. The Labour Party believes in maintaining adequate road and rail services in the countryside, and our guiding principle will be the needs of those for whom the services are intended.

I agree that everything possible should be done to encourage cultural activity in rural areas by the provision of public libraries and so on. I do not want to see the imposition of urban culture on rural areas, for that would be criminal. But communities should not be deprived of facilities should not be deprived of facilities for recreation and culture just because they are remote.

Finally, there is the whole question of how the land of Britain is to be used in the years that lie ahead. It may be that the present local authority machinery is no longer adequate to the task. Local authorities are not large enough to take the broad view which is often necessary. They often take a parochial and narrow view. In any new structure local authorities would, I think, have a part to play, but it may become necessary soon to plan the use of land at a higher level. Professor Buchanan, to whose article I referred, takes this view. He suggests the creation of a Central Council for Physical Environment. This is worthy of very careful consideration. One thing of which I am certain is that we must consider this aspect of the problem very soon.

This has been, I am sure, a very profitable debate. I hope that some benefit will come from it for the countryside. We have had frequent debates about the countryside, the industries in the countryside and the transport problems of the countryside, but the Government have taken very little note of them. This is extremely frustrating for hon. Members on both sides of the House representing, as they do, the views, hopes and aspirations of their constituents.

People in my area of North Wales do not want to leave there and go to Birmingham or London to work. They wish to stay in their own communities, and why should they not? Hon. Members opposite frequently say, "We do not believe in the direction of labour except in times of great national crisis". But what is it, if not direction of labour when men from Anglesey and Caernarvonshire, having been out of work for five or six months, have to go to the conurbations, leaving their families behind them, in order to find work, thus creating more difficult problems for both areas?

The policy of the Government should be to take work to the people. I do not believe on this facile cry that labour should be mobile. While we are forcing our workers from North Wales we are getting, in return, more and more retired people settling in the area. We are glad to welcome them, but this imbalance tends to create an unsatisfactory community.

Let us have a constructive statement of policy from the Government even in the dying days of this Parliament—perhaps a flash of inspiration from the Parliamentary Secretary. We would be sufficiently broadminded to welcome it even if it were to help hon. Members opposite in their election campaign. At least let us have some constructive suggestions from the Government that will assist the population of the rural areas.