HC Deb 08 November 1967 vol 753 cc1207-16

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

12.32 a.m.

Mr. Elystan Morgan (Cardigan)

I am grateful even at this late hour for the opportunity to voice once again the case for Mid-Wales. It has been put to the House by many hon. Members in past years. The salient facts of the situation are known to all of us. We know that Mid-Wales is a community and an economy which is debilitated and we also know the numerous factors which have brought such a condition into being. No one who has the interests of the area at heart would seek to palliate the facts and the twin factors of failure to attract a sufficiency of necessary commercial and industrial growth and also a relentless loss of population which has proceeded unabated for a century.

Even prior to the election of 1964 the Labour Party showed itself to be realistically aware of the problems of the area. In its publication "Signposts to the New Wales", it showed a determination to combat this issue. This spirit was crystallised in this sentence: Labour believes that radical action is needed to revitalise the central area of Wales. It is against the background of such a clarion call that the Government's current policies in relation to Mid-Wales must be judged.

Shortly after the creation of the Welsh Office in October, 1964, my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths), the first Secretary of State for Wales, announced that the Government would consider a plan for the building of a massive new town in central Wales. We all admired his zeal and determination. Some of us, however, disagreed with the plan on grounds of practicality and otherwise, in particular the effect that it would have on the life of that part of the country.

Our concern tonight is with two facets of that decision. First, in accepting the plan, the Government committed them- selves in principle to expenditure of about £137 million; secondly, they showed themselves to be thinking of the development of the area of Mid-Wales as a whole and not of a minute part thereof. On 15th March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, in the debate on this topic in the Welsh Grand Committee, announced a substantial amendment of the plan to build a new town in central Wales. There was, however, no ostensible weakening in the Government's resolve to resuscitate Mid-Wales as an area. He reiterated the Government's pledge in these words: …the Government recognise the need to strengthen the economy of Mid-Wales in order to stem the steady drift away from the area… The means of implementing that undertaking were twofold. On the one hand, there was a plan for the creation of a Mid-Wales Development Corporation whose first task was to bring about the doubling of the existing town of Newtown in Montgomeryshire. The other limb was dealt with by my right hon. Friend as follows: But I attach no less importance to the Government's other major decision, which is to foster the growth of existing towns by the provision of factories and housing for incoming workers. It is absolutely vital—I cannot stress this sufficiently to right hon. and hon. Members—to hold a very delicate balance between the various towns in the area—and between the urban centres generally and the surrounding rural areas with their villages. That is why I attach so much importance to the task of building up a series of what the Development Commissioners have described as 'anchor points' in Mid-Wales".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Welsh Grand Committee; 15th March, 1967, c. 8–10.] The question now asked in Mid-Wales is, where and when are the fruits of these aspirations to appear? The impression which others and I gained during that debate was that the new town project at Rhayadar and other existing towns schemes would proceed contemporaneously and that the Development Corporation which had been announced would serve all these enterprises.

There are two matters which tend at any rate to undermine such hopes. First, Section 1 of the New Towns Act, 1965, which the Welsh Office has stated that it will use to create the Corporation, seems to me to be suitable only for a corporation to develop one single unit, such as, perhaps, the doubling of Newtown in Montgomeryshire. It is true that the limit can be extended somewhat at a later date if necessary, but I doubt whether that extension would be beyond the present perimeter of the town or a few miles beyond. I doubt whether such a corporation could be adapted to serve the other existing towns without the necessity of setting up a separate development corporation for each new town.

That being so, why was it called the "Mid-Wales Development Corporation" when its activities will be confined to a very small part of the area of Mid-Wales and when there is no current intention and possibly no legal power to create any jobs or expenditure in monies outside the area of Newtown, Montgomeryshire?

