HC Deb 15 December 1971 vol 828 cc764-75

7.23 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

That I am intervening in the debate at this hour is an indication of the deep concern I have about the critical unemployment situation which has developed in my constituency and its effects.

I have been raising this general issue and making certain suggestions about it over a period of years. I am not arguing that the whole problem is the present Administration's responsibility; I have been critical of past Administrations, too. But I think that when the Minister hears the figures in my constituency he will understand the depths of our anxiety.

We now have about 7,000 people out of work in my constituency and the area immediately around it, in the area that will become, under the Local Government Bill, the new South Shields metropolitan district. The total of 7,000 people out of work is 260 more than a month ago and over 2,000 more than a year ago. Of the total, 5,400 are men—320 more than a month ago and about 1,500 more than a year ago. These are the crude and simple facts. On Tyneside as a whole, we have over 9 per cent. of all the men out of work and in my constituency, South Shields itself, over 15 per cent. of the men are unemployed. This is not a small area but a big, heavily populated area.

The figures have been growing steadily over the last two years and were insufferable even two or three years ago. They are much more insufferable today. The prospect is grim. More and more redundancies are being declared and we have great anxieties. Even as a Minister was opening a new project on the Tyne linked with one of our big shipyards, huge new redundancies were being declared at that shipyard itself—a shipyard on which we rely for a very large part of the employment in the area.

The effect upon young people is particularly tragic. Not only is this, naturally enough, increasing migration of some of the livelier and more vigorous people we shall need if the area is to redevelop, but there have been increasing and worrying signs of the growth of violence and certainly of a very rapid growth of drug abuse as well. These cannot be isolated from the atmosphere of depression and frustration among young people in the North-East, particularly in my area.

A letter from a constituent today argued this case. Although himself in middle years, he expressed his deep anxiety whether the peaceful society to which we are used is on the point of breaking because of the pressures being applied. One issue in particular that he raised was his anxiety about the inadequacy, as he felt it, of the training facilities available for young people in particular but also for older people. He made the point, which I have checked and found accurate, that many seeking adult training facilities are having to wait nine or even 12 months before they can get the opportunity to train, particularly in some of the engineering trades. It seems wrong that those who are eager to have the opportunity of training should be denied it for such long periods.

I am aware that there are hopes of improving the position. Premises in a nearby trading estate recently vacated by British Oxygen, which closed its premises there, are to be developed as a new addition to our training facilities. We welcome that very much and I hope that it can be brought into full operation quickly so that some of those who are pressing for opportunities for training will get them. I hope that some of the younger people who are seeking training facilities even of the most general kind will not face the troubles they have faced recently in being denied unemployment benefit because they are taking some temporary course of training.

It is action we want and it is to this need that I turn. Local government is feeling a great deal of frustration because while at one moment the Government are urging those in local government forward to undertake emergency schemes within a fairly limited timescale, they have been forced, because of financial difficulties and other pressures, either to cancel or to postpone some of the bigger, permanent schemes which formed part of their broad planning and development on which they rely.

My own authority points out that it has not been able to make full use of some of the emergency schemes offered. It is a question of fitting them into the long-term plans. On the other hand, there are a number of major road and other schemes which are of consequence to the area and which it feels obliged to postpone in view of the charge that would be imposed upon it. We are losing the benefit of those. I ask for a re-examination of these schemes. For example, the completion of the dual carriageway into the town of South Shields, which had been approved when there was a Labour authority, was postponed when the political colour of the authority changed. We are still waiting for that scheme to be carried out. It is a big one costing £1 million to which the local authority would have been expected to contribute £25,000. In addition to the dual carriageway it would have involved the clearance of some old archways which were linked with some of the coal staithes in the area. One of the advantages of getting ahead with the project would be that we could have used a lot of the material made available for tipping directly into the development of the nearby dock area and the Jarrow Slake area, which is due for reclamation in any case as an industrial site.

These are areas which will prove of enormous value if we can get them prepared quickly enough to take large-scale industry. We have a large number of smaller sites but for the kind of industry we need to employ the large number of men out of work we need larger sites in the continuing hope that it will be possible to establish chemical and other industries.

