HC Deb 28 July 1960 vol 627 cc2005-16

Motion made and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

I am glad, before the House adjourns for the Summer Recess, to have an opportunity of raising some grievances appertaining to my constituents. These are the grievances of Forestry Commission employees who are living in new villages provided by the Commission in Northumberland during the past ten or fifteen years. These are the villages of Kielder, and Stonehaugh and Byrness. I have raised this subject on previous occasions, the last time being in July, 1954, but unfortunately I still consider that my constitutents have many legitimate grievances. The unrest, the discontent, the poor morale and the lack of amenities in these villages are a very severe indictment of the administration of the Forestry Commission.

I have no doubt that, if the employees of the Commission had been in a position to withhold their labour and organise a strike which would be worth while, they would most certainly have done so in the years gone by. Such a strike would have been fully justified. As it is, the Forestry Commission's employees in these villages are in a hopeless and helpless position. The best thing that could possibly happen would be for the Parliamentary Secretary or some high official of the Forestry Commission, or, better still, an independent committee or an independent arbitrator, to go round the villages and see the conditions. Some hon. Members or my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary himself may feel that in What I am saying I am exaggerating the position, 'but anyone who visits 'the villages will see that the morale and discontent are very widespread indeed.

The villages are stuck out in the wilds of Northumberland. They are miles from any town of village life. The employees concerned are merely paid for the most part the minimum agricultural wage, without any of the normal "perks" and benefits which the agricultural worker usually enjoys. They are provided with pretty well no amenities. They are charged the full economic rent for their houses, although they are tied houses. They are snowed up in winter, and for a large part of the summer they are consumed by midges from the forests and the trees.

It may be asked, if those are the conditions pertaining in the villages, why in heaven's name anyone goes to live and work in them and, if they do not like the conditions when they get there, why do they not leave? The answer is that they go to the villages because there are empty houses in them, albeit they are tied houses. They stay there because, once they get there, living on the minimum agricultural wage they are simply too broke to get.away. The turnover in labour is excessively high. As soon as the housing situation in other parts of Britain improves, it will be still higher than it is today.

I have raised this subject in the House before during the past nine years. I have had a great deal of correspondence with the Minister of Agriculture and the chairman of the Forestry Commission. I have been on many tours of the villages with high officials of the Commission. The result is that I admit that there has been some improvement in conditions in the last few years. Having started from scratch, after 10 or 15 years there certainly ought to be some improvement in conditions. Some improvement is inevitable. But the improvement is pathetically and monstrously slow, and the Commission is still failing lamentably in its duty to provide its employees with a full and happy life.

Today, ten years after most of the villages were started, the employees are living in remote conditions, miles from any villages, miles from the nearest town, miles from a doctor or even a trained nurse in many instances, miles from hospitals, and miles from cinemas, shops or amenities. Certainly, the conditions in these villages are truly different from the picture which is painted by the Commission itself in some of its publications.

I should like to refer in particular to the booklet published in 1950 entitled "Britain's Forests—Kielder". There, on page 14, the Commission has this to say about the village of Kielder, which is one of the villages about which I am complaining: These villages are in fact the key to the development of the whole area, designed specifically for this region by Dr. Thomas Sharpe. They are intended to provide much more than homes for 2,000 or so forest workers who will eventually be employed in this district. Each village will become in effect the focal point for the life of its immediate neighbourhood, for which reason—and that of Kielder will probably be the largest—it will have its own church, shop, inn and village hall, the last also designed for use occasionally as a cinema. Moreover, to ensure that there is for each 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. Thus, Kielder Village with its final target of 250 houses and some 800 to 1,000 inhabitants will be a complete community. It goes on: The local style of building in this part of Northumberland has hitherto been grey, rather dull and forbidding stone. Already in the forest areas, however, some houses can be seen whose brilliant whiteness singles them out. Nor are they any the less pleasant for that. The houses in the new villages, too, will be bright, bringing a fresh and attractive style to the neighbourhood. That really is the most awful nonsense and humbug. Now, at Kielder, there are not 25 houses but well over 100 houses, with a population of 400, and yet there is not one single general shop in that village. The nearest shops are miles away. There is no inn, and the village hall is nothing more than a tin shack. As for the houses "bringing a fresh and attractive style to the neighbourhood," one has only to look at the Castle Drive entrance to the village, which is part of the new village, and one will see an area which still looks, after years of protest, like nothing more than a dockyard settlement.

