HC Deb 27 June 1958 vol 590 cc839-48

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

I wish to raise a matter which affects my own constituency, Workington, very much and also the Lakeland area of West Cumberland. It is the need to improve very quickly the electricity supplies in the area. I want, first, to deal specifically with Borrowdale. I shall not go into great detail about Borrowdale itself. Borrowdale Valley is known to everybody as one of our Lakeland valleys.

I have pressed over and over again in the House, sometimes by Questions, the need for the completion of electricity supplies to the Valley, and I think it is important that I should inform the House of the history of this matter of electricity in the Valley. I first raised the matter with the then Minister of Fuel und Power in March, 1950. He replied that I had to wait to see whether the capital investment scheme would permit development at a later period. However, as a result of my representations correspondence was forwarded to the Consultative Council for the North-Western Electricity Board area. I received a very courteous letter from the Chairman, Alderman Wright, who said that although he was disappointed that the scheme could not be proceeded with it would be kept under review. Again we waited.

I raised the matter again on 14th November, 1951, on the Adjournment. The argument was replied to by the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry. I then argued that nationalisation should permit of special cases like Borrowdale. We recognised that in the area we should have had a scheme pre-war when there was the old Midland and Cumberland Electricity Company, but, unfortunately, because of the amenity argument, there was frustration and the scheme was dropped. The then Parliamentary Secretary, in replying to me, argued that the scheme could not be proceeded with because there was a shortage of raw materials and a shortage of labour in the area; and, also, there was the limitation on capital expenditure and capital investment. He did, however, express sympathy with the claims of the area for rural electricity.

Again we waited, and on 19th June, 1953, I raised the matter again in a general debate on electricity supplies in rural areas. The then Minister said that the Government would not be backward with rural electrification. He said that it was a horse which would not be pulled back. He said: Now that he has a chance to show his paces, we hope that he will go forward at a smart trot."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 19th June. 1953; Vol. 516, c. 1427.] I argued that I wanted the North-Western Electricity Board to go ahead at a gallop and that I would not be satisfied until the horse had passed the winning post at Borrowdale. Today, I fear, the horse has been nobbled. I want to show the Parliamentary Secretary that the scheme has been frustrated and that there is anxiety in the Valley.

I pressed the matter in an Adjournment debate on 4th May, 1954, again. I raised the whole question of Borrow-dale, the delay and the lack of planning. On 11th April, 1956, I received a letter from the present Parliamentary Secretary's predecessor. This is what he said in his letter: As you know, the scheme was postponed solely because of the restrictions on capital investment. The Minister, in considering the investment programme for the whole of England and Wales for 1956–57, asked that rural electrification should not bear a disproportionate share of the cuts. I understand that, as a result of this, the North-Western Electricity Board hope to be able to make a start on the Borrowdale scheme during this financial year. On 11th April, 1956, therefore, we felt that something was coming. I had balloted for the Adjournment just before that, when I hoped to raise the matter again, but because I felt from the Minister's letter that at last my constituents would get a measure of justice and that rural electrification would be coming to the whole Valley, I did not do so. Unfortunately, my constituents' hopes have been frustrated, because they have now been informed that certain parts of the Valley are not likely to have electricity for a very long time. There is now a controversy about whether the original scheme was a three-year planning scheme or a three-year sectional scheme, in which the planning would be phased over a much longer period.

As a result I have had considerable correspondence, and I quote from a letter from the Clerk to the Borrowdale Parish Council of 18th February, 1958. I will quote only a part, in which he said: The North-Western Electricity Board have now informed us that the valley above Rosthwaite is not even in a zone for development. … We were promised that the whole valley would be done by April, 1959. Because of the very strong feeling that they had been let down, he said: Feeling is running high and we feel that we have been badly misled over the whole business. To substantiate that, I have dozens of letters here from my constituents in the Borrowdale area who felt that rural electrification there would be completed in a three-year period. Officials of the North-Western Electricity Board are now arguing that there was no promise of a three-year period. I have here not the correspondence, but a report from a responsible local newspaper, the West Cumberland Times, of 3rd May, 1958, which I have no reason to doubt. It is of a statement by Mr. Kenyon, who said that if definite proof could be found that the Board promised to complete the work in three years they would feel obliged to honour it, but he believed that the Board said the work would be done in three sections and not in three years and a section could well take more than a year.

