HC Deb 28 July 1967 vol 751 cc1239-54

3.45 p.m.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Sutton)

It was in my maiden speech that I first drew attention to the need to include Plymouth within the development area of the South-West, and it was in that same speech that I urged the Government to pay attention to the claim of Plymouth as a growth centre, round which the South-West could expand and prosper. At that time it could reasonably have been said that I was advocating a constituency case, that I was arguing, as we in this House are wont to do, a purely constituency point, though even at that time I argued my claim for Plymouth within the concept of the broader region and on the basis of prosperity in the South-West. I can now present the case of Plymouth to become a growth centre and to be included in the South-West development area fortified in the knowledge that I do not do so alone as their Member of Parliament but in the light of the Report, "Region with a Future" of the South-West Regional Economic Planning Council.

This Report is hailed as a draft strategy for the South-West and has been widely acclaimed. The Guardian described it as one of the best documents on the subject published so far, and said: It feels the pulse of the region and prescribes some remedies". The Report makes as one of its central recommendations that Plymouth should be included within the South-West development area. I would like to think that there are two major recommendations in that Report. The first is for a major spine road going down the South-Western peninsula. It would enhance the communications and would be of inestimable benefit not to Plymouth alone but to the entire region. The other recommendation is what I have said, that Plymouth should be included within the development area.

I should like to remind the House of some of the history of location policy and the whole policy of regional development. In 1934 we had the Special Areas Act, and it was the first time that the Government recognised their responsibility to encourage industry to go into the regions and for taking responsibility for location policy. Since then we have seen a remarkable change in the attitude of central Government to regional economic planning and regional development, and it is with great pride that I have this opportunity for this debate at all, because it was the Labour Government that set up the regional economic planning councils. I can say this with all fairness, that the South-West Regional Economic Planning Council has been under great attack from many Members of Parliament.

I have been a firm and strong supporter of the concept of regional planning ever since it was first introduced. It was on this that I fought the General Election in 1964, and again in 1966, and I believe it was because of the Government's concrete proposals for regional planning that we returned three Labour Members of Parliament for the far South-West, something which had never occurred before. With the coming out of this Report, which has been very widely acclaimed by all political parties in the South-West, we now feel we have a draft strategy on which to work.

I ought to make it quite clear that when the economic planning councils were set up they were only advisory bodies. The Government made it quite clear, and rightly so, that though their recommendations would be considered and discussed by the Government, they were not in any sense binding. I quite realise this. We have to prove our case not just in the context of the South-West, but in a context embracing the whole of the nation, when we claim an extension of development areas. They have got to be balanced against the claims of other development areas all over the country. I fully realise this.

What I am worried about in the Government's regional proposals, all of which I support, and which are imaginative—the regional employment premiums, industrial incentives, the concept of wider development areas—is that we seem to have forgotten the great good which can come from concentrating on certain areas of specific growth centres. I do not for one moment accent the belief that the introduction of development areas means that we have to abolish the concept of growth centres. It seems wholly logical that, within the wider development area, there should be essential growth centres. I believe that the Government are in danger of forgetting and forsaking the policy of growth centres. There is a danger that, within the wider development area, factories will be encouraged to set up branches in small villages and create structures which at times of general depression are liable to closure, giving rise to unemployment.

One of the basic principles set out in the new concept of development areas, elaborated by the President of the Board of Trade in January, 1966, was that we were going away from a concept which centred solely on high unemployment. Referring to the development areas, the President of the Board of Trade said that "the criteria for selecting them will be more flexible and no longer based purely on unemployment. This is an admirable trend which should be encouraged.

I admit that if the sole criterion for the designation of a development area for Plymouth was a rise in unemployment, we should have difficulty in proving our case. However, there is no doubt that unemployment in Plymouth is higher than in the rest of the country. Based on the latest figures which I have, the comparison is that Plymouth shows an unemployment rate of 3.2 per cent., Great Britain as a whole shows a rate of 2.3 per cent., the rest of Britain shows a rate of 1.6 per cent., and the difference is 1.6 per cent. There is a marked discrepancy. We are 1 per cent. above the national average at the moment, and there have been many occasions over past years when we have been a great deal higher.

