HC Deb 20 May 1952 vol 501 cc431-42

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

11.34 p.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

The matter which I wish to raise tonight—and I am glad that the President of the Board of Trade has been so kind as to wait to listen to my plea on behalf of thousands of people—is one which needs no legislation. Under the Distribution of Industry Act, 1945, the President can, by Order, schedule new areas as Development Areas; and that is what I am asking him to do in the case of the area known generally as North-East Lancashire.

The district covers the Parliamentary constituencies of Accrington, Clitheroe, Rossendale, Nelson and Colne, Darwen, Burnley, and Blackburn, and it will be noticed that those constituencies are represented by hon. Members on both sides of this House. I am sure they will all support me in my point of view, for the plea I make is also supported by the 23 local authorities of this area, and by the Lancashire County Council, all mobilised in a body known as the Lancashire Joint Planning Committee No. 2. They have been to the President, and have written to him, making this request, and we know that he has been considering the matter.

For my part, I raised the matter as a Question on 10th April, and the reply then was that the President was not satisfied that it would be appropriate at that time. He also said later that he would give some consideration to it, and I then gave notice that I would raise the subject on the Adjournment.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) raised it again on the 1st May, when he got a much more hopeful reply. The President of the Board of Trade said he would consider the matter in the light of the criteria given in paragraph 86 of the White Paper on the Distribution of Industry, 1948. He said further that he would discuss it with the local bodies concerned, including the planning committee. I might mention in parenthesis that I have been informed by this body that they have not yet heard from the President, and I hope he will be communicating with them very soon.

Let me say at once that I am not overlooking the fact that North-East Lancashire is not the only part of Lancashire that is suffering at the present time. There are other parts of that county and of the rest of the country as well, but I propose to show in the short time available that in my opinion the area which is known as the weaving area is in a worse position than the rest of the county and, therefore, it deserves the same special consideration as was given in somewhat similar circumstances on a previous occasion to South-East Lancashire, which was scheduled in 1946, and to Merseyside, which was scheduled in 1949.

What does it mean when an area is scheduled as a Development Area under the 1945 Act? The advantages are that the Board of Trade would then be given power to purchase land for industrial purposes, either compulsorily or by agreement: to erect buildings and to carry out works for industrial improvement; lease or sell land or buildings; make loans to industrial estate companies, or make loans or grants towards the cost of improving the basic services of the district in the interests of industry, such as transport, housing, power, health and so on. Financial assistance could be given for industrial undertakings, for the development of derelict land and the improvement of amenities in the area.

Those powers were extended by the 1950 Act, which gave power to acquire or adapt unused industrial buildings, arrange for the transfer of industries to the district and assist the transfer of workers. I am not claiming, and the people for whom I am speaking are not claiming, that this will solve the problem of Lancashire or of the North-East part of Lancashire. But, just like the Purchase Tax concessions that were given the other day, it will contribute to it and may even go further than that. A step like this would bring a ray of hope to people who are badly looking for some signal of the kind at the present time.

The conditions to be fulfilled, as the President mentioned in his reply on 1st May, are laid down in the White Paper of 1948, where it says: The really important powers exerciseable in relation to the Development Areas are those of building factories for leasing to industrialists, the provision of suitable sites and the improvement of basic services in order to attract private industrial development. The claim of any area to be scheduled as a Development Area stands or falls by the necessity for action of this kind by the Government. And a little later on its says: Before an area can be scheduled the Board of Trade must, by the terms of the Act, be satisfied that there is, or is likely to be, a special danger of unemployment in that area. This must mean in general that there is a danger of unemployment which is markedly more serious in relation to that area than in relation to most parts of the country. The existing rate of unemployment is one of the most important factors to be considered. I submit that those conditions are amply fulfilled in the area in question. The. unemployment figures at 21st April showed that for the whole of Great Britain, 2.1 per cent. of the insured workers were unemployed. In the Barrow-in-Furness area, which is being compared with North-East Lancashire, the figure was 3.4 per cent. In the Merseyside Development Area it was 3.5 per cent., and in the South-East Lancashire Development Area it was 5.0 per cent. But in this area about which I am speaking, North-East Lancashire, it was 8.6 per cent., ranging up to 20 per cent. in the Nelson district and 34 per cent. in the Padiham district. On those figures, there is a clear case for what I am claiming.

