HC Deb 24 May 1950 vol 475 cc2196-206

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Whiteley.]

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

In raising the problems of transport in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, I start from the belief that the whole of that great area north of the Clyde and the Forth which stretches up to the Flugga light in the extreme North of Shetland and out to the Western Isles, is a land of opportunity. I reject absolutely the view that it is a tiresome legacy from a bygone age and that it is a land incapable of supporting a population on a modern standard of living. We have only to look at Orkney to see how untrue that is.

I believe that life in the Highlands and Islands can be a good life. The traditions of the Highlands and Islands are very valuable today. With the help of modern engineering, modern science and modern practices in agriculture, it can also be a very prosperous life, The North should not only be able to support a very much larger population than today, double its present size, but should be able to make a bigger contribution to our wealth and food than it does at present.

If we are to make the most of the Highlands and Islands we must have help from the Government. That will be nothing new. The Government are already putting a great deal of money into the area as it is into many other areas of Britain by way of subsidy and grant, but not only must they help but their help must be according to a coherent plan or, perhaps I should say plans, because within that area there are great differences in climate, soil and tradition and in the work by which the people get their living. They must recognise the peculiar characteristics of the North of Scotland and the great distances that have to be covered, and they must recognise that in some respects it resembles virgin territory. Like all such territory it requires money to develop it.

I stress these points because they are fundamental to my argument. I hope that it is common ground that we want to see a large and prosperous population in the North. I believe that it will also be common ground that this will require planning, and good planning—planning adapted to the special conditions of the country. Further, I believe that it is the policy of the Government to disperse industry. If that is accepted, the problems of transport and the problems raised by the very high rates on freight in this area are fundamental and must be tackled in any efficient plan for its future.

Crofting, by which a large proportion of the population gets its living, has changed its nature. The crofter can no longer live off his crops. He is no longer a self-sufficient human being. He must trade. He must buy and sell in the South. The same is true of the farmer, the knitter, the weaver, and everyone who lives in that area. The ordinary householder and his wife have to meet all the additional charges which are levied because of the high rate of freight charges in and out of that area. If we seek to attract light industries there, they are deterred from coming to the North because of the expense of reaching the southern markets.

There have been various plans and there are, I know, various plans in preparation for those areas, but all these are now to be wasted if we do not face up to the question of transport and freight charges. Tonight, I do not expect to get a detailed answer from the Minister on the various problems which are raised but I should like to lay the matter before him and I hope that he will be able to give us an indication of his thinking on it.

I should like to lay the matter before him under three heads. I want, first of all, to give him some examples of freight charges. I will, first, take coal. Admittedly, most of the coal is brought by sea, but a certain amount of it is brought to the area by rail. The charge for a ton of coal brought from the midlands of England to Aberdeen is now 36s. 9d. and to Inverness about 38s. On top of that, in my constituency we have to pay 30s. freight to Kirkwall and 35s. from Aberdeen to Lerwick. If we live in the Outer Isles of Orkney and Shetland—no doubt the same thing applies in the constituency of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan)—we have to pay additional freight charges of 18s. 3d. to the North Isles of Orkney and 23s. 2d. to the North Isles of Shetland.

Let us take fertilisers as another example. The freight from London to Mallaig is about 82s. 11d. per ton and to Wick about 105s. a ton or by sea from Leith to Kirkwall about£1 10s. 8d. per ton. Again, we have an additional 18s. 3d. per ton to the North Isles of Orkney and 26s. 8d. to the North Isles of Shetland. The figure for mixed groceries—it is much higher if they are sent by passenger train—is over£14 per ton from London to Aberdeen and about£18 to Wick.

Take fish. From Aberdeen to London the freight is£8 14s. 7d. on fresh fish and from Mallaig even more—about£14. From all the outer islands, from all the small islands of the Western Isles of Orkney and Shetland, additional rates have to be paid. Only today I had a letter drawing attention to the extra cost incurred by taking it from a remote township in an island of Shetland down to the pier.

