HC Deb 29 November 1973 vol 865 cc761-74

12.30 a.m.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

Nothing in nine years' experience of representing the constituency of Inverness remotely compares with the bitter frustration I have had in trying to get something achieved in the Island of Raasay, and what I feel can be only a pale shadow of what the islanders themselves feel. I am not in the habit of using exaggerated language for effect, but I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that the way in which the islanders have been treated by Dr. Green—the man who owns, as a result of successive sales by the Department of Agriculture since 1961, the most significant properties in the key area of the island—and by the authorities, local, regional and national, which have the responsibility for acting for the public good is a total, unmitigated, shameful scandal.

I start by making three quotations from the mountain of correspondence which I have with me in the House. On 13th July 1965, Lord Hughes, who was at that time Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office, wrote to me saying : The Department of Agriculture are exploring with Inverness County Council the question of providing suitable shore terminals for a short sea crossing between Raasay and Skye. On 6th June Lord Hughes again wrote to me saying that his Department had investigated the possible sites for the ferry terminals and all are agreed that the most suitable site for the Raasay terminal is at Churchton Bay. He went on : In short, the Raasay terminal has been chosen. On 31st January of this year the Minister who is present here tonight wrote to me saying : Thank you for your letter of 22nd December 1972 about the compulsory purchase orders applied for by the Inverness County Council relating to the proposed ferry terminal at Raasay. He then dealt with Dr. Green's objections and concluded by saying : I am arranging that the Inquiry should be held as soon as possible. Seven and a half years have elapsed between Lord Hughes' decision and today, when the result of the inquiry is still not known. To be more precise, although I wrote in my notes that the inquiry result is still not known, since then I have learned—not from the Scottish Office, not from any Minister, but from the good offices of the Press—that a statement has been issued today to the effect that a decision has been taken and that the county council's compulsory purchase proposals have been accepted.

I welcome this decision, which admittedly was reached extremely slowly, but I wonder at the kind of govermental attitude whereby no attempt was made to inform me of this—if I had not had some friends at court in the Press I would not have known about it—and whereby the announcement was made on the evening when this debate was taking place. I am increasingly concerned about this attitude to Parliament. I think that it is very regrettable.

Nevertheless, the basic facts remain. It has taken 7½ years to decide on a little ferry to a little island which has suffered, as everyone has agreed and agreed and agreed, depopulation, stagnation and neglect.

Let us flick quickly through the years. On 9th December 1968 the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), then the Secretary of State, said, in a Written Answer : Sufficient details … have now been supplied to Inverness County Council to enable them to proceed with their plans for the necessary terminals."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December 1968: Vol. 775, c. 43.] On 18th June 1969 the then Minister of State, the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) said : I fully appreciate the feelings of the people of Raasay and it is undeniably true that the proposal for a vehicle ferry service to the Island has been under consideration for a very long time. The primary initiative rests with the County Council, but I understand that they are finding it difficult to reach a decision. On 26th May 1970, Sir Robert Grieve, then the Chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, wrote : We are as anxious as you about the situation and we lose no opportunity of pressing the County Council on the matter. On 19th August 1970, the noble Lady, Lady Tweedsmuir, then the Minister of State at the Scottish Office, said : The Scottish Development Department have now received from Inverness County Council proposals for the construction of terminals for this service. A meeting between representatives of the Department, the County Council and the Scottish Transport Group seems necessary. I hope that these discussions may lead to progress being made. On 12th March 1971 the County Clerk of Inverness wrote : I had hoped before now to be able to report about further progress in this matter and indeed the Council have been pressing for some action. In October 1971, the county council and the Minister's Department reached agreement on the sharing of the costs of building the terminals and operating the ferry, which had been the subject of three years' talking, following the passage of the 1968 Transport Act, which laid some obligations on the local authority.

The time that this took was utterly scandalous, and my first two direct questions to the Minister are : first, how in Heaven's name did it take three years to reach an agreement on a relatively simple matter? The House has just dealt with a complex Bill in two days, yet it took three years to reach that decision.

Secondly, why, over all these years—1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1971—did no one from the local authority or the Scottish Office think to ask Dr. Green whether he would be willing to agree to the proposed terminals? Because, of course, since he did not, another two years, plus, have gone by, and it was not until this evening—and we still do not know officially—that we knew whether they could be built.

I now turn to Dr. Green and to the Highlands and Islands Development Board. Dr. Green bought Raasay House and its land in 1961, Raasay Home Farm in 1963, and various other houses over a period of years. He had previously owned the Island of Scalpay, off Skye, for six years, and sold it, as he told me, because his wife found it remote. It is not known whether he made a profit.

