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 have checked my notes. Taking rural premises as distinct from farms, it is 97 per cent. For farms alone it is 90 per cent. I have rounded the percentage off. It is 89·8 per cent., which I have rounded up to 90 per cent.

I now turn to the subject of water and sewerage. The progress made in bringing piped water and main drainage to rural areas in England and Wales is one of the most marked post-war advances. Whereas 10 years ago less than 80 per cent. of houses in rural districts had piped water, today nearly 90 per cent. have it. The hon. Member for Devon, North complained about not being able to get precise figures. I can assure him that when the 1961 census has been entirely processed those figures will be available. They are done now on a 10-year census. Anyone who has filled up a census form will probably have noticed a question at the bottom about piped water.

On the question of sewerage one can say that one-third of the total capital investment in sewerage and sewage disposal works—nearly £77 million out of a total of £207 million—spent in the past five years has been in rural areas, percentages, I need hardly say, which are completely different from the population percentages concerned.

Nearly one-third of the maintained schools in England and Wales are in what might be called rural areas, but of the 7 million children at maintained schools in England and Wales only about 1 million are in schools in rural districts—which are larger than my definition of truly rural areas. County local education authorities have for a number of years made good progress in the Government drive to raise standards in rural secondary schools, and rural primary schools will be among those which will benefit from the recently announced three-year £200 million school building programme for 1965–68, which allows for the replacement and improvement of old primary schools. As a general observation, one must recognise that, particularly in large and extensive counties, the local education authorities have to decide on their priorities, and the tendency has naturally been to make as their priorities those areas which are most heavily populated. It is certainly true in my own county of Hampshire.

The hospital development programme and the long-term development of local authority health and welfare services, which we all agree are essential to rural areas, are being planned on a regional basis, aimed at improving standards generally. All this planning takes full account of the special needs of the rural areas, and although one recognises how local feeling can be aroused if a cottage hospital is closed and people are asked to go further afield to find a hospital, the aim is that every man, woman or child, whether they live in the town or the country, should obtain the right and best medical attention.

Housing has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. It is up to the rural district councils to decide what is the local need and to formulate house building programmes. What the Government have sought to do is to create the conditions in which local authorities' programmes can be fulfilled. Housing legislation recognises the special difficulties of rural areas, and in various ways provides special help for house building on behalf of the agricultural population. Some small authorities have a notable record in this field, and I must mention here the initiative of the council at Cuckfield which, in the mid-1950s was one of the first authorities to build special grouped flatlets for elderly people. In this connection I might add, in my own County of Hampshire, the New Forest Rural District Council.

The rural district councils, on the whole, have also made especially good use of the improvement grant scheme. In 1963 they made 52,000 grants of all kinds out of a total of 120,000 grants—that is to say, about one-half—whereas the number of dwellings in rural districts is just about one-fifth of the total in England and Wales.

I should also like to pay tribute to the great pains which some of our rural district councils have taken in their housing programmes to use local materials that blend with the landscape and are a real visual asset to the villages concerned. I am thinking particularly of the use of Cotswold stone at North-leach, Chipping Norton and Witney and of slate at North Lonsdale in the Lake District, or Haverfordwest. I am not competent to comment on the rural district councils which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove had in mind, but no doubt if they have not learned what other rural district councils have done, he will draw their attention to what can be done where people are so minded.

I deal next with the question of roads. I realise that in relation to the increasing use of the motor vehicle the need for more and better roads is great, in spite of the substantial increase that we have had in our road programme. But, with respect to hon. Members who have spoken about roads, I believe that it is mainly about trunk roads that they have been speaking, the main inter-urban and inter-regional roads.

The Government recognise the importance of trunk roads to regional development, but I suggest to the House that the standard of our truly rural roads is high compared with those of other countries. In fact, considering the small proportion of their road mileage that is normally congested, the county areas do not do too badly. I recognise the particular problems that one may have in Devon during the holidays, but I am talking of the run-of-the-mill rural roads, the surfaces of which are the envy of Europe and the United States. In the United States one drives along a superb State highway, and then on to a dirt road. The Government are paying substantial sums both generally towards the upkeep of rural roads, and in particular towards rural roads that are congested, but the main problems are trunk roads, and I add, in the context of Buchanan, urban roads, which are outside our discussion today. I assure the hon. Member for Devon, North that my right hon. Friend and I are well aware of the strong views held in the South-West that better trunk roads are the key to the development of that area.

Mention has been made of rail closures, but my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has on a number of occasions made clear to the House the procedure which is followed in these matters and that each passenger closure requires his personal approval.

