HC Deb 29 October 1952 vol 505 cc1927-32
The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Thorneycroft)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and with that of the House, I should like to make a statement about certain action which I propose should be taken affecting the distribution of industry. The problem and the main lines of action proposed can be quite shortly stated.

I have for some months had under consideration the question whether any, and if so what, new areas of the country ought to be designated as Development Areas. The House will remember that the main advantage accruing to a Development Area is that the Government can give assistance in factory building and that the Treasury can help by loans or grants. In making a decision on a matter of this kind, certain considerations have to be borne in mind. First, it is necessary to look over a wide field in order to compare the claims of one area with another. Secondly, what is given to any Development Area is, in fact, at the expense of the rest of the country; there is not an endless reserve of special advantages to be extended, and, if those advantages are spread too widely, they become meaningless.

As a result of my inquiries, I propose to ask the House to approve the scheduling of one new Development Area. I also propose special treatment, which I shall describe in a moment, for one other area and the adoption of certain measures affecting factory building in certain localities both inside and outside Development Areas.

First, then, I propose that certain parts of north-east Lancashire shall be scheduled as a Development Area. The area concerned embraces the Lancashire towns of Burnley, Nelson, Colne and Padiham, and I shall discuss with the local authority of the neighbouring Yorkshire town of Barnoldswick whether it, too, should be included. The area in question is remote, the rate of wholly unemployed persons in the area has steadily increased, it is abnormally dependent on a single section of a single industry, and thus is peculiarly liable to severe unemployment in bad times.

There is another part of the country which I think requires special treatment. I refer to the Buckie-Peterhead area of north-east Scotland which is heavily dependent on the fishing industry and which has a hard core of unemployment. I am not satisfied, however, that the Development Area procedure is the right one in this case, and the Secretary of State for Scotland and I agree that we should try an alternative method through the Development Commission. The Commission have agreed to consider sympathetically requests for assistance in the building of small factories in this part of Scotland for industrialists who are prepared to go there, and I am having discussions with the parties concerned, including the Scottish Industrial Estates, Limited, to see how this work can best be done.

The Distribution of Industry Act contemplates both the adding of new areas to those scheduled and the removal of existing areas from the Schedule. This principle of de-scheduling at the appropriate time is clearly right, and I think it is important to re-state it now, but a great many factors are involved which I am at present examining area by area.

Finally, there are places in addition to the two areas which I have mentioned, some inside and some outside Development Areas, where the outlook for employment is such that the attraction of new industries is clearly desirable. The main handicap at the moment is, of course, the stringent limitations on new building required by our existing economic situation. We propose to relax these limitations somewhat in a few places which appear to be in most urgent need.

I am most anxious not to exaggerate the effect or scale of these various proposals. The Government have no power to compel industry to go to any particular place; their object is to attract a few industries to those areas which are the hardest hit. But it does seem to me that these actions are, in existing circumstances, reasonable and proper.

Mr. Dalton

Early in the next Session we shall wish to have an opportunity of discussing the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman and various kindred questions regarding the intention of the Government to use all their powers to steer new industry into those parts of the country where it is most needed, on unemployment or other grounds.

I was rather concerned at the suggestion in the right hon. Gentleman's statement that he was contemplating de-scheduling some of the existing Development Areas. I hope that he will think carefully about that. I doubt whether the employment situation is yet such as to justify any such action in any of the existing areas.

On the other hand, I think that we shall generally welcome the intention to schedule some part of north-east Lancashire. I express no view about the details of boundaries. That is a matter about which others will be able to speak with more knowledge. I am glad that something is to be done in north-east Scotland, although I am not satisfied that it would not be better to pursue the matter under the existing provisions of the Distribution of Industry Act and create a new Development Area; but this is exactly the sort of point which we should have an early opportunity to discuss.

Mr. Assheton

Whilst welcoming the proposal of the President of the Board of Trade to help four Lancashire towns which lie within the hundred of Blackburn, I would ask him whether he has given full consideration to the question whether or not Blackburn itself should be included. If it is not to be included, does he appreciate that it would be a grave disappointment to the corporation of Blackburn, which has unanimously voted for the inclusion of Blackburn in an area in which it is the leading town?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I appreciate the point which my right hon. Friend made, but I am sure the House will recognise that if I am to schedule any area, there are bound to be many areas lying outside which hon. Members think could well have been included. If I spread it as wide as that, then the benefits which we as a House of Commons give will become meaningless and we shall defeat the purpose of the Distribution of Industry Act. I felt in the circumstances that Blackburn itself could clearly be distinguished from the very special problem which exists in the area which I propose to schedule.

