HC Deb 19 March 1964 vol 691 cc1772-88

12.5 a.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Perhaps I can do something to put the speech which we have just heard into proper perspective for certain hon. Members. From some of the things that are said in this House, one would sometimes imagine that the Midlands was a kind of paradise where all was sweetness and life, with plenty of jobs available, efficiency, competency, and so on. I am sorry to have to disillusion some hon. Members. The tale which I have to tell under the heading of "The Swynnerton story" is a very sorry one. It is a legend of frustration and muddle, of extraordinary incompetence in high places and quite exceptional patience amongst the people of Staffordshire and the West Midlands. It is a seven years' saga of wasted opportunities for employment and development and some of the things that the House has just been discussing which have been thrown away over a period of nearly seven years. The will still does not exist to seize these opportunities.

Swynnerton is a beautiful village in the centre of Staffordshire. This village lies in the constituency of Stafford and Stone. It has been part of my duty over a period of many years to notify the right hon. Gentleman who is Secretary of State for Air, who represents the constituency of Stafford and Stone in this House, that it was my intention to raise questions connected with Swynnerton, because they affected a considerable area and a large number of people outside the constituency of Stafford and Stone.

When I notified Mr. Speaker and the Departments concerned that I intended to raise this subject tonight, I notified the Secretary of State for Air, in whose constituency Swynnerton lies. I know that he would have been present tonight were it not for the fact that his official duties required him to attend an engagement elsewhere. I have no idea what opinions he would have expressed on the Swynnerton story had he the freedom to express them. For a long period, the right hon. Gentleman has suffered under the disability of being unable to express himself on this subject. We hope shortly to be able to liberate him from that position and enable him to express himself more freely, having cast aside the burdens of office. I know, however, that had it been possible, the right hon. Gentleman would have been here tonight to listen to this debate.

The problem which I am presenting affects a considerable part of the County of Staffordshire and a wide area. It is a problem that has caused a high degree of frustration for many years in the constituency which I represent. It dates back to the period of the war.

I shall not go into great detail on the history of the construction of the Royal Ordnance factory in Swynnerton in the Second World War. It so happened that the powers-that-be decided that because of certain natural features of this beautiful village in Central Staffordshire in the early days of the Second World War, it was a suitable site for a large ordnance factory. The factory was constructed with remarkable speed and was. completed in 1940. I believe that a public investment of £13 million was made in the construction of the Royal Ordnance factory on this site, with the remarkable natural camouflage which existed in the area.

At the peak of the war this factory in the heart of the Staffordshire countryside employed a total of 25,000 workers. It made a most important contribution as an arsenal of the weapons of war to victory over the Nazis in 1945. Workers from all over Staffordshire were drawn to it and underwent the hazards and dangers of working on the site, where considerable development had taken place with large-scale concrete aprons, the provision of all kinds of services, very large underground storage, and so on, as a result of the considerable public investment. There is no doubt that the contribution of the Swynnerton factory to the means of victory was very considerable.

In 1945 all of us who represented parts of Staffordshire recognised that, naturally, there would be a rundown of the factory. I shall not produce all the records tonight, but early on we were exerting pressure in the House for the conversion of the factory to civil work because of the danger and problem of redundancy and unemployment through the rundown. It was a continuing problem from 1945 to 1947. As employment in the factory fell, many people moved from the area. A certain degree of unemployment developed in North Staffordshire because of the decrease in employment opportunities at the factory.

Up to 1956, when the then Minister of Supply undertook a general review of arms work at the Royal Ordnance factories and came to certain con- clusions, many of us had been pressing the Government to declare what would be the future of the site. We were constantly assured that some employment opportunities would be provided. Finally, in July, 1957, the then Minister of Supply announced that the Government had decided completely to close the factory.

