HC Deb 22 January 1969 vol 776 cc615-28

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

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

With a rate of unemployment of 6 per cent. overall, 9 per cent. for men, there is no need for me to exaggerate the difficulties in Sunderland. At the moment, we have 85 persons unemployed for every vacancy. We can take this consolation, for what it is worth: the position is not as bad as it was in 1962–63. On the other hand, the unemployment this time has been more persistent than it was earlier.

It is important, first, to look at the nature of the unemployment. No less than 60 per cent. of those unemployed are under 45 years of age and 20 per cent. are between the ages of 25 and 34. Within the total of unemployed, there are hundreds of skilled craftsmen. Patently, therefore, the unemployed are a good labour force; patently, they are employable; and patently, if we had the opportunities that obtain in the Midlands and the South-East, we would have as low figures of unemployment as they have.

Nearly 400 miners are unemployed, just on 800 shipyard workers and, although we have considerable development going on in the town, 1,500 construction workers. If these figures are meaningful they stress the importance of training and retraining. One realises this by looking even at the basic industries, such as shipbuilding. Here one appreciates the importance of the present six-month training course for skilled machinists. It is urgent that we should make wider provision for training and retraining.

I do not suggest that nothing has been done. I have paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade for the energy she has shown in tackling our problems. In our major industry, shipbuilding, and its ancillaries, we have stable employment and the prospect of it for several years ahead. The Furness Yard can now promise 350 men their jobs. In the case of coal, although we have been affected by two pit closures, we have in the Wear-mouth Colliery again stable employment.

The problem with us is that, although we are providing security of employment in these industries which have been wracked by insecurity before, we are providing that security for fewer men, so that we are aggravating our unemployment difficulties.

I also acknowledge what has been done through development area policy. We have benefited from the massive aid given—the grants and loans, the regional employment premium, the rigorous I.D.C. policy and factory building. We are delighted that, today, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has announced that two more advance factories are to be built in Sunderland- We appreciate that development has begun on the Board of Trade estate at Pennywell, and that the corporation will be beginning work on the Leechmere Estate.

At the same time—and very important—there are considerable developments in the town itself. The central redevelopment scheme is nearing completion and this makes an enormous difference to the commercial centre. The civic development is making good progress and will be completed next year. Although I am unrepentant in demanding a technological university for Sunderland, we have one of the first polytechnics.

Again, and also of considerable importance, We have had a dramatic change in the provision of the roads servicing Sunderland. The driving of an M-road through the county and the opening of the Tyne Tunnel has brought in its train considerable road development which has made an enormous difference to our communications.

In other words, although we are enduring hard times, I would not complain that the time is being wasted. A good deal has been done and, because of this, I believe that now we should make a real drive to obtain more employment for the town. The foundations have been laid and we had better build upon them.

I have always said that I believe development area policy to be too diffuse and not sufficiently specific. I have mentioned, as an example of specific aid—the Furness Yard. This has fully justified the Government money which has been put in. In the same way, I would like to see more specific direct action about the advance factory which, unfortunately, still remains vacant. I know all the difficulties about this factory, but I believe that the Department should give this matter top priority. Our needs are much greater than those of other places in the development area.

We have argued generally about preference in Government contracts. We in Sunderland benefit a good deal from Government contracts, but I would like a more specific preference to be given, not so much to the development area, but to Sunderland.

I argue—as I always have done—that development area policy is not sufficiently comprehensive and inclusive. I am sure that the River Wear Commissioners could say that the increase in port dues makes sense. I am sure that the National Coal Board could say that the closure of the Wearmouth staiths makes sense. I am certain that the Ministry of Transport could say that centralised registration makes sense. I expect that British Railways will be able to make a substantial case to justify the withdrawal of the direct services.

What we do not appreciate sufficiently, however, is the cumulative effect on Sunderland of all those decisions and the cumulative effect at this time of such great difficulty. I have mentioned the port and I hope that someone will look at the recent suggestion that we should have the development of a small containerisation berth similar to that at Leith.

