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Highlands And Islands (By-Roads)

Volume 486: debated on Monday 9 April 1951

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

10.14 p.m.

The subject which I wish to discuss tonight is that of the roads in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, which is possibly a more pacific subject than that of cheese. I want for the most part to speak of the roads to the more remote districts and the side-roads and the farm roads. I shall deal principally with the situation in Orkney and Shetland, but while those are the counties in which I have a special interest, I believe the same needs and the same difficulties exist throughout the whole of the Highlands and Islands area.

The Minister of Transport and the Joint Under-Secretaries of State for Scotland, whom I must thank for being here tonight, have in the past year listened to two debates on Highland transport—one opened by myself and the other opened by my noble Friend the Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton). I know that the Ministers are under no delusion as to the vital importance of transport if we are to keep the population in these scattered districts and extract from the vast acreage of the north her full contribution to the food and wealth of Great Britain.

I say at once, so that the Joint Undersecretary need not waste time on this point when he replies, that we cannot expect to see metalled roads spring up through all the glens and islands in a flash. The problem is an ancient one and, even though the Secretary of State and at least one of his Joint Under-Secretaries have honourable Highland names, we cannot expect the burden of years to be lifted in a day. We can, however, look for progress and a programme. We can ask about the future programme.

I must try to impress again on the Government—even to the point of their exasperation—the urgency of this matter of transport and freight. I say again that times in the Highlands must, and should, change. Subsistence crofting on the small croft is dying. The crofter must track and he must use modern methods. The internal combustion engine has changed crofting and the whole life of the crofting districts and I hope will change it further, and for the better. Therefore the pony track and the unsurfaced road are now quite inadequate to our needs. They will not take modern traffic.

I do not suggest that better roads alone will guarantee the Highlands and Islands an increasing and prosperous population. We need a comprehensive plan for transport, a plan, too, for housing, land utilisation and so on before we get that—but I suggest that unless the roads in the remoter areas are improved, food production will suffer and the draft to the towns will accelerate.

I will sketch the first problem to which I want to draw the Minister's attention. In the Islands of Unst, Yell and Whalsay—all big islands—the road surfaces are lamentable. So they are all over the byroads in the west mainland of Shetland. There are miles and miles of roads in Shetland leading to reasonably large communities along which it is cruelty to a car to drive. In Yell, for instance, the main road is unmetalled. It was built years ago for pony traffic and has a magnificent crop of potholes among which buses and vans shiver to early and unmerited graves. One has to travel by bus in Yell before one can realise what it is like. The same is true of the Whalsay road, the Sandness road, the road from Voe to Aith and a score of others.

These are classified roads, and, of course, they are the responsibility of the county council, and the grants for them are paid by the Minister of Transport. I think the Joint Under-Secretary, and perhaps the Minister of Transport, would agree that the county councils have, in fact, very good records as regards their road policy. They have taken advantage of all the help offered, and, unlike some other counties, have not failed to make the fullest use of the pre-war grant schemes, and so on. But the amount which they can raise in rates is extremely limited, and they are really unable to finance the sort of road development which we need today with modern traffic.

In particular, it seems to me that the grants for this year are inadequate. For Shetland the ordinary grant is £28,500, but there may be some addition to that for Class I roads. That amount of money for Shetland is not even enough to make good the damage which has been caused this winter, because it has been a hard winter for the roads, as indeed it has for human beings. Frost and rain have broken up the unmetalled surfaces even further than they have done in the past, and this amount will not even make good that damage and will not allow any further tar-spraying. The tar plants in Shetland are going to stand idle unless we can get further grants, and the unemployed men who might be working on the roads will stand idle, too.

We hoped that these pathetic but inspiring little bits of tarmac which blossomed last year were a promise of better things to come, but they will be nipped in the bud. In the White Paper, certain roads are mentioned, but, as far as Orkney and Shetland are concerned, they were small sections and most of the work on them has been done. I trust this is not to be our only share in road development? What has happened to the £750,000 promised last summer?

Tomorrow, no doubt, we are to have a gloomy day, but I hope that tonight the Joint Under-Secretary will throw a little light and cheerfulness upon the subject of the roads. After all, the amounts which are involved are extremely small, when compared with those we are often asked to vote for other, and often, I think, much less worthy, purposes. I really believe that a sound policy of road investment—and I call it investment—will yield in the Highlands a very great return.

Can the Joint Under-Secretary tell us what supplementary grants, if any, we are going to get? Shall we get a grant to enable us to make good the damage that has been done this winter and prevent further deterioration? Shall we get enough to do some tar-spraying? Unless we make a decent surface on these roads, it is a waste of money to go on throwing gravel on them with the modern traffic which they have to carry. Further, what has happened to the £750,000?

