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Scotland (Depopulation In Border Counties)

Volume 692: debated on Monday 23 March 1964

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

11.48 p.m.

Although the hour is late and we are approaching midnight, I make no apology for raising on the Adjournment matters relating to the depopulation in the Border counties of Scotland. I do so not only on behalf of the three counties which are encompassed by my constituency—Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles—but, in part, on behalf of the surrounding area, with particular reference to Berwickshire and East Lothian, the right hon. Member for which is Mr. Deputy-Speaker of this House and who, by virtue of his high office, is proscribed from speaking publicly on behalf of these areas. I also include in my remarks, in small measure, a part of Dumfries-shire, particularly the area in and about the Burgh of Langham.

In 1961, it was my responsibility and privilege to lead a deputation to see the Minister of State for Scotland on the question of the subject of this debate. By tradition, the Borders of Scotland are recognised as being the three counties within my constituency, but actually and factually in modern times, and according to modern geographical history, they encompass the other three counties to which I have referred.

At the time I took this deputation to see the Minister of State he heard what the deputation had to say, and the burghs in all the six counties to which I have referred made clear their distinct feeling of distress and apprehension in relation to the ever-continuing depopulation in South-East Scotland.

In Berwickshire there are about 23,000 fewer people living there than lived there a quarter of a century ago, and in the six counties as a whole there is, on average, a decrease in population of one-half of 1 per cent. per annum. Time does not permit me to go into any analytical examination of the reasons for this, but the fact is that it is continuing depopulation.

I want to come more particularly to my own three counties and the eight burghs therein, where depopulation is an incipient cancer in the communal life of the Border burghs of Scotland. Since I was elected to be a Member of this House, over 12 years ago, I have studied reports of past investigations into this problem, which give cause for concern. I find that from the beginning of this century committees have been set up to study this matter and report, and without exception, all have come to the unanimous conclusion that what is required, particularly in my own three counties, is a form of new industry, or light industries, to provide employment for the male working population. The fact is that in my counties and my burgh there is desperate need for female labour to man the mills.

I do not wish, at this time of the night, to go into any particular statistics, but it has been said, and I have said it myself on more than one occasion in debates on Scottish industry and employment, that we have in South-East Scotland the amazing situation that we have, in Hawick in particular, an average of unemployment of 0·61 of 1 per cent. What that means in numbers of human beings is perhaps three or four unemployables who register each week for their own proper purposes and one person who happens to be changing from one job to another. In the most depressed burgh in my constituency—and it is depressed—it is amazing to see that the figure is 1·2 per cent. of unemployment. I refer to the royal and ancient Burgh of Jedburgh. This burgh has been a matter of concern to me ever since I was first elected, and, indeed, when I was prospective candidate in the constituency.

The peculiar thing about the whole of my three counties is that there is relatively no unemployment at all. In- deed, not long ago, when I asked for figures, there were 332 people unemployed and there were 559 unfilled vacancies in my constituency, and those figures of unemployed included the unemployables, the latest group of school leavers, and those who at the moment were changing from one job to another.

It is a matter of vital importance that this unending, slow decrease in population should be stopped, for the well-being of the Borders, and that new industry and new vitality should be injected into the community in my three counties. Representations have been made to me over the years by the provosts of all the burghs. I have had many meetings with the Provost of Hawick. He has been meeting representatives of the Board of Trade in London on two or three occasions. I have had meetings with the Provost of Jedburgh and his industrial sub-committee. I sympathise with their problems. It might appear peculiar to raise this as a matter of urgency, but I do so in the light of recent, modern facts.

I doubt whether anyone in Scotland would disagree with the forward-looking ideas envisaged in the plan for the redevelopment of the central belt of Scotland announced by the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade, which has been amplified by the Secretary of State for Scotland. Those of us who live in Scotland are well acquainted with what is proposed in those arrangements, and are happy that that should be so, including the new town of Livingstone and the others which have been specified.

But I put it to my hon. Friend who will reply to the debate that it does not necessarily suffice that the area which is encompassed by the new plan as announced is all that is required for Scotland, and it certainly does not satisfy the people in my three counties or, indeed, the six counties in South East Scotland. The mere fact that we have light unemployment figures or negligible or no unemployment does not suffice. It has been my experience in the years that I have observed my constituents that they are industrious people, and when some plight hits a community, as it did in Jedburgh a few years ago with the closing of the North British Rayon Makers, it is not sufficient to say at this stage that because Jedburgh has such a small unemployment figure it must be happy.

It is quite easy to have such a figure of unemployment if the people who previously resided in Jedburgh, because they are industrious people and wished to be employed, moved elsewhere, thus leaving houses vacant in Jedburgh, creating a situation in which there appears to be no unemployment. I have seen in that burgh in comparatively recent weeks the closing of shops. I have seen the sense of disillusionment and distress in the town.

