HC Deb 02 March 1959 vol 601 cc165-74

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Maitland (Lanark)

I rise to draw attention to the problem of a village in my constituency in Scotland, the village of Douglas, which, within a few months, is losing half of its industry and one-third of its population. It is a village which sees the specters of ruin for a whole community because Castle Douglas Colliery and the nearby Andershaw Colliery are being or have been closed, in the one case through the National Coal Board's closure policy, in the other through the exhaustion of reserves.

Before these closures had begun to take place there was already a dispiriting mood in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire in that in a matter of three years the number of mining jobs in that area had declined by something like 380 out of 5,600, a proportion of 8 per cent. When these two other collieries have completed their closure about the same number of miners will again have become redundant, making a total redundancy in mining jobs in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire of about 16 per cent. over three years.

That is the dispiriting background against which the village of Douglas now has to face this body blow to its existence, in that the colliery on which it is at least half dependent is closing altogether and about one-third of its people are going to have to move away. When miners and others from that village came to me the other day to announce that the water has been rising in that colliery at the rate of 20 ft. a day since the closure began to take effect and when they told me that the 8 ft. seam of good coal was now under water I sensed a moment of drama not unlike the sense of a ship going down.

This village has a population of 2,600, some 480-odd subsidised houses either built and owned by the county council or built and owned by the Scottish Special Housing Association, a total investment, I suppose, of about £1 million. Something like 240 of the miners resident in the village are going to be redundant with- in a matter of months, and we have it on high authority that about 200 of the families, totalling, I suppose, about 800 people, are going in effect to be driven from this village of 2,600 people within a matter of months to seek mining work elsewhere. When a village loses one-third of its people in a matter of months it is a body blow; it is a killing blow.

My concern is to ask my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State and, through him, the Government to do everything possible to attract substitute industry to this area. I begin by asking him whether he would pursue the point made in a letter which his Department wrote on 15th January saying that the Government are keeping the list of areas eligible for D.A.T.A.C. assistance under review. Will the Government look very carefully at the possibilities of Douglas, in view of the figures which I have just given?

The two main committees of villagers which have been meeting to rally their forces and to decide what they want have now agreed quite plainly and categorically that they want new industry in the village Only last week they called on the second district council of Lanark for an emergency meeting to discuss this matter.

I plead with the Government to give active aid to save the very existence of this village, to save an extensive public investment from going to waste, and to avert the possibility of dismay degenerating into despair. So far, Lanark County Council officials have not yet made available to me such factual data as they possess about possible industrial sites in the area, though I have no doubt that they shortly will do so and I hope that they will. In the meantime, I am therefore very grateful to my hon. Friend and the Government for already having had one site in the area vetted by the Board of Trade inspectors. I refer to the Happendon Camp site, but there are others, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell me that these other sites and possibilities are being looked at.

About forty-five of the children remaining at Douglas West School could now take up some of the fifty-nine vacancies in Douglas School. What about that building for conversion into a factory? What about the conversion of the Miners' Welfare Hall in Douglas west into a factory? What about the Douglas West Miners' Baths for conversion into a dairy? My hon. Friend will know that I have taken that matter up with him. I hope that he and the Government will draw the attention of the Scottish Milk Marketing Board and other bodies to that possibility.

What about the building known as Cotton Houses in Ayr Road, and the district known as Sliddery, and the old manse which might be turned either into an hotel or an office building? Will my hon. Friend ask the Board of Trade to take a look at all these possibilities? In parenthesis, I should like to tell him that I have discussed all these with the local laird who is more than willing to make any ground available that is found useful to industry.

The Board of Trade stated in a debate in the House on 10th February, that grants under Section 5 of the Distribution of Industry Act, 1945, could be made available to local authorities for site preparation. Could my hon. Friend tell me how big these grants are and whether they will be available for preparing industrial sites only or whether they can be used for adapting buildings to industrial use? Can they be used for the development of social amenities? Some of the very enterprising villagers in Douglas have made a number of suggestions about social amenities that could be developed to meet the needs of the locality. The old manse could be adapted either as an hotel or as offices. There is a garden nearby that could be made into a children's playgarden, with a pool for paddling in the summer and for skating or curling in the winter. There might also be a caravan park. Can these grants be made available for these purposes, and has the local authority been told how to apply for them and what the conditions are?