In the newer part of the village, Dr. Thomas Spark, this eminent landscape artist and planner, has set them in the low-lying part by the river, where the inhabitants are menaced by midges—which one has to experience oneself in order to realise how bad they can be— in summer time, and the houses are damp and threatened with floods in the winter. What a contrast there is between the prospect painted in the Commission's own publications and the reality. It is all the difference between fiction and fact.

It may well be said that if these are the conditions and if this is what has been going on for several years, what are my proposals for improving the situation? All that it needs is a little bit more imagination, a little more care and thought on the part of the "high-ups" in the Forestry Commission. At present, if I complain to the Forestry Commission, all I get is a mass of differing excuses, or else I get a letter blaming the inhabitants themselves. That is what I got in a recent letter from the Director of Forestry for England: I have felt some disappointment in the spirit which prevails here and there in the border villages. There seems to a good deal less endeavour among the residents to help themselves to create a proper village life than we have found elsewhere. I am sure that herein you will fully agree that it is quite hopeless to reply upon the Forestry Commission or upon any other outside body to make these settlements in the two villages. I just do not agree with that. I do not accept that it is not the duty of the Forestry Commission to turn these new settlements into proper communities. Whether a State organisation, like the Commission, or a private enterprise organisation, it is the duty of any organisation that has dumped these people in the wilds—in the hilly, exposed, isolated districts of the County of Northumberland—to see that, at any rate, they have a chance to lead reasonably full lives.

There is bound to be a poor spirit if the Commission itself does not give a reasonable and proper lead. Anyone with any spirit of enterprise just packs his bags and gets out of the area. I would remind the Commission of the saying that there is no such thing as bad troops, there are merely bad officers. The Commission could well take that maxim to heart.

Why, for instance, should it not appoint a welfare officer? These villages are now quite large enough to justify such an appointment. The Commission is a very big employer in the area, and I should have thought that any organisation of standing, private or State, would by now have appointed a full-time welfare officer. Again, why should it not set up, maintain and contribute to a welfare fund? There is no such fund from which to give a grant to any good cause; to any private enterprise on the part of the local inhabitants at all. A welfare fund could contribute to the local people's efforts, and could encourage them to make their own efforts to provide reasonable amenities. Any decent company or enterprise would long ago have established a welfare fund.

Why cannot the Commission do something with its masses of transport, with its radio-controlled jeeps in the area, to provide some form of transport for its own employees, particularly at the weekends? At the moment, the people are simply stranded unless they have the good fortune to have their own cars or to be able to hire a taxi—and that costs them an untold amount to get to anywhere like Newcastle-upon-Tyne. They are simply stranded. There are no buses at all on Sundays. They cannot visit relatives outside, or go away to do shoppingor even to have their hair cut.

Time and again I have pressed the Commission to organise some kind of transport. The people are prepared to pay for it if only the Commission would use some of its lorries. I have suggested that this should be done on an experimental basis. If it did not work out, every one would see that it had been tried. The people would have had a chance to use it, and the experiment would have failed. That would be quite reasonable. As it is, one only gets one excuse after another for not providing some form of transport. The lack of action in this regard is little short of scandalous.

Little short of scandalous, too, is the lack of any first-aid training or equipment. Facilities of that kind are almost negligible, either for attending the men going into the forest areas, where they are far from their bases, or even in the villages themselves, where there are no trained nurses, where the doctors are miles away over hilly roads, and the hospitals distant by 30 miles or more. It is high time that this matter was gone into more fully, more thoroughly and more effectively by the Commission.

Almost nothing has yet been done about providing children's playing fields, nor has anything yet been done about providing pensioners' houses, or having a variety in the size of house. I think that I am right in saying that all the houses built since the war have been three-bedroomed houses, though there is quite a demand for two-bedroomed and four-bedroomed houses. So far no retirement pensioners' houses have yet been built at all.

Yet for all these houses which are the property of the Commission, with all their drawbacks, the remoteness of the area, and despite the fact that they are tied houses with all the disadvantages that that entails if a forestry worker leaves the employment of the Commission, particularly in a remote area like this, the Commission is still charging a full economic rent based on the charge made by the local authority for what are called similar houses. But the local authority houses are not tied houses, and I should have thought that anyone could see the difference between the value of the economic rent for a local authority house as compared with the rent charged by the Commission whose houses are tied houses. Surely some large allowance ought to be made for the fact that these are tied houses far away from roads, buses and normal amenities.

