HC Deb 05 August 1965 vol 717 cc1916-43

1.36 p.m.

Mr. Peter Bessell (Bodmin)

I am very grateful to have this opportunity of raising the problems of the West Country before the House adjourns for the Summer Recess. I recognise that as we are running late it will be necessary for me to abbreviate my remarks somewhat. I know that one or two hon. Members from constituencies in the South-West are anxious to speak before the Minister winds up the debate, and I shall do my utmost to give them the opportunity to do so.

I do not speak just as a Member of Parliament representing a West Country constituency. I claim to speak as someone who has a fairly wide knowledge of the whole area. I was born at Bath, and for the first 25 years of my life my home was in Somerset. For the next eight years my home was in Devon, and for the last 10 years it has been in Cornwall. To save the arithmetic, or a visit to the Library to look at The Times House of Commons reference book, the answer is 44.

I have also had some experience of business and commerce at various levels, retail and wholesale, and have travelled considerably in attempts to bring light industry and other enterprises to the West Country. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) and myself have, I am glad to say, had some limited success in that direction. I therefore hope that it may be felt that I speak with some knowledge of West Country problems, and I hope to be able to present them to the House in a way that can be clearly understood.

It has long been my belief that it is necessary to divide the West Country into two distinct sections. One area forms a natural region—the Severn basin, which comprises South Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and a large part of Dorset. I do not think that in that section we can include West Somerset, Devon or Cornwall, and that is why I have always believed that this should be a completely separate region. I may say that that view is shared by most people in the extreme South-West. It is, therefore, not unnatural that I shall confine most of my remarks to the problems of the South-West in relation to the West Country as a whole.

The problems of the South-West are well known. The first is that of depopulation. Between 1951 and 1961, the date when the last census was taken, the population declined in no less than 15 local authority areas in Cornwall, 20 in Devon and four in the area which I call West Somerset, that is, taking a line roughly west of Taunton. At the same time, in England and Wales generally the population increased by 5.5 per cent. That is an indication of the magnitude of the problem of depopulation in the West Country, where there is an ageing population.

In Cornwall, for example, those over 65 account for 15.6 per cent. of the population, in Devon 17 per cent., if we exclude Plymouth and Exeter. In the United Kingdom as a whole the over65s amount to only 11.9 per cent. We have to plan in the West Country to stop the outflow of youth and to bring more people into the area. It is not enough to retain our school leavers; it is important also to correct the imbalance of the population to bring other people into the area to make it a viable economic unit.

Can this be done? I am sure that it can. There are certain priorities. The first must come under the heading of incomes. It is noteable that in Cornwall, in 1959, the average income was £10 5s. a week; in Devon approximately £10 7s.; while in the United Kingdom generally it was £13 5s. in 1964, there was some improvement although in percentages the improvement was not remarkable. In Cornwall, then the average income was just over £11 a week; in Devon just over £11 15s.; while in the United Kingdom as a whole it was in the region of £17 5s.

We have to look at the problems of unemployment. In the off-season unemployment is very high. During the past winter in Cornwall the average unemployment figure was 4.2 per cent. and in Devon it was 3.5 per cent. while in the United Kingdom as a whole it was only approximately 1.4 per cent.

The basic problems as I see them are, an ageing population, depopulation, low incomes and relatively high unemployment. The difficulty of correcting the population imbalance is accentuated by virtue of the problems of low income and high unemployment. Before discussing corrective measures, we must consider the effect of the situation on the national economy as a whole. The problems of the West Country represent a burden to taxpayers throughout the nation because there is the necessity of providing unemployment Day and a very high measure of National Assistance.

There is also a waste of manpower and of land and natural resources which should be used for the benefit of the whole nation and not merely for the benefit of the West Country. We must consider the overcrowding, labour shortages and congestion of traffic problems which have been created in the South-East, the Midlands and the North as a result of migration of population from areas such as the South-West which are suffering from under-population and providing real problems for the overdeveloped areas.

I have deliberately spent a few minutes in analysing the basic problems so that the House should understand properly the magnitude of the difficulties we are confronting. I want to make quite clear that none of us in the West Country seeks charity. The assistance we demand is, first, to raise the standard of living of the people of the West Country to that enjoyed by the more fortunate people in other parts of the country. Secondly, and much more important, we are making our demand in order to relieve taxpayers throughout the rest of the country of the burden of supporting an area which should be contributing to the full to the national economy. Finally, it is our objective that good sound development in the West Country should enable the people there to play a full part in the restoration of national economic stability.

What has been achieved by way of new forms of employment in recent years? The only example I touch on is that in Cornwall where new factories have provided employment for at least 3,000 people. The county council and others responsible deserve congratulation on their work in this respect. At the same time, changes in agricultural methods, decline of the fishing industry, the closure of other industries, and similar factors have resulted in a loss of work at least equivalent to the number of people who have been given employment in those factories. Therefore, there has been no improvement. At best, this has been a holding operation. We might say, like the Red Queen in "Through the Looking Glass", that it is taking all the running we can do to stay in the same place rather than to move forward.

The solution is not easy. We have to look at the basic forms of employment which might be attracted to the area. They are agriculture, horticulture, fishing and forestry. Our second basic industry is tourism. We have a certain amount of light industry and one or two important bigger industries such as that of china clay. To these can be added new sources of employment. We need additional light industries sited in locations which will not harm the natural scenic beauty of the area. These areas are easily available and accessible. Next, we should develop some of the indigenous resources of the West Country. Under this heading I particularly emphasise the need to develop the mining resources of the West. Many of the Government Departments which today are housed in the overcrowded, over-congested areas of London, could profitably be resited in the West. Finally, there is the question of the siting of educational training centres.

