HC Deb 18 June 1951 vol 489 cc200-8

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

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Alport (Colchester)

My object in raising the question of industrial development in North-East Essex on the Adjournment is to ask the Government to clarify their policy in regard to the industrial expansion of that part of Essex in general and the Colchester area in particular. I will outline the position as far as we in Colchester see it. In 1946, the Local Industries Association produced their plan for the future industrial development, which they estimated that the population of our town would require as a result of its increase during the future 20 years, and they estimated that that number would be in the neighbourhood of 20,000 persons. They therefore naturally concluded that industry would expand to a proportionate extent.

At the same time, the Trades Council were very properly concerned to ensure that the volume of industrial activity in the area should be sufficiently adequate and diversified to prevent any substantial unemployment should the bad and difficult days we experienced in the past return, and made inquiries in regard to Government policy in this matter. Simultaneously, those representing the retail trade, while acknowledging that the prosperity of the town, and their trade in particular, were largely bound up with the fact that it is a centre as a market town for a large and highly developed countryside, were, and are, no less concerned that a proper degree of industrial expansion should take place in the future.

I should explain that we have at present in Colchester one large heavy engineering firm, two medium sized light engineering firms and several smaller firms concerned with printing, clothing, tool and building materials manufacture and shipbuilding, but that the bulk of our employment is bound up with the three engineering firms I have mentioned, If anything went wrong with one or more of those firms, the working people of Colchester would suffer very severely—and here I am speaking from practical experience on more than one occasion during the past 50 years.

The addition of one or more heavy engineering firms to those which already exist would be of great advantage to the firms themselves and to the workers of Colchester in general for it would make it much easier for us to recruit skilled workers from other parts of the country if those who came, say, from the North to Colchester for employment knew that there was alternative employment readily available should they wish to change their employment at any time. The House will readily recognise that when a worker moves with his family from one part of the country to another and takes on new employment he does not properly know the circumstances and likes to know that he can change at will to other employment on the spot without having to move his family to another area. It would, therefore, be in the interests of those heavy and light engineering firms if the volume of that type of industry in Colchester were increased.

Two new light industries would be of even more general value to us, particularly if they employed male and female labour. They would render Colchester less dependent for employment in the future on the three main factories and, in addition, would provide steady prospects of work for the young workers, particularly those belonging to the families who are coming in in increasing numbers to live in our midst.

I would add that the social and economic health of a community such as ours is promoted not by having a handful of large factories, however prosperous, employing great armies of workers, but by having a number of small ones producing a variety of different goods, and manned by as many different categories of skilled and unskilled workers as is possible. The types of factories which I have in mind are those connected with the production of food, clothing, household goods, light engineering and agricultural materials.

Such is the outline of our point of view. It is right that we in Colchester should wish to see our town maintain and increase its prosperity, that we should wish to see our workers enjoying prospects of secure employment, and that we should wish to see ahead of us a period of enterprise and economic expansion which the continuing vitality of our community after some 2,000 years seems to us amply to justify.

This point of view is not—I hope the House will give me credit for—purely a parochial one. Many of the workers for the new industries in Colchester would come from outside. Some, no doubt, would come from the London area; others would be soldiers who, at the end of their service, wished to settle among us; others still would come, as has been the case frequently in the past, from the East Midlands and from the north-east coast.

I like to think that even if the numbers do come, taken against the great populations of London and the North as a whole, they would be comparatively few. These few, at any rate, would, in many cases, have the opportunity of leaving the bleak landscape of slum and slag heap to bring up their families and to work through their lives in a place where many of the qualities and kindly traditions of an older England are still maintained.

Before I turn to the apparent attitude of the Government in the matter, let me say that the expansion forecast of population which I mentioned earlier—some 22,000 in the next 20 years—is, if anything, an under-estimate. Let me give, as one indication of what is happening, the fact that between August, 1945, and May, 1951, the Colchester Council housed 1,361 families, yet between November, 1946, and May, 1951, our housing list increased by about 265, which indicates a natural flow of population into our area.

