HC Deb 17 March 1947 vol 435 cc152-64

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

9.58 p.m.

Mr. Wilkes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I am raising tonight the extremely important problem of unemploy- ment, and Board of Trade policy in connection with unemployment throughout the North-East development area. We know that the Board of Trade policy is the correct one. For the first time we have a Government which has adopted its true responsibility to solve the unemployment problem throughout the former distressed areas. I want the House to keep a sense of proportion about this matter. There are today 75,000 more people in employment throughout the North-East development area than in 1939. Nevertheless, there is disquiet on the North-East coast, as there is throughout other former distressed areas, at the slow progress which is being made by Board of Trade sponsored projects which have as their object the absorption of the endemic unemployment on the North-East coast.

There are 47,000 people unemployed throughout the North-East development area. The Board of Trade has sponsored and completed, since 1945, 47 extensions employing 1,600 people and has sponsored the building of six new factories, employing 300 people, making a total of 1,900 people absorbed by Board of Trade schemes. This is extremely slow progress after the great hopes which have been held out. I wish to make it perfectly clear that this problem of the small progress by the Board of Trade is not an accident so far as the North-East coast is concerned. It is the same in Scotland, where there are 80,000 unemployed, and where there have been absorbed, by factory extensions and new factories, 3,176 people. This is constant throughout the distressed areas, and we should like to know whether it is a question of the shortage of steel or of labour, and what priority is given to these projects, if that is so.

Is it some procedural delay explainable by the relation between the Board of Trade itself and the estate companies who carry on the work as agents of the Board of Trade? Since this slow progress is constant throughout the development areas, there must be some procedural fault in the set up. I want to ask a few questions, because I have not got much time at my disposal and I think the most useful way in which we can try to assess the true facts of the situation is by putting a series of questions. The Board of Trade have great powers, under Section 5 (1) of the Distribution of Industry Act, to clear sites for industrial development.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Wilkes

Can the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade tell us how many acres have been cleared under Section 5 (1) of this Act throughout the North-East development area? The whole of the banks of the River Tyne very sorely need to be cleared for factory development. We should like to know how much progress has been made, since this matter has been considered for about 18 months now, to my knowledge. There is also Section 5 (3) of the Distribution of Industry Act which gives power to the Board of Trade to clear areas and sites for non-industrial purposes and which allows the Board of Trade to make grants up to too per cent. to the local authorities. Could we have a progress report in regard to the work throughout the North-East development area? These are urgent matters. Past industrial progress and decline have littered the whole area with sites which badly need to be cleared. The Board of Trade has adopted responsibility, quite properly. For the first time in industry the Government has adopted the responsibility. We want to know how the Government are discharging that responsibility and at what rate.

I want to put this plea. The Minister has circulated a document to me in which he calls in question certain figures given in the House a few days ago in answer to my Questions. He says now that there are 23 extensions and 13 completed factories throughout the whole of the North-East development area, employing about 2,000 people. The total absorbed into employment does not differ very much from the former figures given. There are 23 extensions listed here, and the total number employed by these extensions is only 145, which works out at six people to an extension. Is this an economic use of the steel, of manpower and of the planning authority of the Board of Trade? Why, also, should it take on an average 20 months to erect a factory in the North-East development area to employ 330 people? There are even more remarkable things than that. Why should it take nine or ten months to build a factory employ- ing only 30 people? Why should it take eight months to build a factory employing only 12 people? These are the dates given to me by the Board of Trade for the start of building and the completion of the work. We want to know the answers to all these questions.

I think I speak on behalf of a great many friends in the North-East development area when I make these points. We want to know what is the procedural holdup. Since the Board of Trade have absorbed only approximately 2,000 people into their schemes they cannot, on such a puny level, talk of shortage of materials and manpower. On such a low level they cannot do that. It would be different if there were vast schemes of development and many buildings already started. I seek an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that he will not concentrate any further on paper plans but that he and his Department will concentrate on building those factories which are already planned on paper. Will he turn the paper plans into bricks and mortar before any further plans are contemplated? We want a "Finish the Factories" campaign, similar to that of the Minister of Health who finished the houses and put on the roofs.

I have two or three short points. When the Board of Trade are held up in their factory development schemes and have to choose between two factories, will the Parliamentary Secretary use his influence with the Ministry of Labour to see that those factories which can employ disabled labour are given priority? Like all industrial areas, we have a heavy problem of the disabled men on the North East coast. In the city of Newcastle alone, there are 700 for whom there is no work at the moment, and there is only one factory planned by the Disabled Persons Employment Corporation on which progress is being made in the city and that will employ only 150 at most. The nearer we get to the coal face, the more difficult the problem becomes throughout the area.

