HC Deb 21 January 1965 vol 705 cc545-56

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

10.20 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am very grateful to the House and to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to raise a matter which is of great consequence to the south-west area. My object is to request that when the Minister for Economic Affairs forms his regional plans the headquarters for the South-West shall be in the City of Plymouth. This is not raised merely as a parochial or constituency point but because Plymouth logically is the best centre of the region, which is in need of further development to make the southwest counties more economically viable.

The Under-Secretary will have been informed that the South-West already has a joint committee of the county councils of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset and the cities of Plymouth and Exeter. This was formed in January, 1963, with a view to furthering the economic prosperity of the West. This joint committee, established at a time when regions are being formed by the Government, should endear itself to the Under-Secretary because it means that co-operation is already in being in the South-West. It also shows how progressive and farseeing the predominantly Conservative South-West has been.

It should also be noted that the City of Bristol was not a member of this committee nor the County of Gloucester. A memorandum was submitted to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chairman of the National Economic Development Council. Therefore, action has already been taken. As I understand, the new region will differ from the area of the joint committee. I believe that it stretches from north of Cheltenham to Land's End, which is about 260 miles. The 1961 census of the population who will now be in the region, but excluding Exeter, showed a figure of 1,991,528 in the combined area of 4 million acres. Its population is 4.3 per cent. and its area 11.2 per cent. of the population and area respectively of England and Wales.

The most prosperous part of the area is at Bristol and Gloucester. The present region therefore falls into two parts. The Cities of Bristol and Gloucester and the County of Gloucester are the most prosperous. Unemployment there averages throughout the year from 1 per cent. to 2 per cent. Rates of unemployment increase the further one moves westward, rising to 7 per cent. to 10 per cent. in January and 2 per cent. to 4 per cent. in July, with averages of 6.7 per cent. in January and 2.3 per cent. in July for the whole County of Cornwall. Therefore Devon and Cornwall, lying south of Exeter, are the subject of particular concern in the region.

Another cause of concern is the drift of young people from the area during the last three decades. This is particularly marked. There is underemployment and a level of wages lower than the national average. Matters have improved considerably in the last 10 years. About 8,000 new jobs have been found in Plymouth and the surrounding area but much more could be done. Plymouth and the counties of Cornwall and Devon are anxious to take their part in the export drive which could be greatly improved in the South-West. The main export is china clay and the main employment in the far West is still agriculture.

British Railways have recently issued a brochure on "How to Reach the South-West Resorts by Train". It should be noted that Plymouth, Penzance, Torquay and Exeter are chosen as centres and only today a brochure has been issued from Plymouth to point out that that town is the best centre for tourists for 100 different trips. In 1961, 5 million people spent a holiday in the South-West, excluding Dorset, for which I have been unable to obtain figures. Plymouth makes an ideal centre for tours by train or car. The town authorities have already been in touch with the Location of Offices Bureau. There are plenty of offices, conference rooms and halls in the town and I should have thought that it was an ideal area for a future regional office.

The next matter of importance is population distribution. Bristol already has a population of 500,000. Plymouth has only 210,000. In Bristol now there are the headquarters of the regional hospital board, the Navy departments of the Admiralty—

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

No; the Admiralty is in Bath.

Dame Joan Vickers

Bath and Bristol are very near together, in much the same area. The City of Bath was not on the joint committee because it did not need any further help.

It is rumoured that British Railways Western Region head office is to move to Bristol—or Cardiff—and hitherto it has been mainly stationed in Plymouth. There is a university in Bristol, which gives it its young people, so sadly lacking in other parts of the South-West.

Plymouth, with its declining population, could easily take overspill from the Midlands. I have in previous debates suggested that we could take into the area at least 25,000 people, with their industries. The Port of Plymouth itself could be used for commercial work, and this would be a help to many congested ports elsewhere in the country. We no longer have the tender which used to bring passengers in from passenger liners, so we have no more passenger liners calling, but we have some commerce, and this traffic could be greatly enhanced if more attention were paid to our excellent small port. Also, I think that more could be done for Falmouth in this connection.

