HC Deb 09 December 1957 vol 579 cc1032-42

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

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts (Caernarvon)

I desire to draw the attention of the House to a matter which is causing acute and increasing anxiety to many of my constituents in Caernarvon, namely, the heavy unemployment which continues to afflict the county.

For years the Province of Gwynedd in North Wales, of which Caernarvon is the centre, has had the highest rate of unemployment in Great Britain. Today the percentage of unemployment in Caernarvonshire is 7.5 of the insured population compared with only 1.5 for the country as a whole, which means that it is five times as high. Some 2,500 of our workers and their families are facing yet another winter of discontent. Their Christmas will indeed be bleak, bare and bitter.

It will be particularly bitter because of continually frustrated hopes. Tremendous efforts have been made through the years, by the local authorities in particular, to achieve some solution to this deadly problem of unemployment which carries with it the mass emigration of our young people and the steady attrition of our social, cultural and economic life. A few months ago most of us thought that we were in sight of such a solution, but today the feeling is spreading in the County that the Government are once more dragging their feet in this matter. Once more hundreds of families are plunged into despair.

I should like to give an example. One of the blackest spots of unemployment in the area—or in the whole of Britain, for that matter—is the Nantlle Valley, and the township of Penygroes. The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs—and I should like to pay my respects to him for honouring us with his attendance after such a heavy day—visited Penygroes last April, and saw for himself something of the spirit and the poignant ardour of these men. He also saw a factory, built in 1952 by the Development Corporation at a cost of about £50,000, which was then On the point of closing. In fact, it has closed, and the former tenant has no further use for it. Fortunately, another firm—the excellent firm of Austin Hopkinson, of Manchester—is prepared to take over this factory.

My first question to the Minister is this: "What is holding up the transfer of this tenancy?" For many years we have been told by those in authority, "We deeply sympathise with you, but it is terribly difficult to attract industrialists to such a remote corner of Wales. Find the industrialist and we will do everything we can to persuade him to settle in the district." Well, the industrialist has been found. A first-rate firm is prepared to take over this factory; indeed, the firm is so impressed with the local labour potential and the helpful attitude of the local authorities that it is also prepared to take over a second factory if one can be built on the same site.

We want to know why this heaven-sent opportunity to solve the chronic problem of unemployment in this valley has not yet been grasped. It surely cannot be that the Board of Trade is making stiff conditions. We are entitled to an instant reassurance on that point. The valley is an unemployment area within the definition of the Board of Trade itself, and the policy of inducement to industry should therefore apply. I want to hear tonight that there will be a speedy, smooth transfer of the tenancy to this excellent firm, upon reasonable conditions, and that the question of building a second factory on this site will be pressed forward urgently.

My second point concerns the proposal of the famous firm of Ashburton Chemicals to establish a processing works in Glynllifon Park, near Caernarvon. Very great hopes are centred on this project. It would have the advantage of harnessing the water wealth of Snowdonia not to some city of the English plain but to the needs of rural Wales. This is a project that might well wipe out the chronic unemployment which has decimated some of the slate-quarrying villages in this area since I can remember, and it would rejuvenate the ancient town of Caernarvon, which at present has an unemployment register of over 700. I should be glad to have definite information tonight as to the progress of this important and hopeful project.

I now want to turn to the southern portion of the county, to the Lleyn Peninsula, where the story is much the same. Today the number registered at the exchange in the small town of Pwllheli and Portmadoc is about 600. The longterm hopes of the workers in this district are concentrated on the Central Electricity Authority's announcement last August that it would establish nuclear power generating stations at Trawsfynydd, in North Merioneth, and Edeyrn, in the Lleyn Peninsula. All I ask this evening is that the Minister should tell us the position regarding the preliminary work on the Edeyrn proposal. I gather that the Trawsfynydd project is proceeding satisfactorily.

