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New Clause—(Neighbouring Reorganisation Schemes)

Volume 643: debated on Wednesday 5 July 1961

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Where it is proposed over a reasonable period of time to reorganise two or more neighbouring crofting townships the Commission shall enter into consultation with the local authority and the appropriate public bodies concerned and prepare a long-term plan for the provision of the necessary services for the area and for its proper development. Any such plan shall be placed before the Secretary of State who may confirm it with or without modification.—[ Mr. Willis.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

In the main, the Bill arises out of the 1959 Report of the Crofters Commission, in which a number of recommendations were made. The Government accepted most of these recommendations, but omitted to accept the most important one, which is contained in paragraph 77, which says:
"We suggest, further, that even with an improved procedure and stronger powers, this method of reorganisation"—
that is, the simple reorganisation scheme for a township dealt with in the Bill—
"can be usefully applied only in relatively simple cases. For the more complex we think that the principle of long-term planning should be adopted to allow time to all concerned for appraisal and adjustment."
Later, paragraph 79 says:
"The preparation and promulgation of a long-term plan for an area comprising a number of townships would confer the great advantage that all authorities concerned, for example, the County Councils, the Hydro-Electric Board and the Forestry Commission, would know in advance how crofting agriculture would shape in ten or fifteen years' time in a given area and would be able to comment and to offer advice in the light of their own forward planning. It should be particularly helpful to all concerned to have long warning of plans for afforestation."
We might have worded the Clause inadequately, but we have endeavoured to accept fully that recommendation, and have said that where the Commission has it in mind to reorganise crofting townships which are close together in the same area it should consult the local authority and the appropriate public bodies concerned and prepare a longterm plan for the provision of the necessary services for the area, and for its proper development. That seems thoroughly desirable. I assume that the Crofters Commission will have in mind what it intends to do about certain areas. Under the Clause dealing with the reorganisation schemes it is laid down that the Commission can initiate a reorganisation scheme. I would have thought that where it does so it should act in the light of what is likely to be to the greatest benefit of the Highlands.

Even if a scheme is initiated at the request of a grazings committee or an individual crofter the Commission might well ask itself, "What about the neighbouring townships in this area? Next year we might reorganise this or another one". With that in mind it could consult the appropriate bodies and prepare plans for the provision of electricity and other necessary services for the area which would facilitate the development of the township.

8.30 p.m.

That seems to us to be a thoroughly desirable proposition. I was amazed, as I said on Second Reading, that the Government had not even considered it. I know that the Government have a rooted objection to planning. We see at the moment where this objection to planning is landing us—in parlous conditions. I can understand the Government having a doctrinaire objection to planning, but in the light of all the evidence that is available from almost everyone—the Crofters Commission is not a Socialist organisation coming forward with a recommendation to plan this; many other bodies have done the same-I cannot see why they should not accept the Clause.

What we propose is not what we should have liked to see—a proper development authority trying to develop the area as a whole. We recognise that under the present Government that is "out", and it would probably be out of order to discuss it on the Bill at this stage. What we have tried to do is simply to advance a short distance along the road towards the proper development of these areas. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) was Secretary of State, he was responsible for a survey being made in Glen Oich and an endeavour to develop that area. The last time I was there, a considerable amount of development had been done. That ought to be done elsewhere. It can be done, as we suggest, on the basis of the reorganisation of townships which is being carried out by the Crofters Commission.

I believe that our Clause would improve the Bill. It would not damage it in any way. It would take nothing from the Crofters Commission. All it would do would be to lead to a small element of planning of the development of areas rather than small townships. We all know areas in the Higlands where there are townships close together, most of them perhaps not in an altogether neglected state but only partially being used. That is the type of township which the Commission ought to be reorganising. In those circumstances, surely what we suggest is desirable.

Is there anything in the Clause which the Commission cannot do already either under the existing law or under the Bill as it exists?

I am not certain about that, but putting in the new Clause would draw the attention of the Commission to the fact that we should like this to be done. The Commission asked for these powers and this sort of planning in its own Report, and, therefore, I assume that it thought it would be a good thing if this provision could be included in legislation.

Even if the Secretary of State cannot accept the Clause because of the way in which it is worded, I hope that he will accept it in principle and put into the Bill a provision along these lines in another place. It seems to me that it could do nothing but improve the Bill and would certainly not do any damage at all.

I confess that I was a little puzzled to know precisely what the objective of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) was in tabling his Clause. Frankly, I think that he and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) showed admirable ingenuity in getting another line in on a subject which has already been discussed at very considerable length and on a great many occasions.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East upon the way he presented the Clause, because its ultimate intention became apparent to me without his saying what it was. What he is doing is trying to find another approach to the general concept of the Highland Development Authority.

That was what I was bound to conclude from studying the wording of the new Clause.

One of the difficulties about the hon. Gentleman's proposal is that it empowers a form of consultation with a great many people, ending up in a plan, and I do not see how the Crofters Commission is technically the right body to do this. We have thought carefully about this question of long-term planning, but, in spite of what hon. Members opposite think about our views on planning, we have considered it on many occasions extremely carefully. In this case, it has certain attractions. As I say, we have given careful thought to the matter, but we concluded that the overriding need for flexibility in dealing with crofting townships ruled out any question of formal long-term planning of the kind envisaged in the new Clause. We have only to think of the economic position in a township which might be radically changed by a forestry scheme or an industrial project, which we are always searching for and sooner or later will land. Things might work out differently from what is laid down in a long-term plan.

