HL Deb 19 January 1977 vol 379 cc34-84

3.6 p.m.

The Earl of CRANBROOK rose to draw attention to rural depopulation and the 34th Report of the Development Commission; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving the Motion which stands in my name it has been suggested to me that I should remind those of your Lordships who have put down their names and who are going to be good enough to support me that this is a short debate and therefore all of us must try to cut our coat according to our cloth, which is round about 10 minutes. Because I am unable to see the clock I have asked the noble Lord who sits in front of me to turn round and stare fixedly at me when he thinks it is about time I came to a close.

Rural depopulation is a very different problem from that of the falling population in the central areas of towns, because, living as they do in isolated communities, country-people have always had to rely very largely on their own resources—in the old days for almost all the necessities of life but at the present time for leisure-time activities. They have to produce their own substitutes for the theatres, cinemas, bingo halls and the museums which still continue to exist in a town if part of its population sinks away; but if those substitutes disappear in a small rural village the whole way of life of the people changes.

Inevitably this will be rather a "parish pump" debate and I shall speak largely from my own experience of (he rural county and the small village which have been my home for practically the whole of my life—certainly since my boyhood. Villages of our size—and ours used to be just under 300—used to be able to support one or two shops, a post office, pub, church, chapel and for leisure-time activities such things as a football club, a bowls club, scouts, guides, women's institute, flower show and the like. But, now in our village (now with under 200), though we still have our shop, our post office, our pub, our church and our chapel, all around us we see villages just a little smaller in which the number of children has declined until the school is closed. The number of customers declines until the post office goes first, then the shop, then the pub and finally the congregation becomes so small that the church is declared redundant and the chapel closes.

When that happens the bottom drops out of the lives of all the people who are left in that village. The village as a community is moribund; it can no longer provide the facilities which attract and encourage the young men—the key young men—on whom agriculture increasingly depends today. There is nowhere left where the pensioners and the parents of single-parent families can go to draw their allowances, buy their groceries or just have a good gossip.

What perhaps is more important, or just as important, in the villages which are just a little larger, is that as the population dies away it starts to fail to produce the secretaries and organisers on whom the leisure time activities to which I have just referred depend. Whether it is a football club, darts club, flower show, old people's club, all basically depend on the energies and enthusiasm of one man who organises it, and when that one man goes there is no replacement as the village gets smaller. So year by year I can see the village in which I live and villages of the same sort of size gradually sinking, until eventually, unless something is done, they too will become moribund, and in them, too, the whole way of life of people will be destroyed.

In lowland Britain that has not been due, as it has in much of the uplands, to isolated farmhouses being deserted because people will no longer live in them and take their children for miles across the fells to school, or to a slate quarry disappearing and the village in which the workers lived becoming derelict and the houses gradually falling down. In lowland Britain the fall in population has not meant that all the houses have become empty; in fact none of them are empty. The people who live in them, though, are very different from those who lived in them when there was much employment in agriculture. They are mostly, or largely, unproductive workers, the single-parent families to which I have just referred, and in particular the older people, all of whom the improved social services allow to go on living in their homes. A generation or so ago old people would probably have gone to live with a son or daughter—or, if the worst came to the worst, to the workhouse. And, of course, the situation is partly due to the greater age to which most people now live. The result of that has been not that houses become empty but that the size of the households living in those houses has become smaller. In my village, again, if I may give that as an example, the figure has fallen from about 4½ to 4¾ persons per household to about 2¾, and the result is that our population has fallen. If we are going to re-create viable communities in these declining villages we must increase the number of households, and, what is especially important, we have to try to increase the number of young men in full-time work living in the houses.

The increase in the standard of living that has allowed a great many people to continue to live in the houses in the way I have described provides the answer to building up the population again. Before the war, by and large only the reasonably well-to-do had a motor car. Now in rural areas virtually every man in full-time work has a motor car, and a very large number of the young people have a motorbike or a moped; the man in the village street is virtually as mobile as a stockbroker. As boys leave school they go on living at home, they find a job in a neighbouring town and if there is no train or bus they go to work by motorbike. But the crunch comes when they want to marry. No house is available to them in the village. If there is a vacant council house, by reason of the fact that they are young and just about to get married they are well down on the housing list, and that house is probably allocated by a distant district council to one more unproductive family. The young man who lives in the village, who urgently needs a house in order to go on living there and continue to work in the town, does not get it. That is sensible when one is looking at the general housing needs of the district. But times have changed. We are now faced with this real threat of rural depopulation, and the local districts must change their policy.

In addition, every review of rural depopulation points out how some immigration is necessary. That, though, must be spread among the villages such as I have described, which need new householders; and people must not be put in large estates in a few villages. That again means a change in the policy of the district councils. They have to face up to the fact that large estates are not needed, that small-scale developments in small villages are needed; they require a new planning system. The trouble is that the new district councils consist very largely of representatives of urban or semi-urban districts, and they tend to look upon their districts, as indeed do most people in towns in general, as being a series of independent towns with a rural hinterland. What we must learn is that that rural hinterland is made up of a large number of small isolated independent communities. It is those which are dying and creating the rural depopulation about which so many people shed, I am afraid, crocodile tears, because it gets no further than that.

It is only by those who live in small parishes like that, that the need for a change can be made clear. In my own part of the world there is a rather interesting development whereby the councillors representing small parishes have formed special rural interest groups, and they are hoping to make clear to people generally what the problem really is. The first problem is to increase our present population by providing new housing. At the moment, by and large enough work is available in the neighbouring towns. The next step, as our populations start to build up again, is to make quite certain that work is available. In my own county the county council has realised this, and for some little time has been trying to encourage development of industry in small groups in local towns. Experience has shown that that benefits not only the town but also the rural villages within a short distance.

I turn to the import of the Development Commission. In the future it sees itself providing more of that industrial development—not only in the towns, but continuing what it started to do many years ago, which is to encourage small-scale industrial development in villages which are in danger of falling away. Those of us who have seen what the Development Commission has done in the past know that it appreciates all the problems of small villages. We welcome unreservedly its proposals.

I should like to enter one last caveat which affects not only the Development Commission, but also everyone who thinks about this problem. In my county rather over 50 per cent. of the parishes are in the position I have described. However, it does not matter to those who live there whether the rest of the county in which they live is growing and growing. The population of an isolated village suffers in exactly the same way whether it is the only isolated and declining village in a county or whether half the county is in the same position. It is important that in considering this problem the Development Commission and others should bear that in mind and should not become too carried away by the thought of those counties in which the problem is very widespread.

My Lords, I have spoken parish pump politics but this is a parish problem. I hope that we shall hear from the noble Baroness in reply that the Government appreciate the problem, that they will advise district councils to look at it through the spectacles through which I have looked at it and through which all of us in rural districts look at it, and advise them of the cure which I have set out. I beg to move for Papers.

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we are all extremely grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for enabling us to debate this problem. Although I agree with almost every word that the noble Earl said in his opening remarks, I disagree with one point that he made. He prophesied—and he repeated it twice—that this would be a parish pump debate. To me, the problem of rural depopulation is not simply a parish problem, nor is it just a European problem.

It is a world problem. It has been referred to by many noble Lords in other debates on the Third World and on other areas. It is an extremely serious problem. It is recognised as such not only by individual noble Lords here but by agencies, institutions and indeed Governments.

There are plenty of good intentions and good ideas to solve the problem of rural depopulation. However, as with most good intentions that concern Governments, there is a lack of funds available to solve this problem. In the places which we are discussing this afternoon there is also a lack of people and a lack of votes. In such areas this inevitably leads to a lack of funds. Funds are available through various agencies and through the Government. I hope in the very short time available to me in this debate to suggest that perhaps we make the best use we can of the funds that are available at present.

I should also like to put the British problem of rural depopulation in its European context. I draw the attention of noble Lords to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in Resolution No. 26 dated 13th April 1976. This was passed on the basis of: the steps which can be taken to reduce depopulation of rural regions. A number of areas are mentioned in this resolution, but only one area in Britain; namely, Wigtownshire. I do not want to dwell on the problems of Wigtownshire, Dumfries or Galloway, which are areas I know. There are a number of other areas which are similar to Wigtownshire which, for one reason or another, may not have been included in this resolution.

However, we should remember that if the Council of Europe or the Committee of Ministers sought to choose this area as the worst affected in Britain, it is because it is a primary producer area. It obviously has a low population and poor communications. It contains industries of a very basic kind, mainly hill farming and forestry. As I am fortunate enough to speak at the beginning of this debate, perhaps I might make a distinction between rural areas and what I would define as semi-rural areas. I should like to think that the village, the hall, and the church of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, fall into what I have defined as a semi-rural area because his village is not too far cut off in terms of mileage from areas of concentrations of people—a town or communications of one sort or another. There are many primary producing areas in Scotland, Wales, Northumberland and Cumbria, to name but a few. We must recognise the work of the Development Commission, not only in its Thirty-fourth Report but also because of what it has done to bring small-scale industries into these parts of Britain which desperately and sorely need them.

There is also the Scottish Development Agency which I know has been approached by Dumfries and Galloway and other regions about this particular problem. Additionally, there is the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas. Indeed, there is central Government itself, and the Treasury has produced a report on depopulation in rural areas. Therefore, the agencies I have mentioned have funds available. It would be helpful in this debate for us to make suggestions, or give guidance to these various bodies, as to how these funds can best be utilised to solve the problem of rural depopulation.

