HC Deb 30 July 1954 vol 531 cc994-1004

5.57 p.m.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

I am very glad to have the opportunity before the House adjourns for the Summer Recess of directing attention to some of the conditions in the new forestry villages in Northumberland. In particular, I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for finding it possible to come here this evening to reply to some of the points which I hope to make, because I know that he has done so at considerable personal inconvenience.

I raise this matter in no spirit of hostility to the Forestry Commission. I realise that the Commission, like nearly all State organisations, has its critics: but for my part, while I appreciate the dislike which the advent of the Forestry Commission may have caused to many of my constituents, I consider that the work which it has undertaken is work of national importance which, in due course, will pay the country handsome dividends. Before now I have paid tribute in the House to the enthusiasm and energy of the Commission and its staff.

Tonight, it is not the timber production side of its work to which I wish to direct attention, but rather the personnel, or human or administrative, side, which, I believe, leaves certain things to be desired. In my constituency alone the Forestry Commission proposes to build at least eight brand new villages. It is inevitable that these villages will have a great impact on the whole of the area concerned.

Speaking in a debate on forestry about two years ago, I made a special plea that starting from scratch, as it is, the Commission should do its utmost to see that the villages which it is providing are model villages, that they are a credit to that part of the country in which they are constructed, and that they should be a real pleasure for the inhabitants to live in. Unfortunately, that is not exactly what is happening. I am sure it is the wish of the Forestry Commission to see that the houses which it puts up and the villages which it builds are really attractive, because I have here one of their publications entitled "Britain's Forests— Kielder," which is one of their villages. They say: Each village will become, in effect, a focal point for the life of its immediate neighbourhood; for this reason each will have its own church, shops, inn and village hall. Moreover, to ensure that there is from the start some of that communal life without which no village can flourish, not less than 25 houses will be built on each site at the very beginning.

It being Six o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Speir

I find nothing to quarrel with in those remarks, and if this policy were being carried out at the present time, I doubt whether I should find it necessary to raise this subject in the House this evening.

However, recently I have visited three of these new villages, that at Kielder, Byrness and Stonehaugh. Each of these villages has now got at least 35 houses already occupied, but so far as amenities are concerned nothing in the way of village halls, clubs or shops has been provided. In Byrness, for instance, 40 houses are occupied and I believe that another 50 houses are being built in the near future. It is miles away from anywhere. Even the school is 10 miles away, and amenities are absolutely non-existent.

At present, the inhabitants of these houses have not got a shop, a club, a "pub," a hall, a telephone kiosk or a stamp machine. I believe that there is not even a letter box. The roads are in such a bad condition that the buses refuse to enter the village, and the children going to school have to go to the main road and wait without any shelter and in danger from traffic for the bus to come along and take them to school 10 miles away. I believe that much the same thing applies to one of the other villages I mentioned, namely, Stonehaugh, and I think it is deplorable that conditions like these should exist. I do not think we should allow the people to remain any longer living as they are doing.

Although the Forestry Commission employees are, for the most part, getting only the minimum agricultural wage, they are having to pay about 16s. a week rent for their houses, with rates of 4s. to 5s. a week in addition. Yet the local council is providing very little in the way of services. There is no refuse collection and no street lighting.

Incidentally, I have been told time and again by the employees that it would be very helpful if arrangements could be made for the rent and the rates to be collected together and paid as one. That is a point which might be worth attention.

If we look at the postal services in these villages, particularly those at Byrness, we find there is no post office, no telephone box and no letter boxes. If a telegram is delivered from the nearest village down the valley it costs the recipient 2s. 6d. a time. I came across a young fellow who had had a 21st birthday and very expensive it was for him! He received three telegrams, and each time one of them arrived he had to pay out another 2s. 6d. Surely the Forestry Commission ought to be able, together with the Post Office, to arrange to provide better services for these villages.

