HC Deb 15 May 1958 vol 588 cc769-78

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

11.38 p.m.

Mr. T. W. Jones (Merioneth)

In considering the application of the Agriculture (Improvement of Roads) Act, 1955, it should be borne in mind that this Act had its inception in the Government White Paper on Rural Wales following the second Memorandum of the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire. The Minister will recall that we had a full debate on the manifold problems of the Welsh countryside, including the burning question of depopulation. I should like to quote what was said by Lord Kilmuir, then Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who was then Minister for Welsh Affairs: I know that the condition of some of the minor roads in the Welsh uplands is of Feat concern to the farmers. Various hon. Members have referred to this question in almost every debate on Welsh affairs and the Government agree that there is need for special assistance towards the improvement of unclassified and unadopted roads in livestock-rearing areas where the improvement would materially assist the economy of farms, otherwise satisfactory … and, as is announced in paragraph 33 of the White Paper, legislation for this purpose will be introduced when opportunity offers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th December, 1953; Vol. 521, c. 1834.] Those were very fair words, but how prophetic were the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), who wound up the debate for the Opposition. He said: Then, at last, we shall have a Bill and we shall discuss it. In the meantime, all the Welsh will be thinking that they are having something. All they are having is being had. They are being had all the time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th December, 1953; Vol. 521, c. 1919.] The Government decided to embody the proposals in an Act. In introducing the Agriculture (Improvement of Roads) Bill, on 22nd June, 1955, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said: The main purpose of this short Bill, which I am sure the whole House will welcome, is to give the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself power to make grants to highway authorities for the improvement of unclassified and unadopted roads in livestock rearing areas … The Bill is intended primarily as a measure of assistance to upland farming and forest areas in Wales. Having listened attentively to the speech, and representing as I do an agricultural constituency within a livestock rearing area, I was tremendously encouraged, and during the debate I was sufficiently naive to make the following observations: Unlike a previous speaker from this side of the House, I find the Bill fairly commendable. It can be made very useful and valuable in a county like Merionethshire. It is true that this is not a perfect Bill …. I am prepared to say that it is perhaps the best Bill of its kind."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd June, 1955; Vol. 542, cs. 1316 and 1346.] My words are on record. How innocent I was, in the light of what has happened in the last three years. The Minister led me up the garden. I assure him that he will not do it the second time. Once bitten, twice shy. Before I resume my seat I will tell him what I think of the miserable performance of his Department. The Minister should be ashamed of himself or of the Department. Either he or the Department is shocking.

Although £2½ million was allocated for Wales and the Act has been in force for nearly three years, very little has been spent. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) asked the Minister a week ago last Monday the amount of the grant paid for the whole of 1957. The Minister had the temerity to say that it was £19,248.

This is not good enough. In the words of my right hon. Friend for Ebbw Vale, we are being "had". The Merioneth county surveyor drew up a plan of works costing £86,500. The Land Commissioner convened a meeting of the interested parties when all the roads to be made were considered. The Commissioner pointed out that he did not think that more than £20,000 would be allocated to Merioneth for this year. I do not know the Land Commissioner, so there is nothing personal in this; but I want to know whether the Land Commissioner decides for the Minister or whether the Minister instructs the Land Commis- sioner. In other words, does the dog wag the tail, or the tail wag the dog?

The county surveyor and his committee have spent laborious hours preparing plans for upland road improvements, and have been fooled. Their plans have been pigeon-holed. At the last meeting of the highways committee, I was not surprised to hear one councillor say: We welcomed the provision for agricultural roads with open arms in 1955. It now seems to be all a farce. There is the same disappointment among farmers.

The secretary of the National Farmers' Union wrote to me, saying: I am sure you will agree that this is only playing with the matter. This morning I received the following letter from the Welsh Secretary of the National Farmers' Union: Dear Mr. Jones, May I, on behalf of the Welsh Committee of the National Farmers' Union, express appreciation of your gesture in placing on the Order Paper under Motions for the Adjournment of the House of Commons an item in regard to the improvement of roads in Merionethshire, especially rural roads. I may say this matter received much attention at the Welsh Conference which was held at Llandudno last week, and there were general complaints in regard to the slow application of the grants where they were most needed. The Merionethshire farmers were also vocal in this respect. The general picture is that there is a lot of leeway to be made up to allow farmers to make use of the modern machinery now available and to ensure that deliveries are possible to the farm. Again, many thanks, Yours sincerely, E. Varley Merchant, Welsh Secretary. How he knew that I was to speak tonight, I do not know.

