HC Deb 20 July 1970 vol 804 cc197-208

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

11.44 p.m.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I am grateful for this opportunity so early in the lifetime of the new Parliament to raise the question of the future of Border development. I wish at the outset to congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) on his appointment, not just as an Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, but as Under-Secretary of State for Development, with that specific name, which is particularly welcome. I hope that in office he will take an early opportunity to visit the area which we are discussing tonight. We shall be very glad to see him.

I begin by expressing a general point of anxiety before I come to particular policy for that area. I refer to the future of investment grants for industry. This is a matter that has already been debated in the House, but I underline that in regard to the Borders the investment grant system, both for plant and machinery and for buildings, has worked and has proved attractive, particularly to small firms. I do not believe that a return to taxation allowances, which would be of advantage only to those firms which make a profit, would be as successful a policy. I hope that the policy of investment grants will not be departed from too readily by the new Administration.

I turn now to the matters concerning the area of the country which has been the subject of public debate in recent years. In the White Paper on the Scottish Economy in 1966, the previous Administration committed themselves to attempting to see the population of my constituency increased by the tune of 25,000. This was an attempt to bring back the population to the level existing at the beginning of the century. This policy was right because, over many years and especially in the last 10-year Census period 1951–61, there had been a severe drop in the population. The figure in the 10-year period was 6 per cent. overall, but, far more serious, in the age group 20 to 45 the figure was about 20 per cent., which is quite an alarming drain of local man and woman power. I am glad to say that, since the 1961 Census, there has been a slight increase in the population, indicating that the industrial development policies have at least been having some effect. But we are nowhere near meeting the targets.

I come to the major point of difficulty in the development policy, which is the delay in the Tweedbank Scheme. In the 1966 White Paper, the Government were committed to establishing a "trigger" development in the Borders of some 1,000 houses and associated factories near Galashiels. There has already been a delay of more than two years in making a start on the scheme. There have been two public inquiries and one Court of Session case, and now I hear that there is the possibility of a further case before the courts or even an appeal as far as the House of Lords.

I asked a Question on the subject of the Secretary of State only last week. I wanted to know whether the Government regarded themselves as still committed to the Tweedbank Scheme. The only reply that I got was that it was a matter which, like so many others, was still under consideration. I want to press the Under-Secretary on this point tonight.

There was a feeling in the area, though I think that it was not justified, that one of the reasons why the owners of the land were delaying and continuing to press their opposition to the acquisition of the land was their hope that a Conservative Government would be elected and would not press ahead with the development. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will scotch that suggestion once and for all tonight and make it clear that the Government are still committed to the scheme.

The latest move is that Galashiels Town Council has decided to appeal to the owners of the property, Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton, and to try to persuade them to relinquish their opposition to the scheme. I wish the council every success. I have myself tried to persuade the Hamiltons before now, as have others. I believe that the town council is right to make this approach. Faced with a situation in which there are 40 construction workers in different trades unemployed in the area and in which there is a mill closing resulting in 130 workers losing their jobs in Galashiels, no one with any sense of public responsibility or social conscience could fail to recognise the need to get ahead with the development and to allow no further obstruction. I hope, too, that the Government will add their appeal to that which has already been made to the owners of the land to allow the development to go ahead.

I have referred to the mill closure in Galashiels. Just before the election I made a speech in my constituency about the effect of mergers and the growth of monopolies in the tweed and knitwear industries, the staple industries of the area. I pointed out what I believe is one of the facts of life: that as the old traditional independent mills become concentrated in fewer hands with the ownership outside the area, so it will inevitably follow that there is less local patriotism and less sentiment in the operation of the industry than before. In the long run this may be a good thing, but in the short run the change may be painful.

I am supported in that view by what has happened in the last fortnight. A firm in Bradford has decided to rationalise its production and to close its mill in Galashiels with the consequent effect on 130 people at present employed there. This is a serious trend, of which the Government should be fully aware.

In the meantime, without waiting for the Tweedbank development to get ahead, it is right that the Government should continue to encourage the burghs to expand into new industry.

Kelso Town Council was uniquely fortunate in getting ahead with it some years ago.

Jedburgh is hoping to attract new industry. It is well prepared for it.

There is particular scope for development at Hawick, which is the largest town in the area, where the Government are presumably still continuing the Scottish Department development study of the potential of the area.

