HC Deb 22 April 1971 vol 815 cc1489-500

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Laurance Reed (Bolton, East)

I represent the independent and robust town of Bolton in Lancashire—or at least one-half of it since the other half is represented by my friend and colleague the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond). I should like to say how pleased we are to see him back in circulation following his illness.

Bolton is the third largest town in the North-West Region, second only to Manchester and Liverpool, and it has been described as the "quiet giant" of the North-West. The early fortunes of the town were founded on cotton—first bleaching and later spinning—and so successful were we that we became the world centre of fine cotton spinning. At one time there were 122 mills operating in the town, employing two-thirds of the town's work force.

Because of our commitment to and, therefore, our dependence on cotton, it was inevitable that Bolton should suffer severely when the Lancashire textile industry was forced to contract. By 1957 the total number of mills operating was down to 103, and by 1967 textiles lost their place as the leading source of employment for the first time, ceding that position to engineering trades. Today there are 26 mills still working and the closure of 80 mills during the past 13 years has resulted in the loss of 15,000 jobs. The rundown however is not yet complete because, if the present plans for streamlining the industry are fulfilled, a further 5,000 to 6,000 jobs will be lost before 1975—a cut of 50 per cent.—bringing the total number employed in textiles to less than 7,000 as against 37,000 in 1955.

Throughout this period the town has been successful in keeping the level of unemployment below the national average, and I believe that this accomplishment bears testimony to the skill and initiative of the people and their Corporation, for it has been done without Government assistance. Indeed, we can say that it has been done despite Government assistance because, when seeking new investment and new industry, we have had to compete on grossly unequal terms, not only with Merseyside, which enjoys full development area status, not only with four new towns that are being built in the area, but, of course, with the North-East Lancashire Intermediate Area which borders our northern frontier.

The Bolton Corporation Act, 1970, widened the powers available to the council to promote a programme of self-help, but there is one problem we are not able to solve single-handed and for which we are now seeking special assistance—namely, the problem of industrial obsolescence. By that term I do not mean technological backwardness. Bolton has always been innovation minded and our thinking remains orientated towards the future. It was no coincidence that two leading innovators of the 18th century, Crompton and Arkwright, lived and worked there. By "obsolescence" I mean both dereliction and decaying industrial premises. It is the last which gives us most cause for concern.

Immediately to the south and west of Bolton there is the largest stretch of derelict land in the county. Within the borough's boundary, however, there are comparatively few waste acres, although where they exist in Darcy Lever, adjoining Little Lever, they are particularly depressing. What we have is a number of derelict buildings and mills. When truly derelict, they attract the 75 per cent. grant established by the Local Employment Act, 1970. But we are pressing the Government to widen the definition of "industrial dereliction" to include abandoned and disused properties which are unlikely ever again to be accommodated with worthwhile activity because of their great age. These buildings are an eyesore in many neighbourhoods. They attract vermin and vandalism. They are dangerous to children. They take up valuable land space and are very costly to remove.

In common with representations made by the North-West Industrial Development Association, we are also seeking to persuade the Government to increase the 75 per cent. grant to the 85 per cent. enjoyed in development areas. It is all very well for the Department of the Environment to say that we can submit as many schemes as we wish and it will approve the lot, but we have the problem of finding the money because the grant relates only to 75 per cent. of the loss incurred after taking account of the after-use value. It does not mean 75 per cent. of the cash outlay needed to finance a clearance operation, and the loan charges on that are immediately chargeable to the rates.

The Hunt Committee described dereliction as one of the outstandng examples of the way in which unfavourable environment can depress economic opportunity … it deters the modern industry needed for the revitalisation of those areas and helps to stimulate outward migration. But important as dereliction is, I must emphasise that it is not our major headache. Bolton has 600 acres of parks, and open spaces and there is some magnificent moorland immediately to the north. The new motorway network brings us to within an hour of the Lake District, the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales. This enhanced mobility has dramatically improved the quality of life of people living in the area.

Far more dangerous to our future progress is the state of the working environment. Of a total of 39 million sq. ft. of industrial floor space in Bolton, no less than 80 per cent. was built before the First World War and as much as 40 per cent. before 1870. Altogether, 15,000 people, or one in five of the working population, are obliged to work in buildings more than 100 years old.