My second point is this. When I travel about my constituency, I am met again and again, and particularly in Orkney, by deputations of small farmers and crofters whose districts are not served by the county council roads at all. I mention the following districts merely as examples—the west side of Burray, a group of holdings in Rousay, other groups in Deer-ness and Orphir, the south end of Eday and parts of Stronsay. In all these districts, there are several small farms which could be extended by modern methods and machinery if they had reasonable roads. They do not want elaborate roads; they want reasonable roads for a car or tractor to go to the farms winter and summer. If they do not get them we shall see what has already happened at Busta in Yell and what is happening near Voe—crofts abandoned and arable land going back to the hill.

Now, the Minister of Transport will say, perhaps, that the Department of Agriculture gives generous grants in suitable cases, and I agree that it does—up to 80 per cent. If we take the equalisation grants into account, then I have no doubt that the total is higher still. But there is always a balance to be found, and it is really beyond the means of the crofters to find it. What is to be done? The district council cannot do it, and therefore it falls to the county council to find this balance. The county councils have done a great deal. I have a list here of the agricultural road schemes which are being undertaken or will be undertaken in Orkney, but it is going to leave a residue for which the county councils at present cannot find the money. After all, even if they take over the roads, they have to keep them up, and the grant to Orkney this year of £20,000 is even lower than the grant to Shetland. It has been suggested that the council should borrow the money.

I have looked at the possibility of using the hill farming scheme or the livestock rearing scheme, but I think the Minister will agree that neither of those schemes is really very appropriate to this purpose. I should be very interested to know what their view is on the matter. I honestly believe that it is to these more outlying farms that we have to look for an increase in cattle, sheep, poultry, and so on. It is there that we can get the extra production. But if we are to get it, we have got to use the internal combustion engine. We have to get to these places, and therefore must have roads. The Government must face up to that problem as it exists at present in the North of Scotland.

We know that, as far as the trunk road system is concerned, Britain stops at Wick. But what have the northern mainland counties got that we have not? Both Orkney and Shetland have a bigger population than Sutherland. Does any county make a more significant contribution to our supplies than the £2 million worth of food produced in Orkney—60 million eggs and thousands of black cattle? We could and shall increase that contribution. We have more land to be broken, and there are more intensive methods which could be used. But we must have roads.

If it is strategy in which people are interested, we have one of the most famous naval anchorages in the world. We have a tourist traffic that could be greatly increased. I know that the Minister claims to make it up to us in other ways, but we still believe that while we pay our taxes and make our contributions, we have a right to be part of the trunk system. We have a feeling that we are only just on the fringes of Great Britain, and that we have a right to be part of the Minister's trunk road system. If we are not to have trunk roads, then we feel that we should have some of this burden of rates taken off our county councils, and that, at least, we should have bigger grants, because we are the only county in Britain which has none of our roads at all kept up by the Ministry of Transport.

Of course, if we are not part of Great Britain, then, perhaps, we should see what we can get out of the Colonial Development Board. I dare say we could add considerably to their production of eggs. Or, failing that, we may have to return to Norway, whence we come. I am sure that that will not be necessary, although I dare say the Scottish Office might be glad to see the last of us. I must say, however, that I believe times are crucial in the North, and I hope that we shall hear not only some words of encouragement, but some solid promises of more cash.

10.29 p.m.

I wish to say how very much I endorse what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) has said in connection with roads. I do not want to keep the House very long, but I wish to emphasise that this is a very serious problem throughout the Highlands. In order to put the matter into perspective, I want to give one or two facts. Over 50 per cent. of Highland roads are gravel surfaced; therefore, they are subject to greater deterioration than tarmac roads, that is, in comparison with 10 per cent. for the rest of Great Britain. It might be a good idea to consider putting double strips, as is done in some of the Colonies—Rhodesia for instance—to strengthen the roads.

But the real crux of the matter is what is spent per annum per mile on maintenance and general repair of the roads. These are the figures: in Great Britain the average spent on Class 1 roads is £580 per mile, and in Inverness-shire, which I represent, £180 per mile. For Class 2 roads, £339 is spent in the rest of Great Britain, and in Inverness-shire, £108. For Class 3 roads, the figure is £191 for the rest of Great Britain, and for Inverness-shire, only £70. So with use, and the effect of the weather, deterioration today is greater than maintenance.

If we want to get the increase in food which we can get from the Highlands, action has to be taken now in regard to roads, and the factor of need in road maintenance has to take precedence over everything else. I would suggest that an eight-year plan should be embarked upon as early as possible to put the Highland roads into condition.

10.32 p.m.

I should like to add what weight I can to one point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), and that is on the question of parish roads. This is serious. I doubt whether the hon. Lady who has been over these roads appreciates the seriousness of this problem. These are old estate roads which were built to develop an area and a community within an area. These roads are not eligible for a grant. The estates cannot possibly maintain them. The local districts cannot conceivably raise rates to bring them up to the standard of maintenance to get them on to the counties' list of highways. The county councils cannot possibly deal with the situation. Already this year their grants have been cut again for the 1951–52 period. Therefore, even if they could take on these roads they cannot maintain what they already have.

