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Scotland (Highland Development)

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 14 December 1965

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

10.12 p.m.

I am very grateful for the chance to take up the question of current developments in the Highlands. I am also grateful to the Minister of State for being here, and I hope that he will be able to relieve some of our fears. In addition, I wish to thank the hon. Member for Whitehaven (Mr. Symonds), who had the last Adjournment debate, and who cut short an important chance to deal with a tragic issue in his constituency.

The whole of Scotland, and especially the Highlands, is extremely perturbed about developments in projects which could assist the Highlands. For many years the main hope of people who live in the Highlands has been the hydroelectric schemes initiated by Mr. Tom Johnston which have brought immense comfort and hope to the Highlands. We have just had the cancellation of two of his schemes which have long been under discussion for reasons which do not appear to us to be valid. There is a great doubt in Scotland concerning the expressed promises of the Labour Party that the new prototype fast-breeder reactor would go to Dounreay in the interests of development and of technical progress considering the build-up of know-how in the atomic energy establishment there. Now we have rumours, which, we fear, may be well founded and which, indeed, have been expressed by responsible scientific correspondents in national newspapers, that a decision has been made to put it elsewhere.

I should like the Minister of State to assure us that this is not so. Nothing is more essential to Highland development than that the people of Scotland shall have confidence in the new Highland Development Board. It is absolutely scandalous that this newly appointed board should be faced with two hammer blows to the confidence of the Highlands within a month—and I sincerely hope that it is only one hammer blow. For 150 years the people of the Highlands have steadily lost hope of progress in their native land. They have steadily looked more and more to the South as the only place where they can prosper —to overseas, to Canada, Australia and all the places where they have gone.

We had hoped that this Highland Development Board, which has been Liberal policy for over 40 years—[Laughter.] I assure hon. Members that it is nothing to laugh about. This is an extraordinarily serious subject. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to assure us that we will not have a continuing succession of long-term plans while projects which could immediately help the Highlands are cancelled, perhaps in the interest of economy or by the Treasury in London.

I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the leader in the Scotsman today. It is highly important that he should scotch the rumour of this story right away. The Scotsman draws attention to the seriousness of Dounreay's claim and to the fact that if the project is not sited there,
"Mr. Ross will have difficulty in honourably remaining a member of the Cabinet after his insistence while out of office that Dounreay should be selected."
This leader in the national newspaper of Scotland shows the fears of the people of Scotland. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to scotch these fears and that he and his colleagues will be able, with honour, to remain in office.

10.17 p.m.

I wish quickly to draw to the attention of the Minister of State a number of points concerning the two hydro-electric schemes which my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. George Y. Mackie) has mentioned and about which there is considerable bitterness in the north of Scotland. I start by drawing the Minister's attention to a quotation from the last occasion when there was an Adjournment debate on this subject. It was initiated by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), who is now Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force, and it was a debate to which the present Secretary of State for Scotland contributed.

Speaking of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, the Secretary of State said:
"This has been the one institution in the Highlands which has worked, a nationalised industry which has become respected as no other institution in the Highlands has, and which is being killed and deliberately killed by the Government. Why?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th February, 1964; Vol. 688, c. 1494.]
That is exactly the question which we now ask, because not merely is it a fact that hydro-electricity appears to have been killed, but the reason for having done it has been substantiated by the Government's Ministers for the same reasons as they rejected when they were in Opposition.

We in the Liberal Party stood shoulder to shoulder with the present Secretary of State and the Minister of State against the Conservative Government on this issue, and w are very sorry indeed to see such a volte face.

First, there is the question of the decision by the public inquiry conducted by Campbell and Dick. With the support of the present Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Craigton rejected the fact that such a complicated question as deciding what was the superior form of electrical generation could be settled by a public inquiry.

One asks why hydro-electric development should always be singled out for that sort of inquiry. We know, and the Minister himself knows, what reason he would give if he were now in Opposition and faced with a similar situation. He would say that it was because of the landowners, because of the fishing rights and because of the pressure of Aims of Industry. One is appalled to find that the same argument can again be used.

The argument was based upon the famous 8 per cent. criterion. The conclusion of the report of the public inquiry on Fada/Fionn stated:
"Our assessment … is on a basis of net return of the order of 8 per cent. of its depreciated value over its life time."
What did the hon. Member for Craigton say about the memorandum that was introduced by the Secretary of State in a Conservative Administration? He said:
"This whole memorandum was accurately described by Mr. Michael Grieve in two excellent articles in the Daily Express, and I pay every tribute to them, as 'the 8 per cent. plot'. That is a very accurate way of describing it. It is a plot against the Hydro-electric Board."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th February, 1964; Vol. 688, c. 1492.]
That is the argument which was being used by the supporters of Her Majesty's present Administration.

Further, the question of inflation and the fact that hydro-electricity is non-inflationary is ignored in the report of Campbell and Dick.

In Galloway at the present time, the cost of electricity is ·148 pence as against ·882 pence in the thermal coal-fired stations and 1·91 pence in the nuclear stations. Admittedly the initial capital cost is high. That is always admitted. We have not cavilled about that, and neither has the Minister and his supporters.

