HC Deb 09 December 1963 vol 686 cc179-86

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

10.46 p.m.

Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)

The port of Blyth is as old as coal itself. It has handled it for export to other parts for about 600 years. In 1961, Blyth's coal exporting record of more than 6,800,000 tons and the present annual total of approaching 6 million tons establish its claim to the title of the premier coal port not only of Britain but of Europe.

From 13 coal shipping points in the harbour during that record-breaking year coal was shipped to Germany, Denmark and other European countries and to ports in the United Kingdom, a considerable portion going to power stations in the South. In fact, it would be true to state that the proverb should now be about taking coals to Blyth rather than to Newcastle.

Since the days when workable coal seams and navigable water laid the foundations of South-East Northumberland's economic significance, the area has reflected many changes in mining, transport and shipping and in the overall pattern of the British economy itself. It would be true to say that both the river and the port of Blyth have moved with the times. The shipyard, which the Parliamentary Secretary has visited and knows very well indeed, has a proud record of its own. In the shipbreaking yard we receive vessels which have given service, break them up and return them to new uses. The seats in the chairs on the terrace of the Houses of Parliament had their origin in that shipbreaking yard.

We also have on the river the shipyard which created the first Ark Royal in 1914 and today is adapting itself to the changes of the industry. The pilot age and port facilities are in themselves excellent. On the question of pilot age, I believe that the official figures clearly show that the number of vessels and tonnage handled in Blyth per pilot rank among the highest in the country.

Therefore, we are dealing with a port built on coal, that knows how to handle it as no other port in Britain or Europe is capable of doing, and which will continue to do so despite the changes in the coal trade that the passing years may bring. While I am concentrating on this port in my own constituency, I believe, nevertheless, that this also concerns other ports that have been excluded from the Rochdale Report.

A spokesman for the National Coal Board said earlier this year: The Port of Blyth is very important to us—not only for exports but for increasing coal shipments to the South. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, East (Commander Pursey) pointed out during the Second Reading of the Harbours Bill last week, Blyth is an example of a port where the National Coal Board has its own appliances and employs its own tippers and teemers.

We are now in the closing month of this year and perhaps I may be allowed to recall the severe winter we experienced. It was the supreme test for Blyth and its people. During the 15 weeks of intensive frost, from 3rd December, 1962, to 16th March this year, about 1,373,000 tons of coal were shipped from the port, a weekly average of about 91,595 tons. This was a drain on the economy of the port, and would have been on any other, small or large. It also had an effect on the country's economy because the efficiency of the port's performance reflected itself in the position in the South, the Midlands and elsewhere.

But the additional cost of emergency working and the provision of specialised equipment to deal with frozen coal had to be borne by the port itself. This is where we begin to see the defects of the Rochdale Report, because, while its recommendations will assist the large general ports, it leaves what are termed the smaller ports to justify themselves economically. This is causing concern to the communities of these small ports.

An editorial in last week's Blyth News summed up the views of that community in this matter. It said: There was no mention of the port in the Rochdale Committee Report. None either in the Hailsham Report, and that was even more distressing. It is difficult not to feel that the designation of the North-East some years ago, as 'The Land of the Three Rivers'—once again excluding Blyth—has had a detrimental influence on subsequent aid for development plans. Yet the port must play an important role in the economic revival of the area. It must keep pace with industrial developments which, thankfully, are now gathering pace in East Northumberland. A lot has been said recently about Government help for the North-East having to be linked with local initiative and determination, which is fair enough. Why, then, has there been so little apparent encouragement for progressive plans for a port which is of national as well as local importance? It is because of the changing pattern of the area, as well as the changing pattern of the requirements of the port itself, that we feel that the Ministry should look at this matter. The port of Blyth, as the editorial says, is essential to the national economy and to the whole of South-East Northumberland. The new town of Cramlington, the new industries that will one day move into Blyth and Seaton Delaval, coupled with expansion in Bedlington centred on one of the largest power stations in the country, gives a potential industrial area requiring a port in its own right.

Apart from these, facilities improved in that direction would relieve the traffic congestion on the roads leading to other parts of the area, and would, we believe, prove beneficial to the North-East as a whole, and of course, this is all tied up to a considerable extent with the national economy.