These are long-term schemes, but there are one or two short-term measures which the Government could take immediately to help the workless of southern Caernarvonshire. I have mentioned the town of Pwllheli. It has an unemployment roll of 462. In this town the Merseyside and North Wales Electricity Board proposes to build new showrooms, offices and stores. One would have thought that local contractors, who have been having a pretty thin time owing to the practical cessation of the rural house-building programme in the area, would have been invited to tender for this work; but these local firms have been refused the opportunity and the contract has been given to a firm 100 miles away which will have to transport its equipment and workers all the way to Pwllheli and presumably pay lodging allowances, and certainly by so doing inflate the cost of the job.

The Electricity Board is probably autonomous in these matters but it is also a public board and as such is subject to suggestion by the Government. I ask the Minister to take up this matter with the board. Whatever may happen in this instance, can he put forward the reasonable proposal that public boards using public money should have regard to local interests and circumstances when considering capital development of this nature in areas where there is unemployment?

Another immediate step the Government might take is this. One of the causes of the mounting unemployment in southern Caernarvonshire is the decline in the granite quarrying industry on which whole communities, like Llithfaen and Trefor, utterly depend. Much of the stone is sold for road surfacing. Three years ago the Agriculture (Improvement of Roads) Act was passed, providing £4 million for the betterment of access roads to hill farms. Of that sum £2 million was deemed to be set aside for Welsh purposes. So far only £250,000 has been released by the Treasury, that is to say, one-sixteenth of the total, and even that small sum has not yet been spent.

Take the case of Caernarvonshire. As far back as 8th November, 1956, 25 schemes under the Act were submitted for approval. Today, 13 months later, only four of them have been put in hand, the total sum involved being under £10,000. If the Government are really concerned about doing something immediately to help these granite workers who are now out of work, they could step up the release of this money, voted for the purpose by Parliament, and expedite the process of approval of schemes as they arise. That is something which could be done now administratively, and it would help not only the workers in the granite industry but our hill farmers as well.

There are other road schemes of a most urgent character waiting to be tackled in Caernarvonshire. I know that the same thing may be said of every county; but, in view of the exceptional seriousness of the unemployment problem in Caernarvonshire, will the Ministers consult their right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation with a view to allowing some road schemes to be carried out at once to alleviate the pressure of unemployment during the next few months? Unless something of the sort is done in the interim, I fear that in the New Year the level of unemployment in Caernarvonshire will go up to 8 per cent., 9 per cent., or even 10 per cent., with all that that means in terms of poverty, misery, social and family disintegration and sheer human despair. I earnestly ask the Minister to approach these problems with sympathy and a sense of urgency.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) and to the Minister for enabling me briefly to intervene in the debate and to refer to the persistent unemployment problem in the neighbouring County of Anglesey, my own division. There, as in Caernarvon-shire, the figures remain alarmingly high—over 10 per cent. of the insured population. Our fear is that the situation will shortly deteriorate. This is largely because substantial building projects are in course of completion, and the workers will be put off and have no prospect of alternative employment.

The anxiety to which my hon. Friend has referred is also widespread in Anglesey and there is a general sense of frustration there. Quite apart from the unemployed men and women, there is the position of the school leavers—about 400 or 500 every year. The great majority of those who enter the Armed Forces to do their National Service do not return to Anglesey to work because there is nothing for them to do. They find work elsewhere in the large industrial centres of England.

I realise that the Board of Trade is aware of the position and indeed I would pay a tribute to the Controller of the Board of Trade in Wales for the way in which he is doing his work. I think he is doing everything possible to improve matters there. Nonetheless, my hon. Friend and I are in duty bound to point out to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade and to the Minister for Welsh Affairs that the position in Anglesey and in Caernarvonshire shows no improvement. There are prospects of improvement in Anglesey, as in Caernarvonshire, and I would exhort the Minister to do all in his power to convert those prospects into reality.

I will enumerate the position in Anglesey. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, three oil companies are showing a real interest in the port of Holyhead. The outer harbour is not in use to the full capacity, and even at present it could take very large oil tankers. With dredging, and perhaps with a little blasting, sufficient water could be provided at low tide to berth the largest tankers, even up to 100,000 tons. I cannot go into this in detail tonight, but I would urge the Government that should certain adaptations be considered necessary—and they may prove not to be necessary—they should give every encouragement to the Board of Trade to carry them out. We do not want to lose the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar.

