HC Deb 10 April 1967 vol 744 cc927-40

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

12 m.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I welcome this opportunity to raise the question of the development of fishing in North-West Sutherland. In the North-West Highlands the best hope for the under-pinning of the economy and stabilisation of its population lies in the development and full utilisation of the indigenous natural resources of land and sea.

For too long these parts have been the playground of absentee proprietors who, with perhaps one honourable exception, contribute little more to the local economy than a grocer's order to fill the gap until a hamper arrives from Harrods or Fortnum and Mason. In North-West Sutherland the proprietors are few, but their land-holdings are great, topping 100,000 acres apiece, while crofters struggle with unrewarding soil to raise on the little that is left to them the wherewithal of a living. It is an affront to our society that these few men are permitted to prevent the regeneration of the North-West Highlands.

But the sea is open and the fishing good—just how good is revealed in the Scottish Sea Fisheries Statistics, which record for the district of Ullapool the most remarkable increase since the early 1950s in value and landings. This fishery district is comprised, to all intents and purposes, of the ports of Lochinver and Kinlochbervie. It is revealed in the last available Scottish Fisheries Report that, of all the fishery districts in Scotland, Aberdeen alone surpassed that district in importance. In 1965, the most recent year for which official figures are available, the catches at Lochinver had risen to £397,812 in value, while at Kinlochbervie they reached £444,186. From figures locally available it appears that 1966 surpassed even 1965. At these two ports, however, the landing and marketing facilities are completely inadequate, and I seek to draw attention tonight to the urgent need to improve them, particularly in the light of the most helpful report of the Estimates Committee on Assistance to to the Fishing Industry.

A comparison of the figures, showing the financial assistance offered by Governments for the improvement of fishing harbours in Scotland reveals startling discrepancies. For example, the port of Eyemouth, included in a fishery district with total landings in 1965 worth £450,160, received £46,100 in 1965 and before 1965 the sum of £347,800. The port of Kinlochbervie, on the other hand, with landings in 1965 almost equal to those of the whole fishery district of Eyemouth, received no assistance in that year, and pre-1965 received a mere £51,718. In view of Kinlochbervie's urgent needs, one may reasonably ask what criteria are and should be employed by the Government in determining how financial assistance is to be allocated.

The competitive ability of the Highland fishing industry is remarkable. In the past, save in the case of the Outer Isles Fisheries Training Scheme, no special consideration has been given to the development of fishing in the crofting counties. The White Fish Authority has allocated its grant and loan funds for the construction and improvement of boats on exactly the same criteria to Highland boats as to those in the rest of the country, the criteria being likely return on investment and the credit-worthiness of the applicant.

Whereas in 1965 the seven crofting counties had about 20 per cent. of all the full-time fishermen in Scotland and about 80 per cent, of all the part-time fishermen, and accounted for about 24 per cent, by value of the total landings in Scotland, between 1953 and 1966 the grants and loan assistance offered by the White Fish Authority for construction and improvement of boats in the Highlands amounted to a mere 12 per cent, of the total for Scotland. In other words, the Highlands which, since 1963, have actually been increasing their share of the total Scottish landings, have been operating at a distinct financial advantage compared with the rest of Scotland. It is time that this imbalance was redressed and not merely because of so-called social reasons but because the Highlands inshore fleet is in proximity to some of the best fishing banks and is fully competitive with the inshore fleets based elsewhere. But I want to draw my hon. Friend's attention particularly to the Government's policy with regard to assistance for harbour development.

The growth potential of the port of Lochinver is unchallenged. While it must be acknowledged at once that the remarkable expansion of production at Lochinver and Kinlochbervie has been brought about largely by fishermen living on the east coast outside the crofting area, at Lochinver there is the nucleus of a locally-owned fleet. Although the landings have not yet caught up with those at Kinlochbervie, there has been a steady increase in weight and value.

The hard-standing area at Culag Pier has long been totally inadequate to meet the actual needs of fishermen using the port and since the partial collapse of the pier this year the difficulties have been acute. I am pleased that the Government have at least approved in principle a 75 per cent. grant towards the cost of the extension of the Culag Pier. But I must urge on my hon. Friend the need to complete the approval of this scheme at once so that the repairs and extensions can be started this spring without the loss of another summer's building season.