That, roughly, is the background pattern of the port and its development and its potentiality for the future, and that is why we feel it right at this stage to have a categorical assurance from the Ministry that no powers to prohibit harbour development will be exercised, because any wide powers of control could restrict the development of Blyth and other ports in Britain excluded from the Rochdale Report.

At the risk of taking the words out of their context—and I say this in advance to the Parliamentary Secretary—I was interested in his closing speech on the Second Reading of the Harbours Bill when he mentioned this question of the future development of ports and the information that we have of the areas that they supply and service.

The hon. Gentleman said in col. 1480: Neither we nor the ports themselves have nearly enough information at present about the flow of traffic through the ports, and only when this question has been collected and analysed will it be possible to begin to formulate a national ports plan. I do not think that any hon. Member could question the need to consider port development as a matter of national as well as local concern."—[Official Report, 5th December 1963; Vol. 685, c. 1480.] I feel that that seems to be the situation perfectly at the moment. Even now is possibly a little too early to fit the ports of Britain into a permanent, final pattern. Around many of the ports, such as I have described in relation to Blyth, new industrial changes are taking place. The position of the country and its industries is changing, and even the location of industry—as well as the type of industry—is subject to changes and fluctuations in the months and years that lie ahead.

We feel rather that encouragement should be given to assist in the development of general cargo shipments, with a detailed examination of the industrial requirements of the areas covered by these ports We live in a rapidly changing society, and about the only permanency that we have is the inherent and readily adaptable skill of our workpeople. In relation to the ports of Britain—and, again, I speak of the one of which I have most knowledge—this skill and "know-how" has been built up over generations.

Now is the time, when there is so much talk of ports large and small, and the development of harbours, and a national and local ports plan, that we ask for encouragement in this matter. Let this encouragement be given not only for Blyth's own betterment, but also for the betterment of the North-East as a whole, and of the nation's economy.

11.0 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne) on his good fortune in having had the opportunity this evening to explain so clearly the problems and prospects of the port of Blyth.

I should like, at the outset, to allay any fears which the hon. Member may have had that the National Ports Council will not be concerned with the smaller ports. It is true, as the hon. Member pointed out, that the smaller ports were excluded from the terms of reference of the Rochdale Committee. That was because the quickest way to make an assessment of the adequacy of our port facilities as a whole was to concentrate on the major ports. That has now been done and, as a result, we have set up the National Ports Council; but the Council's terms of reference are different from those of the Rochdale Committee. They are not limited to the major ports, but cover all ports, large and small. I can, therefore, assure the hon. Member that there will be no danger of Blyth, or any other small port, being overlooked by the Council.

Perhaps I should tell the hon. Member that I have studied with considerable interest the proposals for development which were recently submitted to my right hon. Friend's Department by the commissioners of the port of Blyth. That was done, as I expect the hon. Member knows, in response to a general request which we made to all ports to let us have their proposals so that we could send them all to the National Ports Council. Without prejudging the questions which would fall in due course to be considered by the Council, I can say at once that, personally, I was most impressed with the foresight and imagination which the commissioners have shown in drawing up these proposals and with the realistic approach which they have adopted towards the commercial prospects and financing of the proposed developments.

We have only just debated the effect which the Harbours Bill will have on port development, if it reaches the Statute Book in its present form. I know that in the course of that debate a number of hon. Members expressed concern lest the setting up of the Council should in any way inhibit the development of the small ports, as the hon. Member has just done. I can only hope that what my right hon. Friend and I said in the debate will in due course be studied and will allay some of those fears. The national ports plan will be concerned only with major schemes of national importance to try to ensure that major developments are carried out at the right place and at the right time and without any unnecessary duplication of effort or resources.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot define in precise terms this evening which schemes, or kinds of schemes, will require the Minister's approval, or be considered by the Council when making the national plan. That is obviously something which is still to be discussed and agreed; but it is fairly clear, just to give an example, that a proposal for, say, an oil terminal at a cost of about £10 million would count as a major development, whereas, in the other extreme, a provision for, say, oil fuel bunkering facilities at a cost of less than £100,000 would be hardly likely to do so.