In 1960, when Plymouth was declared a development district, it helped Plymouth's economy very considerably. It is a matter of great regret that, in the financial year 1961–62, the Tory Government decided that Plymouth could no longer be a development district.

I want to argue the case for Plymouth within the framework of the region as a whole. Unless we can show that there is a viable reason for bringing industry to Plymouth which will help the rest of the South-West and not just Plymouth, our case will tend to go by the board.

Of the five development areas which the Government have introduced, four have major industrial growth centres within their areas. In Scotland, there is Glasgow, in the Northern Region we have Newcastle and Tyneside, in Merseyside we have Liverpool, and in the Welsh one there is Swansea, with strong pressure for Cardiff to be included.

Looking at the South-West, there is no single major industrial centre which could act as a growth centre, and this is a substantial omission. The development area was delineated deliberately to exclude Plymouth and, as a result, the South-West has been served poorly by the areas defined in January, 1966.

The South-West Regional Economic Planning Council has argued strongly that Plymouth's potential for growth is very considerable. To make one or two brief quotations from its Report, The Council consider that any major effort to stimulate growth must start from Plymouth. Plymouth is the one town in the whole of this halt of the Region large enough to stand some comparison with urban centres elsewhere in the country which serve as foci for the economic and social life of the communities around them. It is vital that Plymouth should retain and attract population and enterprise if the whole area is to succeed in doing so. That is very important. Plymouth's population has remained almost static and, though it has increased slightly recently, this is largely as the result of taking in some outlying districts.

We are extremely handicapped by our lack of communications, but the Report goes on to say: Nevertheless, Plymouth has inherent potentialities for sound economic growth. Thanks to the Dockyard, there is well-organised technical training and the city's manpower possesses an enviable degree of technical skill. The city has already demonstrated that it is an attractive location for industry despite its remoteness, and the problems arising from the remoteness can. and should, be lessened in the future by the improved communications", and particularly if we get the spine road.

Plymouth, with its large heavy industrial labour force in the repair dockyard, has the potential to support any major industry that might wish to come to us. Employment in Plymouth is made up broadly as follows: the extractive industries take 3,000, manufacturing establishments take 30,000, and the service and distributive trades take 60,000. We have only 30,000 in manufacturing establishments, and of this total the dockyard accounts for 19,000 men, one-fifth of the total population employed, less than one-third of Plymouth's total male population. This is a significant proportion, and shows remarkable dependence on one industry.

There are more statistics which show the vulnerability of Plymouth in the long term. If we consider the total expanding industries, we see that the percentage in Great Britain is 76, in Cornwall it is 75.4, in Devon it is 75.1, and in Plymouth it is only 70.3. These figures are from an A.I.C. survey in March, 1965. The figure for total contracting industries in Great Britain is 23.9 per cent., in Cornwall 24.7 per cent., in Devon 24.8 per cent., and in Plymouth again the highest figure, 29.8 per cent. On both these parameters Plymouth has fewer expanding industries than the surrounding areas, and in Great Britain as a whole, and more contracting industries. The Government must concede the case that Plymouth's economy on these parameters is extremely vulnerable, and because Plymouth's prosperity is vulnerable, so is the whole of that of the far South-West, for it is to Plymouth, the main distributive centre, that most of Cornwall and the major portion of Devon look.

It is true that over the years much anxiety has been expressed in Plymouth about the Devonport Dockyard. I have always believed, and have expressed it forcefully at elections, and since I have been a Member of this House, that it is wholly wrong to make a political issue out of the dockyard. It is not only wrong, but irresponsible, and some of the statements which have been made by hon. Members opposite who represent South-West constituencies have caused me great concern over the last few months. They do themselves and the people of Plymouth a great disservice by constantly harping on the insecurity of employment in the dockyard. There is practically no other major employer who could guarantee employment to the extent that the Devonport Dockyard does at the present time. We have H.M.S. "Ark Royal" undergoing refit. H.M.S. "Tiger" is in for a refit, and another aircraft carrier, H.M.S. "Eagle" coming in for a refit. There is therefore a guarantee of work in the dockyard for the next four or five years, a span which no private enterprise could ever offer its employees.

