§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Hurd (Newbury)
I beg to move,That this House, noting the benefits already brought to many villages and farms by main electricity, believes that the development of food production depends increasingly on the use of electric power in labour-saving farm equipment and convenient household amenities for those on the land and urges that steps should be taken to develop the supply of electricity in rural areas as much and as fast as possible.We are not concerned today to argue whether the nationalisation of our electricity supplies is a success or a disappointment. What we are concerned about is to see that the Government of the day carries forward the declared policy of all the political parties. There are reasons why the carrying forward of that policy has been delayed, but it still remains the national policy to extend the supply of electricity to the rural areas as quickly as we can. We wish to see all the rural areas of England, Wales and Scotland enjoying the benefits of the economic and convenient power that electricity can bring.
That is not sentiment or philanthropy. It is hard business, because we require from the agricultural industry an increase of output over the pre-war figure of no 1352 less than 60 per cent. by 1956, and we must hustle if we are to achieve that. British agriculture needs more power to reach that target. On the field side, the greater use of tractors and other mechanical power has gone ahead fast, but we are not nearly so well equipped to perform the daily chores about the farm buildings, the farm house and in the cottages of farm workers.
There is no doubt that electricity could help a great deal to raise further the output per man. Already agriculture has an especially good record in this respect. The output per man has risen by no less than 25 per cent. compared with 1938. Most of that increase is due to the labour-saving devices now employed in field work, such as the combine-harvester. But there are still many jobs still unnecessarily laborious. Manpower is the most expensive kind of power. In my view we could increase the output per man by another 25 per cent. by better planning of the work about the buildings, and, in particular, by using electricity to remove more of the drudgery from farm work.
It is no less important that we should make our farm houses and cottages worthy of the women whose co-operation is essential for the success of this drive for increased food production. We must face the fact that countrywomen, certainly the younger generation and I think the older generation too, will no longer put up with the primitive conditions set by candles and paraffin. A man's choice of jobs turns on his ability to give his wife modern facilities in her home—light at the turn of a switch, hot water on tap. Why should she be denied these amenities which are enjoyed by her sisters in the towns?
Agriculture has been losing regular workers at the rate of about 10,000 for the last four years. It is true that the industry probably could not afford to employ as many men as it did five or 10 years ago. The tractor and the combine-harvester and other mechanical devices in the field have seen to that, but we are now losing some men whom we can ill afford to spare. Here, I believe that electricity in the home and water on tap are just as potent considerations as another increase of wages by the Agricultural Wages Board.
1353 The position today is that about 40 per cent. of our farms are connected to the main supply of electricity. In the areas for which the British Electricity Authority are responsible 120,720 farms out of 290,600 are connected, and the work is going forward of connecting more farms at the rate of about 9,000 a year. That is progress, but at this pace it will take another 20 years before all our farms have electricity. Some areas are moving faster, are able to move faster, than others. I think that in my own particular area, that of the Southern Electricity Board, we can, perhaps, look forward to completing the job in 10 years, but there are other areas where at the present rate of progress it will be 50 years or more before all the farms have a mains supply of electricity. We must get on faster.
If we look at our neighbours we see that Denmark claims to have 90 per cent. of her farms provided with electric light, and 75 per cent. of them have electricity for power. Sweden has 93 per cent. of her farms with electricity; Ontario, 80 per cent.; the United States claims 84 per cent. All these countries treat a full supply of electricity to the rural areas as an indispensable necessity, and so should we. There is no sense in demanding still greater efficiency and economy in production in British agriculture if we deny the industry one of the essential means to achieve it.
The 60 per cent. of our farms without electricity are not all in out of the way places like the hills of Wales or the moors of Northumberland or the marshes of Norfolk. Indeed, one rather isolated area I know in Argyll is particularly fortunate in the rate at which the farms are being connected with a main supply. It is due to the happy circumstance that the Hydro-Electric Board, when it was decided to export current to England, gave an undertaking to provide free connection to all the farms in that Highland area. God bless the farmers up there and the cottagers. They are lucky. I hope that they will gain all the benefits that the modern use of electricity can bring.
However, there are in some of the more civilised counties of England——
§ Mr. Hurd
I say, some of the more civilised counties of England. I was dealing just now with Scotland. In some of the more civilised counties of England there are yawning gaps that have yet to be filled in the electricity network. I give one instance of two constituents of mine who live on the main Bath road one mile from the town of Hungerford. They are trying to get a main electricity supply for their farmsteads and 14 cottages. They are asked to contribute half the capital involved. That means an outright contribution of £1,259. They are also asked to guarantee to take £55 worth of current annually for five years. This capital contribution is a bugbear.
It is beyond the means of those people, as, indeed, it would be beyond the means of households in Birmingham, Liverpool, London, or anywhere else. So the candle and the paraffin standard remains. So some of those cottages are empty; one of those farms lacks a tractor driver; and food production suffers. That is on the main road within one mile of the town of Hungerford. So there are gaps in England that have yet to be filled.
I should like to make three suggestions that I think would help to meet this kind of problem, which, I know, can be illustrated by hon. Members representing constituencies all over England, Wales and Scotland. First, I think that the area boards must take a longer view of the income to be derived from rural consumers. In my part of the country the board assumes that the farmworker's house will take £7 worth of current a year. That is the starting assessment.
In my view, it is far too low. I have checked up on 15 farmworkers' cottages in the last week. Their average electricity bill is £16. It is true that on the average they have had electricity for six or seven years; they have got accustomed to it, and their wives now know the virtues and benefits of electricity. In my view the area electricity boards must reckon that the farmworker will want an immersion water heater, a washing machine, an electric fire, an electric cooker, radio and television—not all at once, but in five or six years. The area boards are wrong to underrate the farmworker's desire for amenities or his ability to pay for them.
It is true, moreover, that many farmers do not use as much electric power as they 1355 could with advantage to themselves. I think it is a fact—I draw this from a survey that the National Farmers' Union published this spring—that four out of five farms connected with a mains electricity supply use power for farm operations. That figure suggests that even the four out of five who are using it are not using it as fully as they might.
The area boards need to have more faith in what they have to sell and push sales in terms that farmers understand. The boards should take their cue from the fertiliser manufacturers and show that the use of their product will effect savings and increased production, and be a sound investment for the farmer. The area boards are lacking competent, practical technical men to sell this great, economical, convenient power that they have to offer.
I think it is true also that the cost of electrical equipment, including Purchase Tax, does debar some farmers from making full use of this power. I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the periodical reviews he makes of Purchase Tax, will look with a specially favourable eye on remissions for some of the standard requirements of the farm. It is wrong to be paying Purchase Tax on what are essentials to efficient and economical food production. There are standard kinds of equipment which should come out of the tax range altogether. We have for some years now had to impose a go-slow order on the electricity industry. It was done, of necessity no doubt, in the days of the right hon. Member for Derby. South (Mr. Noel-Baker).
§ Mr. Hurd
I said, of necessity.
Now we are seeking every means we can to free the country's economy and get rid of rationing and restrictions. Restrictions on the sale of electricity by the area boards and restrictions on the sale of equipment for food production must today be wrong. That policy needs to be reversed. So much for the general policy.
My second suggestion is that the British Electricity Authority, acting for the 1356 general body of consumers, should take responsibility for the transmission lines beyond the grid down to 33,000 volts. This would spread the cost of bringing electricity to villages and farms that happen, by the circumstances of nature, to be at a considerable distance from the main transmission line. This is surely a proper responsibility for the British Electricity Authority, and it would spread through the areas the cost of bringing supplies to outlying districts.
Thirdly, we must, I am sure, get a more lively co-operation between the farming community and the area boards. I think that co-operation is there, but it needs to be a great deal more close and effective than it is today. Here, the National Farmers' Union, the National Union of Agricultural Workers and the Country Landowners' Association can all help. They can help particularly by sponsoring schemes for bringing main electricity to groups of villages and farms. If everyone comes in at the start it is a much more economical job. If it is done piecemeal it is unduly costly. Much of our development in recent years in the rural areas has been piecemeal, and it has been unnecessarily costly.
I am not asking for a Government subsidy. The electricity industry is, in my view, competent to tackle this problem if the Minister gives the industry the right lead this afternoon. For a start, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will, I hope, agree to ease the restrictions on capital investment for rural electricity. This is a problem which was aired last Friday by my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro). I think the facts are well known. Out of the £160 million a year allowed to the British Electricity Authority for electrical development as a whole only £5 million go for rural electricity. We have got to invest more in rural Britain, and I am certain that that investment, particularly in electricity, will pay the nation a good dividend.
I repeat that, while there has been progress in developing supplies of electricity to the rural areas, it has not been fast enough for the country's needs. It is really no credit to anyone that we have only 40 per cent. of our farms with the economic advantage of a main supply of electricity. If we will, we can raise that 40 per cent. to 75 per cent. in five years 1357 time. I have no doubt about that. Some areas will get further than that, and I believe that in 10 years we can practically solve this problem and get up to what is probably the saturation limit, as it seems to be in Ontario, Sweden and other countries something between 85 and 90 per cent. of the farms connected to the main supply. That should be our objective, and I hope that the Minister will this afternoon be able to carry us a good step forward. I know that he has been active in the last few weeks—indeed, he was before, but I think he has been particularly active in the last month—seeking to crystallise the various suggestions that have been made for a more rapid development of electricity supply to the rural areas. I should like to pay my tribute to him for the anxious and persistent work that he has put in on this problem.
That is all I have to say. I think that as the mover of a Motion on a Friday I have been exceptionally brief. I have done that on purpose, because I am most anxious that all hon. Members representing rural constituencies, on both sides of the House, should have the opportunity of catching your eye, Mr. Speaker. I trust that this self-denying ordinance on the part of myself, and I hope, of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), who will second the Motion if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, will set a good example.
By approving this Motion we tell Her Majesty's Government, the British Electricity Authority and the area boards that they can go ahead, and the faster progress they make in bringing supplies of electricity to rural areas the better Parliament will be pleased.
§ 11.27 a.m.
§ Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)
I beg to second the Motion.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) for picking this subject for debate today and for the short time that he has taken to move it, which I will endeavour to emulate, and I hope that at the end of the day we shall have cause to be equally grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power for the answer he feels able to give to my hon. Friend.
1358 I do not pretend that the south-east area, of which Kent, in which my division is, is part, can really feel neglected in this field. We have done relatively well. Sixty per cent. of the south-eastern agricultural area is now covered by electrification, which is about 50 per cent. better than the national average. Perhaps I should say at the outset that I consider that, within the limits which have been imposed upon them, the South Eastern Electricity Board, with which I am particularly concerned, has done good work in this field, and it is no part of my job today to question their policy or functions, except in certain matters of minor administrative detail.
I am much less concerned with the relations between the board and the consumer than the relations between the board, B.E.A., and the Minister, because that it what sets the tempo in this business, and I think we have reached a point when a fresh target at Government level —which Lord Citrine, speaking 10 days ago, suggested himself—would be most welcome. Without it I do not think that we can expect B.E.A. or the area boards to achieve what this Motion asks them to do. As I think my right hon. Friend is aware, a new situation is rapidly developing. Up to now it has been the national economy which has governed the pace at which rural electrification in this field has developed. Henceforth it will be increasingly, not national economy, but the industry's own economy, and indeed the prospective consumers' economy, which will govern the pace.
I now come quickly to the principal point I wish to make today—and the more one looks into this business the more one sees the bearing it has on rural electrification—which centres on this simple question: Do the Government now wish to encourage or discourage the fullest use of electricity? I hope that in the course of my right hon. Friend's answer we may have some further guidance on that point, because I am convinced we shall never get rapid economic development in the rural areas unless we make full use of the networks already available. The delicate balance between capacity and consumption must be pushed to the limit.
For reasons which my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has mentioned, and with which we are all painfully familiar, it has been necessary over a very long 1359 period to persuade the population to believe that electricity is a luxury of which it would be positively unpatriotic to use more than was absolutely necessary. It is not long since it was regarded as a most splendid thing not to have a bath more than once a week. Political reputations were staked, indeed enhanced, by claims of that nature. One of the few Latin tags which I remember is mens sana in corpore sano, which in this context, I think, can be freely translated to mean that it is much easier to get clear ideas on this subject when one washes regularly.
There are signs that the cumulative effects of this campaign have been very great, and they still linger in the public mind. They are still affecting the consumption of electricity. That is why I think it is time for a fresh brief. I hope that today we shall be able to get a signal that we are going to pass from this rather unhygenic era. If we are to avoid the odious expedients of differential tariffs, Government subsidies and artificial economy which is particularly detrimental to electrification, I am sure that we have to get an expanding industry, selling all the electricity it possibly can.
The revenue of the boards, I think it is admitted, is too low. Lord Citrine, speaking on this subject earlier in the year, said:If the boards are to keep prices from rising with the increased costs of fuel, transport and labour, they must be put in the position of being able to sell infinitely more electricity and so keep the generating stations more fully occupied over the 24 hours of the day.I think that is a very accurate statement of the position as it is today. I would ask whether the right hon. Gentleman can answer these two questions: Can the boards now resume advertising, and can all appliances be bought without reproach or restraint by those who have electricity? If the answer is "Yes," I am convinced that we are half-way towards solving this problem of accelerating the scheme of rural electrification.
I know that the boards have been accused of a backward sales policy. I myself have a certain amount of sympathy with them. In the first place, they have to compete with Purchase Tax, the incidence of which in this particular 1360 field is really past praying for, and in many cases they have to deal with the restraints imposed by Government policy.
There remain now one or two difficulties which I want briefly to touch upon. All the boards must pay their way—a simple statement of fact which is not, I think, fully recognised by those seeking to get electricity installed. There is a disposition in some quarters to regard this as a nationalised industry which should supply the goods more or less free of change. When estimates are received for installation and towards the capital cost of installation, a great many people get an ugly shock.
I do not quarrel with the rather unpopular aspect of installation, namely, the capital charges which certain boards find it necessary to levy. No doubt other hon. Members will have something to say about that matter. The rural consumers pay the same rate as the urban consumers, although the cost of supply to the rural consumers is relatively higher, and some capital charge, it seems to me, is inevitable. I accept it because I think that the alternative is a higher charge to all consumers, and that imposes, in the way in which, I hope, we are speaking on this subject today, a burden in the wrong direction, because surely it must be through lower charges, and not higher charges, by higher consumption and lower capital charges that we must proceed.
If the right hon. Gentleman feels able today to give a broad authorisation for higher consumption, I feel that he will be making a major contribution towards reducing capital charges. I think that it is obvious that far too few details are given to prospective consumers of how their capital charges are made up. No one can now invite tenders for having electricity installed on their farms. They have to accept the one offer, and I think it would be a help and save some protracted negotiations if they could get from the boards more details of costings which make up sums which are nearly always some thousands of pounds.
I have no desire to see uniformity among the boards. They all have, necessarily, different areas to deal with and different methods, but I think that most of them would do well to do what the South-Eastern Area Board does, which is to spread the capital charge, where it 1361 is desired, over a period of 10 years at a relatively low rate of interest and with provisions for changes of ownership, and so on. That would seem to be a very big contribution to this problem of the large, lump capital sum required from the farms.
I think that there should be safeguards for those who come first in the field, upon whom falls the capital expense, and who may find that they have spent considerably more than the later owners who come in, and who, perhaps, pay nothing. We know that in this field the capital costs are immensely high and therefore incentive ought to be given to the boards to trim them, wherever possible, to cooperate, for example, with the General Post Office, because they have certain things in common. I think that electricity poles are of more use to the Post Office than the Post Office poles are to the electricity boards. But there should be no lack of collaboration in that field, and I hope that we shall get an assurance on that point.
I would add this. Although we are this morning presenting the particular claim of the rural areas, I think we should recognise that it is essential to achieve balanced development between the three main elements—industry, domestic and rural—because if the two former, industry and domestic, are encouraged to make the fullest use of what they have got, I am convinced that the rural areas will get what they want more quickly.
It is on that basis that a great many European countries, whose agriculture we regard, in terms of mechanisation, as relatively primitive as compared with our own, have gone ahead in the field of electrification. My hon. Friend mentioned four countries and I would mention a fifth, namely, Austria. Last Autumn I had the opportunity of going on an expedition to the Glöckner mountains to view the immense Austrian Kaprun project where, on the edge of the Glöckner glacier, there are several thousand men constructing a system which will eventually provide all Austria with electric power.
They are working on the edge of a glacier against considerable natural difficulties, and although little is known about this project at the moment, I think that when it is completed it will be regarded as one of the greatest achievements of its 1362 kind in Western Europe. Yet we are pleased to regard Austria's agriculture as basically peasant, which, of course, a great deal of it is. The truth is that Austria is not only building big but thinking big on this subject. I think that the time has come when, with permission from the Treasury, we may be allowed to do the same, and I hope that we shall.
This Motion relates not only to the expansion of agriculture mechanically but to achieving a balance between rural and urban life. There are people who think that as mechanised agriculture advances, the need for manpower and the depopulation of the rural areas matters less. I do not share that rather complacent point of view. Regardless of what manpower is required for agriculture, it seems to me vital that we maintain a balance. It is imperative that we maintain at least the present proportion between our rural population and our urban population in a country dangerously over-industrialised and over-urbanised. I think that it is imperative to remove causes which tend to stimulate that unbalance. Towards that end, I hope that my right hon. Friend, in his reply today, may be able to make a major contribution.