The train service to Plymouth has been greatly improved recently and there is now a special train called the "Golden Hind", which is known as the businessman's train. It is possible for people to travel to and from London in a day.

A regional board with its headquarters in Bristol will not, I feel, inspire confidence in the areas where the board's help is most needed. We have already had a good example of this in the hospital board. We know how the arrangements made for the Minister of Health's visit—

Mr. Wilkins

Put it in Torrington.

Dame Joan Vickers

The arrangements for the recent tour by the Minister of Health were made from Bristol, and we know what happened as regards the areas which he went to see and those which were left out.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

He did go to Plymouth.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

Not to Cornwall.

Dame Joan Vickers

No; a delegation had to come from Cornwall to Plymouth to meet him.

Mr. Hayman

Cornish people did not object to that.

Mr. Wilkins

The Minister had a very full programme. I can assure the hon. Lady of that.

Mr. Deputy - Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

Order. I must ask hon. Members not to interrupt in this way.

Dame Joan Vickers

I spoke to the Minister beforehand and I wrote to him about it. Special facilities were offered to him in Plymouth, if he would like to come and stay there, meet the local people, the general practitioners, matrons, and so on; but this, apparently, was not possible.

We feel that Bristol is not the centre for the South-West, and it would be much better to have the headquarters in Devon and Cornwall. I do not know whether the Joint Under-Secretary of State has been able to make representations to his right hon. Friend since I put my name down for this Adjournment debate or whether his right hon. Friend is able to consider Plymouth as the new headquarters. But I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let us know exactly what the functions of the pro-proposed board are to be.

We understand that the board is to be composed of about 24 persons, one-third representatives of the local authorities, one-third representatives of industry, and one-third representatives of other bodies. We want to know what power it will have, whether, for instance. it will be able to give certificates for new industry to come to the area, or whether everything will have to be referred to Whitehall.

To give an example of how, in the Plymouth area, we try to help ourselves, I can tell the House that the Plymouth productivity committee is to hold a conference in March this year in Torquay on transport problems, which, of course, are one of the obstacles to expansion in the South-West. This is another excellent example of how the area has been trying to help itself.

I hope that what I have said will show that there is real anxiety that Bristol, being so near London—I believe that it is only two hours and 20 minutes away by train—should be chosen as the centre. We fear that officials will "pop" down there and back and that the rest of the area will be by-passed, as usual. That is our great fear.

It is surely reasonable to put the centre in a place where there is plenty of accommodation and which needs further development. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is to visit Plymouth in the near future. If he cannot give me a definite assurance tonight that Plymouth will be considered as the regional headquarters, perhaps he can wait until that visit when other people more eloquent than I may be able to convince him of the need to site the headquarters in Plymouth.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I want to say how profoundly I disagree with the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). I feel that her speech justifies the fears I expressed during the General Election that there would be all kinds of disagreements and local infighting to secure the administrative centre for the region.

Plymouth is far too far west for most of the region in any case, and many of us in Cornwall, while we admire Plymouth, feel that to choose Plymouth would be shortsighted. In yesterday's Western Morning News there was an article headed, "Make Taunton the Regional Centre." I would go further and say that I feel that the choice of the Minister in this case is perfectly correct.

There are to be six of these regions in England. The map of the West Country shows how inadequate Plymouth would be as the regional centre. The hon. Lady referred to the joint committee for the economy of the South-West, which produced a document given to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer in August, 1963. Absolutely nothing has happened since then of any real consequence. In November, 1963, there was set up the Cornwall Development Association, and again nothing has happened.

If we are to wait until squabbles have been settled as to where the regional centre is to be, then Cornwall at any rate—which is what I am mainly concerned about—will be left in the background. I say quite firmly that I consider Bristol to be the natural and historical administrative centre of the West Country and that it is useless to talk in this context about the South-West counties of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. They have nothing in common. But the West Country has always had its own capital in Bristol. The gateway to the West Country is Gloucester and no one can get away from that historical and geographical fact.