Because of the time factor I shall not dwell on the problems of agriculture. A White Paper was presented to the House yesterday and we are studying it with great interest. I hope that efforts to encourage co-operative farming may be of assistance to small farmers, but I am certain that the small farmer basically does not want to be retired. He does not want to be put out of business. He wants the kind of assistance which would enable him to stand independently on his own feet and to contribute to the economy of the country by ensuring that he has a fair return for his capital and a fair wage for the work he does. I have a suspicion that the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) will refer to this, so I leave the subject to him.

In tourism there is a demand for better communications. We cannot hope to attract tourists to the West Country unless we have the roads, airports and rail services essential to bring people there and to convey them back to their homes expeditiously when their holidays are over. There is a need for off-season entertainment facilities which do not generally exist. I hope that the Government will consider a system of grants to local authorities, hotels and private developers to help them to modernise standards of accommodation and recreation.

A proper amount of funds must be allocated for adequate publicity. It is tragic that so little publicity is given to the attractions of the West Country. Anyone who has called at offices of the British Travel and Holidays Association abroad will find that there is a very sad lack of adequate publicity to attract overseas tourists to the West Country. Men and women who could spend valuable dollars in overseas currency would be of help to the whole country as well as to that area.

In industrial development there is the problem of roads and the absence of good communications. There is also a need for additional incentives. It may be that larger building grants are required with fewer strings attached to them so that industrialists would be encouraged to build factories in the West. We should also provide tax holidays which in the long term would be of great benefit to the Exchequer and would be a sound investment. We need better housing for the technical staffs which must be brought to the West if the kind of industry which will flourish there is to be attracted to Cornwall, Devon and West Somerset. Further there should be even better training facilities to ensure that the right type of labour is available to anyone who proposes to bring his industrial concern to the West.

There is a demand for an immediate allocation of funds for a full-scale mining survey in Cornwall and Devon. I am disturbed at the amount of private money which is being spent on certain surveys. I am not happy that it is the overseas investor who is for the moment, for the main part at any rate, looking into the mining potentials of the West. The millions of pounds of valuable minerals which lie under the soil of Cornwall should be used for the benefit of the country. It is the business of the Government to encourage British investors. It is the business of the Government to carry out the necessary surveys to assist them before they make their investment.

I believe, too, that we must have a 10-year tax-free holiday for bona fide companies prepared to invest the necessary capital to open new mines or reopen old mines, with all the risks which that involves. This has been done in Canada and other countries. It is absurd that this country should be so far behind the times. There is a world tin shortage. The price of tin remains very high, and it will remain so for a very long time to come, possibly as far as we are able to see ahead. The benefit to the balance of payments position of producing the tin which lies under the soil of Cornwall for British industry would be enormous. Moreover, it is a potential source of exports which has not yet been considered seriously by any Government Department.

On the subject of the removal of Government Departments to the West Country, the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance functions most efficiently at Newcastle and Blackpool. The Department of Naval Defence, the former Admiralty Headquarters, has operated from Bath since 1939. I remember in the opening days of the war when this headquarters was first removed from Whitehall to my native city. Why not continue to relieve the congestion in London? The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government could well be sited in the West Country, to the enormous benefit not only of the West, but of London itself, where there is a tremendous problem of congestion, traffic and communications, with people travelling to and from their places of work.

Only a few weeks ago the Secretary of State for Education and Science assured me by letter that he would give favourable consideration to siting at least one new teacher-training college in Cornwall. I ask him to go much further than this. I hope that he will site a number of them not only in Cornwall, but in Devon and in West Somerset, where they could be sited, not only to the benefit of the West, but to the benefit of the teachers themselves, who would find that this is a healthy and happy area of the country in which to train.

I should like to say a lot on the subject of communications, but I spoke on this matter the other night. Therefore, I shall be brief now. The road conditions connecting the West Country to the main centres of population are intolerable. The improvements on the A38, the A30 and the A303 must not be held up because of the Government's credit squeeze. I believe that the Government must look at this seriously and realise that, if there is to be any sense in their regional development plans, road development in the West and to the West cannot be stopped even for six months because of the country's present financial condition. It was notable that the previous Administration—I pay tribute to them for this—even at the height of the various economic crises with which they were confronted at no time put a stop on road development or road expansion.

I recognise that all that I am asking for would cost not millions but tens of millions of pounds. It could not be achieved quickly in the present state of the economy, but in the long term it would help to stabilise the national economy by spreading the load throughout the economy and enabling each part of the country to contribute equally to the health of the nation's finances. Therefore, I suggest to the Minister that there should be a phased plan over the next 10 years and I believe that he should give us specific undertakings now as to the Government's intentions.

On the subject of agriculture, the first urgent requirement is a new form of credit to enable farmers to deal with the problems confronting them today as a result of the credit squeeze. It is not only the capital account that is their problem. They have the difficulty, too, of meeting current expenses. I do not believe that the Government have appreciated fully the magnitude of this problem.

As I have said, I should like to hear that the Government have plans to make special grants to increase tourist facilities in the West. I have made certain proposals on the subject of industry, but there are many other proposals which should be carefully considered.