I again looked up my Press cuttings on the matter. I have a Press report from the local paper in 1956 where the then clerk to the parish council revealed the correspondence from Mr. Shepherd, a sub-area manager of the Board whose office is at Kendal. The letter reads: I had a conversation with the chairman (of the (Board) and we discussed the commencement of affording supplies of electricity to Borrowdale. Whilst it was agreed that there would be some difficulty in finding the whole of the capital required in, say, this financial year it was agreed that a start should be made on this electrification. It is probable, although not quite certain, that we shall start from the Catibells side and go down into Grange-in-Borrowdale during the financial year commencing 1st April. 1956. Some detail, follows. It continues: Let us hope that things will become easier as time goes on with regard to permitted capital expenditure, so that we can complete the Borrowdale scheme in, say, two years, or at the most three years. This information was passed by letter to the parish council and received publicity in the area, and my constituents in Borrowdale therefore felt that rural electrification, which had been started, would be complete in a three-year period.

I have now received official letters from the Borrowdale Parish Council and from my constituents, who are now informed that there is no possibility of a completion of the scheme in the near future; indeed, a figure of ten years has been quoted. I hope, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that my constituents have a case. They feel they have been let down, they feel frustrated. That is why I believe I am right in pressing their case to the Minister today, so that he can convey this matter to the North-Western Electricity Board. I believe that Borrowdale should be considered as one unit, and that there should be a drive in this matter so that the work can be completed. I will not be fobbed off with the argument that there is no labour or materials available, because I am certain that if there is the will to complete the job it can be done.

I am not just raising the matter of Borrowdale. Near Borrowdale, a lovely part of the lakeland area, is Buttermere and also Loweswater. There again, I have had representations made to me. I will not go into them in detail, but I have in my hand all the Press cuttings relating to the area, giving the local point of view. I have also received a letter from the Clerk of the Cockermouth Rural Council, which is the main body embracing Loweswater, Buttermere and Borrowdale. The people in Buttermere and Loweswater have pressed for rural electrification for at least twenty years. Here is a quotation from the letter I received from the Clerk of the Council: Earlier this year the Buttermere and Loweswater Parish Councils became aware that the North-Western Electricity Board were not proposing to provide a supply of electricity in the immediate future and, in fact, could make no statement as to when an electricity supply would be forthcoming. … In the zoning scheme of the Board, Loweswater and Buttermere area is not even mentioned in the first two years, though a letter from the North-Western Electricity Board in 1956 promised that the Loweswater area would be one of the first to be constructed when the big scheme was started. The grid is already in the parish, only 1½ miles from the village hall and church. That is the case for Buttermere and Loweswater, I think that they have a strong case and I hope their position will be considered.

Not only is it a matter just of Borrowdale, Buttermere and Loweswater. I have here also representations made to me from responsible parish council opinion and members of the local authority for another part of my constituency called Bullgill, which is also part of the Cockermouth Rural Council. I have raised this matter directly with the North-Western Electricity Board but, again, because of the general argument that there must be postponement owing to the shortage of capital, etc., my constituents in Bullgill are still without electricity. The position is the same in another part of the Cockermouth rural area. The Clerk of the Embleton Parish Council has written to me, and some farmers have stressed the urgent need for a rural electricity supply.

I stress all this because I think my constituency is a special case, since it is the centre of a great tourist industry. The lakeland area is known to every one of us. Indeed, the Lakeland District Hotels and Caterers' Association wrote to me on 18th April this year stressing the importance of electricity to Borrow-dale, Buttermere and Loweswater. It pointed out how important it is that hotels should have modern electrical appliances if we are to attract more and more visitors to our lakeland area. It is important therefore, from the point of view of the tourist industry, that these facilities and amenities should be provided.