There is another aspect which requires consideration. That is the type of house which is being constructed by the Forestry Commission. I cannot say that they are attractive or in any way original or imaginative. Indeed, the Bellingham Rural District Council is providing far more attractive houses than the Forestry Commission, with all its planners, and with all its organisation behind it. Nearly all the houses concerned are three-bedroom houses, and although many have only recently been constructed they are already cracked in many places, as photographs which I have here show. An inquiry ought to be instituted to find out why cracks are appearing in so many of these houses.

I am told, too, by the inhabitants that the hot water system is entirely inadequate, that the cisterns are far too small and again, as photographs which I will hand to the Minister show, the grates are so constructed that they are up against one of the partition walls. This means that only one person can sit near the fire, which is a major consideration when it is realised that the houses are situated in the hills in a very cold climate.

Another thing which has amazed me is that, so far as I can see, not one tree has been planted in any of these villages from an ornamental point of view. That seems to me extraordinary when it is the Forestry Commission which is responsible for constructing the villages. It really is time that something was done to beautify these homes and villages. Another small point, but worth mentioning because it is indicative of bad planning, is that the paths to the houses in Byrness village have been constructed of large dry pebble stones, along which it is almost impossible to push a perambulator or to clear away the snow common in that area, and it is also difficult to take in coal. Either proper pavements should be laid down or else the paths should be tarred.

Uniform and unimaginative as the houses may be in Byrness village, they are an improvement on those now in existence at the forestry village of Kielder which was opened with great ceremony by the late chairman of the Forestry Commission, two years ago. The pamphlet published by the Forestry Commission made some interesting remarks. It disparaged the existing type of building in Northumberland, because it said: The local style of building … has hitherto been of grey, rather dour and forbidding stone. It would be hard to imagine anything more like a dockyard settlement, or anything more grey and forbidding, than some of the houses in these photographs. It is time, therefore, that the Forestry Commission tried to introduce something brighter and more attractive.

In not one of the three villages to which I have referred have the roads yet been made up adequately. The result is that the local buses refuse to enter these villages and the schoolchildren often have a long way to go to wait for the school bus. It also gives the villages a desolate and drab appearance and it is high time that more attention was paid to these roads.

Furthermore, I understand that the planner-in-chief has greatly discouraged the inhabitants of these houses from constructing their own gardens. That would be all right if in the place of gardens there were neatly cut lawns, but grass and weeds are now growing rampant up to the very front doors of these houses. I can only call the present village of Kielder a blot on the landscape and a real eyesore.

No doubt the Minister will tell me that Rome was not built in a day, that it will take time before these villages are proper, fully developed communities and that the inhabitants must exercise patience. That may be true, but it is equally true that up to the present time the Commission has paid insufficient attention to the human side of these problems. I realise that many of the points that I have raised are small but as the Scots say, "Many a mickle makes a muckle." Certainly, these villages are in a tremendous "muckle" at the present time.

Although these points may be small and only pin-pricks, nevertheless, when added together they are a formidable total. I do not believe that the House can realise the full impact of all these points on the lives of individuals unless they appreciate that for the most part the employees coming into these new villages are people who have been brought out of cities and towns where they have been used to the normal amenities which they are now sadly lacking. With a little enterprise and imagination the Forestry Commission could provide many of these amenities without any great difficulty, and without incurring any great increase in public expenditure.

I do not believe that the uncertainty and discontent which, from my conversation with them, I learned exists among these residents need exist. I believe that discontent could be diminished very greatly if more consideration were given to the administrative and human side. The Forestry Commission must face up to its responsibility. It is not good enough to take these people out of towns and cities and dump them in the wilds and let them get on with the job.

They are living in a hard climate and the cost of living is extremely high there. Owing to the absence of permanent shops, they are having to buy goods and provisions from mobile shops and I am told that the costs are about 2d. in the 1s. higher than in the ordinary shops in neighbouring villages. We must remember, also, that these employees are only receiving the minimum agricultural wage. It is true that in certain periods of the year they get piece work and can do better, but they are receiving none of the "perks" which an agricultural worker so often receives.