It seems to us—here I am asking for information from the Minister—to have been clear during the past five years that the Board of Trade has not only not been prepared to encourage new industries to come to Colchester but, by refusing permits for factory building, has actively discouraged them from doing so. Admittedly, a short time ago a firm of manufacturers succeeded in purchasing a factory building already in existence outside Colchester, but this has been an exception, and does not alter the conclusion to which the Council came after having discussions with the Eastern Regional Office of the Board of Trade and which the Council, in a recent statement, summed up by saying that the Board of Trade were not prepared to take active steps to encourage new industries in Colchester, and that in this attitude they were strongly supported by the Ministry of Labour.

To dispose straight away of the contention of the Ministry of Labour that the availability of employment in Colchester at present makes additional industry unnecessary, I think the House will agree that the same could be said of any town almost in the country. The fact that there are only 104 unemployed at present in Northampton and 100 in Blackburn and 101 in Bury should not preclude those areas from reasonable expectations of industrial expansion in the future. So far as our existing figures of unemployment are concerned, we are in excess of a number of towns elsewhere. Derby, for instance, with a population of 143,000 has 145 unemployed. Cambridge with 90,000 has 173, whereas Colchester with 58,000 has 222 unemployed.

I do not think, therefore, that that argument can be seriously advanced and maintained. I believe that the second argument is a fair one—that these new industries cannot come to Colchester because of the existing lack of housing accommodation. But, this is an argument which can be advanced against any town throughout the country which wished to see additional industry coming to it. I am not going to develop the housing policy argument and I am sure it would be out of place to do so. All that I wish to say is that I believe that the housing situation and problem can be overcome—and, I believe, quickly, and that we must plan our industry with a view to development in two, three or four years' time, by which time the housing situation will, we all hope, have eased considerably.

The third argument might be raised that the three existing firms to which I referred earlier could be expanded to find employment for a large number of additional workers. I have no doubt that these firms will expand. but the arrival of new industries of a light character in Colchester would help rather than hinder their labour problems. Here let me repeat once more that in a community of our character a number of small industrial units are far better than a dependence for employment and for wage packets week by week upon a limited number of large ones.

Our ideal is to spread employment amongst as many small industries as is possible, producing different things for a variety of markets at home and abroad. We have the impression, as the extract from the Council's minutes indicates, that the Board of Trade, aided and abetted by the Ministry of Labour and possibly, but not certainly—because there is not necessarily any co-ordination in these matters—with the agreement of the Ministry of Local Government and Planning, will not allow any industrial expansion in Colchester except where existing firms extend their activities or where factory buildings already existing can be occupied by new industries.

This has been borne out, as the Minister will know, by the refusal of the Board to allow permission to applicants to erect new factories recently when sites generally suitable for the purpose were being reserved for them. As a further confirmation may I read an extract from the opinion given by the Eastern Region of the Board of Trade when commenting on the town's development policy. It says: The Government's distribution of industry policy tends to regard Colchester as a neutral area' in which there is no present need for new industry to diversify the industrial structure or to reduce unemployment materially. While acquiescing in the reasonable extension of industry, no steps will be taken to encourage new or expanded industrial projects to establish themselves in the town. Let me put these questions to the Minister. Is that a statement of the Government's policy in the matter and, if so, how long do the Government propose that this policy, this prohibition, shall last? If this is the only policy in the immediate future, in the next year or two, will the Government remember that nowadays it takes up to three years to build a factory and to bring it into production? Would they be prepared to modify this attitude within the next 18 months?

I admit that the changing fortunes of politics may make is necessary to put the question to another Government rather than theirs, but assuming that the present Government is in power at that time, and present policy is being followed, would they modify their attitude within the next 18 months? Finally, will the Board of Trade look more sympathetically at the projects for re-siting industries that are already in Colchester, where that re-siting is necessary and desirable from the town planning point of view?

Personally, I regard with great disquiet the tendency, for what I think are very often temporary and theoretical reasons, to prevent natural economic growth such as I have instanced. If a great new rolling mill needs to be started let us by all means put it in South Wales to help the unemployment problem, but that is surely no reason for throttling natural economic development elsewhere. The Army General Staff are always being accused of fighting the last war but one. There is a danger that the industrial planning staff, obsessed with pre-war problems, are trying to solve problems which time has already solved, and are not facing up to the possibility that new difficulties may arise in the future.