Many problems arose out of that, involving the transfer of a number of people to other areas and spheres of employment. But in the summer of 1957 we were mainly concerned with a decision about the future of the site and the future use of the facilities provided by the considerable investment of public money during the war on services, making the site accessible, on storage facilities, hostels, sewerage, water supplies, roads and so on. We were concerned to get as soon as possible a decision which would provide for the people in North Staffordshire future opportunities of employment in civil work arising from this public investment. But as the labour force dispersed and ran down and this factory began to empty, all that was fed to us was a diet of rumours—rumours abounding. Rumours have persisted for nearly seven years. We have heard nothing but rumours. There has been no decision, no plan, no definite proposal.

There were rumours that the site was to be taken over by Staffordshire County Council for housing. There were rumours that it would be used for Birmingham's overspill. It was rumoured that it might be converted, that it might be used as a satellite town, and that it would be an industrial estate to help deal with the problems of the Black Country. At one time there was a rumour that it would be converted into a show ground for the Royal Agricultural Society. That persisted for some time until denied by the R.A.S. itself.

Some of the local authorities put up a proposition that the site should be converted into a caravan site. That too, ran for some time. In January, 1960, the British Motor Corporation was granted by the Board of Trade a permit to establish a factory on part of the site to provide employment. Shortly afterwards, however, other Birmingham in- dustrialists who applied for industrial development certificates were choked off and told that the Government were not interested and that the whole thing was being dealt with elsewhere.

Where is it being dealt with? That is one of our problems. In July 1957, the Minister of Supply announced that the factory would be closed, throwing thousands out of work, and leaving derelict a highly developed site in which millions of pounds of public money had been invested. One of our problems was to discover how this matter was to be considered. It was the baby, allegedly, of many different Departments. The Ministry of Supply was the occupier when the factory was closed; the Board of Trade was concerned if there was to be civil engineering development; early in the story the Ministry of Housing and Local Government came into the picture because it wished the site to be discussed as a potential satellite town or as a possible place for overspill from Birmingham.

Through 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1963 we asked literally scores of questions in this House. The local authorities were also asking questions. We all wanted to know what was happening. There was speculation and great strain at times. One of the local authorities would accuse another of putting forward some proposition which would be disputed and speedily denied. But we could never find out exactly what was happening.

The local planning authority was the Staffordshire County Council. It was obviously primarily concerned, and quite rightly so, to consult the local authorities immediately concerned, the Stone Urban and Rural District Councils. But of course a large number of people who had found employment at this R.O.F. during the war and immediately afterwards came from North Staffordshire, from Stoke-on-Trent, from Newcastle-under-Lyme, from the constituency of Leek, and the areas thereabouts. Those were the districts which were most closely affected, and they are anxious that the site should be used for the benefit of the people of North Staffordshire.

It seems extraordinary that for seven years that site was virtually sterilised by the Government kicking Swynnerton like a football from department to department. It is an extraordinary story of passing the buck from one department to another, and of steadily alienating those who might have been concerned with doing some constructive work.

Leaders of industrial firms who, in 1957, 1958, or 1959, might have offered to provide some employment were choked off. They were browned off because of the delays, the evasive answers, and so on. The local authorities concerned became frustrated, and people in the area were amazed at the length of time that it was taking to arrive at a decision on the matter.

We realise the complex problems that have to be considered by the local authorities concerned and by the Government when a site of this character is being considered, but that is no reason for seven years of procrastination. If that is the sort of thing that happens when the creation of a new town is being considered, or when the overspill problem is being dealt with, some drastic changes are needed.

What was the aim of this whole business? In July 1957 the Minister of Supply announced the closure of the R.O.F., thereby throwing thousands of people out of work. Shortly afterwards consideration of the future of the site was passed to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in relation to the problem of overspill and development in the West Midlands. That was in 1958. I shall not bother about the date. The Parliamentary Secretary is present and he can tell us that.

The fact is that from shortly after the Government decided to close this R.O.F., until 14th January of this year, the site was sterilised. All development on it was shelved. Nothing could be done because the matter was under consideration in secret session between the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the local authorities.

