HC Deb 09 December 1965 vol 722 cc759-68

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

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

I welcome this opportunity of initiating a debate on regional planning and employment prospects in West Durham. It is interesting to note that the big debate that we have had today on London Transport and the later debate are not unrelated to the subject that I am raising tonight.

We heard from the Minister of State, Board of Trade only 10 minutes ago of his estimate of a quarter of a million jobs unfilled in the congested areas of this country. I listened to a good deal of the debate on London Transport, and we heard of the congestion on the roads, of the daily lives of millions of people coming into this great city being made intolerable by the congestion that has been allowed to build up over the years.

I want to talk about an area which is some 300 miles from this great city, an area which in the past made a considerable contribution to the industrial prosperity of this country. I represent the constituency of North-West Durham, which includes three urban district councils—Tow Law, Brandon and By- shottles, and Crook and Willington, and two rural district councils—Lanchester and Weardale. I am spelling this out for the benefit of the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs who I am glad to see present, because when we talk about West Durham and North-West Durham it seems that hon. Members have various ideas of the area to which I am referring.

The total population of this area is 70,000 and it stretches some 30 miles from east to west and 16 miles from north to south. We have lovely dales, wide open spaces and easy access to the Pennines and indeed to the English Lake District, as well as to the main arterial roads which lead to the great centres of population.

I want to make it quite clear that I am not begging for assistance for a down-and-out community. On the contrary, I am demanding the right of our people, whom I am proud to represent, to employ their undoubted skills, to use the social and economic capital that has been built up over the years, and to harness the resilient spirit in the wider interests of the new modern Britain. We do not live, as so many people seem to imagine, in a dirty, smoke-polluted, derelict area which is unattractive to visitors, unsuited to expansion—certainly not. We have an attractive environment, good industrial and agricultural land, and ready-made sites with all the main services—gas, electricity, water and so on. We have progressive local authorities who are only too willing to give every assistance to industrialists who are ready to establish themselves in this progressive area.

Those industrialists who have brought their industry to the area speak in glowing terms of the advantages that we are able to offer. I want to quote from two directors, one of a clothing firm which is now well established, and the other of an engineering firm. The first says: We have found the advantage of having a large factory in the district with pleasant amenities far outweighs any possible disadvantage of being away from the centre of our industry in London. The other said: The success of our undertaking is due to the quality of our men. We came here to find the right men and also, strange as it may seem to those who imagine County Durham as one vast coal pit, to find the right environment. These statements speak for themselves. Labour relations in the area are excellent. The previous dependence of the area on the mining industry and that industry's rapid decline has created a serious employment situation.

There is every reason to believe that the situation cannot be remedied or repaired by piecemeal, short-term measures. As one example, in one urban district which houses almost a quarter of my constituency's population, the population has remained static since 1939, despite the national increase and the fact that people are living longer. At the moment, more than half the men work outside the area. Of the jobs available in that urban district, 45 per cent. are in the mining industry. The future of the men holding those jobs is very doubtful since the recent announcement in this House. Another 22 per cent. of the jobs are in clothing and footwear and 90 per cent. of those are for women. Only 0.3 per cent. of the jobs available are in engineering and electrical goods.

When I heard the talk in the earlier debate tonight about there being a quarter of a million unfilled jobs in congested areas and the scandal of industrialists "poaching" one another's workmen, I thought that this pointed to the criminal neglect of my area over past years. The recent announcement by the Coal Board has aggravated an already serious situation.

I know that my hon. Friend knows the area very well: he visited it a year ago, and we welcomed that visit. I suggest to him that any delay now would be intolerable. It is not easy to reverse a trend of 40 years' standing: it takes time and cannot be done overnight, but I appreciate the efforts which are being made to reverse the trend. The situation is so serious, however, that it is not enough now to persuade the odd firm to move to the area by refusing an industrial development certificate in the South-East or the Midlands, nor even to offer a cheap factory as an inducement, although we welcome both these measures with open arms.

Something can certainly be done for development by using pithead plants and other buildings which are now redundant. After a careful look at the whole area, I believe that we need to take a purposeful view of the future and that a planned industrial estate is the only answer. It would be sound economic sense for the nation and could also solve the real social problems created by the neglect of the area in past years. Our people do not ask for a new factory in every village. We accept the principle of established growth points where planned and purposeful development can be stimulated.

But I assert in the strongest possible terms that to plan these centres on the east side of the north road, 15 to 20 miles from the worst-hit mining communities, is economically wasteful, socially undesirable and, in the long run, will create the very problems of congestion and overstrain which we want to avoid. There are ideal sites from every point of view in my constituency where all the requirements of modern industry can be met; and the development of one of these sites would meet the needs of the area.