One might, perhaps, break it down even further. There are two approaches to this. In rural areas of high unemployment the Government may be tempted—and it would be well-intentioned—to introduce just one big industrial unit, a capital intensive and labour intensive unit, which it might be thought would create spin-off industries. It would also soak up the unemployment and produce something different from the primary products of agriculture and forestry. I have heard the view expressed, "Why is it that those who live in rural areas must be designated forever as only hewers of wood and drawers of water? Why not introduce some big industry and let them have the same benefits as an urban dweller has from the industries on his doorstep?"


If I may interrupt, my Lords, on the denigration of "hewers of wood", am I wrong in pointing out to my noble friend that some hewers of wood are first-class craftsmen and produce beautiful carvings? I despair when I hear the phrase "hewers of wood" from a little old Anglo-Saxon proverb.


My Lords, I was borrowing the phrase from Jim Sellers who used it at a meeting in Dumfries this month. I made the same point, that the hewers of wood or the forestry workers need to have far longer and greater training and expertise than an industrial employee, who has a period of days or weeks, and at the end of it has but to press a button on a conveyor belt. A number of representatives from the forest based industries and from the hill and upland farms pointed out that the skills required to live in the country, and to operate a primary producing industry such as forestry or agriculture, take a long time to learn, and it takes a special kind of man to persevere with them. Therefore, I am glad that the noble Earl has raised this point.

There is a temptation to solve the problems of unemployment and depopulation in the countryside by establishing one large industrial unit. I am strongly against this because in areas where it has occurred it acts as a huge magnet, and far from preventing rural depopulation it actually accelerates it. People leave the country districts and come to the town because of the theoretical attraction of large wage packets, and so on. This in its own way creates for the town a problem of inadequate housing, and it leaves empty houses in the countryside.

I am happy to say that the only regional report that I have seen on this problem is that of Dumfries and Galloway, and it has been approached on a small scale. Although the region has a very high unemployment rate, it is recognised that it occurs not all in one place; it is dissipated over approximately 2,000 square miles. Therefore, it will not be solved by one industrial unit, and the pockets of unemployment can be resolved only by introducing the right kind of industry, if such is available—and these are low capital industries—in the areas which need it most.

I want to take up the very little time left to me to mention one point, and this again concerns good intentions. The conservationists, who have done great work, certainly in rural areas that I know, have made some very progressive and helpful statements. I conclude by saying that 1976 was a very good year for conservationists. With the summer visitors they came in vast numbers to look over the hills and dales of upland Britain. But what worries me is that sometimes they put in reports which may restrict or restrain even small scale industrialists from coming to country areas. At a time when I believe that there should be no restrictions, they may also perhaps restrict the extension of forestry, which is the only industry that I know which is managing to create employment in areas where no other industry could possibly exist. Therefore I would say that the conservationists should be cautious concerning some of their remarks about the introduction of new industry in country areas, because they are taken extremely seriously and they can at times be detrimental to the local community, although the remarks are intended to be just the opposite.

Those who wish to restrict the spread of forestry in hill and upland areas of Britain should—and I apply this to conservationists as well—perhaps visit those areas in the months of January and February. In any area over 500 feet they will see a deep frost, or snow, and the only areas where the ground is not frozen is under the trees. The only place where man or beast has any chance of existing in the hard winter is in the forest areas. I speak of Eskdalemuir where we have had temperatures of below 20 degrees freezing, where diesel oil, as well as domestic heating oil, has frozen solid in its tanks.

It needs a special kind of people to live all the year round in these districts, and the forestry areas are the only harbour of wildlife, for stock and indeed for feeding stock. I hope that among the many other matters that we look at in this debate will be that of the increase of the integration of hill and forest farming which could make it possible for an economic unit I survive in the areas about which we are here concerned.

I could go on, but would make just one final point about the Treasury report on rural depopulation. I would hope that the Treasury look at this question in terms of forestry, because the stopping of the planting programmes at this moment will turn away a number of people who have been prepared to spend t their lives working in these rural areas. The Treasury —and let us be quite clear about this—are not at all keen on forestry or foresters, and I suggest that they look carefully at their own report and perhaps consider that they themselves for once can make a contribution towards helping those of us who live in rural areas rather than make life more difficult than it is already.

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for the opportunity he has given to the House to debate this subject. The Development Commission is one of those curious British institutions: it is a body of Royal Commissioners advising the Government on spending the Development Fund, voted annually by Parliament, on the rural areas. It has survived and adapted itself over nearly 70 years. Now, under the first-class chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Northfield, it is doing a better job than ever. As an economist, I am interested in the revival of our poor old economy, and I am certain that small enterprises that are the concern of the Development Commission have an enormous role to play.

The late Lord Keynes taught, I think correctly—though I am not sure that my noble friend Lord Robbins would agree with this—that an increase in output in areas of unemployment is not only not a cost; it is a benefit, through the multiplier, on the level of employment. It raises output, and it also raises the yield of taxes. Moreover, as a student of society, I am concerned about the survival of the social structure of the rural areas, which are being left to decay, as the noble Earl said, in county after county. The interesting point about the Development Commission is that it is concerned not only to foster small enterprises in the countryside, and to provide advance factories to tempt expansion and new businesses to set up, but also to support the rural community councils, the Women's Institutes, the rural work of the National Council of Social Service, and other causes and enterprises that contribute so much of value to our rural life.

My main concern for intervening in this short debate is to look to the future, and to ask my noble friend on the Front Bench some frank questions about the Government's intentions. The Development Commission's work in Scotland and Wales has been taken over by the two new Development Agencies. They were provided with initial budgets which together totalled some £300 million a year for both urban and rural development; and the Chancellor's December announcement has given them access to a further £5 million each for job creation.

Making every conceivable allowance one can for the amount of money spent in the urban areas, that means that the amount being spent in the rural areas of Wales and Scotland is much greater than the Development Commission will have for what remains of its work, which is in England. After all, it is doing most of its job creation and factory building on about £2 million a year, so in my view it is not surprising that an English backlash is beginning. I understand that there may well be moves afoot in another place to block clauses in the devolution Bill until there are assurances about rural England.

This brings me to the immediate period ahead. In the Development Commission's recent three-year report (it is the 34th Report), it was asked by the Government to expand in order to carry out the recommendations of an inter-departmental report on rural depopulation. It set out to create an extra 1,500 to 1,700 jobs a year as part of the report's suggested programme to help save the rural areas over the next ten years or so. I think the Commission has done this in a sensible way. It has asked the rural counties who are losing population to draw up their own action plans to show what can be done—and what they will do themselves by way of housing and infrastructure to which the noble Earl referred—and to add to a programme of advance factories (small factories of 1,500 to 10,000 square feet) provided by the Commission. This means that the Commission is in the business of creating confidence and acting as a catalyst to get development moving, to get output up, to increase tax yields, and so to cut the Government deficit—I think a very good investment for our nation. From inquiries I have made, it seems that this programme got off to a fairly late start and has now slipped, simply because the small pump-priming amount involved, less than £3 million a year, has not been found.

The Commission is attached to that huge enterprise, the Department of the Environment, in those vile buildings just down the road, and some people perhaps think that the Commission is expendable; they do not see it, as they should see it, as part of the Government's job-creation and industrial revival strategy which is so essential to saving our nation. And now, having got a first year of factories under way, all as foreseen in the Government's own report, the programmes for years two, three, four, five and onwards are coming in from counties which are losing population. Once again, there is no assurance of pump-priming money for this investment.

This is a ridiculous situation when one considers the huge sums available for the urban areas through the National Enterprise Board, the advance factory programme, the really tremendous spending which the Department of Industry is doing and, let us face it, the sums which are being spent on the Scots. I do not grudge this to the Scots; I simply want the English to get "fair dos" at the present time. May we have an assurance from my noble friend on the Front Bench that the modest amount of money which the Commission needs and will invest—it is less than £5 million a year—will be found, and may we please be assured that this programme can go ahead for the five or ten years that are really necessary if the rural areas, North Norfolk and parts of the West country, Cumbria and so on, are to be saved.

I come finally to the question of the future of the Commission itself. In that rather unread "Green-edged" Paper on English Devolution there is mention in paragraphs 38 to 45 of the possible need for an English development agency to parallel those which are being set up in Scotland and Wales. But why set up a new body when we already have one which has lasted for 70 years and is doing a first-class job; namely, the Development Commission? In my view we should get it away from very close involvement with the Central Government Department, let it have the independence it needs, let it have its own budget, which probably needs to be about £20 million—this is not Government expenditure but Government investment which gives us a big return—so that it can go ahead, hold the population in the rural areas and stop them drifting to London, Birmingham and all the other big conurbations, revive the small towns, as it is starting to do (a good example of this is Okehampton in Devon), all in partnership with the local authorities, making the local authorities feel that they are doing a worthwhile job.

Against such a need, and with unemployment in the peripheral areas of England, like Cornwall, at such dreadful levels, it seems to me that £5 million as pump-priming is a very modest request. It will, in my judgment, if we get this £5 million, give the Treasury at least £15 million in savings in unemployment benefit and increases in tax yields. Frankly, I cannot think of any other investment which would give us that amount of return at this time.

3.44 p.m.

Viscount RIDLEY

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Cranbrook for introducing this subject and I hope he will return the compliment by giving me a kick in the back if I go beyond my 10 minutes. I wish to speak about the report from the point of view of Northumberland, from where I come. I think we can qualify as having the lowest population per acre in England, if not in Scotland, although when I looked at the list of speakers it struck me that Cumbria seemed to have more Peers to the acre than anywhere else. I have been concerned very much with this problem for some time in Northumberland. It is of course not a new problem; it has been going on for a very long time, as has been said, but because it is such a gradual process and because it is so small scale it does not attract the attention which it deserves and which this debate will bring to it.