We should equally pay the same attention and regard to Government capital expenditure generally. Although this might make good sense Departmentally, I feel, in the same way, that insufficient attention is paid to the specific effect that this can have on a place like Sunderland, with its present heavy unemployment. I would not for one moment complain that Sunderland has not had its fair share of the school building programme, but I would like specific attention to be paid to Sunderland. I would like reconsideration of the St. Aidans proposals in the light of our current difficulties. It is also relevant in this context, as I have always argued, that the Government should consider backing development area policy with public enterprise. We should not stop merely at providing the factory buildings. Where there are difficulties such as we have in Sunderland, we should consider public enterprise supporting not only the factory construction, but also production in the factories.

I have paid genuine tribute to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) and I appreciate very much what she has done in aiding us in Sunderland. At the same time, this is a matter of general policy and I am not being personal in saying that there is not a sufficient awareness of Sunderland's problems, either in Whitehall or, for that matter, in the region.

Mr. Dan Smith visited us 12 months ago, but I am not satisfied that the Northern Economic Planning Council, perhaps because of the way it is constituted, pays sufficient regard to the particular problems of Sunderland. It is for this reason that I have in the past argued that we should have special area status for Sunderland. I know that the Department can say, as it has done before, that that status was devised for areas with exceptionally high unemployment through pit closures, but with 400 miners unemployed, I claim that we qualify on that ground.

What I am concerned about, however, and what the Department and the Government are concerned about, are exceptional circumstances, which we are suffering. My plea and that of my hon. Friend is that the special difficulties of Sunderland should be recognised. In speaking of the special difficulties of Sunderland, one is bound to recognise the difficulties of the whole Wearside complex. If we do that I am convinced it would lead to the conclusion that what we need on Wearside is a large industrial estate—in spite of the fact that we are having the Pennywell and the Leechmere estates developed. I know the difficulties about land, but there are at least two sites which ought to be considered. What I am anxious about is that in tackling a problem like this we should look at it comprehensively and inclusively and recognise that Sunderland—this is very important to our future—is not only an industrial town but a commercial centre and ought to be the hub of this industrial area.

What I hope this debate will do is that it will emphasise to my hon. Friend the need for immediate and urgent action. I am convinced that if we take this opportunity that we now have for a greater push that action will be effective and will help us with our problems in Sunderland.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)

It is very difficult in the very short time which is available to us tonight to raise the whole of the problems of Wearside, and difficult, also, not to duplicate what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has said; and in following him I say at once that I completely underline every one of the points he has made, though I will try to make one or two additional points.

I recall rising in a similar Adjournment debate in July, 1967, to draw the attention of this House to the serious situation in Sunderland. I hoped that this time, 18 months later, we could have a different atmosphere. We have; but, unfortunately, that atmosphere is one of a worsening situation, particularly because of the numbers of unemployed we have in the town. The situation can be analysed in many different ways. We can accept that the Government have poured a tremendous amount of help into the area, and that Sunderland has had a fair share. We can accept that the shipbuilding industry is a much more stabilised industry than it was 18 months or two years ago.

This has all been achieved by positive Government help, and we have no grumbles there, but one of the effects of rationalisation, of Geddes, is to have produced a stabilised work force which, unfortunately, is not an increased work force, and this is having its effect in not taking up the slack of the number of unemployed, and our unemployment figures have gone up.

What is our need? What we really need is a complete examination of what are the various and numerous factors which my right hon. Friend has mentioned and the accumulation of which contributes to our difficulties—the centralisation of various bodies towards Tees-side and Tyneside, the centralisation of various things in Wearmouth. There is an accumulation of different things which add up to a rather bad story for Sunderland. A significant number of construction workers, a very high proportion, about 1,500, are out of work, and that augurs very badly for the future. It is very significant that the housebuilding programme; which the corporation was planning has dried up, and that will add to the problems within the next year.

It is very difficult to take the Government to task by saying they have not done enough. It is extremely difficult to say what we would do more which would solve the problem. We give credit to the Government, as my right hon. Friend has done, and to their various methods of aid given to us. Nevertheless, the positive fact remains that we have a worsening situation.

I would call on my hon. Friend to have conversations with various Ministries which could help. For example, the Treasury could be approached with a positive request that in deciding the site of the Inland Revenue's Schedule E computer centre Wearside should be considered. I see no earthly reason why it should not be considered for that. If other bodies can talk about centralising from Sunderland to Newcastle because it is only 13 to 15 miles away, then there is no reason why the reverse argument should not apply, and I would ask my hon. Friend to press strongly our claims, which we have been pressing over a period of months now, that Sunderland should be given considerable thought as the site of the Inland Revenue's Schedule E computer.