§ 11.40 a.m.
§ Mr. George Brown (Belper)
One of the difficulties about a Motion of this kind is that it can be phrased in terms with which everyone can easily agree and then there is a great tendency to make a series of speeches—again, with which it is possible to agree in large part— which take nobody very much further towards a solution of the real problem. I will not say that I have the utmost admiration for the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) and the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), for there are limits to my admiration for any hon. Member on the other side of the House, but, within limits, I have admiration for them. So I hope they will forgive me if I say that I thought they dodged almost every important issue which has to be faced.
To put the responsibility back on to the area boards, and to say that this is a matter of greater salesmanship and having more technical men to sell things, and that we ought to rely on being able to sell washing machines and immersion heaters to farm workers, is no answer, for it will not solve the problem of how to 1363 deal with the matter of extending electrification. To talk as though the area boards themselves can solve the problem, in the light of what we are now being told—such as by the excellent paper read by Mr. Steward to the Torquay Conference last week—unless someone higher up faces up to some very awkward problems, is altogether dodging the issue.
I want to say something about the background of the problem and what I think nationalisation has done. It is all very well for the hon. Member for Newbury to begin by saying that the debate is not concerned with whether nationalisation has been a success or failure. Were the story different from what it is, that is precisely what he would be arguing. Because an important moral is attached to it, one has to recognise that the success that we have had in the last five years, and our ability to tackle problems today, cannot be divorced from the fact that the industry is publicly and centrally owned.
§ Mr. Deedes
I did not ask my right hon. Friend to do that. I asked him to remove the restraints policy which was previously imposed.
§ Mr. Brown
The hon. Member will read tomorrow what he said. He said he hoped the Minister would give a fresh directive, and the hon. Member for Newbury urged his right hon. Friend to do something to give a clear lead. I am not disputing his actual words, but that is what I think he said.
None of us will disagree—so I shall spend no time over it—that the background is of tremendous importance to us. I happen to believe that the target of a 60 per cent. increase in food production in the next few years is hopelessly inadequate. I happen to believe that the Minister of Agriculture is failing in his 1364 duty in not giving the industry a much clearer and bolder target at which to aim in the next few years. But everybody agrees that even the miserable 60 per cent. target will not be reached unless we make much firmer efforts—this is what neither hon. Gentlemen faced, but I hope the House will face it today—to move to the rural sections of our economy a greater share of our limited resources than we are now prepared to move.
If we are to get more food, if we are to retain a labour force adequate to do the job on the land, if we are to give the agricultural workers the amenities which they are entitled to expect and without which they will not remain on the land, then, frankly, agriculture and rural life generally have to go right up in the queue. That means that an effective capital investment programme must be prepared by the Government. It also means that the priorities must be right, and that the Government must have the means of bringing those priorities about. Therefore, it must not only be able to plan but must also, to some extent, be able to control, to direct and to move, and it must have a flexible planning machinery behind which it can put the power to operate properly.
I do not believe that at present the task is being faced along those lines. I believe we are taking far too much refuge in talking nice stuff about the countryside, about the need for water, about the need for houses and about the need for electricity, but hardly any of us is willing to commit ourselves to the view that a selective policy for directing our limited national resources simply must be followed.
I happen to have a constituency which, in terms of area, is overwhelmingly agricultural and rural and, in terms of population, is about one-third agricultural and rural, about one-third industrial and about one-third residential around the large town of Derby. I often think that it might do a lot of good if my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker) would take some of my residential areas into his constituency. I am always faced with a problem. I can make speeches in my rural areas saying, "I think you all ought to have electricity and water. You are only two miles from the town of Derby, so you ought to have those things." I 1365 can then go into the other areas and forget that sort of thing if I choose.
That is what one is tempted to do, and that is what we must stop doing. If the villages within three or four miles of my right hon. Friend's constituency are to have electricity then those in other areas must be told that they ought to have it and that the weight of attention ought to be directed upon their having it. I have to tell my industrial areas this sort of thing, and the Minister must tell the country as a whole. It means rather lower priorities for others for a while in order to enable us to extend rural electrification. Unless we are prepared to talk in that way there is not much point in this type of debate and Motion.
I am keen about the Motion, but I want it to mean something when we pass it. It is important for hon. Members opposite to say something about this, because Conservative newspapers will say that this means more restrictions and we shall have the same sort of comments about speeches of this kind as we have had about "Challenge to Britain" in the last few days. It will be said that someone will be restricted, that it will mean more restrictions and controls. It is easy to build up the sort of Press comment to play the part which it is thought to play in affecting the emotions of some people. If hon. Gentlemen opposite do not wish to be accused of being a little "willing to speak, but afraid to do" they must make the sort of comments that I am now making.
If agriculture wants these things it has itself to be willing, and its spokesmen have to be willing, to face up to the problem. I am in correspondence with the Minister about a case in my constituency concerning a great new generating station, which we all want, about which there is great argument as to whether it shall be at one point on the River Trent or at another point three or four miles further down where sidings already exist. Either way, some farmland has to go. One cannot build a generating station on the banks of that river without some farmland going. The problem appears to be very much involved and it seems that the project will be held up for the purpose of measuring exactly the difference between the amount of farm produce to be lost in one place and another.
1366 In principle, I am all in favour of not taking good farmland if one can take farmland which is less good, but we can get so involved if the agricultural industry fights for the very last ton of potatoes that we lose the great good which might follow. I want to talk to the Minister later about this problem. I merely say now that in these matters the agricultural industry has its own responsibilities which it is not shouldering.
Many of these debates turn into opportunities for nagging at the people who are running the show, especially when they are nationalised boards. We ought to put on record quite clearly our appreciation of what has been done by B.E.A. which, since it came into being, have done a very good job. The difference in the rate at which farms, hamlets and villages have been connected is startling. Hon. Members should read the paper which Mr. Steward, chairman of the South Western Board, presented to the Torquay conference last week.
In that document, on page 18, there is a graph showing the curve of connections from 1920 to 1948 and from 1948 to 1953. There is no doubt at all that B.E.A. have given an attention to this question which the private companies could not give. They could not give it because their circumstances were wholly different. It is because we know that B.E.A. can do this work that we are entitled to put pressure on them; but we must recognise what they have done. They have arranged 50,000 new connections in five years as against 80,000 in 28 years by the private companies. That speaks for itself. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) suffers from two disabilities. One is that he cannot keep quiet and the other is that he cannot listen.
I wish to draw attention to what was said in the report of the American productivity team. They had a look at this industry not very long ago. They published a report in 1952 which said:…the United States team found that a new interest in making electricity available in every farm home desiring it arose in 1947.That is when the new interest developed, and I think that we ought to give B.E.A. a pat on the back for what they have done.
One ought to say something in favour of some of the area boards. The situa- 1367 tion in the various districts varies enormously. It is not quite fair to say, as the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) said, that in the Southern Area Board they are doing very well and will have finished the job in 10 years and that in others it will take 20 years. In the Merseyside and North Wales area it will take a lot longer than that. That is hardly a fair point because the circumstances of the area boards differ greatly. Some have a great industrial, built up, easily served consumer area with which to back their work. Others have great sparsely populated areas where everything they do varies from the costly to the very costly. Obviously, circumstances differ.
I should like to give a special word of praise to two boards, one with which I am personally concerned, the East Midlands Board, and the other the South Western Board, where a very special job has been done. I have had occasion to write letters to the chairman of the East Midlands Board and to speak to him at times bluntly and frankly about farms in my constituency. But I have seen that board, as I have got to know the men and watched them, developing an attitude to this business which it would be difficult to fault in any way. Area schemes are being arranged, the economics of which I have no doubt are extremely doubtful. They are doing the work in an imaginative way, without capital charges in most cases.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Ashford. I am wholly against the capital charge. By the capital charge one takes away from the farmer the capital one wants him to have available to invest in production. I disagree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman said about that. The minimum guarantee is the system which the East Midlands Board use, and it is the best system. In 1948–49 connections were given to 800 farms, 22 villages and nine hamlets. Those figures increased in 1950-51 to nearly 1,200 farms, 52 villages and 23 hamlets. The figures for 1951–52 are about the same as those for the preceding year.
I should like to commend one of their actions. In 1950–51, in their annual report, they laid down four heads of a rural policy which seem to me to be first rate. The first is to make supplies avail- 1368 able to every village and hamlet and to all but the most isolated farms. I shall have something to say about those farms later. The second is to allocate such amounts from their capital expenditure budget as would enable them to complete the development of those supplies during the next 10 years. If the Minister of Fuel and Power could persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take a similar decision about the national capital investment budget we could look forward to finishing the whole job in 10 years because we should know that the funds were available. The fact that that is not done is part of the trouble; but the fact that the East Midlands Board have taken this step is most useful.
The third head is to carry out the rural development policy as far as possible without asking for capital contributions from consumers other than the normal service charge where individual properties are some distance from the mains. In all such cases the alternative of a guaranteed minimum consumption will be submitted to the prospective consumer. I should like to see that as a definite act of policy by all boards. I should not mind the B.E.A. giving a directive along those lines. I do not say that I like undue uniformity, but that would be a good directive.
The fourth head is to introduce a standard form of farm tariff which will be applicable throughout the East Midlands area. I do not argue for a standard form of tariff throughout the country. We might find some farms badly hit by that, but every regional board might very well have a standard farm tariff applicable to all the farms within its own area.
The South Western Area Board are worthy of appreciation not only because they have done excellent work in an area where they have no industrial and easily served consumers to back them up, as we have in the East Midlands, but because they have given considerable thought to the working out of an intelligent policy that will carry this work through steadily over a period. They have not been doing it by a series of hops and jumps. They have done the work extremely well.
I would remind the House that the rural problem can be divided into three parts. There is not one rural problem 1369 of electrification. First, there are those areas which by their nature, by the industrial situation in them and their contiguity to towns, are fairly easily served. There is no special difficulty there even though they qualify as rural areas. Secondly, there is that large rural area where economic returns are much more doubtful. Here I should want to think very carefully before I committed myself to the view expressed by the hon. Members for Newbury and Ashford that the way to deal with that sort of area is by a great high pressure salesmanship campaign on the small farmers to persuade them to buy this, that and the other electrical appliance.
We did that during and immediately after the war and the result was that in many cases we got our small farmers heavily over-capitalised with machines that were not earning their corn for most of the year. I do not want to repeat the same sort of mistakes with electrical appliances. The idea that they will earn the revenue is, I think, fallacious. The scheme would certainly leave the farmer short of capital to spend on other matters which are at least as urgent. If there is a financial problem it must be dealt with in some other way. That is the second field. The third field is the distant fringe area of the rural areas, where the returns will never be economic no matter how heavily we indulge in high pressure salesmanship.
What have I to suggest? There are two things which the Government must do, to the first of which I have already referred. The Government must have a capital investment programme which makes adequate provision for this and which is willing to hold back the use of resources elsewhere in order that they flow in this direction. [An HON. MEMBER: "They have."] What they have not done is to prevent the resources going elsewhere, and that is why the electricity board cannot get enough resources to carry out even the rural programme which it had planned.
§ Mr. Nabarro
The right hon. Gentleman has surely read the short Adjournment debate on this subject last week, when it was made abundantly clear by the Minister who replied that it is the responsibility of the area boards to apportion their existing financial resources?
§ Mr. Brown
I am coming to that. If only the hon. Gentleman will listen to me, he will find that his points will be taken into the more comprehensive speech I shall make. At the moment I am on a different point. I am not on the point of what they do with their existing allocation; I am saying that it is not big enough.
§ Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson (Ilford, North) rose——
§ Mr. Brown
No, the hon. and learned Gentleman must let me get on with my speech. I apologise for having already taken longer than I had intended. I could not be too long for the hon. Member for Kidderminster, because the longer I take the more likely I am to enlighten him.
The second point is a much more controversial one. If we want the farmers to take up the supply, if we want them to have the machines, they must be able to get hold of the credit with which to do so and they must be able to get it on attractive terms. At the moment it is too difficult for a tenant farmer to obtain adequate supplies of credit, and it is too costly when he gets them. We can provide all the supply of electricity that is needed, but we shall find that the farmer will not get the machines for that reason. That is not the responsibility of the right hon. Gentleman, but he might represent that to the Chancellor of the Exchequer because it is important.
My next suggestion is to the industry. I believe that, too, has to think nationally about this matter. It should not be left quite as much as it is to the area boards. When the central authority gets out its capital investment programme, it should have much more to say itself in order to mould the division made between the share which goes to, say, the London board and the share which goes to a rural board, and also between a rural board which is heavily rural and one which is not so heavily rural. It must make a real effort to act much more in a national way. I gather that the present method is to divide the amount available according to what is thought to be the capacity of each area board to make use of that money and get it spent in the year. That is much too acquiescent and inflexible a way of doing it.
1371 My next suggestion concerns finance. We can pat the chairman of the Southwestern Board on the back, but he is going "into the red," and the more work is done the more that will happen and other area boards will follow him. If we wait until that happens and attacks develop on the boards which go "into the red," there will be a tendency to pull out of this kind of work in order to keep above the line. It is at least arguable that the Act does not require each board to balance. It requires all the boards and the central board to balance, taking one year with another.
I should like to see a different approach so that some of these costs are borne centrally and taken off the accounts of the local board. This would prevent a local board being afraid of doing things in case their figures were wrong. It would make no real alteration to the total expenditure, and it would be a good way of shifting some of the cost from the rural producer, who is only bearing it in order to produce food for his town cousin who will enjoy the fruits and the benefits of what he produces.
That would certainly affect my second category. Now I come to my next category, the fringe area. The hon. Gentleman said that he was not asking for a subsidy. I see no way out of this except by the Government coming in and taking over. It is only what they do already under various Acts of Parliament for a large range of other things. The Government say, "The carrying of the service down to that area clearly cannot be justified on any basis except that of national need. The people concerned cannot pay for it and, therefore, we ought to pay for that as a Government service." We accept the hill farming grant subsidies and a variety of other special payments by the Government and so I see no reason why we should oppose this one.
My last suggestion is to the area boards. It is for them to decide how to finance this. They must accept the fact that capital contributions are wrong. The system of a line rental is better because it spreads the amount over a period, but it means heavier charges and, therefore, needs capital. By far the best is the guaranteed minimum arrangement. It is for the area boards to think clearly about that.
1372 I have said some controversial things— [An HON. MEMBER: "Very."] It is not thought to be a disadvantage for a Member of Parliament sometimes to be controversial. I have tried to induce hon. Members to support the Motion, as I do, knowing what it involves, namely, being willing to say the unpopular things to some people in order to ask for the popular things which agriculturists want. I have tried to make concrete suggestions to the Minister, to the central board and to the area boards. I hope that at the end of the day we shall have a firm statement from the Minister, and that not only in this industry will there be a much more realistic allocation of resources but, in turn, ways and means will be found of diverting rather more of those to the rural areas.
§ 12.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Thomas (Canterbury)
I crave the indulgence of hon. Members on this occasion and I assure them that I shall not trespass too long on their time. My reason for intervening in this debate is that the constituency which I represent is, to a large extent, agricultural and to a certain extent—fortunately not to the extent experienced by others—is affected by an inadequate electricity supply.
One of the effects, probably the most serious effect, of this inadequacy is on the labour aspect of the agricultural industry. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) quoted a drift from the land of 10,000 per annum in the last four years. The continuous and steady drift is probably the biggest obstacle in the way of achieving any agricultural programme that we may want to achieve. Obviously the main reason for it is in the attractive amenities in the towns. When one analyses those amenities which act as a magnet, one finds that in the main they are based on an efficient electrical service. Many farmers today who have no electricity supply are finding the utmost difficulty in obtaining satisfactory and skilled labour. Again, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury said, the present generation, and probably quite rightly, will not tolerate the grim conditions which a lack of an electricity supply creates.
The second point I wish to raise is the financing of new installations and new connections to farms and rural dwellings. At the moment there are, I believe, three 1373 different methods adopted among the various area boards throughout the country. It seems to me that, after five years of centralised direction, a standardised method giving reasonable economic terms to the supply companies, and attractive terms of supply to the consumer, should, by now, have been found.
There are certain aspects of the present arrangement as betwen supply boards and prospective consumers which, in my view, bar the way to a more rapid development in the supply of electricity to the rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) emphasised in a previous debate—and he did so extremely comprehensively—the meagreness of the estimates which are presented by the supply boards to their prospective customers. I wish to re-emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend that in present conditions, where a competitive tender cannot be obtained, the area boards ought to give the fullest possible information, even perhaps to the extent of indicating to the prospective consumer how much of the capital cost they themselves are in effect bearing.
But there is another aspect of these financial arrangements which I think is also detrimental to this development, and that is the attitude of the boards regarding the actual financing. There was a case in my constituency where two farms, I think five houses and an oast house, which it was proposed to convert, made the necessary applications to the board for an electricity supply. The whole thing fell through, not only because the price was too high—it was something in the region of £2,000—but also because the board insisted upon payment on the signing of the agreement and, at the same time, stated that they could not undertake to begin the work for a period of two years. Quite frankly, it is beyond my comprehension why a prospective consumer should be asked to finance the British Electricity Authority for such a period without any return on his capital.
