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Highland Development Crofting Areas)

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 20 July 1954

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

11.33 p.m.

I should perhaps begin by giving some explanation as to why I, a Clyde Valley Member, should poach on these Highland preserves. The reason is that a number of my hon. Friends and I have been considering the general problems of the distribution of industry in Scotland and it has been brought home very clearly that this Highland problem is quite apart and distinct from those of other areas. Quite different considerations are involved. I believe that there may be a case for rather more clear definition of precisely what we are trying to do, who should be responsible for doing it and how it should be done.

May I first try to define the rather strict limits of the problem with which I want to deal. "Depopulation" is a word often used in connection with the Highland problem and very naturally it arouses strong emotions. But, looking at it objectively, I think one has to go back to the phrase made famous on the wireless and ask, "What exactly do we mean by 'depopulation'?" It is always sad when villages decline, when townships decay and people move from one area to another. It is always sad, but it is often inevitable. Even in the prosperous And expanding economy of America there are decaying villages in the agricultural areas of New England and deserted "ghost" towns in the Middle West.

To some extent, these things are inevitable. Natural resources become worked out; methods of production change, social habits alter and populations move. The right population for an area is not necessarily that which has been there in the past, but the population which, in present circumstances, is that required to get the most out of the area; that is, the greatest production and the fullest advantage for the nation as a whole under modern conditions.

For some time the tide has been running away from the Highlands area. That tide may turn. Hydro-electric power has done a lot already, and we have heard of the possibilities in the utilisation of peat, and the more distant but dramatic possibilities from the creation of nuclear power at Dounreay which may ultimately transform the whole life of the area. But I am not tonight concerned with these great possibilities for the future. I wish to deal only with the building up, and holding, of the population in this area necessary effectively to maintain and develop the occupation which for several decades, if not for several generations, must remain the mainstay of the Highlands—and that is agriculture.

What, in the opinion of the Government is the right level of population in order to get the best agricultural production out of this area—the population which is needed for the country as a whole? Are there enough people there to get it now? If not, how can the people be got back, or how can those already there be kept? Obviously there cannot be a precise figure, but if there is a rough working estimate, can we be told what it is? Without some such estimate, we do not know, so to speak, the object of the exercise. We are moving in a world of generalisations and of strong and natural emotions, rather than in a world of such facts as can be ascertained or assessed. Obviously, no such estimate can be precise, but I should have thought that the agricultural experts could give at least some rough working hypothesis that in this area, say, we need so many hundred people, and in that area so many thousands.

Having got a rough idea of how many people are required, area by area, we could then consider what special measures, if any, may be needed to keep them there; what ancillary employments are needed to underpin agriculture in order to maintain a reasonable level of population and prosperity. Here I would ask if development of afforestation is likely to prove enough to serve this purpose. In the Crofting Commission Report just published there are some interesting and encouraging facts about the contribution which afforestation can make to the problem. But if it is thought, as seems probable, that by itself is not enough, what light industries do we need in order to offer part-time or alternative employment and to help to get more money circulating and to raise the general level of prosperity?

In the present circumstances, the distribution of industry in this area, as in all others, is a responsibility of the Board of Trade. But the Board of Trade, I submit, can see only one side of the picture. It is rightly concerned with exports, and the need for foreign trade, and the promotion of efficiency. But looked at purely from that point of view, it is hard to think of anything more inefficient than dotting industry in penny packets round the Highland glens with all the transport and managerial difficulties which that entails. If we are going to do it at all, if we are going to try to scatter such tiny industrial units through remote areas, it can only be because the industrial disadvantages are more than offset by the agricultural advantages. Now the only people who can see both sides of such a profit and loss account—the people who can see what is worth doing and what is not—are those who are responsible for the welfare of the area as a whole; that is to say the Scottish Office. Most certainly it is not the Board of Trade.

Perhaps the Royal Commission have already considered this point. If so, I hope we shall have particular attention paid by the Government to those sections of the Report that deal with it. If not, I hope the Government themselves will make the necessary inquiries and consider very seriously whether there is not a case in these particular areas for transferring the responsibility for industrial development, and in particular the development of small industries—possibly factories limited to a certain number of square feet—from the Board of Trade to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

So far I think I have conerned myself only with the general problem of strategy and responsibilities. I now move to the more difficult matter of tactics in tackling the problem. I am confident that it can be done. Indeed, both the Crofting Commission and the Secretary of State for Scotland in his speech last week referred to a small experiment which had been made at Inverasdale. That was done by the local authorities, with money and powers provided under the existing legislation, and inspired by the drive and enthusiasm of one Scottish industrialist, Mr. Rollo. A small but successful engineering works has been started. The Crafting Commission Report states that, working in such small units, men can earn about £300 a year and continue to maintain their agricultural holdings as well. But on a small unit with four men, that means £1,200 a year circulating in an area. In a small village, that money circulating in and out of shops and so on, can make all the difference between a lively community and a decaying community. It may also go some way towards meeting the difficulties mentioned in the Crafting Commission Report with regard to the difficulties met by many crofters in getting the necessary capital for the efficient equipment and maintenance of their crofts.

The first question is to decide how much such expansion is needed, and what steps are required to encourage it. In various replies to correspondence with the Departments concerned, I have been repeatedly told that the need is for initiative, enterprise and all the rest of it from individual industrialists. But time has shown only too clearly that there are not many Rollos about. Quite naturally, if an enterprising business in an area like my own constituency wishes to expand, they build an extension to their works on the other side of the fence. They are not going trekking off to Wester Ron to do it. Without special inducements they are obviously not going to take the action necessary to meet this special case.