The psychological effect on a crofter of the publication of a long-term plan which appeared to threaten the eventual disappearance of his family croft is an important human factor. That is something which might be contemplated in the short term. In considering this problem, the human element must be kept very much in mind. I do not put that forward as an overriding argument. The earlier argument, the need for flexibility, is much more potent.

For these and other reasons we have not included a long-term planning provision in the Bill. We think that to aid the Secretary of State of the day in considering a specific scheme or township reorganisation he should have a statement on the Commission's view on the prospects of development in the township and the surrounding district. I think that this is provided for in Clause 8 (6). I also think that that goes about as far as we can reasonably go. While I do not quarrel with the concept of planning which is clearly in the mind of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, I feel that it is not right to try to formalise it to the extent that it would be formalised even if we tried to adapt the proposed new Clause. I believe that all that is necessary is in the Bill. Therefore, I hope that hon. Members will not press the new Clause.

We have got the Secretary of State to travel a little way towards the objective which we have in mind. Yesterday, I accused him, perhaps unfairly, when he seemed to be confusing the development of Scotland with the development of the central belt in Scotland and dissociated himself from that accusation. I am glad that he did so. By this new Clause he is being asked to consider the long-term development of the Highlands. He says that this is getting the Highland Development Authority over by another means. But I think that the means are completely justified.

I will not quarrel with the right hon. Gentleman if he says that he would rather be the agent responsible for longterm planning than the Commission. I welcome that declaration, because, as long as the Secretary of State is the agent for long-term planning in the Highlands, which is just as necessary, if not more necessary, than planning in other parts of Scotland, then he can always be questioned by this House. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is convinced that there must be some long-term plan for the Highlands.

The right hon. Gentleman must be convinced of that because we have been pouring millions of pounds into the Highlands. During the Committee stage these figures were very much in question. The Secretary of State prided himself on the many millions that had been given to Highland development in its many forms. It is a matter which disturbs many of us, and which I am certain disturbs the right hon. Gentleman, that, despite all the money that has been given for a very worthy purpose—maintaining and increasing population in the Highlands and Islands—nevertheless depopulation still goes on.

That is the tragic fact. It has now reached the stage some of the islands have nobody living on them, with the result that an hon. Member on the Government side of the House came forward this week with the suggestion that he was prepared to take these depopulated islands and turn them into penal settlements for English prisoners. Is that not a horrible thing to have befallen a noble country?

Order. I doubt whether that is in order in discussing this new Clause.

It seemed to me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that it was in order, but I am not in any way putting my views against your Ruling, which, I hope, is not at the moment a firm Ruling.

I was merely suggesting that if we do not have planning for a constructive purpose we may have planning for another purpose. We may have planning to bring people to Scotland for reasons we do not want to see those people there. If we are to populate those deserted islands we must plan for the new inhabitants. We have to build and provide services and do all those things for the deserted islands to receive the English prisoners.

We should like the Secretary of State to say that he would spend that money on doing things for the people of the Highlands. Planning has to come at some time in some way for the Highlands. If it does not come in a way we want, it will come in other ways which are much inferior. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to think that if he accepted this new Clause it would have a psychological effect on the crofter.

I agree. That was the very point I was proposing to establish, that the psychological effect would be all to the advantage of the Highlands and the crofter because he would see things being prepared. The Secretary of State might become a sort of John the Baptist in the Highlands, "preparing the way". People would recognise the purpose of the planning. He would be able to give the crofter the assurance that he was preserving his rights to a croft and to more land where that was regarded as necessary.

I do not think that the psychological effect would be disadvantageous. I think that it would prove helpful. I agree that the right hon. Gentleman may not be able to tie himself too closely to the form of this new Clause. I do not think that that is expected. All we hope is that it will receive a word of welcome, and that we shall hear from the right hon. Gentleman that it marks the line which he is prepared to follow in seeking to regenerate the Highlands of Scotland.

8.45 p.m.

The proposals in this new Clause fall far short of the Highland Development Authority proposed by hon. Members on this side of the House. One thing which a Clause of this kind would achieve would be to let the Crofters Commission know that Parliament is still aware of the powers and duties which we gave to it under Section 2 of the 1955 Act. We have seen from the Annual Reports of the Commission, year after year, that it has been anxious to make use of those powers of collaboration with all the other authorities in the North of Scotland to secure the economic well-being of the area. The Commission has suffered a lot of frustration and disappointment, and the adoption of such a Clause as this would have given it a little encouragement.

Nowhere else in the Bill is there any recognition of the existence of the powers contained in Section 2 of the 1955 Act. Its acceptance would have shown that we were sure that, where there were two or more reorganisation schemes side by side, the Commission would be empowered and expected to collaborate with the other authorities with whom, under the 1955 Act, it is enjoined to collaborate, to try to work out pro- posals for the economic well-being of the community as a whole, so that the reorganisation schemes will not merely hasten the depopulation of the area. For these reasons, I had hoped that the Secretary of State might be able to accept the new Clause. If anything I have said has made any impact upon him, I hope that even now the right hon. Gentleman will say that this appears a sensible thing to do and that the Government will do it.

Of course, everything which is said by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) makes an impact upon me. The result of that impact, however, is not always calculable. I have noted with interest the reasons which hon. Members have advanced for putting down this Clause, and with certain of their objectives I am in entire sympathy. But, for the reasons which I have stated, I do not think that we can accept this Clause. That does not mean that I, as Secretary of State, am not continually thinking of Scotland as a whole and various areas in particular. A great deal of thought is given to the long-term future of the Highlands.

Question put and negatived.