HC Deb 13 March 1946 vol 420 cc1240-50

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

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Follick (Loughborough)

I wish to bring to the notice of this House a matter the gravity of which affects the wellbeing of a great number of industries of this country, and the welfare of millions of people. Time and again the President of the Board of Trade has told us that we must push forward with our export business in order to maintain the standard of living of our people. In fact, he has told us that we need approximately to double our exports over the figures of 1939- Some of the most important industries concerned in our export business are the motor car industry, the cycle industry, the motor cycle industry, the tyre industry. All these industries depend upon racing tracks for their improvement and development. Since Brooklands has been disposed of, there is only one racing track left in this country that can be used for this purpose, and that is Donington Park. At present, Donington Park is in the hands of the military authorities, and, time and again, representation has been made to the military authorities to release it. It seems, however, that once the military authorities have their grip on anything it is very difficult to make them loosen their clutch.

I accompanied a delegation to the War Office some weeks ago and we were interviewed by the Under-Secretary of State for War. We put our points to him. Lord Brabazon was there, Earl Howe, representatives of the motor car industry, of the motor cycle industry, representatives of the A.A., of the R.A.C., of the Cyclists Union—all very important bodies in this country—but we could get no decision from the Under-Secretary of State for War about Donington Park. I pointed out to the Under-Secretary the correspondence I had had with the War Office in the case of Donington Park, because it happens to be in my division. The only objection they could raise was that the Department had spent a lot of money on the park, and for that reason they said they could not release it. They could not find any other reason at all for holding on to the park. I pointed out to the Under-Secretary that we should forget the money spent on war, and remember only what we have to do to restore our finances and our trade. We cannot do that by looking back on what has been spent before; we must look to the future.

The motor car industry stated emphatically that they could not improve or develop cars without an adequate racing track. They used to have this track where day after day they could do their racing and help to bring their manufactures up to the highest pitch of develop- ment. Without an adequate circuit this cannot be done, and it must be a circuit where there is no danger to the public, because the cars race at a terrific speed. By means of these speeds, it is possible to learn where the stresses and the strains are, what developments have to be made, what the final outcome of a car will be. Not only that, but without an adequate track, we cannot take part in international competitions, and among those I must include the United States. We must have a track on which drivers and cars can practise, and we must not forget that when we have a winning car in these international races, it is a great advertisement for our products. When a car has won an international race the products of that firm go up by leaps and bounds People have seen the car win the race; they say it must be a good car, and they buy the products of that factory on the argument that if it produces winning cars, it produces good cars. Another reason for having a racing track is that it is necessary to train good drivers. They must get experience on a track. Without that experience, you cannot expect men to win races, no matter how expert they are or how courageous they are. They must have that experience in order to keep up the production of our cars, which, in turn, means the selling of more of our cars for export, to bring in the needed foreign exchange.

There is not only the necessity for tracks for cars, but there is the question of tyres. It really is shameful that while our Empire has the greatest output of rubber in the world, yet our tyre manufacture is small compared with that of the United States. The United States have had to buy their rubber from our Empire, yet their tyre output is abnormally greater than our own. It is only on the racing track that tyres can really be tested. A representative of the tyre industry told the Under-Secretary that they could not compete in the world markets with their tyres, unless they had every opportunity of trying them out on the track.

Apart from that, before the war no cycle in the world had a higher reputation than the British cycle. For this branch also-a racing track is necessary. Donington Park used to have races every Sunday before the war. Now what will happen? Cycles will have to race upon the roads to the danger of the public, while everywhere throughout the country one sees on hoardings the warning "Beware of accidents on the roads." "What are we to do about that? Are the military going to retain their hold on Donington Park? If so, it will put hundreds of thousands of cycles on the roads which ought to be on the track.

I am told that the military authorities are considering to a certain extent the desires of the factories and producers of cars in this respect. They say they are going to release the track but keep their hold on the park. They are speaking of spending somewhere about £100,000 on this venture. That is only throwing good money after bad. We want them out of the park altogether. We want the park to be returned to its owners, the people of the centre of Britain. The park itself was a great centre for picnics—a great centre of entertainment for millions of people from Rugby, Birmingham, Derby and all those centres, who used to converge on Donington Park to spend their weekends and afternoons. In 1938 and 1939, years of international races, over 86,000 people attended each race. Between 25,000 and 30,000 cars assembled at the park on those afternoons. In the course of the year over 500,000 people attended the races in Donington Park. This means in Entertainment Tax Duty between £5,000 and £10,000 a year which the Treasury are now losing by the military holding on to Donington Park. I say to the Government, "If you give us back Donington Park, you will be restoring a great deal of finance to the Treasury." Think of the buses going in and out, the trade developed by the park, and all this up building of a great centre of entertainment. This is apart from the fact that Donington Park is a lung for the industrial centre of Britain, and the only lung there is. The military are taking away this health-giving lung from the people who are building up export industries for this country.

