HC Deb 15 December 1971 vol 828 cc799-810

9.18 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian

It is one of the glories of the British Constitution that at the level of the House of Commons, we can have a dispute, on a minor grievance, of the kind to which we have just listened. We have been in continuous debate in this House since 2.30 p.m. yesterday and I do not keep a Minister up all night just for the fun of it. However, the subject of this debate, proposals for employment-giving improvement of Scottish towns, merits the long 18¾ hour vigil.

The immediate origin of this debate is to be found in an interesting conference which was held last week, organised by James Stormonth Darling, Director of the National Trust for Scotland. A number of varied, well-informed and imaginative contributions at this conference prompted the following question: In Scotland's present employment situation, ought we not to be thinking wider, and initiating a dynamic and coherent programme, to breathe life into much of our urban heritage? Can we not wash the face of our cities, and face up to the inevitable repairs, which will become obvious when the grime is removed? And face up to the repairs before it is too late? Let me be specific. I worked very hard during the by-election of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone). I say in all seriousness that in his constituency a number of magnificent buildings have been or are being pulled down. They have to be. I do not quarrel with the decision. They are too far gone. It is too late in the day to repair them. The purpose of the proposals I put forward is to prevent a great many other buildings in our urban heritage from going the way of those buildings in the Gorbals before it is too late.

At the National Trust conference I was struck by some slides shown by John Gerrard of the Scottish Civic Trust, showing how it is possible, with modern techniques, to bring property to life. Even today people do not always need new buildings to satisfy their needs. A good example might be the North side of St. Andrews Square in Edinburgh. Credit might be given to the Phoenix Assurance Company, for allowing themselves to be persuaded that their original building could be re-furbished, rather than tearing it down and putting up some glass-fronted edifice, common to all cities from Singapore round the world to Los Angeles.

It is not only a question of individual listed buildings or blocks. What contributions at the National Trust Conference really brought home to me is that we have to consider the future of a whole area of a city, or, for that matter, the urban quality of Scottish small towns. As I understand it, this problem has been recognised in relation to the new town of Edinburgh. But this scheme is the only one of its kind in Scotland. Its aims are modest; its sights are low. I hope for an ambitious scheme which will anticipate all the Edinburgh equivalents, in and outside the traditional new town like Abbotsford Place in Glasgow, once magnificent in its design and now a slum. As I have referred to Edinburgh, if the hon. Gentleman can shed any light on who is to be the director of the new town plan, that will be extremely helpful.

All this means money, and money in a big way. The Exchequer, the State, will have to be involved, helping individuals, if the urban scene of Georgian Edinburgh is to be restored. It must be accepted that a lot of Georgian Edinburgh, Georgian Glasgow, yes, Georgian Dundee and Georgian Aberdeen is ugly. They are ugly simply because the properties are run down. People can look with new eyes at a building when it has been done up. Mason work is time-consuming and therefore expensive. But, by its very nature, it is also job-creating.

The same argument goes for small towns and villages. For those with eyes to see, there is some fine architecture in Bathgate, in Broxbourn, in Bo'ness, and in towns in the constituencies of, I would bet, every Scottish Member. If anyone doubts what can be done, he has only to look at what the National Trust has done at Culross and Dunkeld. There is an important policy conclusion to be drawn from Culross. It is not just a matter of preserving the past. It is also a matter of creating a living present. The quality of life of people of the 1970s there has been improved.

By itself, "preservation" has come to be a bit of a dirty word. But there are still some potential Culrosses which could be restored. In our legislation, there is far too much of the "thou shalt not" and regrettably little of the "thou shalt".

Is it all worth it? Why go to this expense? Well, a great many young people really value heritage. The blend of old buildings restored and new buildings makes for congenial places in which to live.

To put a sharper question, are not there more urgent priorities? Certainly there are. The reconstruction of Ward 7 in Edinburgh Hospital takes precedence, as do houses for those still with outside toilets. But these are not always the choice in 1971. In areas of West Lothian and other constituencies, the house building industry has ground to a halt. It is not exactly very brilliant to advocate a heavy house building programme for parts of West Lothian when there are 300 plus empty houses in Blackburn and a significant number empty in Livingston new town.

If we are talking about priorities, the choice may be less between an ambitious conservation plan and the needs of Ward 7, etc., and more between an ambitious conservation plan and a truly terrible number of unemployed. This is the nub of it. At a time when we have a strong balance of payments surplus, we can find the money by taxing those who can afford it in order to pay for the ambitious urban conservation programme advocated this morning.