I should like the hon. Gentleman to explain how in the world the Government are going to tackle this problem of getting roads in these areas where the communities exist today, and also getting roads to those areas where at present there is no road. That seems to be a problem of the more remote future, and I cannot see how it is to be solved. Yet the Gov- ernment talk about development of the Highlands and they have not the answer to that one problem of how roads are to be got to these communities which at present do not possess them.

10.34 p.m.

I would like to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) for the manner in which he introduced this discussion. I think that he will appreciate that I am much more competent to speak about by-roads than about Ministry of Transport roads, but may I say a word or two about them.

The hon. Member asked why there were not trunk roads in Orkney and Shetland, or, as he put it, "What is it that other counties have got that we have not got?" What other counties have what the Islands of the North or of the West of Scotland have not, is through traffic. Most of the traffic of these Islands is local traffic, not trunk traffic, and that is why the Ministry of Transport have not yet seen fit to add roads in the Islands to the trunk system.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland also asked me what has happened to this £750,000 allocated to be spent over two or three years in the Highlands. Last year there was spent a sum of £48,905. That is an addition to the amounts allocated by the Ministry of Transport. I find it very difficult to believe that local authorities in North Scotland cannot find the money to construct these little roads into townships to enable them to be added to the county council lists.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said that I might refer once again to the equalisation grant. I ask the House to bear in mind that if one takes the county of Shetland as an example the Government—the taxpayers—pay 93.75 per cent. of the cost of constructing one of those roads to be added to the county list. The hon. Member asked whether we would give better grants. Could we give better grants than 93.75 of the cost?

If I am asked how I arrive at that figure, it is in this way. The Department of Agriculture grant, generally speaking, is a grant of 75 per cent., which is sometimes exceeded, leaving the local authority to find 25 per cent.; but the equalisation grant in Shetland and in Orkney accounts for 75 per cent. of their 25 per cent. local expenditure, which brings the total to 93.75 per cent. of the cost of these works which is being borne by the taxpayer. Yet we are asked if we can increase the grants.

I think some of those local authorities really ought to find some of the ratepayers' money to help to construct these roads and add them to the county council list. A lot of work has been done in Orkney and Shetland and in other crofting counties in adding roads to the list in recent years.

That is a very important point. Does the hon. Gentleman mean by that statement that he is going to try to increase the rate on crofters in some manner or other?

Yes, and they may be the people who will have to pay for the roads. At the moment, I repeat, the taxpayer is paying 93.75 per cent. of the cost of adding these roads to the list, and the hon. Member said the ratepayers could not afford to find the remaining 6.25 per cent.

Yes. Table 55 on page 98 of the Department of Agriculture Report shows a sum of £217,146 in respect of roads, bridges and so on, all of which is assistance from Government funds given exclusively to crofting counties and not available to other areas at all. In some of the crofting counties and perhaps in Shetland, in particular, the county council, in my view, are rather too insistent on the people in the area to be served by the road meeting the local contribution; that is to say, the Department of Agriculture pay 75 per cent. of the grant and the local people are asked to find the rest of the money, and so the remaining 25 per cent. is not met out of the county rate and does not qualify for assistance under the provisions of the equalisation grant. I should have thought that, as good Scots, these people, instead of raising a levy from these crofters, would have seen to it that they would have so made this local contribution that it would have attracted equalisation grant.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point; it is perfectly valid, but I hope he will bear in mind that the aggregate amount of even these small percentages is very heavy on a county of that nature where we have these scattered populations.

I should have thought, to give an example, that the County of Shetland might embark on, say, a 10-year programme, spending £10,000 a year on constructing these new roads into the townships, and adding them to the county council list. Let us see what that would cost the ratepayers in the area. First of all, they would get £7,500 from the Department of Agriculture, leaving £2,500 to be met locally. Generally speaking, the county council would insist upon that £2,500 being provided by the local people. But let us assume that the local people contributed only 10 per cent.—£1,000. If the county council contributed the other £1,500 and they spread it over the county so that the ratepayers in the landward area and the burgh ratepayers paid equally, it would cost them less than one penny per £ in the rates over 10 years.

The hon. Gentleman may think I have stated far too low a figure, but it is a much bigger figure than the local authority contemplated. It could be done if the county council would do it. It is £80 a year. If they did not ask the local people to contribute at all and met it all out of the rates, it would be £135 a year. That attracts this 75 per cent. assistance from the equalisation grant, and the contribution from the rates at the end of the day is really infinitesimal. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it is infinitesimal, and I cannot understand the unwillingness of the councillors in those areas to add one-twelfth of a penny to the rates here and there to get better roads for the people in those townships.

I know that in Shetland, for instance, the people are unwilling to make a contribution towards these roads. Taking that figure of £80 a year, if it were all met from the ratepayers in the landward area, there would be 75 per cent. or £60 a year going into the local area from the equalisation grant, but only some 20 per cent. of that would filter through to the ratepayers of the landward area, and the burgh ratepayers would get a gift of £40 a year and the landward people would get the roads provided for them. I think that if the ratepayers were willing to make some small contribution we should readily get a suitable improvement in those local roads of the crofting counties.

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

Adjourned at Sixteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.