I would like to show the difference between the way we are looking after our exports, and the way the Germans before the war looked after theirs. They did not starve their industries- of racing tracks. They subsidised the racing tracks. And what was the result? German motor cars went all over the world—the Mer- cedes and the Opel—and only because they gained their reputation by their cars winning races, because they had the tracks and the experienced drivers. Give Britain the track, and Britain will give you the winning drivers and cars, and then we shall win the exports. It is not that we have not skilled mechanics and drivers. We have them, but they lack experience. In some of the German races, competition was driven to such a height that half a million attended a single race. That is the way the Germans before the war developed their export trade, and we have to go along the same lines.

We must not starve the nation of tracks; we must subsidise tracks, help to develop car speed and put our cars in front of anybody else's. It must not be forgotten that it is the reputation of the car that sells the car, and nothing gives a greater reputation to a car than the propaganda gained by winning a race. We here in Britain, when we see British people winning races, forget all about party politics and feel a pride in that accomplishment of our people. We are asking for a very small thing. We are asking the Government to let us have back Donington Park. Let the military authorities find a dump somewhere else for their cars. Some of the cars have been there for four years and more, without any reason at all. Since the agitation has been on foot, they have actually been bringing in more cars; some have come from Aldershot and Portsmouth, and up to the end of the year there were 9,700 cars there. I submit that it is up to the House to say that we should have Donington Park back again; then we shall have winning cars back again.

10.40 p.m.

Commander Noble (Chelsea)

I am glad to be able to say a few words on the need for the return of this track for testing and racing cars. At the moment there is no place where the products of the motor industry can be tested, and it is a fact that British cars must be thoroughly tried out, if they are to capture the export market. As my hon. Friend has said, motor racing is most popular on the Continent and abroad, and racing has a direct bearing on export. It resulted before the war in the selling of many cars. Britain is planning a strong programme of car manufacture,-but it is essential that there should be a track on which to conduct experiments and research. I hope that Donington Park will be released in the near future.

10.42 p.m.

Group-Captain Wilcock (Derby)

As one of the members of the deputation which visited the Secretary of State for War, I support my hon. Friend in his appeal for the return of Donington Park. Apart from the racing interests, there were representatives of outdoor organisations on that deputation. Surely, now that the war is finished, and spring and summer are coming on, we have a right to one place in the Midlands to which our people can go for outdoor recreation. There is, in this district, no other place like Donington Park; in fact, there is no place in England like it. I went to see what the difficulty was about moving these Army vehicles. I could see no difficulty in moving them, although there was some question of hard standings. Let them be moved to some of the aerodromes which are not now being used. Why this property should be retained by the Army is a mystery to all of us. I hope the Financial Secretary will tell us that Donington Park is now to be cleared of all M.T. vehicles belonging to the Army.

10.44 P.m.

Sir Peter Bennett (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

We hear a good deal of talk about research nowadays, and I hope it is realised that we cannot have research unless we have facilities for testing things out and, in the case of cars, for testing them out at speed. Speed is the method by which engines are tested under conditions which cannot be provided on the roads of this country. As a result of such tests, you get reliability. That is obtained from racing methods on the track. We have lost Brooklands and we are looking forward now to the day when we can again have a track for racing and testing. This country has always been handicapped in competing with foreign cars, especially Continental and American, because those nations had facilities which we did not possess. We were handicapped at the start of the motor industry because the French had achieved speeds which we were never allowed to attain, which put them in front of us, and it took us years to come up to them. We have, of course, special cars built for this purpose, but I am not going to say anything about racing facilities as such. I am concerned with facilities which will enable the designer to test new designs and construction far more thoroughly than he can do it in the ordinary workshop, or on the road itself. We were able in the Schneider Cup race, and in other directions, to obtain speeds in front of the ordinary needs of the country, and so were ready when the emergency arose. Only by similar methods can we hold our own in motor development, keep our place and get better cars both for civilians here and for export.

10.47 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Bellenger)

I hope the House will believe me when I say that the War Office has every sympathy with the case presented to my noble Friend the Undersecretary of State, by the deputation which visited him, and by those who have spoken tonight. But this case differs from the majority of cases which are presented for the derequisitioning of properties held by the Service Departments. This is not a case where the owners of the property have asked for derequisitioning. It is a case in which a third party has asked for the property to be given up, and that third party was clearly indicated by the hon. Member for Lough-borough (Mr. Follick), when he spoke tonight. Although the hon. Member made play with the desire of thousands of people in that area for the return of Donington Park to some of the recreational purposes, for which it was used before the war, I think the main burden of his speech was to the effect that this racing track within a private park is desired to foster the export trade in motor cars. Obviously the War Department, which holds this property, has got to take cognisance of that point, which is a very substantial one, and I think the hon. Member for Loughborough, who was a member of the deputation which visited the Under-Secretary of State, will agree that at that interview, and in subsequent correspondence, the War Department showed willingness to be helpful. I hope, before I sit down, to prove that such was the case.