I am not concerned about the immediate, or even the short-term, prospects of the dockyard. I am convinced that no sensible Government could ever, for regional economic planning reasons alone, consider any major change in the commitment of the Navy to Plymouth, and I am satisfied that no such change is even being contemplated. But it is true that we are reviewing the levels of the services, and this is done with my support. I have long felt that this country's world rôle needed to be reviewed, and I welcome the Defence White Paper which we debated yesterday. I strongly support its major recommendations.

Those who support the dockyard, and whose responsibility it is to look after the work prospects of their constituents, must be prepared to make the Government look beyond five, ten, or even 15 years. We have the right to ask the Government, of any political party, to make such provision and such contingency planning as will give our constituents the firm prospect of a viable prosperity and employment in the future. It is because Plymouth is so dependent on this major employer that I believe it to be vital that we should diversify our economy. This means that we must be able to attract industry.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

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

Dr. Owen

The essential point which I wish the Government to realise is that because of its traditional skills and heavy industry Plymouth can offer to any industry that may come in a potential for expansion and diversification that can be offered by no other city or town in the South-West Region. We hope that a thriving industrial centre can be built up.

Not many of us would want to see the whole of the South-West comprised of factories and major industrial centres. The area has great attributes and beauty. It has a thriving tourist industry which we do not wish to change. But we also have a responsibility to ensure that people living in this region can find employment. For many years now there have been high areas of employment in certain pockets of the region. The Government, by making a development area of most of Cornwall and large areas of Devon, have done a great deal to help, and their emphasis on advance factories has been welcomed.

But the location of industry cannot be entirely dependent on changing the high unemployment rates which exist in localised areas; it must also depend upon creating a viable industrial structure, not only for that area or region but also for the national economy, because it has always been our case that regional economic planning, wisely carried out, adds to the growth prospects of the nation's economy. It is not a purely static approach that we are urging but a dynamic concept of modern economic management.

It is to this that I wish the Government to address their attention. There may come a time when it would be better to concentrate on the migration of labour. Certainly this is an important part of location policy. The emphasis that the Government place on the mobility of labour, the retraining of labour and the need for rehousing in specific areas shows that they are well aware of this, but I wish that they would realise that if the person who cannot find work in Cornwall wishes to move, at the moment he can go only to the Midlands or to the London area or to the South-East, adding to the already existing congestion.

It is true that many Government measures have provided employment, so that such a person can keep himself in Cornwall, but there comes a time when he has to move out of the area altogether. Depopulation has been a major problem in the South-West for many years.

How much more would such a person prefer to move to Plymouth and to bring up his family within the far South-West rather than to go completely outside the region. It is this concept of strategical regional planning in which a growth centre is a major attraction that I wish to recommend to the Government. If we deal with Plymouth not just as an industrial centre but as a large centre of population we can spread the benefits throughout the far South-West.

I am not speaking only for Plymouth; this is the central argument of the South-West Economic Planning Council's Report. It has deliberately looked at this problem and has asked itself, "If Plymouth becomes a development area will it impair the employment prospects and the location of industry prospects for Cornwall and parts of North Devon?" Its conclusion is that it will not. For these reasons alone we can exclude the possibility that making Plymouth into a development area will harm the prospects of other local areas which often have much higher unemployment rates.

The other argument which I hope will not be used is that Plymouth is a grey area. I do not accept that and hope that it will not be one of the reasons for delaying the decision whether Plymouth should be incorporated in a development area until the publication of Sir Joseph Hunt's report. There are strong reasons for declaring Plymouth a development area, so as to lay the foundation for future economic prosperity, and these are in no way related to the grey areas or the impending report. There are other areas in the South West which I would call "green areas", with many similarities to the drab grey areas of the centre of the country.