Mr. W. A. Burke (Burnley)

I do not know what figures my hon. Friend is quoting, but there are later figures which I think the President of the Board of Trade will have, which show that it is now 12 per cent. in North-East Lancashire.

Mr. Hynd

I said they were the figures at 21st April, and everybody knows that conditions have become progressively worse since then. Unfortunately, they are still getting worse. There are one or two other figures I want to give, if I may. The total working population of the area is 235,000, of whom 87,000, or some 37 per cent., are in textiles. That shows that the area is far too dependent on one basic industry. They have over-specialised, and when a recession like this occurs, they suffer accordingly.

Another feature is the large proportion of women workers—42 per cent. of the insured population, against 37 per cent. in the whole of Lancashire and 34 per cent for Great Britain. Furthermore, there is insufficient work in the district for men, and it is has been calculated that 2,300 men leave the area every day to go outside to find employment. That is very serious. The population has been falling for a considerable time. There was a 10 per cent. reduction in the population between the census of 1931 and the census of 1951. Of course, public authorities in the area are in the unfortunate position of having to maintain all the public services—sewerage, roads, lighting and so on—with this reduced population, which adds to their financial difficulties.

I see my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) here, and he and others have been saying lately that, even if things improve in the near future, we cannot expect to get back to more than 75 per cent. of the position which existed before the recession in the textile industry.

Mr. H. Rhodes (Ashton-under-Lyne)

I said no such thing.

Mr. Hynd

I am sorry if I attributed to my hon. Friend something which he did not say. I gathered that he was one of those who was saying it. Certainly many other spokesmen in the industry have been saying it lately.

My point is that because of the very clear indication that we shall certainly not find ourselves back where we were a year ago in the textile industry, some alternative form of employment is essential in the district. I suggest that the scheduling of North-East Lancashire as a Development Area is one of the best ways of providing that alternative employment.

The President of the Board of Trade promised that he would try to encourage and steer new industries into the district. I do not know whether he can give any indication now of what success he has had in that direction, but I am afraid that I have not been able to find any evidence that new industries have yet come into the district. I know that it is a very short period and that the plans may not have matured, but we should be interested to hear whether anything in that direction has been possible.

What I am afraid of is that these vague aspirations of the right hon. Gentleman, however well-intentioned they may be, by the time they have filtered to the local officials of his Department are liable to become almost inoperative. That is the way it happens in large organisations. By the time these things reach the local officials, there is nothing very tangible about them. I submit that what is needed here is definite action with the use of well-defined statutory powers, such well-defined statutory powers as are embodied in the Distribution of Industry Act, which, as I have shown, have already been successfully applied in regard to South-East Lancashire and the Merseyside area.

The right hon. Gentleman may point out that he has certain powers under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. I am well aware of it, and I hope that he is applying those powers to the fullest possible extent. As far as I can discover, there are two. The first is under Section 14 (4), which lays down that an application for permission to erect industrial buildings in excess of 5,000 square feet must be accompanied by a Board of Trade certificate stating that the development can be carried out consistently with the proper distribution of industry.

The second is under Section 38 (2), which provides that local planning authorities may be authorised to acquire land compulsorily for industrial sites. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot go to the full extent and say that he is going to give us a Development Area, I hope that at least he will be able to tell us tonight that he is going to use those powers and any other powers he may have to the fullest possible extent for the benefit of the district.

This business of planning employment and distributing industry, as far as possible, is now non-controversial. It has been all-party policy since the famous White Paper of 1944. There is, therefore, no political difficulty about it. I think the position is summarised in the foreword of the 1948 White Paper, from which I quoted a moment ago. It says: Distribution of industry policy is one means of obtaining a high and stable level of production and of employment. … The object of that policy is not only to prevent a recurrence of pre-war conditions but to realise to the full the contribution which Development Areas and such other areas as have any reserves of manpower can make, through the full and sustained use of all their resources, to the sum total of our national wealth. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to go as far as he possibly can tonight and to give this message which North-East Lancashire is waiting to hear.

11.46 p.m.