I ask the Minister to put an end to this farce. Just think—£19,000 for the whole of Wales. He could have collected that by holding a whist drive. And this under an Act introduced by the present Government. I could understand the Minister acting rather stupidly had this been a piece of Labour legislation, to frustrate its purpose, but this is his own Act.

During the Committee stage we were told that the Government's concern was that, perhaps, county councils would not take full advantage of the Act by bringing forward their plans. I got in touch with my own county council and encouraged it to bring forward its plans as soon as possible, because I believed in the sincerity of the Minister's remarks in Committee. I expected that practically everything that the Merionethshire County Council asked for under the Act would be granted—and particularly in Merionethshire, because I am sure that the Act was passed to help Radnorshire, Merionethshire and Caernarvonshire.

I want the Minister to prove that the Government were in dead earnest, and the only way to do so is to act realistically and more generously, and to say to our county council highways committee, "Submit your plans. We shall take a sympathetic view and will help you to the utmost because, by helping you, we shall be helping farmers to produce more." The Ministry constantly urges the farmers to produce more and more.

Anybody who knows my constituency will appreciate how difficult it is to farm on those high uplands. Here is one way, and a practical way of assisting those farmers. When the county council submits plans involving £80,000 it should not be told by the Land Commissioner that not more than £20,000 will be allowed. As I say, I want to know from the Minister whether the Land Commissioner decides on the spot what is to be done, or whether he is carrying out the Minister's instructions.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Peter Thomas (Conway)

I, too, was on the Committee with the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) when the Act went through that stage, and we both welcomed it wholeheartedly. It can still play a great part in the rural life of upland Wales and we look forward to the Act being implemented in full.

The hon. Member was a little unfair to my hon. Friend when he blamed him and his Ministry for the fact that the Act has not yet been fully implemented. Those of us who appreciate the excellent policy which the Government are adopting to fight certain economic ills will understand that it is not possible at the moment for the Treasury to pay out the full amount of money for many schemes, as it would like to do. But we have every confidence that it will soon be possible for these schemes to be implemented more fully.

In Wales, we attach tremendous importance to this Act, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to persuade the Treasury to consent, when it feels able, to allow a little more money to be spent to allow this scheme to be implemented to the full.

11.51 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) for raising this matter and to my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. P. Thomas) for his contribution to the debate. I am very grateful to the hon. Member despite the fact that he castigated me somewhat. I do not mind that, but I want to put the matter into its proper perspective. The hon. Member gave us the history of the matter and I do not propose to go over that again.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the Act provides for £4 million over a total period of seven years from the inception of the Act. I will deal first with the hon. Member's own county, Merioneth, and then with the general problem. Merioneth is a typical area which the Act was intended to assist. A very large proportion of the land in Merioneth is of the type to which the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts apply, and some hundreds of improvement schemes are being carried out by owners and occupiers under those Acts.

The length of unclassified roads in the county is about 420 miles, which is about 43 per cent. of all public roads in the county and just about the same percentage as for the whole of the Principality. I agree with the hon. Member that it is unfortunate—that is the word I would use—that the operation of the Act has been affected by the general capital restrictions to which my hon. Friend referred and which we have found it necessary to impose in the interests of the national economy as a whole. As my hon. Friend rightly said, that was a point to which the hon. Member did not address himself. Since the passing of the Act, we have had very serious problems of that nature. The hon. Member will agree that we could not exempt roads from the restrictions.

The power to approve proposals under the Act remains until the end of 1962. In the first year of the Act, 1956–57, authorities were asked to make an appreciation of the problem in their areas and to undertake the necessarily somewhat involved preparatory work to make sure that their schemes were sound. No grants were paid in that first year. The hon. Member will realise that this is a difficult and involved matter and that it is necessary to look into these things carefully to make sure that the money is properly expended. In the second financial year, a start was made in approving schemes and £250,000 was provided in the Estimates, of which half was reserved for schemes in Wales and Monmouthshire.

The hon. Member referred to the amount which has been paid. That is paid only after completion of the work. In the second year, £250,000 was reserved in the Estimates. About one-third of the schemes put forward by highway authorities for 1957–58, to the value of about £270,000 were selected for approval. The authorities put forward a large programme and we were able to allow one-third of it. Those schemes of greatest value to agriculture were selected first.