We must have the money for a mining survey and we must have a tax-free holiday. I am not suggesting that the resiting of Government Departments should be carried out now. I am suggesting that as it becomes necessary to find new accommodation for various Ministries the West Country should have priority when they are relocated.

On the subject of teacher-training, I rely on the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, to make urgent representations to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, as I hope that he will make equally strong representations to him to reconsider the incredible suggestion that the Camborne School of Mines should be moved from the only existing mining area to Plymouth, where, to the best of my knowledge, very little tin is extracted from the centre of the city.

On the question of communications, I hope that a directive will be given to the Regional Economic Planning Council that there must be no further rail passenger closures until the funds have been provided for an adequate alternative road to cover the area concerned. I know for a fact that in one part of Cornwall at the moment—this is not my constituency—there is very grave anxiety regarding future industrial development because of a quite incredible suggestion that one branch line connecting to Bodmin should be closed. I share the concern which has been expressed already by the Member for the constituency concerned.

I want to say a final word on the question of the Regional Economic Planning Council. I have deliberately left this matter to the end because I have certain important questions to put to the Government. The First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Economic Affairs made a statement to the House on 10th December. I must say that I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not now present in person to reply to this debate. This is the first occasion on which development in the West Country and regional plans for the West Country have been discussed in this Parliament. For that reason, I think that the First Secretary should have made it a matter of priority to be here to answer us.

The First Secretary said this: The economic planning councils will be concerned with broad strategy on regional development and the best use of the regions' resources. Their principal function will be to assist in the formulation of regional plans and to advise on their implementation. They will have no executive powers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th December, 1964; Vol. 703, c. 1829.] If they have no executive powers, what is the function of the Council? The function of the Council is to advise the regional board on all measures affecting the future of the West Country. It is well known that the Liberal Party favours regional government. I hope that it is equally well known that we favour it only if it is a democratically elected body.

If the Regional Council is to be effective, if it is to function at all, it must be the organisation upon which every Government Department and every Minister of State relies for guidance. If this is the case, it is vital that its deliberations are held in public and that the Council itself is chosen by a democratic means of selection, even if its members are not actually responsible to the electorate. This is no reflection upon the members of the present Council.

Are the members of the Regional Council chosen by the people whose future depends upon their decisions and recommendations? They are not. They are selected by the Minister, on the advice of his officials and other advice which he may obtain. What that advice is is clouded in mystery. Are the meetings of the Regional Council held in public? They are not. They are all held in camera.

Are the Press admitted? No, they are rigidly excluded, but they are briefed afterwards. Is the agenda published? Far from it. It is not even available to the clerks of the county councils who might well wish to put certain matters before the Regional Council. Are the minutes published? On the contrary, they are treated like secret diplomatic files. The Press, the public, the officials of local government and even Members of Parliament are prohibited from any knowledge of what takes place at meetings of the Council where the recommendations upon which the Government and the Ministries will depend are deliberated and decided. What possible sense is there in all this? If the functions of the Council are to be credible, they must also be the subject of discussion by people in all walks of life in a democratic society. This strikes at the very roots of our democratic system and democratic government at every level.

In a recent letter, for example, the Minister of Transport assured me that he would be guided by the recommendations of the Regional Council in respect of a branch railway closure in my constituency. We know that the road programme and industrial siting and development are affected by these recommendations and thus the whole future of the West. I do not believe that the First Secretary realises the resentment and even bitterness which he has created and I beg him to look at this matter again. I ask him to undertake to issue a directive that all meeting shall be public, that the Press shall be admitted, and that minutes and agenda shall be published. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he trusts the people they will co-operate. If he disregards them and ignores them and denies them their democratic rights anything which he hopes to achieve through the Regional Council will be imperilled.

As reported in column 1496 of HANSARD, the Minister said on 3rd June that if it is the wish of the South-West that there should be a sub-regional headquarters in Plymouth he would give this favourable consideration. The right hon. Gentleman has my unqualified assurance that this is the wish of the people of the South-West and I hope that this pledge will be implemented.

To most people, the West Country means Devonshire cream and thatched cottages, Cornish pasties and piskies, legends of King Arthur, Glastonbury, Tintagel and Dozmary Pool, quaint place names, forgotten saints, picturesque fishing villages, moorland beauty and blue seas. To those who live there it is all these things, but it is also an area of high unemployment, of an ageing and declining population where opportunities for youth and enterprise are rare.

The people of the West are a proud and independent people. We demand that this country of Arthurian legend, from whence set forth on Britain's errands men like Frobisher, Hawkins, Drake and others, not least the Pilgrim Fathers, shall be given the opportunity to prosper, to live again so that they may give again as they have given to this nation throughout their long, proud and honourable history.

2.3 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I am sure that all West Country men will be grateful to the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) not only for raising this subject but for the eloquence and, indeed, towards the end of his speech almost the poetry with which he spoke about it. I have seldom enjoyed a speech more. I shall intervene briefly and I know that I shall make myself popular with the Chair and with most hon. Members if I do not attempt to interleave my observations with statistics and figures, many of which have been provided already and which it would take overmuch time for me to reinforce.

Anyone who is acquainted with the social history of our times is bound to be sympathetic with the development areas. It was the state of those areas which first brought me into politics, but in so far as resources are poured into those areas we must also be aware that we are penalising, if not punishing, the areas into which the resources are not poured. Unemployment is, of course, a factor, but unemployment is not the only social ill in this country. I have no doubt that in the Ministry offices there is a map showing areas of heavy unemployment throughout Britain, but I should like to think that there is also, or that there will be shortly, a map showing the areas of low-wage economy, because that factor is equally important.