I regret very much that this decision has been made by a Labour Government. After the present project at Cruachan is finished, the construction teams will be broken up. I hope very much that the Minister will be able, even in this short time, to give some justification for what is regarded as a shocking decision in the north of Scotland.

10.22 p.m.

I am very pleased at this late conversion of the Liberal Party to nationalisation. We are delighted to see it.

Not steel, no, but in other respects they have made a great advance, because they realise that in such an area we need publicly-owned industry in order to be successful.

I would like the Minister to reply on these points about the power stations, but I would ask him to weigh very carefully the 8 per cent. Was it that, or Aims of Industry? I hope that we can refute the suggestion that Aims of Industry and Colonel Whitbread lay behind the decision.

We are told that the Conservative Party, which had power for so many years, did nothing about the Highland Board. The Liberals would have introduced the Highland Board, but, unfortunately, they did not have power. We had the power and the desire, and we have created it.

One of the tasks in front of it is to break the grip of the landowners on the Highlands. Something to which I would like to see the Minister pay attention is the sale of large estates up there, and I hope that the Liberals will support us on it. [Interruption.] If anyone has broken commitments about the timing of this, it is not me.

The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) has asked his county council that salmon, like trout, should be taken under the aegis of the Highland Board and the fishery rights nationalised. I hope that the Liberal Party will take one more step towards the acceptance of socialisation like that one.

Like the collapse of the statue of Stalin in Budapest in 1956, perhaps the fall of the salmon in the Highlands might mark a new and fundamental step towards a Socialist as well as a Liberal era.

On a point of order. We are discussing a matter of particular interest to my constituents. May I not have an opportunity to intervene?

Order. If the hon. Gentleman catches my eye after the Minister has spoken, he will be able to take part in the debate.

10.24 p.m.

We have not had much time to discuss this particular issue, and, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. George Y. Mackie) knows, I did not get notice of it until a short time ago.

The hon. Gentleman says "Too long", but it was a short time ago, and it left us not very long in order to get some material. In any case, the hon. Gentleman did not tell me exactly what it was he intended to raise about the Highlands. He said "Highland development", and that is a pretty comprehensive term.

However, I assume from what has been said that the general concern of hon. Members who have spoken is with the decision concerning the Hydro-Electric Board and the decision concerning the prototype fast-breeder reactor. No decision has yet been made about the latter, and I am sure that in those circumstances the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to say any more at the moment.

I have been left only seven minutes in which to try to reply to the points made by three hon. Members. I am very sorry that I cannot give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I appreciate that the Minister now has only five minutes in which to reply, but that surely should be time enough for him to eat his words and those of his right hon. and hon. Friends about the Hydro-Electric Board.

Of all the quotations that have been made about the Hydro-Electric Board, I have not heard one from a speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, so I have no words to eat. The hon. Gentleman can read my speeches at his leisure. [Interruption.] I do not know whether hon. Gentlemen opposite want me to answer or not, but I assume that those who have raised this Adjournment debate, and who by the way have shown far more initiative than have the Official Opposition about this matter—they appear to be asleep here as on other issues—certainly want some reply.

This is a very complicated Report, and, so far as the economics of the two schemes are concerned, it comes out quite definitely against both of them. I think tat the hon. Gentleman ignored what is probably an equally important if not more important consideration, and that is that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out in his statement, the first consideration is that we shall have enough electric power in Scotland to meet our needs as a result of the programmes of the South Board until 1975. Whether we like it or not, the South Board has to proceed with a certain programme. That programme involves the building of large stations, and, as I understand it—though I confess that I am an amateur in these matters—this programme involves the building of very large stations. In fact, each station is larger than the one before. This is the interesting feature—

Why did the Chairman of the South Electricity Board, Mr. Elliott, come out in favour of putting the fast prototype reactor at Dounreay which is all set to produce about 250 megawatts?

The hon. Gentleman should listen to the argument. The South Board has to build these power stations. If, as a result of doing something which is necessary in the interests of Scotland, we find ourselves in the position of having ample electric power until 1975, should we then use our resources to proceed with schemes which will not be needed? This is the question which the hon. Gentleman has not answered.

The hon. Gentleman says that we could export. I am not saying that it is not important in the context of the Highlands, but the amounts are small in comparison with the needs of modern industry to the South. The hon. Gentleman said that this had been done for reasons which were not quite valid. The reasons which I have mentioned are valid and powerful ones. If we have resources available to utilise in the Highlands, we are better advised to use them for something that will produce immediate results, and the hon. Gentleman knows this.

We are proceeding with them. We set up the Highland Development Board within a year of taking office. Two weeks ago the Board announced its scheme for special assistance to industry over and above any assistance applying in any other part of the country. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the first grant under that scheme has already been made. This was done within six weeks of the Board being established.

The hon. Gentleman ought to be fair. This is much better than the Treasury loan scheme under the Highland Fund Scheme.

The Question having been proposed at 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 half-past Ten o'clock.