The maximum rates of grant were 75 per cent. of the cost for unclassified roads and 85 per cent. for unadopted roads. These maximum rates applied to Merioneth as they did to most of the Welsh counties. The estimated cost of the work authorised and started in the 12 Welsh counties which are eligible for grant came to over £220,000, of which Merioneth accounted for £23,000. Those are figures to be noted; they are substantial figures not, to take the hon. Member's comment, "whist-drive" figures. Although the programmes of all authorities have had to be reduced, I ask the hon. Member to agree that Merioneth has, at any rate, had its fair share of what money was available.

I am glad to be able to say that in the current year, in view of the importance of this work and despite the fact that, in general, there can be no let-up on the control of the Government's capital expenditure, the amount provided for grants under this Act in the Estimates for Great Britain has been increased by £140,000 to a total of £390,000. I know that much of this sum will be needed to meet claims for work done last year, and the amount of new work to be approved this year will not necessarily be more than last year and may well be less.

I realise that the amount of work approved is small in relation to the extent of the problem. I do not deny that. That is so on the figures which the hon. Member has quoted and which are available to me for the whole of Wales. I know that many highway authorities, including Merioneth, would like to go ahead much faster, but it is not possible to hold out hopes of a greater volume of work until there is a general relaxation of the present capital restrictions.

As in all such schemes, there have been difficulties in administering this Act. Complaints have been made that approval of schemes has not been notified to highway authorities until well into the summer so that work could not be done at the most favourable time. I have a great deal of sympathy with the highway authorities in this and I am seeing to it that we do all we can to speed up the approval of schemes this year.

I do not think that we should be too gloomy about this matter. By now many useful schemes have been completed. Roads have been improved to meet the needs of modern agricultural traffic and in many cases narrow roads have been made more serviceable by the provision of passing places. This is a good start, and I am convinced that, in spite of all the difficulties, the Act will enable the worthwhile road improvements to be made in due course.

There are difficulties in relation to these matters, and I will quote paragraph 97 of the Mid-Wales Investigation Report, which has some bearing on them. After referring to the Bill, now an Act, it said: The problem of the poor public road merges into that of the poor farm road and for the reasons indicated in paragraph 65 we feel that it is desirable that in administering the new grants the Ministry should have regard to farm planning and the cost of proposed road improvements in relation to the benefit to agriculture. A representative of one highway authority, in his evidence to us, expressed the view that the amalgamation of small farms would in certain cases reduce the length of the road network. This became abundantly clear to us during the course of our inspections. We certainly do not think it will be possible for highway authorities to improve and maintain to modern standards all country roads constructed in the days of horse-drawn traffic. We saw some through roads the improvement of which would, in our view, be amply justified on agricultural grounds; on the other hand, there were some roads, stated to be the responsibility of the highway authority, which were little more than bridle paths. The value of a road cannot be judged entirely by the number of agricultural units and other properties served … It is a difficult problem, and though counties put forward their various schemes to us we have to look at them somewhat carefully to make sure that the best use is made of the available money in the interests of agriculture, for we can spend much money on some of these roads without getting the true value we want.

The hon. Member asked me to tell him who decides, whether it is the Land Commissioner or the Minister. I can assure him the decisions are certainly the Minister's, but the real decisions, in times of financial stringency, lie elsewhere, as, I think, the hon. Member very well knows. Once we can get rid of the present capital restrictions we are anxious to press ahead with this work. We know there is a lot of good work to be done, which can be done and should be done. When we are able to do so we shall certainly press ahead. Because of the information which the counties are preparing for us we shall be in a position then, as I think, to go ahead. The Land Commissioners are consulting as closely as they can the local authorities in Wales to obtain the plans. Plans are coming forward.

We have provided a considerable amount of money on entirely new projects at a time of financial stringency when many other things have been cut back. I have cited the increased estimates for this year. I think that the hon. Member must realise that we are trying to do all we can in what we recognise is a very necessary thing which can be, as he said—and I entirely agree with him—of very real help in solving the difficult problems of agriculture in Wales. That was the purpose of the Act. It is our intention to do this work and spend this money. We shall certainly hope, when conditions are more propitious, to go ahead faster. In the meantime, we have made what I think is a reasonable start. I have stated the increase in the allocations which have been made.

Nobody will be more pleased than I when we are able to approve work on a larger scale, even to an extent which would satisfy the hon. Member. I am not able to tell him when that will be. He knows as well as I the difficulties of finance. But I do give him the assurance that this Act is not just a piece of paper, but something which we intend to work, which we have started to make work, and which will work better still. I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising the matter, enabling me to bring it into perspective, as I see it. I assure him that I shall be only too glad when we are able to do a little more in that way.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Twelve o'clock.