There are many small ways in which the Commission could brighten the lives and improve the happiness of these residents if they would like to make the effort. For instance, though they are living in a very cold climate I am told that they have no concessionary rate for firewood. If they do not buy the firewood at the normal market price they are made to put the firewood on bonfires and destroy it in the open. Surely a concessionary rate might be introduced.

Another small point which is indicative of the present pettiness of outlook by the Commission is this: in the Kidder Forest alone there are about 120 million fir trees, but at Christmas the employees have to pay the full market rate for a Christmas tree. Without incurring excessive cost, the Commission might consider giving a Christmas tree to each employee who wants one. Another important question which I have been asked by the employees concerns the policy of the Commission regarding the housing of its retiring employees. Nearly all the houses which are now being built are of the three-bedroom type. What will happen when the Commission has a large number of employees reaching retiring age? Is the Commission considering the building of smaller types of houses or perhaps flats or bungalows to house their retiring employees, or is it content to say goodbye to them and let them go?

If so, where will they go? They are living miles away from any other town or village and it would be very difficult for them to find alternative accommodation. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about this aspect of the matter. It must be remembered that these people are living in tied cottages far from other habitations.

I must leave the Minister an opportunity to reply to some of these points. There are many others which I might have mentioned, but I hope that by directing attention in the House to the hard conditions and the lack of amenities which are at present facing these pioneers in the new villages, it may be possible to arrange for something to be done to improve their lot.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary is aware of the type of country in which the Forestry Commission is operating in Northumberland. Perhaps he will urge the new Minister of Agriculture to see whether he cannot find time to visit that area himself and to see these villages. At any rate, I trust that the Parliamentary Secretary will ask the Minister to discuss the matter with the chairman of the Forestry Commission to see whether urgent steps cannot be taken to improve the administrative and human, personal side of the work of the Commission. I ask for more imagination, more initiative and more effort on the part of the Forestry Commission to see that these State employees are enabled to lead a fuller, a happier and a better life.

Perhaps it would not be out of order, as I am probably the last back bencher who will have the privilege of speaking in the presence of our Clerk before he retires, to say that I only wish that the speech which I have made had been a more worthy one. He must have heard thousands upon thousands of speeches, and some people, it may be, would be relieved to hear no more; but I am sure that when he hears the cry, "Who goes home?" for the last time in a few moments, it will be a very moving moment for him.

It is perhaps not inappropriate that the problem to which I have been directing attention is one which arises in an area to which he has often gone in the past for rest and solace after the arduous duties which he has performed in this House. I should like to tell him that he will always be a most welcome and honoured guest in that part of Northumberland in any future visit which he may pay it.

6.17 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

Perhaps I may begin by joining with my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) in adding my personal tribute to Sir Frederic. Mine will undoubtedly be the last voice which he will hear in the debate. At least my speech will be fairly brief, because it cannot go on after 6.30 p.m.—which is a good deal more than can be said for many speeches which he has heard in the past.

I want to assure my hon. Friend that I recognise his strong interest in, and enthusiasm for, the general work in his constituency and, in particular, for the work of the Forestry Commission. He recently exposed me to the rigours of his climate when I paid a visit to his constituency, and I can confirm from personal experience that it is indeed a dour and exposed part of the world even in the middle of a summer—and my imagination predicts what it must be like in the middle of the winter.

I can well understand the importance of having houses where one can get next to the fire so that as many people as possible can do so. I recognise that it is a countryside of great strength and character, and so are the inhabitants who live and work there. I saw, when I was in those parts, a good deal that has been done by the Forestry Commission in the course of their replanting. I also saw the outside of one of these villages, but I had not the time to visit it.

My hon. Friend has expressed criticism of these Forestry Commission villages in very strong terms, both this afternoon in the House, and outside. I recognise his genuine anxiety and concern that these villages should develop into happy balanced communities along the lines which the Commission has indicated in its booklet. I know that the Forestry Commission also welcomes his interest in so far as it can help the Commission in what it is doing, and is constructive.

I ask him to recognise that in the nature of things it will be a long and difficult business to bring about the development of these villages into balanced communities on the lines which he has indicated; and that it will also need, as well as the best efforts of the Forestry Commission itself, the maximum encouragement and support from those in the neighbourhood, like my hon. Friend, who can give support and encouragement and have a great influence on local opinion.