These, of course, are only examples but they can be duplicated in every commodity bought or sold in that area. Petrol now costs 3s. 7d. a gallon in the Island of Unst in Shetland, and if we hope to increase poultry keeping, as indeed we do, then we are faced with freight rates of 55s. for bringing in feedingstuffs from Aberdeen up to the North Isles of Shetland. The same burden faces the tourist industry. Another small point is that there has been a tendency in recent years to close down a lot of the services to the smaller ports and piers in the North, which has the effect of draining off wealth from these communities—places like Stromness in Orkney.

In quoting these figures, which can be multiplied indefinitely, I am not concerned tonight with blaming anyone. They are largely due to the geographical nature of the islands, and we all know that railways and shipping lines have had to face great increases in their costs. I am told by the North of Scotland Shipping Company that their costs have risen by 300 per cent. since before the war. What I am concerned to do is to stress the tremendous burden which this lays on everybody who conducts ordinary life or trade in these areas. If there is any question of setting up a development area, that is one of the great handicaps under which any industry which comes to that area must suffer. It will be difficult to build up the population, or to maintain the present population, in order to bring in new ones as long as that situation exists.

I believe that the ultimate and only completely satisfactory solution is to have a flat rate for freight on the lines of the parcel post. If that is considered Utopian at the present moment I suggest that some preferential rates for long-distance haulage must be given. I believe that preferential rates are given on a considerable scale in Sweden today. I would also draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that for some commodities—for instance, fat cattle from Kirkwall to Aberdeen—a flat rate is paid, and, therefore, I suggest there is nothing in principle to prevent similar flat rates being brought in at least for commodities like coal, fish, and some other agricultural products.

The second subject I want to mention is that of roads because they are of the greatest importance to all the crofting counties and, indeed, all the counties in the North. Railways, after all, are few and, in some counties, non-existent. These counties find the greatest difficulty in maintaing their roads because their rateable value is low. Even if they can get a grant from the Ministry of Agriculture, which covers 75 per cent. or 80 per cent. of the cost, it is almost impossible to raise the balance locally. I want to ask the Minister whether there is any chance that he can give special consideration to areas like my own constituency, or like the constituency of the Western Isles, where we have no trunk roads and where, therefore, the whole burden of the roads falls on the local authorities. None is taken over by the central Government.

At present the grants for roads in Shetland, for instance, are quite inadequate. They allow only of some repair, and many roads in my own constituency, for instance in Yell and Whalsay, need fundamental reconstruction. If they are not reconstructed, the population will leave these islands and, as there is considerable unemployment in Shetland today, I would urge upon the Minister that this is the time for a long-term scheme for repairing and reconstructing the roads and the piers throughout that area and similar areas.

The last heading under which I want to say a few words is air services. I sometimes wonder whether the Government appreciate the incalculable advantages which air services can give to the Islands and the remote districts in the North of Scotland, and I wonder whether B.E.A. realise the great field of expansion which awaits them in the north. The pioneers of air services went out for custom. They enticed farmers into their aeroplanes. They flew frequent services in small aeroplanes at suitable times. As a result, a habit of air travel grew up and costs were kept down by having small aircraft, well filled, and by having small staffs on the airfields.

Since B.E.A. took over, however—although I must admit that the services which they run are perfectly satisfactory—there is a feeling in the north that we are treated rather as though we were a similar problem to that presented by air services between great cities in the south. Large aircraft fly not, perhaps, very frequently, the staffs have increased, and the whole organisation, it is felt, has become rather impersonal, and of course costs and prices have become very much more expensive.

In a small way my point is illustrated by the sort of advertisements which are to be seen for B.E.A., which are nearly always of gentlemen who, I believe, are known as "business tycoons," flying with brief cases apparently to make astronomical contracts in an atmosphere, if I may so describe it, of cigars and brandy. I have no doubt that these gentlemen exist in some places, but there are not very many of them north of Aberdeen. What we feel most seriously is that there does not appear to be any great anxiety on the part of B.E.A. to increase or even to restore the local services among the Islands.