Now I want to make one suggestion and I put it forward tentatively to give an idea of the sort of thing which might contribute to the solution of the problem and which I believe certainly ought to be considered more carefully than has been done hitherto. If these factories are needed, could not Scottish Industrial Estates be given the powers to build them with money provided by the Development Commission, on similar lines to the arrangements instituted for the north-east coast? Could not these factories then be managed on a fee basis by existing big industrial concerns which would be better than having them under Government management? I have discussed the matter with one or two concerns and I have been told that it would be difficult, that it would obviously mean a lot of extra travel and other tiresome complications, but that if the Government really want it and are prepared to pay for the extra effort involved, the firms see no particular reason why they should not take it on.

Could not these factories, in addition to any other work, also be given Ministry of Supply contracts, or the managing firms use them for sub-contract? The Ministry of Supply need a large quantity of small engineering products, and as much is for stock there is no hurry and the work could be done mainly in the crofting off-season and eased off when the men are employed on the farms. As I say, these things could be explored more fully than they are at present. There is no new principle involved. We give special help to the marginal farms. This is no more than an extension of the same principle. It may cost a bit. It may indeed cost a high percentage in terms of a unit, but from the point of view of the Treasury the units are so small that the total sum involved would be practically negligible. Moreover, I have already made the case that we should only consider doing such things where and when we are quite certain that the effort and expenditure of money involved is more than counterbalanced by the gain in agricultural output that the nation needs.

The questions that I want to put to the Government are these. First, we should have a clearer definition of the point that we want to reach—that is to say, the level of population in general terms which is considered desirable for the agricultural welfare of the crofting areas. Secondly, we ought to consider a redistribution of responsibilities among the Departments concerned in achieving these aims. So far as the location of industry is concerned, in the case of the Highlands I believe it should be the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Scotland rather than of the President of the Board of Trade.

Finally, we want reconsideration of the tactical methods of getting these results, either by means such as those I have tentatively suggested, or others which may occur to the responsible authorities.

I would end by saying that under the present system we are getting nowhere. Such replies as I have had from the Departments are all concerned with proving that, under the present allocation of responsibilities and priorities, anything that one suggests is impracticable. If we want to get results in these crofting areas I believe that we have got to change the channel of administration and responsibility, to be more clear about our objectives, more rational in our allocation of responsibilities, and more flexible and more energetic in the methods we use.

11.45 p.m.

I think the House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen (Mr. Brooman-White) for introducing, even at this late hour and in a commendably brief speech, a topic of fascinating interest and very substantial importance to the Scottish economy.

It is true that the Highland problem is not quite the same as the problem for the rest of Scotland. But, I think it would be equally wrong to suggest that the Highland problem is just one problem and that one could properly say the Highlands were depressed or the Highlands were prosperous. The fact is that the Highlands themselves are made up of many quite different parts.

Inverness, for example, is a sizeable industrial town which contains at least one firm of international repute that exports highly important products to many parts of the world, and there are other parts of the Highlands that are playing an equally prominent part in the national economy.

What, I think, my hon. Friend is concerned about, is not so much the Highlands, by and large, because he knows what I have been saying is true, but with those parts of the Highlands, particularly the glens and rural, out of the way, quarters, which one might call crofting areas, which now depend, for the most part, on agriculture, fishing and forestry. He is asking if it is possible that these somewhat isolated areas could have some ancillary industries imported into them. He is asking if we have thought that out and what sort of future these areas have and what sort of population we feel is necessary and what action we should therefore take.

I cannot answer my hon. Friend when he asks questions about the sort of population that, roughly speaking, we have in mind for the Highlands, looking a few decades ahead. I do not know. I will try and find out for him, but I do not think we can easily answer that ques- tion, because it is a very swiftly moving economy in which we are now living.

The hydro-electric schemes may revolutionise the Highlands and it would be rash to try to concoct figures as to the future population in these circumstances. Similarly, the great peat project might have a remarkable effect, and I do not think any human being could at the present time arrive at the figures which my hon. Friend desires. With his wish to see small industries brought into the Highlands, I am in complete agreement. I think, therefore, that my hon. Friend can feel easy upon that score.

The only other major question that arises from his speech is whether it would be wise, bearing in mind the need for bringing new industries into the High- lands, somewhat to change our administrative machinery. My hon. Friend says that industry and its location, by and large, is technically a matter for the Board of Trade, and he says to himself, "The Board of Trade is stationed in London. It is concerned principally with exports and imports. How can it be expected to take a keen interest in the development of small industries in isolated parts of the Highlands?" I must tell my hon. Friend that, although the Board of Trade is stationed in London, it has very admirable and active people representing it in Scotland, and that there is in Inverness a representative of the Board of Trade who is constantly moving about the area, in touch with what is happening there and looking for opportunities of development.

That representative of the Board of Trade in Scotland is in regular contact with the Scottish Departments, and he attends the Highland Panel meetings. At St. Andrew's House, where we have a joint committee almost constantly in session, composed of representatives of the various Scottish Departments, whenever it is thought necessary and useful, the Scottish representative of the Board of Trade is invited to attend. Therefore, although the Board of Trade is the body responsible for the development of industry, in fact there is close and continuous consultation between the Board and the Scottish Departments.

It may be that the Report of the Royal Commission may suggest some further devolution of administrative authority. I do not, of course, know what may be recommended, but, as my hon. Friend has said, it is a possibility. Certainly I shall undertake to bear in mind—speaking on behalf of my right hon. Friend—the case which my hon. Friend has put so cogently.

It would never do if we were to assume that the present organisation is splendid and is incapable of improvement—that it is perfect, flawless and adequate. It is by a constant flow of new ideas, such as have come from my hon. Friend, that progress may be made. I therefore wish to thank him for the stimulating suggestions he has offered, and I undertake to examine them.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Six Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.