The hon. Member for Bodmin mentioned the point and I repeat it. The average wage paid to my constituents in Dorset is between £2 and £3 a week less than the average elsewhere in Great Britain. This means that here is an area of hardship. It will be pointed out no doubt that the unemployment rate in my constituency is probably less than 1 per cent., but that is not the only factor of hardship and I beg the Ministry to consider also where the areas of low wages exist in this country.

Dorset has been desperate for many years for light, clean industry and small factories. I see no sign of their coming. We are conscious of our aesthetic heritage and we do not seek to be an area of heavy industry, but we seek to have light, clean industry in small packages. Heaven knows that for many years it has been difficult enough, but up to the time of the General Election it was possible to erect and use without consent an industrial factory up to 5,000 sq. ft. in area. The present Government, for reasons which I fail to understand, are now making it necessary to obtain an industrial development certificate even for the smallest factory. As a result, they are not making the position better. They have made it worse. Although I have sympathy with the unemployment areas I do not see how that measure will assist in providing employment in other parts of the country.

I speak briefly of the roads, because the hon. Member for Bodmin dealt with them thoroughly, but if one travels, as I do habitually, from London to Weymouth through Poole and Bournemouth, particularly at the weekends, it is not unusual to have a 45-minute wait. [HON. MEMBERS: "More."] I cheerfully accept that. More. The roads situation in Dorset is chronic. A sum of £14 million has been spent on the roads in Lancashire alone. I cannot see why we in the West Country should not have a fair share of the expenditure on roads. This expenditure affects not only the tourist industry, but also the question of attracting light industry into the area, because industry will follow communications. We cannot leave the area wholly dependent on tourism. I feel that the Ministry looks at the unemployment rate and thinks that because it is between 1 per cent. and 2 per cent. all is well but, as I have said, unemployment is not the only factor.

There is also under-employment. The conditions for the young in my constituency are such that in August and September they work extremely long hours at a time when the population in Weymouth goes up from 40,000 to over 100,000 in a month. Many of these young people may start work at eight o'clock in the morning and continue until 11 p.m. Come November, and if they are not unemployed they are under-employed, not only in terms of hours of work, but in the sense that there is no opportunity for the development of their inherited skills. They must either leave the area or throughout their lives their abilities and any technical skills which they might have acquired will be unused. Because the young are so treated, because wage rates are low and industry is rare, it follows that the rates are high. This, in turn, brings about another hardship. But fares are high and so are electricity charges. My present correspondence about the bus fares is voluminous.

This adversely affects what is, perhaps, the major class of constituent in my area, the old and the retired. The correspondence I have been having on the subject of public service pensioners, on which I must not dwell, is enormous. These people have been hit twice. They are resentful and have reason so to be. First, the Government's pledge in respect of public service pensions has been dishonoured, and, on top of that, their other pledge about the lowering of rates has not been honoured. In fact, the rate burden has risen. In addition, bus fares, electricity and every element in the cost of living is going up. These people have been treated harshly, and the state of affairs which hits them is, in turn, linked with the lack of industrial development in the area.

Since they came in, the Government have appointed about 100 Ministers, There are moments when I feel like suggesting that there should be a Minister for Dorset. Perhaps that is flying rather high, but, I suggest—this is the case in Canada and many parts of Europe—that there ought to be a Minister for Rural Development. Hon. Members opposite—I speak in the plural, but I see not one present except the Minister on the Front Bench—almost inevitably represent industrial areas. This is in the nature of things and I do not complain, but their interest is confined to the industrial areas. On the agenda for the Labour Party conference, for instance, one scarcely sees a resolution dealing with rural problems.

More than half the population lives not in London, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and the other large cities and towns, whose problems are deep in the minds of hon. Members opposite, but in the countryside or in towns with less than 50,000 population. These are the people who are not getting the square deal that they ought to have, and it is on their behalf that, in this very brief speech, I make this plea.

2.11 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) has raised this subject, and that he mentioned tourism, although I was rather surprised that he did not say very much about it. My usual complaint about speakers who refer to development in the South-West is that they talk too much about tourism and not enough about the substantial opportunities which there are in the South-West, particularly in Cornwall, in agriculture, horticulture and other industry.

It is not generally appreciated by the public at large what a very large factor our economy the tourist trade is becoming. The British Travel Association recently stated that in 1964 there were 2,400,000 overseas visitors to this country and that they spent here £218 million, in addition to £118 million in fares to British carriers, making a total of about £330 million in our earnings of overseas currency.

The Association adds that it is expected that this year there will be 2,700,000 overseas visitors spending in this country about £360 million, and I understand from what they have said previously that about one-fifth of that total will relate to the South-West. These are large figures. Tourism is the fourth largest British export, it is the largest single dollar earner, and it has risen three times as fast in the last ten years as the total of physical assets.

Cornwall does not get as many overseas visitors as Britanny. I can never understand why. Cornwall has everything that Britanny has—inland moorland, picturesque coastline, surf bathing, and even oysters. I remember saying to a Cornishman once that the only advantage which Britanny had over Cornwall was that in Britanny the women wore funny hats on Sunday, but he replied, "Ours do, too". That is as may be, but I am certain that there are further opportunities for the development of tourism in the South-West, and they could be seized without any destruction of local amenity The hon. Member for Bodmin mentioned advertising, and I agree that more could be done in that direction.