I mention these things because, in my view, they indicate either poor salesmanship or the effects of a deliberate policy of restraint under which these boards have been placed in their advertising policy. Since the beginning of 1948, between 45,000 and 46,000 farms have been provided with an electricity supply, 1374 but when one analyses the figures one finds that there is an almost constant annual figure of connections of, approximately, 9,200 or 9,300 a year. There is no increase in that rate of connection.
I appreciate, as I think we all do, that during the past five years shortages of materials, rising costs and the necessary restraint on capital investment have imposed a handicap on area boards, but I feel that that situation has considerably altered today. Only this week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor told us that there were more doors open for increasing investment in productive industries. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that when he is considering the annual investment programme for the electricity industry, he should take advantage of the fact that one of these doors is now ajar, and that within the overall investment there should be a specific and an annually increasing allotment for bringing electricity to the farms.
I also suggest that that allotment should be specifically mentioned, because by so doing, I feel it would give the necessary publicity throughout the country and would help towards a more rapid development. I gather from previous speeches, and from certain interjections which hon. Members on both sides have made, that perhaps ways might be found of contributing towards this high capital cost, or at least of providing some financial arrangement over a long period of years which would ease the burden to the prospective consumer.
My right hon. Friend stated a little time ago, in answer to a Question, that the Government have accepted the recommendations of the Ridley Committee, and the fact that, by and large, charges should be related to cost. Generally speaking, I agree with that policy, but I feel that it is a matter for serious consideration whether the disadvantages and the deterrents of this high capital cost are not more than outweighed by the extra production which would result from more rapid development in this sphere.
I hope that on this occasion I have not detained the House too long, but I feel that at the present time, when there is a great need for self-sufficiency in our agricultural and food production, a more rapid and vigorous policy in this sphere would give more weight and would become an even greater stabiliser to the 1375 national economy, which is something very much needed today.
§ 12.19 p,m.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Cleveland)
It is my pleasant duty—and I would not emphasise the word "duty," but rather the word "pleasant"—to congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas) on surviving with such credit to himself the very considerable ordeal of a maiden speech. If I may say so, I thought he spoke with knowledge, with penetration and with something which I admired a great deal remembering my own first effort, with great ease and confidence.
The hon. Member was, of course, as is proper and decent, I am told, on these occasions, suitably non-controversial on a subject which is in any case very nearly non-controversial today; but we shall see as time goes on. When, as I am sure he will, he joins in our debates on future and rather more robust occasions, we shall all, on both sides of the House, invite him to be controversial, because we would prefer to have things that way. I am sure that hon. Members will all support me in saying once again how much we enjoyed his speech and how much we wish him well in his future contributions to our discussions.
I am grateful to the mover and seconder of this Motion. I am not a rural expert, although I am a Devonian representing a broad Yorkshire constituency. I am not a farmer and I do not for one moment pose as knowing a great deal about purely agricultural matters. Yet I certainly have a real and personal interest in this question of electrification, as hon. Members may know, and in the electric supply industry generally and the contribution that it can make to the productive life of the nation.
It is well that we should put the matter in its complete historical perspective. This is no new question. I spent a few minutes yesterday glancing through some of the previous reports made by Government Committees and Commissions on the subject. I looked at the report of the Weir Committee of 1924 or 1925, which preceded the Act of 1926. I found that at that time, many years ago now, the Committee said:The Social benefits of electricity developing rural areas and promoting decentralisation of industry are of national importance.1376 That was said quite a time ago. The McGowan Committee, a very famous Committee, reported in 1936, 10 years later. It was specifically charged with the duty of advising on supplies to rural areas.
I should not like it to be suggested, and I am glad that it has not been even indirectly suggested so far today, that when comparisons are being made between this country and the United States and other countries in Western Europe of the number of farms connected, that the new area boards are responsible. Perhaps I shall now invite intervention by the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), but I am anxious to keep this debate as non-controversial as possible. I suggest that only since nationalisation, for the first time, is rural electrification being tackled energetically and systematically throughout the country.
The figures are available and I will just summarise them. In the 28 years from 1920 to 1948, the number of farms connected per annum was 2,900 on the average. The average number of farms connected over the last four years since vesting date has been not fewer than 9,500, a very considerable advance. In 1951–52 the number of farms connected was a greater proportion of the total number of new consumers than any other main class of consumer.
I throw these facts into the discussion, not because I want to be complacent— there is a vast amount to be done—but because it cannot be seriously argued that national ownership of electricity supply, with regional autonomy for distribution, has not abundantly justified itself so far.
What is the reason? It is not a question of doctrine between one side of the House and the other, but for a very practical reason. The remedy which was talked about in the early days in the electricity supply industry is, for the first time, now being applied, the grouping of urban and rural areas. It has been made possible today under conditions of national ownership with regional autonomy, but it means, of course, that the town dweller must pay a little more for his electricity. He does that in some cases, but electricity is proportionately or relatively still cheap if the result is a real improvement in agricultural productivity. Any sacrifice made in a small way by town electricity consumers will 1377 be worth while if the result is increased supplies of food from agriculture.
The supply of electricity can no longer be regarded as a luxury either in town or country. I make no apology for being something of an electrical fanatic. I believe that electricity is essential to the modern way of life. In the countryside, given fair wages, the other material needs of the country dweller are good housing, water supply, drainage and electricity, and often, for obvious reasons, electricity is the cement that binds all the others.
I will use the argument that has been used earlier in the debate, that it is no good investing capital in rural electricity supply to farms if the supply is used by the farmer only for light and wireless. That is regrettably only too often the case. There are two reasons normally suggested for the still low consumption of electricity by the farmer. One is that he is naturally conservative—I use the word with a small "c"—and shows marked disbelief when it is argued that electricity can successfully perform tasks which are at present carried out either by manual means or by some other means of power such as a petrol engine. It is certainly true that to win the farmer over to the use of electricity persuasion is needed.
For successful rural electricity salesmen we need men and women who understand country ways and farming life. I imagine that a smooth-tongued, slick, urban salesman could easily arouse a vast amount of sales resistance. However, I think that difficulty is being overcome, and that the modern farmer is beginning to see how much electricity can do in many directions.
Another argument is being used. It was referred to by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd), who moved the Motion. There was an implication that area boards are to blame for the insufficient number of trained and qualified salesmen, who must be something of engineers as well. They have to get the apparatus in, explain how it works and how it is to be used, to follow up with adequate answers to questions, and all the rest of it. If it is said that the area electricity boards have not a sufficient number of salesmen to push the matter energetically enough, who is to blame for that? Not the electricity boards.
1378 I agree with the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) that it is becoming a post-war fashion to make it seem almost indecent to use electricity. I worked as a student and assistant engineer in the 1930s in the electricity supply industry, when it was not considered indecent to use electricity but seemed to be the most natural, necessary and progressive thing to do.
I suggest to hon. Members on both sides of the House that, in view of what has been happening in the last few years and in view of the climate of official opinion, they cannot expect a new legion of salesmen to spring from the furrows at the word of command. They cannot expect that when it is the policy not only of the Government that I oppose but of Governments that I have supported to clamp down upon the advertising of electricity supplies. I was glad, therefore, that when I addressed a Question to the Minister of Fuel and Power recently he seemed to hint that there was to be a relaxation of the ban on promotional advertising by the electricity industry, especially at a time when this industry has to pay its way and is in competition in some directions with such industries as the solid fuel industry, which have no hindrance upon their advertising policy. That puts the public industry at a great disadvantage in relation to private industry.
Though capital restriction may have been necessary at the time, it is now wrong to continue it for one moment longer than is absolutely essential. It is no good arguing that the electricity supply industry should spend less upon the construction of power stations and more on distribution. If we encourage greater use of electricity, whether in town or country, the stations must be constructed to make the electricity. One cannot separate generation from distribution. One must look at the financial and technical programme of the industry as a complete whole.
Many hon. Members no doubt have read the paper which was read to the 1953 British Electrical Power Convention by Mr. S. F. Steward, the chairman of the South Western Electricity Board. Thanks to the co-operation of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll), who is not present today, and the unvarying courtesy of my Whips, I had 1379 the opportunity last week to attend the Convention. I also have the honour to serve on its Council. I heard this paper read and the subsequent discussion. It is good that occasionally Members of Parliament should attend meetings which will enable them to bring back from forums outside opinions for the consideration of this forum of the nation in Westminster.
The South Western Electricity Board, in spite of great natural difficulties, have certainly made amazing progress in rural electrification. They have made an 85 per cent. increase in farm connections compared with the average of 55 per cent. for all other boards in the country. If this kind of pace could be maintained, we could meet the obligation placed upon the electricity industry by the law of the land and complete the electrification of the country within reasonable limits, say about 10 years.
Yet it will become increasingly difficult to maintain this rate of progress because mounting interest rates and depreciation charges make it less remunerative every year for the electricity supply industry to take its supplies to the more sparsely-populated rural areas. Higher line rental charges, of course, will also make it harder to find new customers. Already, because of their enterprise in rural electricity, the South Western Electricity Board are running at a loss. It is not a great loss, but nevertheless they are "in the red" and they are not supposed to be "in the red."
I believe, therefore, that there are three courses open to the country if rural electrification is to be completed. First, there is the obvious one of putting all the burden on the urban consumer. This has limitations. For a number of years I was an employee of various company undertakings and I never blamed them entirely for their failure to extend rural supplies. The fault lay with the foolish, archaic and out-of-date character of the supply areas that they were supposed to cover. Under nationalisation, with reasonable economy, we are able to amalgamate urban with rural areas and in that way subsidise one class of consumer at the partial expense of another, just as the Post Office does and as is done in all large-scale business. Obviously that policy has limitations, for one cannot go on all 1380 the time putting up the price to the urban consumer. It can, however, be done within limits. Anyhow, that is certainly one course to follow if we are to complete the electrification of the country.
The second course is to let the British Electricity Authority, as having the national responsibility, specially finance rural electrification for areas such as the South-West through the allocation of definite sums of money. In the long run, since the British Electricity Authority must balance its accounts, that will come to pretty well the same thing as the first course; that is, consumers as a whole will have to pay.
The third course is for the nation, if it believes that vastly increased agricultural productivity is essential, to finance it under guaranteed conditions out of national funds. I would not shrink from that solution myself. I can say in defence of that policy, if it needs any defence, that I advocated it in a pamphlet which I wrote before nationalisation. I should have been in favour of it even if the electricity supply industry had not been nationalised.
§ Mr. Nabarro
In connection with the first and second courses which he has suggested, surely the hon. Member is advocating what was called in the past the "postalisation" of electricity charge within each of the areas of the country. If that is so, he is very close to my views in this matter.
§ Mr. Palmer
I think that that is already the aim of the electricity boards at the present time. I think that they should aim at standard charges in all areas.
I believe that all this depends upon the electricity industry being free to do the job which it is now obliged to do by law in the service of the nation. We are on the threshold of the atomic age and I should like to read to the House a quotation from the presidential address of Sir John Hacking, a leading engineering expert of the British Electricity Authority, which he delivered to the British Electrical Power Convention at Torquay last week. He said:The next 10 to 15 years will see supplies of electricity brought within the range of all but a fractional minority of the premises in Great Britain. Of the three main fuels it is the only one able to supply certain household services which have already come to be 1381 regarded as indispensable, and it can satisfactorily supply all other household services. Is it possible that, in due course, the triplication of capital and operating costs involved in distributing three forms of heat energy to the domestic consumer will be found to be an unnecessary expense, far outweighing any savings which may possibly accrue from marginal differences in the efficiencies of production and utilisation?I agree with him. I do not believe that in the long run one can separate rural electrification from the general electrification of the United Kingdom. In view of the atomic age which is approaching —and electricity will be the only medium for distributing the energy of atomic power stations—we should concentrate our scarce national resources in capital and in other directions upon electricity and not run, as we often do, after out-of-date methods of carrying out human tasks, and satisfying needs, such as by the use of solid fuel.
§ 12.41 p,m.
§ Sir Harold Roper (Cornwall, North)
A variety of views have been expressed in this debate by no means related to the side of the House on which we sit. The variations have depended to a large extent on the variations in the conditions in the various parts of the country from which we come.
One section of speakers has laid stress on the restrictions which have been imposed on the development of rural electricity by the necessary restriction of capital. I do not propose to follow that line because I do not believe that in my part of the country that is the major consideration. I propose to take a line which is much nearer to the consumer, and that is that, in order to meet the capital charges as they are increasing in the rural areas, we are reaching a stage when the potential rural consumer can no longer afford to pay the cost of those extra capital charges. The areas adjacent to the main supply lines are already fairly fully developed, and as we go further afield so the capital charges applied to the consumer are increasing, and are becoming more than he can afford.
In the South-Western area we follow the principle of the line rental system. The right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), though he has much to say in favour of the conduct of the South Western Electricity Board, is not in agreement in that respect. It would be 1382 a pity if today we should waste much time on the details of the different methods of meeting these capital charges. I would merely say in that connection that the South Western Electrictiy Board, in following the system of line rentals, has the full support of the South-Western Consultative Council, which is the democratic body appointed to look after and advise on the interests of the consumer in the South-West. As a result of this line rental system, the effect on the consumer in the South-West is that on average it increases the cost to the local consumer by about 9s. 6d. a week, and that cost is steadily rising as we get further afield from the main supply lines and as the capital charges thereby increase.
The position in the South-West is that at the present time only one farm in three has a supply of electricity. The Motion that we are discussing was moved and seconded by Members who represent constituencies where the proportion of farms connected is just about double the amount that we have in the South-West, and it is because of that that my point of view is somewhat different from theirs. I maintain that a figure of one farm in three connected is far short of the intention of Parliament when the Electricity Act was passed and when there was laid upon the electricity boards and the Government the duty to secure "so far as practicable"— those are the words used—the extension of electricity supply to the rural areas.
In my own constituency in Cornwall we have no fewer than 13 parishes which have no electricity supply, or practically none. Of those 13 parishes three are isolated parishes, and there are others which have an electricity supply but within which there are patches which are still without electricity. The remaining 10 parishes in my constituency form one large block virtually without electricity at all, and that block covers an area of some 30 to 40 square miles. It is a thinly-populated area, but it is an area of farmland, and some of it is good farmland. It is certainly not an area which we can afford to allow to become depopulated. That area is making its contribution to our national food supply and we must keep it under cultivation.
The main centre in it, not a very closely knit centre, is the parish of St. Gennys, which includes perhaps some 200 houses in the main residential area. The capital 1383 cost of supplying that parish has been given to me as £21,500. It is beyond the estimated capacity of the potential consumers to pay for it. It would increase the normal cost of supply to them by some 30 per cent., and that is a very large figure, particularly when we bear in mind that the cost per unit in the South-West for supplying domestic premises is higher than in any other of the 14 areas covered by the British Electricity Authority.
I mention that point of detail because we were invited to represent the varying points of view of our respective areas, and that is the kind of problem which presents itself to me. If it is the intention of Parliament that we should achieve 100 per cent. electrification, which I think was the expression used by my hon. Friend who moved this Motion, in the South-West we may ultimately have to adopt some system like that adopted for rural water supplies—namely, some form of national subvention. I know that is not accepted by other hon. Members at the moment. Having regard to the high level of taxation and of rates, we clearly cannot follow such a policy unless there are most compelling circumstances, so I hesitate to suggest that that would be an appropriate policy at the moment. But it does emphasise how essential it is that the alternatives should be fully considered.
We must, in the first place, ensure that the policy of operation is in fact carried out by the Electricity Authority with the maximum efficiency. That is a matter on which I do not presume to express an opinion. There is no doubt that we should do our utmost to achieve the full utilisation of the current because, as so many speakers have remarked, by full utilisation we should achieve a cheaper rate for all consumers. The third point which must be watched is that in the allocation of the charges we must ensure that full justice is being done to the rural areas to the limit allowed by the Electricity Act.
As an example of what I mean, on a recent occasion I raised the question of the apportionment of the payment in lieu of rates, the new method which has, during this past year, saddled the South Western Electricity Board—which already bears the highest cost—with an additional £41,000. That is a comparatively 1384 minor item and I do not wish to raise the subject again, except to comment that the reply which the Parliamentary Secretary gave me when I raised it before in no way met the detailed objection raised by the South Western Electricity Board that any method of apportionment of rates which depends mainly or largely on the fixed assets works against the rural constituencies where, by the nature of things, the proportion of fixed assets is rather higher.
In his excellent maiden speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas) mentioned the Ridley Report. He remarked that that Report laid down, broadly, that the charges should be related to the cost of supply. That appears in paragraph 1 of the Report, but if my hon. Friend will refer to paragraph 4 he will find that in arriving at the cost of supply it is recognised that account should be taken of what is called the "social cost"—and as an illustration of what is meant the Report quotes pollution by smoke, if coal is the fuel used. If the Ridley Committee consider that the social value of avoiding pollution by smoke should be taken into consideration in arriving at the cost, surely the social value of avoiding the de-population of our rural areas is a much more important matter to be taken into consideration. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will not be unduly embarrassed by the comment contained in the first paragraph of the Ridley Report.
