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 Sir David Price Sir David Price , Eastleigh 12:00 am, 7th February 1964

I was about to suggest that it might be convenient to the House if I followed the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes), but there seems some doubt as to whether it would be.

This has been a very wide ranging debate, as becomes a very widely drawn Motion. The House is clearly indebted to the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) for initiating the debate. But to comment in detail on every point which hon. Members have raised, let alone to reply in detail to the Motion, would involve me in speaking for an interminable time. This I shall have to avoid as we have only an hour left and, quite clearly, two other hon. Members want to intervene.

Furthermore, many of the detailed points relate to Departments other than the Board of Trade, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland) reminded us, my right hon. Friend has co-ordinating responsibility for regional development. In these cases, especially where the matter is a local one, it would be better if my right hon. and hon. Friends from the appropriate Departments were to write to the hon. Members concerned about these specific points. None the less, within these limitations, I shall do my best to offer some advice to the House.

The Motion relates to rural areas in general rather than to any particular area. The phrase "rural area" can mean less or more, as one may care to define the term. There are some parts of the country where there can be no doubt about the definition—the High-lands of Scotland, for instance, or the agricultural south-west of Wales. But over so much of Great Britain rural and urban inextricably intermingle.

Put in its extreme form there is the London commuter who lives in Suffolk. He works in a modern city and he demands, and in general obtains, goods and services at home comparable to the standard enjoyed by the city dweller. As he spends at home much of the money he earns in London, he and his commuting colleagues generate a prosperity around them and make an important economic contribution to raising the general standard of services, both public and private, in their rural areas. That is one example of how urban and rural life and conditions intermingle. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) gave further examples from his experience in the Midlands. Hon. Members will have no difficulty in thinking of many other and perhaps subtler shades of this process. So in a relatively small and heavily populated country served by a dense network of modern communications, we must be careful in drawing sharp distinctions between town and country.

The proportion of people living today in what might be called truly rural conditions, the conditions envisaged in the speeches of most hon. Members, is a small part of the total population. I have tried to make some estimate of the numbers involved. There are some 9 million people living in local government districts termed as "rural districts", but many of these rural districts, or parts of them, are not rural in the sense implied by the Motion. We are probably talking about some 5 to 6 million people, that is to say, about 10 per cent. to 12 per cent. of the population. Of course if one brings in all our market towns, it will be more. Whatever the figure is—higher or lower—the people living in rural areas are no less important because they are lesser in numbers than their urban brethren.

The first leg of the Motion is concerned with living conditions in the countryside falling short of those enjoyed in most urban areas. I am sure that hon. Members would agree that the worth of living is something different from the material standard of living. Obviously, there are basic material essentials without which it is difficult for most of us to find real worth in over lives. It is clearly our duty as a Government to do all that we can to ensure that those basic essentials are available to all in this country, even in the remotest areas. Further-more what we should regard as the basic essentials must increase in scale and quality as the general standard of living rises.

Faced with a revolution of rising expectations and with an increasing uniformity of culture and expectation—the Mersey beat reaches even into Blaenau Ffestiniog—it is natural that those in remoter rural areas should find themselves casting envious eyes upon their fellow citizens in the great cities. To them the urban dweller appears to have far greater access to modern living than does the countryman.

Of course the great cities have many cultural, educational, commercial and social advantages over rural areas. They offer, by virtue of their size, a far greater range of choice to the individual. This is especially true in terms of employment. On the other hand, there are many worthwhile things to be done in the country which cannot be done in great cities.

We should remember that there is another side to the great city—a hurried, crowded, harsh, impersonal side. For instance the "rush hour" on the Inner Circle can hardly be described as "gracious living". One can be lonelier in London than ever one can in the country.

This is the cruel side of urban life, which prompted that angry outburst from Shelley: Hell is a city much like London—A populous and a smoky city;There are all sorts of people undone,And there is little or no fun done,Small justice shown, and still less pity It is possibly this other side of city life which accounts for the fact that in so many city-dwellers there is a sublimated countryman yearning for the wide open spaces. Just as we must not adopt too glamorous a view of the attractions of city life so we must not go to the other extreme and sentimentalise about rural life.