I underline the plea of my right hon. Friend for special development area status. I appreciate, as he did, that this is tied up with the aid given for the running down of the coal mining industry. We are surrounded by pockets and areas of special development status and there is no telling how much this affects the final decision of where industry will or will not settle. The additional aid which may be given to special development areas is significant and may make just that difference.

There have been many inquiries about the North-East being a development area. When I have ask the North-East Development Council and other bodies about Sunderland, I am interested in knowing the answer. Quite often the answer is in terms of hard brutal cash. That is one aspect and the other aspect is land. As a region we have our problems, but I can see a little light at the end of the day. There has been a vast improvement in many parts of the region, which is shown by the figures, but the figures for Wearside make a sad story.

For every male vacancy in the Wearside area, which takes in a slightly larger catchment area than Sunderland alone, 85 men are chasing every vacancy, compared with 13 on Tyneside, eight on Tees-side and three for Great Britain as a whole. Those figures are far more significant than the percentages of unemployed. For the man who is unemployed the percentage is 100 per cent., but in areas where the percentage of unemployment is 40 per cent. there may be only eight people unemployed. The 5,000 unemployed, and 7,000 taking the whole of the Wearside areas, calls for serious thinking from the Government.

While I pay tribute to the Government for the various aids which have already been given, I want to repeat what I said in 1967, that it is time private enterprise proved that there was a bit more enterprise about them and took advantage of these highly skilled unemployed men who are only too anxious to use their skills to add to the national cake instead of taking out of it. There are many willing and able workers on Wearside who want to help to increase the gross national product of the country instead of taking out of it.

I hope that my hon. Friend has taken note of what my right hon. Friend and I have said. I am sure that she will have done so, and that she will draw the attention of all the Ministries who can help us through this difficult period on Wearside.

10.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has done a great deal to bring to the attention of the House the problems of Sunderland. I have listened with great interest to his remarks and to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier).

I share their concern about the high level of unemployment in Sunderland, and on Greater Wearside generally, but, as I hope to indicate in the short time available to me, the picture is not entirely black and there are real grounds for confidence in the future of the area. Wearside has been affected by the decline in the heavy industries which have traditionally been the mainstay of employment in the area, but the measures which have been taken to encourage new industry into the area are having a definite effect, and I look forward to a greater diversification of industry on Wearside with a consequently broader and stronger base on which to build its prosperity.

This is not say, of course, that the traditional industries will no longer play an important part in the economy of the area. It is encouraging to know, for example, shipbuilding order books are in a healthy state, with 36 ships currently on order on Greater Wearside to a total of over three-quarters of a million gross tons.

I hope my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not confine consideration of the problem to too narrow an area, for we must not reject any solution which would involve people travelling reasonable distances to work, if they will assist the employment pattern. Daily travel-to-work is increasingly an accepted part of life for a great many people, and in an area with good transport facilities it should not be a great hardship. The analysis of the travel-to-work pattern for the Sunderland County Borough which derives from the 1961 Census shows that over 16,000 residents of Sunderland County Borough worked elsewhere, but on the other hand, there were nearly 11,000 people who worked in the area but were resident elsewhere. The whole of the area I would like to discuss tonight does lie within ten miles of the centre of Sunderland.

My right hon. Friend has argued that special development area benefits should be made available in Sunderland. I can assure him that this is a proposal to which I have given careful thought on several occasions in recent months. I have, however, come to the conclusion—and this is the answer which I have to give to my right hon. Friend tonight—that we would not be justified in giving special development area status to Wearside or to Sunderland alone. The House will recall that the special development areas were created in November, 1967 for a specific purpose—the provision of new jobs in areas where the impact of the colliery closure programme was likely to be felt most acutely, although I take the point made by my hon. Friend that there are unemployed miners in Sunderland.

The places which have been chosen as special development areas are, in general, those areas where, in the absence of special measures, the run-down in coal mining was expected to cause very high and persistent unemployment. Many of these places are remote areas where there is at present little or no alternative employment to coal mining. Although there have been pit closures in the Sunderland area, local industry is becoming more diversified and new firms are being attracted into the area. If special development area incentives were extended more widely, their impact would be lessened in those places which are likely to find most difficulty in attracting new industry.

