HC Deb 15 December 1971 vol 828 cc737-46

5.55 a.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

My object in raising the question of high unemployment in seaside towns is to draw to the attention of the Government the serious problem which exists and which has been growing steadily worse over the last seven years. The rates of unemployment have been gradually building up until they are now double what they were in 1964.

In the seaside town of Clacton-on-Sea we now have a rate of unemployment of over 8 per cent. Unemployment is worse among males, for whom the rate is 12 per cent. What is even more serious is that there are some 20 seaside towns with a percentage of unemployment higher than that of Clacton. With a further six inland towns, these represent the highest rates of unemployment in the country, St. Ives having 17 per cent., 22 per cent. of whom are males. All these towns are in development areas or special develop-areas except Clacton, Margate, Mablethorpe and Rye.

My first point, therefore, is to underline the high rate of unemployment in Clacton and some of the seaside towns of North-East Essex, and to ask the Government to give the same consideration to this area as they would to a development area or a special development area. I know that some of my figures are for winter, and that in summer there is considerable seasonal employment which brings down the rate fairly considerably. Nevertheless, even in the summer the problem of unemployment is still serious. I am concerned particularly with the high rates of unemployment among the over-55s. I am sure that the time has come to set up a special committee to look into this problem of high rates of unemployment in seaside towns, and particularly in the over 55 age group. I am informed that in Clacton half the present high rate of 12 per cent. male unemployment consist of those over 55.

Obviously, I must, in the first place, welcome the national measures taken by the Government, such as taxation reductions amounting to £1,400 million in a full year, the halving of S.E.T., which has been such an encouragement to the hotel and guest house trade, the £150 million being allowed in industry for accelerated depreciation, and the £450 million in extra public expenditure up to 1975. Obviously, everything the Government can do to encourage growth will help. I trust that we can expect further help along these lines in the Budget; and help to encourage the tourist industries.

Naturally, however, I am concerned about the practical measures which the Government can take now to help with the serious problem in North-East Essex. First, I thank the Government for the two recent I.D.C.s which have been given. This step will find employment for an additional 60 men in Clacton. I must say that the granting of these I.D.C.s is in marked contrast to the policy of the former Labour Government, which refused in 1964–65 an I.D.C. for Phillips Developments. This would have been of considerable help in finding employment in our area. Alas, in those years there were other refusals as well.

In the last seven years the accent has been on helping areas other than Clacton, with the consequence that our position has continued to deteriorate until there is now double the 1964 rate of unemployment. This Christmas, over 1,000 men will be out of work in Clacton, and over 100 women. I press the Government to give any help they can with further I.D.C.s, and to encourage mixed light and diverse industry in our area.

We do not want unrestricted industrial development, but necessary development to meet the needs of people in these difficult areas. Naturally, we are watching closely the result of the public inquiry and the Minister's decision on the Bath-side development project in Harwich, which is such an obvious growth area for the Continent and the E.E.C.

I welcome the decision to make the road between Harwich and Colchester a trunk road. Can a start be made on road improvements between Colchester and Clacton? I hope that decisions will be made with an eye to helping with employment. This is why last year I deprecated the cutting of grant aid to the railways. This not only cuts the services and increases the fares but also causes a loss of employment. There is a considerable fear that further railway cuts are in the pipeline. I hope that the Minister will deny this.

Would he also turn his mind to the pledge of the Secretary of State for Education and Science to rebuild all the pre-1903 primary schools? There are still 16 in my constituency to be brought into the programme. Why cannot this be expedited, since it would help considerably with employment?

The coastal area of North-East Essex requires an increase in office development to arrest the increasingly costly and exhausting journey to London and other centres of employment. In addition to these local problems, I hope that we shall be able to approach the problems of the seaside towns as a whole, for this is where serious sectors of high unemployment exist.

I am sure that the real solution lies in a combination of measures, particularly in facing the problem of the over-65s. That is why I want a Committee to report on the extent of this unemployment and to consider practical ways to help. Nevertheless, I trust that the Government's overall measures will lead to growth and expansion and I hope that they will direct their minds to trying to solve the high unemployment problem of Clacton. If they can help with some of the methods I have mentioned, at least some of our difficulties, particularly in the Clacton area, can be overcome.

6.2 a.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) for raising this important subject, albeit at this late hour. He is right to draw attention to a problem which is very different from that of the older industrial areas. It often attracts less publicity. He is also right to emphasise that it is a long-standing problem.

Although seaside towns have their own individuality, there is a common thread of concern running through the problem. The pattern of holiday-making in the British Isles is changing. More people are holidaying abroad. Although this country in turn is attracting more people from overseas, they tend to go to parts of the country other than the traditional seaside resorts. Wider car ownership has made the short stay touring and single day visits popular.