On 22nd January, the President of the Board of Trade in a Written Answer to me said that the Government are ready to consider building specific factories for particular interested firms that might wish to set up a factory in North Lanarkshire. My right hon. Friend also added that he was watching the situation in South Lanarkshire. Can my hon. Friend say whether the Government are yet prepared to consider the needs of Douglas which, on the figures I have given, are quite extraordinary in that context? Is the Board of Trade yet willing to go further than watching t—he situation in South Lanarkshire? Will it actually agree that the village of Douglas, at any rate, merits the same sort of help as has already been made available to North Lanark as set out in the Minister's answer an 22nd January? Can the Minister say whether, if there was a willing customer, the Government would consider building a specific factory in Douglas? If so, would that also apply to putting up an office building or adapting some existing structure?

Another possibility has been recently brought to my mind. Some years ago in the village of Coalburn, about five miles away, there used to be a plant for the low temperature carbonisation process, which is a method of turning waste or bad coal into oil and gas and smokeless fuel. Will my hon. Friend draw the attention of the Ministry of Power to the possibility of reviving that plant? It used to be owned by a firm called the Comac Oil Company, Limited. Is the Minister prepared to assist in the encouragement of a company willing to try to revive that process and help to find a use for surplus coal?

On 25th February, the Second District Council of the County of Lanark minuted this decision: It was agreed to recommend to the County Council that an agreement be entered into with Glasgow for taking overspill population to Douglas which must be accompanied by industry in order that tenancy of empty houses caused by transfer of men to Ayrshire may be taken up and to save Douglas from becoming a derelict area. Will the Minister take note of that, and of the fact that at the moment there are about 40 subsidised houses in perfectly good condition standing empty in the village? If the forecast I have been given of perhaps 200 families having to leave the village comes true, within this year there may be 200 houses which Douglas could contribute to the reception of overspill. Will the Minister confirm in public the assurance which he gave me in a letter of 6th January that where an area is prepared to accept overspill, the Government would do their best to call attention of industrialists and others inquiring about possibilities to the merits of that area? I hope that my hon. Friend will give us some help in this matter and assist in spreading the word about: the amenities which exist for industry in this village.

Douglas lies in the A.74 trunk road between Carlisle and Glasgow. It is not far from the trunk road to Stirling and it is close to the trunk road to Edinburgh. It is about 40 miles from Glasgow and the same distance from Edinburgh, and about 70 miles from Carlisle. Here are some of the amenities I ask my hon. Friend to bear in mind when considering the merits of Douglas, as a site for incoming industry. It lies on the railway line between Motherwell and Carstairs on the one hand and Cumnock on the line between Dumfries and Carlisle on the other. There are two stations nearby, one with two loading bays and a crane. It lies in a position between the site of the future strip mill at Motherwell and the mass market in Glasgow and Northern England. Therefore it lies on the natural route for materials that might pass from that mill for processing before manufacture and sale in the mass market of Northern England. The village is close to the Grid. There are abundant supplies of water from the Dear water scheme. The Happendon camp site, which the Board of Trade has already taken a look at and listed as possible, is on high ground and is free from flooding.

Male and female labours are available in the neighbourhood. The population of the neighbourhood is about 12,000. As to the quality of the female labour and its trainability, I would ask any inquiring industrialist to have a word with the directors of Messrs. James Macfarlane, who came to Lanark to open a shirt factory, with results to their very great satisfaction. So far as concerns young men for electricians, engineers, etc., a number of them have already started to learn a trade and they are excellent trainable material.

Another amenity at Douglas which outweighs all the rest and is worth presenting to industrialists is the excellent record of the area in labour relations. Unlike the strife-torn and strike-strewn areas of North Lanark, the upper ward of Lanark, in general, and the villages in the area of Douglas, in particular, are almost strike-free and have been so for years. The workers there are loyal, sober and hard- working. Any industrialist who comes there will find excellent labour relations built into the fabric of the community.