The Development Commission has already done a great deal to solve this problem by its policies and I welcome the chance today to pay tribute to its efforts to help Northumberland, in particular the dynamic and helpful chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. His energy in getting things done has been very impressive indeed, and successful, and I wish him every success for the future. He has been fortunate in having behind him the funds which the Development Commission needs to do its job and I mean no disrespect to him when I say that I have sometimes wondered whether, if the same funds could have been given to local authorities, the same results would have been achieved. That is rather beside the point, however, and we are indeed happy to co-operate with him and with the Development Commission and to pursue the policies put forward in the report.

It would be a pity if the state of the economy resulted in the drying up of these funds—as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, mentioned—in the same way that the money available to rural councils is being so seriously curtailed at the moment. That would be a great tragedy and I hope that when the Minister replies she will give an assurance that this programme will not be interfered with as a result of the cuts announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In Northumberland the position regarding rural depopulation may be summarised by the minimum of statistics: between 1961 and 1971 the population of the rural part of our county fell by 8 per cent. and the available jobs in agriculture, fishing and forestry declined from 8,000 to 5,000, a dramatic decrease, and there is no reason to suppose that this trend has yet been reversed.

Indeed, there are many factors which have led to even greater speed of decline. One of them, for example, is the comprehensive reorganisation of education—I speak as one who is entirely in favour of comprehensive education—which has meant in rural areas that many children have to travel much greater distances to school, particularly as they get older, and they are not finding it so easy to return to their villages when they leave.

In this coming year the rural counties are suddenly faced with the need substantially to increase rates. This is because the Government in their wisdom have decided to switch resources from the taxpayer to the ratepayer and, as they have announced, to switch substantial resources to the inner cities. Nobody would deny the appalling depopulation problems of the inner cities. Indeed, that came forcibly to my attention when I was canvassing in the Newcastle Central by-election. I was sent down a road called Blenheim Street right in the centre of Newcastle and I was horrified to find that there were only five electors on the electoral roll; they were all Chinese and they were all out that evening. It is not right to rob Peter to pay Paul—it never has been or ever will be—and doing it on this scale will make it very hard for rural areas.

We in Northumberland calculate that we must put up the county rate by no less than 9p in the pound which is over 16 per cent., merely to replace the lost rate support grant, and of course there is inflation to add. Possibly the reason for this switch to inner city areas is not unconnected with the desire of the Labour Party to retain control of the metropolitan authorities in the forthcoming elections. That may be true or not; I doubt if they will, anyway. The point surely is that any system of local government finance which will allow such political manoeuvres, in either direction, towards urban or rural targets must be wrong. High rates in rural areas will do nothing whatever to help the new local industry which we are trying to attract, even if domestic ratepayers may be cushioned by rent and rate rebates. These new industries need help in the rating field as much as anybody else.

The Treasury report which has been referred to is a very useful document and I found it full of useful facts. It is, for example, extremely interesting to see how much more it costs the Exechequer to provide a job in State forestry than in either private forestry or light industry. The figures support the very good policy of the Development Commission in producing many small factories in many small towns and villages. What a good investment that is, as Lord Vaizey said. We should perhaps ask the Development Commission whether in the future it could give a little more attention—the report does not quite cover the subject as well as it might—to the provision of housing and assistance by the Development Commission to help district councils to produce more housing where it is required for young people. The Earl of Cranbrook mentioned this. I endorse his remarks and hope that this will in future become an important part of the attack on rural depopulation.

I have some doubts about tourism, which the Treasury report seems to think in some respects will solve many problems for us. In my part of the world, we regard tourists as the inhabitants of touring caravans, filled, as likely as not, with goods purchased in urban shops. They clutter up the road and tend to cluster along the coastline looking like fat white slugs and bringing in nothing to the countryside to compensate for the strain that they put on local services for short periods of the year. Tourism is very valuable in other parts of the world and has a big part to play, but I do not believe that it should in any sense be regarded as the answer to the depopulation problems of England.

To my mind, transport is one of the most important aspects of this problem. The cost is going up very fast indeed. In my part of the world, the National Bus Company can think of no solution other than raising the fares. It has done this no less than seven times in the last three years. This means that the villagers are becoming cut off from one another because they cannot afford to travel and, if they do not travel, the buses will lose even more money, with the cost again falling upon the rates. I hope that the Government will give more attention to the needs of local authorities in this respect when resources are available to do so. Of course we all realise the need for minimum public expenditure at this time. Nobody would deny that, but we see that the County of Northumberland is to get £2 million in transport grant for the whole of the forthcoming year and we cannot help comparing that with the £170 million for the underground railway for Tyneside and the £12 million motorway which has just been completed. We wonder whether we really enjoy the theory that even more resources will have to be transferred to inner city areas in the future. The dice are weighted against the rural areas.

One more point that should be made in the field of transport is that I hope that greater encouragement and, if necessary, subsidies will be given to the Post Office to continue experiments with the post bus system. I believe that this has proved to be an outstanding success in Scotland. The one service that we have has also proved successful and a little bit of "pump priming" here by the Development Commission would pay great dividends. Indeed, I believe that, in parts of the Hebrides, the post bus now provides the only known form of public transport and is highly successful and even profitable. So I hope that we can consider this as constructive help.

As the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, has said, the cost of doing something is not great. I have heard it said that the problems of the whole of the North of England could be solved by an expenditure of less than £1 million a year of public money for a period of less than 10 years. That is the scale of the operation that we are talking about. I hope that the Minister will today be able to give us some firm commitment on behalf of the Government to continue to help and to give serious consideration to the problems of rural depopulation.

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, before addressing your Lordships, I should like to apologise to my noble friend Lord Cranbrook for not having been present when he opened this most important debate. I am one of those unfortunate people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Tan law, referred who live over 500 feet up. We have been having almost permanent frost recently and nightly we get about three inches of snow. When that is combined with a puncture such as I had this morning when I found the wheel frozen into the ground, my noble friend will perhaps forgive me for not having been here in time.

This question of the depopulation of rural England is one upon which I have addressed your Lordships before. I find that the position is not improving in any shape or form. The Development Commission is undoubtedly doing extremely good work, but I feel that it is acting a trifle too slowly. One factor that is occurring particularly in the deep rural areas is that the young people are leaving and are being replaced by pensioners and aged people who are seeking retirement. So, though the Development Commission may go ahead and lay out splendid plans for factories and other developments, when it comes to finding the young people to work in them, they will not be there. All the Commission will find are people who are on the verge of retirement or actually retiring. Alternatively—and this is even worse—the Commission will find that the houses have been acquired by people who merely want to use them as summer resorts.

When the small factories are put up—and there have been a number of them —they are nearly always centred on the perimeter of some small town. The people whom the Commission would wish to work in these factories may live anything from seven to 10 miles away down small by-roads in small villages. In some cases, I know of people who live anything up to a mile from a road at all and who have to walk down to the road. Therefore, may I ask the Government and the Development Commission whether they cannot turn their attention to seeing how they may assist the development of rural transport? The situation is really quite extraordinary at times. In my own part of the world there is what people call a market day in the local town, where there has been no market for years. However, the tradition remains that everybody goes there on that day. Down the road to collect perhaps 27 people a 46-seater bus is sent. We have arrived at a moment when, particularly in weather like this, if the bus goes down the road one way nobody goes up the road the other way. When it gets to the end there is a good deal of excitement as to how it is to turn round and then when it is going back up the road nobody can go the other way. The roads are reduced to one-way roads.

I believe that the Development Commission might turn its attention to seeing whether it cannot help some of the bus companies to produce the mini-buses which would not only very suitably carry out the shopping traffic requirement but could also be most usefully used in going from village to village, taking the two, three or four people who want to work in the local towns.

We are also losing and shall lose considerable population as a result of the closing down of the village schools. One cannot really expect, with the limitations laid down as to how far away a child must live before it can get a bus and with the weather we have been having, that a child should walk a mile and a half to the place where the school bus stops and then stand there for anything up to an hour because the bus has not been able to get there. This seems quite extraordinary to me and it happens not once but day after day in this weather. Similarly, they may be able to get back in the end but to expect children to walk anything up to a mile and a half in eight inches of snow after a day at school, where the snow ploughs have not passed and where drifts may be up to three feet deep, is asking a tremendous amount of a child who has to get to a school which may be seven, 10 or 15 miles away. I would ask the Development Commission, the Government and everybody concerned to see whether some better form of transport or better communications of any kind can be organised for these remote villages.

The noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, hit on one point which I consider to be absolutely imperative. That is the provision of houses for young people who are working in these areas. As I have already told your Lordships, the sale of houses at the moment goes from young to old, because the people who are retiring can produce the money at once probably, without any form of mortgages or things like that. But I feel that if local authorities could be helped to build better and far more up-to-date houses, which would be attractive to young people, they would be doing a great deal towards helping to stop the depopulation of the rural areas.

I still think that probably the key to the survival of all deep rural populations lies in proper transport facilities and a proper system of roads and access, as well of general communications such as those of the Post Office. One thing which has hit rural populations very hard has been the abandonment of the Sunday post. In my part of the world the last collection of post at the weekend is at 9 o'clock on Saturday morning, and the next one is at 9 o'clock on Monday morning. In these circumstances, how on earth can anyone reply to an important letter which might arrive at 11 o'clock on a Saturday? What usually happens is that the Post Office collect mail while delivering mail, and a person who has to make an urgent reply is completely hamstrung. No matter what stamp he puts on the letter, nobody will get it before Tuesday.