There is also the urgent need for the provision of a covered market to which I would draw my hon. Friend's attention. Speaking of Lochinver and Kinlochbervie, the Estimates Committee rightly pointed out, in paragraph 59 of its Report, that fishery considerations could not be divorced from the general development of social amenities. It was also evident, the Committee stated: … that in Sutherland these other services might need development to enable the fishing industry to become firmly established and play its full part in the local economy. Prime among the social amenities must be the provision of a fully comprehensive secondary education within at least striking distance of the west coast ports. Given these circumstances, Lochinver is a port with a very bright future. There is no reason why the tremendous fishing of the North Minch should not help to provide an anchor for the population of the North-West.

At Kinlochbervie also, the constantly increasing landings offer a challenge and an opportunity to the Government to reverse the trend of depopulation by making provisions along the lines suggested by the Estimates Committee and by tackling the immediate problems of improving the landing facilities. I regret that hitherto a remarkable reluctance has been shown by both this Government and their predecessors to recognise the needs of this fleet at Kinlochbervie.

There is before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland at the moment a request from the Sutherland County Council for approval and assistance towards the cost of carrying out the Council's proposals to deepen the entrance channel to Loch Bervie to a depth of 12 feet, at mean low water. I am aware of some of the objections and counter-arguments against this scheme. Most of these objections appear to me to be based upon faulty assumptions or ignorance of present local conditions.

But let me first state the case before dealing with the objections to it. A new jetty was constructed at Loch Bervie in 1961 at a cost of £56,000, of which £42,000 was met by the Exchequer. At that time, it was intended to provide berthing accommodation for boats within the shelter of Loch Bervie. The landings and sales for the most part took place at Loch Clash, where there was neither adequate berthing nor shelter.

Shortly thereafter, a grant of 75 per cent, of £13,000 was made for the cost of deepening the entrance to Loch Bervie to a depth of seven feet. Whether or not this depth was achieved, and this is a matter of some doubt, there is no doubt that the depth was and is insufficient to allow the boats using Loch Bervie to move freely in and out and delays of up to two hours are frequent.

In the memorandum submitted on behalf of the Secretary of State to the Estimates Committee, it was stated on page 293 that the County Council's project … would be necessary only to give access to Loch Bervie for larger boats of up to 70 feet which at present use Lochinver. This is a most misleading statement. I have a list of all the boats which fish out of Loch Bervie at the moment and while the average length of the boats is actually 54 ft, no less than 18 of them are over 60 ft. Thus the case does not depend upon the desirability or otherwise of attracting longer boats to Kinlochbervie but upon providing adequate facilities for those which at present do use the port.

The second point taken against the scheme appears to be that Loch Bervie is for berthing and Loch Clash the area for landing of fish and loading of goods. This is certainly no longer the true position for about 50 per cent. of the landings are made at Loch Bervie and 50 per cent. at Loch Clash. A third point is that the harbour at Loch Bervie is in the wrong place anyway, and it should be at the head of Lochincherd, which would avoid the necessity of carrying the fish by lorry along a difficult road, the B.810 from Kinlochbervie to Rhiconich. But there is a great difference between driving a lorry at night, however bad the weather, and conning a £20,000 boat in bad weather down a very enclosed and not entirely sheltered sea loch.

I have been in touch with the Highland Development Board about this question. Mr. Prophet Smith, a member of the Board, has already indicated by letter to the Sutherland County Council that the Board favours the deepening of the entrance to Loch Bervie to allow boats to pass freely at any state of the tide. I would urge my hon. Friend likewise to give serious consideration and approval to this modest proposal. It has been estimated by the consultant engineers to the County Council to cost not more than £34,000.

It is true that consideration is being given to the possible expansion of the local fleet at Kinlochbervie, and Sutherland Council Council has recently given planning permission to Messrs. Pulford (Scotland) Ltd., to proceed with developments totalling £63,000. It is as well to note that Pulford's at present employ 14 people from the Kinlochbervie area directly in the fishing industry, and in addition 38 are employed in ancillary capacities to the industry.

This is a major and increasingly important source of local employment in an area of high unemployment. These proposals for expansion can possibly wait upon the conclusions of the Highland Development Board's survey at the end of the year. The proposal for the deepening of Loch Bervie is to be judged a present and pressing necessity, and I commend it to the Government.