Selkirk is now well equipped, with the recent go ahead for further allocation of S.S.H.A. houses, to attract new industry.

Peebles has made a successful start in attracting an American firm, and hopes to expand on its industrial estate.

The one industrial burgh which has not so far made progress is Innerleithen where some attention is required to get alternative employment into the town.

I hope that the Government will indicate that they will encourage the local authorities to go ahead, Tweedbank or no Tweedbank, with their schemes to attract new industry and that they will receive every support from central Government in so doing.

I turn from industrial development to the vexed question of transport facilities in the area. The previous Administration withdrew the passenger services and then the freight services from the Waverley line amid, naturally, considerable local opposition. Since then a private company, the Border Union Railway Company, has been attempting to get together a scheme for taking over the line and re-introducing some kind of service. It has not proved possible for it to do this in any short term way. However, it is hoping to acquire the land on which the railway has run, which is a relatively less expensive exercise, with a view to retaining the railway formation and at some future date reopening the service. I hope that the Government will again indicate that they will directly, or through British Rail, give every encouragement to this possibility. If the land were sold off piecemeal, there would never again be any possible future use for this through route in the Border region. It is important to keep it intact. The Government claim to be the Government of free enterprise. Here is a free enterprise company. I hope that the Government will give it every encouragement in its efforts to retain the railway formation.

The member of the Government in the House of Lords gave an inaccurate Answer last week to the noble Lord, Lord Napier and Ettrick, when he said that the company concerned had withdrawn from negotiations. This is not so, and it is important that every effort be made to encourage it.

In the meantime we are left with the "adequate alternative services" which we were promised by bus. Here there is serious ground for complaint. Complaints have been made not only by individual constituents of mine but by local authorities and the chamber of commerce both to the previous Secretary of State and to the Minister of Transport. The fact is that we still have a poor quality of bus service, vehicles not of sufficiently high standard, inadequate time-tabling, lack of connections, and lack of bus shelters. All these, if not now, will be familiar complaints to the Under-Secretary.

My basic criticism is that none of the cash saving that was made by the Government on the closure of the Waverley line has been diverted to any capital programme for the purchase of new vehicles and the provision of bus shelters in providing an adequate alternative bus service. Nothing has been provided to improve the road to Newcastleton which has been particularly badly hit, and nothing has been provided to encourage the development of rural bus services in co-ordination with the Post Office on the lines of the experiment conducted in East Lothian. It is important that the Minister should use his general responsibility for road transport in Scotland to urge the Scottish Bus Group to be a little more adventurous in the services it provides, and to be more responsive to the complaints that have been made.

I deal next with the question of hospital facilities in the area, because this issue is intrinsically bound up with the economic development of the region. The South-East Regional Hospital Board has said that its next priority for the provision of a new district hospital within its region is the replacement of Peel Hospital, provided it gets the money necessary to do this from the Government. The hold-up in the Tweedbank scheme affects the priority which the Government will give to the hospital, but I hope that both the geriatric unit and the ear, nose and throat unit which have been announced will be built on the new hospital site, and that no more money on a large scale will be poured down the drain in Peel Hospital when we should be making use of the new site to get ahead and at least start building the first departments of what will be the new district hospital near Melrose.

Lastly, I hope that the Government will treat the Border area as a unit. It has been remarkably successful within the economic consultative group for the area in getting together. In the last few years there has been a big change in attitude, with North Northumberland, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Berwickshire, Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, and the local authorities pulling much more together than they did before, but at the same time the planning is still divided between the eastern Border development area—and perhaps the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) may say something about this—and the joint planning authority for the three counties which I represent.

I think that we could operate as a united area, and my last word to the Government is to ask that in considering their White Paper following the Wheatley local government proposals they will take into account the strong representations which have been made, not only by local authorities in the area and by myself, but by the regional development division of St. Andrews' House on the usefulness of maintaining the area as a large regional unit within Scotland to further the economic prospects of the whole region.

I welcome this opportunity of probing the Government at the outset of their administration on the future of this area, and I hope that they will have some cheerful news for us tonight.

11.58 p.m.

Mr. John P. Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian)

I am glad to participate in the debate, and to extend my good wishes to the new Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I know his deep concern for the area. I appreciate that he may not have had time fully to appraise himself of all the local problems, and I should like, therefore, to press him on one or two of the broader issues.