In 49 mills taken over for purposes other than cotton, 4¾ million sq. ft. have been reoccupied. However, they are used for purposes very different from that for which they were originally constructed, and working conditions in them are less safe, less healthy and less comfortable than modern techniques and design would allow. Certainly they compare very unfavourably with modern, purpose-built factories, and it is not surprising that the restrictive physical layout leads to low productivity, or certainly lower productivity than in up-to-date premises. Thus, bad buildings mean not only that work-people have poor conditions but that the level of earnings remains relatively low in relation to effort expended.

Whilst statistically the reoccupation of these old mills has appeared to absorb several thousand of the jobs lost through the contraction of the textile industry, the figures conceal the fact of outward migration of people seeking work outside. Bolton has been losing population at the rate of 1,000 a year over the last 10 or 11 years. Twenty-three thousand people go out of the town and district every day to find work, 14,000 come into the district for work, leaving a net outward migration of nearly 8 per cent. of the working population.

During the emergency situation of the last 13 years, Bolton has had to run very hard to stay where it is, and we are noticeably losing ground. In the past 18 months, further mill closures have been accompanied by a wide variety of closures of other factories. In 1969, 1,000 jobs were lost in Bolton and district as a result of major closures. In 1970, the figure was 1,500. What is particularly worrying about last year's redundancies is the wide variety of jobs involved—400 in printing, 200 in paper, 370 in textiles, 300 in brewing, 120 in engineering and 130 in office and laboratory work.

Of the last seven major factory closures, four relate to former cotton mills more than 90 years old, involving as much as 650,000 sq. ft. of floor space. For the entrepreneur, the great asset of these old mills is that they provide ready-made factories at relatively low cost, but once this initial capital advantage of occupying cheap premises disappears, he is left with higher unit costs of producing in a multi-storey building.

He also has the problem of recruiting labour to work in very poor conditions, and sooner or later it pays him to move from those premises into a purpose-built plant. Because incentives elsewhere are better than in our own areas, the chances are that that will not be in Bolton. We are now seeing old mills falling empty for the second and third time, and with each change in occupation the activity attracted to them becomes of lower and lower grade, involving fewer skills and fewer jobs.

Because only a very small amount of modern industry with growth potential goes into these old mills, the town's whole manufacturing capability is being seriously undermined. It is in this context that I have been concerned to learn of Ministry officials stalking Bolton, trying to persuade long-established businesses to move out. It is one thing to ask us to compote on unequal terms for new industry and investment: it is quite another for us to lose existing firms, many of which have been there for generations.

I hope to have an undertaking tonight that this sort of "headhunting" will cease forthwith. I also want an assurance that industrial development certificates will not be withheld for new developments which authorities in Bolton and district can attract for themselves and for the development of existing firms which wish to expand in their present locality.

I have dealt primarily with this problem as it affects Bolton, but I make it clear that the views which I have expressed are held in common by other towns represented on the Bolton and District Industrial Development Committee. I know that the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) is anxious to speak before the Minister replies.

None of us on that committee is unaware of the needs of other areas in the North-West, but we do not see the value of a regional policy which discriminates against us so strongly that we have no chance of solving our own difficulties. We believe that the scale and implications of industrial obsolescence cannot have been fully understood, or older towns in the region, other than Merseyside and the Furness area and North-East Lancashire, would have received some special assistance before now.

I am asking the Minister to treat as a matter of urgency an in-depth study of the problems and implications of industrial obsolescence as I have defined it. I am asking that Bolton and district should be selected as the area for the study and the test bed for any pilot projects. The study should include a comparative study of productivity and earnings in old multi-storey buildings and purpose-built premises, and of working conditions in both.

In particular, it is important that an attempt should be made to discover whether there is any correlation between industrial accidents and disease and the age of industrial premises. This study would reveal the hard facts and the information needed before more specific policy recommendations can be made.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Reed) for raising this matter, and particularly for so raising it that it referred not only to the county borough of Bolton but also to the districts which I and the hon. and learned Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) represent. This is an important problem to the northern part of my division just as much as it is to the area about which the hon. Member has spoken. I agree very much with what he has said and certainly with his request that there should be far more hard research and then action to solve the serious problems which exist.