I want to emphasise three things. First, the part which the small ports have to play must and will be taken into account when drawing up the national plan. Neither my right hon. Friend nor the Council is ignorant of the vital job which is done by the small ports, as has often been said. Nor have they any prejudice against them. If there is a major project in a small port, it will be considered on its merits and demerits and not more and not less sympathetically than a project in a big port.

Secondly, there is no intention to interfere with the normal development of the small ports. After all, for the most part development of the smaller ports will not affect the national plan in the sense of affecting the basic disposition of port facilities as a whole, and I repeat that there is no intention to inhibit local initiative and enterprise.

Thirdly, the Harbours Bill will benefit small as much as larger ports. The small ports, for example, will be able to apply for loans at Government interest rates. They will be freed from outdated restrictions on their ability to fix charges. Above all, the provisions that we have made in the Bill for the Minister to make harbour revision and empowerment orders will be especially valuable to ports which might be deterred from revising their existing powers or from seeking new ones by the cost of promoting a Private Bill.

From what I said earlier in my speech, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will realise that I cannot express any views on the merits of the proposals which the Blyth commissioners have submitted, and that I can deal with them only in the most general terms. It would not be right to try to do more than that at this stage.

One of the things they seek to achieve, and to which the hon. Gentleman referred, is an expansion of trade in general cargo. In particular, I understand that they hope to derive increased traffic from the new town of Cramlington. The Tyne, which already has extensive facilities for general cargo, is very close at hand—I suppose uncomfortably close at hand from the point of view of the Blyth Harbour Commissioners. I am not saying that Blyth will be unable to secure some of this trade—that will depend on the enterprise of the commissioners. I merely say that they would be unwise to count too much on it with the Tyne so close.

It may be that Blyth will have to continue to depend primarily on its coal trade, as it has done in the past. I know there has been anxiety that the trade may decline from its present level of about 5 million tons a year to 3 million tons in 1965. We understand, however, from the National Coal Board that its general estimate is that the minimum will not fall below 4 million tons, at any rate for the next few years. Although this is still quite a large reduction, I hope that what is left will enable the port to continue to pay its way.

I understand that a working party of the Coal Board, the Railways Board, and the Blyth Harbour Commissioners, is currently considering plans for general modernisation and for concentration of the coaling facilities. In the proposals that we have received from the commissioners I see that they envisage the expenditure of several million pounds. What development eventually takes place must obviously depend on what the working party decides. I only say that, as with any other major development, it is vital that plans for development should be closely linked with the needs of industry itself, and I am sure that the Commissioners are well aware of this fact.

Finally, I wondered whether the hon. Gentleman might have been concerned that the Government's plans for regional development in the North-East might have an adverse effect on development districts like Blyth which are not included in the growth area, but in that respect perhaps I can assure him, and, I hope, his constituents, by repeating what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade said last week during the debate on regional development. He said: I know that there are hon. Members whose constituencies lie outside the growth zone in the North-East who are anxious about the prospects for employment in them, and I ask them to recognise two things when we examine this concept. The first is that the extra effort which we are putting into the growth zone will be beneficial to the whole region. The prosperity which is created in it will undoubtedly spread outwards to the surrounding places in the same area and region. The second is that the White Paper takes nothing away from places outside the growth zones which they have already…they have all the inducements which are available to the development districts. The development districts will continue to enjoy the benefits of free depreciation and assistance under the Local Employment Acts."—[Official Report, 3rd December 1963; Vol. 685, c. 989.] I hope that that goes some way to reassuring the hon. Gentleman that the disadvantages he may feel from the fact that Blyth lies outside the growth zone will not damage the prospects of the port. When the national ports plan is formulated, the special needs of the development districts will be kept very much in mind. There will be a continuous and detailed interchange of views between the National Ports Council and my right hon. Friend. The Ministry of Transport will, naturally, keep the Council advised on all the Government plans which need to be taken into account in drawing up the national plan or in considering individual schemes.

I hope that what I have said tonight will go some way in reassuring the hon. Member and everyone concerned with the future of the smaller ports that what we are doing to implement the Rochdale Report should be only to their advantage.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eleven o'clock