The second source of dubiety arises from the replies which my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister of State have given to me in past months with regard to the timing of the operation. On 26th July, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales stated that the first task of the Corporation was to develop Newtown, and that he would consider later whether the Corporation should be entrusted with further responsibility. He had earlier stated that the new town quoted would take some seven years to complete. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will agree that there is little prospect of the existing towns bringing about growth by their own efforts; only a comprehensive centrally financed body can do this. Such a decision about the old towns of Mid-Wales might be deferred for as long as 10 years. To the bureaucratic eye, this may seem a short span, but to those living in these places it is an eternity, because during that period it may well he that the decline will have proceeded at a steady and inexorable pace so as to place those towns, or some of them, beyond the point of no return as virile communities.

I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister of State will pardon my mentioning another consideration. Whilst giving her and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the fullest credit for zeal and efficiency, I doubt whether the greatest Labour zealot can be certain that in 10 years' time this Government will still be in power. It could then be that a suc- cessor Government might take no interest whatsoever in Mid-Wales.

I have no desire to overstate my case for urgent and speedy action, but it is a case that has been eloquently articulated in this House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in years past. Mid-Wales today, due largely to Government efforts, is more conscious than ever before of its massive problems. It is probably equally true to say that in the five counties concerned there is greater apprehension than ever before for the social and economic future of the areas.

No one denies that the Government have paid greater attention than did any of their predecessors to the problems of Mid-Wales. It is, in a way, ironic that the Welsh Office should be the victim of its own advocacy, and should be denigrated for not immediately providing a panacea for a situation which its predecessors had largely chosen to ignore. No one can fairly refute the claim that Mid-Wales will, in the long term, derive benefit from the provisions of the Industrial Development Act, 1966, and from regional employment premiums.

The advance factory programme, which has gained momentum since 1964, has also provided development which would not, without such succour, have come to the area. Some growth can also be expected from the limited efforts of the various towns themselves, and only a bigot would condemn such efforts out of hand. Likewise, only a person who had no knowledge of Mid-Wales or who was deliberately dishonest would pretend that such agencies, by themselves, could turn back the tide of decline in the area.

The 1967 Report of the Mid-Wales Industrial Development Association—a body which has rendered invaluable and inspired service to Mid-Wales—shows very clearly that between 1956 and 1966 the population of the area decreased by 6,040, or 3.3 per cent. of its total population. Such figures do not reflect the loss to this ageing community by the constant outward migration of its younger and more virile people.

I trust that all I have said endorses the need for the preparation of a plan for the comprehensive development of Mid-Wales. Such a view has been propounded by many hon. Members during the past few years. It has also been strongly advocated by the Mid-Wales Industrial Development Association, a body which probably knows more about the problems of this area than any other having connections therewith.

Many events and happenings have given a spurt to such aspirations. In particular, there has been the foundation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, operating over an area in Scotland which is almost twice the size of Wales. There are also the precedents from all over the world during the last 30 years of similar schemes, ranging from T.V.A., in the United States, to enterprises in the Republic of Ireland, in Holland, in Norway and in Italy. Traditional remedies cannot effectively combat the economic perils which threaten to engulf Mid-Wales.

Localised developments in Newtown and Rhayader can have no direct effect upon the rest of Mid-Wales beyond reminding it of its own impotence to revive itself. Growth there must be, but the local authorities, who are themselves casualties of economic debility, cannot be expected to provide it. All these factors combine to make an unanswerable case for the establishment of a powerful, adequately-financed board for the unified and comprehensive development of Mid-Wales.

Such a board should operate separate from, but in concord with, the local authorities in the area. In the main, it should be responsible for the preparation of a master plan for the integrated development of agriculture, industry and tourism. It should take over in the area the powers of the proposed rural development board, a body which, though subjected to hysterical criticism, represents a pioneering development in Mid-Wales, despite the spleenful motivation and unbelievable misconception which exists in relation to it.

The proposed rural development board for Mid-Wales should be empowered in consultation with the Welsh Office and other Ministries, to prepare a scheme of grants, loans and incentives for fostering enterprises conducive to the general economic growth of the area. It should also have the task of reclaiming derelict and unproductive land to agriculture, the development of natural resources, the provision of amenities necessary to foster the growth of tourism and the duty of publicising the potential of the area internationally. Amongst its wide functions should be included the power to build factories and to acquire, by voluntary agreement, shareholdings in any project which could contribute to the development of Mid-Wales.