We in Farnworth are proud to say that it was a Farnworth man, Sir Joseph Hunt, whose committee produced the excellent report which diagnosed the cumulatively depressing picture of industrial obsolescence and the depressingly slow rate of industrial building in the North-West. We have the lowest rate of growth in industrial building of any region in the country. We certainly have the lowest rate of any sub-region in the Bolton area in comparison with the rest of the country.

The hon. Member for Bolton, East referred to the problem of the mills. In the northern part of my division we have some of the largest mills in Lancashire. Some are historic buildings and appear in Pevsner's Buildings of Lancashire. Certainly some will be preserved as archaeological relics unless rapid action is taken. These mills, the top floors of which are empty, give a depressing and gloomy appearance in the towns which we represent. They put up factory costs of production. They often stay on the market for 10 years lying empty; they are derelict and cast gloom around them.

The Financial Times in a supplement today on Trafford Park went outside Trafford Park and looked at the rest of the region and said: Too many factories are left overs from an earlier industrial age and are frankly worn out. The article goes on to point out New roads are simply bringing closer together a great many tired industrial installations which have small chance of being competitive in modern conditions. The North-West Industrial Development Association and the Bolton Industrial Development Association have both pressed for 100 per cent. grants to deal with these relics of the nineteenth century and for clearing useless industrial buildings. There are gaps in our legislation in this respect. Furthermore, in an area such as Bolton we need to have the same arrangement as applies in the intermediate areas in regard to building grants. Finally, we need to have industrial development certificates available so that we can develop properly in our own region.

In my division house building is going well, but we are not getting the rebuilding of industrial premises to go with it. Existing grant structure is not satisfactory to enable us to reorganise our land use on a sensible pattern and to get away from the land use pattern of the nineteenth century with a mill at the end of every street. We want a new and imaginative approach to this problem if we are to get any progress in this matter.

The rate of unemployment in the past has been relatively low but only yesterday in my division I heard of 400 redundancies in one of the large engineering works, a subsidiary of Hawker Siddeley. We are now in a situation of great danger which is liable to lead to rapid industrial decay.

The final paragraph of the Financial Times supplement says: The Government are in the middle of recasting their policy for regional development. If the new policy is to be an advance on the methods of the 1960s, they will have to make provision for the special problems arising from industrial old age. I hope that we shall hear that the Government are aware of these problems and will take urgent action to deal with them.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

The hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper), who is a constituent of mine, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed), who is a neighbour of mine, have put the case for Bolton and district so well that I need add very little. Both Front Benches have neglected the problems of Bolton and the people in that part of Lancashire who have had none of the advantage of those in other parts of Lancashire. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is sympathetic to our problems, and I hope that he will consider the pleas which have been made much more ably than I could have made them. I will not take up the limited time of the House further beyond saying that I endorse all that both hon. Members have said.

10.21 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Anthony Grant)

I must first congratulate my hon. Friend the member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) on his choice of subject in this Adjournment debate and the skill and conviction with which he has spoken on a subject which I know both he and his constituents have very close at heart. I am also grateful for the interventions of the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper), and also that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke). I congratulate them both on the crisp way in which they have managed to express their points. Industrial obsolescence is an important subject and one with which the Government are much concerned.

I should like to say a word or two in general about the problem of dereliction and obsolescence, and in particular about these problems as they appear in Lancashire. There is of course no room for complacency and none of us would deny that, from the point of view of amenity and of industrial efficiency, it would be very desirable that all our factories should be new and should have the most modern layout. There is no doubt that in Bolton and elsewhere in Lancashire the harsh features of industrial architecture of the last century—in some cases of the century before that—cast a gaunt shadow over the lives of those who live and work in the area today. Nor, too, can one deny that old, multi-storey buildings are in use today by firms whose activities demand carefully planned, single-planned premises where there can be a proper flow of work.

At the same time, it must be recognised that the problems of Lancashire have been immeasurably assisted by the existence of sound, but serviceable industrial premises, available for acquisition at very reasonable cost and into which new industry has moved. Unlovely and indeed hideous as many of these buildings are, I know that many areas have envied Lancashire of their availability. Because of them the industrial structure of the area has been changed and diversified in recent years with a great measure of success.

The point that I want to make is that we must not assume that all old industrial buildings are an unmitigated evil in an area or conclude that all old industrial buildings are derelict buildings. Indeed I do not think that hon. Members would disagree that some old industrial premises in Lancashire were built to exceptionally high standards and have been adapted with great ingenuity. Nor do I think that hon. Members would dispute that obsolescence and dereliction are not a question of historical age. I have seen plenty of factories which are not so very old that are certainly candidates for early demolition on environmental and efficiency grounds.

