HC Deb 04 June 1992 vol 208 cc1020-30

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

8.45 pm
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I am sure that it is a relief to the Minister and everyone else concerned that this debate is not, after all, taking place in the wee small hours, as we had been warned that it might. I therefore welcome the opportunity of raising the question of the Government's economic and social policies for island communities in Argyll, which is a subject of paramount importance to my constituents, to me and, indeed, to all highlanders.

There are many islands, large and small, off the coast of Argyll. Argyll derives its name from the word Erraghaidheal, meaning in Gaelic "the boundary of the Gaels": as he takes stock, the Prime Minister might do well to note that it was at Dunadd, near Crinan, that—around 500 AD—the first seeds were sown from which Scotland grew as a unified nation and state.

What I want to examine tonight, however, is the Government's strategy, or lack of it, in regard to the islands and their communities. Theirs is a sad history. There is the jewelled beauty of Jura, once populated with a people living a life balanced with nature, and now almost empty. I am told that Jura used to export 1,000 head of cattle a year until the clearances and the appearances of the "white plague", as the sheep were called when they were brought in. Then there are the deserted and lonely glens of Mull, the families who are leaving Colonsay because no houses are available, and the indigenous folk of Coll, now a minority. All have suffered the ravages of time, the infamous clearances, Governments without vision, and depopulation, with the resulting loss of language, culture and traditions.

My particular concern, however, is to bring to the Minister's attention the plight of the island of Gigha. Gigha—not a Gaelic but a Norse name, meaning, I believe, "god's island"—lies three miles off the coast of Kintyre in my constituency. It has a population of about 140, with nine children in the school. Some people are—or were—employed in agriculture, fishing, fish farming, the hotel, the shop and the estate.

Today, the island is in the hands of a Swiss bank as a result of the owner—a property speculator—going bust. The previous owner bought it for an estimated £3 million, and sold it in 1989 for £5.4 million; today, it is once more up for grabs at an estimated £7 million.

In the previous debate on Mauritius the Minister observed that one cannot put a price on a person's home. According to a director of the Edinburgh agents, Savilles, who are advertising the sale of the island, Gigha is very much a little paradise on its own. You would buy it for its charm and privacy, to own your own little country. That says it all. There is not a word about the people who live in the place. I visited the island recently. The hotel has been closed. Padlocks are snapped on to the doors of other properties. The mood of the people ranged from anger to despair. Some felt humiliated. All of them were anxious about their future.

The Minister is aware that I wrote to the Secretary of State in March of this year. I reminded him that this was exactly what I had sought to avoid when I tabled amendments aimed at controlling the sale of Scottish land during the passage of the Scottish Enterprise Bill in 1987. I wanted Highlands and Islands Enterprise to be vested with speedy and effective purchase powers to protect those living on Gigha from being exposed to the vagaries of a market that threatens their livelihoods and the whole character of the island.

I pointed out to the Secretary of State that the assumption that the island and its way of life could be used simply a s collateral in the affairs of a speculative property empire was offensive to anyone with even the most primary understanding of the need to maintain continuity in the rural economy, upon which much of our social stability depends. I said also: We shall never achieve a stable and equitable society in Scotland if this kind of market practice is allowed to prevail in the disposition of its land, perhaps its greatest asset. During the debate on the Highlands and islands Enterprise Bill, I was not talking about nationalisation of the land, or even compulsory purchase. In fact, I tabled a probing amendment on the powers of the former Highlands and Islands Development Board. I tried to persuade the Government that Highlands and Islands Enterprise should have powers relating to land use and its development, for the better quality of life of the people in the area. To have given Highlands and Islands Enterprise pre-emptive rights of purchase in limited cases, with suitable safeguards, to make better use of the land and to secure the social viability of a place such as Gigha was at the heart of my argument.

The Minister knows that Highlands and islands Enterprise was given the general function of economic and social development, together with training and environmental improvements, but I maintain that it is not possible to do that effectively without considering land ownership and land use. The Minister will be aware of television and press reports which highlighted the fact that huge areas of land in the Highlands and Islands are often bought and sold by unknown purchasers, or are owned by shadowy, anonymous companies incorporated in places such as Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Caribbean.

The laws and conventions governing land ownership in Scotland go back to the dim and distant past. Only a few people have a real stake in that land. The power of land ownership has had profound influence on rural land use and rural communities. Do not get me wrong: there are good and bad landlords, and those who are deemed to be good care for and feel responsible for those who live on their land. However, until a Government have the courage to tackle the problem of feudal land ownership, it will remain a running sore and a cause of deep resentment and bitterness. The English had the good sense to get rid of their feudal system hundreds of years ago, in 1290. For us to retain in Scotland the titles of superior and vassal in this modern day and age is beyond belief.