I should like to ask one more thing of the noble Baroness who is to reply to the debate—and this is my last request. Can she not use some influence with the Post Office to reinstitute the Sunday post in rural areas. I am not saying that this should necessarily be done in urban areas, for which for various reasons I hold no brief at all. But to do this in rural areas would be of enormous help to everyone concerned, and I know that the local Post Office authorities and the local postmen would be only too happy and too willing to do it. They have always said that they did not like giving it up in the first place.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I am one who comes from Cumbria to partake in the debate today, which the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has kindly given us the opportunity of holding. I am grateful to him for that; but I am less grateful to him for picking my speech to pieces, sentence by sentence, and your Lordships will be relieved to hear that therefore I have very little to say. I entirely agree with the points he raised, with just one or two exceptions. I do not know of any village where the pub has disappeared, and I think that he might possibly have mentioned people such as the doctor and the district nurse, who are of course of vital importance in the country and who are among the first to go. Loss of the post office means difficulty for old-age pensioners in collecting their pensions, cashing postal orders from their relatives, and so on.

The noble Earl has made these points, but I should like to summarise them very quickly because this is a comprehensive problem. Some noble Lords have dealt with particular aspects, but I think that the five problems are as follows. First, in the rural areas there must be work at a rate of pay commensurate with that obtainable in the cities. Secondly, there must be adequate housing. Thirdly, there must be adequate transport. That need has been touched upon time and again—it is of course vitally important—and in our part of the world the situation is becoming really desperate for those who cannot afford their own mechanical transport.

Then, more attention should be given to keeping the schools in being. The education departments are closing schools as hard as they can. Logistically they have every possible reason for doing so, but I think that every effort should be made to keep the village schools open. I am quite certain that in these village schools we can get the type of schoolmaster who probably, along with his wife, wants to live in the country and teach perhaps 15 children in a school in a remote village in Cumbria or Cornwall; and those children would get just as good an education as many of the children in our overcrowded primary schools in the cities. Finally, the necessary services must be made available.

One point which has been mentioned only barely calls, I believe, for a little observation. That is the problem of the second home. In the rural areas of Cumbria—and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, will agree with me—approximately 10 per cent. of the houses are lived in by people whom we call off-comers. I emphasise that I speak here only in approximate figures. Some of your Lordships may have seen the article in the Sunday Times a week or two ago about the village of Finsthwaite where practically the whole of the indigenous population has disappeared and the second home owners have come in. One cannot blame a local man who has worked hard on his farm all his life—and was probably born there—for wanting to go into the local town where he has the amenities which he no longer gets in the village. Naturally he will sell his house to the highest bidder. If he can get £8,000 or £10,000 from a solicitor in Manchester, who wants to use the house only at weekends, one cannot blame him for doing that.

I think that this situation raises an ethical question; namely, those who own second homes in our villages should put themselves out of their way to feel that they have come to a new community, a community which they have chosen, a community which they enjoy, and should mix with the people and try to do a fair share in pulling their weight towards keeping village life going. For example, it might be much more worthy to take old Mr. and Mrs. Postlethwaite 10 miles into the town on a Saturday afternoon to do a bit of shopping, than to give a pound towards the village fete. One hopes that those who own second homes—many have not had them very long—will do their utmost to mix with the locals. It may not be easy, but nothing in life is easy nowadays and they should try to do the best that they can for the village.

In conclusion, my Lords, I must say that I am quite convinced that there are large numbers of young, active, intelligent people, young married couples, who would love to live in the country and who would do so if the proper opportunities were given to them. Therefore, I hope that all the questions that have been asked about rural development, and paying for it, will take that into account.

4.9 p.m.


My Lords, if not a new problem, rural depopulation is a very good subject for debate here, and not least because in every generation it takes on a somewhat different form. One factor which we must not forget at the moment, which makes the problem so different from what it was not so long ago, is that nearly every family has one motor car—even in the remote part of the world that we have been speaking of—and sometimes two. But I want to speak in particular about the district I know—again, Cumbria. I live in the North part, and for 19 years I represented the Southern part, Westmorland, in the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord Wilson of High Wray, was twice my opponent at Election time, and later my Lord Lieutenant, and I am very glad of the opportunity to follow him in the debate here this afternoon.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, I would say that our county council has not been slow in preparing action plans. I have them here—116 pages dealing with the less-developed parts of the county. A great deal of it is written in the most beautiful planners' jargon, but none the less there is a lot of good stuff in it.

My Lords, I would submit that, however important this subject is, it is very easy to exaggerate. In every age there has been a tendency for the young to leave areas which are mainly agricultural or where the businesses are on a small scale. The young have gone to explore areas with bigger populations and hence bigger opportunities, and often they have come back with a wider experience than they would have had if they had stayed. I must confess that I did this myself and that I have two sons who are now both in London but who both intend to return; and I am sure that the same applies to a great many people with different backgrounds.

Returning to Cumbria, to those who do not know it, it may look all the same on the map, but in fact the North and the South are very different. The Southern part has had a most interesting historical development. It may be thought to be remote and as rural as any corner of England, but until recently because of water power nearly every village had a workshop or a small mill working wool, timber or leather, which gave a greater variety of employment to the people in the county than was available in many similar areas. It is sad to say that many of those small industries have disappeared, just in the same way as small farms have disappeared. The Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas has done a great deal to help remedy this situation, and deserves all our support.

I would submit that small workshops are just as appropriate in villages inside the National Parks as outside them. We have been slow to accept this; but I can clearly remember the line I took in 1947 or 1948 during the Committee stages of the Bill setting up the National Parks, arguing and urging support for measures to ensure a greater variety of employment in those areas.

The tourist industry can do a lot—much more, I think, than the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, submitted; but then, of course, Northumberland has not got the advantages of some other parts of England—but I admit that it cannot do everything. In this field there is a lot that we can learn from going to see what the Germans have done. They have always been more alive than we have been to the development of small industries—very small in many cases—not only in country towns but also in villages. In particular, since 1945, when they had a problem far bigger than anything we have known of settling the refugees from the East—and the numbers ran to several millions—they have put in hand the most extensive plans for setting up small factories and small businesses in the rural areas and in the villages, as well as in the larger towns. If well sited, there is very little conflict with the strict planning controls—and I think that in many areas the German planning controls over new buildings are stricter than we know them here.

My Lords, that is less likely to happen in Britain unless there are sufficient new houses built by local authorities and, further, unless such houses as are built are spread much more evenly over the whole area and are not concentrated on the edges of the small towns and in certain of the larger villages which are designated as appropriate for development. And in passing, may I say that the present trend of legislation does not encourage the owners of houses to let them to families living permanently in the district. Holiday lets, or even the sale of holiday homes, have an advantage which has already been described in the debate this afternoon, and much of that is thanks to recent legislation of the present Government.

I have one last point, my Lords, If the bureaucrats in any county education department want to break the heart of any village, all they need do is to press to close the village primary school. Some of these schools which are now in danger have up to 40 children and two teachers. That is no exaggeration, and I hope that the noble Baroness, when she comes to reply, will make it clear beyond all reasonable doubt that this must stop. Such schools, especially where the teachers live in the village, are valuable beyond all calculation. Many of them have long and honourable records and traditions and were endowed by the people who have lived in the villages, maybe over several centuries.

Not quite as important as the schools but also important in the sense that the same thing can be said about them, are the village Post Office or sub-Post Office and the district or village nurse. They must stay; and I would add the village policeman, too. Although nowadays he is rarely seen on his feet, he is none the less valuable and respected for that. Then there may be a village bus operator or a post bus. I claim to have done a lot of work in our area pressing for the setting up of the first post bus which still operates out of Penrith, and I am very proud of that. If there is no bus operator, an effort should be made to establish a post bus.

My Lords, one could go on with a long catalogue but in the end it all depends upon population, and that means housing. In our present mixed economy the responsibility for that is mainly, if not wholly, on the authority responsible for housing, and I have already referred to the doubtful policy in many counties where rural housing seems to be concentrated on the edges of the towns. My final plea is that I hope there will be a stop to the closure of these small village schools unless it is reasonable to all the people that they cannot continue, and that a much greater effort will be made to spread the building of houses over the whole of these areas.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, in initiating this debate the noble Earl drew for us a picture of the classic village, much of which has now gone; but what have not gone completely, perhaps, are the kind of social values which went with that village. We all know that that kind of village had less social delinquency; we know that it had fewer probation orders; we know that its schools had fewer calls on such special services as remedial teaching, and so on. But what also went with it and what is harder to quantify is the kind of neighbourliness and social integration which we all recognise when we see it though we find it very difficult to pin down and describe exactly. But it is, in effect, what the commuter and the seeker after the second home is looking for, is it not? My Lords, this quality can be seen in many of our towns, where there are aspects which we regard as rather village-like, as having a certain villageness. Is this not a quality which stays over from the old village, a picture of which the noble Earl painted, which may indeed have lost its function but the form of which survivies? And may it not be that these social values which we find very difficult to pin down, this kind of social cement which, as I say, we recognise even in our biggest towns, can be preserved and possibly superimposed upon our urban areas.

The noble Earl did not say so, but it seems to me possible that in trying to preserve these values we have made an error in the way we have looked at planning. We have tended to look at the planning of villages in terms of the key settlement—that is to say, the village which can be expanded, where it is worth spending money on sewerage, on schools and on transport—where the village becomes a bigger one. It may even become a small town. It may indeed lose those very qualities which I am suggesting, and which I believe the noble Earl implied, can be preserved. On the other hand, you have a village which misses out on this. It may even miss out—and I say this looking very closely at myself—because conservationists suggest that it should not be expanded because it has aspects that are beautiful and must be left as it is, as a museum piece. At any rate, there you have a very difficult question. On the one hand, you have the key settlement policy which is tending to destroy what we want to preserve; on the other hand, we are leaving those villages that we want to preserve not preserved but, in fact, almost ossified.