The principle enunciated by the former Government—that job prospects in the area must be allowed to decline—is completely unacceptable to me as the hon. Member representing the area and to my constituents. We bitterly resent the implication that the young and lively must look elsewhere for worth-while employment and that the older folk must be satisfied with improved social welfare or travel further to work. The people I am proud to represent deserve better of the nation than that.

All the excellent measures introduced by the present Government—redundancy payments, earlier pensions for redundant miners and so on—are to be welcomed, but they are no substitute for work; and it is constructive, woth-while employment that we demand for the area. Every able-bodied workman in Britain is needed if the National Plan is to work and the nation is to survive in this competitive world. There are youngsters in my constituency who have much to offer, yet many of them are working in dead-end jobs, doing work below their real capacity because of the employment pattern imposed on them. Apart from the expense involved, travelling two or three hours to and from work is a great disincentive, so much so that in marry instances less worth-while jobs available nearer home are accepted.

With people leaving the area all the time, schools, housing and other forms of social capital are being under-used. Meanwhile, the resources of the receiving areas are often at breaking point. We have skilled men under the threat of redundancy at the local pits. It would be nothing short of a crime if we allowed this skilled manpower to be dispersed. I know of villages where it is heart-breaking to see people who had a great zest for life leaving their homes for other parts, with many of the old people being left behind.

My demands are simple and straightforward and deserve early action by the Government. The new Northern Economic Planning Council must establish new priorities. I welcome the Council's appointment and there is no doubt that the needs of West Durham can be better seen by people who live in the region rather than by people in the South.

A more efficient spread of employment in the North-East is vital if our resources are to be used to their best advantage. Pound for pound the nation will get better value for its money in the underemployed areas than in the congested and over-populated parts of the country. Let those who are responsible look at the sites which we have to offer and establish new industry there. Sensible industrial investment in the area, with a sensible inflow of growth industries, would pay great dividends in terms of economic prosperity as well as social betterment.

With so many men redundant in their traditional forms of employment and with school-leavers unable to get jobs, there is a definite need for training facilities to be extended. The North-East Development Council is now strongly in favour of a new Government training centre to be established in West Durham. We have the sites. The present centre at Tursdale is not very accessible for most of my constituents. If the gap between the number of training places available and the number of people who need training is to be bridged a new centre is essential now, and we have the sites to house it.

I wish the new regional planning council every success. I think that it has got off to a fair start. We have suffered far too long in the North-East and particularly in West Durham, from lack of planning, but I insist that the planners realise that in West Durham, with the 70,000 people who live in my constituency, form a community of hardworking, skilled men and women with a zest for life. They refuse to let go. They are a friendly, active community which has been created over the years.

I believe that we can best make our contribution to the modern Britain by reviving a thriving industrial community in the area where we live. We are not Luddites. Nobody need think that of the miners and their wives in West Durham. What we ask—indeed, what we demand—is the opportunity to revive the very healthy community life which has been typical of my county. If we plan sensibly and reasonably, it will not only enable my people to make a valuable contribution to the prosperity of the prosperity of the nation, but will provide the sort of environment in which our boys and girls can grow into healthy citizens.

11.16 p.m.

Mr. T. W. Urwin (Houghton-le-Spring)

I do not want to keep my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary too long from the constructive reply that I am sure he intends to give in this debate. Those of us who listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) will readily appreciate the sincerity and objectivity with which he has presented these problems as they affect his constituency, and the case for providing, much-needed new industry, not only to deal with the present problems but the further problems that will result from the pit closures that have been announced.

I am sure that the Minister will give a satisfactory reply, imbued as he is, like the rest of his colleagues in the Government, with deep anxiety to do the best possible for the development districts, but I must draw attention to the fact that despite the seriousness of the problems there is not one Opposition hon. Member present. This is a matter of great importance to other development districts as well as to the area to which my hon. Friend has referred, and it is deplorable that the Opposition, whose members have recently been said to be imbued with a desire to mount attacks on the Government, should not be courteous enough to listen to the problems outlined by my hon. Friend, and which apply not only to his constituents but to others in development districts.

11.18 p.m.

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

I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin). Members of the Opposition were present in order to press their view against the Government on the need to restrict industrial development in the south of the country, and I think that we are now getting a fair commentary on their attitude during their long period of Governmental neglect which has been one reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) has found it necessary to raise this subject tonight.

My hon. Friend has been as eloquent and fairminded an advocate for West Durham as I expected, and I say at once to him and to other hon. Members that we do recognise that there are anxieties in Durham, and particularly in the western part of the county. As he has said, I had the very great pleasure to visit his constituency earlier this year, and I should like to confirm what he says about its being a very attractive countryside, and far more convenient of access than many people who have not been there would expect. I hope that what he has said will go out from this House, and that those who are considering industrial development will think of North-West Durham as a part of the country that has a very great deal to offer.