Mr. H. Boardman (Leigh)

There is always a very strong temptation for an hon. Member to view any problem, whatever its size, from the very narrow point of view of his own constituency, and however laudable that may be under certain circumstances—and I am sure that in certain circumstances it brings its practical reward—I am certain that to do so in this case would contribute very little to the solution of the problem of unemployment in Lancashire.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) fails to appreciate the size of the problem or whether he speaks in complete ignorance of it. When he says that planning is now non-controversial, we may accept that, but I wonder how many plans he wants. If they were to have planned for every little group of towns, I do not think the Government of 1945–50 would have got very far. They had to say that they would look at Britain as a whole. I feel that the President of the Board of Trade would be very unwise if, looking at the question of textiles, both cotton and wool, he were to confine himself to the small area known as North-East Lancashire.

Mr. H. Hynd

The Government of 1945–50 did not have this trouble in this acute form, except in the case of the Merseyside area, and they dealt with that by scheduling it as a Development Area.

Mr. Boardman

I will not dispute that. I know that my hon. Friend is very greatly concerned about this question of unemployment in Lancashire, but who is not? He is the secretary of the group of Lancashire Labour Members, but I want to make it clear that, although he is secretary of the group, he is in a minority in the view which he has expressed in the House tonight.

Mr. Burke

There is certainly no foundation for that statement, because no vote has ever been taken on the Lancashire group about it. As far as the 23 authorities are concerned, all of them are definitely of one mind—that North-East Lancashire is a special case, and that was the view of the Lancashire group.

Mr. Boardman

My hon. Friend is not quite as regular in his attendance of meetings of the Lancashire group of Labour M.P's as I am myself. We will let that pass.

Mr. Burke

When did they vote?

Mr. Boardman

Do not waste time.

Mr. Burke

Tell us the answer.

Mr. Boardman

Just as the Lancashire group of Labour M.P's were almost unanimous in this opinion, the Lancashire Industrial Development Association, which is a non-political body and a very responsible one, has taken this same view. It certainly feels something must be done for Lancashire and said emphatically there must be diversity for Lancashire.

Instead of the President of the Board of Trade putting a small ring fence around North-East Lancashire, we would rather that he, or any President, should be able to have more elastic powers. Representations have been made to the President, asking whether he has powers, or whether he would be prepared to take such powers, as would allow him to give financial aid, under certain circumstances, to certain places, as though they were scheduled under the Distribution of Industry Act.

We feel that would be a very much more helpful solution to the problem than by putting this ring fence around this small group of towns. I assure my hon. Friends from North-East Lancashire, as a matter of simple arithmetic, on the unemployment figures, that the North-East Lancashire towns should have priority over any industries set-up. It is argued, on the Lancashire Industrial Development Association and on the Lancashire group of Labour M.P's, that a ring fence is not the answer to this problem. I hope the President will look at this with very great caution.

11.52 p.m.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Thorneyeroft)

I welcome the fact that this matter has been raised in a short discussion in the House. It had been raised and discussed with me before by hon. Members on both sides, including my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton).

From what they have said, hon. Members opposite clearly have a keen interest in it, too. It is not a simple matter. There are some differences which have shown themselves even in the few minutes we have been discussing the problem. I thought it would be helpful if I said a word myself because none of us wishes to neglect any means open to us, of assisting Lancashire in her present difficulties, and also because this particular question goes a little wider than the problem of whether North-East Lancashire should be designated as a Development Area.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd), quite properly said that all Development Area policy stems from the White Paper issued by the Coalition Government. It was an all-party contribution to this particular aspect of employment policy. It was given legislative effect by the Distribution of Industry Act, 1945, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for the Colonies. At that time, there were in the Schedule to the Act, four Development Areas—the North-Eastern, West Cumberland, South Wales and Monmouthshire, and the Scottish. I, or any President of the Board of Trade, may add to the number of those Development Areas.

It says, in Section 7 (2): Where at any time it appears to the Board that the distribution of industry is such that in any area … there is likely to be a special danger of unemployment, the Board may by order direct that the area shall be added to that Schedule. I would, however, agree with the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Boardman) that we want to look with the very greatest care before we start expanding the number of these Development Areas.

Under that Section some have been added—Wrexham, for instance, and South Lancashire in 1946; Merseyside and the Scottish Highlands in 1949. The White Paper laid down a number of criteria that should be looked at in judging whether there should be a Development Area. In particular, it said that it should be considered whether the average rate of unemployment is persistently high—and I emphasise the word "persistently." That is, not only momentarily and in a particular crisis, but over a whole period.