I do not put forward any ideas as to how this problem can be coped with. I merely put it forward as a most difficult question. My noble friend suggested that this was not only an English problem but a European problem, and, indeed, wider than that. It may interest your Lordships to know that the Russian planners describe this kind of village—the non-growth village, the kind of village that the Peak Park Planning Board aptly describe as in the spiral of decline—in the words "settlements without perspective". That phrase, "settlement without perspective", has some force. I think that it makes us realise how much this problem belongs not only to us but to the world in general—as is the case with many other of our problems, particularly those in this field embracing agriculture.

The difficulty I see is that the key settlement policy, on the face of it, is a perfectly sensible one; it makes sense economically. It is obviously cheaper to concentrate your dispersed services in this kind of way. But is this really the only way that we should look at these communities? Are we not beginning to understand that there are other kinds of accounting than accountants' accounting; that there is social accounting, too? Do we not recognise that the kind of social cement which this sort of community provides is something which is so valuable that we ought to consider paying a very high price indeed for it? If this kind of community feeling, this kind of neighbourliness, this kind of social cohesion, or whatever one may wish to call it, goes from our rural areas it will go from our urban areas. And if it goes from the urban areas we are indeed in trouble. This, I think, was the implication behind what the noble Earl said at the beginning of his speech; and the practical implication of that is that planners should begin to look very suspiciously at structure plans which deal in terms of key settlements; that they should loosen this up altogether and say, "Perhaps we were wrong".

My Lords, so much for that particular idea that passed through my mind while listening to the noble Earl. A number of other things were said in the course of the various speeches, and the first that I want to touch upon is the question of rural industry. One of the difficulties about rural industry has been the question of planning permission. If you give planning permission for a small industry—one, say, employing half a dozen people—then let us say that, as happens to some of those industries, it goes "bust", you are then left with the unfortunate state of affairs in which open-ended planning permission has been given, in which you are allowing in just those things that you want to prevent in these rural areas. Both the Dobry Report and the Development Commission have suggested—and it seems to me a very valuable suggestion—that there should be a special planning category for this kind of thing. I am quite sure that the noble Baroness is well aware of that and that she will have something to say about it. It is extremely important.

My Lords, running with that question of the small industry and planning permission for the very small industry, there is the question of change of emphasis (which, although I could be wrong, is being resisted by COSIRA) for giving money to very small industries in very small rural communities. COSIRA, most creditably, has built up a relationship in the smaller towns with the medium-size and smaller industries, over which they have done very well and which I should be loath to see diminished in any way. But I think that what it has meant is that COSIRA has not always been willing to look at the tiny industry in the village. I see the noble Lord shaking his head. I should be delighted to hear, in five minutes' time, that I am wrong. As I say, it was suggested to my mind that COSIRA is possibly not right here.

I turn now to tourism. The noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, said—and I follow him entirely—that he is not completely sure that tourism is the answer to these problems. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, disagreed with him. Well, my Lords, I am very doubtful about the benefits of tourism in the rural areas. I know that the tourist industry will tell me of the enormous sums of money in the balance of payments that are received in this country from tourism. That may be so; but the rural areas are not like London, Edinburgh and Stratford-upon-Avon. I wonder who gets the profits from tourism in the rural areas. It may be the tourist industry; it is certainly not the local farmers, who I am sure do not regard payment for the odd bed and breakfast and the odd tea as any proper substitute for the viability of their industry. I look at myself and I wonder whether I am not going to be rather like the poorer inhabitants of Spain and the Caribbean who see the rich tourists coming in and making use of their facilities. I sometimes think of myself as a supplier of raw materials from which the tourist industry is making profits; I see myself as the poor countryman of the Caribbean, and I am far from sure about the statistics of the immense wealth that comes to this country, even to Stratford-upon-Avon, London and Edinburgh, from the tourist industry. Here, I think I agree with the noble Lord from Northumberland.

My Lords, I think that those are the points I really wanted to touch upon. It has been a most useful and interesting debate. My difficulty in agreeing to the request from the noble Earl to join in the debate has been that I am aware of the appalling problems of the depopulation of rural England, of the extraordinary difficulty of what a village is, of whether it should be preserved, and if so how. I thought to myself that I can see no thread running through this on which I could hang anything useful to say to your Lordships. Indeed, I still feel that there is no thread, no answer, no solution to this appalling problem. I feel that all that we can do at the moment is to try to pose these questions: the question of where we are going, of what is worth saving, whether it can be saved and, if so, in such a way that what you are saving is not merely something to keep in a museum but something which we can graft on to our life in the rest of the urban world.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that I must start by apologising to your Lordships for intruding a voice from the City of Westminster into this rural debate. But, like the three previous noble Lords who have just spoken, I can claim, too, to have my roots in Cumbria, though at rather humbler levels of Cumbrian society than have spoken so far. My forebears were farmers in Penruddoch, wheelwrights in Watermilloch and there are 400 years' worth of Edmondsons in the parish registers of Greystoke. So I can claim, though living in Westminster, still to have some understanding of these problems.

Therefore I should like to join with others in thanking my noble friend Lord Cranbrook for giving us an opportunity to discuss them. I disagree with him that they are matters of parish pump importance because the problems which we are discussing, which are of vital importance for the countrymen in their isolation, are just as important as the problems of the inner cities for the city dwellers living in their congestion. They are important also for the whole nation, so many of whom appreciate the countryside so much and spend so much of their time and money visiting it.

I should like to support my noble friend Lord Ridley in the strictures which he has for the Government in the sudden switch of resources from rural to city problems. This makes it extremely difficult for the rural authorities to plan their affairs properly. I should like to spend a little more time than has been spent so far in the debate on an assessment of this important document on rural depopulation which has been issued by the inter-departmental group under the chairmanship of the Treasury. The group's main conclusion at paragraph 1167—and this illustrates the difficulty of selecting the correct economists because they say such conflicting things—is that the economic case for attempting to remedy rural depopulation was a weak one and not as strong as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, would have us believe.

But they go on to agree with him that it could be treated by an application of the existing range of grants, subsidies, inducements, et cetera. If it is done, it is best done by the encouragement of hill farming, light industry—especially crafts, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, will be glad to hear—and despite what my noble friend says, by the promotion of tourism. Those are the things which in their view give the best value for public money. I personally agree with each of those propositions: that it can be done and that is the best way of doing it.

I should like to repeat the point that I made in the review of the national parks which I conducted two or three years ago, that there is absolutely no objection in principle to the introduction of light industry, even into the heart of the national parks, provided that it is done with all due control and firmness possible and planning conditions. But the Treasury group's further and very much firmer conclusion—and everybody who has spoken seems to have agreed with it (it is at paragraph 108)—is that the main and much stronger justification for remedial action in declining rural areas is to preserve rural life and culture for its own sake. That was the note on which my noble friend Lord Cranbrook began his speech, and I think it has continued throughout the debate.

I believe we should concentrate on this, not just in the interests of the villagers themselves, but in the interests of the large majority of people living in this kingdom who live and work in the towns and who obviously appreciate enormously their visits to the countryside. Of course one can add to that the considerable further number of foreign people who also obviously enjoy visiting this country and the countryside in particular. I am afraid that I part company with the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in regarding these people as just pests.

I agree even more with the final conclusions of the Treasury group. But the implication of that conclusion is that it is the conservation of the character—maybe that is the word for which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, was searching; I hope he will agree with me that it will suit—of these rural areas and their landscape, the character of their villages and communities, which is what really matters. I think we are all agreed about that; that is certainly the implication of the Treasury's economic report. At any rate, it matters more, it seems to me, than numerical changes in population or statistical trends in employment in themselves.

It is when those changes and those trends seem likely to impair the cherished character and natural quality of a place in the countryside that steps to check them are justified, not only in the local interest but also in the national interest, and therefore deserving of public funds. It seems to me that the steps that then have to be taken to modify those changes and check those trends that are judged to have these damaging effects, must be steps which themselves positively conduce to the conservation of that character and do not themselves add to the damage.

That is to say, public expenditure, for instance, on supporting traditional crafts, particularly building crafts and in particular keeping a village school going. I remember that in my short time in the Department of Education there was nothing that I had to fight harder for than the preservation of village schools. The economic and cost benefit arguments towards the larger schools are enormous; but, nevertheless, in my view they should not prevail in the balance. These matters, like keeping traditional crafts alive, keeping a village school running, keeping a country bus service going, are in principle more to be desired and more deserving of national funds than encouraging the establishment of substantial units of alien and unfamiliar industry. But, as I said, I am not against that in principle where it is appropriate. I think that the danger exposed by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, about doing that on too large a scale deserves consideration.

The map both in the Treasury report and in the Development Commission's 34th report shows that every area in England suffering from depopulation also either embraces or is linked with a designated area, either designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty or as a national park. These are areas which already have character of exceptional attraction of national significance in the eyes of the rest of the kingdom's population.

When those attractions are carefully and tastefully cultivated, they can also become economic and social assets of great potential value to the local economy. Here I part company to some extent with my noble friend Lord Ridley because these are of great potential value not only to the local economy, but to the national economy as well.

I put it to you that no visitor is going to drive out, for instance, to North Norfolk from London to visit the latest new piece of light industry, though there is no denying the benefit to the employees who may find jobs in it if such is being provided in that particular depopulating area. But some new and interesting attractions, say at Sandringham, Blickling Hall or King's Lynn—all within this area—may easily draw hundreds of visitors ready to spend their money there if features like these are attractively promoted and controlled, and supporting facilities and accommodation are provided to match them.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Ridley that it will be inappropriate to design all that solely with the idea of attracting caravanners. I hope that he will agree with me that tourists and caravanners are not synonymous. As the Departmental group points out, the French—and maybe the Germans, too—safeguard and promote their best countryside differently with a single agency pursuing one integrated set of policies in each of their designated areas and putting agricultural policy, development policy, recreational policy and conservation policy all into one set of hands, using management rather than control as their main tool. It may be that this is possible only when devolution is manifested by the presence of M. le Prefect in each locality.