Although many are still in favour of the traditional fortnight by the sea, it is by no means so universal a form of holiday as it was—and I can remember enjoying it myself. The resort towns have made strenuous efforts to adapt to this changing pattern and to grasp the opportunities presented by providing facilities for business conferences, exhibitions, and so on. These are valuable. They are often off-season activities but the fact remains that unemployment in some seaside towns is lowest in the summer and highest in the winter. For example, unemployment in Clacton in December was 8.5 per cent. whereas last June it was 4.5 per cent.

It is worth pointing out that restrictions on the numbers of foreign workers entering the country for jobs in the hotel and catering industry will give rise to more job opportunities for residents of the seaside towns. It would in any case be wrong to suggest that the hotel and catering industry in seaside towns does not have great potential for expansion in a flourishing economy.

Many seaside towns are giving thought to means of diversifying job opportunities. I was glad that my hon. Friend referred to office development in the service sphere, because decentralisation of office employment to coastal towns can provide a useful number and variety of jobs, and many seaside towns are doing all that they can to attract employment in this sphere.

The House will be aware that the Government are currently undertaking a review of the Headquarters work of Government Departments to see whether more of this can be dispersed away from London—I believe that this is the first time that such a review has taken place—with the object of seeing where this can best be located. This is a complex task, and it will take some time before it is completed and the Government are in a position to announce decisions. However, the work is going on.

Another method of attracting employment is by industrial development. We must recognise the difficulties in this respect, because industry and resort facilities do not always go well together. But there are many successful industrial enterprises which contribute to the well-being of the resort towns in which they are situated.

In all consideration of attracting jobs to seaside towns the Government must also give special consideration to the problems of the older industrial areas. These areas suffer from a considerable degree of industrial decay and dereliction. Although unemployment percentages are unacceptably high in many seaside towns, the numbers involved are often not so large. This is not a matter for complacency or just for debating. I recognise that an unemployed man in a seaside town faces the same frustrations and difficulties as his opposite number in Glasgow or the Welsh valleys. But we cannot ignore the fact that, in considering location in a seaside town, as in any other place, an industrialist will be concerned to know the extent of the pool of unemployed labour from which he can recruit his work force. He may have in mind the thought—for which there is some supporting evidence—that the numbers registering as unemployed in some seaside towns include a significant proportion of people who are in receipt of an occupational pension.

I am glad that my hon. Friend drew attention to the characteristic of seaside towns that a number of older people are on the unemployed list. For example, a survey by the Department of Employment last March indicated that over 22 per cent. of wholly unemployed men in Cromer aged 60 to 64 were occupational pensioners. This is between two and three times the national average. Some of these people may regard themselves as semiretired and will not necessarily be seeking a full-time year-round job. This is a factor which makes the seaside areas different from other parts of the country. I will refer to training if I have time.

A substantial part of the coast of Great Britain has assisted area status. This is important to the efforts of these coastal towns, not only in attracting manufacturing industry, but in their efforts to attract the service industries. In the assisted areas, industrial development certificates are readily available, and there is a substantial package of inducements available to industry providing new jobs. Outside the assisted areas—I recognise that the area with which my hon. Friend is concerned is outside the assisted areas—applications for industrial development certificates have to be considered in the light of local conditions; but, in considering all applications for I.D.C.s for coastal towns, we take fully into account the employment position in the area. There have been no refusals under this Administration, as my hon. Friend generously recognised.

Many of the anxieties of seaside towns have their origins not in any fundamental decline but in the temporary problem of an economy not fully extended. The Government have taken unprecedented steps to stimulate the economy, and there are already signs that these measures are taking effect. The latest measure, announced only this week by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, is to make refunds of post-war credits, which will put considerable additional purchasing power—about £130 million—in consumers' pockets, starting next April, in time for the holiday season. The earlier measures will also have a direct benefit for seaside towns. As people have more to spend, holidays, particularly second holidays, are likely to rank high in their list of priorities.

As it is so relevant to the problem of seaside towns, I should like to say something about tourism, which is the responsibility of my Department. The promotion and development of tourism are the detailed responsibility of the tourist boards set up under the Development of Tourism Act, 1969. They are aware that we have taken a keen interest in the problems of the resorts.

Three aspects of the boards' promotional work are particularly relevant to the problems of the resort areas. First, there is a major drive to generate more business at Easter and Whitsun. This should help to improve profitability in the domestic market. The best prospects of immediate growth for the seaside towns are almost certainly in the second holiday market, which is a growing one. Second, there are the substantial improvement and extension of information for the general public on resorts' facilities and accommodation. Third there is the drive to help and encourage resorts to market themselves in new ways—for example, as coastal centres for mobile tourists.

