HC Deb 07 December 1964 vol 703 cc1284-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.mdash;[Mr. Fitch.]

2.28 a.m.

Sir Neill Cooper-Key (Hastings)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the subject of the economic future of the South Coast resorts. The House will recollect that a few months ago the Conservative Administration published the Report on the South East Study. This study outlined a plan to meet the problem of an increased population in the area of about 3½ million by 1981. Although it covered a large area, from the Wash to west of Southampton, including the Greater London area, the study contained proposals which affected two or three of the narrower districts of East Coast resorts.

During the election the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) said that a Labour Government would scrap this survey. Later it has been remarked that the Government have rejected the survey on the ground that it was defeatist. The right hon. Gentleman, now First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, in a debate on 4th November, had some stern things to say about this South East Survey, when outlining in general his plans for regional councils.

These statements and reports of speeches have caused many of us in this House, in local authorities and in the constituencies considerable concern. We do not want nationalisation, State enterprise, direction of labour or control of movements in the coastal areas. They are not necessary for our prosperity. There is no doubt that the South Coast towns have been more prosperous under a Tory Administration than ever before. Local authorities have been doing and are doing a first-class job. It was, however, because the local authorities saw in this Conservative survey a faster improvement that they welcomed the proposals which are acceptable both as a right and a practical philosophy.

The question which is now exercising us is to what extent a Socialist Government will encourage and support our economic growth in the future. My first question tonight, therefore, is to seek from the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs an indication of the Government's attitude to the problem of the South Coast resorts and the part that they think these areas can play in the future towards the national economy. What are the problems of these areas? Of all the highly-populated areas in the country these towns have not shared in the general post-war boom. They have not, in fact, recovered from the effects of the war when populations were compulsorily evacuated, when there was large-scale bomb damage and when holidays were, of course, non-existent. Shortages, rationing, delays in re-equipment of hotels and the development of local amenities all left these districts behind the rest of the country.

For many years the holiday season has been limited to three months in the year, and local trades and individuals have found it very hard indeed to obtain an adequate income from this industry. Because of lack of openings a substantial proportion of young people have tended to leave these towns for employment elsewhere. Their place has been taken by elderly retired residents to whom the appeal of a seaside resort is strong. But as a result of this, the proportion over the age of 65 has now become very high. In my constituency of Hastings, for instance, there is a percentage of 24.2 per cent. over this age compared with a national average of 11.9 per cent.

A solution could still be found by a wider transfer of light industries to these areas. In recent years it has been the policy, with some exceptions, to limit the number of factories and light industries by the granting of industrial development certificates. Many local authorities have been successful in these larger projects and we have, for instance, in my constituency of Hastings provided employment in this way for over 2,000 people in recent years. We should like to see these I.D.Cs provided on a more general basis.

At this point I should like to draw attention to the large and increasing source of manpower in these areas of people of early retirement age. Men and women with special talents and adequate energies, if not for actual hotel work, would be useful in clerical and alternative administrative employment. Much could be done to encourage private enterprise and to direct Whitehall Departments to remove some of their sections to these areas where they would find trained reinforcements and probably accommodation for their office staffs at economic rates.

The Government could do much directly to assist these areas by reviving our domestic holiday industry. The season could be prolonged. The former President of the Board of Trade produced a paper some months ago with that in view. Tourism is an important source of imports. European Administrations are developing a highly competitive attitude in subsidising their hotel industry, and here much could be done by fiscal means through generous tax allowances for hotel buildings and equipment.

Train services to these areas could be consideraly improved, and perhaps the best boost locally would be to transfer some of the burden of expenditure from local rates to the Exchequer. The acceptance by the President of the Board of Trade and the Economic Secretary of these problems and their solution would still fall short in our view of the wider co-ordinated plan which the Conservative Administration registered in their survey. This provided to a substantial degree for a faster improvement generally in the economic growth of our coastal resorts. In particular in the case of Hastings there was provision for some 30,000 additional people to be removed from the Metropolitan area and elsewhere. This would have quickly improved the economic conditions in the coastal districts.

It would also have improved quickly the imbalance to which I referred earlier in the towns and rural areas. There would be a better chance of youngsters finding employment locally after being well educated in the district, and the millions being spent under enlightened planning on protecting the countryside and local amenities, on new homes, new offices and new employment would make a quicker and more emphatic contribution to the national economy.

There is an impression that the present Government do not entertain much sympathy or interest in the conditions or the future of the coastal areas in the South. I must admit that in the post-war years we did not receive much encouragement or consideration from the then Socialist Administration. Some of the views recently expressed by Labour spokesmen do little to reassure us. But I must warn the Minister that plans now approved for the improvements in schools, hospitals and roads must not be put on one side.