Looking at the map that the Minister has provided the House with, one can see that, unless we are a cohesive and strong region, we shall lose out to the other regions and I am not prepared to sit down and be defeated on an issue of that kind. I took this line constantly during the General Election and I was never criticised for it either in my constituency or in Cornwall. Already there is disagreement between the county council and many of the local councils in Cornwall about the county council's attitude towards tourism. I mention these facts because I feel that we in the West Country will lose if we squabble among ourselves about where the regional centre is to be. Bristol is the natural place and I hope that the centre will be there.

In Falmouth the unemployment in the shipyard is as bad as ever. Although the former President of the Board of Trade came to Falmouth to see for himself what it was like on 2nd January, 1964, and the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) came a week or two later and in February, last year, promised a Board of Trade factory, the first foundation for that factory has not yet been laid. I hope that my hon. Friend will visit Cornwall soon and that he will come to Falmouth to see what things are like and perhaps visit Cam-borne, where many of our factories make great contributions to the export drive.

10.46 p.m.

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

This is the second occasion in the last three months on which we have had the opportunity to have an Adjournment debate on regional policy in the South-West. As on the previous occasion, I greatly welcome the opportunity, because the South-West is still one part of the country likely to be overlooked and perhaps neglected if we are too pre-occupied with the more obvious problems of industrial decline in the North of England.

On 4th November, when I was replying to a debate initiated by the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), I said that it was not necessarily our intention to extend the new machinery for regional planning, which had just been announced, over the whole country at once. On reflection, it seemed to us that it would be a mistake to deny the new machinery, with the advantages which we thought it would bring, to any part of the country, outside the South-East, which, of course, is the subject of a special review. We felt that it would be wrong to exclude the South-West from this new machinery and so, as the House knows, on 10th December my right hon. Friend made it clear that we would be setting up the new machinery of economic planning councils and economic planning boards in the South-West as well as in other parts of the country. That is our starting point for our discussion tonight. I very much hope that we shall be announcing the setting up of the councils and boards reasonably soon. We are anxious to get on with it as quickly as we can find the right people to do what is a difficult and most important job.

I agree with much of what the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devon-port (Dame Joan Vickers) has said about the character of the region. I would be the first to acknowledge that it is a very diverse region. It is not naturally homogeneous. The problems of Devon and Cornwall are rather different from those of what is almost the growing conurbation of Bristol, Gloucester and Cheltenham, but we must recognise that there is strength in this diversity. Were we to have decided that our economic planning regions should be based simply on areas which were homogeneous, we would have not six but sixty, and sixty would defeat the whole purpose of economic planning. We take the view, in the South-West as in other parts of the country, that all parts of a region which are very different can contribute to each other's strength, and for that reason I hope that, quite irrespective of the proposals which the Government have made, we shall see a greater coming together in the South-West than there has been in the past.

We think that the region is right from the economic planning point of view and right if we are to get sufficient specialised and able staff for this very difficult job. The hon. Lady will know that all those concerned with planning, including local authority planning, find great difficulty in getting these specialist staff to do the work. This is another reason why we would not want smaller regions, because that would result in the specialists who are necessary being spread far too thin.

There is a third reason which I should mention in view of the hon. Lady's remarks about not wanting everything to have to be referred to Whitehall. That is precisely our view. We are worried about the extent to which life in Britain as a whole is becoming a metropolitan life. We want to give new vigour to the regions. It is for this reason that we are setting up planning machinery which, we think, will enable decisions to be made not here in Whitehall, but in a region of the right size outside London. We would be most disappointed if the total result of what we are doing were not a movement of decision-making away from London. On that, I should very much like to reassure the hon. Lady.

The special problems of the South-West are very much in our mind. The problem of communications, which the hon. Lady graphically illustrated by mentioning how long the region was—250 miles or so—is, perhaps, the first and most obvious one. There is the problem of communications not only by road and rail, but also by air. I think I am right in saying that it is not possible to fly to the West Country at this time of year. I take the view that, in the long run, development of any kind depends on good air communications as well as the more conventional communications by road and rail with which we are familiar.

Secondly amongst the special problems is the fact that there is a relatively low percentage of manufacturing industry in the South-West, 30 per cent. as against a national average of 38 per cent. Thirdly, a fact of which the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) in particular are very aware, but, again, which can easily be overlooked, is that there are in Devon and Cornwall development districts where there is high unemployment. In addition to this, for obvious reasons, there is seasonal unemployment as well. These are problems which must be dealt with by our regional planning machinery and by the Government.