Judging from answers to Questions which I have asked in the House, I understand that nothing can be done to improve the landing strips in the North Isles of Orkney, for instance, and that very little can be done in the way of development of suitable aircraft. Such local services are of the greatest value if the population is to be retained in the Islands. They can be of great value, also, in moving lobsters and other perishable freight. Further, if air services are to be popularised, then those who operate them must go out and meet the demand where it exists.

As has already been mentioned today, I understand that the Dean of Christ-church has been lifted by helicopter out of the quadrangle of his college. I do not for one moment begrudge him his "flip," but I wish that the Minister could assure us that we are to get helicopters in Orkney and Shetland, and in the Western Isles and the western seaboard of Scotland. I am sure that our need is far greater than that of the Dean of Christchurch.

We may be told that all these matters are under consideration by the Highland Panel, and I hope that they are. I hope that the Government will listen very sympathetically to the recommendations of that panel and that we shall know very soon what action they are taking on this matter, which is of absolutely fundamental and vital importance to everyone who lives in the north of Scotland and to every industry and occupation. The question is, whether we are to keep the population there, and whether we are to allow them to live their lives in equality with people in the south or whether we are returning to the days of depopulation.

I should like to thank the Minister of Transport very much for coming here and for his incursion with his colleagues whom I see on the Front Bench into the problems of Scotland. In the time-honoured way, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to come up and see us sometime. I can assure him that if he does so we shall be only too glad to see him, and that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends from other Ministries can test the services for themselves and see exactly how important it is to people living in the Islands, and to those who live in remote townships in the north and west of Scotland, to have good and cheap transport facilities.

10.25 p.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)

I have pleasure in supporting the eloquent speech made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) but I should like to put the matter from a different angle.

I think the day is long past when the Highlands have to ask any Government to do something for them, but the day is here when any Government must use the Highlands, which represent more than half Scotland. They can make a massive contribution to our food supplies. We are already producing 50 per cent. of our food, while our means of obtaining the other 50 per cent. from overseas are diminishing everyday. No one can suggest that the export trade can be sustained now that the hunger of the war period and the sellers' market is diminishing. Every Minister on the Government Front Bench knows that. We have to produce more food at home, and there is no area south of Kintyre which can make the contributions which the Highlands can make; and in this matter transport is vital

During the recent election, high transport costs were discussed at every meeting. People looked for a reduction, but they are now faced with a serious increase. I appeal to the Minister of Transport, who is a very old colleague of mine and for whom we all have a high regard, to tackle the matter in an entirely different way. I maintain that ever since the beginning of this century, and ever since the motor car appeared on the scene, the railways have been running away from competition. In the early days they faced competition from sea transport and beat it, but the policy carried out by the "big five" when they took the place of the 120 railways, in the 1920's and still carried out by the nationalised railways, is fundamentally wrong.

I put it to the Minister that 75 per cent. of the total cost of the railways is represented by costs which are incurred before they begin to move a vehicle at all and the only way of recovering those costs is to run more trains with more freight and more passengers. Let me give a example. Instead of running five trains a day and charging£1 per head in fares, we could run 40 trains a day at 6s. 8d. per head and earn much more money. That would run into a huge sum per annum, and it could be repeated all over Great Britain. I am certain that road transport would then have a very stiff task in competing with the railways.

It would be better to run trains on a policy of abundance than a policy of restriction. Suppose that the shipping companies which take people to Australia and goods to and from distant parts of the world adopted the same policy; no one could afford to travel. Yet it costs more than£10 for my constituents to travel from Caithness and Sutherland to London. If a policy of abundance is embarked on, it will be rewarded by the steps people will take to develop agriculture and light industries in the Highlands. Let the Government cast their bread upon the waters and they will not only solve the problems of the Highlands and food production but their railway problems also.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan (Western Isles)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) on his good sense in raising this subject. Under the heading of railway matters, I agree with the hon. Member very strongly because the area does suffer from the geographical and other factors he mentioned.