Will the Minister see that substances such as phenol and cresol which are needed for industrial purposes are not de-controlled while there is a shortage of these goods? These two substances are needed by many industrialists on the North-East coast for development work, but they are in such short supply that they cannot get them. Again, in regard to products like butyl alchohol and urea, which are now being produced slightly in excess of the targets anticipated, will the Board of Trade see that the excess goes to factories and to projects in the development areas? There is no point at all in building a factory in a development area if the materials necessary for development work are uncontrolled while in short supply, because it simply means that they go to the former prewar users and do not percolate into the development areas to the new projects.

Finally, I want to say that we do appreciate what the Board of Trade are going to do, and these suggestions are not made in any spirit of carping criticism; but, when we have the stark fact that throughout any distressed area in this country, or former distressed area, the Board of Trade, since May, 1945, have not been able to absorb into employment in their projects more than 3,100 people, we are entitled to ask the Board of Trade to take us into their confidence so that we may know what is holding up progress, whether it is the procedure between the Ministries and Trading Estates or the materials in short supply which cause the difficulty, so that we may help to get these projects completed, just as I hope the Board of Trade will keep us in the picture, so that we may both help in this effort of bringing some prosperity back into the former distressed areas.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

It is with no feeling of pleasure that we raise this topic tonight, but because we have a deep feeling of anxiety that many thousands of people who suffered distress between the wars are now faced with a recurrence of similar trouble on the North-East coast. I want to speak about the peculiar needs of Tees-side, because they differ in some respects from those outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Newcastle (Mr. Wilkes). Our main problem, although we are tied to the heavy engineering, chemicals and shipbuilding industries, is to find suitable work for a large reservoir of unemployed women. Factories to absorb female labour are our most urgent need at the moment. In my own constituency of Stockton-on-Tees there are 820 men out of work, but 1,500 women, who are ready and available if the right kind of work is there. We are satisfied with the overall programme, and the figures that the Board of Trade aim at employing over a period of years should absorb our unemployed, but the present serious problem is that we have to translate all those figures on paper, the hundreds of thousands of square feet of factory space and hundreds of men and women, into actual brick and mortar realities on the sites.

Let me give one example from Teesside. There are plans on paper for three trading estates to meet our needs, but at the moment, of the 29 projected factories—and a number of them are much-needed advance factories, about which I will say something later—not one single brick has yet been laid. In spite of the visit of the President of the Board of Trade on 10th December, when he expressed concern at the slowness and delay, and in spite of the difficulties of the weather, there has not in my opinion been sufficient progress on these sites. I do not know what is the reason; that is what we intend to find out if we can tonight. I think the difficulty arises before the contractor gets on the site. I will give an example. There was a firm which was interested in coming to Stockton-on-Tees. They first saw the Trading Estate Company in December, 1945, but it took all the months from December, 1945, until 16th December, 1946, before the contractor got on the site. There were arguments with the architects, licences were not granted and so on, and it seems to me that with proper organisation between the Board of Trade regional officers—and they have been very helpful—and the North Eastern Trading Estate Company we should be able to cut down the office work, and enable the contractors to get on the site more quickly than in the past.

There is one other factory, and I do not want to specify it because I think my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will know perfectly well what I am referring to; it is an American factory, about which there has been considerable agitation. I had a look over this factory on Sunday morning of this week. The roof is not yet on, and valuable machinery worth thousands of pounds is lying about covered with tarpaulins but suffering from the effects of the severe weather. If we had proper organisation I am sure that scheme could have been in production a number of months ago. I also want to ask my hon. Friend what is the actual position at the moment of the North Tees Trading Estate. There are 10 advance factories, I believe, waiting to be built there. We have the employers waiting to go in them. I would draw my hon. Friend's attention to the excellent system of pilot factories introduced by my local authority. They have got the employers now employing girls in any old corner in the town, training them until the time comes when they can go into a proper factory. The industrialists will lose heart if it is going to take over 12 months to get these factories ready.

We must ask again what is wrong with this organisation. Where did the flaws creep in? I know we can attribute some of them to shortage of labour and shortage of materials and to the severe weather, but I would ask my hon. Friend to say quite honestly if he is satisfied with the organisation in this region. Is he satisfied with the collaboration between the eight different Ministries involved in getting the plans ready, and the North Eastern Trading Estate? Is he sure that sufficient determination is being shown in the Department to get on with the job? I would like an answer to that question. There is one other difficulty. The Treasury is often blamed that it is not forthcoming with finance for these projects, but I do not think that is true in this case. I do not think we can make a scapegoat of the Treasury, although I believe that the actual finance corporations do experience considerable delay in coming to a decision. I wonder if my hon. Friend will give us some facts on that?