The upshot of that consideration was a statement by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in this House on 14th January, 1964, when he said: … I have concluded that it would not be desirable to propose using or earmarking this site for any major development of the kind that would depend on the issue of industrial development certificates, or the provision on a substantial scale of new housing and community services."—[OFFICIAl REPORT, 14th January, 1964 Vol. 687, c. 11.] It took the Ministry of Housing and Local Government nearly seven years to arrive at that conclusion, during which time this site remained unused. The possibilities of employment have been neglected; the possibilities of attracting people to the site have been gravely d

    ninished, and the local authorities concerned have been tremendously frustrated. What happened in the end" The Ministry of Supply ceased to exist, so the buck was passed to the War Office. The War Office, inheriting the possessions of the former Ministry of Supply, had the 700 acres of the Swynnerton site passed back to it early in 1964, after the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had spent nearly six years sterilising the site through its discussions. Now the War Office is starting new discussions with the local authorities on what should be done with the site.

    Still, in early 1964, we are discussing the same question as was raised before the closure of the factory in 1957, as well as immediately afterwards: what will be the future of the facilities—the underground storage; the concrete aprons, the factory space and the hostels on the Swynnerton site? There are more than 700 acres on the site. Services are available as a result of millions of pounds' worth of public investment in the Second World War. The site is accessable from a wide area. Thousands of workers used to go there daily during the Second World War and after the war, as long as it continued as an arsenal for the Armed Forces.

    It is generally agreed that there is a need for more industry in this area, and for more diversification. Certainly that is agreed among the representatives of North Staffordshire in the House, and among most of the local authorities, and it is demonstrated by certain figures. In North Staffordshire we have two main industries—pottery and coalmining. For a considerable period the labour force in the pottery industry has been contracting. A process of rationalisation and streamlining has been going on. As for coalmining—there is little recruitment in the locality, because we are receiving recruits from the dying coalfields in other parts of the country. This is a deliberate policy, which in- volves many difficulties, especially in respect of housing in North Staffordshire, but it is an accepted policy that we should assist the dying areas in Wales, Scotland and the North-East coast. We receive mineworkers from those areas rather than recruit and train new mineworkers in the locality.

    This means that the opportunities for employment in this principal industry are diminished. We who know the area of North Staffordshire have long taken the view that we need a greater diversity of industrial opportunity in the area. At present there are 3,000 unemployed in Stoke-on-Trent. There are more than 4,000 unemployed in the North Staffordshire district comprising Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Kidsgrove—represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies)—and Market Drayton. Of these, we have over 1,000 citizens unemployed who are disabled persons.

    This is a considerable and special problem in North Staffordshire, as in other mining districts, where there is a fairly large corps of disabled workers, mine workers who have unfortunately contracted pneumoconiosis or had accidents in the pits, pottery workers who are disabled, and who cannot find means of employment. I criticise the employers in North Staffordshire for many things, but I do not criticise them for not employing a proper quota of disabled workers. They employ a good quota of disabled workers, but the fact is that there is unfortunately an increasing number of persons in this part of the West Midlands who are disabled in industry and who need special opportunities of employment. The figures I have here and which were in HANSARD yesterday show the situation in these districts, Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme, which I represent, Market Drayton, Kidsgrove and Stone, and they show that more than 1,000 disabled workers are unemployed in those districts at the moment.

    If so much of those seven years had not been wasted, if there had not been so much of this saga of frustration and muddle about Swynnerton, not so many of those people would have been in the poor state in which they are today. This site presents a very good opportunity for increasing industrial diversity in Stafford- shire, for special employment opportunities, let us say, for disabled workers. I would to God we had a Government who would themselves initiate opportunities on a site like this, specially for disabled workers, or certain types of workers who are unemployed, but it is really a scandalous state of affairs that this story has gone on for so long. It is quite extraordinary that we have been so patient as to allow a site of this kind to be so neglected, to be kicked around in this way, not to be used for the benefit of the people. In this country we cannot afford such wastage of time and space. We need to have the courage to plan, and the courage to plan involves a time for decision, and using opportunities.

    I now ask, at this very late hour, after this extraordinary wastage which has taken place, that a decision will speedily be taken to use this developed site for the benefit of those who need employment, and those who need homes, in the North Staffordshire area as a whole, and that no further time will be taken by such a story of bureaucracy run mad as I have had to tell tonight.