I do not think I need say much to the Minister in respect of roads, because he knows from correspondence and personal contacts that that is one of the problems which I regard as absolutely fundamental to all Highland development. Unfortunately, he is in the hands of the Treasury and its present rigid economies in these matters, but I make a plea with him that, having regard to the special difficulties of the area, he will give special consideration to bringing us more or less to an equal position with other parts of the country. Let the Government have regard to the long lag and neglect and the years of underdevelopment which have been a handicap to making up that difference.

I also ask my right hon. Friend to bring to the attention of the Treasury the importance of the tourist industry and the fact that without proper transport we cannot develop the tourist industry in the Highlands. That ties up directly with the dollar problem. The former Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Tom Johnston, Chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board, is eternally preaching the value of the tourist trade in this respect. I should like to remind the Minister of some of the local problems, like the problem well known to all the hon. Members for the Highland constituencies, of the North Ford Causeway in the Outer Hebrides. The whole weight of the opinion of the members of the Highlands and Islands Panel, representing all the Highland counties, is behind the recommendations of this Panel.

I will not detain the Minister longer tonight, but I ask him to make a special appeal to the Treasury before we have the pleasure of the company of the Lord President and the Secretary of State for Scotland at the Highland Panel on 7th June so that they can make a statement on Highland transport that will be worth while.

10.31 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

The period which we have for an adjournment Motion is all too short for me to deal adequately with a problem of this character, especially as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), who has raised this subject, has covered such a wide field. I think he will appreciate—in fact, his remarks suggested that he does appreciate—that I cannot deal with the problem of the general development of the Highlands in the matter of light industries or other improvements. I have the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation beside me, and the hon. Member ended his remarks by inviting the Ministers concerned to visit the area. I am able to inform him, because of the intimation which he has already given me, that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation will be visiting that part of the country during the Whitsun Recess.

If I may suggest it, the hon. Member should take full opportunity of this visit to see that the Parliamentary Secretary understands all the problems of civil aviation in that part of the country. But I would like to say, in passing, that handling, as I do, one aspect of transport, I can appreciate some of the difficulties he has to meet. I gather that both capacity and frequency of services are greater now than they were before the war, although certain other services have been stopped. Every hon. Member of this House is fully aware of the difficulty of capital development at present, quite apart from the physical difficulties of that area and the great demands which there are on the development and expansion of civil aviation.

I can quite imagine that if the present services are maintained, which, in an area like that, are more of a social character than of a commercial kind, those responsible are doing fairly well. But the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary is going into that area is proof that he wishes to see for himself what the problems are. So far as I am concerned, I have, during my period of office, visited the Highlands and the North of Scotland probably more than I have the other parts of the country and I am fully conversant with the problems which have been raised tonight. Both of the hon. Members who have spoken from the benches opposite have emphasised the necessity for transport. I do not in any way disagree with that. But I take particular note of the fact that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland emphasised that planned transport was essential. I want just to remind him that the present Labour Government is the first Government since I have been in this House which has really tackled the essentials of the problem.

When they decided to nationalise transport, they produced a situation in which it was possible to begin to tackle a problem of that character. I cannot give any assurance about the form or line this will take, but how could consideration of equalisation of rates, or flat rates, or preferential rates problems that are involved in long-distance transport from the north of Scotland, be approached adequately unless and until there was a body like the British Transport Commission, which through its principles of charges will enable it to resolve them or contribute to a solution of them? What line it will proceed on I cannot say, but I am certain that the steps already taken in that direction have made a substantial contribution to the solution of the problem.

On the matter of distance of the producer from his market, this is something which is not peculiar to the north of Scotland. It is a universal problem. After all, in world markets, Australia and New Zealand are further from this country than are Canada or South Africa. I agree that this problem, within the boundaries of this country, is one to which we shall have to pay special attention. In the field of transport, road and rail must now be linked together. I would, however, remind the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson), who appealed to me to add to the railway facilities, that, owing to the necessity for restriction of capital development now, the railways are not able to replace their pre-war rolling stock, let alone expand in the direction he has indicated.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'Clock