By way of general comment, let me say that the Commission is well aware of the very formidable difficulties involved in creating a new village, and its general policy is, wherever it can, not to build a new village, but to add further accommodation to existing villages so that the Commission's forestry workers can then join an existing community where there is a balanced community, mixed employment and an organic life already existing. That has been particularly successful in Wales and some other places, but in some parts, and this particular part of Northumberland is one, there just is no village existing and the Commission has to start from scratch and build a complete new village.

In the nature of things that means that there will be few other avenues of employment in the neighbourhood to which people engaged in other walks of life can come and join in the new village when it is built. Kielder is just such a part of the world. The Forestry Commission has about 74,000 acres there of which the greater part will eventually be completely afforested. There are already three villages in process of building there—the three mentioned by my hon. Friend. Kielder, Stonehaughshields and Byrness, and possibly two more but not for certain: certainly not so many as eight are now contemplated.

I think it is fair to say that at Stonehaughshields and Byrness the builders have only just finished building the actual houses, so there has not been very long to provide those other services and amenities that my hon. Friend has mentioned. The Commission's policy is certainly to develop a sound, balanced community, and eventually one hopes to get a state of affairs as indicated in this pamphlet from which my hon. Friend quoted "Britain's Forests—Kielder," with a delightful sketch at the end showing the village, with the church in the background, and an elderly gentleman walking gently along, and some people on the green, etc.—judging by the size of the old gentleman's paunch, he must have been there some time to have acquired it. Obviously these developments will take some time to bring about.

The Commission intend to provide a village hall in each village. Already one exists in Kielder and tenders are out for building village halls in the other two villages, so they should be there in the next 12 months or so. There is one shop at Stonehaughshields and one is under negotiation at Byrness. There is a sort of hut place in Kielder. Otherwise they are served by travelling shops. That would not be regarded as a comprehensive provision but it is a start. The site is available for a church, but it is generally accepted that where a community wants a church it must primarily be provided by the community. That presents a problem, because the different denominations will have to club together to have their church.

It is worth mentioning that in Kielder there is a recreation ground now which was provided, not out of Government funds by the Commission, but the Commission made available its heavy machinery to clear and level the ground. The inhabitants got the ground into shape. That is admirable as the sort of development we wish to see. Having made it, the people will no doubt be proud of it and take care of it as well as enjoying playing games upon it.

There are lawns in front of the houses, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is grass in front of the houses—

Mr. Speir


Mr. Nugent

And it is intended that the grass shall be cut and the Commission will provide for the cutting of it. If there is a sufficiently general demand for gardens the Commission is prepared to consider making them in front of the houses. The other services will be coming gradually. The Commission will do its best to see that buses, electricity, telephones, schools, postal services, and so on, are provided.

As a final comment, I would say that it is a difficult problem to create a new village in an old country like ours, where we expect such a high standard of services. If we contrast that with the new villages being built in new countries such as Canada and Australia, where people come to live in order to develop some pioneering work, we find that they know that they have nothing else to expect but what they provide for themselves. If they want a church or a village hall, they must build it for themselves. If they want a parson, they must raise the money to pay him. That is accepted as the way life goes on in such places. Here there is more an attitude of expecting all these things to be provided for us, because they are normal in other villages, and this attitude creates special problems for the Commission.

I would ask my hon. Friend to direct his admirable enthusiasm and interest in this matter to supporting and encouraging the Commission, as well as prodding them to do what is required; and to recognise that inevitably it must be a long and patient business gradually to bring these new villages into an organic and balanced community such as we know in our English, Scots and Welsh villages, and which we value so much. I would ask my hon. Friend not to be too severe in his criticism of the Commission, which is confronted with these great difficulties. I will see that my right hon. Friend is fully informed of what I have heard today, and that he gives urgent attention to seeing that the Commission goes along those lines.

The Question having been proposed at Six o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, till Tuesday, 19th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.