HC Deb 25 May 1954 vol 528 cc365-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Walter Monslow (Barrow-in-Furness)

In raising this subject, I remind the Minister that the local authority regards the decision not to proceed with this factory, following protracted negotiations since 1947, as a grave breach of faith, as a pledge was given that the work would commence on 1st April, 1951. I do not know whether the date had any significance. All I will say is that the local authority and my constituents feel that they have been the victims of a hoax.

Many representations have been made during recent years for some diversity of industry in the town, and we had hoped, as a result of the acquisition of this site for the building of this factory, that the need for some diversity of industry had been accepted by the Government. We are, however, doomed to disappointment. I want to assure the Minister that since 1949 the local authority has had grave doubts about this matter but, strange to relate, when these doubts were expressed, the Board of Trade denied that there was any reason to have any misapprehensions or misgivings about whether the work would proceed on 1st April, 1951.

I would remind the Minister that, in view of the present position, it is felt by the local authority that the site could probably have been used for housing or, alternatively, could have afforded an opportunity for those who were contemplating the establishment of new works. The project has now been abandoned.

I want briefly to give a historical review of the subject. The land in question, a reasonably level area with good road frontages and all services, had been zoned for residential purposes and would have formed part of a logical and economical extension to the Ormsgill housing estate, the first section of which was then under development. Despite these factors, the council welcomed the proposal, which was in accordance with their policy of attracting new industry to the town, and in July, 1947, resolved to raise no objection to the scheme. They have at all times co-operated to the utmost with the Ministry and have carried out various works of sewerage designed to facilitate the drainage of the site.

The present position is the more unfortunate since as long ago as 1949 doubts were expressed about the intentions with regard to this site. These were dismissed by the Board of Trade in correspondence. Had the present decision been reached at that time construction of the new estate would have been facilitated, and a more economic development could, have been adopted. The factory site could have reverted to housing, or could have been offered to a firm contemplating establishing new works in the district. It is unfortunate that all the efforts put into this scheme by both parties—discussion, planning, and construction—have been rendered abortive.

I would appeal to the Minister to reconsider the matter, and to recognise that had the project gone forward it could have absorbed the major portion of the town's unemployed. At the end of March, 619 men and 718 women were unemployed in the township. I think it can be said that the latter figure is above the average for female labour throughout the country. Had the project gone forward it would have meant the employment of 200 females and 50 males. It was thought that within four years those figures could have been trebled.

I am sure the Minister will realise that to dismiss the arguments which I have adduced without giving some valid reason for not redeeming the pledge to the local authority and to my constituency will only leave frustration, for the local authority takes some pride in making its contribution towards maintenance of full employment.

11.28 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)

I appreciate the reason of the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) in raising this question. I am glad that he has raised it, for it gives me an opportunity not only to explain what has happened, but to try and find a solution. I assure him that his municipality has not been the victim of a hoax. If it is the victim of anything, it is, like many others, the victim of post-war difficulties and postwar adjustments. Briefly, this case arose in 1947. At that time the Post Office found considerable difficulty in providing sufficient components for the telephone service. Consideration was given to whether the Post Office should build a factory for itself at which these components could be made by direct labour.

If we had developed a factory in Barrow, it would have been a small one. The idea was to provide a margin over and above the supplies provided by the private contractors from whom the Post Office gets components. It has for many years been the policy of the Post Office that its components should be provided, not by Post Office factories, but by private firms. It was only because there was a doubt whether, at that time, private firms would be able to supply all that was needed that we considered having a factory of our own, even on that small scale.

This is the genesis of the idea. A factory might be required—and we thought then that it would be required—to provide this margin over and above what was normally provided for us by the ordinary private enterprise factories. The site was 10 acres. I do not think there is any question of our having got hold of an excessive amount of land. Also, this site was freely offered to us. We did not acquire it by compulsion. The land was farmed at the time, and I believe it is still being farmed. In fact, we have not interfered with its use in any way.

On the question of plans for building, in 1947 we certainly needed this factory, or we thought we would need it. But we had to put the building of it, as we have to put the building of all the other places we need, in a sort of queue. Until very recently it has not been possible to put up a factory just because one wanted to. If we had been able, I imagine that the factory would have gone up, but there have always been restrictions and conditions which have had to be fulfilled before a factory could go up. That does not apply only to factories.

I must remind the House of the tremendous programme of urgent building work which the Post Office has required since the end of the war, and which it still requires. Only last night in this House we approved a hybrid Bill to put up a sorting office in the W.1 district of London. That project has been on the stocks since before the war, and there is certainly no building which the Post Office needs more than that one. There are projects for telephone exchanges and post offices all over the country. The point that I really want to make is that at the time that we thought we would need this factory there was this need to place our projects in a sort of queue. We could not have all the money or all the resources that we needed.