As there are several hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate I shall not get into a discussion about rural transport and the Jack Report, and I come to what I believe is one of the major factors of this debate, the employment opportunities in rural areas. If we are trying to preserve the rural way of life, we have to make use of indigenous resources, and look to those resources as at least the first source of employment. There farming must take pride of place.

The Motion rightly lays emphasis on the importance of farming policies calculated to maintain an efficient and expanding agricultural industry. It is because successive Governments have attached so much importance to a strong and efficient agricultural industry that they have accepted responsibility for maintaining conditions which afford farmers as a whole the opportunity of earning a reasonable return for their labour, their management, and the capital they have invested. I remind the House that last year the taxpayers' support amounted to £310 million.

But this is not just a policy of maintaining the status quo. In agriculture, as in other fields, efficient production and efficient marketing are the key to prosperity. On production, I believe that we are one of the leading countries in the technical revolution which has taken place in agriculture since the war, and which has involved extensive mechanisation and the application of scientific methods.

There is important work for the agricultural industry to do in marketing, and our proposals for securing greater stability of market prices will give farmers even more scope than at present for increasing their returns by improvements in the quality, presentation, and timing of their output.

The industry is already taking full advantage of the grants available for market research and development. As regards fatstock and meat marketing, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will soon be consulting the interests concerned on the Report of the Verdon Smith Committee. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be interested in the proposal of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) about meat co-operatives. The Agriculture and Horticulture Bill now before Parliament contains many provisions designed to assist the improvement of horticultural marketing.

The House will not expect me to discuss the Government's agricultural policy in any closer detail so near to the conclusion of the Annual Price Review, where I feel that my right hon. Friend will be in a better position to expound this policy. I will certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the interesting proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) about co-operation.

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) pointed out, forestry is another source of rural employment and in upland areas in many cases a valuable new source of employment. It occupies about nine workers per 1,000 acres compared with less than one worker per 1,000 acres in hill sheep farming and about five workers in mixed stock rearing. It also leads to increased and varied employment opportunities in auxiliary occupations such as saw-milling, road haulage, chipboard manufacture and other wood using industries.

The creation of growing communities engaged on forestry work, justifying the provision of all the basic services, has been achieved in many areas where agriculture is in decline by means of Forestry Commission planting. Moreover, this activity holds further prospects for an area in that, as the crop approaches full growth, outlets will be needed for the timber in the shape of large-scale industrial undertakings. I was glad that the hon. Member for Anglesey devoted a part of his speech to this theme and, as he reminded the House, the Fort William Pulp and Paper Mills are an example of this; a project well supported by the Government.

One of the characteristics of a modernised agriculture is that like other sorts of modernised industry fewer men produce more output. This has inevitably meant some changes in the pattern of agricultural employment and a steady movement of farm workers away from the land. But, at the same time, the agricultural industry in its wide sense has been expanding its employment opportunities, although principally not in the rural areas themselves. I am thinking of the vast expansions in the manufacture of agricultural machinery and fertilisers, of the increasingly industrialised handling of agricultural products at packing stations or at canning or deep-freeze factories on the spot—but the latter will, we hope, be located in rural districts.

A number of hon. Members have referred to depopulation and the need for more industrial projects to be located in rural areas so as to provide more and varied employment opportunities. I do not want to get involved in a controversy over whether depopulation is necessarily a social evil or how far it can or ought to be prevented by the Government. It is a highly emotive subject. It can only be discussed meaningfully in the particular, because the movement of population may be caused by many different factors. It is a little dangerous to generalise about it.

In a virile, expanding and changing society like modern Britain there is bound to be a continuous movement of people in all directions between one part of the country and another. What matters nationally is the overall effect of such personal moves. Furthermore, one of the basic freedoms is the freedom to move somewhere else, as well as the freedom to stay where one is. It is the Government's aim, by encouraging the broader spread of increasing prosperity over the whole Kingdom, to make it more possible for the individual to choose to stay or to go as he wishes without being driven to do either by force of economic circumstances.

Equally, I am sure that the hon. Member for Devon, North recognises that as employment becomes more specialised, particularly in the higher spheres, scientific and similar establishments must inevitably become increasingly concentrated in basic units, so that, if one wishes to pursue a certain career, one may need to move. In other words, if one wishes to become a nuclear physicist one cannot expect necessarily to be employed in one's home town, for one will not find a nuclear laboratory or whatever the case might be just around the corner. As one reaches higher degrees of specialised training and education it becomes harder, even conceptually, to think of providing local employment opportunities in spheres which must be thought of nationally, in some cases internationally.

