HC Deb 16 May 1957 vol 570 cc719-24

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

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I am glad to have this opportunity of raising the matter of the refusal by the Board of Trade to grant a development certificate at Witham. This certificate would have enabled a firm to occupy a factory in the new industrial site in this town. This matter is of importance not only to Witham but to the borough of Maldon and, in fact, to all Essex towns which are trying to develop light industry in order that their prosperity may be more widely and soundly based. In Witham there is only one major employer of labour, and should this firm be forced to go on short-time the effect on the town would be drastic.

The local council is conscious of the problem and, shortly after the war, put in train negotiations for expanding the town. Within the last few days these plans, with some modification, have been approved by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. In the present plan a further 2,500 houses are envisaged.

Complementary with its housing plans the council purchased to the east of the town an area suitable for a factory site and spent in all about £21,000 on it. On this the council is losing £1,300 a year, or the equivalent of a 3d. rate, owing to the slowness of Whitehall in making decisions on the plan and in encouraging industry to use the site.

It was planned that Witham will take the overspill population from seven Metropolitan boroughs that are in Essex. But these boroughs have no exportable industries which they can send with their population, Witham Council, after preparing this site with loan sanctioned by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, had an inquiry from a firm, A. C. Morrison, Ltd., of Loughborough, who were looking for a factory within operating distance of Tilbury and Harwich and not too far from London. Most of their production goes in exports, and being near the ports would have been convenient to them. This firm had to have a reasonably quick answer because they had to vacate their site at Burton-on-the-Wolds by July of this year.

After drawn-out negotiations, the application of the firm for a development certificate was turned down by the Department of my hon. Friend. He then kindly agreed to see me on 5th March sand discuss the matter. At this meeting, he agreed to reconsider the matter, but nothing came of it, and the refusal stood. As I understand it, the reason for this refusal was that Her Majesty's Government do not wish to see industry move south from the industrial north and midlands. Yet the Department of my hon. Friend was prepared to allow this factory to come to Clacton-on-Sea or to Haverhill, or to Great Yarmouth. That was stated at a conference of representatives of the council with the Department of my hon. Friend and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government at the beginning of this year.

I wish to know why these towns should be allowed to have this factory and that Witham should be refused it. Is it on defence grounds or grounds of amenity, or on what grounds? If this policy is pursued and people cannot understand why it is being done, it is an obvious discouragement for the expansion of existing industries. Already I have had a letter from a worried managing director of a big firm in the neighbouring town of Braintree, and this morning I received a letter from another firm anxious to develop in that area. If this sort of restriction is going on it would seem that these people have cause for alarm at the Board of Trade interfering with the logical and justified expansion of industry. It seems to me that it is planning gone mad.

Incidentally, it is interesting to see what has happened to the firm of A. C. Morrison which wanted to come to Witham. We were told it was not allowed to come to Witham because industry must be discouraged from coming to the town from the north, though these alternative towns in Essex were suggested. In fact, Morrison's has expanded one of its subsidiaries at Feltham in Middlesex to carry out the work which would have been done at Witham. I may be wrong, but from that it would appear that the Board of Trade regard Feltham as part of the industrial north.

By refusing this development certificate to a firm which could have started so well the utilisation of the site at Witham, my hon. Friend has taken on himself a very great responsibility. He is responsible for leaving on the hands of the council a great liability which might have been an asset. I wish to know why this application was refused. I realise that it is now too late to undo the damage which has been caused to our efforts to get this firm to Witham. But has my hon. Friend any further industrial concern in mind for Witham? What steps does he intend to take to get the Witham industrial site developed and occupied so that this liability may be turned into an asset for the town and its population?

Unless he and his Department are able to give a satisfactory answer to this point, I fear that the experience of Witham will stand out as a salutary lesson to all forward-looking councils with the interests of their ratepayers to consider. They certainly will not take risks in developing sites like this, and Witham's experience will completely stultify any others who might think of attracting industry because they will feel that they can achieve nothing against the obstructions of his Department.

11.6 p.m.

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

I can fully appreciate and understand the concern which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. B. Harrison) feels about this particular matter. As he has said, we have been in correspondence with each other and have also had a meeting, and I am glad of this further opportunity of stating quite clearly the reasons which led to the Board of Trade having to refuse the application for a certificate in this case. Although he has raised this particular case of the refusal by the Board of Trade to grant the Witham Urban District Council a certificate, he also referred to the question of towns in Essex and to other progressive towns in the country as a whole in somewhat similar positions.

