HC Deb 03 July 1958 vol 590 cc1713-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

9.13 p.m.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

I welcome this opportunity to raise a subject which is greatly disturbing the County Council of Ross and Cromarty and, I believe, many other Highland county councils who are faced with much the same problem; that is, the old, sore problem of the lack of sufficient money to provide the minor roads which are essential to small rural communities if we want to keep them alive and see them develop. There are today townships in my constituency that are virtually dying through the lack of adequate road communications. In some areas houses are vacant because people have left for that very reason and because development is impossible.

This problem has existed for years and has been recognised by all Governments since 1897, when the first positive step was taken to deal with the problem under the Congested Districts (Scotland) Act.

There is no need for me to go into the history of that Act and the reason why it was brought forward, but it is well to recollect that the people were forced in many instances on to the seashore and to rely upon sea communications only. Naturally the coast, particularly the west coast, that narrow strip beside the sea, became congested. The Act at that time, of course, covered a very much wider range than it does today. For instance, at that time the Congested Districts Board which was then set up had power to aid agriculture, fishing and rural industries, to acquire land for land resettlement purposes, and to assist in the problem of public works such as roads, piers and harbours.

It is very tempting tonight when one has longer than one normally has in an Adjournment debate to develop all these various matters which would probably be eligible for grant, but I want to deal only with the problem of the small rural roads. The area is certainly not congested now, and many bodies in the Highlands, I think too many, are advising now how to keep people there and are attempting to keep people from drifting away, as they are still doing.

I submit that one of the principal reasons is the lack of roads and communications. The problem is stated in a sentence in "A Programme of Highland Development" brought forward in 1950, which reads: Fundamentally the Highland problem is to encourage people to live in the Highlands by making it possible to secure there, in return for reasonable efforts, proper standards of life and the means of paying for them. The depopulation of the Highlands has long been viewed with concern. Those words come from that Government paper.

The problem was acute and is still very acute, and I hope that tonight my noble Friend will take to heart my remarks and help to solve the problem, because, surely, roads are the first essential in any development of any area. These communications which we lack and which we are discussing tonight are essential for the every-day use of the local inhabitants. They are the very life-blood of the area.

The House needs only to picture some of the conditions in all the Highland constituencies today to understand the problem. There we have communities without roads. The children may be seen wading along unsuitable tracks to school as they did a century ago. The doctor has difficulty in getting about among his patients. People have to clamber down rocks to the seashore to get the ill away to hospital. Goods have to be carried by the people on their backs for long distances. These things are going on today despite the tremendous advances which have been made in the social services of the world.

If we are going to keep these people there it is essential that they should be able to reach the main highways of the country, and that they cannot do today. Today even our sea communications are being curtailed still further, and nowadays generally more use is made of road transport. This is happening all over the country, but it is particularly acute on the Western seaboard of my own area. The lack of these roads is now being felt more acutely. I did a survey with some members of the Highland Panel not long ago when it was found that throughout the whole area most of the bulk commodities now came in by road from the east.

These communities, therefore, as a result of being without adequate roads to reach the main roads, are put into an intolerable position, and all development is thereby hindered. I believe that full use is not being made in the area of grants given by the Department of Agriculture and the Crofters Commission and other bodies because people are not able to convey fertilisers, tile drains, and so on, by road to develop the land. They are equally unable to send produce by road to market in a suitable condition. The nation, therefore, is losing through lack of this development, because of the condition of these very minor roads.

Apart from the lack of agricultural development as a result of not opening up these areas, one of the most important industries in the Highlands, the tourist trade, is being strangled. In Scotland generally and in the whole of Great Britain this industry is of inestimable value, and we must do all we can to encourage it. A great deal is being done today in the Highlands.

The crofters in the Highland counties take more and more tourists each year into their houses. These tourists come by car and leave behind them hard cash which is of the greatest benefit to these communities. The amount of development that has taken place over the last year or two in places to which these tourists have been able to penetrate is really quite incredible.

I know an area where a road has been made in the last two years, where the crofting houses look smart, where a water supply has been installed and where there are vegetable gardens in places where people had never thought before of having a garden. They now grow a certain amount of horticultural produce to feed the people who come there. These things are happening now in the Highlands, yet, through lack of these roads, full development is not taking place.

I have spoken to tourists who complain that they cannot get to these delightful spots because of the lack of roads. In many of these places there are attractive beaches for bathing, but parents constantly say that they will not come back to them with their children because of the bad condition of the existing tracks.