I ask the Minister, therefore, when he replies, although I know that he does not have a direct responsibility for the work of the Commission, to see whether that aspect of the matter can be reviewed. If it is impossible for the rents of these houses to be reduced—they have recently been increasd—I suggest that there should be something like a remote living allowance, or a hard living bonus, to be paid to those people to make good the cost of going miles away to the shops, to the doctor or the surgery or to have a haircut. It is not just a matter of two or three shillings a week; it is a very large item indeed. All the food and the groceries which the inhabitants have to purchase from mobile shops cost a great deal more than they would if these people were able to do their shopping in a decent-sized town.

I must leave the Parliamentary Secretary time to reply, and if he cannot reply to all the points that I have raised I should be grateful if in due course he could write a letter to me. I think it is high time that the Forestry Commission had a new look at these villages and their problems and tried to give them a new deal. At the moment, the Commission seems to regard these villages as illegitimate children to be kept out of mind and out of sight of the neighbours. I regard it as my job to see that the Commission's employees, just because they cannot hit back, are not treated as second-class citizens.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I have no wish to trespass into the constituency of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir), or on the time of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is very conscientious in looking after his constituents and that the Parliamentary Secretary is equally conscientious in seeking to give an adequate reply. I have intervened only because I have some personal knowledge of the conditions of which the hon. Gentleman has spoken at Kielder and the conditions of the forestry workers in the constituency as a whole. I support what the hon. Gentleman has said.

I also rise to speak for a few minutes because this is a question wider than that affecting his constituency only. It affects forestry workers generally. I support his statement that these are people who, by nature of their employment, are in a disadvantageous position in negotiating and also because of the nature of their employment are entitled to the provision of some reasonable amenities.

I agree that this is not the direct responsibility of the Parliamentary Secretary but, having heard the hon. Gentleman, I think that the Parliamentary Secretary ought to be able to help. Many of the matters which the hon. Gentleman has raised are outside those which would normally fall within the scope of negotiations between trade unions and the Forestry Commission, but I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can think of ways and means of using his good offices in trying to persuade the Forestry Commission to take a more realistic and up-to-date view of these problems and to provide more reasonable amenities both for the constituents of the hon. Gentleman and for other forestry workers.

10.30 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter tonight, and I will endeavour to reply to some of the points he raised. I am grateful, also, to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) for his obvious interest in this important matter.

I recognise that the Government have a special responsibility for the villagers whose cause my hon. Friend has been pleading, since the Forestry Commission has not only housed them, but is also virtually the only employer of labour for many miles around. But we must, I think, put the failures and omissions to which my hon. Friend drew attention into their proper perspective. I do not think that they are characteristic of all the Commission's housing, but arise very largely from the circumstances in which this group of villages came to be built in this area.

Perhaps I might explain something of these circumstances. The need for these villages was first seen during the war. The Kielder group of forests, where planting began in 1926, comprises 75,000 acres. To plant such a vast area, and subsequently to maintain it, required a labour force far greater than could be drawn from existing communities. Building was essential, and building on a scale far beyond that of the local housing authorities at that time.

We can recognise now, with all the advantages of hindsight, that villages of this kind, with one landlord who is also the only employer, were bound to present difficulties, and that amenities such as shops, village halls, cinemas, and such other essential buildings as schools and churches should have been provided from the start. But one must not forget the difficulties which surrounded the early post war years.

My hon. Friend last drew attention, as he reminded us, in this House to these matters about six years ago. I think that it might be useful to see what progress has been made since then.

On that occasion my hon. Friend criticised the postal services. There was not at that time a telephone kiosk, a stamp machine, or a letterbox in at least one of the villages. These omissions have now been remedied. Each village has a post office, a public telephone and a letterbox. He said, also—and this was a much graver charge—that there was no public house. That is still true, if one is thinking of the traditional village "pub", or even of those which have appeared on new housing estates. But, in addition to the village halls which have been provided in each village —I agree these are only huts, but they are intended only to bridge the gap until permanent buildings can be provided—there are licensed clubs, run by the villagers in premises provided by the Commission at Kielder and Stonehaugh, and a house at Byrness is let as an hotel on condition that club facilities are available for the villagers.