We are supporting in general the Beeching approach to railway transport services. In this connection the last Government pledged that no closures would be made unless an adequate and effective alternative service could be provided. I should like to hear that pledge repeated by the Joint Under-Secretary tonight. These are some of the points which I am glad to have the opportunity of putting to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that in reply he will be able to outline Government policy on the special problems of this area.

2.40 a.m.

Mr. Dennis Hobden (Brighton, Kemptown)

I thought it a pity that the hon. Member for Hastings (Sir N. Cooper-Key) approached this subject from a political standpoint because, if there is one issue which we ought to be able to tackle on a non-political basis in the House, it is the position of our seaside resorts and the part they play in our country's economy and life. It seemed to me that the hon. Gentleman wanted his argument both ways. In one breath, he said that the seaside towns were more prosperous under the Conservatives, and in the next he said that they had not shared in the post-war boom.

I shall not discuss the merits or demerits of what was done in the past 13 years because I wish to look to the future of our seaside resorts. The three factors which immediately come to mind in this connection—I put them not necessarily in order of priority—are the rating revaluation, seasonal employment and unemployment, and the need for more industry in our seaside resorts to take up the slack in the off-peak periods.

The effect of the revaluation on the people of Brighton has been quite grievous, for several reasons. It has fallen extremely heavily on the elderly people who have come to retire in the town, of whom we have a large proportion, because they are living on small fixed incomes, and it has fallen heavily also on those who are struggling to buy their own homes on mortgage and at the same time trying to raise a family. The result of all this on the local authorities, which are aware of the effects of the revaluation, is that they tend to hold back on many schemes which they have in the pipeline and which ought to be brought forward for amenities to attract more people to the seaside resorts. The local authorities have to have regard to the purchasing power of their own people and the way it has been reduced by revaluation. It should be remembered that it was not a Labour Government who introduced the revaluation, and, moreover, the Rating (Interim Relief) Act did virtually nothing to give relief to these particular people.

With the advent of a Labour Government, we should look afresh at the problems of our seaside resorts. Tourism is rapidly becoming one of the biggest businesses in the country and it is also a very lucrative dollar earner. We must consider these matters in relation to the nation's economy and the economy of the resorts themselves. Not only does a seaside resort have to supply the normal amenities which any decent town gives to its inhabitants, but it has also to embark on large expenditure for attractions which will make people from both home and overseas come to it.

I hope that the Government will approach these questions as many countries abroad do. One example which comes to mind is the Irish Tourist Board, which provides loans at low rates of interest so that tourist resorts may build swimming baths and even hotels and modern promenades. We must consider treating our resorts in the same way. I fully support what the hon. Gentleman said about tax reliefs. I understand that the catering and hotel trade is the only one in the country which receives no tax relief in respect of the tools of its trade.

We must also attract more industry. Given all these things—a revision of the rating system, which I hope the Government will get down to, and a supply of light and heavy industy and subsidies to provide modem attractions, there is no reason why prosperity should not be maintained and the seaside resorts hold their own with any in the world and become the playgrounds of our people.

2.45 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs (Mr. William Rodgers)

I am grateful even at this late hour, when the South Coast resorts which we are discussing have probably gone to sleep, for the opportunity of replying to this short debate on an important subject. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Hastings (Sir N. Cooper-Key) for raising the question and for emphasising in the way he has done the distinctive character of the South Coast resorts and the need to look at their requirements within the total context of our regional planning. I am also delighted that he has appreciated that regional planning is not simply something for one part of Britain alone, more generally for those parts which saw the Industrial Revolution of 100 years ago. Regional planning is something in which all parts of Britain must take part and to which all parts of Britain can contribute.

What are the ways in which the South Coast resorts are distinctive? It seems to me that there are two main features from an economic planning point of view, and both of them have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Hastings and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Hobden). First, there is the age structure; secondly, there is the employment structure; thirdly, there is the annual cycle of employment and unemployment.

With regard to the age structure, it is interesting that, as the hon. Member for Hastings said, whereas the national average of numbers of the population over 60 is 12 per cent., in Hastings it is 24 per cent. and in the constituency of my hon. Friend it is 18 per cent., which is 50 per cent. above the national average. Nor has Hastings the highest figure. In Bexhill the percentage is as high as 31, and also in Worthing.

The truth is that these towns, largely because of the facilities they provide and their climate and amenities, have attracted and retained a high proportion of elderly people. The point made by the hon. Member for Hastings about providing facilities for employment for the elderly is very interesting. I think he will agree that a great deal more research must be done about finding the sort of employment to which elderly people can adjust and which they will find suited to their ability and physical resources at that age. But the point about the age structure is most important when we consider the future of the resorts.

Secondly, there is employment. Here there are a number of features. I should like to draw attention briefly to two. First, there is the very high percentage of service industries in the coastal towns. The national average is 57 per cent., but in Hastings it is 77.3 per cent. and in Brighton 76.5 per cent. As we see, the percentage of service industries is high. So we know, as both hon. Members have pointed out, that the percentage of manufacturing industry, though rising, is still unusually small.