As my right hon. Friend well knows, special development area benefits are already available over a substantial part of the North-East; and their extension to so large an industrial complex as Wear-side would inevitably to some extent be at the expense of existing special development areas in the Northern Region and elsewhere.

I realise that my hon. Friend is very concerned, as we all are, about the fact that the Board of Trade factory in Sunderland is awaiting a tenant. It is very unfortunate that this factory, is taking longer than some to obtain a tenant and to make its contribution to the employment needs of Sunderland, despite the fact that no effort has been spared to bring the premises to the notice of all interested enquirers.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept that we in the Board of Trade are fully seized of the urgency of the problem facing Sunderland. We are not complacent about the difficulties, and are doing all that we can to get the factory filled. On the other hand, I am sure that he will be encouraged to know that we still have faith in the attractiveness of Sunderland to industry. This faith has been demonstrated today by the announcement by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade that the programme of new Board of Trade advance factories includes not merely one but two factories on the Pennywell Estate. I am glad that we are able to see the Pennywell Estate going ahead in a constructive fashion. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend are aware that we have had considerable geological difficulties with this site. In spite of the efforts that have been made, not only by my Department but those concerned in the setting up of this trading estate, there has been some difficulty simply in getting ahead as a result of the geological problems which needed to be solved before we could build on the site. These factories will be of 15,000 and 25,000 square feet respectively. With the existing factory of 50,000 square feet and with these two factories to come, all with room for expansion, we shall be able to meet a considerable range of demand for different sizes of factory.

Additionally, further factory building is in prospect at Houghton-le-Spring, and the Washington Development Corporation have four factories currently available. Any industrialist with this area in mind can be sure of finding not only a factory suited to his needs, but a fund of highly skilled and willing workers.

During 1968, the Board of Trade arranged visits to Sunderland by eight firms interested in moving into the area, and to Washington by 48.

Washington New Town, five miles west of Sunderland, is beginning to make an important contribution to the economic expansion of the area. Since the designation of Washington as a new town in 1964, 30 factories have been built, of which 27 are occupied, another 10 are under construction and 18 are planned to start construction this year. Naturally, many of the people who work in these factories will have their homes in Washington, but there has been specific agreement between the Washington Development Corporation and the Sunderland Council that the Development Corporation would do all they could in their factory programme to provide jobs for Sunderland residents.

During the past three years, nine new firms have established themselves, or are in the process of doing so, in the Sunderland, Southwick, Houghton-le-Spring and Washington employment exchange areas, and when these factories are in full production over 1,100 jobs will be provided. A little further afield, but still of prime importance for employment prospects in the area is the major development by the Avon Rubber Co. in Washington.

That this is a continuing trend is shown by the fact that since 1st January, 1966, 57 industrial development certificates totalling over 1.9 million square feet and estimated to provide 3,900 jobs have been issued for the Greater Wearside area.

Jobs in prospect expected to arise in the Sunderland area within the next four years in authorised new industrial buildings and in existing buildings taken over by manufacturing firms amount to 2,310 including 1,850 for males. In the Greater Wearside area there are about 3,400 jobs in prospect, including over 2,500 for males.

While the traditional industries of Wearside are nearing the end of a painful but essential reshaping, the new industry is on its way into the area. We realise that the immediate problem concerns not only my right hon. Friend, but his hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South raised a valid point. He asked whether we may, through Whitehall, take a more immediate and interventionist rôle in some of the problems, such as those that could be raised by the setting up of the computer centre. I hope that my hon. Friend will not feel that I am being too depressing, but when these opportunities arise for the dispersal of Government offices we survey the whole sphere of development areas. Sunderland would certainly be considered equally with other places where the project is suitable for a town the size of Sunderland. For a large project, with special requirements and employment potential of 2,000 to 3,000 tax staff, however, Sunderland might find it difficult to accommodate them. Nevertheless, we will certainly bear this very much in mind and bring it to the attention of the Department concerned.

I do not wish to be overconfident or to appear to undervalue the real and immediate social problems that I know Sunderland is facing, but I have confidence in its future. I hope that certainly within a very short time my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend will be able to come to the House and say that they feel that some part of their immediate problems have been dealt with.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.