HC Deb 05 June 1962 vol 661 cc241-5

5.15 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Local Government Employment Act, 1960, for the purpose of including office buildings.

The Bill would amend Part II of the Act in a manner which would bring office development within the industrial certificate procedures. A similar proposal was rejected at the time when the 1960 Measure was going through the House, but in the light of what has continued to happen since then, I believe that the House would look upon this proposal with more favour now.

When we look at what has been happening since then we find that, in spite of all the efforts made by the Government, employment continues to rise in those areas from which we seek to direct it rather more rapidly than it does in the areas to which we are trying to direct it. During the last five years for which I have been able to obtain figures—1956–61—the total number of insured workers in the Midland Region has risen by 88,000 in the London and South-Eastern Region by 240,000 and in the Greater London Region alone by 155,000. During that period the number of insured workers in Scotland has fallen by 9,000.

That is not the whole picture, because if we take the whole working population of Scotland we find that there has been a fall of 38,000 and, what is possibly more serious, a fall of 58,000 in the male working population, during those five years. It is against this background that we have to view the much-vaunted pipeline of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Against this background it is seen for what it is, namely, a very leaky and most inadequate drip-feed.

At present, 488 persons out of every 1,000 of the resident population of London are in insured employment. In Scotland, the number is only 413. If we look for some of the reasons why London enjoys these great advantages, it becomes obvious that they are in no small measure due to the enormous increase in office employment. The Town and Country Planning Association, in its excellent report The Paper Metropolis, tells us that in London's central area the number of jobs has grown by at least 15,000 a year in the last decade, and this increase was almost entirely in office employment. Later it tells us that the total employment in the County of London, including the central area, could increase by 200,000 in the next ten years, and that practically the whole of this would be in office employment. This would be at double the rate at which we have been providing jobs in Scotland in the past five years, in every form of employment.

It is difficult to ascertain from the figures published by the Ministry of Labour just how rapidly this form of employment grows, but it seems clear that office employment is growing more rapidly than employment in any other sector of the economy. Because this growth is taking place mainly in areas of overfull employment, I feel that the time has come when we can no longer leave the allocation of office building to the present system of planning controls and inducements.

If we are to distribute employment throughout the country effectively, we require a much better instrument for dealing with office building, which in my Bill would be the development certificate. Trends in office development are already towards this form of control. The grouping together, by various financial and business techniques, of firms, bath large and small, all over the country, is leading to the increasing centralisation of the administration of these firms in mammoth blocks of offices increasingly equipped with the office machinery which can only be installed and operated efficiently if it is worked to near-capacity. That means loss of jobs in Scotland and elsewhere throughout the country and the draining of those jobs to London.

Increasingly, the modern centralised administrative office is becoming more like a factory, with this difference, that its employment capacity is very much greater. A given area of office floor space employs seven or eight times the number that the same floor space in a factory employs.

While it may be true that the presence in London of a small number of higher executives of an organisation makes for the efficiency of the country's economic life, there is no reason why the large administrative office, with its scores or hundreds or thousands of employees, cannot be placed away from London altogether, either say in Scotland, the North-East or anywhere else where employment is urgently needed.

I am fortified in this view by Ministers. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, on 17th November, 1960, in a letter to business firms, when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government, seemed to agree with this, for he said, with his accustomed restraint, of course: It may be important to have key staffs in London; but a good many firms and organisations have a great deal of office work which could be done at least as efficiently and much more cheaply elsewhere. The President of the Board of Trade, when he was Economic Secretary to the Treasury, was rather more blunt and forthcoming. In a Scottish debate in July, 1959, he said: While it is proper that we should concentrate on the provision of additional manufacturing industry, it is important to remember the increased amount of employment which is provided nowadays by service industries and offices. By using the telephone and other modern methods of transmitting information over long distances there is no reason why more office work … should not be done in Scotland rather than in the congested areas of London and the Midlands.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd July, 1959; Vol. 608, c. 635.] Judging from what we see going on around us, it does not appear that the Ministers' appeals had very much effect, and I think that most of us know why. Last week, the golden boys of this vast and growing paper empire, namely, the Association of Land and Property Owners and the Associated Owners of City Properties, sent us all literature to say that they wanted no further controls on office buildings. They are enjoying a very big bonanza, and we can appreciate why they should send this literature to us. But at the same time as we were receiving this literature, another place was showing its concern over office building in London by defeating the Government on the question of the use of railway termini.

The Town and Country Planning Association, in the report to which I have referred, examined this problem in some detail. In considering the development certificate procedure, it said: The situation is serious enough to warrant the use of such a control if it could be applied efficiently and fairly. But it does not believe that this could be done easily. It says that it would be harder to apply to offices than to factories. Instead, it suggests control by a mixture of planning improvements and financial measures. But it is mainly concerned with spreading office building from Central London to other areas, irrespective of whether they are areas of a high level of employment.

We are bound to concern ourselves much more with the over-riding consideration of spreading employment. When we do this, as far as I can judge, the proposals of the Town and Country Planning Association, which include such highly controversial matters as special levies and taxes, special differential payroll taxes and special differential rate surcharges, appear to be as difficult of application as, if not more difficult than, the development certificate procedure. Certainly they lack the essential flexibility which must characterise proposals for spreading employment to Scotland and other areas requiring special assistance and which is a feature of the development certificate procedure.

Of course, office employment is more difficult to spread than factory employment, but I am confident that it can be done if the Government display the will to do it. In spite of what has been happening in the last few years, a very large office-building programme still lies ahead of us. Many thousands of workers have still to be provided with modern, healthy and congenial working conditions. At the same time, as I have indicated, commercial development is leading to a steady expansion of office employment.

For all these reasons, and for many others which could be given, I believe the time is ripe for office development to assume its rightful place in our employment policies. Scotland and other development areas need office employment just as much as, and in fact far more than, London. I trust that the House will give me leave to introduce the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Willis, Mr. Ross, Mr. William Hamilton, Mr. Lawson, Mr. Small, and Mr. Milian.