We can immediately identify regions where there are special problems, not only of migration but of current unemployment, declining industries and so on, and where special Government action is necessary. I have in mind particularly Central Scotland and the North East, for which special programmes are being undertaken by the Government. As the House knows, in steering new industrial projects priority has been given to those areas with high actual unemployment; the development districts.

Included in some of the development districts are rural areas and, as such, they are eligible for all the assistance under the various Acts. As has been said, migration has not been a factor that has been taken into account in the normal scheduling of a development district, but it has been taken into account in the plans for Central Scotland and the North East. In these two regions the Government believe that the effects of this increased public investment at the key points, the growth places in Central Scotland and in the North East, will spread out to affect the rural hinterlands also, bringing a solid and lasting prosperity to the region as a whole.

We believe that it is at the regions as a whole that we must look, with waves of growth radiating out from the urban areas to back steady—and wherever possible indigenous and sustained—development in rural areas. In this way we aim to provide a wider framework of prosperity geographically. This is what the Government are doing.

Where are other regional studies to be made? First, a study has been made of the South East as a whole—that is, the wide area to the east of a line from the Wash to Dorset, including a number of rural areas, but all dominated by London. Publication of this study is not far off. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has told the House, further studies of other parts of Scotland are in hand—the Borders and the Highlands—and the Scottish Development Group is embarking on an examination of the north-east and south-west of Scotland.

A study for Wales is well in hand, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welsh Affairs told the Welsh Grand Committee a few weeks ago. Studies of the north-west of England and of the West Midlands are being undertaken and they will cover such matters as population, employment, land use and communications. My right hon. Friend is considering representations from the South West to the effect that they should have a similar study.

These studies will enable the right decisions to be reached about the contributions that each region can make to national prosperity, on the one hand, and how, on the other, national resources should be deployed to maintain the character of the individual regions and the more even improvement over the country as a whole of the general quality of life in all its aspects.

The needs of small market towns have been raised by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle. A special stress has been laid on the need for more light industry to maintain and to stimulate prosperity and opportunity, not only in the market town itself but over the surrounding countryside as well. I am sympathetic to this argument, as is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but I must remind the House that the Board of Trade's first responsibility in actually "steering" industry must be towards development districts. But where a firm applies for an industrial development certificate in a place of the kind mentioned, and where it clearly cannot be expected to move to a development district, its case is sympathetically considered in the light of the local circumstances. Indeed, I can think of very few cases where a suitable firm wishing to set up in a rural area or in a market town has had its application refused.

It might be helpful to the House, in order to illustrate what I mean, to quote some figures from the South-West of England. I include in this the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Between 1st April, 1960, and 31st December, 1963, industrial development certificates had been issued for 299 different projects, covering factory area of well over 6 million sq. ft. and providing employment for nearly 14,000 people. The number of industrial development certificates refused in that period was one at Plymouth, one at Tiverton, and two in Weymouth. That shows that, if the project is reasonable, there is no reason to suppose that we shall not be able to give permission for the development.

What we cannot do is to give a blanket permission, as otherwise we might, for a project that really ought to go to a development district. The House has agreed with the general proposition that the development districts have first priority. Market towns and rural districts can get a second priority. What we cannot do, and there have been cases brought to our attention, is to extend the benefits of the Local Employment Acts to market towns or rural areas unless they are in development districts or within travel-to-work distance of them. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle that I shall discuss his detailed proposals with my right hon. Friend.

Then there is the Development Commission, which plays a valuable part, as its name implies, in developing the rural areas. This part of its work is in two broad fields—the social and the economic. As regards the former, the help and finance it gives to such bodies as rural community councils and the National Federation of Women's Institutes is a very real contribution to country people. In the economic field, the help, advice, grants and loans it makes to rural craftsmen and rural industry are of great value in helping the small country craftsman to adapt himself to modern conditions.

Another source of help to rural industries is the marketing and co-operative schemes sponsored by the Commission, and the Lewis Crofters' and Outer Isles Crofters' schemes are instances of this sort of thing. There are also the factories the Commission has financed in Mid-Wales—six completed and handed over to date, with another being built at Aberystwyth. I join the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery in his tribute to the Commissioners.

I am conscious that I have detained the House a little too long, but this is an omnibus subject and I felt that it would be helpful at least to try to answer some of the very important issues that hon. Members have raised. We are living in a rapidly changing world. The countryside is as much involved as the great city. There are those who would try to keep the modern world away from our farms and villages, and to preserve the old world, but this is to reject all the lessons of experience. We cannot, and we must not do that. What we must do is to bring in the best of the new—the amenities of life that are increasingly the amenities of all advanced societies. But we must, at the same time, maintain what is best in British rural life. I can assure the House that these are essential aims of Her Majesty's Government, because we truly believe in one nation.