The chief difficulty for tourism, is transport, as it is for the other potentials in the South-West—china clay, machinery manufacture, ship repairs, non-ferrous metal mining, agriculture, horticulture and the rest. All these depend on improved transport by road, rail and air. I shall say no more about the road programme, which has been debated recently in the House, except to observe that I hope that the deferment of starting dates of new construction will not put a setback on all the developments which are due in our area.

Now, a word about the railways. Fairly substantial improvements have been made in the services to the South-West, but I understand that the line west of Plymouth is regarded by British Railways, though they have every intention of keeping it going, as one which does not justify a large expenditure of capital for improvements, the reason being that it does not carry sufficient traffic. But, of course, if all the domestic coal trade, at present carried into Cornwall very largely by sea, and the china clay, a substantial part of which is carried by road, travelled by railway, then, unquestionably, the line beyond Plymouth would justify considerable capital expenditure for improvement. Great improvements could be made with comparatively limited capital because that line was built on the cheap, its layout includes a large number of unnecessary curves which could quite easily be straightened out, and substantial improvements could be made in some of the bridges and viaducts.

Given better communications, the prosperity of Cornwall could be greatly increased without spoiling its superb scenery. It is quite possible to do this, as anyone can see in Switzerland. The Swiss have developed their tourist trade to a large extent and they have substantial industry in various parts of their country without any spoiling of the scenery. The same could be done in the South-West, and I hope that the Government will do everything possible to encourage it because it would add greatly to the prosperity of the South-West and particularly of Cornwall.

2.16 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) on the extremely cogently and concisely argued speech, with, if I may say so, a most moving conclusion. Perhaps this was hardly unexpected as my hon. Friend comes from a county which recently returned two Cornish nationalists at local government elections. Celtic imagery from my hon. Friend was, in the circumstances, hardly unexpected.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the public view of the West Country is that it is a picturesque place for holidays, but, of course, it is in the winter months that we see the unemployment rising again, we see depopulation going on apace, in effect, the exporting of unemployment, and we see low wages. On 25th June, I asked the Minister of Labour what was the difference between the average weekly wage in the United Kingdom and in the South-West. The reply was that the average weekly earnings of manual workers in manufacturing and other industries in the South-West was £16 19s. 8d., compared with £18 2s. 2d. for the United Kingdom as a whole. Thus, there is a difference of £1 2s. 6d. in the average wage in the South-West region, but, as the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) pointed out—this is the great criticism of the present form of regional planning—that takes into account average wages in Bristol, which has totally different problems. I agree with the hon. Member for Dorset, South that the average wage in our area—this is certainly true in North Devon—is something like £2 or £2 5s. a week lower than the national average.

This is the great danger of talking about the South-West as a region if that region includes the Severn Basin, which has totally different problems and is a totally different part of the United Kingdom. I have poined out to the First Secretary that it is far easier for us in the northern parts of Devon to get to London than to Bristol, which is to be our regional capital.

Certain things have happened in the South-West in recent years which, I think, hold out some hope. We have had the survey of the South-West which has been completed with Board of Trade assistance. We have the plans for regional development, about which I shall say a word in a moment. Yesterday, we had from the Minister of Agriculture the announcement of the rural development boards, on which we hope that some progress will be made. Nevertheless, I endorse what the hon. Member for Dorset, South said about a Ministry concerned with the rural areas. In Canada there is such a Minister for Rural Development, and what he has been able to do for the rural areas of Canada we might well follow in Britain.

We have already had an announcement by the President of the Board of Trade that certain advanced factories will be built. This holds out some hope. A South West Exporters' Association has been formed and is trying to co-ordinate the efforts of exporters in the South-West. If I may be so immodest as to cite my personal experience, I am at the moment carrying out a survey with a view to leasing an aircraft and operatting an airline for the West Country as a whole.

There are things which have to be tackled. First of all, there are basic amenities. Taking my own constituency as an example, nearly 20 per cent. of my rural dwellings are still without mains electricity. One of the reasons for this is that as a result of the operation of the Electricity Act the electricity board can pay for only as much rural development as it can subsidise out of its urban profits. Consequently, if one lives in a largely rural area, it means that one has a low rate of electrification owing to the absence of urban receipts.

Last December the First Secretary set up a joint inquiry composed of the Electricity Council and the National Farmers' Union to look into the question of rural development charges for electricity. The report was completed last May but it has not yet seen the light of day. I believe that there is a case for an Exchequer grant, possibly added to the Annual Price Review, in order to ensure that we have 95 per cent. electrification in all our rural areas. It is outrageous that we still find farms with parrafin lamps, privies at the bottom of the garden and pumps in the yard for the main water supply. It is iniquitous. Who can be surprised that in those conditions people leave the countryside?

Communications have been mentioned. In August we have queues about five miles long outside Exeter and Torquay. This sort of thing will not help the export drive and the tourist industry. If we cannot build massive roads overnight then I agree with the view taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin in the debate on roads that we might consider the possibility of paying for our roads by means of loans and then having tolls paid voluntarily by those who choose to use those roads.

As another example, take our hospitals. By and large, they are very out of date. I have a waiting list of 1,200 for a hospital built 120 years ago. Take also many of our schools, particularly primary schools. One finds that in many of them a bucket is the only form of sanitation, many have no electric light and many are probably under threat of closure. I must say that, having regard to some of the structures, it would be a good thing if some of them would fall down without our having to wait for the closing of the school.