It seems clear that Dr. Green had the intention of developing Raasay House as an hotel, and he himself claims to have spent, in the early 1960s, about £40,000 on renovating it. Certainly his activities in the early 1960s were such as to lead the then Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock, to write to me on 26th July 1966 and say : It would seem premature simply to write off Dr. Green's record to date or his potential … I have to bear in mind that in an area such as this it is not a question of picking and choosing between developers. One can comment, in parenthesis, "changed days".

By 1966, either the will or the money had run out, and though Dr. Green was quoted in an article in the Scottish Sunday Express of 12th June 1966 as saying that the hotel will open just as soon as possible" — an article, incidentally, which also contained a quotation from a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries who said that Dr. Green was the only effectual bidder for the land. He bought it. And he can do what he wants with it"— work had stopped, not even preservation work was being done on the house, and it and other properties were falling into decay.

From that moment on, all Dr. Green's actions were evasive, delaying or downright obstructive of anything proposed for the island's benefit. His own allegation, which he has made personally to me, is that in 1966 the Highlands and Islands Development Board had indicated to him that it intended compulsory purchase of his properties and that he therefore would be foolish to spend any more money on them. Leaving aside the fact that that conflicts with recent proposals which he has put before the Inverness County Council, the inexplicable inactivity of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in the seven years since has somehow to be explained. Equally, because of Dr. Green's record in the past seven years, very proper public interest has been focused on the terms of the original sales to him by the State of his properties.

To take the last point first, will the Minister please list the sales made to Dr. Green and tell us whether they were all by publicly-advertised auction and what was paid? Will he also say for what reason the custodians of public property—to wit, the Department of Agriculture —on an island with so fragile an economic structure embarked on these sales?

I accept that time may prevent the Minister from giving a full reply to these matters, complicated for example by detailed but important questions such as that raised with me only this very evening by Raasay's district councillor, Mr. Alasdair Nicholson, whose efforts for Raasay have been unremitting and whose frustration has been the same as mine, as to why the old pier was sold by the Department to Dr. Green after representations against such a sale were made to the Secretary of State, whose advice, I am told, falsely was that the transaction had already taken place. If there is no time for the Minister to reply fully—I accept that problem—let him institute an inquiry and subsequently write to me, publish the results or take whatever other action he wishes to let it be known.

The Highlands and Islands Development Board was established by Act of Parliament in August 1965 to operate for the social and economic benefit of the Highlands. To ensure that it had the power to fulfil its remit it was given compulsory purchase powers, which, the Minister will remember, were extremely controversial at the time. They have never been used. Nowhere in my opinion was their use more needed than in Raasay. What is the point of having teeth and keeping them on the mantelpiece?

I urged the then chairman of the board, Sir Robert Grieve, to use those powers in 1966 and have continued to urge this over the years since while Green's properties have crumbled. It is my information that a proposal to do so was put to the Scottish Office in 1968 but no action was taken.

Through all these years the sum total of a multitude of letters with the Highlands and Islands Development Board was, first, that it told me "We want to develop Raasay". On 31st October 1969 a Press conference was held at which Mr. Prophet Smith, board member, announced that £110,000 was to be spent on Raasay. He was quoted as saying We think that any investment we have on the island will certainly pay off for generations to come". Will the Minister perhaps tell us what happened to that money? Secondly, I was told by the board that it would take no action until the problem of the ferry was resolved.

On 28th March 1972, following a meeting between Raasay representatives, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, chairman of the board, and Lord Burton, chairman of the roads committee of Inverness County Council—a meeting, incidentally, which Sir Andrew denied me the opportunity of attending although I wished to do so—a Press release stated that plans had to be put into suspense pending a decision on the ferry". That was the line equally followed by Sir Robert Grieve. Why?

That view, which spanned two Governments, was to my mind quite indefensible. Surely one either decides to develop or one does not. The board stands condemned in my view for its inaction. Worse still, even if one accepts—which I do not—its approach, I have a letter from the County Clerk of Inverness dated 15th September 1971, following the decision to proceed with the ferry, saying : I have advised the Highlands and Islands Development Board of the County Council's decision so that they may make ready their plans for the development of Raasay. That was more than two years ago, and it has done nothing since. It has done nothing against the background not simply of Dr. Green's obstruction of the ferry terminal construction but also his most recent obstruction of the water board's proposal to replace the antiquated water supply, of which the Minister will know.

I could speak all night about this without any trouble. If the Minister feels that I have given him quotations which are selective or unfair, I assure him that I could multiply them twenty-fold.

I conclude by asking two further questions. Will he, seven years after the then Minister of State for Scotland, Mr. George Willis, agreed to my request to ask the board to look at the economic situation of Raasay, now instruct the board to institute compulsory purchase orders against Dr. Green forthwith, and while the process goes forward produce a plan for the island, in consultation with the islanders?

Secondly, will he himself go to Raasay as soon as he can and explain to the people there why there has been such inexcusable procrastination and delay in dealing with their affairs?