These growth centres, talked about in the regional planning council's report, should be looked at, but Plymouth's case is quite distinct, depending on its innate vulnerability and dependence on one major industry and employer. Wages there are very low. Anyone visiting Plymouth will see it rebuilt on the ashes of the severe bombing of the Second World War, but should not be misled by these achievements. He will see a clean and apparently prosperous city, but behind the appearance are people on notoriously low wages from a very bad employer.

I am glad to see that the Government, acting on the recommendation of the Prices and Incomes Board, have increased the wages of the key industrial workers in the dockyard, but this is still not nearly enough. One reason that wages are so low is that there is no other industry to diversify its economy, and this is vital if the region is to prosper. I hope that the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) will also take part in this debate, because it is in no sense a party debate. All three major parties are agreed that the recommendations of the Report should be implemented as soon as possible and we fervently hope that the Government will do so after due consideration.

There was a widespread misunderstanding in the South-West, arising from a fortuitous coincidence of replies, that the Government had declared that Plymouth should not be a development area, but the Minister of State has made it clear that the President of the Board of Trade will consider the Report's recommendations carefully. He knows, as we do, that this is the result of considerable effort over the years by people who have given up their time to develop what they call a strategy for the far South-West.

The Report says: Plymouth, which historically has looked outwards across the oceans, must turn and look inwards towards the land. The economic planning council has recommended that Plymouth has a responsibility to its region. This is one which Plymouth has always accepted. We ask the Government today to give us the opportunity to meet this challenge.

4.13 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth. Devon-port)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) on initiating this debate and on expressing himself so forcibly. I agree with him except on his acceptance of the Defence White Paper, which I cannot endorse.

There has been a considerable change since the Economic Council was set up. I remember leading a deputation from the then Socialist city council to the Minister of the day to protest against a previous report. but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that today both sides of the House and all West Country Members support its proposals for Plymouth's future. I was, therefore, a little disappointed when I put down a Question—it was not quite fortuitous. Incidentally—to receive a reply from the President of the Board of Trade that he was not convinced that any change was necessary in making Plymouth into a development area. The object of the debate is to convince him, as he can be convinced. Several things have happened since he replied to my Questions. For instance, there is the Defence White Paper. Changes in the Royal Navy in the 1970s may affect Devonport, so this may enable the Minister to take a longer-term view of the situation.

I was also told that it was estimated by the firms concerned that they would provide 730 additional jobs when fully manned. What I wanted to know was what was meant by "when fully manned". Does it mean that the posts have not been taken up? It does not help us if we have the jobs but they are not fully manned.

I support the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton in saying that Plymouth does not want charity we want what we think is our due. He mentioned the Local Employment Act, 1959. As a result of that Act our unemployment figures fell from 4.9 per cent. below the national average, and that is why we were taken out of the Act. This we could do again, if we were even temporarily a development area. One of our main difficulties is our dependence on the service trades, for 18 per cent. of the employed people are employed in those trades. Were it not for the vast expense on the Selective Employment Tax we should be in a much better position: it is a pernicious tax that causes unemployment.

The previous debate was on tourism. About 35 million people take holidays in England and one in five of them previously went to Devon and Cornwall. We have had the difficulties of S.ET. and of the oil on the beaches, and it has made a difference this year to the number of visitors. I would emphasise that the beaches are quite clean. We should emphasise this all the time. However. I feel that this is the right moment to include Plymouth in a development area. The South-West is a small development area. We are on the very edge of such areas, and I am worried in case there is a drain of population to the other development areas. When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Coventry. East (Mr. Crossman) suggested that Plympton and Plymstock should be included in the Plymouth area he stated "in order to avoid a dying city". I should stress that Plymouth is not a dying city, but we have now extra population for whom we have to provide work.

There is a shortage of work, particularly for women and young people. The Report for the South-West suggests further office accommodation and perhaps industry provided in the area by Government Departments. One of the main difficulties is that young people have to go outside the area if they want other than manual jobs. We have a new population of younger people for whom work has to be found.