We have our scheduled areas. Most of the Duchy of Cornwall and the Bide-ford and Ilfracombe areas have a persistently high rate of unemployment. Our experience is that whenever an application is made to B.O.T.A.C. the delay is a minimum of six months, and very little comes out at the end. I do not believe that the Local Employment Act is working as it was intended to do. The procedure is thoroughly inefficient and takes a very long time. Perhaps I am unjust and should not say that it is inefficient. Perhaps I ought to say that the system tries to exact the same security and tests as a merchant bank or an ordinary commercial bank. But the object of the exercise is that the scheme should take a greater risk having regard to the social benefits which would flow if industry were set up in those areas and employment were given to those who are at present out of work.

Finally, I want to say a word about Bristol. I do not believe that Bristol is the logical centre for the South-West. Its problems do not represent the problems of the South-West, which is an area of its own. It is as different from Bristol as the Highlands of Scotland are from the Lowlands. I believe that we must have a regional centre at Plymouth or Taunton or Exeter. Any of the three would be acceptable. My view is that Plymouth would probably be best. We must have regional representatives, elected and answerable to the electorate, and considerable power must be given to these boards over the issuing of I.D.C.s, the planning of housing and the co-ordinating of road and rail communications. The experience of Mid-Wales has shown that a small factory employing only 200 people will bring economic benefit to nearly 2,000 people living in the surrounding area.

I am certain that a tremendous amount can be done after we have improved our communications and after we get more speedy action from the Board of Trade to encourage investment in the area. Otherwise we shall have a position where our school leavers will continue to leave the area, thus leaving a depopulated area behind them, and choking up our main centres in the South-East and the "coffin" area north of London reaching up to Manchester.

In the South-West there is a spirit and a determination to help ourselves. In the past few years much has been done by local authorities and others, but I hope that the Government will realise that we have not had our fair share of the allocation for roads, that we have suffered from low wages and de-population and that we are impatient to have something one about it all.

2.25 p.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)

I join in with other hon. Members who have congratulated the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) on initiating this debate and bringing the subject to the notice of the House, and also on his very forceful and thoughtful speech. We are overrunning our timetable a little, but we will do our best to keep within the limits which have been laid down.

One of the most important things to ask the Parliamentary Secretary is what has been done by the Regional Board and the Regional Council since they were set up some time ago and their members were appointed, and what have been the effects on the region of those appointments. In passing, I must say how much I agree with the hon. Member for Bodmin and others that it is wrong to try to link Bristol and the Severn Basin with the rest of the South-West, covering parts of Somerset, Cornwall and Devon, because they constitute two completely different areas with different problems. It is difficult to understand how Bristol, if it were made the centre, could appreciate what was going on in the rest of the area—what, for instance, were the different problems in the South-Western tip of Cornwall and in Devon and the other parts of Somerset.

No mention was made by the hon. Member for Bodmin of the functions of the Regional Board. It is a body with executive powers, and we want to know what it is doing. We understand that it is advised by the Regional Council. The body has great advisory powers and capacity, and, therefore, presumably has great capacity to influence the Board and the Minister. We should like to know what it thinks about things. We want to know, for instance, whether it is thinking about establishing a new town or increasing the population of any particular part of the South-West.

I hope that we shall be told that it is not thinking of making Taunton an overspill centre for Bristol or the Midlands. This is the natural thing that I should expect from some body based in Bristol, but I hope that that is not what the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us. If the Council is suggesting some overspill provision, I hope that he will tell us that it will be in Plymouth or Exeter.

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us what the Regional Council is thinking about the future development of towns in the South-West. Does the Council envisage a prosperous future development for Plymouth, with the provision of factories, and so on? If so, what advice is it giving to the First Secretary, and what action is the Board itself taking in this matter? What is being done? It is very difficult to discern, since the inception of the new concept of regional boards and councils, one single constructive thing which they have done. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will enlighten us about this.

I turn to the question of a survey. I am sure that all my hon. Friends and also the hon. Members on the Liberal Benches have one object in mind—and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary has, too—and that is to try to get something done for the South-West, as a region, which will be of benefit to those who live in it and those who work in it. But before anything constructive can be achieved one needs a survey of the use of the land and the natural resources. That is essential.

Some time ago I asked whether the Government were to use as the basis of all their discussions the survey which was carried out by the six counties, Part I of which was published. I do not know whether Part II has been undertaken or whether the Regional Council has recommended to the Minister that Part II of the survey should be carried out. I do not know, nor does anybody else. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us what advice he has had from these anonymous gentlemen. But I must not be unfair. They are not anonymous. Their names have been published. But their deliberations are unknown. We do not know what they are thinking.

It is vital that we should know what the uses of the various natural resources are to be. Minerals and tin have been mentioned. I hope that the tin industry in Cornwall will be developed. I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I hope that the Government will be able to facilitate what needs to be done. I do not think that a grant from the Government is necessary to carry out a survey. Private industry should be capable of carrying out such a survey if it thinks it worth while, but, certainly, Government facilities should be put at its disposal and it should be encouraged to undertake the work to see whether revival of the industry is possible and to what further extent minerals exist.