One point relates to the need to establish fish processing facilities in the area. The prime need for processing is a fairly constant supply of fish. This is available in North-West Sutherland. One of the rather remarkable features of the Highland's fishing industry is that, whereas in Scotland as a whole there are two full-time ancillary workers to every full-time fisherman, in the crofting counties, the ratio is only about one to one. This reflects the extent to which Highland fishermen use processing facilities, goods and services from outside the crofting area.

A clear object of any Highland development policy must be to provide these facilities on the spot, for not only will it enhance the value of the produce, and reduce the transportation costs, but it will offer considerably increased employment opportunities in the area.

The Government's harbours policy needs to be revised in the light of the Estimates Committee's report. That policy was summed up in the memorandum to which I have referred. Page 293 states: The Department's policy has been to secure fuller rationalisation by confining assistance for major developments to about 25 harbours and thus to make the most effective use of the funds available and assist the de velopment of better shore facilities. Assistance is, however, also given for essential works required to maintain other harbours where the local community is wholly dependent on fishing. Kinlochbervie, a port which last year yielded £9,000 in harbour dues alone, appears to have been excluded by the Government so far from major development. Because the local community is not wholly dependent on fishing, even essential works such as the harbour deepening have been neglected. The Estimates Committee, however, rightly recommended that the administration of grants for the development and repair of harbours in Scotland should be: … directed at providing for the reasonable needs of the actual or prospective fishing operations in the area. I was impressed by the evidence of the Committee given by Mr. A. Aglen, the Fisheries Secretary for Scotland. He said: These Highland fishermen behave like other fishermen; even though based at Stornoway they land on the mainland if that is the best way of getting it marketed. They will land it at Stornoway if there is an outlet for it, but the outlet at Stornoway is distinctly limited. Similarly fishermen from Buckie, reaping the harvest of the North Minch, will land at Lochinver and Kinlochbervie, where there are marketing outlets.

They will land at both ports because, among other reasons, the Rhu Stoer tends to divide the banks which they fish. There is not, and cannot be, an arbitrary allocation of ports according to the length of the boats, however neat that solution might appear to be. The growth of the fishing industry in North-west Sutherland is a heartening prospect. As I understand the Government's policy, it is to encourage the development of fishing at certain selective points.

I call upon the Government, and my hon. Friend in particular, with his well-known understanding of and sympathy for the problems of the fishing industry, to recognise the needs and potentiality of Lochinver and Kinlochbervie, and to do all in their power to assist their development.

12.15 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Norman Buchan)

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has been in the House for only a year, but in that short time he has forcefully brought the needs of his constituency and of the Highlands very much to the fore in debates in the House. I have particular reason for thinking this, because he is the Member of Parliament for the area of my birth, as he knows, and it is a good deal of satisfaction to me sitting on the Front Bench to know that the area of my birth is in the competent hands of my hon. Friend.

He raised a very large number of issues tonight and posed a number of very deep questions. He will not expect me to deal with all of them. However, we shall be paying attention to some aspects on which I shall not venture tonight. Comparisons of actual figures are sometimes difficult. My hon. Friend referred to the situation in Eyemouth and made a striking statistical comparison with some of the expenditure on areas in the Highlands. It is, of course, true that major assistance was given to Eye-mouth. That was because a very large scheme was necessary there to provide a satisfactory harbour, on which the substantial local fishing fleet depended, with no suitable alternative nearby.

But, having said that, we recognise the extent of the problem which my hon. Friend mentioned. I should have thought that the whole policy of the Government and especially the establishment of the Highlands and Islands Development Board—and I know that my hon. Friend understands this very well—shows the seriousness with which we take this whole area and its needs.

My hon. Friend need make no apology for raising this subject tonight. The area of which he has spoken is scantily populated and remote—possibly as remote as one can get in the United Kingdom—but perhaps for that very reason it is all the more important that its needs should be kept before our attention, and certainly my hon. Friend has done that over the past year. If it cannot be claimed as one of the main fishing areas in Scotland, none the less it plays a significant part in the well-being of the fishing industry. More than this, however, to a considerable extent its own well-being is bound up with that of fishing and we are concerned to ensure that the local people are able to derive full advantage from the resources of the sea in their own vicinity.