Fourthly, there are problems of the drift from the land and the decline of manpower on the land in an area which is still substantially agricultural. Fifthly, tourism is, as the hon. Lady said, an important industry, but it is one which has problems of its own. Perhaps sixthly, although I am not in any way trying to be exhaustive, is the problem of the drift of young people. We know that it is not only an absolute or a relative decline in population which matters, but decline in terms of the character and age of the population. Whether it is a decline from the South-West or from other parts of the country, it is unfortunate and we must do all we can to stop it.

I simply say that having recognised these problems—and to recognise them is the first stage—we think that the South-West has a considerable growth potential and that, given the right policies, it can make an important contribution to Britain's economic and social growth. These problems are the starting point for any decision about new machinery and about where it should be located. We are concerned tonight not with ends but with means. I hope that we are agreed on the nature of the problems and what should be done about them. We are concerned in particular with where the new machinery should be located.

The Government acknowledge the work which has been done by the joint committee for the economy of the South-West and we hope that this will continue. As I said on the previous occasion on 4th November, we are sympathetic towards this work and, in so far as it represents co-operation between local authorities, we hope that it will continue and grow. We do not foresee that our new machinery should call a halt to developments in this direction. Nevertheless, we think that our new machinery will make a further contribution to this very positive job.

I want to make it clear that we are not choosing a regional capital. A regional capital would imply regional government, and my right hon. Friend has made it clear that it is not regional government that we have in mind, but a new form of devolution which we think will be very effective without usurping the proper functions of local authorities.

That being the case, we are looking for an administrative centre for our offices, and nothing more. As I think the House may know, the regional offices of the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Labour, the Department of Education and Science, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Ministry of Public Building and Works are in Bristol now, and although I would not say that this is an overwhelming reason, it is at least relevant to any decision which we can make about setting up the right machinery as quickly as possible to do this very positive job.

I think that the hon. Lady has made a powerful case for Plymouth, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, some people in Plymouth take a different view. I understand from the Western Morning News that Alderman Wright has recommended that Plymouth should support Taunton as the centre. If the hon. Lady says "All well and good", she is saying, "Anywhere except Bristol". In other words, she is not justifying the alternative choice, but is simply saying that Bristol is wrong. I do not think that that is a constructive ground on which to oppose the decision which was indicated by my right hon. Friend on 10th December.

The hon. Lady says that there is plenty of accommodation in Plymouth. Perhaps it would be right for me to say that the sort of accommodation for which we are looking is something like 80,000 sq. ft., and, on the information available to me, it is not clear that this sort of footage of office accommodation is available in Plymouth, Taunton, or for that matter, in Exeter at the present time. I am satisfied that at the moment there should be no difficulty in finding satisfactory accommodation of the kind required in Bristol, and this being the case, I do not think that we should quarrel now about where the regional centre should be.

The important thing is to get on with the job as quickly as possible and, with the greatest respect to all those who have local loyalties, I hope that proper local pride and loyalties will not become an obstacle to carrying out decisions which are fundamentally right and fundamentally in the interests of all people in the South-West.

The hon. Lady said that she understood that I hoped to visit Plymouth soon. It seemed to me that this was the right thing to do. I want to visit the South-West, not only to have a look at Plymouth, but also, amongst other things, to visit my hon. Friend's constituency which has these very special problems. I hope to make this visit next month, and in the course of it I shall be able to see at first hand the problems which I have mentioned this evening, and, more important, to meet the people. I do not think that there is any alternative, in correspondence or in innumerable documents, to seeing things on the spot.

I shall be happy, when I visit the area, to receive any further representations which may be made, but we considered this with very great care indeed, and we did not rush to a decision either on where this administrative centre should be, or where any other should be. If a case can be made for Plymouth as against Bristol, and of course for Taunton and Exeter, a case can be made for Liverpool against Manchester, for Sheffield against Leeds, and for Middlesbrough against Newcastle. A practical decision has to be made on the basis of the facts, and that is what we have done.

When I go next month—.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute to Eleven o'clock.