It is a village which has a strong community sense as well as an ancient history of which it is proud. The countryside is healthy and beautiful. Any industrial executives or management personnel who are wondering where they can find a place to live in the country would do well to get their factories out there and to find a house nearby, which is not difficult. I ask the Minister to hear these things in mind in considering how to make them as widely known as possible.

The story I have to bring to him is not only that of a village with possibilities but the spectre of a ruined village where 800 out of 2,600 people are likely to move within a matter of months because of a decrease in mining employment in the area of 16 per cent. over three years. I would recall to him the note of dereliction and of drama when they came to me and said. "The eight-foot seam is flooded". I ask the Minister and through him the Government, to do all he can to encourage the local authority to go wholeheartedly into the overspill operation. I ask him to help to make Douglas's case as widely known as possible, and to bear in mind the social investment in the village which threatens to go to waste. This is an earnest and, I know he will agree, a passionate S.O.S.

10.19 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Mr. Patrick Maitland) has raised the question of the conditions at Douglas and has made a very constructive speech. He has asked a great number of questions and has done an excellent piece of propaganda for his constituency.

Ever since the announcement was made, I know that my hon. Friend has been doing all he can to prevent hardship from falling upon the village and to save it, as he said, from becoming a derelict area. He has badgered and bombarded the Scottish Office, the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Labour, hardly giving my right hon. Friends a moment's peace. Now he has taken this opportunity of asking many questions and making many representations. I shall do my best to deal with all of them in the time available, and I undertake to reply to my hon. Friend about any point which I have not the time to answer tonight.

I gathered that my hon. Friend accepted the sad necessity to close Douglas Castle Colliery. The brute fact is that the production of coal exceeds the demand at present prices. The N.C.B. accordingly decided to reduce deep mining capacity by 3 million tons, opencast capacity by 3 million tons, and to add 3 million tons to stock. I think it as well to put these facts on record, because it puts the question of Douglas Castle into perspective. Douglas Castle is one of the thirty-six uneconomic collieries to be closed this year, twenty of them in Scotland. The Scottish pit closures will mean that 6,450 men will lose their present jobs, but against that the Scottish Divisional Coal Board's total manpower requirements during 1959 are estimated to be about 9,000, so new jobs will be available immediately for two-thirds of those declared redundant, a further one-tenth will be placed within six months, and others thereafter.

Given co-operation by the unions and the men, this redundancy problem can, in the main, be solved with the minimum of hardship and in a relatively short period. Although there are likely in Scotland as a whole to be more vacancies than redundancies arising from pit closures, the position in Douglas village is exceptional for two reasons. The first is because of the relatively isolated situation, and the second because about two-thirds of the miners in the village have hitherto been employed at Douglas Castle Colliery. Of the 332 men employed at that pit, it is estimated that about 70 will not be found other work in the mines. These are mainly older men and men who will be retired on health grounds, but the National Coal Board hopes to offer jobs to about 260, and 120 of these jobs will be within travelling distance, which means the men need not change their homes, and 140 vacancies are in other coal fields where men who transfer will get houses. These figures are estimates and should not be taken as firm or final. After all, it will be for the men themselves to decide whether to go and where to go. Redeployment will be arranged in consultation with the unions and the individuals concerned.

So far 126 have been given notice. I think my hon. Friend will be interested to know that of these 53 have found jobs which do not entail their moving, 46 have found jobs in other areas—my hon. Friend said that about 40 houses are left vacant—and 27 have not yet been placed, mainly because of their age or their state of health. The second phase of the closure is likely to take place during the summer. It is not yet possible to estimate how many men will be unable to find work or to be placed in work.