An explanation is the very least they deserve.

12.46 a.m.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I am grateful for the chance to make a very short intervention. In adding to what the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) said, I want to point out that the question of Raasay has been a source of outrage throughout the Highlands and Islands during the period mentioned. Its people have had great difficulties through the non-activity of this faceless tyrant, Dr. Green, who has opposed even the letting of a small piece of ground to allow people to enjoy a ferry service from the neighbouring island of Skye. The Highlands and Islands Board has not been helpful. My experience of the board since it has been in existence is that whenever there has been a conflict of interests between the establishment—of whatever kind—and the indigenous population it has always come down on the side of the establishment.

The Conservative Government have never dealt with the question of landlordism in the Highlands, and neither have the Labour Government, despite a lot of huffing and puffing about it.

To come to the specific case—it is an appalling thing that these people should suffer because of this man who has purchased the island—land, farms, properties and a jetty—for a derisory sum, and that because of his decision the place is deteriorating and decaying, and all kinds of development are frustrated.

In addition to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Inverness, I ask the Minister, first, to tell us—later, if he cannot do so tonight—why the properties were sold and what other offers were received, and, secondly, to give us the name of the person who took the decision to sell at Dr. Green's price.

12.48 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

All who know anything about this long and sad story will sympathise with the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) not only in respect of the problem with which he has had to deal all these years but in terms of the frustration that he expressed this evening. I say to him, and, through him, to those on the island of Raasay, that he and they are not alone in feeling tremendous frustration about the time taken over the problem of Raasay. Over the three years in which I have had some responsibility for the matter I have often wished that I had a magic wand which I could wave to get things moving more quickly.

I shall try to explain as quickly as I can some of the problems that have caused this situation to arise, and in doing so I make it clear that I entirely accept the complaints of the hon. Member and his constituents about the long time it has taken—I very much wish that it had been otherwise—for reasons I shall try to make clear.

Secondly, I am sure that the hon. Member—who spent much of his speech in pretty forcefully criticising Dr. Green, who owns these important properties on the island—would not expect me to spend any time in trying to defend Dr. Green. It is Dr. Green's busines to defend himself if he wishes to do so ; it is not my job.

The past history of this island has been one of problems which have certainly not started in recent years but have been carrying on for a considerable time. It is an island of about 18,000 acres. The greater part is State-owned and includes a number of crofts and substantial grazings. In 1922 it became State-owned and was acquired by the then Board of Agriculture for Scotland as a land settlement estate.

After the war the Forestry Commission carried out afforestation both in the north and in the south of the island. The land in question was resumed from the crofters' common grazings.

It is interesting to note that there has been a steady decline in the population of Raasay over the years, despite this activity and the land settlement scheme. A decline in population, serious though it is, is not a new problem. Afforestation and the post-war rationalisation of the crofting settlements did not manage to arrest that trend. The population declined from 368 in 1921 to 354 in 1931, to 290 in 1951, to 260 in 1961, and to 163 in 1971—the latest census figure.

Raasay House Hotel, the Home Farm, Borrodale House and certain other smaller properties on Raasay were sold in 1961–62 by the Secretary of State. All the sportings in the Secretary of State's ownership were let to Dr. Green in 1962 on a 50-year lease. The mineral rights were not owned by the Secretary of State, but were subsequently acquired by Dr. Green from a former owner of the estate.

It had been hoped—the hon. Gentleman gave us a quotation from the time of the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) to back it up—that the sale of the hotel and other property to Dr. Green in 1961 and 1965 would lead to developments which would revitalise the island—perhaps, for instance, by increasing the tourist traffic. This has not happened. The local view—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree—is that the decline in population has been made worse by the alleged failure of Dr. Green to develop his properties. It is certainly thought by some people that he has even been doing everything that he can to prevent other worthwhile developments. That is the view, of which I have been made aware, of people in the area.

I shall be glad to accede to the hon. Gentleman's request to let him have a list of the sales that have been made to Dr. Green with as much detail as I can attach to them. I shall also write to him about the sale of the old pier about which he asked.

The existing ferry service links Raasay with Kyle, Portree and Mallaig. The former Highland Transport Board suggested Raasay as one of a number of islands where the possibility of improving the transport service by starting a short sea vehicle service should be explored. That has now been done.

When the local authority initiates such a service it will attract grant under Section 34 of the Transport Act 1968, and the county council knows that grant is likely to be offered by the Secretary of State. Approval in principle has also been given by the Secretary of State to grant for the terminals necessary for this service.

It is not for me to defend delays before 1970, when I began to have some responsibility for this matter. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen repre senting the party that was then in power—Members who are not present tonight—will defend themselves, if they can, in due course.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, by September 1971—about a year after I had some responsibility—we got the plan fixed for the transport ferry service to the island. From then on we had to get to work to purchase the necessary ground.