What are the solutions? Let me suggest two. First of all, I suggest that the North-East development area at present is too big for one company to look after. I suggest that it be split into two. We should also have a thoroughgoing inquiry into the set-up of the trading estate company. I am convinced that not sufficient determination is being shown by that organisation. Again, can we ask for any increase in priority for materials and labour at this critical time? It is not easy for the small man who wants a factory of 2,000 square feet to be considered by the trading estate company, who are thinking in terms rather of 10,000 square feet. Would it be possible for the standard factory to be divided into smaller units with communal canteens, so that they may be used by men who want only small factories?

Finally, I would point out that in the development areas we have a pool of sur- plus labour which is not being used. Unless we use it quickly, it will stagnate and the men will lose hope again. It is in the interests of these men and women, not only for their own good as human beings but also to help the national effort that they should be brought into production as speedily as possible.

10.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Belcher)

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for raising this matter, and for making constructive suggestions. The interesting proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) about the possibility of dividing the standard factory into smaller units is one which I undertake to go into, and to see how far it is practicable. Both hon. Members asked about procedural difficulties. I would deny that there are such difficulties, but there are bound to be complications when one Department is in the main responsible for the planning of the development area and for reconstruction and new construction, and other Ministries, such as the Ministries of Works, Labour and Town Planning, are interested in what we are trying to do. We cannot go ahead without consulting those other Departments. My hon. Friends might be pleased to know that at this moment we are engaged in an investigation into the possibility of short circuiting many of the operations which have to take place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. Wilkes) raised the question of the clearance of sites for industrial and amenity purposes. Responsibility in regard to industrial sites lies with the Board of Trade. I cannot give my hon. Friend exact figures, but I will see that they are conveyed to him. As to the clearance for amenity purposes that is a responsibility of the local authorities in the first place. If they will only go ahead and prepare schemes, when those schemes are approved—they will be approved rapidly—they will rank for 100 per cent. Treasury grant. I urge the local authorities in development areas to do all they can to prepare schemes.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Combined English Universities)

Approved by whom?

Mr. Belcher

By the Treasury. As to whether the Treasury will be forthcoming, I am glad to be able to say that in this case at least the Treasury are forthcoming and that we have experienced no difficulty of any kind in financing schemes in development areas. It was suggested that we should forthwith cease preparing paper plans and turn those plans into bricks and mortar. I agree that it is possible to go on blithely with paper plans without coming to the building of the factories, which actually matters, but I assure my hon. Friends that the preparation of paper plans by the Board of Trade, or by the estate company does not interfere with the actual putting up of the bricks and mortar.

The delays are due, more to the absence of raw materials and the shortage of building labour, than they are to an undue concentration on paper plans. However, I will look into the point, and if we find that some delay is being occasioned by the concentration of staff on the preparation of plans, I will do what I can to see that that no longer occurs. With regard to providing work for the disabled, that matter is constantly in our minds. We are aware that one of our principal jobs must be to provide work for the men who have been disabled in industry and elsewhere, and I will give an indication that we will press ahead as rapidly as we can, and with all the force possible, in order to provide employment for those victims of industry.

With regard to raw materials, it is a definitely laid down policy, opposed in many cases by industrialists and trade unions from other parts of the country, but despite that opposition, to divert to development areas such raw materials as we control in order to give the factories in those areas the maximum opportunity of employing their people Where we do not control the raw materials, we do our best to persuade those who do control them to divert them, as far as possible, to the development areas. I am pleased to say that our experience has been that those who control the materials have generally been very co-operative.

Mr. Wilkes

Would the hon. Gentleman undertake to look into what has happened as regards Phenol and Cresol, since they were controlled some months ago, because we find that the firms who were getting some materials, have, since the control, not been getting any at all?

Mr. Belcher

I should be pleased if my hon. Friend would give me any information he has on the subject, because it would enable me to get on with the job more quickly. If I may just survey the general picture—

Mr. K. Lindsay

Is the difficulty in the building trade raw materials or labour, because I gathered last week that 34,000 men were allocated to the building industry? Is that the real bottleneck?

Mr. Belcher

It varies between one area and another. There is no allocation of building labour at the present time; it depends on whether the labour exists in the area or not. We have lost the power of direction of labour, except in one or two instances, at the present moment. We cannot say to a man that he must go to a development area and assist in building factories, although there are shortages of building labour especially in the South Wales area. It might interest the House to know that, from the beginning of 1945 to the end of January, 1947, we gave approval to 389 building projects, new buildings or extensions, in the North-East development area. When these are completed and in full production, they will provide employment for 37,000 men and 39,000 women. I was interested to hear from my hon. Friend that in his area there was more employment for—

Mr. Lavers (Barnard Castle)


Mr. Belcher

I am afraid I cannot give way to my hon. Friend because I have only a few minutes in which to finish what I have to say.