I must stress the importance of the farmer in this matter. After all, it is the farmer and the farm worker who care for the lakeland area. It is they who tend the hedges and the walls. It is by their diligence and skill that our lakeland area is kept in the way it is. Many of them are without electricity in this modern age, and that is absurd.

There is one other factor, the position of the housewife. I have with me a letter from a housewife in the Valley of Buttermere, who, in very homely terms, explains her case. She has a large family, a husband who has to travel to work, but she has no press button heating and cooking appliances and facilities, though her sister in the town area has them. This is a live issue for us and I stress it not only from the point of view of the tourist industry and agriculture, but from the point of view of the housewife and the people who live in the area and who look after the visitors who come to see our beautiful scenery.

Another factor is that this area is on the fringe of a very important place in Cumberland, Calder Hall, the first station for the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes in the sense of supplying electricity. Yet, within a few miles of Calder Hall, men and women in my constituency are using the lighting of the Middle Ages. That is absurd and paradoxical.

I press this matter because I know that the Parliamentary Secretary is energetic, gifted and skilful and I hope that he will not give me only sympathy. His predecessors have been very good in this matter in the sense that they have passed my representations to the Board. I hope that he will do that, but that he will also accept our case and be a powerful ally in getting electricity to our lakeland area.

4.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Sir Ian Horobin)

I shall have to speak rather briefly on a number of important matters which the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) has put to the House, and I hope that he will forgive me if I cannot go into as much detail as he and I would have liked. He was good enough to give me an indication of one or two of the points which he intended to raise, and I have made a number of inquiries about the immediate situation. I want to spend a few moments dealing generally with rural electrification in the North-Western area because I do not want an incorrect impression to be given, even unintentionally, which would be unfair to the North-Western Electricity Board.

As the hon. Member knows, in 1953 we all set out on a ten-year programme in an attempt to connect 85 per cent. of the farms in England and Wales by the end of the period, 1963. The programme was in two halves and the first half, in which it was hoped to bring the percentage up to 70 per cent., was completed last September, six months ahead of schedule. In spite of capital cuts—with which I cannot deal in detail now—it is still expected to complete the programme, with any luck, at the original date.

However, the position in the North-West is very much more satisfactory, because by last March the total percentage of the farms in the North-Western area which already had electricity or which had refused it after being told that they could have it, was 84.2. In other words, in 1958, for all practical purposes we are where the whole country hopes to be in 1963. Any criticism of the North-Western Board's general electrification programme in general terms would therefore be very unfair.

I want to explain the change in the method of dealing with the matter in Borrowdale and the Lake District where special problems arise. The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) is in his place and, he like myself, is intimately interested in the amenity aspect. At every stage in electrification in this area, particularly in Borrowdale, amenities and the choice between overhead lines or the very much more expensive method of going underground has arisen and has properly had its effect.

This year, the Board has rearranged its method of dealing with outlying farms so as to deal with certain zones at a time. That is obviously sensible, since it enables the Board to act more economically. When it has finished in one zone, although it is very unlikely that these zones will ever be entirely self-supporting, the zones are much nearer to being self-supporting than they would have been if connections had been dotted about over the whole area. That is the only reason why it has been arranged that certain parts of the area should be dealt with first.

Insufficient attention is paid to the extraordinary expense of the remaining connections. As I have said, in this part of the world we have already practically reached the 85 per cent. figure. There remain uncompleted in the Borrowdale scheme four farms and 74 other premises. The average cost of those remaining connections is £750 each. It is that and not capital restriction which is the limiting factor. There is a limit to the number of so completely uneconomical connections which it is fair to offer consumers at any given time for inclusion in a programme. The average over the whole country has risen in the last three years from £110 a connection to £154 a connection. In the Bullgill, Buttermere and Loweswater area it is £260 per connection. In fairness to all concerned, one must bear in mind that the remaining connections are extremely expensive and that must be considered when deciding which areas are to be done next and how far to go.