Meanwhile, no doubt, in Britain the integration of our various countryside policies can then be achieved within local government by a body such as that created by my noble friend Lord Ridley, which is described in paragraph 153 of the Development Commission's report. I refer to the Northumberland Rural Development Committee, and I take it that it works in double harness with the Northumberland National Park Authority, the attractions of each being that they draw members from both the county and the districts concerned. Such a way of dealing with the problems in rural areas may not be as logical and tidy as Napoleon would have liked, but no doubt it can be made to work. It is sensitive to local feelings, and that is normally good enough for the British.

In the light of this, I myself greatly welcome the wider vision of their future role that the Development Commission describe in, I think, Part IV of their report. I particularly welcome the fact that their Chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, is here to join in this debate, because earlier in the week my advice was that he might not be able to be with us. I think it is greatly to our advantage that he is. They have certainly raised our sights, rightly I think, from factory building in the declining rural areas to much longer-term and wider aims of improving the economic, social and cultural base of the whole countryside. I very much welcome that, but must confess that I am a little worried—and I hope it is a worry that the noble Lord will be able to set at rest—when I read in paragraph 305 talk of a programme of "intensified development", attracting the encouragement and the support of the Development Commission.

"Intensified development" is not a phrase I would have dared to use in connection with any of the National Parks I was reviewing, and I think it is a phrase which is not perhaps most happily used when one is talking of some of the most fragile and cherished parts of the British countryside. I do not think it is the way to gain the support of the country landowner. I think it also strikes a chill into most villages in the countryside, because what must come first—and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, will say that it always does come first—is a very careful analysis of the character of each rural scene and of the quality of rural life though out the areas with which the Commission is dealing. The quality of rural life, as my noble friend Lord Cranbrook said, must be cherished and fostered with particular care. When there is some clarity and agreement about just what that character and quality consists of, there is then some hope of finding and applying appropriate remedies to sustain them and to ameliorate any ill effects that may be caused by a declining population.

I certainly do not rule out new light industry, even in National Parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty as being among those remedies; but the continued encouragement of hill farming, the careful promotion (and I stress the word "careful") of tourism and of recreation, side by side with it—though not just caravans, of course—the restoration of traditional crafts and the patient redevelopment of dying communities—all those are likely to be nearer the mark than "intensified development".

The Development Commission, of course, is perfectly right in stressing over and over again in its report the sine qua non of every positive step of regeneration in the countryside beginning and ending within local government, where alone all those different policy strands can be held together. It is only inside local government that local decisions can be made properly and weighed in the balance with the feelings of the local electors, whose welfare is, I suggest, paramount and whose support is indispensable. But that is not to say that the Development Commission, with its experience of nearly 70 years of painstaking rural work, has not as vital a role to play today and in the future, as it had in 1909. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Cranbrook has afforded us this opportunity to pay our tribute to it.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that a Yorkshireman who now lives in the most beautiful part of Cornwall may intrude on this Cumbrian "club" that has developed this afternoon and speak up for England and all the rest of it, if I may put it like that. I am in some difficulty in speaking at all, and perhaps I might explain to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, that my reluctance to take part is because, quite properly, the conventions of your Lordships' House prevent my dealing with any aspects of the Development Commission's work. I have no intention of breaking those conventions and answering the many questions put during the debate. I should be delighted to do so after the debate for noble Lords who do not receive satisfaction from my noble friend, but as I am sure she is going to satisfy all of them I feel I shall be able to go home very happy after this debate.

However, I hope convention will not prevent my thanking the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for raising this subject, and noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, and also, if I may say so, the hundreds of people outside this House (many of them in a totally voluntary capacity) who, unpaid, put in hours of work and are now contributing to what I think is a great enterprise of rural revival that we are getting under way. I think that today is a most propitious time to raise this subject.

If I cannot talk about the Development Commission, perhaps I may say three things arising from experience of rural areas and to reflect, in doing so, partly on the future. The first point is one which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, himself has picked out as a significant part of our approach to this problem. I join with him absolutely and completely in saying that the whole of our approach to this problem must be based on a partnership between local government and whatever Government agency exists. Many people talk about the bad things, but, happily, one of the good things which came out of local government reform in the early 1970s was the creation of larger district councils. In many parts of the country that has enabled the problems of rural revival to be approached on the proper scale, by having big enough areas in which to evaluate and prepare action plans. The work of rural revival which is now going on would have been impossible without that reform of local government: it is a new cornerstone for the whole edifice.

I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, need worry about that perhaps unfortunate phrase in the report, "intensified development". That will be taken care of by local authorities. They know what they want. One of the most enlightening and heartening experiences of public life is to go round to local authorities, as is part of my job today, and say, "This is your rural area. Have you carefully thought out the various measures which must be taken together to form a total package of rural revival?" They will take care that it does not go off the rails, so I do not think the noble Lord need worry too much. I think it is worth saying that local authorities do not want everything paid for by central Government. Of course, they are very happy to have what money is going, but rural revival today is not concerned with handing out huge sums of money.

The problem is exactly that which we have in building new towns: it is in creating a new aura of confidence, leading to economic growth and social satisfaction. Just as a new town corporation builds factories, lays out roads and says: "This town is going places and will be successful, so why don't you all jump on the bandwagon?", with private enterprise coming in to play its part, so we have to do that in the villages and small towns throughout the whole of the rural areas, in order to re-create self-confidence on which all economic growth depends, and on which spiritual revival is also based for the coming years.

This is the first cardinal feature of our approach to these areas, and we must all latch on to it, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said. The basis is local government. It must be challenged and helped, the pump must be primed and then things will begin to happen. If I may take one example—it has nothing to do with me, so I can safely say it in this debate—in the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, for £1,500,000 of Government money, 1,000 jobs were created, the whole town took off and became prosperous, while the whole area surrounding it, helped in similar ways, has found its new confidence and almost does not need much more Government help. That is what rural revival is all about.

My second reflection is that we have to look ahead in the way that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and some members of the Town and Country Planning Association are now doing. Mr. Morris Ash, whom many of us in this Chamber respect enormously, has written an article about this in the Town and Country Planning Association's journal. What he says is that little industrial estates may be all very well: they help to get the process moving; they provide alternative jobs and hold young people, and the depopulation begins to decline. But should they be limited simply to key settlements.

What about the smaller villages? What about the deeper rural life that goes on and has to be sustained in smaller areas? What about the arts, the educational problems, the housing problems and all the other things that go to make up the fabric of social activity in the rural areas? They, too, need support. So that beyond what is being done now in this new, first period of revival, we must go with the noble Earl, with Mr. Morris Ash and with others into the whole question of how we extend into smaller areas, into smaller problems, into the more intimate detail of the needs of the rural areas. It will need a lot of work to isolate this, and to find out what can be done on a practical basis. I think that it will be the next stage of revival, once we complete this present job creation programme which is being fostered by the Government in the rural areas, in the small factories, so that we can move on to those broader aspects of rural revival.

I come thirdly and finally to my last reflection on what has been said in this debate, and I should like to look again at the future. The Government's White Paper on English devolution is a fainthearted document, a miserable little document in many of its parts. From paragraph 38 onwards, when it talks about the possibilities of an English development agency, it is running away from the whole problem. It stacks up a lot of disadvantages and there is hardly a good word to be said for the idea. I think that this is totally wrong. I am not thinking about an English development agency that takes over the Countryside Commission, the Tourist Board and all that. Those bodies have their role and are doing wonderful work, in total co-operation with each other, in the rural areas. What is important is that poor old rural England ought, in the coming years, to have a crack of the whip that has been given to the Scots and the Welsh in their new development agencies, and must be allowed to have something of that form helping rural England.

The report says at the end, in paragraph 41: Furthermore, it is doubtful whether a single English agency, having to co-ordinate a range of environmental and industrial functions in the differing circumstances of assisted areas which are spread from Cornwall to Northumbria, would be accepted as having the close familiarity with the problems of rural areas which are looked for. When it says, in other words, that it is very doubtful whether an English body could carry the problems of the full range of all our rural counties, it is talking utter rubbish. These are problems which have great similarities, but great differences in local application, and provided we are sticking to this point of assisting local government and only of pump priming and never trying to do the whole job for local government, they are perfectly capable of being done by one English agency of some form, whatever agency is made out of the present pattern of agencies of that kind which exist to help the rural areas. So I hope that in the coming months noble Lords and others will join me and will fight hard for some greater vision in that White Paper, and for some action to give England some of the benefits that the Scots and the Welsh have been promised, and are indeed already having in the way of extra money.