Natural economic development for Colchester must be of value to North-East Essex in general, and we believe also, to the future prosperity of the country as a whole. Let us not forget that the three substantial firms are themselves the result of family enterprise in their origin, that on these the employment and prosperity of Colchester at present largely depends, and that they would never have come into existence if the policies which the Board of Trade appear to be following at present had been accepted by the Government of 50 years ago.

11.57 p.m.

Sir Stanley Holmes (Harwich)

As the Member for the most north-easterly part of North-East Essex I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) has raised this matter tonight. But I want to point out to him and the House that Colchester is not the north-east land's end of Essex, and that beyond it there are other towns that are worthy of consideration. In particular, I want to refer to the attractive town of Clacton-on-Sea, a town so attractive that it attracted Mr. Butlin.

Clacton has a number of permanent residents, but it derives its living mainly from the visitors it receives during the short summer months, a period of about four months. It used to have a secondary industry. That was building, and for many years between the wars Clacton was always expanding. Unfortunately, house building disappeared during the war for one reason, and has not come back for another reason, only too well-known to all.

Therefore, the desirability, and, much more, the necessity for light industry at Clacton is apparent. I ask the Board of Trade to remember the position of Clacton. It is within easy distance by road of the docks and nearer still to the port of Harwich, and I hope that these facts will be taken into consideration in the future.

11.58 p.m.

The Secretary for Overseas Trade (Mr. Bottomley)

The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) has spoken in a more conciliatory tone tonight than appears to have been the case before, judging by the Press reports which I have had an opportunity to read. Perhaps that is because he has now had a chance of meeting some of the local industrialists and people who are reasonably well informed. At any rate, he has been able to present his case tonight in a manner which, if adopted previously, would have avoided his appearing in the Press as talking about the short-sighted policy of the Government and as using similar scathing terms. These resulted in headlines in the paper that did not fit the reports that followed. That is typical of the party he represents. They have never had a policy on this question, and for that reason there has been a free for all. Pre-war industrialists could build where they liked.

If we take 1938, when the finding of new employment was becoming an increasing need, there was 9.4 per cent. unemployment in North-East Essex. Today, unemployment in that area is 1 per cent.—less than the average for the whole country. Far from this Government being short-sighted, it has quite definitely a distribution-of-industry policy. Our job is not to move the people, but to take industry to the people. If there are large pockets of unemployment our endeavour is to take factories and employment there. If that policy had been followed in the inter-war years we should not have had the migration of the population from South Wales and the North, from which we are still suffering. Many men who might have been able to go to the pits are no longer there.

As a Government, we have looked at our resources and asked how we can best use them. On a recent visit to my constituency, where we are having a Dickens' festival, I was reminded of Micawber: income £20, expenditure, £19 19s. 6d., result, happiness; income £20, expenditure, £20 Os. 6d., result, misery. This Government is trying to divide the income we have in such a way that we can meet our requirements for schools, factories, rearmament, investment, and so on. North-East Essex is in a relatively healthy state and has a reasonably varied industry; engineering, textiles, food, printing, agriculture, chemicals and shipbuilding. Colchester is a great centre for the surrounding country; it has service industries and other kinds of employment that make it a lucky town in that respect.

May I say to the hon. Member for Harwich (Sir S. Holmes), that his plea for Clacton is justified. The Board of Trade really has anxieties about the position there and if it is possible to give assistance we shall do it. From that it is not to be inferred that we are not giving all we can to North-East Essex and Colchester. We are not discouraging industry from going there; there is no ban on industry going. The Board of Trade has never refused an industrial development certificate for Colchester. If a firm decides to build a new factory there, the Board of Trade will not object, although, of course, the firm has to get a building licence for which it has to pass particular tests. If a firm decides to buy an existing building, the Board of Trade will have no objections.

The position really is that the Board of Trade will not at this moment take active steps to steer industry there, but it will not stop industry going. We feel that it is not our job to steer new industry to these parts. I could mention several towns where the unemployment figures, not long ago, were 7 to 8 per cent. As a result of the policy of the Government in placing new industries, these figures are being rapidly reduced. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman who has raised this matter that he should do his best to convince his people, as the Town Clerk of Colchester has done in a very reasonable letter, that the policy being followed is a wise one. It does not hinder industrial development in North-East Essex, and I would particularly emphasise that the Board of Trade places no ban on new industry there, or in Colchester.

Adjourned accordingly at Six Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.