As things are going, although general planning approval has been given for this very big reclamation scheme from the Tyne and the Jarrow Slake—an historic area near to the Church of the Venerable Bede—if it goes forward at its present speed it may take years to complete. It is of the greatest importance that the Ministry should indicate its willingness to examine the possibility of offering financial support for a project of this kind. The difficulty is that it is a project being carried out by the Tyne Port Authority. If it had been carried out by a local authority, I think it would have attracted a considerable grant. The fact that it is being carried out by the Tyne Port Authority denies the opportunity of a grant being made available. If that is not so. I should be glad to hear it. It is very important to all of us in this area that that project should go ahead without further delay.

This is part of the development affecting the River Tyne. The Tyne provides the safest harbour on the North-East Coast, and it a tragedy that there has been a steady diminution of traffic on the Tyne for some time due to the steady run-down of the traditional coal trade. We need new traffic to take the place of the coal trade. We hoped that that opportunity for new traffic would arise from the iron ore trade which we secured for the Tyne and the very modern apparatus we installed there, but unhappily for us that is to be moved down to the Tees before long and further redundancies are likely to occur unless new trade can be attracted. There is need to go ahead as rapidly as possible with the recon- struction and redevelopment of one of the quays which needs strengthening, the Sutherland Quay, in order that new traffic can come in, and possibly a further increase in the timber trade which is using that dock.

We need to go ahead with the provision of the larger industrial sites if we are to provide the opportunity for work which the area badly needs. One encouraging feature of the series of protests we have been receiving from men working in the area and unemployed people is the effort being made to draw up practical lists of projects which they believe could be undertaken in the area. I welcome this. I had in my area such practical lists from shop stewards at Reyrolles, one of our big engineering complexes, and there was a comparable examination of the problem by the South Shields Trades Union Council. They list projects for local authority and industrial development which are worthy of careful study.

We need to call what I would regard as sub-regional conferences comprising representatives of the Ministries, local authorities, main statutory bodies in the area and the trade unions to discuss coherent programmes for action in addition to the normal work that the local authorities and other bodies are doing. I want to draw in some of the people on the shop floor who have been showing their willingness and eagerness to contribute practical proposals towards helping to overcome the problems.

We need additional local authority projects in housing, education and health. We need statutory bodies such as the regional hospital boards to put in their proposals for what needs to be done—the replacement of hospital buildings, and so on. These are the kinds of scheme we need. It would be for a body like the North-East Development Council or the Regional Economic Advisory Council to relate these practical proposals to the unused labour resources available. This is the kind of project which I want to see moving, in order to give some hope and some sense of action to those in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies who are particularly disturbed about the situation at the present time.

The North-East Development Council itself saw the Prime Minister not very long ago and presented to him a list of practical proposals for action dealing widely with the needs of the whole area of the North-East of which my own constituency is only one part. In its interesting recommendations to the Prime Minister the council made one very interesting and important declaration. It said that, after all, the main problem, in the council's view, was the failure to raise incomes adequately in order to generate the demand which is needed in the area. This is a point which might be thought of more carefully. After all, this is an independent body; it is not a partisan body but an independent body making its judgment after very careful, independent investigation, and its comment is rather interesting in view of the criticisms we have had of the actions of trade unions and others at this time.

I am initiating this brief debate in order to get an immediate reply from the Minister and to urge upon the Government the great sense of urgency which we in the area feel, and our deep anxiety lest the whole framework of our social conditions should be destroyed.

7.47 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) started with a broad picture, which he painted in language which was extremely fair and which reflected the great sense of anxiety which both the present Government and his own Government have and had about the situation which he went on to describe. When he mentions a figure of 7,000 people out of work one can have nothing but a sense of tragedy because of what that unemployment means in human terms.

Of course, it has been a major source of preoccupation for both his own Government and for mine. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman stressed the length of the period during which the problem has been growing. The problem of declining regions is one with which Governments of both parties have been increasingly preoccupied. I noticed the hon. Gentleman's words with which he described the situation, saying that the situation was already insufferable years ago, and that it has deteriorated since. The range of reasons has been well rehearsed. So I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the balanced way in which he introduced the subject, and I congratulate him upon having the persistence in staying to raise at this early time of the morning a matter of such importance to his own constituents and to all those who live in the region.

