HC Deb 30 October 1957 vol 575 cc355-64

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

10.12 p.m.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

I welcome this opportunity to raise a matter of some considerable importance to my own constituency, namely, the question of the supply of electricity to a community on the Western seaboard of Ross-shire. I shall try to be as brief as possible, as I hope that we shall be able to elicit something of the policy of the Hydro-Electric Board in relation to these remoter areas.

Perhaps this is an appropriate time to raise this matter. The area about which I want to speak is Torridon, where the people have been promised a supply of electricity for some considerable time. In fact, over the last six or seven years this has been a rather troublesome question to them. I thought that this was rather an appropriate moment to raise the matter, especially in view of the reply given only yesterday by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who said: My right hon. Friend is at present discussing the adjustment of the Board's plans to meet the Government's proposals on investments, and is not yet in a position to reply."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th October, 1957; Vol. 575, c. 15.] That was said in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) about the plans of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, and whether they were likely to be affected by the new restrictions on investment. I realise that this matter is to a certain extent involved in the subject of the debates which have been taking place over the last two days.

Despite that, I believe that the Highlands have a lot of leeway to make up. Though cuts in capital expenditure and investment are announced, essential services in the Highlands, whether roads or electricity, for instance, should not be affected at all, because in the Highlands years of neglect have to be made up. Moreover, we must not forget the obligations of the Hydro-Electric Board under the Act of 1943. Section 2 (1) of the Act, concerning the general powers and duties of the Board says: …it shall be the duty of the Board so far as practicable…to meet the demands of ordinary consumers…(including isolated areas)… Subsection (3) of that Section says: The Board shall, so far as their powers and duties permit, collaborate in the carrying out of any measures for the economic development and social improvement of the North of Scotland District or any part thereof. That puts a fairly strong obligation upon the Board, and that was legislation passed by this House.

I have been writing for years about this question of supplying electricity to Torridon. I have written to the officials of the Board at the regional office, and then to the Chairman of the Board, and finally to the Secretary of State for Scotland himself. I hope that the Secretary of State will acknowledge his responsibilities in this sphere. We cannot leave all to the Hydro-Electric Board in the present circumstances, and I hope that the Secretary of State will look very carefully into the matters which I am raising tonight.

I have in my file here a petition which was drawn up by the people of this area as long as four years ago, in 1953. This is not a case of an isolated house or a farm or anything like that. We are dealing with a whole community. I recently calculated the numbers affected. Over 100 houses are involved, two large lodges, an enterprising boat building industry, a farm, a youth hostel, and four shops. For a remote area in the Highlands, it is quite a community with which we are dealing.

The galling thing is that they have seen electricity come fairly near, within five miles on either side of them, to Sheildaig to the south and to Gairloch a little farther away to the north. When electricity was brought to the area of Applecross it was announced—by the Chairman of the Hydro-Electric Board, I think—that the supply of electricity would go to the Torridon area. Of course the inhabitants were encouraged by this news and went to some considerable expense in wiring their houses.

I know of many instances of this and have letters about it. I shall quote only one because I want to be brief. This is a letter from the proprietor of a large lodge. I got it just before the Recess. This is what he says: In January, 1955, I wrote to the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board saying my battery— he generates his own electricity in the lodge— was showing signs of age and asking their advice as to renewing my battery or waiting for the main. They strongly advised me to wait for the main saying they hoped to commenace construction in autumn, 1955, but that we could not look for a supply at Torridon until late in 1956. They assured me that I should find their terms for a mains supply very reasonable. That was rather encouraging to this chap, and, being a legal man, he let everyone know.

He goes on: During the summer of 1955 the Board's representatives were here with maps… I will not bother to read more, but here is the point that affects him, like so many others. He happened to be doing some plumbing in the house and, to make the thing more economical, he thought, "I will put in the wiring and adapt my house for the mains which the Board has already assured me are coming in, at the latest at the end of 1956." He spent £250 on that adaptation, on switches, and so on. Before doing so, being a sensible man, he thought it reasonable and prudent to find out just what the supply would cost. He therefore asked one of the representatives to assess the house. He was quoted a supply of current and was asked to guarantee £52 per annum. He accepted that and he asked whether the Torridon scheme was still on.

The Hydro-Electric Board then replied, after acknowledging his letter of acceptance. The Board spoke of the recent financial crisis and said that the scheme was still on, but that completion would be delayed. I ask the Joint Under-Secretary what the delay now will be. This has gone on far too long. It it up to the Board to make a more reassuring indication. The Board has already given assurances, and that is the disturbing point about this matter. The Board has very nearly made a promise, judging from the correspondence that has taken place. Can the Board go on saying that the supply will not now come to the district because costs are rising? We know that every year the cost of these things goes up. That is one of the main excuses made by the Board.

