HC Deb 28 October 1953 vol 518 cc2933-44

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

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield. Heeley)

I wish to initiate tonight a debate on the Adjournment following one which we had earlier this year which was raised by the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) on the question of aerodromes in provincial cities, and the question of having a shuttle service from the centre of provincial cities to some aerodrome outside. I wish to apply my mind particularly to the problem of Sheffield because at present Sheffield, unfortunately, has not an aerodrome of any kind near the centre of the city.

The question of an aerodrome for Sheffield has been foremost in the minds of many people in the city for a long time. Before the war it was mooted on a number of occasions, and for one reason or another nothing was done, despite the fact that aerodromes were built at Doncaster, Manchester and other places. During the war, of course, it was not possible to deal with civil aviation during the period when large aerodromes for the R.A.F. were being constructed. Since the war, however, there has been a concerted effort by most people in Sheffield to get agreement on some sort of aerodrome near the centre of the city.

As a result of this, there was an inquiry in 1952, when practically the whole of Sheffield and those who were representing the main interests in Sheffield supported an application to the Minister for permission to have an aerodrome on the site known as Redmires site. There was opposition by a hospital, and my right hon. Friend the Minister, after considering the report of that inquiry, came to the conclusion that he could not grant the permission for which Sheffield was at that time asking.

That refusal by the Minister caused a certain amount of disquiet in Sheffield itself. I have a copy of a resolution which was passed by the city council at that time—2nd April, 1952. The council resolved: That the City Council be recommended to protest most strongly against the decision of the Minister as contained in the foregoing communication "— that was the communication turning down the application— and that the local Members of Parliament be requested to discuss the matter with this Committee and representatives of the Cutlers' Company "— which is a big industrial company in Sheffield— the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce and the Sheffield Trades and Labour Council with a view to further representations being made to the Minister thereon. As a result of that, a deputation went to my right hon. Friend and the case was put by various members and leaders of the city. After full consideration, the Minister decided that he would not alter his decision but that the matter could be reviewed within three years. After that, there was a letter which my right hon. Friend wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam (Mr. Jennings), from which I should like to quote to the House because it goes a little further than that bald statement. It states: As you know, I made it clear in my answer …"— he refers to a Question I put in the House— on 22nd April that I am prepared to review the matter again. I am still prepared to arrange for the case to be re-opened even before the end of the three-year period and to hold a fresh inquiry if and when any important new facts come to light. Then he enumerated two of the new facts: A radical change in the supply position might no doubt be a new fact. Later, I want to mention the question of the supply position and ask my hon. Friend whether he can give more information about that. My right hon. Friend also said: Similarly, developments in the method of air transport might create a new situation. I therefore feel that it is in order for me to raise this matter tonight so that we can find out what has happened since these early negotiations and discussions took place.

There is a great deal of opinion in Sheffield about the urgency of the need of an aerodrome. Since the Minister's refusal of the site at Redmires, I know that many people have been looking for alternative sites, but I am not now pressing for one site or another, although I believe that the Redmires site has a great deal to commend it. What I am asking the Parliamentary Secretary to do is to indicate the attitude of the Government towards the question of feeder aerodromes and the supply of materials for the creation of aerodromes, and particularly on the urgency of providing an aerodrome in the Sheffield area.

I should like to quote Alderman Bingham, the leader of the City Council, who last week, in an interview with that excellent paper the "Star"—incidentally, he was one of the members of the deputation when they saw the Minister—said he still felt that an airport for Sheffield was an urgent need. He represents a large section of the Sheffield community. I hope we shall have the support of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) in this matter because I think it of equal importance for Rotherham that there should be an aerodrome at Sheffield, as at present the nearest aerodrome is at Doncaster.

I wish to stress the industrial side of this matter because it is felt by many people that an aerodrome is an industrial necessity for large cities such as Sheffield and Rotherham, which are engaged in export work. There is no need for me to remind the House of the great export drive of Sheffield. Its steel and steel products go all over the world. I would point out to my hon. Friend one or two instances to show how these exports may be frustrated by the lack of proper communications.