I need not go further into the reasons why these roads are essential. I have given these examples, but the Minister must be aware of the necessity and I am sure that he appreciates it. But does he appreciate the urgency? All the Highland counties today have programmes which at the present rate of progress will take years and years to complete. The main reason for this slow progress is the Department's niggardly, mean and parsimonious attitude.

This is why I raise this matter tonight and demand that these grants should be speeded up and that there should be greater co-operation between the Government and the local authorities. The Government speak of giving more power to the local authorities, and I think they have brought forward legislation recently to do that. Here is a power which the local authority has already, and I think it is being strangled, certainly slowed down, since the authority is not able to make use of it because of the action of the right hon. Gentleman's Department.

A lot of people do not realise that the area of Ross and Cromarty is almost as large as the whole of the industrial belt of mid-Scotland and yet has only one-tenth of the population. In my constituency the product of a penny rate is £500, so to solve the problem one must emphasise this co-operation that is necessary between the Government and the local authority.

What do we find? As the Minister knows, each year the local authority puts forward a list of roads to qualify for the grant under the Congested Districts (Scotland) Act. This was done by Ross and Cromarty County Council for the coming year 1958–59. On 19th May last the county clerk received a letter refusing grant for the current programme, which was confirmed by the answer given to me by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland on Tuesday last.

I understand that the reason for this was that the county's programme for 1957–58 had not yet been completed. In my opinion this is a fantastic reason. The county clerk, in a letter dated 29th May sent to the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland, wrote: My Council's programme for minor roads proposed for D.O.A.S. grant for the year 1957–58 was submitted to the Department on 13th March, 1957, and it was not until October, 1957, that the Department intimated that grant would be given. The work on three of the roads had to be done under contract and taking in tenders and departmental approval took further time. It is clear that in so far as this county is concerned the late start with the work coupled with the bad winter are the reasons for the unfinished state of the programme at 31st March, 1958. That is the reason given why no grant will be made under the new programme. I submit that the Department must accept responsibility for the late start. The county clerk's letter continued: My Council have on occasions in the past asked the Department to give earlier intimation of grant in order that advantage could be taken of the summer weather for the road works but the representations have had no effect. That is the point. Many of these minor roads have to be built over bog and soft land, and it is only in the summer months that the work can go ahead.

It is ridiculous if intimation is given only in October. By October up there the winter is beginning, and, consequently, work cannot be completed in the necessary time. As the county clerk says: Intimation three months earlier would have permitted completion of the programme by 31/3/58. What the Department are in effect doing as far as this county is concerned is spreading the money promised for one year over two years. Thus, I do not think that my accusation about the Department being mean is in any way excessive, because that is just what it is. The county council is in a position to go on with the programme. Incidentally, the county clerk has not yet had a reply to his letter, and I have not had a reply to my letter of 11th June asking for the Minister's comments.

In his letter the county clerk also said: My Council also wish to know what the Department have in mind in stating that your request for grant towards the cost of reconstructing four unclassified roads at an estimated cost of £28,500 has been noted. What does "noted" mean? Can a grant be given for unclassified roads? I believe that some unclassified roads have been given a grant under the Congested Districts (Scotland) Act.

I consider the situation most unsatifactory. I ask the Minister now to enable the Ross-shire County Council, which, after all, is trying to do its best with the inadequate sums available, to build the minor roads. I ask the Government to reconsider the whole question so as to enable the county council to get on as quickly as possible during the remaining summer months of this year with its minor road programme which has been submitted to the Department. These roads, I would emphasise, are a matter of right for the people living in the community. If they are built, I believe that they will be of value not only to the local communities but to the nation.

9.34 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

There is considerable anxiety throughout the Highlands about communications, including roads, and about employment and the future generally.

To follow the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) about roads, I, too, am very conscious of the fact that there are many districts in the Highlands which are still almost, if not entirely, inaccessible by road. There really is still a very great need for adequate roads of all classes throughout the Highland area.

I am particularly interested tonight in the minor roads. Nowadays vans, travelling shops and tractors have to move about even in the most remote areas. It is not sufficient merely to have a track; one must have a surfaced road. As I am sum the Government are well aware, there is nothing more wasteful than the patching up of water-bound roads and the throwing on of gravel and chips which will be flung off by the first tractor which passes along the road. There is also a great deal of waste over the Highland road programme because it is always done in bits and pieces.