To return to my letter to the Secretary of State, I was surprised and not a little taken aback when I received a rather curt reply not from the Secretary of State but from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton). Its peremptory tone leads me to believe that it was not written by the Minister, who usually deals with these matters in a more courteous and understanding manner. At the end of his very short letter he said: The compulsory approach"— although that is not exactly what I was advocating—

as Ian Lang made clear, is incompatible with economic growth and development. What kind of an answer is that? Not a word was said about the social consequences. Reference was made only to economic growth and development. I do not understand how a Minister with responsibility for matters affecting the highlands and islands can adopt so irresponsible an attitude to the social economy of the island.

Even the most elementary understanding of the need for stability and continuity in a rural economy must acknowledge that to expose an island such as Gigha to unfettered market forces simply turns it into a shuttlecock for financial speculators. Failure to secure continuity in a rural economy such as this is one of the greatest dangers to its prosperity. That danger now faces Gigha because of the lack of an adequate policy over Scottish land disposal.

I had hoped that the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991 would allow us to have a second bite at the cherry. There are powers to purchase in order to establish nature reserves. The Minister said that these are powers of last resort, to be used in emergencies. I do not advocate that Gigha should be made into a nature reserve—far from it —but the island faces an emergency.

Scottish Natural Heritage was established in order to secure the conservation and enhancement of the natural heritage of Scotland, the flora and fauna of Scotland, its geological and physiographical features, its natural beauty and its amenity. Section 3(1)(f) of the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991 also made it a duty of Scottish Natural Heritage to take account of the interests of local communities. How can SNH use the powers to protect the future of the island of Gigha? How are the contents of the Minister's recent letter compatible with the thrust of the Act which set out such admirable intentions?

The Government's stand-off attitude saddens me. Another example is the fact that the Kartli still lies wrecked off the shore of the island. Sadly, it was hit by a huge wave just before Christmas. It contains 400 tonnes of rotting fish which has not been removed and is now beginning to smell. The ship will soon break up and no Government Department seems to be able or willing to take responsibility for doing anything about it.

It is worth noting that this week the Government are going out of their way to rescue the investors at Canary Wharf in London by considering moving the Departments of the Environment and Transport out to that bankrupt development. Perhaps the Minister would consider moving a Scottish Office Department to Gigha.

I have endeavoured to acquaint the Minister with the problems facing my constituents on Gigha. I should like to suggest some solutions. First, he should purchase the island via either Highlands and Islands Enterprise, SNH or the Agriculture and Fisheries Department of the Scottish Office, which is already a landowner. Secondly, he should undertake a review of the laws governing land ownership in Scotland. Thirdly, he should agree to abolish the archaic feudal system.

By designating the islands of Argyll as environmentally sensitive areas, the Government have already acknowledged that they are of national environmental significance; that includes Gigha. How will the Government respond? What policy or strategy does the Minister have to deal with this? If the Minister's answer is negative, as regrettably I expect it to be, this Adjournment debate, if it achieves nothing else, will at least have served to show the prospective buyers of the island of Gigha the commitment and responsibility that I, and I hope the Minister, would expect them to discharge towards the islanders.

9.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) on securing this Adjournment debate. I know that the economic and social well-being of the many small island communities in her constituency is a subject close to her heart, and her words will have struck a sympathetic chord with all who hold the islands of Scotland dear. In view of the many changes taking place in the hon. Lady's constituency, it is entirely appropriate that we should take this opportunity to take stock and examine the progress we have made.

I am delighted to be able to use this occasion to reaffirm the Government's commitment to the island communities of Argyll. This year, we have increased the budget for Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Government's agency for furthering economic and social development in the highlands and islands, to £77 million. In recognition of the particular problems occurring in the hon. Lady's constituency due to the withdrawal of the United States Navy from Cowal, this sum includes an additional £3 million towards the regeneration of the Cowal area.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise has responded by awarding Argyll and the Islands Enterprise, the local enterprise company concerned, the highest allocation of resources of any local enterprise company in the Highlands and Islands Enterprise network. Its budget of over £12 million has been increased by well over 20 per cent. compared with last year's budget. Thanks to Scottish Office policies, control over local matters is taking place at local level. Action to promote economic and social regeneration is being carried out by those who understand the area and have a stake in its future.

I have every confidence that Argyll and the Islands Enterprise under the chairmanship of Norman Walker will give priority to the island communities for which it is responsible, and will respond to local needs efficiently and effectively.