I agree at once that there is ample scope to develop local interest and involvement in fishing, and I took note of the statistics which my hon. Friend produced to demonstrate this, not only in the area which he mentioned, but on the whole of the north-west coast. One of the purposes of the Highlands and Islands Board's setting up of its fishery development scheme is precisely to take care of areas such as this.

For the most part, the activity here is on a small scale, with a few men engaging, often seasonally or part time, in fishing for white fish or shellfish in relatively small boats and often combining this with crofting. The returns which we have show that in 1966 along the whole north and west coasts of Sutherland no more than 129 local men and 58 boats, of which only eight were more than 40 feet in length, were employed in the industry, and not all of them full time. That, as my hon. Friend said, is not the whole picture, however.

It is a very different picture if one considers landings, largely brought about by men from the east coast, for total landings of white fish in 1966 amounted to 314,983 cwts., valued at £1,032,455. These landings were made at Kinlochbervie—159,791 cwts.—and Lochinver—155,192 cwts.—by the fleet of boats which belong to Moray Firth ports, but which make a practice of fishing on the west coast and landing there, the crews returning home each weekend. To the extent that these are not local vessels and crews, the figure of overall landings gives a false impression of the local interest in the fishing activity in the area, but it serves to show how rich are the natural resources which could be tapped if the truly local fishing activity could be expanded.

This is not to say that development is easy or that it would be a simple task to change the local pattern. The facts of geography must be faced, and fishermen cannot operate and land their catches where there is no market for them. Inevitably where a long coastline and scattered population are involved, this implies a measure of centralisation at places where harbour facilities and marketing arrangements are to be found. It means also that it is all the more important to have available facilities of this kind, and a great deal of thought and care has been given to the question of harbour facilities, and my hon. Friend quoted some examples.

We would like, therefore, to say where we stand. The major issue in regard to harbours is that there are two in the area, Kinlochbervie and Lochinver, not far distant from one another and, in a sense, competing with one another for assistance towards major and costly developments. Both are the responsibility of the County Council, which in 1965 applied for help towards proposals for improving both, at substantial cost.

For Culag Pier, Lochinver, the Council sought to increase threefold the length of quay for berthing and landing fish and the working area or deck space, together with some subsidiary works, all at a cost of £76,000. At Kinlochbervie a new jetty had been completed in 1961 at a cost of £56,000, of which, incidentally, the Exchequer met £42,000. This was mainly to provide for the berthing of vessels which landed at the nearby Loch Clash pier, where there is neither adequate berthing nor shelter, and the entrance channel had subsequently been deepened to 7 ft—I notice the caveat made by my hon. Friend—at a cost of £13,000, of which about £10,000 was paid by grant.

Here the County Council proposed to carry out further deepening of the entrance channel to 12ft., at an estimated cost of £34,000, to enable larger vessels to enter at all times. It seemed to us that it would be difficult to justify spending Exchequer funds on simultaneous major developments at two landing places in the same general area to enable them to serve the same size and type of fishing vessel. Accordingly, we suggested that the County Council should itself decide which harbour should receive priority for assistance. This the County Council did, and it chose to give priority to Culag, Pier, Lochinver. This seemed right to us, and in July, 1966, the Council was told that the scheme would qualify for a 75 per cent. grant on the estimated cost of £76,000.

Since then, the County Council has been arranging for the preparation of the necessary Provisional Order for the works. Recently, however, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, part of the east quay wall collapsed. As repair of this was urgent we have offered, within the approved scheme, 75 per cent. grant towards its cost in advance of the main extension. As my hon. Friend knows, the County Council has not decided to take up this offer. It has decided to leave over the work until the reconstruction and extension of the pier as a whole can be undertaken.

My hon. Friend referred to the delay which has occurred concerning the Provisional Order. It is a Provisional Order under the provisions of the General Pier and Harbour Act 1861, as applied by Sections 4 and 5 of the Harbours, Piers and Ferries (Scotland) Act 1937, to give the Council the necessary powers to undertake the works. It is being prepared by the Council's agents and is at the drafting stage. Little progress can be made with the main extension until the Order is made and confirmed. This is one of the reasons for the difficulties. Objections may be entered. Time will have to be taken. It is not only a matter for the Government; it is a twofold process. It is not necessarily time-wasting, but it certainly takes time.