There was the case of an American buyer who came to place large orders for cutlery in Europe. Like most Americans he was in a great hurry. He got as far as London and a representative of a Sheffield firm came down to see him and managed to persuade him to interest himself in Sheffield cutlery. But the American wanted to see it made and to talk to the people who were making it.

He said, "I suppose I can fly there in an hour or an hour and a half, have some lunch, and get back here soon because I have to go to the Continent." Unfortunately, it was necessary to tell him that he would have to take a four or five hour train journey and that he would probably have to spend the night there. His reply was, "I can get to Dusseldorf quicker than that." That is exactly what he did and, as far as I know, he did not go to Sheffield. Other instances of that kind could be quoted.

Mr. R. Jennings (Sheffield, Hallam)

As one of the Sheffield Members who led the deputation, with my colleagues from the Opposition benches, I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether he is pressing the Minister for any special type of aerodrome, whether he thinks that helicopters would be suitable or whether he has in mind another type of aircraft? Would he be willing to accept whatever suggestions Sheffield has to make in due course?

Mr. Roberts

I shall come later to the technical aspect. Incidentally, I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation present. I should like to thank him for coming. I do not want to interfere with any plan which there may be in Sheffield for any site for an aerodrome. All I want is a statement from the Minister about the attitude of the Government to this problem.

I should like to quote another example of the difficulties of travel. In Sheffield, we make many special alloys for the aircraft industry and many of them go to Bristol. Any technician coming from Bristol to Sheffield has to undertake a long day's journey across country. Probably he has to put up for the night and spend another day travelling back, so that a lot of time is occupied. But, normally, in the aircraft industry the manufacturers have aerodromes at their factories and they are used to travelling quickly. I have had a number of complaints from people in the aircraft industry that Sheffield is inaccessible.

I should like to quote a letter I received from the Master Cutler recently. He says: Industrialists are continually being exhorted by the Government to equip their factories with modern plant; to use every modern method in production and salesmanship. Should we, therefore, not ask if our Government will encourage us by giving us the means of modern transport, in short, an aerodrome in Sheffield? If Sheffield does not establish itself immediately as a city with aerodrome facilities, it may in future lose an enormous amount of business. It is obvious that each year air travel will become more general and without an aerodrome our city will gradually appear more ungetatable to the commercial world. That appears to be very much like what I have been trying to say tonight.

I come to the technical point of view. Sheffield has an extraordinary geography. It has hills, dales and valleys and a lot of smoke in the atmosphere. I am not satisfied that a helicopter service would prove the most satisfactory. I know that a great deal of research is being carried on with that type of aircraft, but I am not satisfied that it would be practicable to fly helicopters in the foggy atmosphere of an industrial area like Sheffield. If it is not possible, it may be necessary to have an aerodrome on the perimeter. That brings us back to the Redmires site. That is a technical problem with which I am not capable of dealing. Nevertheless, I put it to my hon. Friends that this is a question of supply and demand. I do not think it reasonable to say to the aircraft industry, "You must produce the planes and when you have produced the planes we will produce the airfield." I consider that the other way round is obviously the right and logical way to deal with it.

If we have an aerodrome, even if we take an ordinary standard type to begin with, having the aerodrome in itself creates the urge for the aircraft industry to build the right type of plane for the sort of task involved. It is quite wrong for people to sit back and say, "We will leave the aerodrome until the machine is ready." We must start with the aerodrome and develop, like the Royal Air Force and the aircraft industry have always done, a new type of machine from the demand which we create.

I now turn to the question of materials. This is one of the points about which I felt rather despondent over the reply which we got from the Ministry a year and a half ago. I shall refer to one paragraph from the letter authorised by the Minister which went to the local authority. It refers particularly to the Redmires site, but what I am saying about materials does not apply to a particular site but is a matter of materials as a whole. The letter says: At the same time, the Minister cannot consider that at the present time the need for an aerodrome on this site can be said to be of overriding urgency. I am not sure whether "overriding urgency" applies merely to that site, but I would impress upon my hon. Friend that there is a question of urgency.

