HC Deb 09 March 1953 vol 512 cc1081-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Sir H. Butcher.]

4.22 a.m.

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton (Inverness)

I want to take this opportunity to put forward a picture of the needs and opportunities of development in the Highlands of Scotland. Nothing more or less than the revival of the economy of an entire country is at stake here—a revival which could be of immense benefit to the entire United Kingdom.

The Highland area comprises more than half Scotland. The seven crofting counties alone are 47 per cent., and cover territory as large as the countries of Belgium and Holland combined, but wrongful political and economic decisions have caused tragic depopulation, which is still continuing, until today this area has only 284,000 inhabitants.

It is obvious that no one single measure can achieve re-population and revive the Highland economy, damaged as it is by 200 years of neglect and by-passed by the Industrial Revolution.

Highland economic rehabilitation must be a combination of many factors and endeavours, one complementing the other. It must be a combination of private enterprise and individual initiative, coupled with Government assistance where appropriate. It must be a combination of vigorous expansion in agriculture, industry and tourism; in forestry and fishing, and the development of natural resources. One thing is clear—that present measures, whether Government or private, are insufficient to hold even the present population, much less attract back those who have left.

If the economy is to be revived and the area made an asset to the United Kingdom instead of a liability, we can no longer afford to neglect the use of modern industrial, scientific and agricultural techniques which have worked such wonders in other areas. Agriculture is, of course, one of the chief categories in which real development can take place. The greatest potential increase in food production possible in the United Kingdom lies in the Highlands. My hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) has estimated that Britain could produce 50 per cent. more beef, mutton and pigmeat. I think that if anything he is under-estimating the potential.

Mr. W. A. Stewart, a Member of the Northamptonshire Institute of Agriculture, goes even further. He points out that we have 16 million acres of rough grazing in the United Kingdom, the bulk of which is in the Highlands, and he estimates that an extra 660,000 head of cattle could be made available for slaughter each year through the use of this land. If this were achieved, Britain could be independent of the Argentine.

The key is, of course, winter feeding. I submit that this could be supplied in the Highlands in three ways: first, from the low ground of hill farms through reclamation; second, through reclamation of the many thousands of acres of land in large and small areas throughout Scotland; and, third, by subsidised freight on feedingstuffs from the lower-lying and better productive lands. We have before us in the Highlands several outstanding successful examples of pioneer efforts by individuals demonstrating how sizeable parcels of land can be reclaimed by the use of modern methods and livestock population largely increased.

We have seen, for example, how it is possible to develop a herd of 700 head of cattle on 5,000 acres of rough ground —ground which reclamation has enabled to produce all the winter feed for this herd. Pilot schemes point the way for others to do likewise, but to achieve the greatest overall increase in the area and to produce the largest number of cattle for the nation, the crofter and small farmer is bound to play the major part. He needs more help and assurance, however, than he is getting at present. He should receive, for example, more subsidy for ploughing in new lands, often consisting entirely of heather and bent, than does the farmer who ploughs up old loam. For such marginal lands, I submit, a ploughing subsidy of £10 an acre is not too much.

Further working capital is essential to any substantial increase in livestock rearing in the Highlands. Certainly, the Scottish banks help farmers, if they are established and credit-worthy and have some collateral security with the banks. I am informed that Scottish farmers are now overdrawn to the extent of £20 million, but many who wish to enter the field today lack the capital to enable them to start, or to increase their stock. Generous subsidies are paid for livestock rearing, and the £15 cow and calf subsidy is undoubtedly bearing results; hill cattle are increasing; but very much more remains to be done.

It is true, too, that the Land and Mortgage Corporation provides funds to acquire land, and the Scottish Land Improvement Corporation will lend money to improve the land after it has been acquired; but there are plenty of landowners who would gladly lease grazing lands to a likely tenant, and there are plenty of young and energetic men throughout Scotland who could and would put stock on the ground if only they could get the necessary finance to start them off. There are many suitable places for cattle rearing in the north-west Highlands and Islands, but if meat is to be produced there the Government have the responsibility to make things right so that more farmers can establish themselves and expand production. Increased credit facilities are essential in the crofting counties if we are to achieve the immense increase in food production of which the area is capable.