China clay and coal have been mentioned and these link up with the communications aspect. What recommendations has the Regional Council made concerning the development of the rail system in the south-west of the region? If the china clay industry could be persuaded for commercial reasons to use the railways, and if a great deal more of the coal for the area were carried by train, then both branch and main lines could become stronger economically. What recommendations are being made to encourage this?

It would be a good thing if the Government took action to bring about this change. Certainly the coal industry should send coal by rail to Devon and Cornwall. At the moment, a certain amount is sent by road, but most by sea. It seems rather foolish to have not very good coal from the North creeping round the coast by boat to the West Country when better coal from the Midlands could go by rail. The Government could and should take action, but I suppose that they will not do so unless the Regional Council recommends it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) and the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) said, this is not only a problem of unemployment, although that exists in the winter months especially in large parts of south-west Devon, Cornwall and Dorset and is a grievous problem, for it reaches a high level. There is also the low wage factor. Once again, one must weigh these matters up. I hope that the hon. Member for Bodmin will accept that I enjoyed the peroration at the end of his speech, but I wish he had confined himself to it. Earlier, when outlining the prospects of the South-West, he said that we were an ageing population.

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not true. There are many young people who are only too keen to stay there. By saying that our population is becoming older and older the hon. Gentleman was hardly being conducive to encouraging industrialists to open new factories in the South-West, for they will not want to employ mainly people over 55 or 60.

Mr. Bessell

I was quoting statistics published in the survey which showed comparative figures. The proportion of old people, as a result of depopulation, is much higher than in the rest of the country.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I accept the figures. I was drawing the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact, however, that he elaborated on them and that the closing part of his speech was much more helpful from the point of view of encouraging industry to go to the area.

We must keep a balance between the wish to develop light industry and existing types of industry and preserving the attractions of the tourist industry. This year, given a certain amount of good weather—which we have not yet had—we can expect a record tourist trade. But if we develop the South-West as the Midlands were developed in the last century, the tourist trade will go out of the window. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South, said, one expects more light industry to go there and that is right and proper. Some type of development is also needed for the roads but great motorways sprawling across Devon, Cornwall and Somerset would not add to the beauties of the area.

Developments of industrial sites such as those in Switzerland are something that we should take note of. Has the Regional Council given advice to the First Secretary of State concerning this problem? When overspills and new towns are being considered, where is it recommended that there should be renewed and increased industrial development in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset?

I hope that Exeter and Plymouth will get their fair share of industrial development. They could and should be the growing cities of the South-West. The Camborne and Falmouth triangle and the Bodmin and St. Austell triangle could be developed industrially. But if we have such development, then we cannot, at the same time, have our rail communications taken away. Yet that is what is happening in my constituency, I hope that there will be no further rail closures of any type in those areas where there is a possibility, or indeed, a probability, of future development until a decision is taken as to what kind of development is to take place.

The Regional Council is silent on these things and so is the First Secretary of State. I have an awful feeling that the Joint Under-Secretary of State will also be silent, but we must know these things before we can make any judgments. The South West and Cornwall want to be put much more in the picture.

Mr. Thorpe

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying about not closing railway lines until we know what industrial development there is to be. But, in fact, the situation is worse than that. Railway lines leading to areas which are development districts are scheduled for closure.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I am aware of that. Some happen to be in my constituency and there are probably more in the hon. Gentleman's. But I hope that what is said today will bring home to the First Secretary of State and the Minister of Transport the urgent necessity of holding up these operations until a decision has been made on development. In areas where industrial development is possible, probable and in some cases vital, these moves should be postponed until the Government know both what should be done and what will be done for industrial development.

But agriculture also needs development. The agricultural White Papers do not deal with the priorities which are of vital interest to agriculture in the South-West. The White Papers are important, but do not tap at the fundamental difficulties of the agricultural industry especially in the South-West—for instance, the level of production and its corollary, the level and strength of import controls. The Government have hopelessly failed to tackle these issues and the measures announced yesterday will have no effect upon them.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say something about development. The First Secretary of State talked about setting up a sub-committee in Plymouth. Although the right hon. Gentleman has said that the Regional Council will definitely have its offices in Bristol, he has said that he has not yet decided against having a sub-committee office in Plymouth. There are 70,000 sq. ft. of office space at North Road Station, Plymouth, now and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to say that the sub-committee will have its office there. Is it not nonsense that more than £2 million should be spent by British Railways on huge offices at North Road Station, Plymouth, and that British Railways should then "up stakes" and go to Bristol leaving that office space empty and apparently with no future tenant? What is to be the future of that accommodation? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some hope, or at least tell us what the Regional Council is recommending.

Since the Council has been set up, not very much has happened, but a great deal remains to be done. I agree with the hon. Member for Bodmin that we in the South-West are not an ageing population in heart or spirit.

Many of our young people want to stay there if they are given the opportunity to do so. We want the hon. Gentleman to live up to the fine words and promises of himself and his right hon. Friends before, during and since the election. So far, we have seen no sign of that happening. We want to be assured that action will be taken urgently and that the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not act as a brake for the next six months, until after the next election.

2.41 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs (Mr. William Rodgers)

As the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) has given me precisely nine minutes in which to reply to the debate, half of what I expected, he will understand if I do not go as fully as I might otherwise into the many issues which he raised in a rather longer speech.