A Devil's advocate might ask whether the unemployed can be deployed into the building industry and the building repair industry. The fact is that many of the unemployed are already in the building industry, a lot of them skilled people.

At the National Trust Conference, it was also said with conviction by several Speakers that some of the skills of ship building could easily be transferred to urban conservation. I can understand that a welder could quickly become trained as a skilled mason, provided that there was some degree of certainty of employment.

Moreover, if a proper coherent plan were presented, I have no doubt that the Scottish Development Department would have every constructive co-operation from the Scottish Trades Union Congress. I have reason to know that they would be helpful.

With some hesitation and in fear of ribald comment, I also add my plea to that of John Gerrard of the Civic Trust that some money be spent in preserving the architecture of certain burial grounds or necropolises. Celebration of death architecture is often fascinating and sometimes beautiful. We Scots have more than our share, like the Genoese. It ought to be preserved. Only the State can do it. If it is going to be done, it has got to be done now, before cemetery deterioration wins the battle. About church preservation, I should have liked to have put a case, but as the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) has a debate on this subject later, I simply say that I support him in his general view.

The Scottish Office should pay some attention to industrial archeology. West Lothian was in many ways the cradle of the oil industrial revolution, the first in the world. I know that from discussion on Pumpherston, it is expensive, but we should be looking a bit beyond New Lanark as to what we ought to be preserving. For example, one of the old linoleum mills in Kirkcaldy are surely worth preserving for posterity, and many of them are being destroyed. This is a matter of months and not of years. A linoleum mill is as much a part of our history as a castle.

I come to certain reflections. First, if the money can be found, to build warships for which there is no operational requirement, I am sure that £50 million a year for the next five years can be found for an urban conservation programme in Scotland. A system of private contributions from owners of improved property could swell the figure and get more done. A good deal of thought must be given to the relationship between public money, and individual owner of urban heritage property; but it is not an impossible problem and can be a subject for negotiation. Second, from the cost of such a programme can be deducted a good deal that would otherwise be handed out in unemployment benefit.

Third, I am increasingly doubtful whether Keynesian pump-priming any longer is a cure, still less a rapid cure, for terrible unemployment. In 1971 unemployment is different in its nature from the 1950's and 1960's. I can see a great deal of money being poured into industry and taxpayers' pockets, without much effect on employment. If an ambitious urban programme were adopted, it would have the merit of being highly employment-giving in relation to the public money involved. Heavens—it is a labour-intensive proposition.

Fourth, the Minister will forgive another reference to my visit to China with the Scottish Trade Delegation, on which I have reported to him at length. But in Peking I did reflect how it was that a country with less per capita wealth than ours could set about restoring a city that is at least the equal of Ancient Rome. If Mr. Chou En-Lai can make sure that the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven are restored as well as ever they were for the Ming Emperors, I think we might be able to tackle the New Town of Edinburgh, and much of beautiful Glasgow, I mean "beautiful Glasgow", because there are still many fine areas of Glasgow, which are on their way to seed, but not yet beyond redemption.

If any Socialist asks me who built the new town of Edinburgh, I am tempted to give a Chinese answer—10,000 skilled Scottish working people, not much different from the "200,000 working people of China who built the Summer Palace outside Peking"; in the Maoist version.

Fifth, let me re-emphasise that there may be other job-giving priorities. If the Minister says, "We are embarking on a vast crash programme of job-giving improvement of conditions for the mentally ill", or "We are embarking on a job-giving programme of cleaning up beaches and pushing forward on effluent problems like those of Edinburgh", or "We are going to employ construction industry workers by replacing every Victorian or Edwardian school in two years", I would not myself proselytise for an ambitious urban conservation programme. If the Scottish Office have equally prompt job-giving practical Proposals, they should come forward with them at once.

Sixth, I am a placid man; not an alarmist. But I must say this autumn that I have detected in Scottish people an impatience with political parties, an anger and a frustration with authority, which is new to me. Some of my hon. Friends feel very much the same way. We have got to do something. Unless we do it is not just the Tory Government that will be discredited; it is all of us, the whole Westminster set-up. Among young people, among graduate unemployed, among parents of unemployed, there is a growing feeling of "A plague on both your Houses". For the sake of democracy and order, we have got to produce success with employment. In the long term there may be all sorts of answers to the problems of the Western World. But we have to look at the problems today. At 9.30 a.m., after a Consolidated Fund Bill debate, this is not the time to attempt to solve the economic problems of the Western World.