I plead with my hon. Friend to make clear, and to give some hope, that, apart from the redevelopment of the central belt of Scotland, some thought will be given to areas such as mine where depopulation is increasing and where the provosts and councils of the burghs seek only to keep in survival and to improve the conditions of those who remain living in the community.

But on top of that it is well known that in the three counties and eight burghs which I represent the great wool trade of Scotland exists down the Tweed Valley, and there is a desperate need for people to man the mills, particularly womenfolk. What we need is a series of light industries in all the three counties and eight burghs so that the heads of the families may be employed and their wives and daughters may be lucratively employed in manning the mill looms.

I do not want to go into detail, but I can think of one mill where during the past year orders for 13,000 fully-fashioned women's knitwear garments could have been taken but were not taken because the mill could not give a delivery date as there were not sufficient workers available to man the mills.

It is particularly appropriate that my hon. Friend should be replying to the debate, for he was recently in the area we are discussing and met the provosts and representatives of industry from my counties and the others. I am sure that he took note of what was said to him on that occasion. I plead with him to make it clear that the Government are thinking in some terms about the future Of the area.

The burghs in my constituency are deserving of new industry, because they have already accepted overspill agreements with. Glasgow. They have been quite prepared, willing and happy to accept overspill families from Glasgow. But there must be employment available for the heads of the families so that they will come happily to new homes and help those in the border areas to produce the goods which they they are competent to do.

Hon. Members from Glasgow are willing to assist the Borders in getting families there if we have the employment to give them, and I have in mind my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin-grove (Mr. Lilley), who has been most helpful in conferring with me and members of town councils within my constituency. Some families have already come, but not in sufficient numbers, and they are not fulfilling the agreement which has been contracted between the burghs and Glasgow in relation to their overspill problems.

I suggest that we might be forward-thinking. I have recently received a letter from one of my constituents which contains a proposal which is quite topical and which has been mentioned in the Press during the past week or ten days. It relates to the proposal that in Britain somewhere there shall be established the new World Health Organisation research centre.

I submit to my hon. Friend that it might well be a forward-looking thing for him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to see whether this centre can be attracted to Scotland. This is a potential which would employ about 1,300 specialists and scientists, and I submit that in the Borders there is plenty of room, plenty of capacity, good surroundings, and reasonably adjacent contact with Edinburgh, to consider it a suitable place to establish such a centre if it is coming to Britain at all.

It would be impossible in the short time that is entailed in an Adjournment debate to go into too much detail, but I am supported in the views that I have expressed by the South of Scotland Chamber of Commerce and the Eastern Development Corporation which, in the main, is not in my constituency, although it encompasses my burgh in Kelso, and I assure my hon. Friend that this is not a matter of political expediency. I have raised this matter to try to help the properly elected provosts and members of my town councils, my three county councils, and those of the three adjoining councils, who wish to see a prosperous, healthy and growing community, and to stop this ever-increasing flow of people out of the Borders. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give us some hope in that direction before we adjourn tonight.

12.3 a.m.

I am very grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Commander Donaldson) for having initiated this debate and for having spoken so clearly and forcefully about the nature of the problems which face the Borders. It gives me an opportunity to emphasise the equal concern which the Government feel on this subject. We fully recognise the gravity of these problems and we are determined to find solutions to them as part of our resolve to spread economic prosperity more evenly throughout the country.

As the House knows, the Government are engaged in a special study of the Borders, which I shall describe, but, first. I should like to make some general observations, and, in particular, to mention the short tour which I had the pleasure of making in the Borders last month, to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred.

The Borders are a pleasure to visit at any time. The delightful scenery, historic towns, and the sterling qualities of Borderers make this region one of the most pleasant parts of the country in anybody's guide book. Conditions are ideal for sport and recreation, and, despite the comparatively small population—the subject of our debate tonight—it is a token of the spirit and vigour of the area that no less than five of the Scottish XV which won the magnificent victory at Murrayfield on Saturday play for Border clubs.

During my tour I was able to visit a textile factory in Hawick—probably the most modern of its kind in Europe—and the Scottish Woollen College, at Gala- shiels, and I had valuable discussions with representatives of the Woollen Manufacturers' Association. I met representatives of all the local authorities in the four Border counties and had most useful discussions with them. I had helpful meeting, also, with the Eastern Border Development Association, which extends its influence into Berwick-on-Tweed and parts of Northumberland.