I notice in my own constituency that equipment is moved up to one stretch of road, a certain amount of repair work is done and a quarry opened, then the whole apparatus is taken away somewhere else or laid up. I know that it is out of order to suggest any changes in legislation in this debate, but I suggest to the Government that they should look into the whole system of grants and the various forms of grants for roads.

There is the further point that there is no doubt that, owing, unfortunately, to the continued depopulation of many areas in the Highlands, there are now districts where very few people are living in very scattered houses. Again, I ask the Government, when considering the roads programme in future, to take into account the desirability of connecting up such districts with water, sewerage and, indeed, improving housing itself, and trying, as far as they can, to draw the existing population together, because it is infinitely cheaper to service them in these ways if they are not too scattered.

It is not always possible, but cannot we organise district schemes for communications, and, indeed, for other amenities, as they are now called? I do not think that we, as Highland Members, can stress too much the need for adequate roads, and particularly byroads, if the Highlands are to be opened up, and if the existing population is to be held, far less any new population being encouraged to go there. There is also the question of any new industries and indeed, of agriculture, because all these depend on roads.

Under the Congested Districts (Scotland) Act, grants are also made for piers, and in my constituency this again is a matter of great urgency and of great public anxiety. We have waited year after year for an adequate pier in North Ronaldshay, Papa Westray and Wyre. I know that there is always the question whether piers come under the Department of Agriculture or that of Fisheries, but all these are agricultural piers.

In this connection, I want to support what was said by the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty about the importance of telling the local authorities what they can do in time, and bearing in mind the fact that the only time of the year when it is possible to do anything in many parts of the Highlands is the summer. Unless they can make plans and get started early, they may lose the whole year.

These schemes have been put off year after year, generation after generation, and this applies in Shetland, too. We have a need for piers in Yell-Unst and other islands, where, from the point of view of fisheries as well as agriculture, it is most important that there should be good transport arrangements between the Shetland Islands. It is clearly deplorable that, half-way through the twentieth century, these islands should not have adequate piers. These communications are just as important for them as are the roads in the Lowlands. I ask the Government to see what they can do to further advance their plans for these roads and piers.

Furthermore, there is at the moment throughout the Highlands a very high rate of unemployment. I am very well aware that today this kind of work does not give quite the same amount of employment which it once did, but it could be useful in giving employment. Further, it could give the people the hope that somebody is seeing that something is to be done, and that is of great psychological value. They sometimes feel that we do not appreciate the need to help their districts, and they have the impression, especially the people in the more remote islands and townships, of having been to a great extent written off.

It is particularly appropriate that we should debate this matter tonight, because we have had today an important statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has announced that the credit squeeze is to be raised, the Capital Issues Committee limit is to be put up to £50,000 and, in general, the credit stringency is to be relaxed. I am told that part of the reason for this is that the banks cannot get anyone to take their money, because no one has sufficient confidence under the present Administration to launch out on a large scheme requiring an overdraft.

Be that as it may, we are surely due to receive a statement about what is called the public sector, which was refused to us this afternoon. It cannot now be long delayed if these schemes, which have been referred to and many others just as necessary in the Highlands, which have been delayed because of the financial situation, are to proceed. This is now better, as the Chancellor himself has told us, and so I hope that at the earliest possible time we shall get a statement by the Scottish Office that they have been to the Treasury and have extorted from it a more generous allocation of grants.

Finally, there is this question of local authority finance. The enormous road mileage which Highland counties have to maintain and the difficulties of sea communication put a great strain on these authorities which have a small and usually impoverished population. It would be out of order tonight to suggest any legislation which might deal with that matter, but without generous Government grants it is not possible for these authorities to do very much.

I should like to draw attention to the works set out in Table 50 of the Report on Agriculture in Scotland for 1957. The Table relates to public works in congested districts. In that Table are two roads in the County of Zetland which were offered aid in that year. They are the Herra-Bouster Road and the Quendale Road. Aid for these roads has been needed for years, and it is a demonstration of the way in which these public works in the Highlands have been put off until the population in some places has become desperate and in many cases has gone.

I hope that the result of this debate and of the other debates which have been initiated on this subject will be to persuade the Government first to go to the Treasury and obtain more generous grants, and secondly to consider the whole system of dealing with Highland roads. We have had all sorts of schemes, including the million pound scheme", and others. We want a comprehensive scheme which will restore life in these districts which still contain populations which can be developed. When this comprehensive scheme is drawn up, I hope that the Government will not forget piers and the financial difficulties of the Highland authorities.