I am concerned with the short-term-the here and now. I am not asking for promises tonight, though I shall be extremely interested to see how the Minister and the Scottish Development Department mind is working. I do not even expect overnight action on an ambitious urban conservation programme on the scale suggested. But, frankly, what would fill me with contempt would be a reply along the lines, "Sorry, all this is fine, but there is not the money in the kitty."

I expect to hear that before 17th January the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State, accompanied by their Permanent Secretary, have gone to the Chancellor's room in Great George Street and have put a case along these lines—and put it in front of the Chancellor, Chief Secretary, and Sir William Armstrong, Mr. Peter Baldwin, of Public Finance, and other key civil servants. "The unpalatable truth is that, try as we may, we are finding the Scottish unemployment situation intractable. We must do something quickly. Men and women must no longer be allowed to feel unwanted on such a scale. It is appalling for human dignity. Incidentally, I do not believe in excuse theories of stone-faced Treasury civil servants. Sir William, the son of Scottish Salvation Army Officers, will know precisely what the human situation is.

The Ministers can go on, "We have here certain proposals, among which is a plan for large-scale urban conservation and we know for sure that this will give employment." "By such means," they can say,"jobs can be created even if firms are expanding their production and are still not taking on more people." Now, if there is any argument, they must immediately say, "But Tony, that unmentionable Roy Jenkins left you a healthy balance of payments situation. It has got better and better. Why not make use of it?" As my hon. Friends who were in Government will agree, this is the key. With a healthy balance of payments position, there is no conclusive argument against heavy public expenditure.

If the Secretary of State and his colleagues do not succeed with the Chancellor, I advise them then to have a quiet word with Sir Burke Trend, and no doubt he would be willing to put Scottish unemployment on the agenda of key Cabinet committees, such as the S.E.P. They should then take a trip to see the Lord President, and appeal to him as a former candidate in Dumbartonshire. Nor should they forget to corner the Foreign Secretary at a favourable moment. Being a Scottish hon. Member, he should see the truth, and the Minister could say to him, "I once gave up a seat for you. Now it is your chance to help me, when Scotland needs help."

I say this not to be personal but because it is interesting to note how British Government works. One truth is that when there is an inter-Departmental argument, involving the Treasury, the best line of attack is to approach the most senior Cabinet Ministers possible who do not have home spending Departments, who therefore have no financial axe of their own to grind and who are in a position to approach the Chancellor. Scottish Ministers have the advantage of a Foreign Secretary, who happens to be a Scot, and a Lord President, who I think understands the Scottish unemployment problem. They must be used. There should be some potentially very strong allies in this approach to the Chancellor.

I ask the Minister to conduct a Whitehall operation and I am sure that if he goes about it the right way, he will succeed in getting the money for such a programme. But if he fails, then I must urge on him a more disagreeable course of action. He and the Secretary of State must confront the Prime Minister, in friendship, and say, "Scottish unemployment situation is out of hand. Alas, Ted, it is not responding to our doctrinal treatment. We must be brave, swallow our pride, and change course. We have here schemes which are costly but which, at least, we know for certain will work, as direct employment is provided. We ask you in Cabinet to override the Chancellor and the Treasury." If the Prime Minister refuses, then in my view it is the duty of the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State to say, "There is no malice or recrimination. There is no threatening or anger. We are very sorry, but we feel that we must resign, all five Scottish Ministers, en bloc." I realise that any attempt to appear to resort to political blackmail of the Prime Minister would be counter-productive. Since there are not five credible replacements, the Scottish Ministers have the whip hand. Politics can be rough and unpleasant.

This is not an easy course that I am urging on Scottish Ministers. But unemployment for thousands of Scottish families is even rougher and more unpleasant than for politicians in office. Many children will not be getting many presents this Christmas, fathers' positions in the family and dignity are shattered, mothers are embarrassed. Many families face sheer want. Basically, it's all so unnecessary.

An ambitious urban conservation scheme may not be the priority answer—it is certainly not a panacea—but it would be practical, it would give employment and it would make Scotland a better place. This case deserves an answer before Parliament returns.

If the Ministers have better plans, let them spell them out and good luck to them. If not, they should focus their minds on how a major conservation programme for Scottish towns can be translated into action.

9.36 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

I thank the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for his interesting and carefully thought-out suggestions. This is not the first time that we can congratulate him for raising a matter in such a manner. The way in which he has done so is tremendously helpful. I will look most carefully at all his detailed suggestions to see how far we can go along the road that he has suggested, and to see what possibilities there are. All his constructive suggestions merit close attention, and I will give them close attention in the days immediately ahead.