There is great concern in the area about the whole future of eastern Border as well as central Border development because of speeches made by the Prime Minister when he was President of the Board of Trade and Minister for Regional Development before 1964. He said then that Border development was not something on which the Conservative Party was concentrating. It was more interested in the development of growth points in the central industrial belt of Scotland and in the Newcastle area, and it did not think public money was usefully spent on developing rural areas such as the Borders. The right hon. Gentleman made that speech at Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the heart of this area.

Next, I refer to the right hon. Gentleman's speech at Dundee—about which the Minister knows—in September, 1969, when he said that the Conservative Party would have a Border development programme which put its money in areas where massive industrial growth was possible". That caused grave alarm in my constituency, because it is not an area where massive industrial growth is possible. Only small-scale growth is possible there. There was genuine worry that a Conservative Administration would return to the policy of growth points in respect of areas of rapid industrial expansion and de-emphasise those regional and rural areas of development where the task of getting development going is already incredibly difficult; and where few dice are loaded in favour of those growth points such as Galashiels, Cumbernauld, Glenrothes, Livingstone and East Kilbride, it would then become almost impossible to move.

The first assurance for which I ask is that the Conservative Government will do nothing to give differential advantage to these industrial areas, as opposed to areas of peripheral border or rural development. On this point I emphasise that we are worried because we hear that the regional employment premium is being phased out. There is an attempt by the hon. Gentleman and his party to do that. They said so in their manifesto.

I agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) that to move from investment grants to tax allowances would be difficult because so many small firms starting up cannot be sure that they will make a profit in their initial year or two when any extra money they make in fact makes a difference. Clearly in the huge areas of industrial development, where big firms are being set up, an investment allowance has the attraction of concentrating many of those firms which are doing well in areas such as the Borders.

If the hon. Member's party are phasing out regional employment premiums and bringing in tax grants they will make development in the Borders extremely difficult. I therefore press the Minister to assure us that nothing will be done to take away development area status from these regions, because it would finally destroy any possibility of pressing ahead with the Border development programme.

I would point out also that at the moment Border development schemes are getting under way. They are just beginning to have an impact and we are just beginning to fill our nursery factories; we are just beginning to interest industrialists in the area. To go back on this now would be a disaster for an area which has suffered a great deal of depopulation, which we cannot afford in social terms or in terms of the fact that we are already an overcrowded, small island.

Although it is not the hon. Member's responsibility, the eastern Borders area crosses the Border almost to Berwick-on-Tweed and North Northumberland, and the present Government has a commitment, just as the previous Government had, to raise the population of Berwick-on-Tweed from 12,000 to 20,000. The previous Government put in considerable resources. I ask the hon. Member to assure us that the whole programme of Border development in my constituency—which has not just got going but is well under way—will be retained and that nothing will be done to reduce its chances of success. I also ask for an assurance that any damage done by phasing out regional employment premiums and replacing them by investment allowances will be compensated for by the hon. Member and his Government.

12.4 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Younger)

I thank the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) for initiating this debate, and I also thank him and the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) for their kind remarks to me.

This is the first occasion on which we have had a debate on Border development since I undertook my new responsibilities. I shall not spend more than half a minute in answering the remarks of the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian, who made the speech that he has made on many occasions. I do not know how often we have to keep reminding him and reassuring him—but I shall try again tonight in the hope that it will convince him at last—that we have no intention of altering the present development areas. We have said this throughout the Election and many other times. I can assure him that the present development areas will be retained by the present Government.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the abolition of R.E.P., which he seemed to regard as the most terrible prospect. He may like to know that according to his own party's announcements, R.E.P. was scheduled to go out in 1974. On this point, therefore, I do not think we have anything to answer.

I will spend the remainder of the time available to me answering as many points as possible raised by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, and this gives me an early opportunity to make clear the Government's policy on Border development generally. The hon. Gentleman concentrated on what is generally known as the central Borders, which is the main sphere of his constituency interest. It is also where most of the intractable problems are. I will deal with this area, although at the conclusion of my remarks, if time allows, I will speak about the eastern Borders area, since this, too, is an area which is of concern to us, and I should not like anybody to think that we are not mindful of its problems.

Taking the Borders as a whole, current action in both the central and eastern areas stems directly from the regional studies which the last Conservative Administration put in hand in 1964 and which were mentioned in the White Paper which we issued in September of that year. They were put in hand when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State occupied the office which I now have the honour to hold in this Administration. Our concern for the problems of rural depopulation in this and other areas therefore goes back a long way; and although we were not destined, for electoral reasons, to follow up those studies ourselves, we have always recognised the vital need to take action, not only to stem depopulation but also positively to reverse the tide.