9.42 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord John Hope)

This has been a very useful debate, and for once we have been able to have a debate on this subject, in which there has been no undue rush and in which all Members who have wanted to speak have had the time to do so.

I am in sympathy with much of what hon. Members have said about the need for more work to be carried out on the minor roads and on the marine works in the Highlands for which grant aid is provided under the Congested Districts (Scotland) Act, 1897. As I said in the debate on the Department of Agriculture's Estimates on 26th June, we have not been able to get on with it as quickly as we would have liked. The reason, as the House knows, is financial. With the current restrictions on capital expenditure, there must be, however unwelcome, a limit to what we can do in this direction, as indeed in others.

Reference has been made to the Chancellor's statement. The hon. Member who made that reference will not expect me to enlarge upon it or to apply it in any particular direction at such short notice, but clearly nobody who has these matters at heart, as we all have, could consider that statement as anything but extremely welcome and hopeful.

I should like to give the House a few facts which will put the matter in its proper perspective and show that despite the restrictions, progress in these matters is undoubtedly being made at a by no means negligible pace. I have already admitted that it is not as fast as we would like. The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) will agree, I am sure, that we must put the matter in proportion, and just as I must be prepared to admit that we would like to go faster, so he will be the first to agree that on the facts the pace is not negligible.

First, as to the amount of grant given to county councils to carry out these works, for many years grants given under the 1897 Act have been at the rate of 75 per cent. for the construction or improvement of marine works and the construction and improvement of un-adopted township roads which, on completion are taken on the county highway list as unclassified roads.

For the improvement of unclassified roads already on a highway list, grants were made at the rate of 65 per cent. Since the coming into operation, in 1957, of the Agriculture (Improvement of Roads) Act, 1955, grant-aid for the last two categories has been raised respectively to 85 per cent. and 75 per cent. for Congested Districts Act works where, as in general in the Highlands, the conditions of the 1955 Act are fulfilled.

Here I should stress that, prior to this, grants under the 1897 Act towards the improvement of unclassified roads were given only in exceptional circumstances, since these roads were already on the highway lists of the counties concerned.

Another point that I should like to make strongly at this stage is that whatever views hon. Members might hold as to the extent to which the Government should go to provide money for works of this kind, the assistance which we are giving and have been giving for the past eight years, is far higher—even after making full allowance for changes in money values—than was ever given before. Before the war the annual level of grant under the 1897 Act was about £13,000; in 1951–52 we paid £138,000 in grant, and the amount has risen steadily since. In 1956–57 grants totalled £240,000. I am aware that in 1957–58 the sum fell back to £139,000, but this was largely due to the delayed effect of the capital expenditure restrictions which the Government were obliged to impose in 1956. That is the answer to my hon. Friend's complaint, which he put in the words of his local authority.

These restrictions imposed a virtual embargo on certain kinds of local authority expenditure which could be deferred without risk to public health or safety or to other vital interests, desirable as they otherwise were. The expenditure on roads other than trunk or classified roads was affected. This naturally interrupted progress with grants in aid under the 1897 Act.

Mr. John MacLeod

The reason given by the Department was not that the money was not available; the accusation was that the previous programme had not been finished. I tried to stress the reason why the programme had not been finished.

Lord John Hope

I will look into that point, which is an interesting one, but, over all, the reason for the short-fall was the restriction of capital. I was saying that progress was interrupted, and I wanted to add that I do not think that any reasonable man, least of all my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. J. MacLeod) would claim that any part of the country should be completely exempt from making some response to the national call.

So far as township roads are concerned, it was the practice of local authorities to present each year to the Department a programme of schemes for consideration for grant purposes. Several programmes for 1956, which were before the Department when the restrictions were announced, had to be deferred, but all the councils were informed that it was open to them to make out a case for exceptional treatment for individual schemes on grounds of special urgency. It took quite a bit of time before local authorities responded. They eventually did so. Moreover, grant aid continued at a high level on the large volume of existing works, and grant payments increased in 1956–57 as councils were able to concentrate their efforts on finishing old schemes.

