HC Deb 30 November 1983 vol 49 cc868-9
5. Mr. Wallace

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what steps he will be taking to promote rural development in Scotland.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Ancram)

We shall continue to direct Government assistance in appropriate ways towards rural communities in respect of agriculture, economic development and the provision of social services.

Mr. Wallace

I thank the Minister for his reply, but he did not mention the Highlands and Islands Development Board and the role that it can play in rural development in Scotland. Is he aware that the chairman of the board recently said that, because of the increase in applications, new applications might have to be delayed and financial aid to others might well fall short of normal levels? Is the Scottish Office prepared to back success? If so, what immediate plans does it have to mitigate the consequences of the severe pressure placed on the board's financial resources?

Mr. Ancram

Had the hon. Gentleman been in his present position a little longer he would have realised that the Government put a high value on the work done by the board. It has been well treated by the Government in the past, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that funds granted by the Government have risen each year, from £12.7 million in 1978–79, to £29.8 million in 1983–84. I hope he will welcome the fact that the activity generated by the board has caused the circumstances that he described.

Mr. Wallace

What are the hon. Gentleman's plans?

Mr. Henderson

Is my hon. Friend aware that in rural areas one of the great concerns is over public transport? Will he initiate further studies into what can be done to help with this problem and the possibility of making a distinction in rate support grant treatment between concessionary fares, which are often extremely beneficial to many people, and free fares, which use a lot of ratepayers' money to benefit those who have public transport, but not those who have none?

Mr. Ancram

I shall consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said. As he may know, I met COSLA recently to discuss these matters, and in coming to a decision I shall take into account what my hon. Friend and COSLA have said.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Will the Minister address himself to the question of the Highland and Islands Development Board? Is he aware that although his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said clearly in the House that if there are viable projects money will not be denied to them, that is what is happening now with the board?

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman must accept that the level of support will have to be considered in the light of public expenditure constraints. The provision for 1984–95 will include the final £4.5 million of the £10 million committed to special measures in the Invergordon area following the closure of the aluminium smelter.

Mr. McQuarrie

Does my hon. Friend accept that the HIDB has poured millions of pounds of public money into projects that have gone bankrupt, and has then given additional money to similar firms that have become bankrupt for the second time? Now that the Government have decided to give aid to the north east coast of Scotland, through the services of the Scottish Development Agency, will this not be welcome, and is it not time that these areas were given assistance, rather than wasting millions on the Highlands and Islands?

Mr. Ancram

I have noted what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Kennedy

Surely the Minister should condemn the sentiment expressed by his hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie). Will he take the opportunity to do so, and, further, given his previous reply, take the opportunity to explain how it is that a constituent of mine, who wrote to me this week with an interesting proposal to set up the only double glazing producing factory of its type in Inverness, has been rejected by the board because the money is not available? Is that the Conservative initiative in economics?

Mr. Ancram

Having given the hon. Gentleman the figures of what the Government have provided, I am surprised that he is not prepared to welcome the assistance that the Government have been giving to the Highlands. I repeat that the level of uptake from HIDP resources is a sign of the activity going on in that area.

Mr. Forsyth

Are there not plenty of sources for funding venture capital in rural areas, and is it not the case that what is needed are fewer taxes and rates, which are the biggest disincentive to growth? In his discussions on rural transport, will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to consider reducing the restrictions and regulations which prevent private individuals from running minibus services, which could provide much-needed services in those rural areas?

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I note his comments.

Mr. O'Neill

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's belated conversion to supporting the Highlands and Islands Development Board. Will he assure us that he will not completely neglect that board, bearing in mind the fact that it has refused to support the EC's agricultural development plans for its area, as there is a feeling abroad that the Government have turned their back on the region?

Mr. Ancram

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should say that we have belatedly recognised the needs of the Highlands. I have already given details of the increasing sums of money that are being made available. The Opposition should hang their heads in shame when they consider their record in government. I suspect the hon. Gentleman was referring to Highland farmers. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was pleased to announce on 17 October an enhancement of the rates of the hill livestock compensatory allowance on hill cows and sheep in the Highlands and Islands Development Board area, which will be introduced in parallel with additional assistance for marginal farming areas. The new rates will be warmly welcomed by the farmers concerned as tangible recognition of the disadvantages of farming in the Highlands and Islands.