Such anxieties as were present before have been strengthened by the recent announcement of comprehensive closure programmes for the National Coal Board. I am very ready to admit that some very real social and human problems will result from these closures, but we must not exaggerate these problems. Nor must we underestimate the steps which have already been taken to deal with them.

In the County of Durham as a whole the rate of contraction in the industry will be no greater than has been experienced in the past few years. Over the five years to October, 1965 coalmining manpower there fell by 27,000, which is an average of about 5,400 a year. Under the closure recently announced, 36 pits together employing about 13,900 wage-earners have been classified as likely to close or merge within about five years, while 12 pits, together employing about 12,300 wage- earners, have been classified as being of doubtful future.

Even if, and this is highly unlikely, all the doubtful collieries as well as the short-life ones were to be closed by 1970, the average rate of manpower rundown would be slower than in the past. In the part of County Durham lying west of the Great North Road, 28 pits employing just over 10,000 wage-earners have been classified as short-life. The closure of these pits, spread over the next five years, would give an annual loss less than half the annual rundown in West Durham of 4,100 over the three years to December, 1964.

I want to be fair and we must recognise that there is likely to be some bunching of closures of the short-life collieries in the early years of the programme and there is also an element of normal wastage in the past figures. This is not, in my view, an unprecedented disaster and there is no room for alarmist views. We are dealing with a manageable problem which I hope we shall solve. I am assured by the National Coal Board that employment in other North-East pits can he offered to virtually all the fit men willing to take it. Past experience has shown that about 70 per cent. obtain employment within the industry, about 12 per cent. choose to retire, about 10 per cent. find work of their own, leaving 8 per cent. to 10 per cent. who are redundant and seek the assistance of the Ministry of Labour.

Looking at the present problem, this means that about 2,000 men in the North-East, of whom about 1,000 will be in West Durham, will be redundant and these will be mainly surface-workers in sheltered employment, including older workers and those partially disabled. This is the scale of the immediate problem resulting from closures and I ought to say something about the steps which are being taken.

Arrangements are being made by the N.C.B. whereby the names of those affected by closures will be notified at least a month in advance of discharge. Immediate steps will be taken to register them for employment and every effort made to find work for them, if possible without interruption of employment.

There are already three Government training centres, as the House knows.

These, and the provision of additional classes at Tursdale will bring potential output of trainees to a total of about 1,950 a year. Two more industrial rehabilitation units are to be provided at Killingworth and Billingham to accommodate a total of 160 men, giving an annual output from these rehabilitation units of about 1,000 a year. The Northern Economic Planning Council is taking steps in an early meeting with trade union leaders to discuss further how retrained men can best be absorbed into other industries. There will, of course, be a stern test of trade union fellowship. There is an obligation to receive and help those who are made redundant in one industry and enable retrained workers to find jobs. I hope such opposition to retrained workers as still persists will very soon be broken down.

These are emergency measures. I agree very much with my hon. Friend when he says that this is not sufficient; what West Durham needs is work. It is necessary now to plan together for the greater prosperity of the region as a whole and not simply to deal with the immediate problem with which we are faced because of closures. I say this to my hon. Friend and I hope he will find some comfort in it. The growth zone is dead. It was a gimmick devised by the previous Government as part of a rescue operation at the end of their term of office. It exists no longer. What has been an impediment to the intelligent planning of the Northern Region is now removed.

Of course we must recognise—and I was very much struck by my hon. Friend's typically frank and sensible remarks on this—that some parts of the region have greater potential for growth than others. We cannot wholly maintain the pattern of growth of a century and more ago. Nevertheless, having got rid of the growth zone idea let us plan the region as a whole. Let those on the spot working through the Economic Planning Council look at the region which they know well and decide what priorities within the development ought to be. I think there are already good prospects for industrial development. The present Government have announced a number of advance factories in West Durham in the last 14 months. In addition I.D.C.s have been issued covering 8,500 male jobs. I know the problem and the danger of wastage. I will not use the old familiar jargon about "jobs in the pipeline," but, making all allowances for wastage and adding new employment through planning terms, there is a good prospect that substantial numbers of jobs will be given to the parts of the county west of the Great North Road in the next few years. I am sure that will do a great deal to ease the problem my hon. Friend has described.

The process of planning has not finished; on the contrary it has only just begun. On the immediate issue, the Northern Economic Planning Council has already had a very full discussion on the consequences of the pit closures and is to have another. I am sure that in the course of that discussion full account will be taken of what my hon. Friend has said and note will be taken of the suggestions he has made. I understand the heartburn and worry at the present time. I understand also the real sense of loyalty which the people of West Durham have to the place they were born in and where they grew up. We intend to tackle the problem in this purposeful way. I am sure that given time we shall solve it and that, although today there may be occasion for sadness, there will be a time for hope.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.