In a geographical magazine recently Plymouth was described as a Cinderella town. But, as has been said, the roads are gradually being improved and we hope that in the near future a decision will be made about the airport. We lost our airport as a result of the Harrowbeer Bill and this made difficulties in the area, but we got the Tamar Bridge which has been a great help in bringing people from Cornwall to Plymouth and enabling a number of people to travel from Cornwall over the river to work in Plymouth.

The docks, too, are worthy of consideration as they are working at half capacity. I also make a plea on behalf of the women in the area, because there is great under-employment among them. As far as I am aware, there are no retraining establishments. There is an excellent one for men at Plympton. A great many women marry much earlier now, and when their children have gone to school they would like to take up further work involving retraining. There is a great future for the South-West, and I am looking forward to the right hon. Gentleman's reply, because I am sure that as usual he will be helpful.

4.15 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. George Darling)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) and the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devon-port (Dame Joan Vickers) will not misunderstand me if I say that it would have been better if this debate had taken place at a different time. It would have been better, as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, if the debate could have had a wider setting. Neither hon. Member has suggested that we should talk only about Plymouth, but to discuss the whole of the strategy of the South-West requires far more time than we can give today.

May I take up the last point raised by the hon. Lady, and suggest that she ought not to press this proposal that heavy road traffic ought to be banned at weekends. It would not be an inducement to bring industrialists to the area.

Both hon. Members have put forward the claim for Plymouth to be designated a development area, with all the financial benefits and inducements to attract industrial expansion which development area status would provide.

They have based their claim not only on the employment situation, but on strong arguments of regional planning. I want to follow the line that both hon. Members have taken to begin with, to try to put the needs of Plymouth for new industries and the expansion of the city's existing industries, first of all in the very difficult national setting, which any Government has to take into consideration and then, briefly, in the regional setting.

You may recollect, Mr. Speaker, although I have only very vague and confused memories, the number of Adjournment debates and other debates that I have attempted to answer over the last few years on claims put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the House for the extension of the development area status to their constituencies. Because the request that Plymouth should be a development area just about completes the coastline, I should like to mention that the first debate of this kind that I had to answer was the request that Bridlington should be given development area status.

Since then we have gone all the way down the east coast, taking in the whole of Humberside, down to East Anglia and the Medway towns, Sheerness and Dover. Now we have come right round the south coast, with partiular emphasis on places such as Weymouth and Plymouth. Then we went up the Bristol Channel to Barrow and Severnside, and further north to Blackpool, Fleetwood, and Morecambe, right up to the Northern development area boundary.

In many cases the arguments put forward included the perfectly genuine point put forward by my right hon. Friend, that many of these places could be growth centres. It will be understood, however, that although these coastal towns have peculiar employment problems, it would be impossible to designate the whole of the coastal area of the country as a development area. It would be awfully difficult to get any order of priorities if we tried to solve the problems of the coastal areas by giving them development area status.

We also have to take into account the fact that there are other places outside development areas, away from the coast, with problems far more serious than those in any of the coastal towns, including Plymouth. There is the problem of what are now called the "grey" areas, though I certainly agree that we could not include Plymouth in the grey area problem. I am, of course, referring to the older industrial areas where the traditional industries are rapidly declining—not dying out. Because of rationalisation and other causes they need far fewer workers now than they did even ten or fifteen years ago.

For instance, in the last fifteen years the cotton industry has lost over 200,000 jobs and one can understand the problems that that creates in Lancashire and in towns not one-tenth as attractive to new industry as Plymouth is. More than 100,000 men have left the coal industry, and 100,000 jobs have been lost on the railways. There are fewer jobs in shipbuilding and in iron and steel. These are the industries, and the areas in which they are situated, which have thrown up serious problems of redeployment of labour which we must urgently tackle, and are tackling.

Special measures are needed in these cases but, over and above the problem of local employment outside the development areas, we have to face the deep-rooted problems of the development areas themselves. There cannot possibly at this stage be any relaxing of the special inducements needed to bring about the industrial regeneration of the development areas, nor can we spread the inducements of the development areas in such a way that we frustrate the attractiveness of the inducements for the development areas themselves.