Mr. Lavers

I hope my hon. Friend will give way because it is a matter of importance. In view of the fact that we are proposing to import foreign labour, and in view of the information given by the hon. Member for Central Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. Wilkes), will my hon. Friend inform the House of the likelihood of the completion of the factories to which he is now referring?

Mr. Belcher

If my hon. Friend would not interrupt me in the few minutes at my disposal, I was hoping to come to that point. I will try to give him the facts. If I may, I will turn to the actual performance of the system and its pro- posed future performance. At this moment, we are very actively at work on the three original industrial estates at Teme Valley, Gateshead, Pallion, Sunderland and St. Helens, West Auckland, on the two new estates at Jarrow—South Shields and the Hartle-pools, and on individual sites at Ashington, Bedlington, South Shields. West Chirton, Newburn, Shildon, Sher-burn, Langley Moor, Lanchester, Crook, Towlaw, Sunderland, Stockton-on-Tees, North Tees and Skelton-in-Cleveland. I am sorry if my Durham accent is faulty. We hope to start work shortly at Blyth, Middlesbrough and Chester-le-Street.

At 28th February last, 99 building schemes totalling 3,447,187 square feet were in various stages of construction. Ten were either complete or so nearly complete that tenants had taken occupation. These totalled over 570,000 square feet. Nine were nearing completion, totalling over 270,000 square feet; 25 were at the steel and brickwork stage, totalling 740,000 square feet; and one was at the erection of steel stage, totalling 10,000 square feet—a total of more than million square feet. In the case of 35, the foundations were complete or in hand, a total of 1,170,000 square feet, and in the case of 19 the site work only had begun. The total of all these projects which were in various stages of construction, is about 3½ million square feet.

The first ten that I mentioned as being either complete or so nearly complete that tenants had taken occupation, all but two were over 98 per cent. complete. The two exceptions were the one that has already been mentioned of the Le Tourneau factory, which is 78 per cent. complete, and where only 38 men and six women are employed, and E.S.A., Ltd. on the Hartlepools Estate, which is 71½ per cent. complete and where only seven men are employed. The total employment at those ten factories was 866–338 men and 528 women. At their peak, which they should reach before very long, without any undue raw material difficulty, it is anticipated that they will employ about 3,000 people.

Of the nine factories nearing completion two, a total of 79,000 square feet, were over 95 per cent. complete. Three of them, 116,000 square feet, were over 80 per cent, complete. Two of them, 55,000 square feet, were over 70 per cent. Com- plete, and two totalling 20,000 square feet were over 60 per cent. complete. In these cases we are not very far short of full completion and occupation by the tenants, and at their peak these factories are expected to employ 2,000 people. I mentioned 25 at the steel and brickwork stage. Thirteen of these, totalling half a million square feet, were 40 per cent. overall complete. These are interesting figures. The prewar stage of the Teme Valley Estate—

Mr. Lavers


Mr. Belcher

I cannot give way again; I have only about two minutes to go. The prewar stage of the Teme Valley Estate was 1½ million square feet. We are now approaching an equivalent figure of buildings completed, and remember that we have only been at work 18 months. If these were on one site it would look very impressive, but we have spread them about in different places, which is quite right, as it would be wrong to concentrate in one place. I do not wish to stress our difficulties, but if I say that building today is twice as difficult as in prewar years I would not be over-estimating our difficulties. We would like to see more rapid progress, and we are constantly, almost day by day, in consultation with other Government Departments and the Treasury seeking ways and means of speeding up the building of these factories, and particularly of getting rid of the bottlenecks in the building materials which are, after all, the main difficulties.

There are other interesting figures. Up to 31st March, 1946, we started on the average 150,000 square feet per month, and since that date we have done better; the average is 33½ per cent. higher, and but for the recent difficulties it would have been higher still. We have been converting war ordnance factories. There are employed at Aycliffe 3,526 people on civilian production, in a place which 18 months ago was engaged on war production, and at Spennymoor there are 1,685. We have decided to build two million square feet of factory space in advance of specific tenants, and half of it is already in the process of being built. We have a big programme. It has been suggested that perhaps possibly the programme so far is too big and that performance is not big enough, but I think we ought to aim at a high figure. We shall do all we can to seek improvements wherever they are necessary and wherever they are possible, but do not let us overlook our difficulties and achievements, both of which have been very considerable indeed.

And it being half-past Ten o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.