The letter says that the Minister was advised by the Ministry of Civil Aviation that difficulties of labour and materials were unlikely to permit of the construction of the airfield in the immediate future. I would emphasise that at that date, 22nd March, 1952, the Ministry of Civil Aviation said that they did not think that labour and materials would permit the provision of an aerodrome, wherever it might be, in the immediate future. I admit that that was fairly soon after the present Government took office.

We all know what extremely good work the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary have done over the last year and a half and the encouragement which they have given to the building and materials industry. I should like to take this opportunity of congratulating both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend on what they have done and the encouragement and leadership which they have given to the materials and building industry to produce such good results and the materials which we need.

I hope that tonight we shall hear that the materials position is better and that the activity of the Ministry has produced a sufficient supply of the materials, so that, if an aerodrome can be decided upon, there will be no shortage of labour or materials to hinder work on it. If we can get such a statement, it will be a great step forward. It will make people realise that, if there is any delay in providing an aerodrome, the delay is attributable more to site considerations than to materials.

I wish to conclude by addressing a series of questions to my hon. Friend. I know that in the Gatwick area people are pressing that the aerodrome there should not be enlarged and that materials for that purpose should not be supplied. That is not the case in Sheffield. The case is the opposite in Sheffield, for there the main body of the inhabitants are asking for an aerodrome and are seeking encouragement. First, what is the attitude of my right hon. Friend towards the industrial importance of a place like Sheffield having good air communications? I hope my hon. Friend will reply that Her Majesty's Government wish to see progress and advancement in this matter and that they will, as far as they can, do everything possible to help the city once a decision has been taken.

Secondly, what is the desirability of starting a shuttle service from an industrial centre such as this to a larger station which deals with Continental air services? Perhaps my hon. Friend will have difficulty in answering that tonight, because there are technical problems involved. I would narrow the question down to this: what is the desirability of a service from Sheffield to Ringway, Manchester, where new services are being started? The present President of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce recently went to Ringway and helped to institute the Sabena service from Ring-way to New York. That shows the sort of line than could well be followed.

The third question is one I have already put and that is, what is the availability of raw materials for building an aerodrome in Sheffield at the present time? I believe that once we can decide upon a suitable site it is no good saying the raw materials will frustrate any further action. I hope, therefore, my hon. Friend will be able to help us on that.

I am quite certain that everybody in Sheffield is anxious to see an aerodrome near the city or in its centre as the case may be. Many people have different ideas about where that site should be, but what I should like the Government to say is that they are prepared to give every facility for the project and the site as soon as it can be agreed among those people in Sheffield. I should like an assurance that as soon as that can be agreed we shall have the co-operation of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, so that we may know that it will be possible for us to get an aerodrome in the near future.

10.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I hope the House will not think I am discourteous if I hurry along, but I have only nine minutes in which to reply to a series of comprehensive and exhaustive questions on the subject of an aerodrome in Sheffield. My hon. Friend the Member for Heeley (Mr. P. Roberts) asked me several questions and pin-pointed them at the end of his speech. The first one was about the importance of Sheffield having good air communications; the second, about the desirability of a shuttle service to a larger station such as Manchester, where they have services to the Continent and now, I understand, services to the United States, and the third one was about the availability of materials.

I have one advantage or disadvantage in replying to my hon. Friend, in that I was born in Manchester, where they have an aerodrome, and that, of course, is in Lancashire, which is a good county. Sheffield, of course, is in the second best county in the country.

Mr. Jennings

My hon. Friend must be cautious. There are seven hon. Members from Sheffield here.

Mr. Marples

I would say this to my hon. Friend and all the hon. Gentlemen who represent Sheffield and are here tonight, that the Government do recognise—and this is the answer to my hon. Friend's question—that Sheffield is an important and famous place because of the high quality of its products, which are famed not only in this country but in the world in general. I say that as a debating point. I was with a very famous French chef tonight who was using a knife that had been made in Sheffield, and——

Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)

What about the aerodrome?