Over the last six years, of course, there has been a shortage of labour in many parts of Lancashire. It is true that at this moment unemployment, particularly in this area, is high, but we do not want to assume it is always going to be high. We do not want to jump into a particular solution of a problem in a situation which is not necessarily permanent. There are two Development Areas already in Lancashire. One in South Lancashire was largely based on coal mining, and one on Merseyside on the fact that it was a commercial port without manufacturing industry to diversify it.

The real test to apply is summed up in paragraph 84 of the White Paper: The really important powers exercisable in relation to the Development Areas are those of building factories for leasing to industrialists, the provision of suitable sites, and the improvement of basic services in order to attract private industrial development. The claim of any area to be scheduled as a Development Area stands or falls by the necessity for action of this kind by the Government. The other powers contained in the Distribution of Industry Act are subsidiary to this main purpose or ways and means towards it. That is the real nub of the problem; can we start erecting and building factories which provided in many Development Areas an extraordinarily useful diversification of industry?

Though unemployment has been a little higher in these areas than the general national average, it has undoubtedly been lower than it might have been because that policy was, in fact, pursued. Can we build factories? If hon. Members look dispassionately at the situation in which the country finds itself at the moment, with the shortages of steel, for instance, and the necessity to build in some cases the basic needs of chemical industries—chlorine developments or sulphuric acid—it is perfectly plain that there is now no scope for any widespread building in a new Development Area, comparable to that which has taken place in others at other times and which could usefully take place at some other stage in the future.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn, East)

Would the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I have not the time.

There are other methods and devices which can be adopted in Development Areas, but they are all subsidiary to that main one. I am bound to say that the scheduling of this area as a Development Area would not help much in that direction at present. The real danger confronting us here is that it would be easy to break down this Development Area policy altogether. It would be very easy by seeking to spread it too wide to make it absolutely meaningless.

Already, suggestions are coming to me to schedule other Development Areas. There is a suggestion for one on the east coast of Scotland, and one for the West Riding of Yorkshire. There will be applications from other parts of Lancashire if one part is scheduled as a Development Area. And we must ensure that we do not apply a remedy designed for what was really essentially another purpose and, in seeking to apply it, ruin it as a good remedy for the purpose for which it was designed. I am not making decisions about this tonight, but I would urge that in these matters we approach this with the very greatest care and caution.

Mrs. Castle

Would the right hon. Gentleman give way a moment?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I have only two minutes, otherwise I would. If I finish in time the hon. Lady will have an opportunity of speaking, but I am going to finish what I have to say.

There are many things that we have to consider. We have to assess as best we can what is likely to be the future situation in this industry in Lancashire and the other counties in which it predominates. It is not easy to assess that. There are a great many imponderables, many of them not entirely within the control of any Government. I agree with the view that we must certainly help the cotton industry to recover from its present low condition. It is unlikely to recover, at any rate in the immediate situation, to the boom conditions which existed immediately after the war.

What we must do is to do what we practically can at the present time; that is, to put contracts into it; and £6 million of those contracts have already been issued, of which about half have gone to the cotton industry. That has been a practical contribution to the problems of Lancashire and other counties which are engaged in the cotton industry. Equally, we must do what we can to encourage and steer industry into this particular area.

We are not bound, just because it is not a Development Area, not to steer industry into an area. There is no obligation; nobody can direct industry into any area, be it a Development Area or any other. But in present conditions I give this assurance, that anything I can do either by placing contracts, which Her Majesty's Government are already engaged upon, or by encouraging enterprise into those areas to take up employment there now and to provide that diversification which would be useful for the future, that I certainly will do.

Mrs. Castle

Do not the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about industrial building mean, in effect, that he can hold out no practical hope of diversifying industry, not only in North-East Lancashire but in Lancashire as a whole?

Mr. Thorneycroft

No, I think that that would be a most imperfect interpretation of what I said. There are other ways of diversifying industry than new building. It is possible to develop some of the industries which are already there. But I do say—and I think the House ought to face it—that large-scale new building of industry generally—and this applies not only in Development Areas but anywhere in the country—is limited by the physical limits of steel available at the present time.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Tuesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the [louse without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Four Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.