I should like, therefore, to state the general policy for the issue of certificates. Parliament has placed on the Board of Trade the responsibility for deciding the location of new factories. This responsibility is exercised by means of granting or refusing industrial development certi5cates, without which planning permission for a new factory building of more than 5,000 sq. ft. cannot be obtained. We in the Board of Trade administer this control largely through our regional offices, and also through the supervision exercised by headquarters. There are two aspects of our policy which are relevant here. First, we resist the movement of firms to the southeastern corner of England and only give certificates when an overwhelming case, on grounds of national interest, can be made out.

Secondly, the south-eastern corner is to be reserved for London firms, or those with a close tie to London who are prepared to move out and thereby relieve congestion in London itself. This control applies only to new factory buildings and does not cover existing premises, which the company has in mind at Feltham; at least, that would seem to be so since it has not applied for a certificate in relation to that area.

My hon. Friend has referred to the progressive outlook of the Witham local authority. But we have a large number of progressive towns, keen to see industry develop inside or adjacent to their borders in order to increase the size of the town, or for other reasons. Unfortunately for these progressively-minded authorities, there are far more invitations to move than there are firms willing to go; and the fact that a town would like to see new factory building within its boundaries does not mean that it would be easy to encourage firms to go.

Therefore, our policy must be to guide migrant firms to those parts of the country where they are needed most; for example, to Development Areas, or to places outside such areas which have a high rate of unemployment, such, for instance, as Great Yarmouth, or even to places with seasonal unemployment, such as Clacton. We fully respect and sympathise with the feelings of progressive local authorities, but we cannot accept local ambitions as the paramount factor in granting industrial development certificates, however worthy and understandable the ambitions are. Were we to do so, we would frustrate the whole purpose of the national control exercised in the interests of the nation as a whole. Were we to accept local interests as paramount I can see no reason for the exercise of this control.

This policy is well known by all concerned and the Board of Trade regional controllers are available at all times to explain matters to local authorities. The Witham Council should not have been in any doubt about it, since when it made application for the land for its industrial estate it gave in writing as its reasons for needing the land, first, rehousing of small local firms; and, secondly, its support of Government policy to decentralise population from the Greater London area. Unfortunately, the site remained almost empty for some time, until the firm mentioned by my hon. Friend showed an interest in moving south from Loughborough to Witham. It had discussions with our deputy-regional controller at Cambridge and at headquarters in London, at which our general policy was explained to it.

Clacton-on-Sea and Yarmouth were mentioned in the course of the discussions, but not with the emphasis which my hon. Friend suggested. They were mentioned as being places which, if the firm's move south could be justified, were more urgently in need of industry for reasons of local employment than Witham. I can assure my hon. Friend that there was no question of the Department saying that it was definitely prepared to allow the firm to go to those places. I have looked into this matter this very day to make quite certain of what I have just said.

I can also assure my hon. Friend that the firm's application for an I. D. C. for Witham was very carefully considered on the basis of the reasons which the firm gave for going there. After all, it is the application by the firm and the reasons given by the firm which we must consider.

In our opinion, the advantages to the firm of a move south did not justify our making an exception to the general policy of resisting the entry of new firms into the south-east corner of England and the firm was informed that its application had to be refused. I am sorry to learn from what my hon. Friend said about the anxieties which this decision has apparently created for other firms in the area. He mentioned particularly a firm near Braintree, and said he had received a letter from another firm expressing anxiety. If he will be kind enough to send me the letters I will look into the matter and see whether I can pass on any information which might enable him to reassure those who have written to him.

Some time after refusing the application I wrote to my hon. Friend, explaining that we had turned down the application. He came to see us about it. I should mention, in passing, that before hi came to see me I had taken the opportunity in advance of looking into the whole case once again and examining the reasons which the firm had given. I felt then that while, on the evidence that the firm had submitted, the application ought to be refused, I would wait until I had heard what my hon. Friend had to say in case some new factors affecting the firm's reasons for applying —this is an application from a firm—were produced by my hon. Friend.

I therefore waited until the meeting, and heard what he had to say, before finally deciding that as no new facts had been produced there was no case for a further reconsideration of the matter. However, at the meeting there was a general discussion, in which we reviewed the problems of the development of the town, because at the time the town was hampered by uncertainty about a town development scheme. I undertook to consult the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government about the progress with the town development scheme, as, with the approval of this scheme, Witham would become a more attractive place for firms wishing to move out of the London area.

I pursued the matter, so that I was able to inform my hon. Friend on 29th March how matters were progressing. The position now is that the Minister of Housing and Local Government has authorised the county council to grant planning permission for a modified town development scheme. This will place Witham in the position of being better able to attract firms and population from the London area, and as soon as a plan of town development is finally approved —as I hope it will be—we in the Board of Trade will actively encourage suitable London firms to go to Witham, and I hope the enterprise of the Witham Council will, after its rather disappointing start, be in the end fully rewarded.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.