    12.35 a.m.

    Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

    There is no need to reiterate the eloquent plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler), but for the sake of the record I point out that he and I and hon. Members from other North Staffordshire constituencies have visited this site. They include the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. H. Fraser), who is a member of the Government. In 1939 £13 million was spent on it and at today's values that would be about £30 million or more. Excellent roads and railway approaches were made.

    At one time my hon. Friend and I visited the massive hostels where men and women gave their lives and limbs to work in the establishment were living. A great saga could be written about the thousands who lost limbs or fingers and who later were in those hotels. When this place which is in a beautiful environment closed I asked that, with its roads, sewers and first-class drainage, it should be used for some constructive object. Some of the hostels were used as a training college for teachers after the war, and there was also a training college there for Post Office engineers.

    Now industry is sterilised, and the facts stand out like a sore thumb for every local authority in the county to see. All we hear is rumour; no constructive proposals are made. At one time we thought that a new town was to be made there. How right my hon. Friend was when he said that the area needs diversification of industry! Those of us who live in mining and pottery areas in dirt and grime know the price that has to be paid in chest diseases, bronchitis, pneumoconiosis and emphysema. New industries could be brought to the area to provide jobs for the green card unemployed—the green card warriors who are disabled and no longer able to take part in the bitter struggle at the coal face or in the pottery industry. Why has something not been done? At one time we were told that Birmingham and some of the Black Country towns were to expand by overspill to this area. There have been ideas for factories and caravan sites, yet no planning authority seems to have been taken into the confidence of the Government.

    It is a late hour and I know how assiduous is the Parliamentary Secretary. We often see him answering debates late at night. I hope that he will not take anything I say as a reflection on him or his department, but I had hoped that a representative of the Board of Trade or the War Department would be present to answer this debate. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say that he has consulted his hon. Friends in those departments and that he is able to give a constructive answer about new industries coming to the area.

    The case has been excellently made by my hon. Friend. This is a great area of Britain which needs planning and where assets are wasted. There has been talk in North Staffordshire about a new county area and talk about planning. On this site there is a railway siding, electrification of the railway has been carried out right from London to Swynnerton. New industry could be encouraged to go there. An arm of the M6 extends to this beautiful village. This wonderful road, which is an asset to British Transport, goes through this lovely area and gives Swynnerton and the surrounding countryside an even greater constructive importance.

    I hope that commonsense will prevail and that, when considering the best way to spend the taxpayers' money, the Government will take another look at Swynnerton and assure us that in the near future constructive plans will be brought forward for the area so that it will become either a new town or have new industries attracted to it. I need not speak further on this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has performed a valuable service in calling attention to this matter and has expressed the case admirably. I hope that the Minister will have something worthwhile to say.

    12.42 a.m.

    The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)

    I fully appreciate that it is frustrating to observe a large area of land laid out with services, buildings and so on apparently lying idle and probably an eyesore to the neighbourhood. One is constantly aware that that type of installation represents a considerable public investment of the past. But many of the arguments that have been deployed tonight about sterilisation, waste, the availability of services, access to industrial areas and so on apply to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of former Service and ordnance sites throughout the country which the exigencies of war placed in positions which are not necessarily suitable for civilian industry in times of peace.

    The problem of Swynnerton has been, to some extent, the consideration of the area as a possible site for a new town to meet the great problem of the expanding and overflowing population of Birmingham. In the initial stages, certainly since 1958, this was the main consideration. But I would remind the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) that owing to the use for which this area was originally put—the making of explosives—in the interests of public safety there had to be a period of what I believe is called "decontamination," which I have always associated with chemical warfare rather than the other variety, to ensure that the area was safe.

    I understand that it was not until 1961 that that assurance could be given. It was at that time that my right hon. Friend the former Minister of Housing announced that in the immediate plans for meeting the problem of Birmingham's overspill, Swynnerton had no place, because Dawley had been selected.