Only to touch, in the brief time at my disposal, on the fishing industry, I would say that probably the most important consideration there is the long-term one of conservation of our fishing grounds. Our waters should be protected in the same way as Norway and Iceland have protected theirs. International agreements should be secured to this end.

I now turn to industry. I wish specifically to reject the concept that the Highlands should have an entirely pastoral economy. That is a counsel of defeat and containment that is an anachronism in our day and age. Industry is essential for development and repopulation. The Highland area urgently needs the widespread establishment and extension of industries, both large and small. These industries should be based on the needs of the population and on the basic natural resources of the area. To mention only a few of the latter, industrial development can be based on dolomite, peat, mica, silica sand, water power and wool, as well as such subsidiaries as cement and bricks.

All existing industries should be strengthened, and new markets developed for them. Imagination and a knowledge of the tastes and requirements of world markets should be harnessed to native abilities and crafts. We must think, too, in terms of developing quite new industries; for example, those which involve the use of forest products, the raw materials of which should become increasingly available as the Forestry Commission trees mature.

We must think big, and we must think imaginatively. Britain is badly balanced in the matter of distribution of industries, with the overwhelming bulk concentrated in the South, and the North comparatively barren of industrial development, but there is no reason why this situation should continue indefinitely. I am sometimes told that Highland development can be based only on indigenous resources. But what indigenous resources has London, which has the largest population of any city in the world?

London has facilities for ships in a safe harbour, and from this and her geographical position has grown immense trade. The North-West of Scotland has as good natural harbours as any part of the world, and is considerably nearer the American continent than is London. It is important that hydro-electric power should be used to a great extent in the development of new industries in the Highlands. Industrial expansion will bring in its wake new labour, involving, we hope, the return of many Highlanders who have been forced south to seek opportunity.

About the most serious obstacle in the path of development in the Highlands is the present burden of freight charges, an obstacle which only the Government can remove. For years the Highlands have been in crying need of freight charges reduction. The continuance of high freight charges handicaps all aspects of development and endeavour. I should like to say categorically for myself—and I think this goes for my colleagues who represent Highland seats—that until something real is done for remote areas in this respect, I do not intend to support any further increase in freight charges, fares or petrol tax. The potential of tourism to the Highlands can hardly be over-estimated. Sir Alexander Maxwell has stated that the earnings to the United Kingdom from overseas visitors were £115 million in foreign currency in 1952. How much of this did Scotland contribute? Nothing like the Goschen formula of 11 per cent. By far the bulk of overseas visitors remain in the South, although, thanks largely to the Edinburgh Festival, many now get as far as there.

Yet only a fraction of American visitors go to Scotland, and an even smaller fraction go to the Highlands. No one can deny that the scenery of the Highlands, and their historic interest, are unsurpassed. This area could well be the great new tourist attraction of the United Kingdom for discriminating overseas visitors, and so account for a further important increase in tourist earnings.

We badly need, however, to increase our tourist accommodation and facilities. Hotel proprietors are greatly handicapped by the Catering Wages Act, and by capital restriction and many regulations entirely inappropriate for remote areas. To open up this great potentiality, which could immensely improve our balance of payments position, the Government ought to be prepared to sponsor long-term loans to any hotel proprietor who conforms to suitable standards, and who wishes to increase and improve his accommodation. They ought to encourage and assist the provision of tourist amenities by every possible means. A major and thorough economic development in the Highlands must make full use of private enterprise and personal initiative. But there are certain prerequisites which must be undertaken by the Government.

I therefore ask the Government to begin to open the way for real Highland development by undertaking that at least £1 million more a year shall be spent on the roads. In this connection it is noteworthy that Britain is the only European country that has not embarked on a road reconstruction plan since the war. I would ask also that there should be a realistic effort to reduce freight charges and fares and to provide a more efficient and cheaper transport system. Also, that there should be speedier improvement of essential social amenities, such as the laying on of water supplies, postal and telephone communications, community halls, etc., bearing in mind that conditions in many Highland communities are about 100 years behind the rest of the country.

With a view to increasing the nation's supply of food the Government should create a north of Scotland food production and marketing board, with the same financial facilities as are enjoyed by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. The possibilities should be examined at once of such a body performing, as one of its functions, that of an agriculture finance corporation, with Government backing in the first instance, so as to liberalise credit facilities in the north of Scotland, and to provide working capital for farmers.