But what happens now is far more serious, and this is a point which has been raised by many hon. Members. Under the appropriate Act, the Board used to bring electricity free to these areas. That was going to happen in the initial stage in Torridon. The supply was to be brought free to the gable ends of the houses, but now the Board is demanding extortionate capital charges from individuals, to such an extent that the demand amounts to a refusal to bring the electricity to the area, because these people cannot possibly afford these extortionate charges.

Now we have a position in which the Chairman of the Board writes to me—and I have sent his letter to the Secretary of State—asking whether grants could not be given to individuals, as was done in other European countries as he puts it, to have the electricity brought in. I should like to ask the Under-Secretary whether this is a complete change of policy on the part of the Board. The Board expends vast sums of money—millions of pounds—and it is surely very strange if the Board has to call upon the Government to give individual grants to bring electricity to these areas.

I should like to develop that further, but it would need another debate altogether. I ask the Secretary of State to make an inquiry into this case. It is similar to cases raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) on previous occasions. After all, the Act of 1943 was introduced to deal with the remote areas, and those are the areas we are trying to develop. We are trying to deal with areas which are becoming depopulated because of the lack of amenities.

Today, we shall not get housewives to light lamps or to use candles because young people have been away in the Services and have seen the modern appliances in other areas. The lack of amenities is one of the main reasons why they are not staying in the remote areas, yet the Government are spending vast sums of money in various ways to try to keep them there.

Shieldaig is supplied with electricity and it is only five miles away. I understand that under the distribution scheme for this area mapped out by the Board the supply will come through Kinlochewe. I will not go through all the names, but this is an area where there is only one house. Yet the area around Shieldaig is a little more populated. I think that the Board has slipped up and I would like the Secretary of State of look into this point.

In bringing the supply of electricity to Shieldaig the Board has used lightweight poles, with only two phases. Surely that was a complete lack of foresight. They ought to have brought heavier poles, so that the distribution could be continued for the short distance of five miles into the Torridon area. I do not expect the Under-Secretary of State to tell me tonight, but I would like him to let me know how much the current has increased in this area since 1952, because there is a great deal more current now available there.

I know that this would cost about £50,000, but it is not much in comparison with the figures we have heard bandied about in the last two days. It is galling for these people to read that the Hydro-Electric Board proposes a scheme costing £14 million.

I will not speak longer, because I want to give the Under-Secretary of State time to reply, but one important factor also involved here, apart from the amenities to the local people, is the value of the tourist industry in this area. We have a thriving and developing tourist industry in the Highlands. We have no other industries. In this area we have our marvellous, beautiful scenery which is a raw material that costs nothing. The Tourist Board is doing all it can to encourage visitors and the crofting communities are playing their part in this development. Yet this crofting area is being denied electricity, and that is an important factor if we are to get people to take tourists into their small houses.

This is not altogether a local matter. For the reasons I have given, and also because of the tourist industry, it is a matter of national importance. I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State will tell the Board to get on with the job and to start immediately to bring electricity to Torridon.

10.29 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

First, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) for raising this matter, because I realise how keenly interested are his constituents in it. I see from those attending the House at this late hour that this is a matter which, although limited to this place in this debate, also has repercussions and implications elsewhere.

My hon. Friend asked how the supplies are to go, when they are to go and how they are to be paid for, but he began by referring to the position of the Secretary of State for Scotland and hoped that the Secretary of State would acknowledge his responsibilities in this matter. I want to make it clear at the outset that the Secretary of State for Scotland cannot really be expected to answer for the supply of electricity to particular consumers or to a particular area. As my hon. Friend made clear, the Hydro-Electric Development (Scotland) Act, 1943 says that the duty, so far as is practicable, to provide supplies of electricity required to meet the demands of ordinary consumers in the North of Scotland is placed on the Board itself and not on the Secretary of State. That is the Board's responsibility.

My hon. Friend also spoke of the duty of the Board. I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Board's duty to supply electricity is limited by the words: so far as is practicable. I do not think that the Board can be expected to do more than that. It is quite clear that the only judges of what is practicable must be the persons who are actually carrying out the work, that is the Board itself.

The second main consideration is that the Board has a duty also to secure that its revenues are not less than sufficient to meet its outgoings taking one year with another. That means that in carrying out distribution schemes or any other project the Board must have regard to the financial effect on its undertaking as a whole. It is quite right that this should be so and no one suggests for a moment that it would be a good thing for the Board to conduct its affairs without any regard for the financial consequences.

The present moment makes it particularly important for the Board to scrutinise the cost and economics of any scheme whether it is a comparatively small distribution scheme or a large constructional project, because for the last two consecutive years its accounts have shown a loss. At the end of 1956 there was a loss on the year's working of about £165,000 which raised the Board's debit balance to about £612,000.