    In the next stage, one had to look at Birmingham's problem in a slightly different context, because it was becoming more and more obvious that the right priority, and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme asked us to state our priorities, was for industry that was reasonably mobile—I believe the technicians use the awful term "footloose"—to be steered as far as possible to the North-East, Central Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of Wales where the unemployment problem, despite what the hon. Member may say, is worse because of the general structure of the older basic industries in those parts.

    I do not believe that either hon. Member would challenge the fact that that is the right priority for the movement of industry on a large scale. Neither would they challenge that an area of what I am told is over 700 acres—I think that it was originally 900 acres, but some of it was sold to the B.M.C. for development, as has been mentioned—must clearly be considered in terms of development on a substantial scale. I hope that they will agree that development on such a scale would not be suitable for the sort of figures mentioned, let alone the thousand disabled people—

    Mr. Swingler

    If the Government thought at that time, as is alleged, that all new indsutry should be channelled to the North-East or other places, why did they not rip up the concrete aprons, and revert to agriculture? This was an agricultural place, and that could have been done four years ago, but the decision has not even yet been taken. They have not had the courage to do that, if that was the argument. The Government have dilly-dallied all this time, not taking the decision that the site should not be developed for civil industry, but also not taking a decision that it should be allowed to revert to agriculture if it was thought that industry should go elsewhere.

    Mr. Corfield

    With due respect to the hon. Member, I am coming to that side of the story. I hope that he will accept that the employment position in this part would not, in itself, justify full-scale industry—and the hon. Member directed a good part of his argument to industrial development on this site as a whole. Therefore, the concept of this as an industrial site must be looked at in terms of a large-scale development. This, as I explained earlier, was the original idea in considering the site as the nucleus of a new town, because for new town purposes such an acreage as 700 or 800 would have to be expanded very substantially.

    Even when Dawley was selected as the site of the new town for Birmingham nobody imagined that that had solved the whole of Birmingham's problem or that of the Midlands with regard to overspill housing and the movement of industry to match the people moving into the houses. It was clear that the bulk of the mobile industry should be elsewhere. With that and other considerations in mind, when a full survey had been carried out it was concluded that the needs of Birmingham could be better met in another way. This will be partly by more building on the periphery of the city and partly by another new town at Redditch, the inquiry into which was completed recently. Such development would be closer to Birmingham and less dependent upon moving industry from other parts of the country.

    While these investigations were going on and a study of the real needs of Birmingham was being made, Swynnerton had to remain at least a possibility if not a probability. It would have been lack of wisdom and foresight carried to an extreme degree to have scrapped this installation owned by the Government, in the sense of getting rid of it or destroying it, before it was certain that it should not fulfil this immensely useful purpose in meeting the needs of Birmingham. Despite the fact that the needs of Birmingham in the next 10 to 15 years look like being solved elsewhere, nobody would be foolish enough to say that in an area like this there may not be a greater need in 15 to 25 years. I am sure, however, that the hon. Member will agree that when such a stage of forward planning is reached one cannot go on holding an area of this size in reserve.

    I agree that part of it no doubt could be returned to agriculture. Afforestation has been mentioned. This would probably be more economic in the short term because pit is immensely costly to destroy these roadways sufficiently to enable the land to be returned to agriculture on a profitable basis in a short time. Now that it has been decided—and it was only decided when my right hon. Friend made the announcement in January last—that Swynnerton can be ruled out for new town purposes the problem goes back, so to speak, to the local planning authority which will be given every assistance it requires by my Department. I have no doubt that the War Office and the planning authority between them will decide upon a use in the not too distant future which will meet many of the things that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme wants.

    Mr. Harold Davies

    Afforestation has been mentioned. What grants would be available for that development? Would the area be looked upon as a great experimental area not only for the conifer but the deciduous branch of that industry?