Secondly, the industrial developments at Llangefn, whose completion is so eagerly awaited in that area, are somewhat slow in coming to fruition. There are probably adequate reasons, but would the Minister see what he can do to

Thirdly, the firm of Saunders Roe at Beaumaris has made an immense contribution to our island economy. Everything must be done to encourage this firm, which has enabled many Anglesey boys to become skilled craftsmen, accelerate their coming into full operation. Further suitable industries are needed, especially in Amlwch and Holyhead, and I hope the Board of Trade will continue to induce industrialists to consider these localities. The Anglesey County Council and the district councils have done and are doing their utmost to improve the position. My hon. Friend and I want the Government to know of our apprehensions and hopes in these matters.

10.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. F. J. Erroll)

Both the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) and the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) know from talks we have had together that I personally am very much concerned with the problems of North-West Wales. If time prevents me, as I fear that it will, from replying at all fully to the speech of the hon. Member for Anglesey, he will, I am sure, realise that I shall read in the OFFICIAL REPORT most carefully all he said in his brief intervention and do my best to send him a considered answer through the post. He knows well my interest in Anglesey and, particularly, the way I follow closely the possible developments in the Port of Holyhead.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon has rightly drawn attention to the employment figures in Caernarvonshire in general and in his constituency in particular, and, indeed, the figures which he quoted, are, on the basis of percentages, undoubtedly much more serious in his area than the figures for the rest of the country. At the same time, one must have regard to the fact that the totals of unemployed are not numerically so very large. I do not want the hon. Gentleman to feel that, because the figures run into some few hundreds only and not to hundreds of thousands—

Mr. G. Roberts

Twenty-five hundred.

Mr. Erroll

—into some hundreds—we pay any the less attention to the existence of a serious and persistent problem in his area and in neighbouring Anglesey. I say straight away that there has been some increase in unemployment this year, and I should, therefore, like to explain to him and to the House what it is possible for the Board of Trade to do in the provision of new industry. Later, if I may, I will answer one or two of the specific points he raised.

The Department will continue to do all it possibly can to steer suitable new industry into the area. There is—let us admit it—no quick or easy solution to the problem, but there is, I submit, a number of encouraging developments which, if they come off, should go a considerable way towards relieving the problem. I should, however, remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no power to direct firms to particular places; indeed, we should not wish to have that power, for with it would have to go a somewhat similar power to direct labour, key workers and management. The task is, therefore, one of persuasion. The trouble is that, at present, there are more places in Britain anxious to receive light industry than there are firms willing to move from their present locations.

North Wales is not, it must be admitted, a particularly attractive area to industrialists, owing to its relative remoteness and the lack, in many places within this largely rural area, of a labour supply on the spot, sufficient both in numbers and in skills to provide a balanced labour force.

Having stated the difficulties, I should like to reiterate, nevertheless, our determination to do whatever we can to encourage firms to go to these areas. There are, indeed, some hopeful signs.

I come now to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Caernarvon during his speech. First, as to the factory as Penygroes, which became vacant only in September of this year, discussions about the occupancy of the factory are proceeding. I know that all concerned are very anxious to do what they can to make sure that these discussions proceed as expeditiously as possible. The Gwyrfai Rural District Council is in touch with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and everyone is anxious to complete discussions so that a new tenant can take over as soon as possible. That is all I can say at this stage. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be patient a little longer, because I hope and believe that a satisfactory settlement can be achieved.

I should like to mention the progress of the new factory at Penygroes. Last August, the Treasury approved a loan by the Development Corporation to the Wales and Monmouthshire Estates Company for the erection of a factory of about 35,000 sq.ft. for lease to Austin Hopkinson, a company which expects to employ eventually at least 100 workers, almost all of whom will be males. I understand that negotiations for the factory are very far advanced, and we hope that building will begin in the early part of the new year.

