HC Deb 11 July 1969 vol 786 cc1764-74

12.38 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Mackie)

I beg to move, That the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board Order 1969, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st July, be approved. Hon. Members will recall that during the passage of Part III of the Agriculture Act, 1967, there was general agreement with the Government's proposals to set up a new kind of executive body to tackle the problems of those areas of hills and uplands faced with special difficulties.

These bodies—rural development boards—are to have the powers and functions set out in Sections 45 to 55 of the Act. Generally, they will be established to give encouragement and assistance to farmers and landowners in overcoming the special problems of farm size and the use of land in the hills and uplands. They will be particularly concerned with the co-ordination of agriculture and forestry in their areas. They will also have powers to grant-aid the improvement of rural services and help people engaged in agriculture or forestry who want to supplement their income by catering for tourists.

Since the Act came into force we have been taking the necessary steps for setting up the first two boards. In choosing the Northern Pennines as the area of one board we have selected a part of England which contains perhaps the largest concentration of the special problems and needs to which I have referred.

The area chosen is one of some 3,000 square miles, from the Scottish border in the north to the Skipton gap in the south. It is a sparsely populated area, with no town exceeding a population of 2,500. It is therefore heavily dependent for its livelihood on employment in agriculture and forestry, and to some degree on tourism. Its 6,000 farms are almost all of an upland or mountain character, devoted mainly to the rearing of stock. More than two-thirds of them are below the commercial level of size as defined in the Act. Forestry, both State and private, is active in the extreme north of the area, but further south the land is relatively bare of trees. Two national parks—those of Northumberland and the Yorkshire Dales—are wholly included in the board's area. The board, I am sure, will seek close and friendly relations with the national park authorities, with whose work I see that of the board as being in many respects complementary.

The House may like to know that before settling upon the proposed boundaries of the area we consulted over 100 local authorities and other interested organisations. I think it is fair to say that their response was very nearly unanimous in support of the proposal to establish a board. We felt, therefore, that we could count on a substantial measure of good will in the area; and this impression was confirmed by the relatively small number of objections which were received when the boundaries were published last year. Most of these related to quite small areas of land; and many of them were concerned simply with the fact that a farm or an estate would be divided by the boundary.

We were able to meet a number of objections straight away from agreeing minor adjustments of the boundary. The remainder—18 in number—were the subject of local hearings taken by Mr. H. E. G. Read, a distinguished land agent and a former president of the Chartered Land Agents Society. I offer him our thanks for the patient and helpful way in which he conducted the hearings and for his very clear report.

The draft Order before the House incorporates all the modifications recommended by Mr. Read, with one exception where, in the light of a defect in procedure which has been alleged, we have undertaken to provide an opportunity for a fresh and independent hearing of the issues. These modifications have reduced the area by some 50 square miles, mainly on the eastern side.

As well as defining the boundary of the board's area, this Order establishes the board itself. Hon. Members will know that the Chairman-designate is Mr. T. J. Cowen, M.B.E., a well-known figure in farming circles, particularly in the North of England, who has a wide knowledge of the area. He will have a strong team to assist him. The majority are people with special interests and experience in agriculture or forestry. Three other members will bring a special knowledge of the problems of rural economy.

I am pleased to inform the House that arrangements are in hand to acquire premises for the board's headquarters near Appleby, in the county of Westmorland.

The House will note that the Order provides for the board to come into operation as soon as it is made. If the House approves the Order, I hope that this will be in about a month's time. The House will, however, also wish to note that under Article 4 of the Order, certain of the board's powers will not come into effect for a further period of three months. This is to provide time for the board to establish itself and make the preparations necessary to avoid delays when the powers come into force.

I feel sure that hon. Members will agree that this board, which will have far-reaching and important effects on a big area of the country and on an important sector of the community, should get to work as soon as possible. I am equally sure that hon. Members will wish the board every success.

12.43 p.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

On behalf of my hon. Friends, I give a qualified welcome to the Order, which, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said, sets up the North Pennines Rural Development Board. We are grateful to the Minister for his comments, but a number of questions remain to be answered.

As the hon. Gentleman said, when the 1967 Act was going through the House my hon. Friends gave broad support to the concept of rural development boards. However, we have always been convinced that they can succeed only given the good will and support of the people in the areas which they cover.

The hon. Gentleman referred to this, but he did not refer to the massive opposition that there has been to the Welsh Board. I would be out of order if I developed this theme at length, but it is worth recalling that the North Pennines Board has been viewed in a completely different atmosphere from the Welsh one and that opposition to the North Pennines Board has not been nearly as apparent. Most of the objections in this case have been about detail and not about principle.

My hon. Friends opposed the setting up of the Welsh Board because it did not have the good will of the area. Would the hon. Gentleman explain why the setting up of the Welsh Board has been leap-frogged, so to speak, by the North Pennines Board, the objections to which came in later than the objections to the Welsh Board? We should be given an interim statement on the fate of the Welsh Board. Will the hon. Gentleman do that?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Not in considering this Instrument.