Like other hon. Members, I was impressed by the coherence and elegance of the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell). However, I should remind him that the first debate this Session on regional development in the South West was initiated by the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) who, I am sorry to say, is not here today. We all know that his time and energies have been substantially absorbed lately by extra-mural duties of one sort or another. I am also sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) is not present, and I am sure that on both sides of the House there will be a general wish that he will soon fully recover. He has played a substantial part over a long period in drawing attention to the problems of the South West and particularly those of Cornwall.

There has been some criticism of our new planning machinery and perhaps I should spend some time dealing with it. I am sorry if the hon. Member for Bodmin was disappointed by the absence of my right hon. Friend the First Secretary, although I do not think that he should have been surprised. I had the opportunity of reading in the Western Daily Press a fairly full account of what the hon. Gentleman intended to say, quite apart from a letter which I received this morning. I was interested to note that the hon. Gentleman or the Western Daily Press thought that On most points Mr. Brown will trot out soothing, bland replies … It has not been my experience to hear my right hon. Friend trot out soothing, bland replies.

Mr. Bessell

I must assure the hon. Gentleman that whatever was said in the Western Daily Press was not said by the hon. Member for Bodmin.

Mr. Rodgers

I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman has very good judgment in this respect.

Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Cornwall, North took a rather melodramatic view of the functions of the Regional Council. I would like to know from them—and if we had more time I would be ready to give way—whether they feel that no machinery should have been set up for regional planning in the South-West. I think that the view of the hon. Member for Bodmin is that we should have gone much further and had elected regional government.

Our view is that, whatever developments lie in the future, the right thing now is to set up effective machinery for getting action on regional planning. As the House knows, the task of the new machinery, both the Council and the Board, is to prepare a regional plan and assist in its implementation. Granted that we are going that far, it is far more important that the Council should function effectively and give good advice to the Government and that there should be genuine partnership between the Government and the regions in this respect than that a body should be set up which might well become a talking shop.

It is true that the Government necessarily deal with many confidential matters. If we want the regional councils to work effectively and to give good advice to the Government in knowledge and not in ignorance, we must ask them to make a part of their proceedings confidential. Certainly, in the short run, this will be the best way in which to get a regional plan and to get it fully implemented in a way which will commend itself to both sides of the House.

It has been said that the Council is only advisory. However, its job is to advise not the Board, but the Government. Over a very wide range of subjects the Council has been asked for its advice and, consequently, the Government will make much wiser decisions because, for the first time, the Government will be genuinely consulting the people on the spot, the people with practical experience of the region's problems.

Hon. Members have referred to the differences between Devon and Cornwall and the rest of the region. I am very ready to concede that there are differences, but, as I said in our debate on 4th November, the fact that the two areas are different in a number of respects is no reason why they should be planned separately. On the contrary, if one is suffering from unemployment and low wages, as I agree, and rural depopulation, as I agree, and the problems of communication, there is good reason why it should be planned together with the other part of the region where industry is rapidly growing and where population is increasing.

If we consider them both together, we are more likely to get policies for the South-West which will be fully effective in all respects and by which the stronger parts contribute to those parts of the region which are going through periods of difficulty. I hope that this policy will be pursued. The machinery has been set up and the decisions have been made.

On a number of occasions, we have discussed where the regional centre should be, the regional centre and not the regional capital as the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) described it, whether it should be at Bristol or elsewhere. The job of all hon. Members who want to see the prosperity of the South West increase is to accept the machinery and to make sure that it works. In parentheses, I am sure that Professor Tress, who is playing a very energetic part in helping the region to grow, would be ready at any time to meet hon. Members to discuss the region's problems. As the Chairman of the Council, he is accessible and not only will I inform him of all the matters raised today, but it may be in the interests of hon. Members to meet him and to discuss the problems with which they are especially concerned.

There is agreement about the problems, of course. In Devon and Cornwall there are the problems of rural depopulation, the need for further new light industry, the need to develop tourism. As the House knows, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Board of Trade, visited the West Country on 28th May and at Exeter met a number of those concerned with the South West. We intend to consider the various problems to see what more can be done.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson) referred to the relative advantages of Cornwall and Brittany. Perhaps I can make one remark which will surprise some people. I spent a holiday in Cornwall only at Whitsun and I must say that it is now possible to eat as well in Cornwall as in Brittany. This is an unusual recommendation, which alas, cannot be applied to all parts of the country.

Our new Economic Planning Council is not only to meet in Bristol. It has already visited various parts of the region and will be visiting others in the near future. It has met in Bristol, Taunton and Exeter and very shortly will meet in Plymouth. Here again, they will be seeing at first hand the very varied problems of the area of the far South-West, as well as of urban and industrial growth in the Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bristol, area.

I wish I could go on much longer, because there is a great deal that I want to say. I think that the important thing is that a number of points have been made today which we shall be looking at. We have the very greatest feelings for the problems of Devon and Cornwall—

Mr. Evelyn King

And Dorset.

Mr. Rodgers

We are deeply concerned with the problems there, and with Dorset as well, but I think it is only right, as the hon. Gentleman raised Cornwall, that I should pay particular attention to it. We recognise that it is not simply a holiday region, though it is a very pleasant one, and I hope that nothing said today will make anyone believe anything to the contrary. It is not only a holiday region but a region with very real difficulties. It is not for me to ask for patience, but I hope I can ask for support for the new regional planning machinery and for the development of a proper plan for development in the South-West.

It may be a 10-year plan; we have to look a good way ahead, and then take the necessary steps to see that the South-West shares fully in the prosperity which Britain as a whole, I believe, will be enjoying in the future.