Having said that—and I say it only to put the question a little into perspective—I must emphasise how very much importance this Government attaches to the clearance of dereliction: and obsolescent industrial premises when left empty are an aspect of dereliction. That is of course a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. He has pledged in this House before that the first decade of his new Department will be the decade for the substantial removal of dereliction. That is the measure of the importance which the Government attach to the matter.

The hon. Member for Bolton, East has pointed out the grants which are available. It is because so much importance is attached to clearing dereliction that, above the 50 per cent. grant available to local authorities for restoration schemes, grants of 75 per cent. are available in the intermediate and derelict land clearance areas and 85 per cent. in development areas—provided, in the case of the 75 per cent. and 85 per cent. grants, that my Department certifies that the scheme is expedient with a view to contributing to the development of industry in the area. We interpret that phrase very liberally. This means that a large proportion of the derelict land clearance projects in the Bolton area will attract grant at 75 per cent.

When all this is said and done, I remain only too well aware that there are still far too many elderly industrial premises which, while not derelict, are obsolescent and do not provide satisfactory places in which to work.

The onus here must rest on the firms themselves. Modernisation of premises would, naturally, enhance the value of the buildings, and the return on investment of this sort would doubtless be considerable.

Mr. Reed

The point is that they are being given incentives to go elsewhere than Bolton and district.

Mr. Grant

Inherent in any regional policy must be that attractions in some areas are greater than in others. If there is time I shall come back to the question of status.

The point which I was trying to make was that there is strength, in many cases, in the argument that the Government should not have to give a grant to encourage industry to do what it should in any case do in its own interest. My hon. Friend will appreciate that the provision of grant in such cases would involve great difficulty. In equity it would only be right to ensure that the amount of the grant took into account the increase in the value of the premises concerned. This might involve the necessity to deduct betterment value, which would involve a good deal of administrative complexity. My hon. Friend deplored the effect of obsolete premises on productivity. I deplore it, too. But I do not believe that this is something the Government can solve. Those concerned in the firms—both management and labour—have an interest in ensuring that they maximise their level of productivity. I believe it would be naïve—wholly mistaken—to think that productivity can be increased by subsidy paid in relation to one feature of a firm's activities. The firms which will increase productivity are those with enterprise, and enterprise was never called forth by subsidy. I must say here that the Bolton County Borough has a fine record of self-help and initiative in trying to solve its own problems, and I should not like this occasion to pass without this being recognised.

I should like to say something about the accusation made by my hon. Friend about various officials seeking in droves to take industry out of the area. This is not true and not our desire. If my hon. Friend does not agree, I should be pleased to receive any evidence that he may have.

I.D.C.s will be freely granted in this area. Indeed, as evidence of that I should point out that no I.D.C.s have been refused for nine years in Bolton. I emphasise that I.D.C.s are freely available in this area.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about the level of unemployment in the Bolton area. I appreciate and share his concern. But my hon. Friend will understand that at 3.5 per cent., which is abut the national average, it does not compare with other areas—for example, 60,000 unemployed in West Central Scotland and 22,000 on Tyneside. We must look at the country as a whole.

My hon. Friend suggested that the Bolton area might he used for a pilot study scheme. This is not for me to pronounce upon. It is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development. I shall certainly discuss my hon. Friend's suggestion with them. I should point out that consultants are already carrying out pilot studies in Nelson and Rawtenstall, and the results are expected in the summer.

I am sorry that time is against me. However, I agree with some of the points raised by my hon. Friend about the need for hard statistical facts to be available Here he strikes a sympathetic chord, and I shall certainly study carefully what he has said.

I again emphasise that in dealing with the higher rates of grant my Department liberally interprets the phrase in the Act expedient with a view to contributing to the development of industry in the area. I hope that in the short time available this evening I have been able to show that the Government are not at all complacent about the real and serious problem which hon. Members have raised. They are, however, continuing problems and there is no instant solution. It is right, however, as my hon. Friend has shown, that we should be constantly looking at practical and realistic ways of tackling the legacy of industrial obsolescence. This the Government are doing, and will continue to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.