It was always clearly understood that it was our strategy to start by getting development and planning for the central region right, and we always made it clear throughout this period that our studies of the outer regions were an equally important part of the plan, and, indeed, this is now seen to have gone ahead.

The concept of a growth point in the central Borders is, therefore, very much in our mind, and I can say without equivocation that we accept Tweedbank as the place most likely to succeed in this respect. It has survived the test of two very searching public inquiries, after each of which the reporter recommended in principle in its favour. A great deal of preparatory work has gone into the scheme for industrial and residential development there, to the extent that virtually an immediate start could now be made. All in all, therefore, we believe that it would be foolish now to put this particular clock back. Indeed, we want to see Tweedbank come about, and that as quickly as possible.

It would not be right in this debate for me to go into the legal details and problems involved over Tweedbank, since I understand that Roxburgh County Council is currently considering its position in the light of the recent Court of Session rejection of the objectors appeal.

I wish to emphasise—and this must be borne in mind—that the objectors have their rights in this matter. They are trying to fulfil their own view and rights in the way that is open to all citizens of this country. Notwithstanding what I have said, I trust that these remarks will be kept in mind; that people have rights, whoever they are. But if the Press reports last Saturday are well founded, it appears that Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton are contemplating further action to try to quash the compulsory purchase order.

In a legal sense, the Secretary of State is now what is known legally as "functus" in this matter. But since it was the former Secretary of State who was the confirming authority, I propose to have early discussions with the County Council to review the legal position with it. More than that I do not think it would be proper for me to say on the legal aspects of the matter. However, as a matter of policy, I reiterate that we are determined to support and encourage the revitalisation of the central Borders in any way we can.

In the meantime, I have been glad to notice the progress which has been made by the Border burghs in the process of building themselves up. I agreed with the remarks of the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles about this. This build-up has always been seen as an integral part of the Johnson Marshall plan. All credit is due to the local authorities that it has gone ahead faster than was originally envisaged.

The local authorities have generally shown commendable initiative in their endeavours to make serviced sites available for industry and housing and for educational and other provisions for new population in respect of industrial growth, but we and they must face the fact that very few large sites are available or can be provided in the burghs to cater for the needs of bigger incoming industries. The thresholds of these are physical rather than economic, and it is essential that provision for the future should not stop short with Tweedbank and nothing else. It is perhaps not surprising that one tends to be mesmerised into thinking that Tweedbank is the beginning and end of Border development. Of course, it is nothing of the kind.

It is vital to consolidate the advance already gained in the burghs, but already the sights need to be set beyond that, and I understand that Roxburgh County Council is well ahead with its examination of the possibility of establishng a large industrial site with some supporting housing in the Newton St. Boswells area by 1980. It is this sort of forward thinking and planning which will secure the future for this area and we intend to do everything we can to encourage and support it.

I promised that if I had time I would refer to the Eastern Borders. I have mentioned the development prospects there. In 1966, the Development Commission offered this area, based on the potential growth centre of Berwick-upon-Tweed, financial help for fac- tory development in co-operation with the local authorities and the Eastern Borders Development Association. To date, in addition to Berwick, where a second advance factory is being built, and where there is a programme of factory building for three years on a let-one, build-one basis, the Development Commission has provided advance factories at Kelso and Eyemouth and has recently approved the erection of a nursery factory block at Duns. The Commission has also recently financed an interesting food processing feasibility study in the Eastern Borders, and I hope that that will progress satisfactorily.

There is thus a steady flow of activity in this area and we intend to keep up the impetus as an important part of our regional policies. As is clearly emerging over the years, the main focus of activity is Berwick-upon-Tweed, and we endorse the policy that in planning and economic terms the Border between Scotland and England should certainly not be a barrier to economic development and economic planning.

The hon. Member asked one or two specific questions. The first was about the route of the old Waverley line railway. I cannot give him any specific guarantee tonight about the railway, as he asked, but I can say that we have so far received no proposals from the Border Union Railway Company. We are only too ready to receive and consider any proposals which it may have in mind and perhaps the hon. Member will convey that information if it is appropriate.

As the hon. Member knows, the actual timings of bus services are laid down—

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 fourteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.