Mr. Jopling

I appreciate your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. I thought that I would be out of order in discussing the subject.

We give qualified support to the setting up of the North Pennines Board because we believe that there is considerable local good will for it to succeed. I say "qualified" because we have certain misgivings, to which I will come later.

The Parliamentary Secretary said, in passing, that his right hon. Friend had upheld all the recommendations but one of the inspector, Mr. Read, who I am sure did a wonderful job in hearing the arguments that were put to him. I gather that while the inspector recommended that certain parts of Westmorland should be included, they have not, for technical reasons, been included. I also understand that there is to be a rehearing of objections at a later stage, particularly Mr. Dargue's objections and those relating to Forest Hall. What technical reasons prevented the Minister from accepting Mr. Read's recommendation in this respect and when is the rehearing expected to take place?

The arrangements announced so far for the Board seem reasonably satisfactory, including those who are to comprise it. The appointment of the chairman is a first-class choice because he knows the area well and, as the hon. Gentleman said, has had long and distinguished service in agriculture, particularly through the N.F.U. The other members of the board are deeply concerned for the well being of the vast upland area which the k Board will cover.

Under Schedule 5(2)(3) of the 1967 Act, there is provision for paying salaries to members of these boards. Is it proposed to pay salaries to the chairman, vice-chairman and members of this board, and, if so, how much?

I have been pressing for a long time for the headquarters of this board to be established in North Westmorland, an area which has suffered considerable depopulation and which is just the sort of place where the board can do some good. It is essential that rural development boards have their headquarters in areas where they can assist; through, for example, the employment opportunties which they generate. Although these opportunities are limited, it is helpful for headquarters of this type to be established in areas of this kind; and this particularly applies to this board's headquarters at Appleby, where, I understand, the Ormside Hospital has recently been vacated.

The proposals that have been announced about the staff of the board—two executive and six secondary staff members—seem reasonable and the cost, £20,000 in the first year, is not excessive. I am glad that it is not proposed to set up the board on too grandiose a scale and I hope that the figures for staff and cost will not grow excessively over the years.

Why has there been so much delay? It seems extraordinary that the chairman was appointed in April of last year while the board members were not appointed until the following 20th December, information which I gleaned from a Parliamentary Answer. The inspector to hear objections was not appointed until December last. What was the reason for the seemingly unnecessary delay between the announcement of the chairman and the announcement of the names of the other board members?

My hon. Friends believe that there is a job to be done in the upland areas. It is important to give assistance so that we get better sized holdings and amalgamate holdings wherever possible. It is important for us to find a way to intergrate forestry into the upland economy. It is equally important, if possible, to integrate forestry into the economy of the tenant farmer. I know that this leads to all sorts of problems, but more work needs to be done.

The importance of forestry is very largely that of the intensity of labour needed. In upland hill farming, in general terms, the labour requirement is one man to 500 acres, but in forestry it is, roughly speaking, one man to 100 acres. By bringing more forestry to areas which have suffered from depopulation we can expect to get more people there, and in that way get a more thriving population.

In the upland areas, too, there is an important job to be done in encouraging better public services. In my constituency, part of which will come under the board, there is great trouble over such services as snow clearance, telephones, and the efficiency of the mails. I hope that the board will do what it can to encourage better public services in these remote areas.

I hope that the board will encourage the repair of old buildings. There has been a serious trend in recent years towards the demise in country areas of the small jobbing builder, and the board should find some means of keeping more of these small builders in being for this repair work.

I should like to know what, in the next five or six years, the board will be able to do in connection with the Commons Registration Act. Common land is now being registered, and in the early 'seventies there will be legislation to allow commoners to manage their common land, and farm it better. Far too much of it is at present over-stocked and under-farmed, and dealing with this aspect could well be one of the most important functions of the board, of whose area one-fifth or one-sixth—a vast tract—is common land. When the second stage of the commons legislation is passed, rural boards will be able to give active assistance to improving that land and seeing that it is better farmed.

The board will have an important job in the encouragement of tourism and the use of amenities and scenery, but we on this side have some misgivings on this score. Many of the recently set up organisations seem to have this same function of the encouragement of tourism and the use of amenities and scenery. The rural development boards are being given powers to encourage tourist caravan and camping sites, and other organisations have in recent years been given similar powers. An instance of this is the powers given to local authorities under the Countryside Act, 1968. The Development of Tourism Bill will give similar powers for the improvement of hotel and boarding house accommodation, and the rural development boards are being given powers to improve accommodation of one sort or another in houses occupied by farmers. Many of the other functions of rural development boards are already performed by other organisations, particularly the Ministry of Agriculture. There is great danger of overlapping.

The Board will have the very delicate job of co-ordination and encouragement, and I hope that it will not grow to become something else.

This leads me to my second misgiving. Under the 1967 Agriculture Act, the boards have wide, almost tyrannical powers over such things as the sale of land. We were very unhappy about some of those powers when that Measure was going through the House, and we continue to be unhappy about them.