On the basis of experience so far, however, I should doubt whether the final picture is likely to be anything like as black as my hon. Friend suggested. He spoke of one.third— of the houses standing empty by the end of this year. That would mean well over 200 houses. If that were so it would clearly be a very serious matter for the village, but my hon. Friend knows that Douglas is one of several mining villages in that part of Lanarkshire with a total population of 12,000. In that area there are within travelling distance at least nine other pits employing more than 2,100 miners, about one-half of whom travel into the district daily from other Lanarkshire towns. Even if as many as 100 or more families left Douglas many of the houses could soon be occupied, for there are miners who come from Larkhall and other places to work and who are waiting for houses. Given good will and co-operation among the various interests concerned, I really do not think that the problem to be solved will be nearly as great as my hon. Friend imagines.

At one point my hon. Friend seemed to be suggesting that the houses vacated should all—or most of them—be kept empty until they could be filled by people coming from Glasgow under "Operation Overspill". It is for the county council to decide whether to sign an overspill agreement with Glasgow Corporation, and I note what my hon. Friend said about the resolution of the district council. If the county council decides to cater for overspill, Douglas would not be in a position to attract families from Glasgow until there was work.

I am afraid that with so many authorities willing to receive overspill there can be no guarantee that industry would be secured for Douglas within a given period. It would be impossible to justify keeping the houses vacant indefinitely if miners who travel daily into the Douglas area want them. I do not mean that the overspill solution should be ruled out. If a new industry came to the district, house building for overspill population could proceed concurrently with the erection of the factory.

If Lanarkshire County Council decides to conclude an overspill agreement with Glasgow Corporation the Government would certainly draw the attention of suitable industrialists to the facilities there, no less than to those in any other prospective receiving areas. All the same, I must make it clear to my hon. Friend that there could be no guarantee that an agreement to provide houses for Glasgow workers would in itself, or automatically, result in attracting industry within a given period.

On the other hand, the conclusion of an overspill agreement might well improve the prospects of industry being obtained for the area, since an incoming industrialist would then know that he could supplement the limited number of workers available locally with workers drawn from Glasgow, and there would also be opportunities for attracting to the area firms displaced from redevelopment areas in Glasgow itself.

My hon. Friend asked about factory building. It is not the Government but the county council as local planning authority which has the power to build factories, with the consent of the Secretary of State. Such factories might be let, hire-purchased, or sold outright. Naturally, before these powers were exercised both the county council and the Secretary of State would wish to be assured that there would be an economic return on the investment and also that the firm was itself financially sound, since otherwise the ratepayers might easily be left with the burden of an empty factory.

I turn, next, to the clearance of derelict sites. My hon. Friend mentioned a number of sites and asked some questions. I can reply to my hon. Friend only in general terms. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade informed the House on 10th February that grants were being revived to encourage local authorities to clear derelict sites in the Development Areas—Douglas is in one—with a view either to their subsequent use or to the improvement of amenities. That covers the questions which my hon. Friend asked. It includes the improvement of amenities.

My hon. Friend also asked whether local authorities have yet been informed about this. The Secretary of State will be sending a circular to local authorities within the next few days explaining the arrangements for the grants, which will be of up to 75 per cent. of approved expenditure on clearance, and he will be inviting applications relating to work which could be completed by March, 1960.

My hon. Friend mentioned various other places, with which I will not deal, and in my closing remarks I hurry on to the prospect of attracting new industry. Like my hon. Friend, I am keenly aware of the need to bring industry to mining villages such as Douglas in order to provide work for the women and also to provide alternative employment for the men. This need is there even without the closure of the pits. Indeed, the closure of the pits emphasises the need. I hope, however, that my hon. Friend will be under no illusion about the difficulties to be overcome. As he knows, although Douglas is in the scheduled Development Area under the Distribution of Industry Act, 1945, the President of the Board of Trade is limiting the areas in which he is willing to build factories to five areas, and South Lanarkshire is not one of them. if anybody built a factory there for industry, it would be the county council.

My hon. Friend asked about D.A.T.A.C. assistance. The Distribution of Industry (Industrial Finance) Act, which Parliament passed last year, provides for Treasury assistance to be available in places where a high rate of unemployment exists and is likely to persist. At present unemployment in the Douglas area has not reached a high rate. The terms of the Act do not allow D.A.T.A.C. assistance to be given in areas where unemployment is merely threatened —

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-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.