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Highland Development

Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 28 June 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

10.11 p.m.

In discussing the subject of Highland development, I wish to refer essentially to development in what are known as the seven crofter counties, that is to say, Orkney and Shetland, Caithness and Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness and Argyle. Although the problems existing in these counties are to a certain extent the same in other parts of Scotland, the point I wish to mention applies especially to this part of the world; and it is generally accepted that the Highlands which comprise these counties require special consideration.

We were very glad indeed when the Lord President came to Inverness recently. We were especially glad to hear him say that he recognised that the Highlands required special consideration. Not only do they need special consideration, but I would emphasise that if they are given this consideration they can produce very special results which are of immense importance to the country. They could achieve a tremendous increase in food, stand on their own feet and eventually achieve prosperity, provided the right steps are taken. I suggest that we want a long-term plan for the Highlands in order to put them on a sound economic basis. The important immediate matter is to provide the basic facilities which concern mainly the overcoming of the difficulties of transport and communication, the provision of better roads, adequate living conditions, and especially water supplies and housing.

In regard to communications, the main difficulty today is transport. The recent increases in freight charges and the Petrol Duty have hit the Highlands especially hard. Even before the charges were increased, our case was that they should be reduced and not increased. Before the charges were put on, the cost of sending a ton of potatoes from Inverness to Stornaway was £4 10s. l1d., nearly half the total price of that ton. A firm in Stornaway has pointed out that in order to get its potatoes it is forced to buy them from Ireland where transport costs only £1 19s. 3d. The high transport charges are killing Highland development, and I am very glad that there is a Committee sitting on this matter now. I hope we shall get satisfactory results from it, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will seriously represent the case for the Highlands when the time comes.

In order to give the Highlands a sound economy, we have to develop all these natural resources of the land and sea. This includes agriculture and forestry and What help we can get from the hydroelectric scheme to provide power for industries for the Highlands. There are, however, difficulties, and I appreciate that any Government which might be in power would have to deal with difficulties of this kind. There is a feeling among the agricultural community that the Forestry Commission can get anything they like. I hear that the Agricultural Advisory Committee admit that they are powerless to do anything to prevent agricultural interests from being threatened by encroachment from the Forestry Commission and other departments and boards, even to the extent of watching agricultural interests, or bringing to the notice of St. Andrew's House the fact that the Commission are carrying out detailed surveys on land. This causes great uneasiness in the agricultural world which does not make for good long-term planning. That is the problem which the Secretary of State has on his plate. I hope that some kind of satisfactory answer will be given.

I have already written to the right hon. Gentleman about one or two cases of conflict between the Forestry Commission and agricultural interests. The Forestry Commission are a big, solid, Government body and the agricultural interests are more individualistic. They feel that they have not got quite so much weight behind them as the Commission. Naturally, they think that their position is not always adequately considered. I should like to know what the Government think about this matter.

I appreciate that there are difficulties about the Hydro-Electric Board. We want hydro-electricity which I have heard described as "God's gift to man." This is one of the most important developments in the Highlands. This power which we can get from water is of absolutely vital importance to Highland development; but at present there are difficulties about what are termed "uneconomic extensions." I have here a letter from Sir Edward MacColl, of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, who explains the difficulty in supplying certain people who want this power.

For example, he describes one difficulty of a large landowner who wants the power for agricultural purposes. That man complains that the Board want him to take too much power. At the same time, Sir Edward encloses a letter from a local crofter community who complain of the intention to supply these rich landowners with power and say that it is neglecting the interests of the small farmer, the crofter and schoolchildren. We want to ensure that everybody gets the benefit of a hydro-electricity supply. That is an immediate problem for the Government. How are they to supply hydro-electricity in whatever quantities are required at rates which the people can pay?

I want to speak about making the best use of the land. We must develop marginal land. The secret of the expansion of farming in Scotland is to discover winter feed for an increased number of cattle and sheep. That means making the best use of marginal land. I should like to see an active policy to make it worth while for people to cultivate that land. I should like to know what has happened to the Spey Valley drainage scheme. This scheme to divert water from the Spey could bring something like 9,000 to 10,000 acres of good agricultural land into use. Though it may be an expensive operation, we cannot neglect anything of that nature which will produce arable land.

Finally I come to the question of tourism. Here is an immense opportunity. We have now had the report from Mr. Thomas Johnston saying that we earned' £7 million from England and Wales and £4,400,000 from foreigners last year, including 1,500,000 dollars. Of course, the dollar income is vitally important. I suggest that we could increase this if we made the restrictions applying to dollar visitors rather less irksome. There are a tremendous number of restrictions. Dollar visitors have to have coupons in order to buy export goods in shops. They have to show that they are dollar visitors. In certain shops they have to buy a minimum of £10 before the goods they purchase can be delivered to the ship. We must make it as easy as possible for visitors from America and Canada to buy what goods they like when they come to this country. The production simply of evidence that they are visitors from that part of the world should be sufficient to enable them to buy anything they want.