Even taking the figure of £750 for the remaining part of the Borrowdale Valley itself, that is not the end of the matter. I made some hurried inquiries on the general situation when the hon. Member was good enough to write to me, because he will be aware that a substantial part of the work which has been done was, quite rightly, put underground. All the eastern part of the lake, when eventually done, is to be put entirely underground, but there is also the remaining part—and I have a map here which perhaps the hon. Member might care to look at later. The figure which I have given of £750 per connection is on the basis that most of the remaining southern part would be overhead, but I am advised that the Lake District Planning Board, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the National Parks Commission have all made serious reservations from the point of view of amenities and may wish certain other parts, if not the whole, to be put underground, which would enormously increase yet again this great expenditure per connection.

It is only fair that we should take a balanced view. Broadly speaking, we are well up to time and the North-Western Area Board has done better than most. This is an area where amenity considerations are vital, not least in the interests of the tourist trade, because people like to look at mountains and not at pylons. We must, therefore, bear all these facts in mind.

Nevertheless, we must deal with the question which the hon. Member raised of whether a definite promise was given, because if a promise were given it must be honoured. He referred to a letter of which I have the full text. I feel that I must repeat the two relevant parts and then put the issue to the hon. Member and the House. The second paragraph of Mr. Shepherd's letter starts: It is probable, although not quite certain, that we shall start … It gives some detail and continues: During the following financial year we could continue, say, from … The third paragraph begins: I am now looking into the question of costs with a view to making a start. Let us hope that things will become easier as time goes on … That cannot be construed as a pledge. Mr. Shepherd was properly endeavouring to be helpful and to hold out what it was hoped to do by some time. I think it is straining at language to suggest that that letter—and nothing else has been brought to my attention—can be construed as a specific pledge that the work would be done at any given time.

If it is true, as I suggest, that no promise has been given, if the general progress is ahead of the country as a whole, if serious considerations of the protection of amenities have to be borne in mind, involving clearance by a number of responsible bodies interested in this area, if these are not yet resolved, and if both in this area and in the further area of Buttermere, Loweswater and Bullgill the expenses are now so high and the returns so low——

Mr. Hugh Dalton (Bishop Auckland)

And the number so few, so that it would not cost much.

Sir I. Horobin

The right hon. Member has been Chancellor of the Exchequer and I do not know whether he would then have taken quite that view. I hope not. De minimis non curat Cancellarius is a very good motto on the spur of the moment.

The discussion of returns raises the question of why the Buttermere, Loweswater and Bullgill section should have been put lower down in the priority list than Borrowdale. I took the opportunity of getting some information—it was over the long-distance telephone only this afternoon and I cannot give a pledge on it—but I am informed that the expected return on the Buttermere, Loweswater and Bullgill area would be as low as 4½ per cent. on the capital. In all the other zones, Frizington, Cockermouth, Whitehaven and so on, it varies—9 per cent., just under 7 per cent., just under 10 per cent., just over 8 per cent. respectively. We can, therefore, show that there are some reasons why the area of Buttermere and Loweswater is put lower in priority by the Board, where it has to choose. I have tried to explain the reasons for that, which seem to us to be good reasons.

The Board has divided the district into zones, and has decided, on economic grounds, to do first one and then the other. The reason for this low priority here is that, because the expense is so high and the possible return so low, it is better to do other areas first.

Mr. Peart

That cost argument means that these remote areas can never hope to get anything, because of priorities given to other areas.

Sir I. Horobin

Well, all these areas are in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. All the people concerned have the same desire for push button electricity, and they are all roughly equidistant from Calder Hall. It may be that because the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter on the Adjournment he feels they may get the supply rather earlier than others elsewhere.

The Board has not done too badly here. It has to consider the great expense, and it has to do the work in some kind of orderly sequence. I submit that some case has been made out for the Butter-mere area being put lower in the priority list. Progress in the upper portion of the Borrowdale Valley will, of course, take place, but it may, perhaps, be slower than the hon. Gentleman would like.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.