The position with marine works was necessarily different. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) referred to this matter in connection with the Act. Where a pier or jetty was in a dangerous condition, improvement could clearly not be deferred, and grant aid continued to be given in a number of cases, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

In 1957, the position was reviewed and councils were invited to submit priority lists of works that had become most urgent. Offers were made in the late summer and autumn of that year. Work on most of these schemes has still to be finished and involves a continuing commitment on the funds voted by the House for this purpose in the current financial year, amounting to £236,000. All these funds are in fact committed in one way or another. We cannot, therefore, see our way to offering grants for new works at this particular stage. I can, however, assure my hon. Friend that we shall make further offers of grant soon.

Mr. MacLeod

Are the figures which my noble Friend has produced, for the period up to 31st March this year?

Lord John Hope

These are the figures up to date. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall make further offers as soon as possible. I noted what was said about the desirability of making these offers as early as possible in the year. I realise that it is an extremely important point. I am not prepared to say that it is as easy as it sounds or that we could have done better in that respect, but I give my assurance that there will be no slipping up in that particular. We shall make these offers just as early as we can in future. We shall not lose sight of it.

This is an extremely important and vital subject for Scotland. I speak for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as well as myself in saying that there is nothing I would like to see more than a dramatic quickening of the pace in the direction in which we all want to go. If we could have gone further and faster we would have done so. We could not do it, for the reasons I have given. I can say no more in that respect except to assure my hon. Friend who opened the debate that I shall not rest until we have got on with this job, which we all admit so terribly needs doing.

9.55 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

I do not want to detain the House for long at this time of night, but there are one or two things I want to say. I was very shocked to hear the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) say that no grants had been made to his county council this year because it was so far behind with last year's programme. He gave us the reasons why it was so far behind. It would be ungenerous to pursue that matter because the Joint Under-Secretary said that he was unaware of it and will look into it.

The Joint Under-Secretary said that we all want more of these road and marine works to be done in the Highlands. He said that progress is very much better than it was before the war, but not so fast as the Government and all of us would like it to be. He said that has not been possible because of financial restrictions and referred to the cut-back in 1956. He went on to say—I think I heard him aright—that any reasonable man would agree with his right hon. Friend that no area should escape from some part of the restrictions made in the national interest. I am bound to say that I do not take the same view as the Joint Under-Secretary. Maybe he would regard me as an unreasonable man.

If the country got into real difficulties in 1956 because we were over-taxing our capacity to produce, because we were trying to do too much and over-spending—I think that is what the Government said at the time—and if, on examination, we found that some parts of the country were trying to do far too much while in other parts the economy was not being stretched at all, if we found that the industrial South was over-spending and trying to do too much and there had to be some restriction of expenditure there, it surely would not follow that there should be an equal cut imposed on those parts of the country which were even then languishing in semi-idleness.

I should have thought that there is every reason why the Highlands should have been excused participation in the cuts which were imposed two years ago. It was to make that point that I rose. I do not move about very much in the Highlands, but I go there when I can. I see even less of the Islands, I am sorry to say. No one who moves about in the Highlands and Islands can feel that anything like enough is being done to improve communications by road or by sea. One sees too many examples of what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) called attention to, essential works being done here and there, but with inadequate co-ordination.

One sees that in the industrial South, and not only in the North. One sees it everywhere, but in the industrial South a small job is large in comparison with one in the North and the amounts of expenditure mentioned by the Joint Under-Secretary for the whole of the Highland area shows that. The amount of money spent in Parliament Square would take up many years of the kind of expenditure which was referred to by the Joint Under-Secretary. It is obvious that there is a lot of wasteful expenditure. I am not saying that it was possible to avoid all of it in the past, but there is a need for us all to have a look at this problem in future to see whether we cannot plan a little better and carry jobs through to their conclusion.

I travelled many miles in the Highlands last autumn and I was not surprised to hear from more than one tourist that the—

It being Ten 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. Chichester-Clark.]

Mr. Fraser

I was not surprised to hear from more than one tourist last year that it was not too easy an experience to move around in the little narrow roads with passing places, particularly for those tourists who came with larger cars, or, even more, with caravans.

In view of the growing traffic in the country and the many buses trying to make their way round the narrow Highland roads today, there is no doubt that if we are to enable the Highlands to take fullest advantage of the tourist traffic which wants to go there, we shall have to make a very considerable improvement in our road programme.

However, I do not want to develop that at this time of night. I merely got to my feet to say that, on the Joint Under-Secretary's definition of a reasonable man, should not be a reasonable man because I would not share his view that the cut should be equally applied in all parts of the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Ten o'clock.

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