I maintain that we should take a leaf out of the Swiss book regarding the tourist industry. We have in the Highlands of Scotland the finest scenery in the world, and we should make good use of it. The Swiss are an industrial nation, they are industrial and agricultural combined; but they have made a considerable income out of tourism. They do not depend upon it alone. If tourism were taken away, they could still survive. That is why we have to get our economy sound before we can expect any really large increase in tourism.

The development which I have sketched will mean an immense expense; it will mean considerable time and effort. The question which arises is how we are to pay for this. We have an enormous number of Scotsmen living abroad. I am convinced that private enterprise would be interested to subscribe really large sums in a big Highland development scheme if it was properly thought out.

The Government, of course, have certain obligations, which are, first and foremost, the provision of basic facilities. In this connection I make just one point; I do not make it exactly as a suggestion, but put it as a fact. Over a good many years millions of pounds every year have gone into the Treasury by way of duty on whisky. Whisky is a commodity of very great wealth and is our best dollar earner. It can be produced only in the Highlands, and cannot be imitated adequately in any other part of the world. All I want to do is to submit that a part of the world that can produce so much wealth should at least be no worse off in basic facilities than the rest of the world.

There is another very important reason why we must preserve the Highlands and develop them to the full; that is, their men. The Highlands have been the nursery of the best men and women in the world. They have gone throughout the world, and the world has benefited as a result. We still have excellent men and women in the Highlands provided that adequate basic facilities are made available to them. Furthermore, the Highlanders would do a tremendous lot for themselves towards the development which we desire. I should like finally to say that a very famous Socialist, Jean Jaurés, once said that
"Nations are treasure houses of humanity."
I submit that the Highlands are the treasure house of the British nation.

10.23 p.m.

I am sure that the House is indebted to my noble Friend the Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton) for raising this important subject. In his opening remarks he said that his speech concerned particularly the seven crofting counties from Argyll to Shetland, which comprised more than one half of Scotland. I am bound to observe that it is a sad commentary on our democratic procedure in this House that a Private Member has to raise a subject of this magnitude in a Debate which is limited by procedure to half an hour. I appeal to the Ministers who are now on the Government Front Bench to ensure that when the Government publish the report on the Highlands, which I understand, will be on Friday, that at least one day of Government time should be devoted to the consideration of the Highlands.

It is only fair to say that the Scottish Grand Committee spent two and a half hours on this subject this morning.

I fully appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman has said, but two and a half hours in a Committee of Scottish Members would not satisfy me, because the Highlands—

If the hon. Member wishes that, he can persuade his Leader to give up a Supply day for a full discussion in the House on the subject.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is attempting to teach me how to suck eggs. I am asking for Government time to discuss a Government report.

My object is to bring to the notice of the House the importance of one-half of Scotland. When one recalls the Debates which took place in the House during bygone generations, and right up to the outbreak of the last war, and all the Royal Commissions and committees which for so long have been inquiring into the Highlands, it seems that the situation has now entirely changed from the 19th century days of unrestricted free trade when there was no possibility of any Royal Commission or Government doing anything for the Highlands. Agriculture must always remain the principal occupation there and as even the farmer on good rich low ground in the South had a struggle to make ends meet there was no chance for the Highland farmer, with poorer ground and high transport costs.

This is the hour of Britain's opportunity to help the Highlands to become the great food producing area which it could become. Once it was a great cattle country and it can become so again, particularly if the proposals of my noble Friend the Member for Inverness are carried out and we begin to reclaim land and grow the winter feed which is so essential for cattle, sheep and poultry. There is nothing more pitiful than to attend the sales at Lairg, in my constituency, and see the crofters coming in with large numbers of stock which they are unable to feed in the winter and the grazier from the South—the fellow in possession of the rich land—picking out bargains from weak sellers, the men who are unable to hold stock. Weak sellers are at the mercy of buyers. There is a tremendous challenge to the Government and succeeding Governments to set about using the Highlands.

Time does not permit me to enumerate many things which I should have liked to do. I earnestly appeal to right hon. Gentlemen opposite—I am sure that they have as much affection and devotion for the country as I have—to give us a day or two in which to discuss this vital matter in the House.

10.28 p.m.

I find it difficult to comprehend the hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson), as will his constituents who take the trouble to read today's HANSARD. He began by saying that it was a great pity that it was left to his noble Friend the Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton) to initiate a Debate in the circumscribed period of half-an-hour on the Adjournment, and went on to argue that it was up to the Government, after—not before—they had published the Report which will be issued on Friday, to provide the time.

Only this morning, in the Scottish Grand Committee, hon. Members on this side of the House regretted that it was necessary to spend our two-and-a-half hours in that Committee discussing the problems of the Highlands two days before the publication of the report, but it was not possible for them so to arrange the business in the Scottish Grand Committee to discuss the Highlands and Islands after the publication of the report.