The reasons for this are well known. It is partly due to increasing costs, partly due to increasing rates of interest, partly because the Board abstained from raising its tariffs, and, by no means least, because there was a very serious drought in 1955. But the fact is that having regard to its duty to balance its books taking one year with another, the Board has to be careful in taking on further uneconomic work.

At this point I should consider what is involved in bringing a supply of electricity to Torridon. It is not simply a local matter. The Board first has to complete the Grudie Bridge to Lochalsh interconnector line which is in course of construction. I know that my hon. Friend considers that it might have brought the supply of electricity by other means, but I am bound to say that the Board is the best judge of that.

From a point near Achnasheen the Board will have to extend a 33 kilo-volt transmission line to Kerry Falls Power Station and at an intermediate point, perhaps near Kinlochewe, the line will have to be tapped for a high voltage extension to Torridon. When that has been done, it will be possible to provide the low voltage distribution mains. Construction work on the Grudie Bridge-Lochalsh interconnector has now reached a point beyond Achnasheen, but it is still necessary to complete this line before any tapping off to Kerry Falls can be made. I am told that it is technically impracticable to supply either from Gairloch or Applecross.

Mr. MacLeod

Surely if the Board had an estimate of the cost it must have found out what the technical difficulties were.

Mr. Macpherson

As I said, the Board considers that it is technically impossible to connect either from Gairloch or from Applecross.

There is no doubt that the supply of electricity to Torridon, as indeed to many other parts of the Board's area, cannot be expected to be economic. The cost is now estimated to be in the neighbourhood of £50,000. I am informed that the potential consumers number about 130, although the number who would take a supply is likely to be less than that. The average cost of supplying each consumer would be £390. The Board would expect the consumer to make a capital contribution to this sum, but even with the capital contribution, which my hon. Friend described as extortionate, the annual revenue from Torridon could not be expected to equal the annual charges the Board would still have to meet—that is, interest and amortisation charges on the remainder of the capital, depreciation, maintenance and the cost of the electricity.

Unfortunately, the difficulties do not end here. Over the past few years it has been necessary because of the general financial situation of the country for the Government to impose a close limit on the amount of new capital investment. Such a limitation applies, of course, to all nationalised industries, to the Government's own spending and to the expenditure of local authorities too. The statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the debate which has just ended shows that the need to continue these restrictions is still with us, and indeed some re-phasing of existing plans will be needed. I cannot say exactly what will be required. The Board will no doubt adjust its programme in order to fit these requirements, and the method by which it does it is at present under discussion between the Secretary of State and the Board.

My hon. Friend asked what the delay was likely to be. I am afraid that in these circumstances it is not possible for me to say, and I do not think it would have been possible in any case at this stage to have given him an idea about that.

This debate brings out the very great difficulty of allocating the sum available for rural distribution. I can well imagine what an invidious task it is for the Board to allocate throughout its district the sum available, which has been running at about £1 million a year. It is one of the most difficult and, I should think, unpleasant tasks the Board has to perform. For one thing, the Board has done so much already that everyone else thinks that their own turn must come now. For another, generally speaking, the Board is left with areas where the practical difficulties of supply are great, and where the supply is bound to be expensive and indeed unremunerative. Yet people are anxious that they should have the amenity of electricity which the Board has brought to so many areas. Torridon is one of these difficult areas. Naturally, the people look to Gairloch in the north and Applecross in the south, both of which places have a supply of electricity. I hope that they will also reflect that the problems of the Board are difficult too, and that it has been meeting them satisfactorily.

After all, in Ross and Cromarty, the mainland part of which is my hon. Friend's constituency, there were only 5,140 properties receiving a supply when the Board took over less than ten years ago. That was about 25 per cent. of the potential number. Now that figure has risen to about 19,000, which is about 90 per cent. of the potential consumers, an almost four-fold increase. So it cannot be said that the Board has not done a very great deal.

My hon. Friend has, naturally, stressed the case for supplying his constituents in Torridon, but the difficulties are there also—the high cost, the Board's financial problems and the overall need to keep capital investment within the limits we can afford. These difficulties cannot be brushed aside, but neither do I say that they are insuperable. The Board may not see its way to give a supply now, or in the immediate future, but it is anxious to complete the work it has started. I can assure my hon. Friend that it will keep this matter under review. It keeps under continuous review the needs of all the areas which have not received a supply and, with my hon. Friend, I hope that the Board will be able to satisfy them as soon as the necessary resources are available.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

The hon. Gentleman has said that the Secretary of State is discussing with the Board the revising of plans. All over the Highlands there is great anxiety because people have their houses wired and have been told that the supply of electricity will come. May we expect a statement about the various plans which are known to be coming up and, if so, will that be before Christmas?

Mr. Macpherson

We have to wait until we know what the plans are to be. When that has been reported to my right hon. Friend we can consider how best to make the information available.

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

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.