Our commitment to the people of Argyll and Bute is further illustrated by the substantial increase in the capital spending allocations that we have been able to give to Argyll and Bute district council for its non-housing capital programmes. Historically, the council has received an allocation of around £750,000 a year. We increased that to £825,000 for 1991–92, when it became clear that there would be problems in Cowal following closure of the naval base at Holy Loch.

Subsequently, we received the Cowal task force report. In the light of the implications of that report, we have increased the council's allocations further to £1.1 million for 1992–93, this figure being maintained provisionally for 1993–94 and 1994–95. An increase of 57 per cent. over the level of allocation the council received previously, amounting to £1.2 million over three years, gives Argyll and Bute district council greatly increased flexibility. I am delighted that we have been able to help, and I know that the council will respond in like spirit.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said that the island of Gigha means God's island. I share her concern about the circumstances surrounding the proposed sale. The Scottish Office fully recognises how worrying recent events must have been for the people who live and work on Gigha, which is a lovely island with a population of about 150. Farming and fisheries, including fish farming, provide the main source of employment. The local hotel, which is well known to many visitors, is also important. This is a clear example of a fragile community on the periphery of Europe—precisely the sort of community whose wellbeing is treated by Highlands and Islands Enterprise as among its most cherished priorities.

I sympathise with those who lost their jobs, but we should not take a too pessimistic view of their situation. I am confident that, when the island is in new hands, there will be scope for their re-employment. Meanwhile, they are underpinned by the usual welfare arrangements and by the mutual help which is such a strength of Scotland's remote rural communities.

Tenancies are protected by the various housing and agriculture Acts. Farm leases are governed by the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 1991, under which a long-standing tenancy can pass to the successors of a deceased tenant. Landlords can serve incontestable notices to quit only where the successor is not a near relative. I shall be only too ready to look into any immediate cases of personal hardship on the hon. Lady's behalf. I feel sure that she will get in touch with me if I can assist.

For the longer term, I feel confident that Gigha will survive the present crisis. I know that Argyll and the Islands Enterprise fully recognise Gigha's problems of fragility and remoteness. It is monitoring the situation, and once the ownership position is clarified, it will stand ready to assist in economic and social development if and where a need is established. I understand why the hon. Member is so interested in the circumstances of the sale, but it is essentially a private matter which I am sure will be resolved by those concerned.

Highland land use has long been a particularly difficult and sensitive issue. Some appear to believe that all land in the Scottish highlands should be subject to a more or less compulsory purchase regime, under which a corporate body such as Highlands and Islands Enterprise had powers of purchase or direction. That power would be available if a corporate body believed that the land was being misused or neglected.

The Scottish Office is opposed to that approach. We believe that it is interventionist in character and that it assumes that corporate bodies are in a better position to determine how land should be used than those directly involved. We believe that land matters should be dealt with on the basis of consultation and mutual co-operation. We are confident that the future prosperity of the highlands and islands is best served by the removal of anti-competitive rules. We have no plans to introduce nationality or residence requirements for purchasers of land or property. The nationality of a landowner does not determine the quality of his management or the welfare of his employees.

This does not mean that we believe that the legal framework should be set in tablets of stone. At the Government's request, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) is well aware, the Scottish Law Commission is carrying out a detailed review of property law in Scotland, including an investigation into the so-called feudal system. We intend to await the commission's detailed conclusions and recommendations before considering whether and what changes in the law are needed. That is still some time away; meanwhile, ownership matters should be resolved within the framework of existing law. Land ownership is not a matter on which I have a locus to intervene. However persuasive the hon. Lady is, I do not wish to adopt the mantle of paternalism in this matter.

The hon. Lady also asked about Scottish Natural Heritage. I shall make inquiries about whether it could conceivably have a role in Gigha, and if so, in what circumstances. If I may, I shall write to her about that.

The hon. Lady also asked about Kartli, the Russian vessel. We have taken an interest in the matter because of the implications for our environmental responsibilities. It has taken time for arrangements for disposal to be put in place because the owners responsible for such arrangements are from the new republic of the Ukraine, but United Kingdom lawyers acting on their behalf have appointed a salvage contractor to dispose of the cargo and vessel when the necessary funds arrive in this country, which we hope will be in the next few days. I am glad to confirm that there have been no adverse effects on the marine environment as a result of the incident, but we shall continue to keep a close eye on it.