Mr. Clement Davies

While, of course, one appreciates how necessary it is to meet any cases of unemployment, does the Minister also realise that, while help is given at the expense of the country, not only in material but in income and capital, there is a danger of attracting people from other parts of the country so that there is a continuous exodus from the rural areas, which increases the difficulties? May I ask him whether we may have an early opportunity of debating the whole of this matter?

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

While I welcome the proposal that steps should be taken for the development of the area of Buckie-Peterhead, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will see that, as far as possible, the factories which go there are such as will take advantage of the particular natural advantages of the area, as, for instance, its exceptional access to stocks of fish and the processing of fish; and will he also bear in mind that unless steps are taken to keep down the high cost of transport from those areas, it will be very difficult to enable factories to establish themselves there or, having established themselves, to continue in operation?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I can assure my right hon. and gallant Friend that both the Secretary of State and I have particularly in mind the desirability of attracting the type of industry to fit in with the natural advantages of that part of Scotland.

Mr. Woodburn

Will the right hon. Gentleman keep in mind that some of the hydro-electric works in Scotland have just finished, which is likely to add a considerable number of workers to the available labour supply in the north of Scotland? Before he de-schedules an area, will he take that into account, and will he also bear in mind the difficulty, if any new industries are going there, of getting assistance in the interim period between the two arrangements? I think the Secretary of State for Scotland will assure him that the Development Commission have always been willing to help in this area, and that that is not necessarily a substitute for but a complement to the other arrangements.

Mr. Thorneycroft

I hasten to assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not contemplating some early announcement about the de-scheduling of areas. I merely thought it right to re-state the principle, which is an important principle implicit in the Act itself. I mention this in order to bring attention to some of the problems which are involved.

Mr. Duthie

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this practical approach to the problem will meet with the greatest satisfaction among the people of Buckle and the other coastal towns in my constituency which are concerned? I can assure my right hon. Friend that we shall watch the experiment with confidence and that we shall wish it every success.

There are one or two things which I am quite sure my constituents would like to know about this decision. Will facilities be provided to ensure that the scheme can be put in hand at once? Secondly, will those advantages which accrue to towns in Development Areas, such as the provision of adequate water supply, also be available to towns which are to be part and parcel of this scheme? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, in the event of the scheme not producing speedy and successful results, the area will be considered for scheduling?

Mr. Thorneycroft

All I can tell my hon. Friend is that I am proceeding forthwith, together with the Secretary of State for Scotland, to a discussion with the parties concerned about these various points.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood

While I support the suggestion that there should be very full and wide debate on this subject, may I ask the President whether in the meantime he will have further discussions with hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent the areas affected in order that at this late stage we may secure some amendment to his point of view, which does not altogether coincide with ours?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I am, of course, as I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees, always accessible to hon. Members on either side of the House on this or any other subject, but I recognise here that I may well be pressed always to go a little further—and the further I go, the harder it will become to distinguish between the new concession and the next. It was for that reason that I had narrowly to limit this area because of the very special problems concerned.

Mr. Fort

Does my right hon. Friend realise with what acclaim the decision will be greeted in Padiham, which is the worst affected of any textile town in Lancashire at present, as it was during the past summer? Will he undertake not only to inspect the principle of de-scheduling but to carry out earnest study to see what is possible, so that the facilities can be made available to the newly-scheduled area in east Lancashire?

Mr. S. Silverman

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the people of Nelson, Colne and Burnley and the surrounding districts who will benefit by his assistance would desire to express their appreciation to him for having made this decision and to congratulate him upon having resisted the very strong pressure which was brought to bear upon him in some quarters to prevent him from doing so? Will he bear in mind that, among many advantages, one of the principal advantages is that this step will serve to bring to an end or to slow down the drift of labour away from these areas into other places, which has already become of serious proportions?

Mr. Ness Edwards

Is not the right hon. Gentleman raising false hopes in view of the fact that the Treasury have already issued a circular saying that no further grants are to be made under Section 3 of the Act to the areas already covered in the Schedule?

Mr. Thorneycroft

All I am saying here is that by scheduling this area, any advantages which can be extended to Development Areas generally will be extended to this area.

Sir D. Robertson

Has my right hon. Friend overlooked the needs of the Highland area, which is the most permanently distressed in Great Britain, and where severe de-population persists owing to the lack of any industry other than agriculture?

Mr. Thorneycroft

As my hon. Friend knows, there is a Development Area in the Highlands, but I am not altogether satisfied about the way in which that piece of scheduling has worked under any Government. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State for Scotland and I are concerned to attract such industries as we can into that area. We shall continue to do our best to do so.