The hon. Member referred to so-called unemployment areas. I should mention here, perhaps, that the provisions of the Distribution of Industry Act do not apply outside the Development Areas themselves. On the other hand, industrialists who consult the Board of Trade about new locations are encouraged to set up factories in places with a relatively high level of unemployment, provided the necessary facilities are available, regardless of whether these are inside or outside Development Areas. Moreover, in North-West Wales, the Development Fund is being used at present for financing the building of suitable small factories for industrialists. I should add, too, that the preferential arrangements which apply for the placing of Government contracts in development areas apply also in unemployment areas such as Penygroes in the same way as in the Development Areas proper.

The hon. Member referred to the proposed chemical works at Glynllifon Park. I have been practising my Welsh pronunciation with the help of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welsh Affairs, who has coached me so far quite correctly. I am sorry I slipped up with this last name, but as my right hon. Friend is here to listen to the result of his efforts in coaching me, I am a little nervous in my pronunciation.

The Ashburton Chemical Company announced about a year ago, as the hon. Member may know, that it was proposing to set up a privately-owned plant for the manufacture of bulk chemicals at Glynllifon Park, near Caernarvon. This would employ some hundreds of workers, mainly men. During the past year, the company has been discussing with the local authorities the various technical problems involved, in particular the water supply and effluent disposal. I expect that the hon. Member will know all about this, because I understand that he was himself present during some of the earlier discussions.

Those discussions, I am sorry to say, are still continuing and, therefore, because of that, no final decision has yet been reached. There is no doubt that a development of this sort would be very welcome indeed in the Caernarvon—Bangor area. The negotiations with the company are, however, a matter for the local authorities and not for the Board of Trade. As far as we are concerned, we have not yet received from the firm any application for an industrial development certificate.

At Llanberis, a rubber clothing firm set itself up two years ago in buildings leased from the Air Ministry. This firm, which undoubtedly likes the district, now wishes to purchase these premises, together with some additional land. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be glad to hear that the negotiations are now nearly complete. At Llandwrog, the site and premises formerly occupied by the Air Ministry were acquired a short time ago by a plastics firm which, I am told, has already begun operations there and hopes ultimately to require about 200 male workers. The same firm has also expressed an interest in the remaining land and buildings at Llanberis. The trouble about this is that the land adjacent to the vacant buildings on the site has been used as an ammunition dump and the area has to be made safe before it can be used. The Air Ministry is considering the practical steps which are required to bring this about.

I should like to refer also to the nuclear power stations. There is not a great deal that I can say, but as regards the proposed station at Trawsfynydd the position is that the Central Electricity Authority has applied to my noble Friend the Minister of Power for consent to build this station. Objections have been received, however, from the National Parks Commission and other bodies and my noble Friend the Minister of Power and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs have announced their intention of holding a joint public inquiry.

The nuclear power station at Edeyrn is most attractive from a technical point of view, being on a relatively rocky site and with an abundant supply of sea water for cooling purposes. It is, however, too early yet to say when an application for consent to establish a station at this place will be made. Whilst on the subject of power stations, I should mention that the Ffestiniog hydro-electric scheme is proving a small but useful source of employment. About 150 people, mostly labourers, but including some tradesmen, are employed at present, though the numbers may fall during the winter. Nevertheless, it is hoped that there will be some 700 people employed on the scheme by the end of next summer. Wherever possible, Welsh people employed are brought by private transport from a 30- mile radius and it is quite possible that they include some workers from Caernarvon itself.

As regards the offices, the Merseyside and North Wales Electricity Board decided on the erection of these offices and it is a matter entirely for the Board. I understand that tenders for the construction of the new offices and buildings at Pwllheli were invited in the normal way from several firms in the Board's North Wales area and the firm that was selected is itself a Welshpool firm, but it is in the Board's North Wales area. It was awarded the contract as being the most suitable and having experience in this type of building construction, and there is nothing to prevent the firm from employing local Pwllheli people. It will not necessarily have to bring its workers from 100 miles away, except for one or two key workers for specialist construction.

I cannot say more about this particular contract, though I will study the point that the hon. Gentleman made about awarding these contracts in areas of particularly high unemployment. I will also examine the point that he raised about the use of granite for road construction, because I realise that if more were used it would be of great material help. Perhaps he will be content with my assurance that I will look into that suggestion in the next few days.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Eleven o'clock.