I would like to emphasise again that Lochinver was the choice of the County Council. I do not complain, therefore, that having been offered grant to meet its first priority—Lochinver—the Council then applied again to deepen the Lochbervie entrance. This is where we part company with the Council. Bearing in mind that the present entrance channel is normally adequate for the smaller vessels which use Kinlochbervie to land their catches—again, I have noted the points made by my hon. Friend—and that the purpose of the jetty there was largely to provide berthing space, it does not seem to us that the full expenditure involved in deepening the channel to 12 ft. would be justified.

Mr. Maclennan

Does my hon. Friend recognise that whatever the original intentions were, the jetty at Loch Bervie is now being used for marketing and icing, chandling and all the other facilities of a normal fishing port?

Mr. Buchan

I am aware of that. Indeed, there was yet another development recently, which my hon. Friend has also mentioned, at Loch Bervie. I am aware of these points.

It is true that easy access is necessary when landing and marketing the catch, but there is not the same urgency when the approach is simply for the purpose of berthing and tying up, either for the night or for the weekend, as frequently happens in the area. Moreover, it seems all too likely that if an appreciable number of the larger boats which at present land their catches at Lochinver were to decide to use Loch Bervie, congestion would result in this relatively small loch and there would be further pressure to deepen parts of the loch itself to create more space and to provide more landing space, which would mean either duplicating or stultifying, the extensions planned for Lochinver.

In these circumstances, we have not found it possible to agree to deepen the channel to 12 ft. But we accept that there may be a case fur making the approach somewhat easier and we have told the County Council that we are prepared to examine a modified scheme for deepening the channel to 10 ft. at mean low water spring tides. This may cost about £20,000. We have suggested that if it wishes to proceed on this basis, it should submit proposals and estimates, and we are awaiting these.

I know that this does not give my hon. Friend, the fishermen or the County Council the best of both worlds. But it does seem a sensible compromise. We accept the Council's own priorities and we are satisfied that the improvements at Lochinver are essential, although we do not think it reasonable to seek to duplicate them unnecessarily nearby.

Neither port has a fleet of its own—almost all the vessels involved are "stranger" east coast boats—and although fishing in the area has been good in the last few years, it is still subject to natural fluctuations, and if it deteriorated the fleets operating from these harbours would have no local ties to keep them there.

Again, although there is activity at both places, they can, between them, provide for the vessels involved and will be much better able to do so once the approved extensions and improvements at Lochinver are available. We know of no reason to suppose that the fleets are likely to increase substantially in numbers to an extent which would make it necessary to provide yet more pier and landing space.

In other words, we do not agree that major extensions are needed at both harbours or that we could justify spending public money to provide them. It is true that the County Council has not formulated and approached us with any proposals for extra pier development at Kinlochbervie. The Council's approach has been confined to the question of deepening the entrance. But this would be a possible development from a situation in which the larger boats at present landing at Lochinver were enabled to land at Kinlochbervie. This is indeed the kind of situation which the Estimates Sub-Committee which visited both places, described in its Sixth Report, when it stated: As a result of what the Sub-Committee saw, it is clear that a measure of assistance to achieve a limited objective can lead to a request for more help to achieve a more ambitious project". This, of course, is not wrong in itself. My point is that, in this instance, the more ambitious project is probably unnecessary.

My hon. Friend referred to Pulford's and the fact that planning permission had been given to them. I cannot comment on this matter in detail now. It is a matter that, from the point of view of the long-term future, we will have to watch, particularly in respect of the building of houses for east coast fishermen who desire to settle their families there.

It must be realised that the funds available for harbour works are not unlimited and must serve the whole of the Scottish coasts. It is worth recording that since 1955 offers of assistance made for Lochinver and Kinlochbervie, including the pier at Loch Clash, or in prospect, now total more than £150,000.

To sum up, it seems that the argument is whether both should be developed. We have deepened, and are considering further deepening at Loch Bervie. In this situation, both could, I think, be complementary. There is no sign yet of larger numbers of additional boats making the development necessary, and, therefore, we must consider whether we are content with the Loch Bervie situation. The choice of the County Council has been approved by the Secretary of State. The Council chose Lochinver, where there is more room and evidence of more local fishing.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this subject on the Adjournment and for the manner in which he raised it. I have not dealt with all the points he raised, but I assure him that I will look into the many points he made in his powerful speech.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.