Mr. Speaker

A lot of the hon. Member's proposals involve legislation. That is out of order on the Motion for the Adjournment.

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton

I requested the Treasury to reply to this debate tonight, and I had a note from the Financial Secretary stating that he would study the debate with care.

Mr. Speaker

Even if the Treasury did reply tonight, the Treasury would need to initiate legislation to give effect to the hon. Member's desires. The rest of the speech is innocuous.

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton

I should like to reinforce the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) for the creation of small development areas in two towns or large villages in each of the mainland counties, with one in Orkney, one in Shetland and one in the Hebrides. With the above purpose in view, I ask the Government to embark on a 3-year plan to spend £10 million more than they are intending to spend. My hon. Friend made a similar request in a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer last December, and sent a copy to the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is still waiting for a reply.

I was hoping that the Treasury would reply to me today because the pith of what I am saying concerns them most of all. I have a letter from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in which he states that he will do his best to help the Scottish Minister to reply on points which may concern the Treasury, and that he will study the debate with care; so we must hope for the best.

I ask again that the International Bank, of which Great Britain is the second largest supporter, be used for foreign currency when required and to purchase from abroad material in short supply. Why should Britain be the only European Member country not to receive a loan for internal development when there is so much to be done? Many people who are interested in the Highlands and who believe in the potentialities there are doing their best to attract enterprise and new life of all kinds into the area.

I am convinced that we can succeed, as we intend to spread our message throughout the world; but our work will be a great deal easier if the Government give a real demonstration that they, too, are in earnest about Highland development and accept it as the challenge it is to the British nation. The United Kingdom, battling to regain its rightful position of world eminence, needs a strong and healthy Highland area, as much as the Highlands need the United Kingdom. In brief, I ask for belief, and for this to be shown not only in words but in action.

4.37 a.m.

Mr. H. R. Spence (Aberdeenshire, West)

I would call attention to another Highlands area, the north-east corner of Scotland round by Aberdeen, where the problem of unemployment is rather different. There was full employment, mainly based on fishing, but the type of fishing has changed and the markets have altered. It was stated in the Board of Trade Journal of 28th February that there are 2,500 unemployed in the area. That shows the scope for industrial development by the old remedy of trying to attract industries there. Has the Joint Under-Secretary thought what might be done by developing industries already there or in neighbouring areas?

I have a proposal to put to him. He knows my interest in the North and in textiles; we might be able to transfer 50 or 100 workpeople perhaps 25 miles and find them full employment. Some inland towns have the problem of finding enough suitable labour while there is this pocket of unemployment on the coast. It is along those lines that I hope the Minister will examine the points I put before him. Would it be possible to provide hostels, or some form of transport to take these people to and from their work? I think the hostels to be the answer. In the development of existing industries that are there lies the way to absorb these pockets of unemployment, enable our people to work and bring back prosperity to coastal towns, while increasing the prosperity of the inland towns.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for-Scotland (Mr. Henderson Stewart)

My noble Friend has given us a very vigorous address upon a favourite topic, and I think we must all admit admiration for the loyalty he shows to his own country and to his own subject. I wish we could do all he asks of us. We would all like it; there is no doubt whatever about that, for the Government want the Highlands developed to the largest extent and at the quickest possible pace. But, as he knows, the Highlands form part of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom today is going through a difficult period economically.

As we all know perfectly well, we are in straitened circumstances. We are not able to do the hundred and one things we should like to do and, indeed, which ought to be done; and until we are able to afford that, I am afraid that the Highlands of Scotland will have to bear up, like other parts of the United Kingdom, as best they can. If we could increase the productivity of the country; if we were to move into a phase of more secure world conditions, and thereby reduce expenditure on armaments, and in other directions restore the general economy and improve our prospects, we should be infinitely nearer the era of development for which my noble Friend has pleaded tonight.