I come, lastly, to one quotation from the rural depopulation study, chaired by the Treasury, to which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, and others have referred, and I quote from paragraph 108. It is not very often that one finds a Government inter-departmental report which waxes eloquently, and indeed almost poetically, but there are a couple of sentences which are very well worth quoting. It states: In an overwhelmingly urban society, the existence of rural communities must have an effect out of all proportion to their numbers. It has a psychological value for townspeople, linking them to a life nearer nature and to their rural ancestry. It has a cultural value which cannot be measured, except perhaps by trying to imagine the effect on art, literature, music and culture generally of the disappearance of rural life. Eloquence indeed, my Lords! I think this is a very good foundation for all of us in looking at the problems of perhaps 2 million, 3 million or 4 million people—a very minute proportion of our population—who live in these remoter areas, but without whom, without whose culture, without whose way of life affecting all the rest of us and without the backing it gives to our very existence all of us, and the whole of our society, would be poverty stricken by comparison with today. How much I support those sentences and the vision behind them. It is that kind of thing which guides noble Lords here and volunteers outside, in all walks of life, who are working hard for the rural areas; and, as I said, I now believe it is becoming a great enterprise with a great and receptive British audience. The move from the towns is on. The desire to live away from the urban rat-race overwhelms one as one tours England today. It is because I am so glad to be part of that, and to be helping in some small way, that I not only take great joy in my work, but thank the noble Earl for raising this debate today and look forward with anticipation to what my noble friend has to say in reply to the debate.

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise to the House for rising now, but I have sat through the debate and I promise to take no more than four minutes of your Lordships' time. May I say how grateful I am to the noble Earl for having raised this issue, and for some of the remarks from both sides of the House. I apologise to the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches for having interrupted him on a point with which he agreed. I want to pay tribute, too, to my noble friend for the dynamic lead that he has given. His influence can be seen.

I am grateful that from the Front Bench opposite reference has been made to Part IV, which says that: …the Development Commission has moved into a new era and, lower down: …is becoming increasingly sophisticated and more positive. I should have left out the word "sophisticated" because its connotation does not quite fit in with rural life. Nevertheless, having looked at the map on pages 56 and 57 I am grateful for the magnificent work that the Development Commission has done in pushing forward factory projects all over England and Wales. I know about the co-operation that takes place in the councils in Wales. I notice, though, that in Gwent, South and West Glamorgan and Dyfed there is still room for local authorities to increase their contact with the Commission. I am not blaming the Development Commission because in this report an appeal is made to local authorities to co-operate with the Development Commission over what it wants.

Having spoken for two of my four minutes, I want to go on to make this point. We cannot hope to increase agricultural employment much more because—and now I use the word "sophistication"—of the sophistication of the mechanisation which has entered into modern agriculture. Consequently, increased rural occupation and employment does not lie in that direction.

I was delighted that when we looked into accountancy the appeal was made, "For God's sake! let's stop this materialistic accountancy, measuring life only in pounds, shillings and pence". Social accountancy, in terms of the juggernauts which are running through English and Welsh villages today and from one side of Europe to the other, is driving some people neurotic and is upsetting life. Because of the decline in rural life, vandalism is on the increase. The inner parts of our cities are blighted—for example, the Archway Road at Highgate. Anybody who lives in the Archway Road area today must be absolutely miserable because of the hundreds of thousands of tons of traffic that are incessantly moving along that road. Consequently, the reservoirs for our spiritual uplift and rebuilding lie in a constructive approach to rural England. In the case of our village schools, rather than that the children should be peripatetic and go to comprehensive schools, let the extra teachers needed in rural villages be peripatetic. I will not develop that point because this is the most intelligent audience in England to which I am speaking.


My Lords, what does the noble Lord have to say about the Tribune Group?


My Lords, my noble friend on the Front Bench is muttering about the Tribune Group. Is he naïve? Is he not intelligent? One of the worst things that we did in Britain was to "Beechingise" it. The "Beechingisation" of Britain's railways means that in rural Britain we are paying the price in terms of empty valleys.

Finally, I come to my valleys in Wales, some of which are so narrow that the rivers are running sideways! New building can be taken into those valleys, because at the back of them there are beautiful mountains, hills and woods. The nut trees are still there. If anybody does not believe me they should listen to our Welsh comedian, Boyce, who speaks about new industries being brought to Wales. In one marvellous little song of his, he says: "The pithead bath is a supermarket now." In other words, in those valleys which were blighted by coal tips there are plenty of opportunities to make them more beautiful with modern buildings and by bringing jobs to those valleys.

At the end of my four minutes I come to the fact that the magnetism of the cities is beginning to disappear all over the world. Everybody in this Chamber knows that the magnetism of the city is disappearing. Man needs this social uplift. I want more strength to be given to the elbow of my noble friend so that he may push those authorities which are lackadaisical in co-operating with him and with all the other people in Britain who are trying to revive rural Britain.

5.3 p.m.


My Lords, I will detain the House neither for four, nor for three minutes——


My Lords, I hope that noble Lords who have not put down their names will remember that this is a short debate and that those of us who have spoken want to hear what the noble Baroness has to say.


My Lords, I am prepared to forgo the right to address the House, but as I dropped in today from Europe and have been fascinated by the debate I am stimulated to make just one comment. In the reference made to the village pub, I understood the noble Earl who introduced the subject to deplore its passing, not its closing. The concern of all those of us who love the countryside is that so much of the village pub space is now being taken over by tourists.

I agree with some of the condemnations of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, whose work for the countryside has been remarkable, but in my own area I find that the tourist is driving the villager out of his own public bar. Although this may seem to be a small point to those noble Lords who do not have to use public houses for their social life, it is a matter of real concern to the villager that no longer does he have a place in which to hold his football and cricket club meetings. May I appeal to all those who have any influence with the Brewers' Society and other organisations to bear in mind that the preservation of the public bar inside the village pub is a real problem. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, will support me on that point.

5.5 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, may I assure the last speaker that I have no influence whatsoever with the Brewers' Society. I cannot claim to be able to do anything for him in that respect. Rural depopulation is neither a new nor a recent feature of our history, although I think it is probably new for your Lordships to discuss it specifically. Certainly it is the first time in my experience as a Member of your Lordships' House that it has been chosen for special debate. Movement of people from the country to the towns and cities has been a feature of our national development—as elsewhere in Europe—since before the Industrial Revolution. As the 1971 Census demonstrated, this migration continues from the large rural areas of Wales, the Scottish Highlands and South Uplands, the Pennine Uplands and the Welsh Marches. Smaller pockets of depopulation are to be found in other areas, including South West England, Lincolnshire and East Anglia.

Many noble Lords have referred to the various documents on the subject of depopulation that have appeared over the last few years. With other noble Lords I should like to pay tribute to the document from the Development Commission which we have been discussing at some length this afternoon, also to the one from the Inter-departmental Committee on Rural Depopulation and, not least of all, to the work done by the noble Lord opposite, Lord Sandford, in his National Park Review. These and other documents have provided a great deal of material for the Government to consider the causes of rural depopulation and what they ought to be doing about it.

The causes of depopulation are wide-ranging and complex. In particular, the reduction in employment in agriculture and other traditional country occupations, combined with the attractions—especially for the young—of better career prospects, higher earnings, and the more and varied social facilities of urban life are referred to in the Development Commission's report. Indeed, they were referred to in some detail by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, as drawing people away from the countryside. As the Development Commissioners have graphically described in their report—as also did the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford—a vicious spiral can set in as communities begin to contract. As the population falls it becomes increasingly uneconomic to provide services in the smaller settlements. This results, as noble Lords know only too well, in long journeys to schools, to the shops, to doctors and hospitals, and a consequent decline in public transport, which means a lack of opportunity for further education and entertainment.

Noble Lords will recall discussing the problems of diminishing services in rural areas and the concomitant hardships on a Motion by the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, almost a year ago. On the question of transport I think your Lordships were generally agreed when we discussed the matter last year that the key factor to the problem of the availability of services and facilities for people in rural areas is the one of transport. Many people are of course much better off in this respect as a result of increased car ownership; but about a third of the families in our rural areas do not have the use of a car and even in the car-owning families some members are denied the use of a car and the decline in public transport resulting from decreasing patronage and increasing cost, combined with the trend for centralisation of services, shopping and other facilities can cause serious problems of isolation for people in the more remote rural areas.

The noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, trailed his coat at me—I think perhaps deliberately—on the question of rate support grant and transport supplementary grant. I am not going to be drawn into details of justifying one or other of those: suffice to say that I sympathise with him. I come from Cambridgeshire and with his membership, and the membership of other people of the Association of County Councils, they will know what that reference means. But in many areas even the conventional bus services are uneconomic and are only able to continue because of local authority financial support. The Government meet a large part of this subsidy. This year for most of the Shire counties the Government are providing more transport supplementary grant than previously, to go towards their expenditure on a local bus service and in those areas where bus services have been withdrawn there is seldom any question of a stage service ever being introduced. Therefore we have to try much less orthodox methods of transport in those areas.

One of the reasons why the Development Commission cannot help the subsidised transport is because we have got central Government subsidising transport and if the Development Commission did it as well there would be a subsidy on a subsidy. But there are a number of different experiments going on in various parts of the country to find ways of providing a cheaper transport service. One example is the Norfolk village bus, which is a minibus driven by qualified volunteer drivers providing a fare service for half a dozen villages under direction of the county council. The whole operation is breaking even financially and similar schemes have recently been set up in East Sussex and in Clwyd. We have had the example of the postal buses described to us today; there is the idea of the voluntary car schemes; there are dial-a-bus schemes being tried out, one of them in an area adjacent to where I live. The Government have also commissioned an East Anglia University study into rural transport and accessibility and we are promoting a number of experimental projects in areas where there are rural transport problems. These will test on the ground what can be done to help the rural communities generally within the public service vehicle licensing code and through some modest relaxation of that code.

The noble Lord, Lord Wilson of High Wray, and the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, and other noble Lords have referred to the question of the postal services. We had some questions earlier today on the postal service and I must remind the House that the Post Office is a corporation which is responsible for its own operating decisions. The Government cannot dictate to it, but I hope the attention of the Corporation will be drawn to our debate today so that they may know the feelings of the Members of your Lordships' House.