I shall give some examples of assistance to island communities in Argyll. Practical assistance to island communities is a high priority of the Highlands and Islands Enterprise network. Projects which have been assisted in Argyll include the development of a shellfish farm, an adventure school, a chocolate factory, and workshop premises. Argyll and the Islands Enterprise in its first year of operation has in fact provided assistance towards 59 islands-based projects worth nearly £1 million, creating more than 60 new jobs. That is well above the job creation target which had been set, and it is a creditable performance.

There are also several large cases in the pipeline, ranging from tourist developments to environmental improvements. These are not isolated projects the Highlands and Islands Development Board, forerunner of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, long recognised the importance to island communities of economic and social development.

Assistance to cases in the Argyll islands has ranged from just a few hundred pounds in Tiree to tens of thousands of pounds in Islay. I am sure, for example, that the hon. Lady, like me, is delighted at the success of the Mactaggart Pool on Islay, an excellent example of a successful partnership of the voluntary sector, the private sector, public agencies and local authorities. HIDB also provided economic assistance to the refurbishment of the winter gardens in Rothesay, helping to retain a building of architectural value in a prominent part of the town. Argyll and the Islands Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise are following it with a new initiative—the Bute partnership—which has worked out proposals to regenerate Rothesay town centre.

These proposals have still to be endorsed by the partnership's main funding partners. Meanwhile, Rothesay has already benefited from projects such as the refurbishment of a hotel, creating 11 jobs, arid the relocation and development of a food manufacturing business.

Perhaps it would assist the hon. Lady if I said a little about Cowal. The effectiveness of Scottish Office policies is illustrated by what is happening there. In little over a year from the United States Navy's announcement of its withdrawal from the base, the local enterprise company set up the Cowal initiative to prepare and implement an action plan for the area. The Cowal task force is now taking these proposals forward. Advance factory units are being built at Sandbank, the eyesore of Robertson's yard is being removed and the local swimming pool is being refurbished.

I greatly look forward to seeing these developments for myself, and I am in touch with Argyll and the Islands Enterprise about suitable dates. I will, of course, let the hon. Lady know well in advance when a visit to her constituency is arranged, and will be delighted if she will join me on that occasion, as she did when I visited Caledonian MacBrayne.

In the hon. Lady's constituency as a whole, Argyll and the Islands Enterprise is of course making a tremendous impact for the better. Its land renewal work at Oban is the largest single project of its kind in the whole of the HIE network area. Perhaps I could single out one general project which is of enormous significance for the whole of Argyll: the British Telecom Highlands and Island initiative.

This joint initiative between Highlands and Islands Enterprise and British Telecom is bringing enormous benefits to the Highlands and Islands. Throughout the whole of this remote area on the edge of Europe, access to the dial plus is now the rule. In terms of quality, the people of the Highlands and Islands enjoy a better service than, for example, anything available in comparable areas of rural England, such as Northumberland or Cornwall.

For business users, the system provides faster, cheaper and safer transmission of data. This facility enables distance or tele working, and reduces the obstacles once encountered by those working in remote rural areas, enabling them to compete on equal terms with those working in more accessible parts of the country.

The Government take every opportunity to stress the special needs of areas such as the islands of Argyll to the European Commission in Brussels. All possible steps are and will be taken to ensure that such areas derive the maximum possible benefit from European funding.

Argyll comes under the Highlands and Islands objective 5(b) programme, which aims to promote the development of rural areas. It is eligible for support from all three European structural funds—the European regional development fund, the European social fund and the European agricultural guidance and guarantee fund, commonly known as FEOGA. Under the Highlands and Islands programme of community interest 1988–91, the island communities in Argyll have benefited by almost £4 million from European regional development funding.

Within the communications sub-programme, almost £3 million was approved in support of projects such as cattle grid improvements, safety fencing, and pier fender upgrading on Mull; road and bridge upgrading and strengthening on Mull, Islay and Bute; and ferry service improvements to Coll and Tiree. To provide water services, to improve inadequate, inconsistent or poor-quality water supply to remedy the lack of adequate sewerage facilities, almost £1 million of European regional development funding has been made available to Arran, Tiree and Islay.

Tourism development is important to the economies of the Argyll island communities. In support of that, the European Commission has provided over £100,000 to develop a heritage trail at Tiree and the creation of a residential centre in the sparsely populated south-west of Mull. The Argyll area also benefits from the LEADER community initiative, which aims to encourage diversification in rural areas. Out of the £4.5 million allocated to LEADER in Scotland, £900,000 was earmarked to be spent in Argyll between 1992 and 1994. The island communities will benefit from part of that allocation.

All this means that, in European terms, the islands of Argyll are given substantial priority and recognition. I assure the hon. Lady that we will not lose sight of the European dimension when working for the well-being of her constituency.