I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that the Government have recognised in a variety of ways the very special problems of the South Shields area, which, of course, led in February to the declaration of the area as a special development area, which, in itself, attracts a considerable number of special advantages to those people who want to move their industrial activities there. They are operational grants and rent-free periods, and they are added to the grants already available in the development areas, building grant, additional loans, removal grant, grant of one sort and another, which basic services attract, free depreciation, and the initial building allowance, of all of which the hon. Gentleman is fully aware.

The hon. Gentleman stressed the need for improvement in training facilities. Here also, the Government support his view. The Department of Employment area office covers training for about 40 trades in the area, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, there is a long list of people now applying for some of the training courses. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is, therefore, taking active measures to expand the capacity of Government training centres in an effort to reduce the waiting lists. I thank the hon. Gentleman for paying tribute to the extra capacity which has recently been announced in order to bring forward this much needed facility.

Next, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of Tyne reclamation. This is a matter in which my Department has been involved. The scheme by South Shields County Borough Council for the reclamation of about 40 acres of derelict land at Middlefields has been approved for grant at the rate of 85 per cent. Undoubtedly, there has been a certain amount of anxiety about this scheme because, unfortunately, the reclamation of 23 acres at Middlefields has been held up because of the refusal by British Rail to accept the district valuer's valuation for the purchase of the land by the council. However, further discussions last month between the council, British Rail and the district valuer give reason to hope that there could shortly be agreement on this dispute. I know that the hon. Member will be pleased to hear that.

I come to the question of Jarrow Slake. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the Port of Tyne Authority has plans for filling in the area known as the Jarrow Slake to produce some 92 acres of land for new industrial development on Tyneside.

It proposes to start work soon on building a bund, using stone from Usworth colliery. The hon. Gentleman asked about availability of grant. Grant is not available for this project for two reasons. As we have already pointed out —and as his own Government pointed out to him when they were responsible for these decisions—it is not available, first, because the land is not owned by the local authority, and this particular scheme is worked only through local authorities. Second, and perhaps more significant in this case, the land is not derelict land, and the scheme with which we are concerned here is for the reclamation of derelict land. It does not, therefore, come within the category which attracts grant.

Mr. Blenkinsop

If the hon. Gentleman came up and saw it, he would, I am sure, regard it as desolate, if not derelict. The Slake area is a waste area which one would expect to come within this category. Could not the Department reconsider the question of its exclusion on the ground that it is not owned by the local authority? It is, after all, a joint statutory body.

Mr. Heseltine

This question has been looked at by the hon. Gentleman's own Government and by the present Government. The clear advice which I am given is that it is not land which has been made derelict by industrial or other development, and it is not, therefore, within the ambit of the Industrial Development Act, 1966. Obviously, one is always tempted to say that one will look at such a question again because one wishes to be as helpful as possible; but this is a matter which has been looked at carefully on several occasions, and it would, I think, be irresponsible of me to hold out grounds for optimism in this situation.

Now, a word about some of the infrastructure works which are proceeding in the area associated with the hon. Gentleman and his constituency. I mention these matters in the context of the programme of £162 million which has been announced. This represents additional public expenditure which the Government have authorised, and about £27 million to date has been allocated within the Northern region. There is still scope for additional schemes to be added to those already announced.

South Shields so far has asked for only one road scheme to be included, and that is the widening and reconstruction of the A.1300, Prince Edward Road, at the cost of £36,000. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that if further schemes satisfying the conditions of the, programme are proposed by local authorities in the Northern Region we should be delighted to consider them. Perhaps the hon. Member for South Shields will take that as an earnest of our good endeavours and see whether we can do anything to stimulate the production of such schemes.

South Shields has received an extra allocation of £124,000 for locally determined expediture for this financial year, and this enables the local authority to go forward with a large number of small schemes covering many aspects of local authority spending—parks, highway improvements, street lighting, etc. The total includes £10,000 for each of two industrial sites. These are Victoria Road site, which was purchased from the Church Commissioners, and the St. Hilda Street site. The money is to be used for the demolition of existing buildings, new roads, sewers, car parking and street lighting.