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

Do I understand from the Minister's observations that there is no question now of there being a shortage of components?

Mr. Gammans

That is the case. I shall come to that, but I want to explain the background of the matter. In 1950 we had some real hope of starting at the end of the year, and if it had not been for the exceptional building difficulties which faced this country in that year, as in other years, I think we should probably have started, because it was just about that time that not only did we have our ordinary civil programme to consider, but we also had a very heavy defence burden which had been allotted to the Post Office and which we had to carry out. That was the position in 1950.

In the past three years, since that time, the position has entirely changed. The private contractors from whom we normally get our supplies of components are now in a position to supply us with all that we require. The main reason for that is not merely increased productivity on their part. It is due entirely to a falling off in export orders.

In fact, I think the hon. Member will remember that it was only in December last that there arose in this House, as a result of Parliamentary Questions and, I think, an Adjournment debate, the question of redundancy in the Standard Telephone Company's factory at Southgate, in North London. They complained that they feared that they would have to stand off men simply because the Post Office could not absorb within their programme of development all the components that that factory was in a position to supply. The real fact is that we do not need this site now, and I cannot foresee now that we shall ever need it. Therefore. we are prepared to release it, and I would say to the hon. Gentleman that if the corporation would like to have this site for its housing programme we shall be very pleased to let them have it.

Mr. Monslow

I note with interest that the Post Office is disposed to sell to the local authority. Do I understand that the price which the Post Office quote would be the price which the local authority would be expected to pay?

Mr. Gammans

I have discovered that there is a sort of formula under which the Government sell surplus lands to local authorities, and I think Barrow Corporation can rest assured that it will be treated under that formula. There is no desire on the part of the Post Office to make a profit out of it. We do not want the land now and would be ready to hand it over to the local authority if it wanted it for its housing programme. If it does not, perhaps it would let us know, and we will do our best to dispose of it to any suitable buyer.

The hon. Member was quite right when he talked about the position in Barrow. Unemployment, especially amongst women, is slightly worse there than the average for the country, but I believe that a number of new employment opportunities are in prospect from firms in that area. Therefore, if the corporation does not want the land for housing, it may be that one of the firms there now. or one that wants to go there, would care to negotiate with us about a suitable price.

While I regret that the change which we could not have foreseen in 1947 or 1948. or even in 1950, has prevented the Post Office factory from going to Barrow, I am sure the hon. Member will see that if we were to go forward with the project it would not only create unemployment in other Post Office factories in other parts of the country but also in private industry. There would be no point whatever in spending money to put up a factory at Barrow at this stage if by doing so we were to create an unemployment problem elsewhere.

Mr. Monslow

Do I take it that the Post Office is disposed to make repre- sentations to the Board of Trade to consider providing diversity of industry at Barrow by prompting the establishment of new factories there?

Mr. Gammans

I think that is a bigger question, and I should like to consider to what extent that would fall within my ambit, but I can tell the hon. Member that we are prepared to release this site and should like to give the first chance of acquiring it to Barrow Corporation. I do not know the site myself. It may be suitable for housing. If it is, I imagine the corporation would like to acquire it to help with its housing programme. If it does not want it, we are only too pleased to dispose of it on suitable terms to other people.

I realise that Barrow has been in a state of uncertainty for some time, but that is not due to any neglect on the part of the Post Office, or any dilatoriness. It was just one of those things that happened after the war, when it appeared to us that we might find considerable difficulty in getting all the components we wanted. I am sure my predecessor in office felt that he must take some steps to see that the Post Office did get all the components it wanted, even if that meant putting up a factory somewhere, although I must reiterate that the provision of components by direct labour is quite contrary to the very long-established practice which the Post Office has followed. I hope I have been able to reassure the hon. Gentleman, and we will certainly do all we can to dispose of this site to the very best advantage.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

I intervene in this debate for only two reasons: to express my sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness in the predicament in which he and his constituents have been placed, and more particularly because I should like to remind the Minister, now that he has admitted that there is no shortage of components in the telephone service, that this should be reflected in a much more rapid development of telephone services in the rural areas.

Frequently the explanation which has been provided by the Post Office for failing to expedite the provision of reasonable services in the rural areas has been shortage of equipment, components, and particularly of equipment for switchboards and telephone exchanges. Now that we have been told by the Assistant Postmaster-General that there is no shortage in this respect but that there is, in fact, a surplus, it is my wish that that state of affairs will be reflected in a rapid increase in the provision of this essential service, particularly over scattered rural areas.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.