There is another day yet which the Opposition are to use in the House to discuss matters of Supply in Scotland. On that day I understand that the Opposition are to discuss education. It would have been possible for the Opposition to have selected the subject of Highland development or problems of the Highlands on that occasion. But the problem of the Highlands will not be solved by having one, two or three days' Debates in this House. I have read HANSARD for the past few years. There has been no scarcity of words spoken in this House on the problems of the Highlands and Islands, but there was a shocking lack of action in the past to deal with these problems.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness and Sutherland has said that in those days of free enterprise it was difficult for a commission to do anything. Commission after commission recommended that steps should be taken. The report of Thomas Telford in 1882 used exactly the same arguments as the noble Lord, the Member for Inverness used in this Debate tonight. The noble Lord will find in that report an assessment of the problems of the Highlands and Islands and the statement that if some measures were taken, including the construction of the Caledonian Canal, incidentally, to provide adequate communications, the Highlands and Islands would be able to stand on their own feet. That has been said over and over again.

The noble Lord said that the people of the Highlands are the best people in the country. Well, I am a Highlander, and the noble Lord is not. I happen to represent a part of the country which bears the name of his family. Indeed, it has its name from his family. But I am not willing to concede that the Frasers in Lanarkshire are any less good people than the Frasers in Inverness. Not at all. But I am glad to say that in these last few years we have found a Government which is at last taking steps to deal with the problem of the Highlands and Islands, and also to deal with the problems of Lanarkshire.

One must expect a lot of people in Hamilton today to feel bitter about those who were responsible for their well-being in the past, about the landowners who made fortunes out of mineral royalties; who feel that it ought not to be that the taxpayer is charged with the responsibility of finding the cash for clearing away these derelict pit heaps.

I do not think that this has much to do with the development of the Highlands.

What I am saying is in order in an Adjournment Debate.

We have not only the problem of the Highlands and Islands to deal with, but problems in many other parts of the country arising out of the same kind of neglect as these problems in the Highlands and Islands arise from. We have found it necessary in the last few years to ask the taxpayer for money to clear away derelict buildings around the closed pit tops, to clear away the bings and to build factories to provide employment for the people who used to earn a meagre living digging the coal out of the earth, so earning large profits for landowners who were not, of course, inconvenienced or embarrassed, or in any way put out by these blots on the amenities of Hamilton.

But let us get back to some of the points which the noble Lord has raised. He said that all this business of having detailed surveys of the land which it was proposed to use for afforestation was resented by agriculturists.

No. Please do not misunderstand me. I said that these detailed surveys led to the fear among agriculturists that this land was inevitably to be taken.

That seems to me to be strange reasoning. I should have thought that if the Forestry Commission, with the support of the Secretary of State, had merely acquired many thousands of acres of land and had proceeded to plan without consultation or examination of what would be the best use to put the land to there would have been cause for complaint. But what is happening? We are making very detailed surveys in the Highlands to decide which areas should have trees, for example, for timber, and those which should be left for food production in the shape of beef and mutton. That is a very proper thing to do and we have reason to believe that those people who really have the interests of the Highlands at heart agree with us; they are assisting us in carrying through these detailed surveys.

But the noble Lord went on to say, with the support of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, that we want to have some land drained and pastures made to provide winter keep for Highland cattle. Let me repeat what was once said by another member of His Majesty's Government—and there has been much romantic nonsense about putting cattle on the deer forests of Scotland—and who was attacked the other morning in the Scottish Grand Committee. The noble Lord, and his hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland, no doubt subscribed to the view expressed by the hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Snadden) who the other morning said:
"I am doing it myself, that is, maintaining large herds of beef-producing cattle all the year round in the Scottish hills. It is possible, as Lord Lovat has shown, to put large numbers of cattle in deer forests. He is doing it in the North-west."
Then, in almost the same breath, in the next sentence or two, he says:
"It is time this hill cattle scheme was revised. Opinion is pretty general in Scotland now that it is far too rigid as it stands. It excludes many hill farms where shelter and keep cannot be provided. To get assistance under it the grazing qualifying period is seven months. That should be cut down to five months because it is quite impossible in certain areas to maintain a herd for that period on Scottish hills, because of lack of water and shortage of winter keep."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 22nd June, 1950; c. 13–14.]
That is the substance of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) had said, and it has been misrepresented a hundred times. It seems to be all right when said by the hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire, but not when my right hon. Friend says it.

I know the Minister has only one minute left, but it does seem to me that he is possibly misleading the House. No one—and I have been in most of these Debates—has found any fault with the remarks of the right hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire. He made a remark which he at once admitted was something which is now romantic nonsense, but the matter was not regarded seriously.

No Government has ever done as much to encourage the keeping of cattle on the hills in Scotland and particularly in the Highlands. Of many schemes in which financial assistance is given—

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

Adjourned at Twenty Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.