    Mr. Swingler

    Is the Parliamentary Secretary saying that he regards 6½ years as a fairly reasonable time for considering how to use a site of 700 acres? We would like to know, as a matter of his Department's policy. We appreciate the complexity of many of these issues. The hon. Gentleman now says that the matter has been passed to the local planning authority, which must be fed up after having been discussing it for six years. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that six years is quite a reasonable time for his Ministry in its wisdom to investigate and consider the possibilities while meantime the site lies unused, idle and going derelict?

    Mr. Corfield

    The hon. Member knows that on the face of it I will agree with him but he must remember the rider that, as my right hon. Friend has said over and over again in the House, it was only in recent years, as compared with the 1954–55 period, that the Registrar General had announced that we were facing a really dramatic expansion of the population and an even more dramatic expansion of the number of houses required for a given size of population. This, of course, makes a basic difference to the whole concept of planning in an expanding area like the Midlands as compared with a concept of planning based on a relatively static population. Quite obviously, after that period——

    Mr. Swingler

    Is the Parliamentary Secretary saying that his Ministry learned about the needs of Birmingham overspill only after 1958? I appreciate that the Department has no special kind of crystal ball, but it is not good enough to say to us in North Staffordshire that, after all the time that this land was sterilised, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government only then got itself informed about the pressure of population. That must be nonsense

    Mr. Corfield

    I think that the hon. Gentleman is deliberately misinterpreting what I am saying. The scale became bigger and, therefore, it was sensible to have a broader and more detailed look at the matter. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in studying the real needs of Birmingham, it was not simply a matter of sitting down in the office in Whitehall. There was also the need to have very close consultation, first, with the Birmingham City Corporation itself and, second, with the various counties in the neighbourhood where there might be more suitable alternative sites. This was not something that could be done in months, though I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that one would have hoped it could be done more quickly than in six years.

    Nevertheless, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, having decided on Dawley and then having discussed a variety of alternatives for Birmingham we should have been wrong to give up this area until it was certain that it would not be needed. This project, if developed, would affect the whole of the area not for six or seven years but for two, three or four generations. Clearly, it is important that everything should be taken into account before Crown property of this kind is disposed of for some other purpose.

    The hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) asked me about afforestation.

    My Department does not answer for this, but I am prepared to have a shot, nevertheless. As I understand it, if an area of this sort were afforested, there would be grants available. The advantage of afforestation in the initial stages, I understand, is that it is one of the cheaper, if rather long-term, means of getting rid of concrete because tree roots will eventually shift most things. Whether that is the best answer in the long term will be, to a large extent, a question for decision by the local planning authority.

    I hope—indeed, I have little doubt—that a use will be put forward which will make considerable use of the existing facilities for storage and thereby create some more employment to meet the relatively small figures which the hon. Member mentioned. I say "relatively" in terms of the sort of figures one would have in mind if the whole area were developed and the sort of figures represented by the employment when the munitions factory itself was at its peak.

    But I stress that only in January was the final decision taken. Redditch was the subject of a recent inquiry. The local planning authority is now consulting the War Office, which is the disposing authority. Naturally, representing, in a sense, the Treasury and the taxpayer, the War Office must be concerned to some extent to find a use which will, on a sale or lease, or whatever method of disposal be chosen, repay so far as possible some of the immense investment which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

    I have no doubt that the matter will not pose insuperable difficulties for the local planning authority. I do not for a moment deny that, if I lived close to an area like this, I might well feel a degree of frustration and impatience. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] But I assure the hon. Gentleman that the delay was solely in the interests of ensuring that in the larger context of new towns and the West Midlands expansion altogether we did not part with something which would have proved the best place, or one of the best places, for a new town which would make its contribution to the solution of the problem in the area.

    Mr. Swingler

    Would the hon. Gentleman set a time limit to this? I think that he is agreed that he himself would be completely frustrated if he lived in this area by this example of bureaucracy run mad. His Department has a responsibility, but would he also consult the War Office and then say that there could be decision in, say, June, or October? When will this matter be decided?

    Mr. Corfield

    The Secretary of State for War is as anxious as anybody to get on with this. For one thing, the Government like to collect the money, but the decision has already clearly been taken that there will be no requirement of this area for a new town. There will, I am sure, be no avoidable delay.