So far, in the way in which this board has been set up, and from some of the things that have been said by members, there is little reason to feel that the board will use its powers unfairly or unreasonably, but if those powers are used in a dictatorial spirit, we on this side will take a very jaundiced view of the whole operation of the board in general.

The board has an important job to do in the upland areas, many parts of which are not thriving as they should. Depopulation and run-down are apparent. We are concerned about the growth of bureaucratic institutions in recent years, but we offer the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board our good wishes. It has a job to do, and we should give it every opportunity and encouragement to do it. If after a number of years we feel that it is not doing the job but is merely becoming another bureaucratic extravagance, we reserve the right then to wind it up. That aspect, however, is not in my mind now. As I say, we wish the board well and hope that it has a fair wind to do its important job.

12.57 p.m.

Mr. John Mackie

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to answer one or two of the points made by the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling). When he said that he was giving the board a qualified welcome I thought that he would be most unenthusiastic, but he was really enthusiastic. In view of your ruling, Mr. Speaker, I cannot reply to him on the subject of the Welsh Board.

The hon. Gentleman referred to salaries. The chairman of the board will get £3,500 a year and each member of the Board will get £10 per meeting. The secretary and the chief land agent will be paid £3,850 to £4,000 a year. Those are the main salaries that have been agreed.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is pleased with the choice of Appleby for the headquarters. The old hospital has been taken over. It is a good building and worth putting right at what is a very reasonable cost. It should be very satisfactory.

There has not been the undue delay to which the hon. Gentleman referred. This is a new conception of doing something in rural areas. It is a complicated business. We appointed the chairman, and then discussed with him the question of getting the right people. The hon. Member will know that in getting people to do public work one has to find out whether they are willing to do it, whether they are suitable for it, and so on. At the same time, we had to satisfy the hon. Gentleman about the many questions he asked on the subject. Although it may seem a long time since the passing of the Act, the chairman of the board has been selected for quite a time, and is no doubt giving thought to what he has to do.

The hon. Gentleman said he would like to see a balance between agriculture and forestry. There has been almost an antagonism between the two in the past, and it is one of the things we hope that the board will be able to deal with. This balance is regarded all over the world as being of tremendous advantage to these two sides of agriculture, and we want to see the same balance in this country. We know that in this area forestry uses more people than does agriculture, and more forestry would be of great help there.

No doubt the chairman has heard what the hon. Member has said. I will see that he gets a note of what appears in HANSARD. Commons registration is an extremely complicated business, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to go into details. He has raised the question of overlap by various amenity and other bodies. Doubtless the board will have to liaise with these other bodies and I am sure that the chairman will take that into consideration.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman had to speak about "tyrannical powers "—overstepping even his own somewhat extravagant language when dealing with the compulsory purchase of land. I am glad to have the opportunity to put this into perspective. The rural development board is in quite a different position from most other public bodies when it comes to compulsory purchase. It is far more restricted than public authorities, which have the power to acquire land compulsorily for schools, roads etc., although they always proceed by agreement where possible. The board may also buy land for such general functions, but only by agreement.

This is spelled out in Section 46 of the Act. When that Act was going through the House we were happy to accept an Amendment which made it clear that the board could only purchase land by agreement for these general purposes, where the board is carrying out its normal duties, which may include such things as improving farms, laying on services or providing houses for tenants. In such circumstances it has no powers to buy compulsorily. There are circumstances in which it may do so and the hon. Member may well ask when these will be used. I hope that they never will be.

They will be available in special circumstances. One such circumstance is purely defensive. If land is transferred or sold, notification must be given to the board. If it is transferred in breach of this requirement then the board has this power. If someone has broken the law in selling land without the consent of the owner it can be compulsorily purchased. If, in later years, the board was to bring forward a special scheme under Section 51 of the Act for a particular locality it has this power.

However, in such a case, the scheme has to enjoy the overwhelming support of those living in the locality. It is just conceivable that one or two individuals might obstruct the scheme, and the board would have no option but to act by compulsory purchase. Only in these circumstances can it do so, and then only with the Minister's authority. The board would have to have a cast-iron case to persuade the Minister to approve of such a course.

Mr. Jopling

Would the Minister deal with another question, about the recommendation of the inspector that certain land in Westmorland should be included in the board's area? The Minister was not able to accept that?

Mr. Mackie

This arose because the land-owner alleged that evidence relating to his land was presented at the hearing without his knowledge, and without his being able to reply to it. The inspector wanted to be absolutely fair and the hearing for this extra bit of evidence is to be arranged as soon as possible after the board has been established. We hope that we can get it done immediately after the holidays.

In spite of the hon. Member's so-called qualified welcome, I am sure that he realises the importance of this Order. It will have an effect over a huge area and on a large proportion of the population. We hope that the effect will be a good one and I trust that the House will accept the Order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board Order 1969, a daft of which was laid before this House on 1st July, be approved