I shall touch briefly on the ferry services about which the hon. Lady spoke so passionately when we considered bus privatisation. We recognise that many small island communities are almost wholly dependent on the ferry service for contacts and trade with the outside world. Ferry services provide a vital transport service for both people and goods, and are therefore vital to maintain the social and economic development of the islands and to facilitate the growth of industries such as tourism.

We stand by the commitment to continue to provide financial support to Caledonian MacBrayne for ferry services which are necessary to maintain and improve social and economic conditions in the islands. Examples of that commitment to the continuing development of ferry services to islands off the Argyll mainland are the new linkspans on Coll and Tiree, which will become operational in June and provide a much improved roll-on/roll-off service to Oban.

Later this year, a larger vessel will be introduced on the service to Gigha, with increased capacity for vehicles and passengers and offering a full roll-on/roll-off service. Next year, it is planned that the Kennacraig-Islay service will be provided, with additional capacity and an improved standard of service. Those examples illustrate the Government's concern, and continuing commitment, to make available the resources required to maintain and improve essential ferry services.

It is worth my touching briefly on the reform of the common agricultural policy, which is also important to the hon. Lady's constituency. Agriculture and fishing, of course, remain vital elements in the economy of the islands. I am sure that the island communities will be well aware of the significance of the recent agreement on reform of the CAP. In the short time available, I will mention only a few key points.

The most important thing to note is that, on balance, the CAP reform package holds out real, tangible benefits for the agricultural community in the Scottish islands. In particular, it offers our farmers some relief from the prolonged blight of uncertainty.

The agreement reached two weeks ago in Brussels marks a turning point for agricultural policy in western Europe. In future, support prices for cereals will more closely reflect market prices, and agricultural support will be channelled more directly towards the farmer. That support will increasingly take account of the contribution that farmers and crofters make to the conservation of our countryside. Consumers will benefit through lower prices.

The final terms of the agreement represent a tremendous achievement for the United Kingdom negotiating team in Brussels and especially for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The EC Commission's attempts to discriminate against larger farms were comprehensively dismissed. That will come as a great relief to farmers in Scotland, where our flocks and herds and farms are larger not just than the European average but than the British average.

The Brussels agreement includes a new premium for beef farmers aimed at supporting extensive production. It retains support for livestock farmers in the less favoured areas, recognising just how important farming is in our remote and disadvantaged rural areas. For sheep and beef, the new arrangements should help to protect the livelihoods of farmers in the highlands and islands who have, in recent years, suffered from the growth of livestock businesses in the lowlands.

Of course, that is not the whole story. Agriculture in the islands will continue to face financial pressures. If we are to retain viable farming communities, we must help farmers and crofters to adjust. For that reason, specific programmes have been set up for farmers and crofters in the highlands and islands. The agricultural development programme, for example, has been in place since 1988. Since then, around 300 farm development plans and a similar number of livestock development plans have been approved for farms and crofts in the Argyll area and small islands alone.

Those plans will attract grants of more than £5.5 million for farm improvements and new businesses. That injection of resources will have wider economic benefits. The rural enterprise programme, which we extended last year to parts of Argyll, aims in particular to encourage new businesses in those areas linked to the agricultural holdings.

In the view of the hon. Lady's keen interest in environmental matters, I stress that we have given a substantial boost to environmentally friendly farming in Scotland with the recent announcement to designate five new environmentally sensitive areas and to extend and improve the first two ESAs. I am pleased to say that one of those new areas to be designated will be the Argyll islands, which will include the islands of Islay, Jura, Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, Iona, Mull, Gigha and other small islands. That announcement and the inclusion of those islands have already been given enthusiastic support by environmental bodies.

In common with the existing ESAs, those new schemes will be tailored to the local circumstances to help conserve areas of landscape, wildlife or historic values. The designation will allow many farmers and crofters in these islands to take advantage of enhanced payments for positive environmental management.

There are many other matters that I could mention, but the hon. Lady has not touched on them tonight. I end by thanking her for raising these matters. I will write to her on the subject of Scottish Natural Heritage.

I am sure that, even from this brief debate, the hon. Lady will appreciate that the island communities of Argyll are far from neglected. Every opportunity is and will be taken to ensure that those communities are no less advantaged than the more central areas of Scotland. In some ways, the islands of Argyll offer a quality of life unobtainable in mainland areas, which is why, if the hon. Lady invites civil servants to Gigha with great enthusiasm, she may find that more go than she expects. I have every confidence that Argyll island communities will continue to benefit from the Government's economic and social policies. I thank the hon. Lady for raising these matters tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-jour minutes past Nine o'clock.