Additionally, it is necessary that the proposed development board should have powers to build houses in anticipation of attracting key workers and new industries, on the lines of the Scottish Special Housing Association. The proposed board should also have the power to survey the amenity services of the area and to develop, or contribute towards developing, where necessary, these services. Such functions should include the power to develop strategic roads which would channel development into the area from neighbouring growth regions. The board should have its own independent budget, which should be negotiated annually with the Treasury and the Welsh Office.

I hope and trust that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will withstand the temptation of finding ostensibly sound bureaucratic reasons for rejecting such a proposal. I make this case not as an attack upon the efforts of the Welsh Office, for which I have given, and do give, credit, but out of a sincere conviction that the acuteness and intensity of the problem in Mid-Wales demands a sense of urgency and a boldness of spirit such as no Government have yet manifested.

12.49 a.m.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mrs. Eirene White)

Although this is a rather late hour to be discussing this matter, I very much welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan) was successful in obtaining this time, because no one has been more assiduous in his interest in the problems of Mid-Wales, as is shown not only by his contributions in the House and by the Questions which he tables on these matters, but also by the representations which he makes, with considerable pertinacity, to those of us who hold responsibility in the Welsh Office.

I am, therefore, glad to have this chance of speaking on the subject which my hon. Friend has introduced. I am all the more concerned to be able to do so because I think from what my hon. Friend has said that there are certain misapprehensions, and if he, who takes such a very keen and close interest in this subject, is labouring under certain misapprehensions, one must only suppose that there may be other people less well informed than himself who are perhaps also in some doubt about the Government's policy with regard to Mid-Wales.

If I may first of all in general terms restate that policy, before I come to the two particular matters which my hon. Friend has raised, I think I can fairly say that under the present Government we have for Mid-Wales a vigorous forward-looking policy which covers agriculture, forestry, manufacturing industry, town planning, and shortly I hope will show particular expansion in the realm of tourism and the development of amenities.

I ask the House: have any Government at any time paid anything approaching the attention which we are now giving to the problems of Mid-Wales? My hon. Friend has rightly said that this is a problem of very long standing. Over the past century the population in this area has gradually declined by as much as a quarter. I am happy to say that the more recent figures indicate that in the last few years that process appears to be coming to an end, but we cannot for one moment be complacent about it because we have not yet turned the tide. The most that we can hope to have done at the present time is to have stemmed it.

Having said this, I think I should deal with the specific points which my hon. Friend has raised about one special aspect of this policy, which is town development. My hon. Friend referred to the procedure for the Mid-Wales Corporation whose first task will be to double the size of Newtown, and the draft Order was published only last week. He suggested that it will not be possible to do as we have proposed, to continue beyond Newtown if it seems desirable to do so and to undertake development in other towns. I am not a lawyer. My hon. Friend is. But I am advised by our legal advisers that he is mistaken in this matter, that there is no doubt at all that the proposed Corporation, on the assumption that the draft Order will in due time be confirmed, as its name implies, will be enabled, if it is so decided, to extend its activities to other towns in Mid-Wales; but, of course, on each occasion one has to go through the procedure of designation and, if required, public inquiry and so on. That is a separate procedure on each occasion.

But there is nothing to stop the Corporation which will be set up to double the size of Newtown, from doubling the size of Rhayader, Builth, Bala and other places within the general designation of Mid-Wales. So my advice is at variance with the opinion of my hon. Friend. If he would like to meet one of the legal advisers of the Welsh Office to settle the legal points, we shall be happy to arrange that.

Similarly, it appeared to me that he was under some misapprehension about the possible time table. At no point has the Mid-Wales Industrial Development Association or the Welsh Office indicated that we were likely to be in a position to embark upon all these extensions simultaneously. It was always intended that there should be a sequence, but that does not mean that one has to complete the procedure in Newtown before one can start anything else.