Perhaps the most important point of all—and one which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd)—was the cost of the transmission lines. If something can be done to put on the Central Authority a higher proportion of the cost of transmission lines, that might be a very major item in the help that could be given to rural areas. If I understood them rightly, both my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury and, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) said that under the Electricity Act the various areas had to run individually at a profit. That was disputed by the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). I looked it up in the Act, which I have here, and Section 36 says, quite clearly:It shall be the duty of the Central Authority so to exercise and perform their 1385 functions under this Act, including their functions in relation to Area Boards, as to secure that the combined revenues of the Central Authority and all the Area Boards taken together are not less than sufficient to meet their combined outgoings. …That appears to provide a specific answer to the points raised by my hon. Friend. We know that the British Electricity Authority has had this matter under review for some considerable time. I hope that the Minister will have satisfactory news for us when he replies. I will just emphasise again that in my constituency—as in the constituencies of many hon. Members—the main issue is not the need for more capital to be authorised for rural extension; we also want the potential consumer to be put into a position to pay his share of that capital.
This situation is not likely to rectify itself. If we are really thinking in terms of 100 per cent. electrification of our farms, or anything like that figure, we must have a Government policy which will make it possible. Unless we find a solution the present serious drift from the land will continue, with its consequent serious effects on our national food supplies.
§ 12.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)
I must confess that on my many visits to the constituency of the hon. Member for Cornwall. North (Sir H. Roper) I have been more concerned with such things as surf bathing than with the problem of rural electrification. The hon. Member mentioned that only one out of three farms in his constituency is connected with electricity. That is sad, but what is even sadder is that that figure is very little below the national average. Some of us represent constituencies which are higher than his figure and some constituencies which are lower, but the proportion in the hon. Member's constituency is little less than the national one. That gives us a measure of the serious problem we have to face.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Palmer) made one point with which I disagree. He did not think that the farmers themselves were convinced of the need for electrification. He felt—as did one or two other hon. Members—that there was a need for convincing farmers of the virtues of electrification. I believe that, in general, 1386 farmers accept the fact that electricity is of great value in the efficient working of their farms and in providing amenities to keep the workers in the country. In support of the claim in regard to efficiency, there is the fact that electric milking machines have doubled in number since the war.
As for providing amenities, I should like to quote from a letter which I received this morning from the secretary of the Lincolnshire National Farmers' Union. He mentions something which happened yesterday and says:Early today a farmer called to see me. He farms 700 acres. He has six cottages, his own house and some buildings. Of his six cottages two are now empty. Both workers have left because electricity has not arrived.The secretary also says that the farmer has been promised a supply of electricity for over 18 months. Having said that, I should make it clear that in my experience the B.E.A. have not been blamed by farmers for this lack of electricity. In fact, I have here a letter from the secretary of the National Farmers' Union in Cambridgeshire saying:the Fens Sub-area of the Eastern Electricity Board are extremely good and helpful.My right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) quoted figures which I thought showed conclusively the good work the B.E.A. have done. I shall not attempt to develop that point, but shall confine myself to trying to answer the real question—what is to be done?
We may analyse the position and agree on the desirability and the urgent necessity for having electricity on the farms. But what is to be done? There are weighty matters to consider. The increase of capital investment; credit for farmers; subsidies to farmers. Others have discussed these. I suggest that the Swedish co-operative farmers' electricity supply system should be studied. If it has been studied I suggest it be studied again, by the Ministries, the National Farmers' Union and the trade unions.
As I understand it under the Swedish system of farmers' co-operatives the members join together to buy the current and join together to put up the overhead lines. Their own co-operative then hires their transformers. Is there something in this system which we could learn and from which we could benefit especially 1387 in sparsely-settled country? A few years ago the idea that farmers should put up their own lines would have been regarded as fantastic. But now there are farmers in all parts of the country who could do so. They have powerful tractors and attachments such as booms. I think, therefore, that the experience of Sweden should be studied, and I hope the Minister will consider my suggestion.
§ 1.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)
I find myself in agreement with much said by hon. Members opposite, but I cannot agree when they speak of the wonderful way in which the nationalised industry has spread electricity in the rural areas. They seem to go back almost to the period of the Boer War, and to suggest that because only 100 farms were connected in the year 1900 or thereabouts, whereas today there are 9,000 farms being connected every year, it shows that the B.E.A. have done a most wonderful job.
Of course, during the war, and in the immediate post-war years, private companies were not able to boost electricity in the way they would have wished to do. If we look at the figures for 1948-49, the first year of nationalisation and nine months after the vesting date in April, 1948, we find that 8,900 farm holdings were connected. In 1951–52, the last year for which figures are available, we find 9,700 farms were connected, which is a lower figure than for the year 1950–51.
§ Mr. Speir
I have not the figures here for 1938, nor am I very interested in them. The fact remains that there has not been a great increase today, five years after nationalisation. There has not been that spread of electricity to the rural areas which was prophesied by the advocates of nationalisation.
But we are not here either to review the prospects of de-nationalising the industry or to argue about nationalisation, because we accept the nationalisation of the electricity supply industry. We wish to see this industry encouraged to spread its benefits to the rural population. I agree with the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) when he decries 1388 the idea that we can help to overcome our present difficulties by introducing better sales methods. That is not the answer. If only we can get electricity to the farms it will sell itself.
I do not agree, perhaps for obvious reasons, with my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) that the electricity boards should be regarded from an area or a regional point of view. It may be desirable that all the boards should pay, but I do not think they should all be made to pay in exactly the same way. Certainly we in North-East England are suffering very much and are at a disadvantage compared with our neighbours across the Border in South-East Scotland. I understand that in South-East Scotland the board has a standard charge for connecting up farms, regardless of how far they may be from the transmission lines. I believe it is £250.
In some parts of Northumberland, however, the North Eastern Electricity Board have quoted as much as £1,500 for making a connection. In one case I know they are asking £650 for bringing a supply to a farm only 35 yards from a branch line. There is a lack of uniformity in the charges imposed in this country, they differ as between one area and another and in the North-East there is a further lack of uniformity between one farm and another and between farms and hamlets. The charge for connecting up a farm is often considerably greater than that for connecting up a hamlet, although the farm with the use of all its machinery would consume more electricity than would the hamlet.
It may be thought that in asking for a reduction of tariffs consumers in the rural areas are asking for something for nothing, but in point of fact the reverse is the case. At the present time they are getting nothing for something—and something pretty large. Often they are being asked to pay anything up to £700 for an installation, but they do not then own the transformer, or the poles, or the wire, and as a consequence they cannot show that payment in their accounts as an asset. They are therefore unable to raise loans or mortgages to meet such a charge. I think a strong case can be made for the revision and reconsideration of tariffs with a view to their reduction and with a view to the introduction of a uniform charge throughout the country.
1389 There would appear to be an idea prevalent that in recent years conditions in the rural areas have improved considerably, and that the rural population are getting better amenities. So far as Northumberland is concerned, that would be a very false picture. There, many of the amenities are being curtailed. Branch railway lines are being closed down; bus services are being continually withdrawn or restricted, and the installation of electricity is proceeding only at a snail's pace. To add insult to injury, the beauty and peace of the countryside are being destroyed by the setting-up of super-large pylons carrying transmission lines from one end of the county to the other. To these transmission lines the rural population are allowed no direct access, and from them they derive no direct benefit. So I think they have many grounds for complaint, and yet it is from the marginal hill farms that we look largely for any increased output of home-grown food in coming years.
I therefore suggest that the Government should look at this problem from the national point of view and not from the area point of view. As has already been pointed out, very often the services provided by organisations such as the Post Office and the banks do not pay for themselves in rural areas, and the towns have to come to their aid to make up the losses, but if the towns want to be fed properly it will pay them in the long run to make good those losses, and I think that that policy should be adopted in regard to electricity production and distribution. The spread of an electricity supply in the rura! areas would certainly be a great boon for all engaged in agriculture, and I think it would pay good dividends to the nation at large.
§ 1.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)
I am one of those who are most grateful to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) for moving and the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) for seconding this Motion, and I should like to associate myself fully with the sentiments they expressed in doing so. If they feel aggrieved about the position in their respective areas they can well imagine the sentiments which are mine, bearing in mind the position in my area. Let me give one or two figures to illustrate what it is. At the present rate of progress 1390 in South Wales we have no possibility of achieving even the conditions at present prevalent in the areas of the two hon. Members in less than 50 years.
The constituency of the hon. Member for Newbury is in the southern area, and at present, I am advised, there are some 21,000 holdings in that area of which 14,000 have been connected; that is to say, there are 7,000 awaiting connection. Last year the total number of holdings connected in the southern area was 1,297. At that rate of progress the trouble should be cleared up in something like five or six years.
Let us compare that with the position in South Wales, where a large part of the agricultural land is not hilly, remote or inaccessible. The position in the South Wales area is that there are some 21,581 holdings awaiting electrification. What is worse is that last year the total number connected was 275. To make matters still worse, that was less than the number connected the year before, namely, 341. So anyone can well imagine why I am anxious to associate myself with the sentiments that have been expressed in support of this Motion.
The hon. Member for Ashford said that in his area, the South-Eastern area, about 60 per cent. of the holdings were connected, and he thought that that figure should be higher. In South Wales the percentage is something like five. So one can well see the urgency of the problem. In North Wales there is an even larger number of holdings awaiting electrification than in South Wales, but I would say this for the Merseyside and North Wales Electricity Board, that the rate of progress there is somewhat greater than it is in South Wales, I would urge the Minister to tell us whether something is to be done particularly for those areas where the problem is most acute and where at present the least is being done.
I have given some figures about South Wales. Let me mention this fact, in addition. The South Wales Electricity Board's expenditure on rural electrification last year was the lowest of that of 11 boards in Great Britain. Where the position is the worse the least action is taken to remedy it. The Parliamentary Secretary shakes his head, but the figure was £204,000. That was the capital expenditure on rural electrification in South Wales last year, and that amount 1391 was the lowest of the amounts spent by the 11 boards. If that is not so I shall be delighted to give way to know.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)
Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me to remind him that he is not taking into account the expenditure of the British Electricity Authority in the South Wales area.
§ Mr. Bowen
Neither am I, in making that statement, comparing the figures of the other boards. During last year did any other board of the 11 spend less than £204,000 on rural electrification, ignoring the B.E.A. expenditure? If that is so, my statement is incorrect.
What is more, the figure of £204,000 was the figure submitted by the board to the B.E.A. That is to say, it is not a case of the South Wales Electricity Board's bursting with energy to meet this problem and asking for as much money as possible to carry out rural electrification. The South Wales Electricity Board last year asked for £204,000 and got what they asked for. That was, as I say, in an area where 21,500 holdings await electrification, and where the rate of progress is at the moment fewer than 300 connections a year.
The first step in meeting this difficulty is, of course, to increase the amount of capital expenditure on rural electrification in these areas. The boards and. indeed, the B.E.A., are being less than frank with the rural communities when they attempt to explain the limitations of their actions in rural electrification. The South Wales Electricity Board have repeatedly said the limitations are due to cuts in the capital expenditure allowed by the Government. I hope that the Minister will give us a clear and concise statement about on whom the responsibility lies.
So far as last year was concerned the South Wales Electricity Board, I understand, got from the B.E.A. the total sum for which they asked for rural electrification. This year there is an increase in the amount which it is intended to devote to rural electrification from £204,000 to £310,000, which, of course, is an increase which is appreciated, but, bearing in mind the immensity of the problem and the 1392 leeway which has to be made up, I am wondering whether it can be seriously suggested that an increase from £204,000 to £310,000 is anything like adequate if those people are to have electricity within any reasonable period of time.
Let me give another figure. Last year the North Wales Electricity Board spent £500,000 on rural electrification. If the treatment of this problem is to be anything like adequate for the conditions which prevail at the moment the amount of capital expenditure on rural development in South Wales should be very much greater than the amount budgeted for at present. If the South Wales Electricity Board and other boards are asking B.E.A. for larger sums for rural electrification and B.E.A. is turning them down, that fact should be made public; the boards should tell the people in the rural areas what sums they have asked for for rural electrification and what sums they have been given, for then we should know precisely where the responsibility lay. As I understand, although some attempts have been made by the Board to suggest that their global sums should be increased slightly in order to allow them a slight increase in rural electrification, the South Wales Electricity Board is not thinking in terms which bear any real relationship to the extent of the problem.
I am sorry to detain the House for so long, but I am sure that hon. Members will understand how conscious a Member from South Wales, or from any part of Wales, is of the position in Wales. Reference has been made by several speakers, including the hon. Member for Ashford to advertising. It is somewhat galling for 95 per cent. of the people in a community to have daily to read advertisements asking the other 5 per cent. to use more electricity. I should like to see every penny now being used on advertising used for extending electrification in the rural areas. When we reach the stage when electricity is available to a substantial part of the community, then, and then only, should we publicise as much as possible the necessity of using electricity.
I should like to associate myself with the views already expressed about the user of electricity by those who have it. I do not think that the farming community itself is entirely free from criticism in this respect, and those of us who complain have a duty to urge our farmers 1393 to make the maximum use of the service when it is obtained. Reference has also been made to capital charges, and there again the present situation is certainly unsatisfactory. My constituency is covered partly by one area board and partly by another, and the charges for connecting up frequently vary by as much as five times.
Two farms which are completely comparable, and which may be only a few miles from each other, may find one served by the North Wales Area Board whose charges are only one-fifth those of the South Wales Area Board which serves the other farm. That is something which should surely be remedied without delay. We should be given some information to enable us to ascertain which body is responsible for the limitations of capital expenditure on rural electrification at the moment. When that is obtained, what should be considered is whether steps should not be taken on a national level to ensure that proper provision is made.
The right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) talked about balancing industrial and rural areas. In South Wales there is a very substantial pocket of industrial activity linked to a rural area, with an expenditure on electrical development of £3 million envisaged next year, but still the development in the rural area linked to that industrial area is wholly inadequate. I look forward to hearing from the Minister that steps will be taken, particularly in those areas where there is so much leeway to be made up, to ensure that much more is done to bring about rural electrification than is being done at the moment.
§ 1.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)
I, too, wish to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) for choosing this subject for debate this afternoon. I thought that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) advocated very good Socialist principles, even though he is a member of the Conservative Party, in suggesting that the other areas should help the rural communities. The logic of that is sensible State planning, which his party used to oppose so continuously.
Today, it is a pleasure to pay tribute to the work of the B.E.A. Despite what the hon. Member for Hexham said, the 1394 figures, which can be studied, are remarkable, and show that whereas from 1920 to 1948 the average number of farm connections was 2,927, the average for 1948 to 1952 jumped to 9,517.
§ Mr. Peart
I think that remark is merely meant to be facetious.
However, I have here a rather interesting quotation which I had not intended to use, but I will give it now. When we were debating the Electricity Act in 1947, the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), who adorns the party opposite, said:Consumers in rural areas, before the war, complained grievously about the supply of electricity. My constituents, excellent supporters as they are, attacked me vigorously on the subject at the General Election. Before the war they waited years for electricity."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd February 1947; Vol. 432, c. 1527.]He is a distinguished member of the Conservative Party, and I think we should pay tribute to what has been done by B.E.A. in the circumstances. I am quite certain that the Parliamentary Secretary, who now represents the more responsible view of the Conservative Party, will praise the activities of B.E.A.
We all agree that this has a vital connection with agriculture, and that the problem must be related to food production, especially on the marginal farms and uplands, which are so important if we are to achieve the production targets which have already been set by the Government. I believe the target has been set too low; I think that 60 per cent. above pre-war is much too low and that we should be more ambitious. In any case, if we are to achieve that target there must be a greater electrification in the countryside. That is not just a matter for the improvement of farming techniques. It has very important connections with the whole position of amenities and man power. There I am glad to support the point of view expressed by the hon. Member for Hexham and others.
It is unfortunate that this year there are 20,000 fewer regular workers in the agricultural industry. On many occasions I have put Questions to the Minister on 1395 that important matter. It was first argued that the decrease has been due to mechanisation, but in a speech delivered to farmers in Newcastle, which is near the constituency of the hon. Member for Hexham, he said that the main factor why workers were leaving the countryside was the lack of amenities, and quoted the age groups of the workers who were leaving, showing they are mainly married men in age group, 25 to 30.
There we have the crux of the situation. The amenities of the countryside, for farmworkers in particular, must be improved, and electricity is an important factor. I need not mention all the details, which we know so well—television sets, electric irons, refrigerators, and so on: all the things we now associate with modern conditions. The rural areas are entitled to them. Unless they can provide amenities there for the farm workers' wives there will be that drift from the land. I therefore make a general plea for urgent action on the part of the Government, to give special directions to the B.E.A. to speed up rural electrification.
I believe that we must make a decision on this matter. There I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown.) We have to decide how much we are going to allocate to the rural areas, and how that will affect the other areas. We have to have a plan. That has to be accepted. We have to have the courage to say that if this section of the community for which we plead today is to gain over another section, then the other section, for the time being, must lose. We have to argue that and be courageous about it.
I believe in special aid. It has been mentioned in this House on many occasions. The Government should give direct assistance to certain sections of the community. If we are to speed up the electrification of our farms, particularly in the marginal upland areas, we must have some assistance on the lines of the Hill Farming Act. That, I am certain, must be done if we are to bring electricity to those high, upland farms which are going to make their important contribution to agriculture.
Therefore, I think that we have to accept the second principle that there 1396 must be some measure of State assistance. I hope that hon. Members opposite, although they may attack State assistance in some forms and advocate a freer economy, will recognise that we do not want that freedom for the farmers which we knew in the past. We want some special State assistance to be directed to certain areas. In the case of electrification, it is important to the upland areas that we should give that necessary assistance.