What we can do, what we are doing and what we intend to continue to do is to pursue a very liberal policy of approving industrial development certificate applications not only in the grey areas, where they are urgently needed, but in areas such as Plymouth where there are special problems of geography, transport and regional development. I understand perfectly well the arguments that can be advanced, and which have been advanced so forcefully in this short debate, for giving exceptional treatment to industrial development certificate applications and for other types of assistance, from not just the Board of Trade but from the Ministry of Transport and other Departments for cities such as Plymouth.

For this reason we greatly welcome the planning reports of the various economic councils. As my hon. Friend said, the report on the South-West is aptly entitled "Draft Strategy for the South-West". I have been able only to glance through the report, but it seems to be a first-class survey of the area, its problems and needs, and the recommendations for dealing with the problems are such as one would expect from Professor Tress and his colleagues. But neither Professor Tress nor the hon. Members would expect me today to comment on the many recommendations. These recommendations will be examined, not only by the Board of Trade but by every Government Department concerned so that we may either accept some of the proposals, or come forward with proposals of our own arising from the recommendations, and we will certainly deal with the matter with the sense of urgency that the report properly demands.

I turn to Plymouth's immediate problems. As both hon. Members have said, the city is the major centre in the South-West region. It has a wide range of employment. I know that both hon. Members say that the range is too narrow but, compared with other cities with similar problems, Plymouth has a fairly wide range of employment. It has a comparatively high proportion of employment in the service trades and professions, and the dockyard is of major importance in the manufacturing centre.

Employment has grown. Since 1960 it has gone up by 10 per cent. although, admittedly, growth has now been checked. This is a result of the decline of employment in the dockyard and the rundown in industry generally.

As my hon. Friend rightly said that unemployment in the area has increased in the last 12 months. I do not want to minimise the question of unemployment which exists at the moment but, to answer the question which was put by the hon. Lady, new projects which have recently been announced for the city include those of Barden Corporation, manufacturers of ball-bearings, Gleasons, manufacturers of gear cutting blades, and Wrigley and Company Ltd. These projects and other smaller schemes—I used the same phrase—are expected to provide about 700 extra jobs when they are fully manned. When a firm starts with its project it has to get machines in and will not get its full employment roll until after a period of time. This depends on the industry and its prospects and how it is planning ahead. I hope that the fully-manned situation will not take too long to come about.

Plymouth has considerable attractions as an industrial location. I am very glad that my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady mentioned the security of jobs which the dockyard offers at present. My hon. Friend mentioned the refitting of "Ark Royal" and the conversion of H.M.S. "Tiger". When these have been completed H.M.S. "Eagle" will be adapted to operate Phantom aircraft. Devonport will also have to refit the modem and more complex ships of the Fleet such as commando ships, assault ships, destroyers, frigates and submarines. It is impossible to give specific assurances about the long-term future of any Naval establishment, but I am informed that the refitting of these modern and complex ships will provide a full load of work for Devonport Dockyard for some years to come.

The hon. Lady raised the question of employment of women as office workers. Two Government Departments are transferring to Plymouth and a new Land Registry provincial office will be set up, which will eventually employ 650 people, mostly women. The Location of Offices Bureau in its attempt to get offices out of London has found a great deal of interest shown in Plymouth and is doing all it can—the numbers are not much at the moment but when once a process like this starts it soon builds up—to persuade firms to move from London to Plymouth.

We recognise that Plymouth has great attractions, but it also has some considerable problems because of its location. I cannot go into the transport problems and say anything more about the new spine road but there are possibilities of Plymouth becoming one of the overspill areas from London. I believe that a pilot scheme has been agreed in principle with Greater London Council. We shall see how this develops. I would not compare the problems of Plymouth with those which we have to place in other parts of the country. The problems are there and the opportunities are there. I feel sure that with proper examination of the report we have from the Regional Planning Council we shall have the means of helping not only Plymouth but the whole South-West to become a really attractive tourist area and also for its appropriate degree of industrial expansion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock, till Monday, 23rd October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 25th July.