Mr. Marples

If hon. Members interrupt less they will hear more about the aerodrome in the few minutes that remain to me. I think my hon. Friend raised two real points. The first one was: what do the Government think about an aerodrome in Sheffield, and, in particular, what do they think about this particular site? In general, if Sheffield can be unanimous on what it wants, then the Government will stand firmly behind it. As evidence of the Government's good faith, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation has attended this debate. If Sheffield can be unanimous, the Government will support it in every possible way towards providing what it thinks from the point of view of the country in general and Sheffield in particular it ought to have.

Mr. Jennings

Will my hon. Friend note that the seven hon. Members representing Sheffield are here, that there is nothing between us, that we all desire an aerodrome at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Marples

This is not a party matter. It is a question mostly of local interests. For example, in Sheffield when the inquiry was held some considerable time ago, on 26th June, 1951, we found there were objections locally to this particular site being adopted as an aerodrome. There are three hospitals in the district, and they had many objections. There is one mental hospital and two others, which are perhaps of greater importance. There were amenity objections from the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and various other amenity interests. Therefore, I think I am right in saying that there were two main objections locally, one on health grounds and the other on amenity grounds.

The decision of my right hon. Friend was quite clearly laid down in his letter to the local authority. I have a copy of the letter here. In it my right hon. Friend accepted that Sheffield should have an aerodrome. He asked Sheffield to apply after a minimum period of three years and for them to decide among themselves where the aerodrome should be.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Have they done so?

Mr. Marples

No. My right hon. Friend will stand by them and if Sheffield Corporation will apply again then the Minister will consider the matter without prejudice and on its merits.

Mr. Hynd

Why have they not done so?

Mr. Marples

They have not done so yet, but I am not here to say what Sheffield have done or are doing. I am here to say what the Government will do if Sheffield carry out the course of action suggested. If Sheffield like to apply for the aerodrome, my right hon. Friend will consider the application on its merits, without prejudice and without committing himself in any way. [Laughter.] My right hon. Friend said that at the time, and I do not know why hon. Gentlemen opposite laugh at it. Is it not a reasonable thing to say?

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

Does not the Minister always consider things on their merits? This is a very serious matter.

Mr. Marples

Does the hon. Member think that the matter should not be considered on its merits? Hon. Gentlemen opposite should not treat this matter with this levity.

It is not a political issue, but a question of local interests which pull against each other in Sheffield—the hospitals in Sheffield which do not want the aerodrome on this site and trade and industry which do great and valuable work for the city and which do want the aerodrome. It is a conflict of interests and it is not easy for my right hon. Friend to decide. Whatever decision he makes, my right hon. Friend will incur the displeasure of a large number of people. I can assure hon. Gentlemen opposite that in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government it is not easy to make some of these decisions, because whatever we do it is wrong.

The Government realise that Sheffield is badly placed for communications. The city makes a great contribution to the export drive. Sheffield and Doncaster are about 160 miles away from London. The best train to Sheffield takes about four hours which is just about 40 miles an hour, while the best train to Doncaster takes about three hours and there is a similar saving of time from Doncaster to Edinburgh. Sheffield has had great disadvantage although its products have a national and an international reputation. It would help my right hon. Friend if the people of Sheffield could really decide what they want.

Mr. P. Roberts

They are doing so.

Mr. Marples

It will help us a great deal.

About the resources, the national economy is now in balance and there is a reasonable amount of resilience. This is healthy. Whatever hon. Gentlemen opposite may say about the Government they have produced more building materials than hon. Gentlemen opposite thought was possible two years ago.

So far as the national picture is concerned, circumstances have changed. We have more resources at our disposal now to deploy in the national interest. What we should like Sheffield to do is to decide locally what they want. If they will reach unanimity and express some sort of unanimous opinion it will help my right hon. Friend a great deal.

If the Sheffield Corporation consider that local circumstances have substantially changed since their original application was determined, it is open to them to make a fresh application. We can give them the assurance that it will receive full, sympathetic consideration on its merits—it may be a platitude to say that—without prejudice to the Minister's decision——

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

Adjourned at Twenty Minutes to Eleven o' Clock.