I should like to direct the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to a matter which is covered by this Motion and one which I raised with him in 1951. I then referred to the need to have an efficient supply of electricity for the people in the lovely valley of Borrowdale. On 14th November, 1951, the Parliamentary Secretary replied to me on an Adjournment debate. May I ask him to direct his attention to what he then said? We feel very strongly about this. We should have had that scheme before the war, but there were reasons for its rejection and certain organisations, which stressed the amenities of the Lakeland, fought it very bitterly. Since the war I have had correspondence with the North Western Electricity Board on this matter and, finally, it was raised in the House.
The Minister, on that occasion, did not give a favourable reply. I well understand the reasons why he did not. There was an argument that we had to consider the national position and the needs of agriculture and industry, and there were limitations on capital expenditure and also on raw materials and manpower. I believe that since then the situation has changed, and I hope that today he will give me a favourable reply or, at least, that he will say that he will make further representations to the North Western Electricity Board.
After all, Borrowdale, in the Lake District is an area of national importance. I believe it to be our loveliest valley. It is a place to which sightseers go from all over the world. But the people who live there must have amenities. They are the people who protect this countryside for the nation and, therefore, my constituents in that area have a right to these essential amenities. They need an electricity supply.
I know that it has been argued that there are only 130 houses there. Nevertheless, alongside these houses we have 1397 hotels and we have also 20 farms, a slate quarry and, in all, a community which is a national asset. I would recommend Borrowdale to any hon. Member as a wonderful place for a holiday. But if Borrowdale is to be carried on as a national asset, the amenities must be there. I hope that today the Parliamentary Secretary, in replying to this debate, will give me a promise that this matter will be looked at again favourably. Here is an area which is a national responsibility and I hope that something will be done in regard to it. I hope that in my plea for that I shall have the support of all hon. Members who wish to improve the amenities of the countryside and who wish to help a beauty spot.
In conclusion, I hope that hon. Members will no longer snipe at the work of the nationalised boards and organisations. I know that this is not a debate in which we are discussing details of the B.E.A., but it has been mentioned, and in this debate it is inevitable that there must be mention of the organisation which finally must do the work. The B.E.A. have, in their short period of responsibility, achieved much; they will achieve more. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will give their full and effective support to a very successful nationalised organisation.
§ 1.37 p.m.
§ Colonel Ralph Clarke (East Grinstead)
I should like, first, to say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) for raising this subject in the able way in which he did and to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) for seconding the Motion.
In moving it, the hon. Member for Newbury called attention to whether we were as yet implementing the Electricity Act which was passed in 1947, and which contains special obligations for the supply of rural electricity. It is not a question of whether nationalisation is a success or not. We had that obligation made by statute, and I should like to point out that in the Act itself it is specifically laid down that not only the British Electricity Authority but the Minister himself has obligations under that Act.
The Act says, in Section 1 (6):In exercising and performing their functions the Electricity Boards shall, subject to 1398 and in accordance with any directions given by the Minister or Secretary of State … secure, so far as practicable, the development, extension to rural areas and cheapening of supplies of electricity.I want to emphasise the words "in accordance with any direction given by the Minister or Secretary of State." It is their responsibility if they think it necessary to give these directions. I do not feel that up-to-date that responsibility which rests in them since nationalisation has always been accepted or made use of.
I should like to comment on the words "extension to rural areas," because during this debate we have on a number of occasions heard from the other side— from the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) and others—that it was only since the passing of that Act that the provision of rural electricity, in the words of one hon. Member, had been developed systematically.
I would remind the House that when the Act was originally presented it contained not one word about rural electricity. The Subsection which I read, stating that one of the functions of the electricity boards should be the extension of electrification to rural areas, was inserted by means of a Conservative Amendment in the Standing Committee. I do not want to say more on that, but it is wrong to suppose that the systematic development of rural electricity was dependent upon the efforts of the present Opposition.
We have been asked to develop matters affecting our own constituencies, so I wish to raise one or two complaints, or semi-complaints, about electricity supply in rural areas which I meet in my constituency. First, there is the high cost of connection. Not much can be done about that at present. I do not support the view that there should be a subsidy for it. I believe it is something which has to be borne.
Secondly, there is the time taken to connect farms. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford has already answered that in his reference to the South-Eastern area, where very good progress is being made. Naturally, people are impatient, very often wanting supplies quicker than they can get them, but much has been done.
Thirdly, there is the system of charging for connection by demanding a cash con- 1399 tribution towards the excess cost. That is the most controversial of the three matters. It is an economic necessity that something of this nature should be charged, for there might otherwise have to be a general increase in the price of electricity, but I believe that its incidence might be alleviated to a considerable extent. In some parts of the country the principle of charging an average of about 20 per cent. on the capital cost to the would-be consumer is modified in various ways. The South-Western area has a line rental system which in some ways is superior, but in the South-Eastern, the North-Western and the North-Eastern areas the cash contribution system is mainly used. The South-Eastern area is allowed to modify it a little to permit payment to be extended over 10 years.
There are certain suggestions I wish to make about this method. It might be an advantage to hold the cash contribution in suspense for some time after the connection is first made. Often an underestimate is made in the original assessment of the amount of electricity that will be used. Probably, electricity is first taken for the benefit of cottages and for the sake of amenity and of holding agricultural workers, but later its use spreads to power on the farm. The use of electricity is most infectious; once one gets it in the house or on a farm it becomes used for more and more purposes; and no one knows that better than the householder who has to pay the bill.
I am sure that in many cases after the original calculations have been made and the lump sum paid the average amount of current consumed over, say, five years, shows that the initial lump sum payment need not have been so high. For the first few years the sum should be held in suspense, and at the end of three years and again at the end of six years there should be a review and a remit made if it is found that the original estimate was more than was necessary to meet the cost.
There is another matter of the same kind which I wish to raise. Not infrequently a single consumer becomes connected at a very considerable cost. He may originally try to induce his neighbours to come in and share the cost with him and they refuse, but he takes 1400 the plunge and pays a large sum for being connected. Later his neighbours may see what an advantage the electricity supply is and may decide that they wish to have electricity. If they are connected in present circumstances it is done almost entirely as a result of the capital cost met by the original farmer to be connected. There ought to be some arrangement in the contract so that if, later, other consumers participate in the original supply a rebate on the original capital sum may be made.
In many ways the area boards should practice more businesslike methods. In many ways it would pay them to take risks. For instance, they might not charge the full amount in the first case in the belief that, once they have got a foothold on the farm, consumption will steadily increase and thus recompense for a small loss in the first few years. There is now a sellers' market and so the area boards should be prepared to take more risks.
There is considerable scope for cooperation between the Post Office and the electricity boards. In my own county six applications have been granted to carry electricity on telephone poles, and the system is working well. There now appears to be a widespread tendency in the G.P.O. to bury its cables and, therefore, there is a great opportunity for the poles, instead of being taken down, to be handed over to the British Electricity Authority, if it wants them, for carrying electricity. The closest possible liaison should be maintained for this purpose.
I repeat that the increase of 42 per cent. in the number of farms connected to electricity in the last five years in the South-Eastern area is very creditable. But, taking the country as a whole, I suggest that a rather more dynamic and advanturous policy, one rather more flexible and more salesmanlike, would still further accelerate progress in extending electricity to the farms, in the long run benefiting the area boards and the British Electricity Authority themselves as well.
§ 1.49 p.m.
§ Mr. E. L. Mallalieu (Brigg)
The hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) is entitled to claim credit for his party for the part it played in introducing into the Electricity Act the direction to the British Electricity Authority to develop electricity in rural areas. 1401 I am glad that he should be proud of the Act. I should like him to continue his good work by preaching a little inside his own party so that real effect can be given to the direction, because the extension of electrification in the rural areas means that the non-rural areas will have to bear a large part of the burden imposed by that development. I may be wrong, but I suspect that in his party any substantial advance in that direction would meet with considerable opposition. I hope that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will use his best endeavours to see that I am wrong by trying, if necessary, to convert his party to that view.
I have always believed that one of the main functions of government was to see that the butter was spread evenly over the national bread. The Government have to attempt to hold the balance as between rich and poor, as between worker by hand and worker by brain; and certainly as between dweller in the countryside and dweller in the town. In this spate of approval and gratitude which has been expressed to the hon. Member for New-bury (Mr. Hurd) and the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), I am glad to add my agreement and gratitude and, perhaps even more importantly, to express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir). He seemed to recognise the truth, which I am trying to urge upon the House, that there must be a sharing of burdens as between town and country. He brought that point home forcibly, admirably and sincerely.
I can only say that to the best of my ability I shall always attempt to support him in anything he does to bring about a fairer sharing of burdens as between town and country. It is not that one has any animosity at all against the townsman for the better amenities that he enjoys. He is in a compact community in which it is far more easy to organise people. It is natural that he should have the amenities to a larger extent than has hitherto been the case in the countryside. But although it is only natural, we have to fight against that tendency and to try to bring about a much more equitable distribution of amenities between town and country.
I do not suggest that it is possible to bring grand opera to any hamlet or even a picture gallery to a small village, though it may be possible to bring a 1402 picture house. In matters of entertainment, education, transport and, unfortunately, wages, the townsman has for far too long had it much too much his own way at the expense of the countryman. The result has been that, with all the greater ease of life to be found in the town, there has been a slipping away from the countryside. That is not an exaggeration.
It has been obvious in many countries that there has been a tendency to move away from the difficult life of the country to the much more easy and soft life of the town. There have been many and lamentable consequences to the characters of those who have succumbed to this tendency in diminution of self-reliance and in the power of discrimination; but now we are undoubtedly faced with a most serious consequence to our very existence.
So long as there were enough people in the countryside to carry on the production of food and so long as we were able to obtain from abroad the food which we could not produce at home, everything was all right. But unfortunately neither of these two considerations now holds good. I suppose no real countryman would willingly give up his life in the country for one in the town; but. after all, he has to consider the chances in life for his family. He has to consider the attitude towards life of his wife if she has to live in the country without the amenities which she feels might quite easily be brought to her if only affairs were properly organised.
The hon. Member for Newbury stressed the advantages to farmers which would be brought by electricity if it were used in greater quantity. I agree with almost everything he said, but I wish to stress the other side of the question. One hon. Member said that if we were to keep people in the countryside and therefore maintain agricultural production, it was far more important that there should be electricity on the farms than in the homes. That is a view from which I respectfully dissent. Both are equally important. A house, by means of electricity, can be turned into the haven which it ought to be, a haven not only for the man when he comes home at night to rest, but for the woman who has to work in it through the day. If we arrange our affairs accordingly, it can be transformed from a millstone into a 1403 home. Cooking, heating, lighting and washing—all these activities can have a large part of the sting taken out of them if only electricity is present in reasonable quantities and at a reasonable price for the country wife.
Even her loneliness can be contracted to a large extent. Before the days of wireless and television she had no society at all. She has not very much now because not many of them can afford television, but those who have been able to afford it have found it an inestimable advantage. After a day of drudgery in an ill-planned house a housewife can easily become sodden with solitude. When, at the end of the day, her husband and the children come home she is fit for nothing at all but peace and quiet: and she does not even get that. She cannot take advantage of the limited resources which she might have in the way of society from these quarters.
If we really want the countryside to be adequately populated we must make it attractive to work in and to live in and not merely as a place for townspeople to play in. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) stressed so vividly, this is a question of priorities. What are we to put first? Is this a sufficiently important matter for us to put the countryside first? There are many ways of approach to the question of making the countryside a more attractive place to work and live in, but all of them involve to a greater or lesser degree, the forbearance of townspeople from taking things which are within their reach, because of their greater organisation and compactness, and allowing the countryside to have them first.
I should imagine that it is easy to run a profitable bus service in a place where there is a large population and an enormous number of patrons; but very much less easy in a sparsely-populated area. My constituency is rather more than half town so far as population goes but very much less than that so far as area goes. I do not hesitate to say that the fares of the buses in the towns must be used if necessary to assist in the provision of a certain amount of amenity in the countryside. Is not exactly the same true about electricity?
I do not say that the charges to individual consumers provide the only way 1404 of bringing about equality between town and country. That might have to be done by State subsidy or in some other way; but I have no doubt whatever that there should be a redistribution of amenity as between town and country both in transport and in electricity.
I support everything expressed in the Motion, but I should like to have the words on the Order Paper added as an Amendment so that the Government should be urged to establish the necessary priorities. Then we would change it from being merely a pious pouting into something really practical.
§ 2.0 p.m.
§ Mr. W. T. Aitken (Bury St. Edmunds)
Most of us here today are well aware of the immense economic and social importance of increasing supplies of electricity, and those of us who have had dealings with the Minister know that he is on our side. His real enemies are his own colleagues because, in his competition for a share of our capital resources, he has to fight his own colleagues. If, however, he could find the person who adjudicates on these matters and would like to give him the most perfect contrast between the "have's "and the" have not's" as far as electricity is concerned, I should be glad to invite that person down to my own constituency in West Suffolk. There we have a number of areas contiguous to each other which show clearly the immense difference as regards domestic convenience, farming productivity and labour saving between the "have's" and the "have not's."
Since farming is the industry which can make the biggest, most immediate and most permanent contribution to our chronic foreign exchange problem, and as it is the one industry which appears to be most willing and most aware of its responsibilities to the nation, it is time that the people responsible for the allocation of our capital resources should decide that farming must not be starved of the greatest of all tools for the job, a tool which can probably do more to cut farming costs than anything else.
As far as the eastern area is concerned, the rate of connecting up farms has been dropping since 1948. That is one point which may well be used against the principle of nationalisation, but it would 1405 not be altogether fair to do so because it is the rise in costs and the scarcity of labour which have been the main operating factors in the last few years. They explain why at least 60 per cent. of the farms in West Suffolk are still without electricity. No Member of Parliament who deals with correspondence from constituents and with the many able and sincere members of the area boards can fail to see the fantastic anomalies which sometimes occur as a result of the present hand-to-mouth policy.
The general policy pursued in the eastern area, like many others, is to use the available capital where it will give supplies to the largest number of holdings and produce the greatest amount of revenue. The line rental system is the one used. I know of one case where three farms have just been connected up, while another farm, not 200 yards away, has not been connected. In a year's time the lorries of the area authority, their squads of men and their equipment will be brought back again to that parish, to connect the other farm and to many people this seems a waste of time, money and labour.
It is hard to explain these things to bewildered and often infuriated would-be customers of the board, especially as many of those people can remember the way in which the supply companies in some areas before the war used to operate. They moved in, laid on a comprehensive scheme, obviously without anticipating any great immediate revenue return, and went to work right away to sell the idea of using electricity. A number of observations have been made today about advertising and selling electricity equipment and putting over to existing users the idea that they should use electricity more efficiently and more widely. I shall not argue the different points that have been made, but the experience of public utility companies throughout the world shows that it is much better to get out of this difficulty by vigorously promoting sales.
I think that many of us can remember those lively pre-war advertising campaigns with their posters, "Use more electricity." I was particularly interested in the observation of the hon. and learned Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen), because what he said corresponds exactly to the situation in my own constituency. 1406 The electricity boards want the existing customers to use much more electricity, but they dare not use the art of salesmanship because, in some parts of my constituency, the unfortunate area official who put up such a poster would have a very rough time.
The argument for selling is unanswerable. It is true that the man who has a supply of electricity may be persuaded by a skilful salesman to take on more than he can afford, but I should like to see the area boards in a jam because so many installations had been laid on that they were not able to supply enough electricity. I should like the electricity authority to go to the Minister and say, "You must see the Chancellor of the Exchequer about this. You must get Purchase Tax taken off some of these things. You must persuade him that the interest rate is not immutable. You must persuade him that certain further tax concessions must be made to farmers." I would relish such a situation, because I am sure that the Minister would be capable of making out a good case.
Other hon. Members have made suggestions about economies and the avoidance of delays, tariff arrangements, and so on. There is one directive which my right hon. Friend ought to give to the area boards. It is that they should make the widest possible use of the desire of people for a policy of self-help in laying on supplies of electricity. The Post Office have a scheme whereby the farmer or rural user can put up his own telephone poles and wire. I see no reason why that should not be done much more widely in the countryside.
Since the main complaint about some of the delay is shortage of labour, I would point out that there are contractors in most rural areas who are capable of carrying out a good deal of the work at present being done by the boards. I am sure that in many cases some of the boards are perhaps doing too much of that work. There could be nothing worse than for these boards to get themselves into the position where they could be accused of building up a monopoly in installing supplies. A directive or a strong warning from the Minister might put that right.
I do not live in a world of kilovolts, amperes and one and three phase transformers, but I know that from a business point of view we cannot go on in 1407 the way we are at present. The amount of capital now available for rural development in the eastern area amounts to £400,000 a year. In my constituency it is only about £45,000 a year. That is really pitiful, because it simply means that the anomalies which I have mentioned, of just spending so much money, irrespective of the fact that it would be more economic to spend 10 or 15 per cent. more to do the job properly, is something which is giving the whole system a really bad name.