In addition, the Northern Development area will receive considerable benefit from the Government's decision to bring forward expenditure by the nationalised industries. Two Type 42 destroyers and two Fleet tankers are to be built by Swan Hunter on Tyneside. This should provide additional employment for about 1,400 men as well as creating indirect employment elsewhere in the region. Also, a considerable part of the engineering work for the new power station at Ince will be done in the region.

I will say a word or two about the road schemes in the area in addition to those I have already mentioned. The two principal road schemes—stage 1 Western Approach, which is the extension of dual-ling to the Jarrow Road, and stage 2, Western Approach, Jarrow Road junction and arches—were originally programmed for 1968–69 and 1969–70 respectively. Unfortunately, they had to be deferred because of the council's inability to find the 25 per cent. contribution which is expected from local authorities for the improvement of principal roads in their areas.

These roads form the main feeder route to South Shields, and will serve the immediate industrial and commercial areas involved. They will also provide a link with the Tyne Tunnel approach road. The latest information I have of a provisional date for the start of this work is that the schemes are now likely to begin, for stage 1 in July, 1973, and for stage 2 in July, 1975.

Another scheme was announced in the Department's preparation list of September, 1969, and that was also held up because of the council's lack of funds. That is stage 3 of the A19 Central Area Through Road, stage 2 of which is now nearing completion. The through road will relieve the shopping centres in King Street and the market place. The provisional start for work on stage 3 is August, 1974. I hope these starting dates will materialise and indicate the pattern of road building beginning next year, which will then provide this construction work.

On the Northern Region as a whole, about £6 million is likely to be spent on improving the standard of road maintenance over the next three years. This was an additional scheme brought forward by the Government amounting to over £40 million to raise the standard of road maintenance throughout the country.

One of the better measures introduced by the Labour Administration was the Housing Act, 1969, which substantially increased grants for improving our older houses and provided a comprehensive code for the improvement of whole areas of housing by giving local authorities powers to declare general improvement areas. This has led to an acceleration of this work throughout the country, and the Northern Region is no exception. I am glad to say that a special house improvement month is to be the centre of a campaign in South Shields beginning on 28th February next year. I hope that the hon. Member for South Shields will feel that, as it is in his constituency, he might wish to be associated with it. The amount of benefit that can flow to property owners who come forward and take up improvement grants is considerable. They are extremely generous and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will wish to associate his name with the publicity efforts that will be made early in the following year.

In addition to the Housing Act, 1969, the Housing Act, 1971 gave additional financial assistance for a limited period of two years to housing and area improvement in the development and intermediate areas. This has given a sharp boost in addition to the activity in the region, which includes areas such as South Shields. It is the council's intention to take advantage of these higher grants for improving 300 to 400 of their 4,000 prewar housing stock by June, 1973. Furthermore, the North-East Housing Association intends to improve 500 of its dwellings, and the National Coal Board 100 of its dwellings, by the 1973 deadline. This is an area of stimulated activity which will be helpful to the employment situation.

I come to the matter of the sub-regional conference. I know that the hon. Gentleman has put forward this suggestion on an earlier occasion. My right hon. Friend has sympathy with the approach indicated in this suggestion, and indeed anticipated it in announcing on 7th December that he was to receive a deputation of civic heads of North-East local authorities. Since then the Mayor of Sunderland has written suggesting that the meeting should be held at the new Civic Centre early next year and this invitation is now being considered by my right hon. Friend. Wherever the meeting is held, I assure the hon. Member that the major local authorities in the North East will be more than welcome to send their representatives to put forward their views to my right hon. Friend. We have a real wish to listen to suggestions. We are considering suggestions by the N.E.D.C. which have not already been implemented, and we very much welcome any other ideas put forward within the framework of existing Government policies.

The overall conclusion is that the main need now is for industry on a national scale to respond to the massive additional public expenditure that has been deployed by the Government to deal with the problem of unemployment in various parts of the country, and to respond also to the new sense of confidence that is beginning to be felt, not only associated with the additional expenditure, hut with the coming of the Common Market proposals. There will be no difficulty whatever in obtaining industrial development certificates anywhere within the Northern development area. Given such new development, we look forward to a period when the difficulties which have been experienced under both Labour and Conservative Governments will soon be mitigated.

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