One of the major problems facing the resorts in the vast was that they were unable to predict, and therefore unable to provide for, changes in the holiday market. The English Tourist Board has in hand a motivation study of attitudes towards holidays, with particular reference to English seaside resorts. Another problem is that few resorts have used modern techniques to assess their potential markets and to work out the most effective marketing strategies. In less pompous language, but means finding out exactly what the customer wants. The board, with its special expertise, is in a good position to help resorts in this respect.

The Government have made available £1 million annually to be spent on tourist projects in the development areas. This scheme of assistance is adminis- tered by the tourist boards, which, when considering applications for assistance, take into account the likelihood of a project's increasing employment within the area. In the first instance this does not help directly my hon. Friend's area. Priority had to be given to the development areas.

In the past we have perhaps tended to concentrate on tourism's contribution as a foreign exchange earner. This is still important, but I believe that in future we shall have to look a lot harder at the domestic market. The tourist boards are now doing this, and their work is fully supported by the Government. We all want to see a healthy tourist industry. It is the Government's task to create a climate in which the industry can develop on its own. We believe that we are doing this and that there is every prospect of healthy growth and expansion. Certainly I would say from my experience over the last year that there is no lack of enthusiasm among those who are anxious to promote tourism throughout the country, be they at the centre or be they out in the various areas themselves.

I turn to the rather more specific problems raised by my hon. Friend. I regret to say that most of them are for Departments other than mine, but he may rest assured that, if my replies are inadequate, what he said will be carefully noted by those concerned. First, he referred to the road situation at Colchester and the improvements to the Colchester-Harwich Road. The Government are determined to provide fully adequate access to the major ports, of which Harwich is one, well before the early 1980s. Schemes are now under construction, programmed or in preparation to improve the whole of the route between Colchester, the A.12, and Park-stone Quay. The Government have very recently announced their intention of giving this road trunk road status.

Another matter raised by my hon. Friend concerning a Department other than mine is the adverse effects of cutting grant-aid to railways. I remind him of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in October, 1970, when he said that a review would be undertaken of all grant-aided railway services. This review is still in hand. Grant-aided services in the areas which my hon. Friend is particularly interested include those from Norwich to Sheringham, Yarmouth and Lowestoft, on which the grant falls due for review in January, 1973, and the services from Manningtree to Harwich and Colchester to Clacton and Walton. I am aware that my hon. Friend is in close touch with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment on the grant assistance for these latter services, which falls due for review on 1st January, 1972.

My hon. Friend also asked questions about education. I cannot give him the figures for his constituency, but I understand that in North-East Essex four old substandard primary schools will be improved or replaced in the school building programmes for 1972–74. This, together with other school building programmes authorised for the area, should help to relieve unemployment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has recently told local education authorities that she would like them to start up to half of their minor works allocation for 1973–74 in 1972–73 in order to make more rapid progress in meeting the needs of primary schools and to stimulate investment in areas of high unemployment. It is, of course, for the authorities themselves to decide how to apply their allocations.

More broadly, my hon. Friend referred to the possibility of setting up a special committee on unemployment among older workers in seaside towns. I remind him that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in reply to a supplementary Question from my hon. Friend on 30th November, said: I am prepared to ask my right hon. Friend to examine this special problem in seaside towns to see whether additional action can be taken there."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th November, 1971; Vol. 827, c. 246.] My hon. Friend may therefore rest assured that he has brought this matter clearly to the attention of the Prime Minister and the Government.

The last point I have to deal with is the question of coastal areas and their assistance for industrial development. Back in 1968 the Hunt Committee looked carefully at the problem of coastal resorts suffering from comparative isolation and declining holiday trade and their scope for industrial development. Its opinion was that these areas were in many cases unsuitable for large-scale industrial development and were unlikely to solve their problems by attracting new industry alone. It took the view that their best prospects lay in some increase in office employment and the imaginative development of tourist and related activities. It commented that such an approach was likely to be more realistic and relevant to the needs of these resorts than the provision of financial incentives. Our own comprehensive review of seaside area coverage a year ago examined the problems of such towns outside the assisted areas and led us substantially to the same broad conclusions as to the strategy we should adopt.

Provided seaside resorts adapt themselves, as I know they increasingly tend to do, to the radically changed circumstances of tourist and holiday life, and if they seize the opportunities which will increasingly be before them, then the long-term future can be a prosperous and enormously exciting one.

Dealing with my hon. Friend's constituency, Harwich is not the same as towns which are purely seaside resorts. It is a modern continental port whose importance has grown in recent years with the introduction of nation-wide freightliner services and the growth of container transport. Harwich has good communications and its strong links on the continent hold out substantial prospects for expansion and growth in trade when Britain enters the E.E.C. The prospects for the seaside resorts and coastal areas in the long term are extremely good, particularly the area so ably represented by my hon. Friend.