We are spending something like £6 million on rural electrification alone. Surely a 30 per cent. increase on that figure would not break the bank at the present time. I am sure that if the area boards were given a chance by even a very small increased capital allocation— and by a capital allocation one must make clear what one wants; it is not simply pound notes, but some priority in labour and materials as well—the stimulus and the gearing which would result would, I think, be quite surprising. If this is done, I believe that there will be a far better chance of bringing down the cost of electricity in an appreciable period of time, and that it will greatly add to the amenity, comfort and efficiency of the countryside.
§ 2.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)
During this Session, agriculture has been very fortunate in the Friday Motions that have been moved, and today's Motion is one of the most interesting that we have discussed for a long time. It is interesting to note that when progress in a nationalised industry takes place it is claimed by hon. Members on this side of the House that it is due to nationalisation. It is also interesting to note that hon. Members opposite take an entirely different view and do not applaud the progress made by a nationalised industry. If we could drop these political prejudices we should then be able to recognise where the progress actually lies.
While nationalisation has assisted tremendously by removing certain restrictions and by spreading the burden over the whole country, nevertheless it is the redoubled interest in the development and use of electricity, coupled with the necessity which our changed circumstances have brought about to develop the agriculture of the country and the 1408 rural areas, which has brought about the progress.
Progress and development were taking place between the war years. They increased greatly in momentum until the war broke out, and then had to be suspended for the duration of the war. When peace came, all the emphasis was upon the development of agriculture, and that, coupled with the lag which had taken place in development during the war, produced a tremendous progress. Progress has not been due to any one thing, but to a number of circumstances all arising together.
It is said that if we electrify the countryside we shall keep the people in the villages and shall prevent depopulation. I do not believe that for a moment. There is no one main factor which is responsible for the depopulation of the countryside and the taking away of the people to the towns. Many different factors are responsible for that, and the lack of electricity in the countryside is not in itself the cause of people leaving the countryside. Again, even if we electrified the whole countryside, it would not necessarily follow that we should get increased agricultural production. The greatest need of agriculture is the greater fertility of the land, not the buildings or the amenities in the village. If we get that right, we shall have overcome our greatest difficulty. Therefore, I think we ought to be careful what we say on this subject.
We all know the tremendous need which the countryside has for electricity, but we must remember that it cuts both ways. Have we ever stopped to consider that in some cases electricity actually depopulates the countryside? The great majority of farms using electricity today are dairy farms. Milking machines have been put into dairy farms in increasing numbers year by year, and wherever they have been installed they have cut by half the labour required. Unless the farmer can transfer that labour to some other job on his farm, it becomes redundant. I know of case after case where owing to the introduction of electric milking machines certain labour has had to find jobs elsewhere.
§ Colonel Clarke
Is the hon. Gentleman right in blaming electricity for this? He may blame the milking machines, but not the electricity, because some milking machines can be worked by a small petrol 1409 engine, and, therefore, have nothing whatever to do with electricity. I think it is a bad thing to run down electrification on that account.
§ Mr. Kenyon
I am not running down electrification at all; I am merely saying that we must be very careful when we say that by bringing electricity to the countryside and to the farm we shall retain the labour in the rural areas. There are cases where electricity has had the opposite effect. We must also face the fact that where electricity is brought into the cottage a higher wage is required. One of the greatest factors in the increase in our standard of living has been the change over from human labour to the machine.
When we were young, our mothers swept the house with broom and shovel. Mother went round and used the labour of her hands and body day after day in sweeping and cleaning. That labour cost nothing. Today, our wives have vacuum cleaners and all kinds of appliances in the house which abolish the labour, but cost capital in the purchase of them and in the purchase of electricity to run them. We have changed labour into electricity, and the housewife requires an increased income to pay for it. With an increase in the standard of living we must, therefore, have an increased wage. All these things in the development of life have to be met and considered.
I have found the North-Western Electricity Board, in my area, very helpful in undertaking installation in farms and villages wherever possible, but I have a criticism to make about the administration, and I am afraid it will be rather savage. I know something about electricity, because for 20 years I was a member of an electricity committee. When I came into this House I was the chairman of one of the most successful, small electricity undertakings in Lancashire. I want to give one or two instances that have come to my notice showing the change that has taken place since the Central Electricity Board took over.
We, in our small undertaking, used to trust the men who did the distribution and had to watch appliances over the area. If an appliance went wrong a man was sent, and he put the appliance right and reported his time and so forth 1410 to the office. About two years ago, soon after the board took over—I hope all this has now been changed—the grill failed on top of the oven in a certain farmhouse. A man came in a van to look at it. He said, "You want a new grill." The wife said, "Put it in." The man replied, "I have one in the van in the yard, but I cannot put it in until I have made out papers in triplicate. One has to be sent to No. 1 station, another has to be sent to No. 2 station, and the third to the head department. When we have a notification from the head department, the grill can be put in." Three days later the man came back with the same grill and put it in. That is absolutely silly, and that is where nationalised undertakings are being sabotaged.
§ Mr. Kenyon
They are not sabotaging themselves. We have an administration that has come in. I do not know whether it is Civil Service administration, but I often suspect that it is the administration of the Services and that men who have been in the Services are bringing Service administration into it, whereby everything has to be dovetailed on a piece of paper before it can be done. I do not know what has happened, but there it is. [Interruption.] Perhaps Service men feel that they ought to intervene.
§ Commander J. W. Maitland (Horncastle)
Surely many of the men in the area boards have been in the electricity industry for very many years.
§ Mr. Kenyon
On the technical, production or generation sides that is correct, but not in the administration. We find these things out not only in connection with electricity but in other nationalised boards as well, and it wants to be watched very carefully. Let me give another instance. A certain farm which had been cut off from electricity was reoccupied by another farmer, who had the electricity connected up again. His wife bought an oven which was brought in the van to the farm. Five men came with it.
§ Mr. Kenyon
Two of the men installed the oven. The other three sat in the van. If that is not the Service method I do not know what is.
§ Mr. Kenyon
No, it is military service. It reminded me of one day when I was in Port Said, watching soldiers unload a lighter under the direction of an officer. In the bottom of the lighter were six men who lifted a bundle out on to the side of the lighter, where four men took hold of it. They lifted it to the dockside, where two men took hold of it. They lifted it on to one man's back and he ran away with it.
That is the way the military and other Services have always acted. They have always been able to get a tremendous number of men, and they send twice or three times as many as might do a job. They are doing that in the administrative posts in the nationalised industries. It stands out, and will have to be watched. I say, frankly, that the administration is costing more than it ought.
§ Mr. Kenyon
One could mention other things that have been happening. If I were dealing with the subject I could give other examples of things that have been brought to my notice. I hope this extension of electricity will take place, and that further amenities will come to the countryside, but I do not place too great a value on them for keeping people there. A whole change is taking place in the outlook of our people. Agriculture is a calling. I am very glad that the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) is showing me that he has "Challenge to Britain."
§ Mr. Nabarro
I was merely observing that this remarkable document entitled "Challenge to Britain" contains no reference to the rural electrification by which hon. Gentlemen opposite set such great store.
§ Mr. Kenyon
Because hon. Members on this side of the House know that if they get into power it will go ahead without any reference to the programme. I recommend the hon. Member to read that pamphlet very carefully, because then he will know a great deal more than he does at present about what is necessary for the country.
I hope that progress will be made and that there will be more and more electrification of the countryside so that all the benefits of electricity can be enjoyed by 1412 the householder and the farmer and all who live in the country. But I hope that we shall not place too high a value upon the results which we hope will follow.
§ 2.31 p.m.
§ Commander J. W. Maitland (Horncastle)
There is nothing I should like more than to go in greater detail into the really rather astonishing defence of nationalisation which the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) has just put forward. As a member of the Services I was very surprised to hear what he, said. I do not think that it really was a very good explanation. I think that actually the disease is inherent in the institutions. That is what troubles us, and that is what we all complain about when we criticise nationalised institutions.
Today's debate is the culmination of a series of what I suppose one might call informed agitation about rural electricity. In the last two months, in particular, there has been a tremendously increased interest in the country in this vital subject. We have had a conference between the President of the National Fanners' Union and the Minister of Fuel and Power and the Minister of Agriculture. We had a speech quite recently by Lord Citrine who showed himself extremely worried about the pace at which the expansion of rural electricity is advancing, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) made a valiant attempt only last week to initiate a debate on this subject. Today we are having another debate.
All these things are symptoms of the fact that everybody in this House realises the need for more rural electricity. I do not want to waste the time of the House in repeating what so many hon. Members have so rightly said about the various points on lack of amenity. We know those things. What we hope is that, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) said, we shall have a real answer when the Minister replies and a real advance, that we shall feel that this time has not been wasted and that in this debate we have been advancing the course of rural electricity.
Surely there can be no doubt in the mind of the townsman as well as the countryman that any investment in rural electricity is to his own advantage. I disagree with the hon. Member for Chorley 1413 because I think that unless we have easier access to electricity in the countryside we shall not be able to attain, or shall attain only with very great difficulty, the target of increased food production which we have set ourselves.
I should like to stress the point that I do not think that we should concentrate too much on only considering the mechanical advantages of electricity. Domestic electricity in the country cottage is just as important as what is sometimes called the electrification of the farmstead. Recently in my constituency I convened a meeting with the area board —and it was the first time that it had been done—of all local authorities down to parish level. We had a general conference which was extremely useful because it enabled the area board to face a public meeting and answer questions, something which is good for all of us sometimes. The board were enabled to appreciate the great feeling on the subject among their consumers. They were able to inform consumers of the board's difficulties and to make them understand how many people were in the same boat as themselves
I am not criticising in any way the East Midlands Board which cover my area. They reacted to that conference magnificently. They were ready for it, they wanted it and they were most helpful. I should like to say that I think they are doing very well, but I was horrified to hear that in this ensuing year, 1953–54, we are to spend less on rural electrification in the East Midlands area than we did in the previous year. That seems to me a most retrograde step, particularly since we have been held up by floods in my own constituency, in connection with which, incidentally, the electricity authority have done magnificent work. It therefore looks as if in my area the programme will be put back very considerably and I draw the attention of the Ministers concerned particularly to that point.
I had a lot to say on this subject, but I have condensed much of it almost to the point of incomprehensibility. I hope that that will be forgiven, because I have done it in order that the Minister may have more time to give what I hope will be a helpful reply to this debate.
§ 2.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)
I begin by adding my congratulations to those of other hon. Members to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas), who has made his maiden speech today. I had the privilege of following his distinguished father in the representation in this House of the ancient and honourable borough of Derby. His father is still remembered there with great affection, and I am sure that his old constituents in both constituencies of the now divided borough, will be glad to hear of the hon. Member's success this afternoon.
Everybody in the House is, of course, agreed on the Motion that is before us, and I hope also that everybody agrees with the Amendment on the Order Paper in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), which seeks to add:and that plans for securing the more rapid extension of electricity supplies to rural areas should be given a greater measure of priority in the Government's plans for capital investment.No doubt the Minister will tell us.
I do not think that all the speeches today have quite reflected the real urgency of increasing the output of our home-produced food. The basic fact in this debate is, as in so many others, the dollar gap and the national economic situation. We still import food for 30 million people, and in the next five years a million more, requiring 400,000 tons of food, will be added to our population. I believe that we need a 10-year programme and that our home production ought to be increased by one-third in the next five years. Perhaps even that is too low.
I know that agriculture has become much more efficient since the beginning of the war, but there is still an immense task ahead and, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) said, I think that electricity may be the greatest single factor in obtaining the increase which we need. In 1877, we had 15 million acres under arable cultivation. That had fallen by 1938 to 8,877,000. There has been a reversal since then, but we are still losing 50,000 acres a year due to the claims of housing, schools, hospitals, power stations, and other things. Mr. Steward, the chair- 1415 man of the South Western Electricity Board, whose recent admirable speech has already been quoted today, said that we had 16 million acres which needed to be reclaimed or very greatly improved.
If we are to do that, obviously we must stop the drift of manpower away from the land. We cannot afford the loss of 10,000 men a year, to which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) referred. Living conditions in the home are a vital factor in keeping manpower and, indeed, in bringing it back. If anybody doubts it, let him look at the valleys of the Highlands where the Hydro-Electric Board, under Mr. Tom Johnston, have checked the drift away and are even bringing people back and saving for agriculture a lot of land which was going derelict because people would not live in the conditions which existed before. On the farms electricity is a great labour-saving factor, second only to tractors and other machines. If we are to face this immense task of reclamation and improvement, which means more labour, we must save labour by every possible means. We must save a lot of the food that we are now losing. I elicited from the Minister of Agriculture at Question time yesterday that the loss of food due to rats and other rodents is 2 million tons every year, amounting to something like £30 million or £40 million on our balance of payments account. We have to replace it, of course, from abroad. Proper lighting in every barn and outhouse would help in an anti-rat campaign—not much of course, but it would help. The main factor is something else, and I was trying to persuade the Minister yesterday not to cut down the service but to build it up.
Another major cause of the loss of food is damp in storehouses and barns. Electricity, by a combination of heat and draught—drying equipment—can often save an immense loss. I believe that it sometimes happens that a man brings in 20 cwt. of wheat from an acre and before he takes it to market he may have lost as much as 10 cwt. in the barn. Insect infestation everywhere is also a great cause of loss, but this problem of damp must be faced. Everybody knows that the original output in many kinds of farming, particularly in dairy and poultry farming, can also be greatly increased by electrical equipment
1416 My hon. Friends have said—and I do not believe that anybody really doubts it—that under nationalisation very real progress has been made. The total of farms connected has been raised from 27 per cent. to 43 per cent. in five years. Not only that; in 1951–52 the number of new connections to farms increased by a greater percentage than the increase of connections to any other class of consumer, the first time it had happened in the history of the industry. In that same year the increase of units sold on farm tariffs was 17.8 per cent. compared with an increase to all classes of consumers of 8.2 per cent.
The hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) paid what I think was a very well-deserved tribute to the East Midlands Board. They have increased the number of farms supplied in five years by 45 per cent. In their Lincolnshire sub-area, where the connections were least developed on vesting date, they had an increase of 92 per cent. because they made a special effort. They have connected 232 villages. I do not think this development is an accident, and I do not think that hon. Members opposite can challenge the inherent advantages of nationalisation.
Some private companies and some municipal enterprises did very well in this respect before the war, but the British Electricity Authority and the area boards are able to look at this matter with a sense of public responsibility. They can bear in mind the national interest and they can carry through schemes which may not reap a fully economic return for a long time.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Palmer) said, they have a further advantage. The areas were so drawn that so far as possible a proper balance is secured between rural and urban areas. Areas vary very much, but it was a deliberate policy to do that and in considerable measure—the Minister will confirm this—that has succeeded.
A definite duty was laid upon the B.E.A. and the area boards, under the Act of 1947, to secure as far as practicable the development and extension to rural areas of supplies of electricity. They have sought to carry it out. The British Electricity Authority at once set up an agricultural advisory service in their commercial department. They greatly en- 1417 couraged the work of the British Electrical Development Association, which has done so much over many years. The area boards have built up close co-operation with the National Farmers' Union and with the Country Landowners' Association. I am glad to think that some area boards are now appointing trained members of their commercial staff to visit farmers who are already connected, and to advise them how they can best use the supplies of electricity which they have in order to increase their food production.
The progress which has been made in the last five years has been made in spite of the fact that the B.E.A. and the area boards were taking over and reorganising the whole industry—an immense and difficult task—and in spite of the fact that they were forbidden, by me in fact, under very strong pressure from hon. Members opposite, to do any promotional advertising and were asked to curtail their promotional work. They have done it in spite of the fact that their capital investment programme was stringently limited, and particularly for rural electrification.
It may have been right or it may have been wrong, but it is a fact that at one moment the programme for rural electrification was deliberately cut down, at Government instance, far below what the B.E.A. wanted to have. Those difficulties—I will not elaborate the matter-are less acute today. The work of reorganisation is largely finished, and I think the take-over was very smooth. The B.E.A. and the area boards can give their minds to problems like this which we are facing now.
I believe that promotional work for agricultural development should certainly now not only be allowed but encouraged. I hope the Minister will give support to boards appointing special officers to the duties which I have described. But we must all remember that promotional advertising was discouraged because of the power cuts, which hit farmers as well as everybody else. Industry incurred a loss of £20 million during that winter. Nobody knows what was the loss made by farmers, but it was high. We must still discourage the use of electricity at peak hours if it is not absolutely required.
On investment, I think the Government ought now to make a major change. It 1418 always has been held down. I greatly regretted it when I was in the position which the Minister now holds. I did my best to get the total raised. But the whole circumstances have now changed. If I understand the speeches of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, many of the reasons which moved us then do not hold good in anything like the same degree today.
Therefore, I am hoping that on every ground the Minister will tell us that he will virtually remove all limit on investment by the area boards for rural electrification. I should like him to say that they may spend for this purpose what they think they can usefully spend, and I should like him to assure them, as an hon. Member opposite said, that they will get not only pound notes but the materials and the labour to enable them to carry out this work.
I hope the Minister will say still more to the British Electricity Authority and the area boards. I hope he will tell them to carry out schemes in the near future, even if they are uneconomic. It is precisely the supreme advantage of nationalisation that we can do that. Where there is a national interest and a national dividend which does not appear in the profit and loss account of the supplying agency, the work can nevertheless be done.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu) said, we do that with transport. The uneconomic services are subsidised and paid for by the economic services. We do it with coal. Over 50 million tons a year are produced from pits which, at the present price of coal, are not economic. They are subsidised by the newer and more efficient pits. We have to have the coal, and it pays the nation an immense dividend to get that coal, although its prime cost is not covered by the price which the individual pit receive.