I gathered from some of his remarks that my hon. Friend was of the opinion that one would have to wait the seven or 10 years during which the process of enlarging Newtown in Montgomeryshire took place before one could do anything else. This is entirely mistaken. It is only because there have been some little local difficulties over Rhayader that we are not yet able to look in detail at the position there and to decide whether, for the kind of development which is envisaged for Rhayader, it will be desirable to use the Newtown procedure.

I tried to explain this in my speech in the Welsh Grand Committee last March. We are not yet in a position to look at the proposals for Rhayader, because they are not yet finalised. When, in due course, we receive the proposals for Bala or for Builth, we shall consider whether they can be carried out under the existing arrangements by which local authorities build houses and so on and under which advance factories can be provided; or whether, as may well prove to be the case, it will be desirable for them to come under the aegis of the new Corporation. I hope that I have set my hon. Friend's mind at rest on those points.

The other major question my hon. Friend raised was to ask that we establish a powerful board for the unified and comprehensive development of Mid-Wales. He then listed a series of responsibilities for this proposed board, almost all of which—he did not mention police or prisons—come within the civil authority, and he said that they should be under the aegis of the board.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Does not my hon. Friend agree that all the powers and functions which I mentioned in relation to the proposed board belong now to the Highlands and Islands Development Board which was set up in 1965 to deal with similar affairs in Scotland?

Mrs. White

I am coming to that. I went last summer to see, as far as one could in a short but active visit, just how the Highlands and Islands Development Board functions. I respectfully suggest that, if he can find an opportunity, my hon. Friend might well find it enlightening to do the same. Although it is true that the Highlands and Islands Board has considerable powers in various directions, it is still, as Professor Grieve, the chairman, is the first to admit, only one of many organisations in the Highlands which are concerned with development. The Highlands Board has supplanted a former advisory panel which advised the Secretary of State for Scotland, but, apart from that, it has not replaced any other existing organisations, and these continue with their respective responsibilities.

In other words, far from being the sole Board in the Highlands it must work with the Crofters Commission, the Scottish Tourist Board, the Land Commission, various authorities concerned with fishing, the Forestry Commission, the National Trust for Scotland, the Scottish Country Industries Development Trust and the Hydro-Electric Board for Scotland. There will also now be a new Countryside Commission for Scotland and so on. Therefore, the happy picture of the Highlands and Islands Development Board as a single monolithic authority for development in the Highlands is mistaken, although it is true that in certain directions the Board has power and authority to spend money for which we have no exact equivalent in Wales.

In most other directions we have all the facilities, and the possibilities of grants and other aid, including advice from specialist studies of particular areas. All these are available to us. However, the Highlands and Islands Development Board has the advantage over us in the matter of provision of tourist facilities, though not of publicity. From December, 1965, to September, 1967, the Board made grants and loans for the development of the tourist industry amounting to about £660,000, which is more than a third of its total expenditure in Scotland. But the Government are in active consultation with the Development Commission, which has already done a great deal for industry in Mid-Wales, about methods of providing for tourism in Mid-Wales and similar areas. I hope that we shall shortly be able to explain in detail what is proposed. I think that we shall then be getting very close in Mid-Wales to what is now available to Scotland through the Highlands and Islands Development Board. That Board has certain opportunities in fishery which do not arise with us, and if my hon. Friend subtracts the fishery and tourist grants, he will find that we are not so badly off in Wales as he believes.

I have a good deal of sympathy with him over the multiplicity of organisations concerned. I am very anxious that we should have better co-ordination and should evolve a more detailed strategy. This is very much in the minds of those of us who are working with the Welsh Economic Council and who will be working with the new Welsh Council which will be established next March. This will offer us a real opportunity for coordinating various bodies concerned with the development of industry and agriculture and particularly recreational amenities and tourism in the area. I very much hope we shall be able to continue—

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

Adjourned at three minutes past One o'clock.