The vicious spiral which is started as depopulation begins is completed as more people leave because of the reduced services and the inability of the village to sustain community life. At the same time people from the urban areas may move in, buying houses for second homes or for retirement. The result is that we have a higher proportion of old people, fewer children and "ghost" villages like those in the Lake District about which we have heard this afternoon. Cumbria is indeed fortunate in the number of noble Lords that it has to speak for it in this House and in addition I am delighted to learn that the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, also has Cumbrian connections and one cannot help but wonder whether the Edmondsons at Seathwaite—in the wettest place in England—are also kinsmen of his. If they are, they provide extremely good refreshments for hungry climbers! The noble Lord, Lord Wilson of High Wray, referred to the problems of the "ghost" villages like Finsthwaite which are almost deserted in the winter months of the year and I would tell the noble Lord that I visited Finsthwaite only some 10 days ago and therefore I know to what he refers.

The Development Commissioners have drawn attention to the situation and they emphasised their concern in their previous report in 1965. They initiated what they described as "trigger area" schemes with investment in the construction of small factories with the aim of triggering off local and private investment in such areas. My noble friend Lord Northfield has described to us what has been happening in the Berwick area and the Commission's latest report records the success with which these schemes have met in Berwick and in the Eastern Border area of Scotland. But still the 1971 Census confirmed that rural depopulation was continuing—with total population losses in the decade 1961 to 1971 of between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent. in some districts. The losses were greatest among those of working age. So undeniably the rural depopulation is a continuing problem. What measure of our national resources we should be devoting to tackling the problem and why we should be concerned about the dying villages and the loss of jobs for the young people from our communities are questions which noble Lords have been pressing this afternoon.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness would allow me to interrupt just for a moment. She is speaking in very general terms about these depopulation trends: is it not a fact that over the last five years the Highlands and Islands Development Board has done something to reverse, or at any rate to check, the trend?

Baroness STEDMAN

Yes, my Lords, and that is what we hope will continue from the additional work which we hope the Development Commission will be able to carry on with over the years to come. Noble Lords may be aware that following the 1971 Census the Government undertook a study of rural depopulation which included the cost-benefit analysis of the various ways of providing employment in rural areas to stem depopulation. The most practicable and cost-effective employment was found to be the small industry and, where it is appropriate, tourism—and I am not referring to just the caravan visitors to the area but to the tourist in general. The Government considered the study and decided that efforts to stem depopulation would have to be increased and as we have heard this afternoon the Development Commission was asked to play a leading role in stimulating action to this end. In Scotland and Wales that task has now been taken on by the new Development Agencies, who are continuing and intensifying the Development Commission's past work in their respective countries, work which is described in the report which covers the three year period up to March of last year when the Development Commissioners still financed the rural development in Scotland and Wales.

The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, has referred to the English Development Agency and an idea was floated in the Development Commission's Report that the English Rural Development Agency should be set up on similar lines to the Scottish and the Welsh Development Agencies. They envisage an independent executive rural development agency which would bring together all the various development support now available from a number of separate organisations, operate within its own priorities and within the constraints of its own budget. It is certainly an interesting idea and noble Lords will recall—and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, referred to it—the Government's White Paper on Devolution which canvassed views on whether a single English agency or a number of regional development agencies should be established. The White Paper listed the main arguments for and against this and suggested that current opinion was tipped slightly against the proposal; but I will certainly pass on my noble friend's comments to my colleague the Lord President of the Council.

Noble Lords who have read the report and have listened to this afternoon's debate will, I am sure, fully appreciate and admire as I do the efforts of the Commissioners in the way that they have tackled the task and generated enthusiasm in the localities concerned. I, too, regret that even more resources cannot be made available immediately to deal with the wide range of needs and possibilities which are revealed in the action plans which local authorities are producing for the regeneration of their declining areas. But if the foundations are soundly laid, with careful planning by local authorities and integration of those plans with the county structure plans, then I am sure we shall find that the time and effort has not been wasted, and in fact that much has already been achieved.

Although I appreciate that the Development Commission's budget has not been increased as much as it would like, or would judge necessary to make speedy progress in tackling the problems, the figures given in Appendix II, Schedule II, to the report speak for themselves. Expenditure on factories increased from under £300,000 in 1973–74, in areas of rural depopulation in England, Wales and Scotland, to over £700,000 in 1975–76 for England and Wales only, a very sub-stantial increase even allowing for increased costs. Expenditure on factory construction in England in the current year is expected to be about £2 million. A further indication of progress is given by the figures for numbers of factories being built in areas of rural depopulation. Up to the end of 1974, when the extra efforts were initiated, the Development Commission had financed a total of 48 factory units. Since then a further 37 have been built and 118 are approved and under construction or in the planning stages.

Of the factories built before 1975, when the Commission was operating in the areas of rural depopulation in Scotland and Wales as well as England, the great majority, 30, were in Wales, 10 were in England and 8 in Scotland. Since then, as I have said, the Commission has shifted its emphasis and 96 factories have been built, are under construction, or are in planning stages in England.

Thus from a very modest start in England it has already been possible to build up a reasonable programme covering most of those areas identified in the Rural Depopulation Report. The employment provided in these factories will make a very valuable contribution, even if small by national standards, to solving our present unemployment problems. The Government have recognised this in including funds for the Commission for such factory building in some of the employment creation programmes.

I have paid tribute to the work of the Development Commission and its various agencies. I should like to say something about the local authorities. They have a key role through their responsibility for the provision of services and planning. We have discussed some of the more important services this afternoon, and we have heard how crucial to small communities decisions about these can be. The example of the closure of the village school was one that was raised.

It is not only through construction of factories that the Commission will assist in the maintenance and creation of employment. I should like, as several noble Lords have done, to pay tribute to the work of the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas (COSIRA). It provides credit and advisory and instructional services for small firms in rural areas. An indication of the increase of the Council's activities generally is given by the performance of the Loan Fund. New advances have increased by two-thirds in the period covered by the Development Commission Report to a figure of £2½ million in 1975/76. By agreement with the Commission the Council have given increasing priority to areas of rural depopulation, thus supporting and reinforcing the effects of the investment in factory construction. The Council's services are available throughout rural areas and in smaller country towns (with a population in general of up to 10,000 people), while the Commission are concerned with the rural economy as a whole.

The Commissioners point out in their report that not all of the problems of rural areas stem from depopulation. In parts of the countryside, those nearest to the conurbations, difficulties arise as a result of expanding residential communities, and between the two extremes of growth and depopulation there are a multitude of local difficulties. As the Commissioners stress in their report, they must continue to concern themselves with all rural areas, with differing emphases in their work depending on the individual needs of particular areas.

There has been reference this afternoon to the value of rural communities to our society, and an important part of the Commission's work has always been to support social and community development in the rural areas. Their financial assistance to the rural community councils is important here. I should like to mention also the provision of village halls, which play so vital a role in village communities, and their help with financing the organisation of the Women's Institutes and their education services.

I would conclude by thanking the noble Earl for giving us this opportunity for discussing the Development Commission. I am sure the Commissioners will draw encouragement from the interest shown by noble Lords, the evidence we have had this afternoon that they are meeting a real need in our society and appreciation of the value of their work particularly in areas of depopulation. Noble Lords have expressed their concern about the need for additional resources for the Development Commission, and it is not necessary for me to remind Members of your Lordships' House that we are in times of considerable cutback in public spending. Even so, the Government have been able to allow the Commission to spend £1 million above that originally planned for next year to enable them to complete the factories started with this year's employment creation fund. My right honourable friend has arranged an early meeting with his colleagues and Treasury Ministers to decide what further resources may be available to the Development Commission. Noble Lords will not expect me to anticipate the results of this meeting, but I am sure the comments of noble Lords who have spoken today will be borne in mind by my right honourable friend.

I hope also that the noble Earl will be reassured that we are well aware of the problem of what he describes as the dying village. At the same time, I would not wish to leave the impression of a dying countryside. In general our countryside is more prosperous than ever before; the rural situation varies enormously. Only some communities are under economic threat. Many are thriving socially and economically, and much is in hand by the local authorities and the Development Commission to improve the situation where they are not. Finally, noble Lords may like to know that my Department hopes shortly to issue a discussion paper on the subject of rural communities. I have no doubt that your Lordships will return to this subject once again when you have considered that paper.

My Lords, many points have been raised this afternoon, many suggestions made, with very little repetition, and I am sure I have not dealt adequately with each one of them. I will check in Hansard and I will write to any noble Lord whom I have not answered fully. I will draw the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and other colleagues at the Department of the Environment to the very valuable expression of views in this debate.

5.29 p.m.


My Lords, I should first like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate this afternoon. We have come from very different parts of England—although perhaps rather a larger number than was necessary or fair to the rest of us came from the North—all of us with different problems, depopulation in some areas, rural unemployment in others. I think one and all have stressed the importance which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, stressed, of rural life and culture. I am not quite certain that we ought to stress rural culture quite so much, because what we have all been asking for this afternoon is the introduction of urban forms of works into rural areas; in fact getting back almost to the Middle Ages when every country village had to produce everything that its inhabitants needed. If we manage to revert to that we should not be killing the rural life, because we all want to preserve the life of a small community where people are friendly and know each other.

It is that which we are at great risk of losing if our villages disappear. That is not unique to the bucolic of us. It is not necessary to be a sort of Kiplingite peasant, immobile, cunning and rather inbred. There used to be the same sort of family relationship in parts of our larger towns, but that has been rather lost with the disappearance of town centres. However, it is that sort of spirit that we want to maintain in country districts. We are all at one on that, and I confess that I was greatly encouraged by what the noble Baroness said. If she does not mind me saying so, the proof of that pudding will be in the eating. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.