I think that this is rather important. There are different views among the residents about the need for permanent shops. At Kielder, for example, five different grocers visit the village, and the butcher calls three times a week. I am told that the fear has been expressed that if a permanent shop were built the travelling shops would cease to call, with the result that there would be less freedom of choice, with all the disadvantages that entails.

Mr. Speir

I am reluctant to intervene, but I think that the county council and the district council have both said that they would welcome a shop at Kielder.

Mr. Godber

I note my hon. Friend's point. I will look into the points he has raised. I am trying to explain the position as it seems to me, but I am grateful for that intervention. Since my hon. Friend raised this matter in 1954 a school has been built by the local education authority, and the Commission has accepted the suggestion that rent and rates should be collected together.

I understand that there was some difficulty about trees which were planted in the early days for amenity purposes. A number of them have been killed by sheep. The Commission is now to replace them, and plant other trees and shrubs in the villages.

I think that my hon. Friend will agree that some progress has been made on these points, small though some of them may be, but it is perhaps some tribute to his pertinacity that we have been able to see some of these improvements made. Other points which he has made at meetings in the villages in the spring of this year and in correspondence with the Commission have been cleared up, or will be cleared up, I assure him, with all speed. For example, work is about to start on the football pitch at Stonehaugh, which the Commission levelled but which still has an unsatisfactory surface. Access to the gardens at the rear of Kern Green and Middleburn in the same village will be provided by a light road. Advance arrangements will be made with the county council to improve snow clearance next winter, and a meeting has been arranged with the county council's landscape architect to thrash out a way of improving Castle Drive, at Kielder.

Some of these things take time. Others need money, which can be provided only at the expense of other projects to which the Commission has so far felt that it must give priority. But I assure my hon. Friend that the Commission is alive to the need to do all it can to make these villages pleasant and comfortable to live in. It accepts that responsibility.

The transport difficulty mentioned by my hon. Friend is very real, but it is not confined to this group of villages. The Government recognised this by setting up a committee, under Professor Jack, which, I understand, will be reporting later this year. A sub-committee visited the villages to see for itself their special problems. The Commission is prepared to provide transport to local functions or for shopping at a low charge, where a genuine case has been made out and public transport is inadequate. The Commission is in touch with the operator of the local bus service and with the Transport Commission.

A special inquiry has recently been carried out by local officers of the Commission to see what the needs are. As a stopgap, two Bedford utilibuses have been put at the district officer's disposal for Kielder and Stonehaugh. If the demand is there and cannot be met by public transport, they will be used for weekend trips to Bellingham, the nearest town, or to Wark.

In passing, I might mention that in the three villages, where in all there are about 200 houses, there are a considerable number of cars owned by the villagers, and I am delighted to think that that is so. Therefore, they have some element of mobility themselves.

Another problem which raises large issues, and to which a solution is exceedingly difficult, is that of diversifying employment. The sons and particularly the daughters of the first generation of workers in these communities will find it very difficult to find jobs without leaving home. My hon. Friend has made suggestions on this score, and certainly the Commission will be only too glad to look into these matters and do anything it can to help.

My hon. Friend referred specifically to rents. I have time just to touch on this. He said on several occasions that the workers were being charged the full economic rent. The Government's policy on rents for houses owned by Government Departments was reviewed after the passage of the Rent Act. The Forestry Commission, like all other Departments, was asked to bring its rents into line as closely as possible with other rents, while taking into account special circumstances affecting employment in the Commission.

In applying this policy the Commission takes account of the rents charged by local authorities for comparable property in similar places. The local authority has a few houses comparable to those in the Border villages about four miles away from Byrness. The highest rent there is £1 12s. 6d. a week, but there is a rent rebate scheme and any Commission workers would get the maximum rebate, giving a maximum rent of 18s. 6d. It would seem fair that the rent to be charged as a maximum in the Border villages should be the same figure. In some cases this involved an increase of as much as 5s. a week, though with others it was less.

As I hope what I have just said shows, this is not the economic rent at all. Indeed, the economic rent on any three-bedroomed house built since the war would be considerably higher than this figure. I assure my hon. Friend that it is not a question of charging the full economic rent, but of trying to bring the Commission's rents into line with other rents.

There are various other points I should like to make, but I want to close by saying that I have tried to deal with some of the points. I assure my hon. Friend that we understand the position. We are not satisfied with the position yet.

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

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.