The policy adopted by the War Office in regard to properties it has requisitioned, is to derequisition them according to priority. In view of the arguments put forward tonight, I regret to say that Donington Park has a low priority. Our purpose at the War Department is to re lease those bypass roads and housing estates which facilitate the housing programme of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. And this park, although, no doubt, it would if derequisitioned fulfil the purpose for which it was partly designed, namely, the testing of racing cars, and tyres, on the racing track, will not stand up to the test that we first apply in derequisitioning, namely, the highest priority in the national interest. Perhaps I ought to tell the House what Donington Park is being used for by the War Department because

Captain Crowder (Finchley)

Can the hon. Gentleman say what rent the War Department is paying to the owners?

Mr. Bellenger

No. I have not that information at the moment. Of course, I can ascertain it if the hon. and gallant Member puts down a Question, but I do not think it is germane to the argument that I am putting before the House.

Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braith-waite (Holderness)

It may be germane if the War Office are paying the owners a rent with which they are fully content. That may be the reason why there is no pressure to derequisition.

Mr. Bellenger

That is not the argument at all. There are other arguments why the owners may not want the property derequisitioned as much as do the other parties, but that is not the burden of my argument tonight in my effort to convince the House that the War Office cannot derequisition this property, I fear, for some considerable time. Donington Park is the Army's biggest and best vehicle reserve depot, having approximately 10,000 load-carrying vehicles. My hon. Friend gave what he considered to be some indication of the decreasing value to the War Office of this park, but I have to inform the House that there is an average weekly turnover, in and out of Donington Park, of some 1,500 vehicles. Although I agree that the amount of money the public have spent on Donington Park during the war—some £264,000—is not an argument for keeping this property in military hands, nevertheless one cannot ignore the fact that a considerable amount of public money has been spent on it in the national interest, which happens to be represented by the War Office.

Both on the occasion when the deputation met my Noble Friend and in correspondence, we have indicated to those who are agitating for the release of this property, in whole or in part, that the War Office will consider any proposition that the promoters of the agitation care to put up, if it is consistent with the necessity that we must retain it for some time. In that respect a proposal was put up to Earl Howe, to whom reference has been made by my hon. Friend and others, that the War Office and the other parties should use Donington Park jointly. Those proposals were not satisfactory, to us at any rate, and we have made counter proposals. These, I am afraid, would involve considerable capital outlay, of which I am not at all sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer would approve. Nevertheless, we are prepared to present those proposals to the Treasury if we can get agreement with the other interested parties. With that end in view, we have approached the Society ofMotor Manufacturers and Traders, who, we think, represent more fully the interests mentioned by the hon. Member for Lough-borough, and have put certain questions to them on the answers to which we may be able to base our decision. Those questions have not yet been answered. We have not yet received any reply from what we consider to be the representative organisation, although we sent a letter about a month ago, or probably a little less. No doubt it is under active consideration, as we say in this 'House, but the fact remains that we have not yet received any reply. I do not know the reason why they have not replied, but until-we do receive a reply, I suggest to my hon. Friend, and to the other hon. Members who have spoken, that we cannot come to a decision.

Sir P. Bennett

The Council meets tomorrow.

Mr. Bellenger

I am glad to hear that and hope we shall receive a reply to the letter we have sent. In the meantime I suggest to my hon. Friend who initiated this Debate, and others, that they should allow the conversations to proceed as they were proceeding. If it is possible to get some scheme on which we can agree for the joint user of this property, we shall do our best to help those who want the release of this property. I am afraid it is out of the question that we shall be able to release the whole of this property. Therefore, we have to fall back on the next best alternative, which we think might be a joint user of this property, though that will present considerable difficulties to the War Department and I have no doubt also to those who have initiated this Debate tonight, Further than that I cannot go. I hope I have said enough to convince my hon. Friend and those who support him, that the War Department are not retaining this property for any insubstantial reason, but because we really need it in the public interest, and I am afraid we may continue to need it for a long time. On those grounds, I regret I am not able to give any more definite reply tonight, than my Noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State was able to give to the deputation, but in conclusion, I would repeat that we are willing to help, if it is at all possible.

Mr. William Shepherd (Bucklow)

Will the hon. Gentleman say what alternative sites he has considered to take the place of this Donington dump?

Mr. Bellenger

We have considered every alternative presented to us, but op to now we have found no suitable alternative.

Adjourned accordingly at Four Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.