I also agree with the hon. Member's general proposition that there is now a major need for more concentration than at any time, in the recent past anyway, on conservation of some of the better old buildings in our towns and cities. I agree that our emphasis on this, for many good reasons, has not been all it should be and that the time is now ripe, apart from all other considerations, for much greater attention and more resources to be devoted to trying to conserve what we have.

I also agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member's other main theme when he outlined the background of heavy unemployment. The effects of unemployment concern us all. The way he put that was absolutely right. It is yet another benefit of this type of thing that it benefits employment very greatly.

We have already in the past year or two made some major steps in the direction that the hon. Member has advocated. For instance, a very great increase in improvements grants was announced and enacted this summer—a 50 per cent. increase. This scheme is still going very well. The publicity which the Scottish Office mounted for this scheme is the biggest that it has ever mounted. The rate of inquiries has been very high and all my evidence is that a great deal of work is just about coming to fruition in the improvement of older houses. We want every local authority and private owner to take advantage of these extra higher rates before the finishing date in June 1973.

We have, exceptionally, for the first time ever, allocated special schemes of £5 million over five years for environmental assistance improvement in Glasgow and have allocated a similar sum over five years for environment improvement in areas of west central Scotland apart from Glasgow itself.

We have all been anxious to get this under way. It will not surprise anyone that we have been somewhat disappointed that it has not been possible to get the work going more quickly. The problem here is not money—we have the money allocated; it is all there—but the organisation of the preparatory work of planning, permissions, contracts, tenders, and so on. It is not through any lack of money; it is the sheer weight of organisation needed for this kind of operation which makes the scheme work more slowly than we would wish.

Glasgow has now appointed a director to head its organisation for environmental improvement. I am anxious that Glasgow should press further ahead with getting the organisation set up to back the director. There is no point in appointing a director and hoping that he will get on with it. We need an organisation to back him up, and I shall be pressing Glasgow to do that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the scheme for the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee which was inaugurated at its first meeting on 31st May. The Committee appointed an interim director, Mr. Ian Begg, an architect, who is carrying on on an interim basis until the appointment of the full-time director. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman who will be appointed as the full-time director, but applications for the post are being sifted and it is hoped that an appointment can be made early in the New Year. Progress has been made under the interim director and I hope that it will continue.

The hon. Gentleman will know, with his connections with the Civic Trust, of the special effort of the Civic Trust in its "Facelift Glasgow" campaign to encourage people in the centre of Glasgow to clean up and improve their own homes. This has had interesting results.

I want to think carefully about what the hon. Gentleman said, but I should like to outline one or two of the problems which arise. This kind of work is labour-intensive and, more than that, it is craftsman-intensive. The people who will do this work are craftsmen in the construction industry. There are far too many of these people on the dole, and we should like to see them employed.

Another important factor is that these schemes are not only labour- and crafts-man-intensive, but they are intensely management-intensive. The sheer problem of getting the planners, draughtsmen and experts to give their time to this work quickly enough is one of the difficulties in getting it going. Wherever money is allocated for this work, there is a tremendous amount of paper work and planning to do. This leads to a heavy workload on local authorities and local planning authorities. This is one example of the difficulties. I should emphasise that I am not in any way detracting from what the hon. Gentleman said; I am outlining some of the difficulties.

We all agree that grants for clearance of derelict sites are generous by any standard. They provide 85 per cent. of the cost, and the remaining 15 per cent. is eligible for rate support grant. In many county areas it means that the vast majority of the cost comes from the Government. Yet, we all agree that, apart from certain areas which have worked very hard on the scheme, there is too little of this work going on in Scotland. This is not due to lack of interest, but to the sheer pressure on the time of planning authorities and planning officers in getting round to the organisational problems. We will do anything that we can to help, but it is organisation and management which is the problem.

The most difficult problem, about which the hon. Gentleman has probably done more than most to try to solve, is to convince people of the value of preserving and improving old buildings. Far too many people think of old buildings as places in which no one in his right mind would want to live. This is absolute nonsense. Old buildings, if caught in time and dealt with imaginatively, can make not adequate, but excellent, attractive and most acceptable to live in homes. There is a tremendous job to be done in convincing people—not only ordinary people, owner-occupiers and tenants, but also local authorities and those who work for them—that there is a major possibi- lity here of making homes that people will be anxious to live in, if we get them in time and put the money into them.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter, and I shall look very carefully at his suggestions. I hope that we shall be able to do at least something in the direction the hon. Gentleman has advocated.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee this day.

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