It has not been possible, overnight, to produce a decision on the necessary compulsory purchase orders made by Inverness County Council for the acquisition of land on Raasay owned by Dr. Green to provide a terminal for the ferry. The issues raised by the proposal have been very complex and have required very careful consideration at every stage.

I remind the hon. Gentleman—I often wish that these matters could proceed more quickly—that if one tries to hurry these procedures, they often take longer in the end because of the risk of legal action. Indeed, this has happened in some cases, as everyone knows.

There are two orders in this case, which were submitted to the Secretary of State for confirmation in July and October, 1972. Objections were made by Dr. Green, as owner of the land, and after consideration of these it was decided to hold a public local inquiry, which took place in March, 1973. There was a long and purely technical delay in obtaining the transcript of the inquiry, caused in large part by such a simple but human matter as the illness of the shorthand writer involved in it. This, in turn, led to delay in the production of the report of the inquiry. I very much regret that, but it was due to that factor.

A decision on the orders has now been taken by the Secretary of State in the light of the report of the inquiry. I had great difficulty in deciding how best to make this available because, correctly, it must go first to the parties to the inquiry. I therefore arranged, I hoped for the convenience of everyone, that I could carry out that part of it as late as possible today in order to be able to announce this to the hon. Gentleman in the House. As the hon. Gentleman said, this is the right place to announce it tonight. I hope that he will accept that I did this with the best intentions of helping him as well as those concerned, but I could not have announced it without telling the parties officially. I hope that I have succeeded in doing both things.

This decision has been taken and my right hon. Friend has decided to accept the reporter's recommendation that the orders should be confirmed. The letter giving notice of this confirmation was delivered to the parties today. It sets out fully my right hon. Friend's reasons for his decision. The letter is self-explanatory and it would not be proper to elaborate on it at this time. There was evidence at the inquiry of the need for an improvement in the ferry service to the island and the Secretary of State accepts this need. I am sure that this decision will be widely welcomed as a step towards meeting that need.

I do not have time to deal with the question of water supply, except to say very briefly that I wish that I could ride roughshod over procedures in order to get something done on this matter, but I cannot. The procedures to be followed are laid down by the House. All that I can undertake, as the Secretary of State has already undertaken, I think, in a letter to the hon. Gentleman is that they will be gone through as properly but as quickly as possible. As an earnest of our intentions in that matter, as the hon. Gentleman knows from that letter, the board and the objectors have been told that arrangements will be put in hand now for a public inquiry unless the objections are withdrawn by the end of this month.

The Highlands and Islands Development Board has sought to negotiate with Dr. Green for the acquisition by agreement of the whole or part of his property on Raasay to enable it to formulate and carry out plans for the development of the island. Unfortunately, these negotiations have so far been unsuccessful. I know that the board has also tried to help in other ways, for instance, by giving grant and loan assistance to certain of the islanders towards different types of enterprise. But now that the ferry terminal question has been decided the local authority will no doubt seek to progress its ideas for the introduction of a vehicle ferry. Perhaps that, more than anything else, will help.

It would now be very opportune for the Highlands and Islands Development Board to make a last effort to bring its negotiations with Dr, Green to an early and successful conclusion. If this proves impossible the board will require to consider what further action it should take to secure the development of Raasay. It is not for me to anticipate what the board may decide. Its powers are, however, very wide, and include, as a last resort, the power of compulsory acquisition of land required for the purposes of exercising any of its powers under the Highlands and Islands Development (Scotland) Act 1965.

Progress on the development of Raasay has been much slower than I would have wished. Throughout these proceedings the Government have been trying to hurry things on and trying to do what they can to help. We have done this by announcing the availability of grants for the proposed ferry terminals, by assenting to the Highlands and Islands Development Board's negotiations with Dr. Green and trying to get them pushed on at all times, and now, today, by approving the compulsory acquisition by Inverness County Council of a ferry terminal on Raasay, thus clearing the way for the board to consider the next steps. I know that the board wants to get on with the job. It must be and is determined to try to reverse the trend of depopulation which has been evident on Raasay over the last several decades. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall see, with the board, that we try to press this matter forward in the interests that he has pressed so powerfully for his constituents. I hope that we shall not have to face a further series of delays, and I hope that negotiations will be possible. I hope that Dr. Green and the board will now get down to negotiations to cut out delays.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I tell him earnestly that if he is suggesting to the board that it makes yet again another attempt to reach agreement with Dr. Green, there is little evidence that this will be any more than a further waste of time.

Mr. Younger

It must be a pretty quick but determined effort. The hon. Gentleman will realise that if that were achieved it would save a great deal of time, because if agreement cannot be reached there are many more procedures to go through. But I accept what he says and we shall do what we can to hurry it up—

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

Adjourned at One o'clock.