The second feature about employment is one which follows from what I have said about the age structure of the resorts, that there is a high percentage of elderly people among the registered unemployed. It is true for Bexhill, for example, that nearly 60 per cent. of the registered unemployed are over 60.

Thirdly—this is really the most important feature of the employment and unemployment pattern and the one with which most people are familiar—there is the annual cycle of employment and unemployment with high or relatively high unemployment in January and low unemployment in the summer months.

This year in Hastings, unemployment in January was 3.5 per cent. in July it was 1.5 per cent. In Brighton in January it was 3.5 per cent. and in July 2 per cent. It is a very difficult problem to find a means of providing employment for those who have jobs to occupy them in summer because of the tourist industry but, because these are seaside resorts, find there are not jobs for them in winter.

I should make it plain that, whereas we recognise a problem and one with which we want to deal, we must, as both hon. Members will agree, see it in the total perspective of the unemployment problem in the country as a whole. It is only fair to say and important to make plain that, serious though unemployment is during winter in South Coast resorts, it is, of course, at most times of the year only a small percentage of the unemployment we find in other parts of the country.

It is even interesting to note that amongst seaside resorts, unemployment in winter tends to be higher away from the south coast. In Clacton in January it was 4.8 per cent., in Blackpool 5.9 per cent. and in Scarborough 6.1 per cent. These are resorts which maintain during the summer a level of unemployment about the same as that in South Coast towns.

A point which deserves looking into is the fact that the greater disequilibrium in these other towns shows that there is a total problem which needs close examination, not only to reduce it in Clacton, Blackpool and Scarborough but also to see whether we can reduce it in South Coast resorts, although the problem may be less there.

The hon. Member for Hastings raised a number of specific points with which I will deal briefly. He asked about the South East Study. The Government are taking a fresh look at it. It would be wrong to anticipate their conclusions. On the other hand, there must be no delay in dealing with the very urgent problem of London housing. However, it will be possible to take a fresh look at the study and make sure that we get the answers right and yet at the same time deal with that part of the problem which can be neglected no longer. We are fully aware of the point the hon. Member made about the study, suggesting that there is considerable scope for expansion in Hastings, amongst other towns.

The hon. Member also referred to offices, which were also mentioned in the study. As he knows, the Accounts Division of the Ministry of Public Building and Works is going to Hastings and this is likely to provide a considerable amount of employment there. It is not only a matter of people going to Hastings to work. New office accommodation attracts employment in the town itself. Here again we are fully aware of the generator effect of office employment. It provides far more employment than simply for the people who work in the offices constructed.

In this respect, although the hon. Member was a little sceptical about some of the statements of my right hon. Friend, or attributed to him, he will agree that the standstill in office development in London announced on 4th November is a step in the right direction. It may well be that as a result of that, there will be a further development of office accommodation in Hastings as well as in parts of the country further away.

Then there is the question of industrial development certificates. The hon. Member for Hastings will appreciate the difficulty when one looks at the inequalities of employment in other parts of the country, but it should be known that in the last sixteen years only three rejections of industrial development certificates have been sustained. Eighteen applications have been approved, involving floor space of 400,000 sq. ft. and an employment potential of 1,700 workers. I am not saying that this is enough, and I have tried to be frank in placing the problem in a national context, but we can rejoice that there is more manufacturing employment in the area. Granted the other problems and a proper order of priorities, it may well be that more will be done over a period.

Some of the fears which people properly had about employment locally have not been wholly sustained. The closing of the railway workshops at Lancing, for example, caused a genuine and proper fear, but it appears that the hardship has been much less than was expected; and as both hon. Members will know, the site has been acquired by the Sussex County Council for continued industrial use.

We recognise the importance of the tourist industry. This is something which has grown and ought to continue to grow. In the last year, an increasing number of overseas visitors came to Hastings. In 1963, there were 210,000 staying visitors and 800,000 day visitors. This may not be as many people as Hastings would like, but it is a significant number and there is every prospect that it will be maintained and, possibly, increased.

It may be that some of our holiday resorts in Britain still fall rather short of paradise. If this is so, no doubt it is something which they themselves are anxious to remedy. We recognise, however, that they deserve a lively and prosperous future, and the Government will do all they can to make sure that they achieve that.

There are problems of reconciling amenity to industrial development. In holiday resorts which exist mainly for residential and recreational purposes, our wish, with which I am sure both hon. Members would agree, is to preserve some of their present character while providing better employment prospects. This I think we can do. Therefore, I do not think that the hon. Member for Hastings, who has raised this matter on the Adjournment and to whom I am again grateful, should feel any doubt. There will be no neglect from the present Government of the seaside resorts and we shall approach their future in no doctrinaire spirit.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o'clock a.m.