At my meetings with the local authority representatives they presented, as I expected, a very clear picture of the essential problems facing the Borders, and particularly the unusual situation of depopulation combined with conditions of virtual full employment; and also the imbalance between the male and female employing industries. I was very encouraged by the breadth of view which the local authorities brought to our discussions. It transcended purely parochial considerations, and was directed to the good of the area as a whole.

This augurs well for the future, because the four Border counties have a fundamental unity which I feel must form the basis of any regional plan. I would like to make it clear that I speak of four Border counties, because South-West Scotland, with its different combination of problems, is the subject of a separate study by the Development Group.

The publication last November of the Government's programme for development and growth in Central Scotland was essentially a priority programme for the whole Scottish economy. Central Scotland contains 90 per cent. of our manufacturing industry and 75 per cent. of our total population. It was for these reasons, and in view of the great structural changes that are taking place there, that the Government gave it their first attention.

We are now following up the Central Scotland programme with studies of the Borders and the Highlands; and it is our intention to continue this work by studies of the South-West and North-East also. We hope to have all these surveys completed by the middle of next year. This is an ambitious programme, and there is much work to be done to establish the facts and to reach the right conclusions from them. As for the study which we are making of the Borders, the framework of a comprehensive investigation has been laid down and we are now issuing to local authorities and other interested bodies in the Borders an account of what we are doing and a request for their co-operation. At the same time, we are taking similar action in regard to our study of the Highlands.

The four counties of Berwickshire, Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles have common regional economic problems. Within the region, however, there can be distinguished, in the upper Tweed basin, the towns whose economy depends primarily upon the textile and knitwear industry; and, on the lower Tweed, a largely agricultural area comprising most of Berwickshire, with which are associated, in an economic sense, the town of Berwick-on-Tweed and neighbouring parts of Northumberland. I am happy to be able to say that our study covers the town of Berwick and the parts of Northumberland which are closely connected with the Eastern Border. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Regional Development and the Minister of Housing and Local Government have promised their co-operation in this part of the operation, in which we will be working in close relationship with the Development Group for North-East England.

Different proposals have at various times been put forward as remedies, such as growth points, an industrial estate, overspill and even a new town. Without pre-judging the prescription, we are determined to apply the best combination of any of these, or of other measures, which the study shows will be most effective. The Government, for their part, will have no hesitation in carrying out the necessary programme of action. Meanwhile, there is no question of postponing action that we can usefully take now.

We will lose no opportunity, in our discussions with the local authorities and with industry, of taking any immediaately necessary steps. The £340,000 harbour improvement at Eyemouth and the improvements to the A.1, at Cock-burnspath, are examples of the work in hand. The Board of Trade has recently assisted with building grant for a Galashiels textile processing firm which will be employing Glasgow labour, and the Scottish Special Housing Association is due to build about 350 houses for overspill at Jedburgh and Peebles. One contribution to dealing with depopulation can be the Glasgow overspill scheme.

While a number of Border towns have agreements with Glasgow, the record of actual achievement in this field is disappointing. The difficulty, which I fully recognise, is that of synchronising overspill with the expansion or arrival of industry. Industry is reluctant to come if labour is not available and, conversely, overspill families will want to be sure of work being available before they agree to move. This is all part of our problem. Our studies will suggest the scale and timing of any more effective overspill drive that may prove desirable for the Borders and the rest of Scotland.

In view of the vital importance of the woollen and knitwear industries to the Western and more populous part of the Borders, I should like to say a little more about them. Both these industries in the Borders are very important in the export field. The woollen industry exports annually about 50 per cent. of its production. These exports amount to about 7½ million square yards of tweed to the value of approximately £8 million. The knitwear industry exports annually 50 per cent. to 75 per cent. of its production, a great deal of it to the United States of America. Last year, the value of these exports was £5 million. Both industries, therefore, are of considerable importance to the national economy.

The problems of the two industries are different in detail, but they both suffer from the conditions of depopulation in the Borders. It creates difficulties for them as regards labour supply and will continue to do so unless something effective is done to stem the trend. I take this opportunity of paying warm tribute to the leaders of both industries who are co-operating most helpfully with the Scottish Development Group in their studies. It is because we regard the prosperity of these two industries as fundamental to the prosperity of the Borders as a whole that we feel it vital to make full and comprehensive study of their problems.

My hon. and gallant Friend mentioned specially the Burgh of Jedburgh. This was the only Border burgh to receive significant population between the wars and it is notable that it is now unique in the Borders for its reasonably normal population structure. I pay special tribute to the commendable initiative shown by the town council in establishing a working party on the future planning of the town. This is a good example of local initiative to seize the opportunity to guide the changes which are taking place.

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for having raised this subject tonight. I assure him that the Government share his concern and that, as I have outlined, they intend to take action in this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.