I hope that the British Electricity Authority and the area boards will approach this problem in the same spirit, and that the Minister will encourage them to make a common fund for all areas to carry through the electrification of the countryside. I hope they will be ready to finance uneconomic schemes and, together, make a national plan so that justice shall be done to farmers in all areas.
1419 Some people, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), have suggested that this would require a Government subsidy similar to that paid for hill farming. If it were necessary I should be very glad to see such a subsidy, but I am not sure that in this case it would be right to take it from the taxpayers. I do not see why it should not be taken from the general body of electricity consumers, by raising the price of electricity by a small amount.
The facts are these: there are nearly 300,000 farms. The highest average consumption per annum by the farms connected is in the eastern area, where they consume, on the average, 6,000 units a year. If we could raise the consumption of every farm to 10,000 units a year, and connect every farm in the country, it would mean an increase of 3,000 million units. If my arithmetric is right, that is 6 per cent. of the actual consumption of electricity in the year 1951–52. The overall rise in charges in that year was only 16.2 per cent. above the level of 1938. Surely it is clear that the rise required to finance development in regard to this 6 per cent. would be very small? That is a way in which it could be done. In any case, I hope that the electricity authorities will approach the matter in the spirit in which the Coal Board have done and will finance uneconomic schemes, if they will lead to greater food production.
We must also help the farmer to use the electricity when he is connected. I am against the capital contribution plan because it so often leaves a farmer with no capital to buy the equipment when he is connected. I am also against the loan rental system, and I do not think that either system should be forced on a farmer who wants to be connected to the mains. I must prefer the minimum consumption guarantees. I am glad that area boards which serve 180,000 farms have already offered this alternative to farmers, if they want it, and I hope that the remaining area boards will do the same, and that the minimum guarantees for which they ask will be very reasonable.
We must take other measures to help the farmer. We must abolish the Purchase Tax on standard electrical equipment; we must abolish the restrictions 1420 on hire purchase. I should like to see farmers able to obtain easier and cheaper credit facilities, furnished through appropriate organisations, as we on this side have proposed.
I want to make two other observations. It is not only the farmers who need more electricity. Industry should be using three times as many units per man-hour as it is using today, if it is to equal what the Americans are doing. I do not want housewives to use electric fires during peak hours, unless they have to, but I do want them to have a lot more electricity in their homes. When national production begins to rise again the power stations literally will not be able to give an adequate service and avoid power cuts, unless the load is spread over more hours.
I hope the Minister will tell us what he is going to do about paragraphs 183 and 184 of the Ridley Report, which propose that we should have more shift working, as in America. The workers and employers will co-operate if the Government ask them. This was shown by the experience in 1951–52, when we were all determined to avoid the power cuts which we had the previous winter. We had a very bad winter, from the point of view of the weather. We asked for a load spread of 20 per cent. In many cases we got a lot more. We got a total spread of 550 megawatts—a great achievement —and the power cuts were reduced from 86 to six in a given period, and those there were were very short, and affected only a small area. This policy has already been adumbrated by the Minister of Labour and I hope that the Minister of Fuel and Power will drive him on to get more shift working as from now.
My last point relates to the supply of electricity to farms in Borrowdale and North Wales and other similar places. I want those farms to have electricity, but I do not want the matchless beauty of those areas destroyed. It would be a wreckless crime against posterity if we were to do so. And it is very often not necessary. I am quite sure that it is not necessary in North Wales. I am sure it can be done better and more economically done in other ways, than by the hydro-electric schemes that were suggested. In Borrowdale it may cost more to save the beauty of the valley, but it should be saved, and the general 1421 body of electricity consumers ought to pay. The beauty of Borrowdale should be saved, not only for the people who live in it, but also for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit it every year.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I have already mentioned that. Snowdon happens to be in North Wales. I would speak about it at great length, except that I want to give other hon. Members sufficient time in which to speak.
I want to see electricity brought to every village, home, farmhouse, barn, outhouse, henhouse and dairy, and I want it done in 10 years, at a faster rate than we have had up to now. I hope that this debate will help to achieve this vitally important end.
§ 2.58 p.m.
§ The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd)
My first and very pleasant task is to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas) upon his excellent maiden speech. The right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker) referred to the affection in which his father was held in his constituency. On behalf of all the older Members of this House, I may say that he was also held in very considerable personal affection here, irrespective of party. I should like to welcome my hon. Friend to our company on this side of the House and also —addressing my remarks more broadly, and even across the Gangway—to say that at this time the Conservative Party is a very up-to-date and democratic organisation, and we very much welcome, as they see the light, the sons of old trade union leaders and former Socialist Ministers.
My hon. Friend made a very important point, which I think it will be convenient for me to deal with straight away. He referred to the difficulty raised by the capital contribution. This matter has been mentioned by many other hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Derby, South. The industry was right, in the first few years after nationalisation, to encourage the growing up of a diversity of methods of charge in regard to rural consumers. We have heard about the capital contribution, 1422 which is the bugbear of my hon. Friend and many others, and about line rental and guaranteed consumption.
It is, of course, true that conditions vary a good deal in different parts of the country and consumers prefer different methods. Some consumers are actually in favour of a capital contribution. But I think the time has come when we ought to review this matter, and following what I have heard this afternoon, I propose to ask the British Electricity Authority and the boards to conduct a survey of the various methods of contribution to see which they think are the best. It would be useful if the boards were prepared to offer a variation in the method at present used to any consumer who wished for it.
§ Commander C. E. M. Donaldson (Roxburgh and Selkirk)
I trust the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman apply also to Scotland?
§ Mr. Lloyd
They do, in so far as I dare to allow any of my remarks to apply to Scotland without consulting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) on initiating this debate. By a fortunate series of circumstances it comes at an opportune moment in the story of rural electrification in this country. As a matter of fact, it is the first whole day's debate on rural electrification since the war, and, so far as I have been able to carry my researches back into the distant past, it is the first whole day's debate the House of Commons has ever had on rural electrification. I cannot help feeling—hon. Members opposite will forgive me—that there is certain significance in the fact that the chairman and the honorary secretary of the Conservative Party's Parliamentary Agricultural Committee were the mover and seconder of the Motion.
It would not be right to proceed further without expressing, on behalf of the Government and of all hon. Members, our deep sense of gratitude at the achievement of the agricultural industry during and since the war in raising production to such a great extent, and in bringing us to the point where half of our people are now fed from the products of our own farms. Production is already 50 per 1423 cent. above the pre-war figure, and we have this extra target which has been referred to. It is pleasing to note that the forward movement in production, which was hesitating in the last year or so under the previous Administration, is now proceeding again with increased impetus.
This increase in agricultural production owes a tremendous amount to the assistance received from various forms of fuel and power. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to the growth in the use of tractors during and since the war. As I was responsible for petroleum during the war. I can appreciate the tremendous increase in the consumption of vapourising oil and petrol by the agricultural industry. In its earlier phases the increased production of the industry has, so to speak, been financed on the basis of oil. We are all agreed that in these later phases it needs the increased application of electricity. Since land and coal are the two greatest natural resources of this island, it is interesting to note that the coal industry, through the electrical energy coming from it, is assisting our land to reach a maximum degree of productivity.
I agree entirely that, in the context of the national economy, the subject we are discussing today is one of great national importance. I do not think we ought to approach it from a narrow technical point of view. Of course, it is certainly true that, as in industry so in agriculture, electricity is a marvellously convenient form of energy, capable of increasing production and saving manpower in innumerable ways. At the same time it would be very wrong if we were to take such a narrow view that our policy led to our having, so to speak, all-electric farms and at the same time totally old-fashioned villages, a situation into which we might get—if we looked at it in that way—a situation in which we had electric milking, and lights gleaming in every cowshed, while the cottages were still on the oil lamp basis.
Certainly the agricultural worker of today deserves in his home the amenities that electricity can give. Even if we were silly enough not to recognise that, there is, as hon. Members have said today, a most powerful force which would call our policy in question, because there is the farmworker's wife, and if she did not get the amenities which in these days 1424 she wholly deserves she would use her feminine wiles to see that her husband went to work where he could get them, and that would probably mean his going to the town, and so the farmworker would be lost to agriculture.
We accept, therefore, this broad proposition, but I am sure that all hon. Members who know the industry will agree that this does raise a quite serious technical problem in the supply industry by reason of the general question, which we shall have to come to later, of the amount of consumption that we get for the number of connections made in the countryside.
What is the fair view of the way we are getting on with rural electrification? Hon. Members have given a number of figures—70,000 rural consumers connected in the year, of which 9,000 to 10,000 are farms; about 41 per cent. of farms are connected and there are nearly 60 per cent. remaining; and with regard to consumers in the rural areas generally—a very important figure—65 per cent. are already connected.
On this point I should like to say a word about the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). Broadly speaking, in this debate we have had very little controversial matter. I think it is true to say that my hon. Friends on this side have been notably fair to the record of the boards. I have heard some complimentary remarks from more than one hon. Friend of mine on the way in which the boards have acted, while there were some very critical remarks about the organisation of nationalisation from an hon. Gentleman opposite. Although I agree with quite a number of things that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belper said about the policy of rural electrification in the future, I think he was distinctly ungenerous in regard to the record of the companies in pre-vesting days. He injected a quite unnecessarily controversial note into his speech on that subject.
I think I am entitled to say that this Government, and, indeed, this party, are being absolutely fair to nationalisation in this sense, that in those industries which are remaining nationalised we are doing everything we can, as everybody on all sides can see, to make them a success and to help them along in their jobs. 1425 I think we should have some reciprocating sentiments from the other side of the House, and that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite should be a little more fair to the record of the private companies, on occasions like this.
§ Mr. G. Brown
The right hon. Gentleman is rather letting himself go. What figures of mine does he dispute, to say that I was unfair?
§ Mr. Lloyd
I am not talking about figures, but about the right hon. Gentleman's general line when he said that everything that had been done with regard to rural electrification depended on the fact that the industry had been nationalised, and that the whole of the prospects for the future also depended upon its being nationalised.
§ Mr. Brown
The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to say that, I suppose, if he likes, but it would be better, if he wants to refer to my speech, to refer to what I said and not to what he would have liked me to have said in order that he could say these things. I said that in 28 years, from 1920 to 1948, there was a total figure of 80,000 connections, and that in five years of nationalisation the published figures showed that there were 50,000 connections, and I said that, therefore, rather more progress had been made since nationalisation than before. I said that the companies worked by a different test, and that one did not blame them for it, but that those were the facts. If the right hon. Gentleman says that is all wrong, let him prove it. If not, for heaven's sake leave it.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I am saying the right hon. Gentleman was ungenerous in giving the impression that only under nationalisation was any reasonable progress made with rural electrification. Many of the companies did a very great deal on rural electrification before the war, and, moreover, carried out the pioneering work.
I would remind the House of what is within the recollection of many hon. Members, that in the old days the attitude of the farmer and the rural community towards electrification was very different from what it is today. A great deal of pioneering work had to be done to change that attitude, and a very great deal of good work was done. The right hon. Gentleman gave a bouquet to the South Western Board for the work 1426 it had done, and I agree with that. But I think a great deal of that depends on the fact that they inherited a tradition of efficiency and drive from the old Cornwall Power Company. That is also the case in many other parts of the country.
It is by no means convenient when making a comparison to compare pre-war with post-war. I have gone into this carefully, and I am advised that almost the only figure one can use for this purpose is the number of poles, which before the war were 100,000, and which are now about 120,000 to 130,000. Therefore, I do not think we have any reason for, so to speak, throwing our hats into the air at the progress that has been made recently compared with before the war. I felt that I ought to deal with that, because the right hon. Gentleman himself said it was a good thing for us to be controversial from time to time.
Having dealt with that issue, I will now return to the problem, about which we can all agree, that there is still a great deal to do in this matter, and that we should all like to see an increasing pace. It must be remembered, in fairness, that as the work proceeds and they get into sparser rural territory, work becomes more difficult. We ought also to take proper account of the fact that the industry has been continually hampered by capital restrictions.
Under the last Administration the "gentleman in Whitehall" kept rather a heavy hand on the capital available for rural electrification, and the capital restrictions reached their peak in 1951, the last year of the previous Government. It was then that the Government cut the electricity capital allocation by £2 million, knowing that the whole of that cut would fall on rural electrification. Thus, they brought the figure down to an annual investment of £3 million. This meant that there would be no further schemes of rural electrification, and the Government instructed the area boards accordingly, which would have brought the figure even lower.
I am glad to say that one of the first acts of the present Government was to make an increased allocation of £1 million for 1952, which was all specifically earmarked for the purpose of rural electrical development. In the result, the amount spent in 1952 was £5 million, 1427 which was an increase on the year before. This year the allotment is about £6 million, and for next year it is provisionally arranged to be about £6½ million. However, I want to emphasise a very important point about these two latter figures. They are in substance the total of the amounts asked for by all the area boards. They have not been cut, either by the British Electricity Authority or by the Government, so that for the first time the industry is free to develop the countrymen's electricity. This is an event of very considerable importance. It is really the first time that, so to speak, the horse has not been pulled back by a strong or even a fierce pull on the reins. Now that he has a chance to show his paces, we hope that he will go forward at a smart trot.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I was going to deal with that point. I was going to say that I think this is satisfactory so far as it goes. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Is it enough? I am sure that everybody wants to see further progress. In these cases it is not the position that the area boards have to come and ask us. I have been to ask the area boards. I have convened meetings of chairmen of the area boards and have asked them whether, if they were able to give further assistance in this matter, they could do so on a sound basis. I have found that they believe that they can. The reason this is so—which is rather interesting, I think—is mainly that the proposals of the boards have been for many years made upon a minimum basis. The fact is they have lived so long in an atmosphere of rigid capital limitation that they need more than mere freedom; they need encouragement. That is what they are getting and are going to get from this Government.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I do not think it is reasonable to ask me to deal with a specific matter. I am dealing with the broad principles of rural electrification. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to press me on this matter, let him please take his normal Parliamentary opportunities, and he will not find me backward.
§ Commander Maitland
Can my right hon. Friend deal with the point which I make in my speech about the East Midland Board, which is spending less on rural electrification in the coming year and not more, as he indicated in his speech might be the case?
§ Mr. Lloyd
I cannot deal with that matter in detail. I am not aware of the exact reasons why that was the case originally, but I think that it may be connected with the floods. I will look into it.
The upshot of my discussions with the British Electricity Authority and the area boards is that the Government are going to make a very extensive effort in their drive for rural electrification— a further increase in the capital approved of £1½ million over the next 18 months. This will bring the figure to around £7½ million for next year. That compares with a figure of £3 million which we inherited, and it will be seen, therefore, that this is a very big change.
I think that it is true to say that this is opening a new chapter in the story of electricity for the countryside. I suggest that if we are to get the best results in the future we must look ahead in a very practical and realistic way, because one thing which I feel sure is quite certain is that with one great difficulty disappearing there will be plenty of difficulties remaining.
I think that it is true to say that capital limitations have largely been masking the basic economic and business problems of rural electrification. What are they? I think that the House will allow me to distill into a few sentences what has been the general sense of the speeches which we have had in the House today. In essence, capital spent on rural electrification is less remunerative to the supply industry than town development. I think that an hon. Member has mentioned 1429 figures which those who have studied this subject all know so well: that we very often get 300 consumers per mile in the towns and we are sometimes lucky to get 10 in the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) mentioned it in an Adjournment debate.
From this spring two main problems. One directly affects the area boards, namely, the capital expenditure and the business risk of rural electrification in relation to their business as a whole. The other is the need for the consumer to make a contribution to part of the costs of connecting him with the electricity supply. I use the word "part" deliberately. I had better explain what I mean because this is a very complicated subject and it is rather important that we should get the financial side of it in proper perspective.
When the current goes from the grid, which belongs to the British Electricity Authority, it flows into the main transmission lines of the area boards—in the industry these are called "the backbone and ribs." For the purposes of rural electrification, these main transmission lines must range right across the countryside served by the board. The cost of these main transmission lines falls on the general resources of the boards, and they can be a great financial problem to the boards, but they do not fall in any special way upon the individual rural consumer as such. It is only the cost of the spurs which lead off from the main transmission lines to the consumer in respect of which the rural consumer is asked to pay a contribution.
Both these financial problems, the one falling on the boards and the other falling on the consumer, obviously arise out of the basic problem of the relatively small number of connections and, therefore, the relatively small revenue per mile or per unit of capital expenditure in rural electrification. Thus, it follows that both problems can be eased by increasing the consumption, if possible. It really is the case that it is the first condition of sound business in rural electrification to make the most strenuous efforts to encourage maximum consumption. Indeed, if the right hon. Gentleman will not take offence at it, that was the basis of the most successful work of the most successful companies in promoting rural electrification before the war.