It would not be right to assume, however, that all is ill with the Highlands; that nothing substantial is being done, or that there are no bright spots in that part of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Spence) has done us all a service in giving an example of these bright lights to be found in the Highlands. He has said that in some of the towns a little off the North-East Coast there is no unemployment, but, in fact, a shortage of labour; an acute shortage of labour, as I know in one or two cases. His suggestion that we should consider some scheme by which the unemployed male and female labour of the coastal area might be moved into the inland area not so many miles away through the establishment of hostels, was a very constructive one. I undertake to see that that shall be immediately examined, and I hope that we may count on his assistance in any investigations we make, because we know his experience in these matters.

It would be wrong to claim that nothing has been done. It is as well that we should record some of the things being done; and some of the things which this Government are doing. I think the country should realise how much money we are putting at the disposal of the Highlands in the form of many services at this time. May I give some details? The Department of Agriculture is spending over £2 million in the Highlands, the Department of Health nearly £4 million, the Home Department nearly £3 million, and the Scottish Education Department £2 million—a gross total of about £l1 million a year in the Highlands crofting counties. More than £1 million is being spent by the Forestry Commission.

There are grants under the Development Commission, and there are grants in the case of road transport amounting to another £1 million. If one adds a proportion of the total expenditure which the Hydro-Electric Board is undertaking, covering the crofting counties, which may be in the neighbourhood of £6 million or £7 million, more than £20 million a year is now being spent by the Government in the recognised Highland areas. That does not seem to indicate neglect.

As my noble Friend admitted, some of the measures in regard to agriculture and the rearing of livestock have been successful. The £15 subsidy for calves which he mentioned has shown remarkably good results. The hill farming and livestock rearing schemes have been taken up vigorously by the crofters in the Highland area. Up to December last 516 hill farming and livestock rearing schemes had been submitted in the seven Highland counties at an estimated cost of a little less than £2½ million.

By this means over two million acres are being dealt with now and £153,539 has been paid in grant as compared with £569,100 paid to the whole of Scotland. No one can say that the Highlands are not getting a fair share. The total amounts of grants and subsidies paid in the Highland counties each year in that direction is well over £1 million. The tillage area is rising, the number of livestock is showing an encouraging tendency to rise in all directions, and I would say that the actions which we have been able to take in the last year, considering all the difficulties under which we labour, are not negligible.

I want to address myself to the challenge about credit, a point which my noble Friend has raised many times. I was delighted to hear him stress the importance of development by individuals because without that there would be no hope for the Highlands. The Highlanders must take the initiative. The Government will help, but it is the men and women themselves who will save the Highlands. However, my noble Friend seemed to think that they were inhibited from doing all they would like to do because of the shortage of credit. I beg leave to disagree with him. We have not evidence of that. If he has evidence, perhaps he will let me have it?

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton

I will produce it.

Mr. Stewart

I shall be glad to have it.

There is certain very striking evidence in the contrary sense. As my noble Friend will remember, the Chancellor of the Exchequer some considerable time ago made it clear to the banks that in applying their policy of advancing money, they should give full weight to the importance of agricultural production, especially where increases in tillage area and in fat stock were concerned. That the banks are co-operating fully to carry out the Government's policy is illustrated by the quarterly analysis of bank advances, which show that advances to agriculture during 1952 were higher than in any previous year.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

So was the rate of interest.

Mr. Stewart

That is an important point, but even with the higher rate of interest we had bigger bank advances to agriculture last year than ever before. That does not show that there is a great shortage of credit I confess to having played about in my youth with the idea of an agricultural bank, but after a good deal of experience I have come to the conclusion that it is not a sound idea. Given a revival of trade, for which we are all anxious. and given men of the right integrity and character, the present Scottish banking system is perfectly capable of carrying all the development that the country requires.

We shall be talking in two days' time about hydro-electricity, and I need not say much tonight except that it is making a substantial contribution. I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend of the part that electricity is playing in the development of the Highlands, and I look for his support on Wednesday night.

In industrial expansion we are, I admit, up against difficulties. We have created an industrial development area round about Inverness. It has not attracted industry as we had hoped. We cannot force industry to go there. If industrialists do not choose to go, there is not much that we can do about it. We have tried a different method in the North-East, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West referred. I hope that that may be more attractive. We will do whatever is possible to provide the conditions, but it remains true, as I said earlier, that the development of the Highlands, like that of Scotland, depends upon the initiative of Scotsmen and Highlanders.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Nine Minutes to Five o'Clock a.m.