1430 But then, of course, we have to remember, as the right hon. Gentleman himself mentioned, that the last Government put a ban on promotional advertising. We know why they did it; it was because power cuts were so general at that time. When we look at it from the point of view of rural electrification, it meant that the country was asking the area boards to do a man-sized job in rural electrification with their right hands tied behind their backs. The Government have now decided to remove the ban and to place on the industries the responsibility of advertising in line with the national interest. I would say at once that in the field of rural electrification promotional activity is an essential part of a really big rural electrification drive. That is what we want, and that is what the Government expect the industry to carry out.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
It is not just a matter of the promotion of consumption for any purpose; it must be the promotion of useful consumption. I hope the money will be spent by the boards not on poster advertisements, which may not produce the results that we want, but on experts who can tell the farmers how to get the best results.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
Yes, but the Minister will appreciate that part of the trouble was what I always regarded as the rather unwise competition between gas and electricity. We certainly do not want that.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I fully understand what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind. What I had in mind was that there is a great deal of experience in the supply industry about the right way of conducting a promotional drive in the rural areas. This is not merely a question of big posters. It may be partly that and partly a question of advertising in the local papers. It is very largely a matter of having the right type of salesmen thoroughly familiar with the problems of fanners and rural consumers. I do not believe that there is any real division of opinion in the House on that subject. We 1431 want to see them get on with it. I hope that the area boards will emulate the successful drives of this kind carried out by the private enterprise companies so successfully before the war. I hope that they will succeed in putting the same drive and efficiency into this work.
In conclusion, I should like to refer to the most important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury when he spoke of the assistance which he felt that the British Electricity Authority ought to give. I do not believe that the specific suggestion that he made is on quite the right lines, but there was a great deal in the general point he made about the role of the British Electricity Authority itself in this matter. Of course, we must remember that it is common ground that the further this work progresses the more difficult it becomes from an economic point of view.
It may well be that these difficulties show themselves in some areas before they do in others by reason of what was said about the inevitable differences in the type of load that the various boards have. It is important that we should all remember that the Act places a responsibility not only upon the area boards but also on the British Electricity Authority. I should like to take this opportunity of proclaiming the Government's view that this is a national problem and that the British Electricity Authority as well as the boards have a responsibility for solving it. I also want to make it clear that this view is shared by the British Electricity Authority itself.
From what I have said, the House will see that I very much welcome this Motion and hope that it will be approved. I hope that it will be taken by the industry as a whole as a signal and an inspiration to push ahead with fresh energy with this great national task.
§ 3.28 p.m.
§ Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)
I am sure that we were all glad to hear that there is to be an increased capital allocation for rural electrification. One of the most difficult things which the last Government had to do was to take the step which they realised would have such an unpopular effect upon agricultural life. Though I recognise that it is not part of the Minister's business I should like to inform him that while we should 1432 be glad to have an increased capital allocation for electrification there are other rural amenities which are extremely important.
As one who has lived for some time in the country and who, incidentally, has cooked by oil, calor gas, electricity, coal gas and most other methods of cooking, I would say that if I were asked whether I should prefer electricity in my house or a good piped water supply, I should put water first without the slightest hesitation. While we certainly welcome improvements in one direction and do not pretend that the Minister is responsible for these other rural amenities, we should have no doubt in our minds that if we are talking about the population of the rural areas and the problem of retaining them there, there are other considerations which are more important. I should certainly give water supply the first priority.
I am speaking, of course, from the housewives' point of view. I should say that for much farm work water is also the first necessity, although I am aware that it is easier to obtain private supplies of water for a farm than it is to provide electricity.
There are other amenities, also, in particular, rural housing and rural schools. If an extra allocation for electricity means that we shall have no extra expenditure on rural schools or rural housing, the welcome given to the announcement made this afternoon will be greatly modified. The Minister of Labour, the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister of Education are all concerned in this matter and I hope that before long we shall have further statements from them with regard to important rural amenities.
Having tried to put this into perspective, I want to speak of the great advantage of having a nationalised electricity industry to spend this extra money. In trying to make a political point in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) the Minister was a little less than fair. As he knows, we in North Wales have a special interest in this matter because we are a difficult area for electricity and we still have a large number of farms and villages which are not connected.
We wish to be assured that the money is being spent in the best possible way. 1433 One ought here to pay a tribute to the work being done by the Merseyside and North Wales Board in improving methods, particularly in the standardisation of equipment. I know that comparable work is being done elsewhere. I do not want to labour the point, but it has been gratifying to those of us who believed that genuine economies would come from bringing together the numerous small authorities previously concerned, to be informed by the board that they have been able to make substantial economies in equipment through standardisation.
They give various examples of quite simple things, such as ordinary cable joints being re-designed, thereby effecting a saving of up to 30 per cent. in the materials used, as well as other much larger economies made by amalgamating schemes which the planning by the previous companies had envisaged as three or four separate ones. They have also tried to work out an orderly system of development in the areas by taking two districts in each county in North Wales as priority districts. Of course, that means that the other districts not in the priority scheme feel somewhat depressed, because they are even more certain than previously that their turn will be long delayed.
I have had considerable courteous correspondence with the Merseyside and and North Wales Board about an area in my constituency, Maelor, and it has disturbed me to find that they have given, on several occasions, as a reason sometimes for delay, but in one instance for the complete abandonment of a scheme, the fact that they were unable to obtain the necessary consents for wayleaves. I was surprised to learn that even where one has powers of compulsory purchase of land, apparently this scheme of rural electricity can be held up by difficulty over wayleaves.
If I am wrong, I hope I shall be corrected, because it has puzzled me that in a matter of obvious public interest there can be not only prolonged negotiations, which one might expect where different landowners are concerned, but that in the event of these negotiations cannot be brought to the necessary satisfactory conclusion, and schemes are postponed indefinitely because, accordingly to my correspondence, the necessary consents 1434 are refused. I hope—if I am right in my interpretation of the correspondence I have received—that this is a matter which can be looked into and on which we may have some assurance.
We still have a very large number of communities without this desirable amenity, not merely isolated farms or communities in the mountainous areas of North Wales, but in areas such as my own rural district between Shropshire and Cheshire, which is pleasantly flat from the technician's point of view.
I have a large petition here from one community consisting of 70 or 80 households, including 18 farmers, a guest house, a garage, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, and so on. It is not merely the farmer or even the farm worker who is concerned, but all the ancillary people who are part of rural life.
I very much hope, after what we have heard this afternoon, that the people in these areas, some of whom were promised schemes and then had the promise withdrawn, which was particularly disappointing, will now take advantage of the Minister's suggestion that anyone who asks will be satisfied, because that is the impression which the Minister appeared to try to give. I can hardly believe that it is altogether true, but he was so buoyantly optimistic in his statement that he gave the impression that all one had to do was to ask. I can assure him that the number of requests that will come from North Wales will be sufficient to keep the Board and his Department busy for many years to come.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)
I share the view of the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) about the priority she gave to water. One thing I have never understood is why her party, when it embarked on nationalisation, did not deal with water first of all.
§ Mrs. White
May I correct the hon. Gentleman? Indeed there is reference to this subject in the latest Labour Party document, which the hon. Gentleman would have seen if he had paid a little more attention.
§ Sir D. Robertson
I am sorry if I have said something which is not correct, but in the summary which I read there was no mention of water.
§ Sir D. Robertson
I am perfectly certain that the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker) did not wish to mislead the House, but he stated that as a result of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, re-population had started in the glens. That is not true. Unfortunately, the reverse is still the case, though I think it will come about. These were the kind of claims which were made when the Board was brought into being.
The great county of Sutherland, which, together with another county, I have the honour to represent, has gone down in population to less than that of the average English village. We have tremendous room there, and I think that the magnificent work which Mr. Tom Johnston and his colleagues are doing will help as time goes on, but we Scots and the Board of Trade must help to make the Development Area a success.
There was an exchange between the Minister and the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) concerning who is doing best, private enterprise or the nationalised board, and I detected the same thing in other speeches. Figures were given by the right hon. Member for Derby, South that many more connections were being made under nationalisation. Is that not mainly due to the hunger of the people, owing to their inability to buy imported foods, thus bringing prosperity to the farmers during and since the war, a prosperity that was denied to them in the hideous days of unrestricted free-trade?
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I would ascribe it to the hideous days of unrestricted Tory rule between the wars. The present prosperity is due to the bold and constructive agricultural policy of the Labour Party.
§ Sir D. Robertson
The right hon. Gentleman is deluding himself in that respect in exactly the same way as he did over the Highland glens. I have lived long enough to remember the days of unrestricted free trade when we could not buy Highland produce in the Scottish 1436 city where I was born, but we could buy plenty of foreign food. In those days the Party opposite supported the Liberal Party. We must look at these things fairly and squarely. Nothing has happened in the nationalised boards that has brought about a transformation; they are run by exactly the same people who were in private enterprise. I know the officials of the Scottish Hydro-Electric Board very well, and I know they are the same people who worked for Balfour Beattie & Co., English Electric and other electricity companies.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power has said, on this side of the House we have faced the facts. Certain achievements have been brought about as the result of nationalisation, and in the interests of the country we are doing all we possibly can to make the boards work. No one rejoices more than we do that an increased number of connections are being made. The object of the debate is to show that they are not being made quickly enough in the rural areas. We are all very much indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) for bringing this matter before the House. Although we are making progress, I am fully convinced that we are doing the easy ones first. That is the old story. It was true in the days when there were hundreds of companies each with a fence round itself and responsible for its own area. The towns were supplied with electricity, but the farmers outside could not get it.
The main justification for nationalisation is that it should give everybody a universal service, but we are not getting it. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has said that we must encourage the salesman to go out and sell more; let him cast his bread upon the waters— there is a very lucrative market waiting for him. I am certain that in the more populated farming districts in the South of England and in other parts of the country that is true. I hope officials of the Board will heed his advice, take their courage in both hands and realise that there is a responsibility imposed upon them to go out and connect up farms. The need of our country is for food for 50 million people. Electrification of farms will provide power for machinery and light and power for the homes.
1437 In regard to the Scottish Hydro-Electric Board there has been a fear in the minds of some of us that a hard core of difficult cases will pile up. I expect the Minister knows much more about this problem than I do, but there is always danger in taking the easy ones first. I have seen it happen in my area. I am not so certain about electricity going to the farmer in the hinterland of Caithness, Sutherland or Inverness-shire. He is a long way away. Even if there is a loss upon such installations, is it not right that it should be borne by the urban communities? I do not think that anyone in the Mile End Road or in Sauchiehall Street would worry very much if he paid a fraction of a shilling a quarter more for his electricity in order to provide electricity for these rural areas. We should not continue to turn our backs on the shepherd who is looking after 600 sheep in North Wales or in North Sutherland by denying him the benefits of electricity. If we continue to do it we shall not have anybody in the shepherd's cottage or looking after the sheep.
§ Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)
Would not my hon. Friend agree that it would be difficult to gauge that there would be a loss, because if the hard core of whom he speaks obtain electricity, I think that they would use far more than the Board believe possible?
§ Sir D. Robertson
I think my hon. Friend is perfectly right, but I am a realist and know what it means to travel miles and miles in depopulated areas where there are isolated communities of importance where fine human stock as well as animals are raised. I know that the Minister is faced with economic problems just as are the electricity boards, and however right my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury may be, there is a problem in those areas. It is no good saying that a smart salesman with gadgets to sell will turn the areas into areas of profitability. I do not think that they will. But let us face that fact and tell the people in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow and elsewhere in urban areas that we are taking electricity to the isolated areas for the benefit of townsmen. After all, they represent the bulk of the people who eat the bulk of the 1438 food. I rejoice that the Minister is getting the brakes off this horrible capital restriction.
There is nothing more irritating to people living in Britain when sterling costs are involved and we have unemployed people to be told that we cannot afford this or that. I do not think that we can afford unemployment. At a time when we have unemployment, as we have in my constituency and in other parts south of it, it is quite wrong that national work should be stultified because it is said that we have not the money. If we have the money to put people on the dole we have money to put them to work.
§ 3.48 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
I hope that this debate has served a useful purpose in focusing attention upon what must be regarded as a primary need. I cannot do better than to quote this sentence:The balance of food production in this island has got to be altered in a marked and decisive manner and altered soon.I take it that most hon. Members in all quarters of the House will agree with that sentiment. I quote it from a speech made by the Prime Minister at the annual dinner of the National Farmers' Union, in February last.
It is of vital importance that we should embark upon long-term measures to raise the standards of farming and to provide more capital for agricultural developments. I hope that the Minister of Fuel and Power and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, whom we are delighted to see here though he has not taken part in this discussion, will take note of what has been said on both sides of the House on this very important subject.
I hope that it will be agreed eventually that the official target of a 60 per cent. increase in agricultural production over the pre-war production by 1955–56 is far too low. Given the will and the necessary capital resources we can double our prewar output by 1960. That is not an impossible target. I hope that, sooner or later, the Government will alter their present objective and make double the pre-war output by 1960 the main objective before us.
A great deal must be done to make our farms more economical to run, by improved buildings, piped water for grazings 1439 and electricity supplies. An electricity supply has not only the merit of providing more mechanisation upon the farm but the advantage that it makes the tasks of the wives of farmers and agricultural workers in the rural areas much easier than they are at present. I wonder whether the Minister of Fuel and Power has even investigated this problem. I wonder whether he could find out and publish the number of people within 30 or 40 miles of London who have not got electricity or gas and who are only too anxious to have it.
I think that if the figures were released they would be startling. I know from my own experience, when I took up residence in an agricultural area within 30 miles of London, that it entailed fairly substantial capital expenditure which I had to meet out of my own pocket before I could have electricity. The cost of having gas for cooking and other purposes was so prohibitive that I had to dismiss it altogether.
That was within 20 or 30 miles of London. How much worse is it in the case of areas such as those which have been described by various hon. Members, including those who represent constituencies in the North of Scotland. It is quite fantastic that in this year of grace, 1953, there should be within such a short distance of the heart of the Empire large numbers of people who are deprived of electricity or gas.
§ Colonel J. H. Harrison (Eye)
Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman only concerned about the people in industrial and urban areas, and not about what we are discussing this afternoon, namely, increasing the production of food by the extension of electricity supplies?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
There are people within 30 or 40 miles of London who are endeavouring to make their contribution to increased food production and who are prevented from doing so because they are unable to meet the substantial capital cost that would be involved if they had gas or electricity laid on. We have heard about the drift from the country. We have heard that 20,000 workers left the land last year— an all-time record which I am sure we all hope will never be repeated in future.
There is one objection that I want to raise, and it is this. We ought not to be 1440 led away by what is apparently the growing passion for using electricity purely for heating purposes. It is the most wasteful way in which electricity can be used. Space heating, water heating and cooking by electricity are more developed in the United Kingdom than in any other country. This represents a colossal waste, because, in producing electricity from other fuels, we lose something like 70 per cent. or 80 per cent. of the calories put in to that operation. Electricity should not be used for jobs which can be done just as well by gas, coke or coal, in view of the waste it involves. I hope that the Minister will not neglect the possibilities of the extension of gas supplies as an additional reinforcement to the needs of the agricultural population.
We cannot have an extension of electricity supplies or increased food production without an increased capital investment in agriculture. I view with dismay the last published report of the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, which reveals a very substantial decrease in the amount of loans advanced to applicants for agricultural purposes. I raised the matter with the Minister of Agriculture on 30th April last. I suggested to him that the interest charge of 6 per cent. was far too high. Very shortly afterwards I was pleased to note that the interest rates had been reduced from 6 per cent. to 5½ per cent., but that is still far too high.
The Minister disagreed with my submission that there had been a fall of £2 million in the advances made by the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation in the past year, compared with the previous year. He said that the fall was only 9 per cent., or about £500,000. That is true if we take only the exact amount of loans actually advanced or mortgages actually completed, but if we also take into account the amount of money involved in loans approved but not yet completed, we get an additional decrease of something like £1,360,000 which, added to the decrease in the actual loans advanced makes the total of nearly £2 million, which I suggested was the correct figure.
I hope, therefore, that the Government will take heed of the very cogent arguments which have been advanced from both sides of the House—arguments which lead to the inevitable conclusion 1441 that the Government have to make up their minds that, even if it means sacrificing various projects in other fields of activity, the need of agriculture must be given a very high place in the list of priorities facing the Government at the present time.
§ 3.57 p.m.
§ Mr George Lambert (Torrington)
In the few minutes at my disposal I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the very welcome announcement he has been able to make, that the Government propose to increase the amount to be spent on rural electricity from £3 million to £7½ million—two and a half times the amount that was allowed by the Socialist Government. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health will soon be able to announce a similar increase in the amount spent on rural water supplies. In Devon, the North Devon Water Board could make full use of that money and bring water to the whole of North Devon.
I was delighted to hear the Minister emphasise that the necessity of bringing electricity to farm workers' houses was as important as that of bringing it to the farms. This is particularly true of Devon, where there are few other amenities, but one cannot help regretting the cut made by the Socialist Government in 1951. I understand that to electrify the whole of South-West England in that year would have cost £10 million, whereas today—2½ years later—the cost would be £17 million.
That being so, I hope the Minister will not only encourage the boards to do all they can to bring electricity to the rural areas, but will also use some other method of bringing the cost down in areas where the cost is very high. All kinds of expedients are used in the Development Areas. I submit that the rural areas are of equal importance, and I hope the Minister will do all he can to bring electricity to the countryside at a reasonable price.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
That this House, noting the benefits already brought to many villages and farms by main electricity, believes that the development of food production depends increasingly on the use of electric power in labour-saving farm equipment and convenient household amenities for those on the land and urges that
steps should be taken to develop the supply of electricity in rural areas as much and as fast as possible.