HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc1200-10

1.34 a.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

Wherever there has been a history of heavy and now declining industry, the scars are obvious—dereliction, rubbish dumps, grimy buildings and grey, dismal industrial landscapes. To remove the disfigurement caused by the Industrial Revolution requires sustained and continuous attack organised by the central Government. On 7th February last year, against a backcloth of 1 million unemployed, the Government introduced an environmental assistance scheme called Operation Eyesore. It offered up to 75 per cent. Government contribution in intermediate areas and up to 85 per cent. in development areas to the cost of projects to clean up eyesores. It was and is a first-class scheme. However, the Secretary of State for the Environment announced that it was to end on 30th June this year.

The Government were therefore planning, after a brief period of 17 months, abruptly to abandon the attack on eyesores in Britain. So brief a time-span for such a target shows that the Government saw the scheme chiefly as a method of temporarily reducing the embarrassingly large numbers of unemployed men. This the scheme has certainly done. The effect on unemployment has been dramatic. One stone-cleaning firm in Bradford has already expanded from employing six men to 140 since the scheme's inception. These men are largely unskilled and are willing to work hard. Unskilled men are normally the most difficult to place in employment.

Operation Eyesore has been a substantial factor in reducing the unemployment figures in the past year. Nearly all the money spent on Operation Eyesore has been spent on wages. If this scheme is ended on 30th June, literally thousands of men in Britain will be thrown on to the dole queue in July. If we want to see the male unemployment figures rise, we have only to stop this scheme.

These men and their families are now living uneasily, in doubt and insecurity, awaiting the long-delayed decision on the future of the scheme. Tonight is the fourth occasion on which I have pressed from these benches for the scheme to be extended. These men are entitled to know quickly what their future is to be.

The principle of the scheme was greatly welcome to those who care about the quality of life. The initial Press notice announcing the scheme correctly declared that local eyesores were a source of irritation to the people living with them and off-putting to others, including new industry considering whether to come to the area. That is certainly true. It is not possible to sell goods without a clean shop window.

Whitehall Departments are reluctant to disperse to areas of dust and grime. Unfortunately the scheme got off to a slow start almost everywhere except the North West. By 31st January this year, 12 months after the scheme began, the total amount of claims settled in England and Wales was only £601,000, although by then £27 million worth of projects had been approved. The scheme was badly publicised. The initial letter to local authorities from the Department of the Environment made no mention of improving buildings, but only of improving land. One had to dig deeply into the accompanying notes to discover that the scheme included the improvement of buildings and river and canal beds and also the planting of trees.

Many of the local authorities took no steps whatever to bring the scheme to the attention of owners of dirty buildings in their area. Nor did the Department advise them to do so. In Bradford some owners of what might be called dark satanic mills learned very late, and almost accidentally, of the scheme. One managing director told me last week that he had learned of the scheme only a month before.

By the end of December 1972 after 11 months of operation, while projects in the North West totalled £12 million, in each of Wales, Northern England and the Yorkshire and Humberside Region the value of schemes approved was just over one-third of that amount. Within each reason some local authorities had seized their opportunities more than others had done. In Yorkshire, Halifax stands out. The transformation of Halifax and the changes at Shipley have put new heart into their citizens. The ancient bridges of York now glean anew and one prominent Bradfordian described the effect of the cleaning-up in parts of Bradford as unbelievable. There could be no higher praise. More could have been done and much still desperately needs to be done.

Operation Eyesore has been described as potentially the most important environmental breakthrough in living memory and a key factor in the economic development of the regions, but the planning officer of Monmouthshire has said that it takes a year to gear up for this kind of operation. The scheme has now developed rhythm and swing, and I hope that it is not to be crashed to a jarring stop. Indeed, by the end of this March —more than three months before the scheme was due to expire—some local authorities, including Huddersfield and Bradford, shut up shop in terms of accepting new projects, for fear—not always justified—that they might not be completed by 30th June. Happily other local authorities, sensibly using the heavy penalty clauses in their contracts to secure completion by the deadline, are still accepting new projects.

It is sad that many local authorities failed to publicise the fact that the closedown was to be on 30th June and also failed to inform owners of buildings who were considering a face-lift for the buildings that they intended to stop accepting projects so prematurely. A Huddersfield company chairman wrote to me this week complaining that he had no idea that the close-down on acceptances was to occur months ahead of the official close-down.

For all these reasons, the effective life of Operation Eyesore in many local authority areas has been less than 12 months. But the need is so great, and the appetite to use the scheme so keen and hungry, that schemes in the United Kingdom worth about £40 million have been approved. The irony is that the Government have done far more good than they ever intended, since they have spent five times as much on the scheme as they expected.

To call a halt now would be national folly. The money has been well spent. Nothing is more depressing than living in an atmosphere of dirt and ugliness. This is an opportunity to remove the scars of centuries from the face of industrial Britain. I appreciate that the Department of the Environment has to recoup somewhere its remarkable gift of £15 million to the building societies, but it is vital, on common sense, employment, economic and amenity grounds, to extend the deadline for this valuable scheme. If resources are short, I would rather the Minister tightened up the criterion for accepting projects, or even reduced the percentage of Government grant, than stop the scheme entirely.

I hope that the Minister tonight will at last tell us the decision of the Government, because we are now in the penultimate month of the ending of the scheme. If he still cannot tell us the decision of the Government will he at least tell us definitely when the Government will announce their decision?

1.44 a.m.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Bradford, West)

This has been a useful debate. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) for his kind words of tribute to the work of Her Majesty's Government on this issue. He said that the Government had done far more good than they had expected. If that can be carried through in other fields we shall all be very happy.

The hon. Member said that the main purpose of Operation Eyesore was to reduce unemployment particularly in the regions, but that was only a marginal side benefit of the scheme. Its main purpose was environmental, in terms of improving the appearance and amenities of areas which had been so neglected in the past. The hon. Member said that the residue of the Industrial Revolution required a sustained and continuous attack from the central Government if it was to be cleared and tackled properly. I do not remember any such sustained and continuous attack from the previous administration when in office from 1964 to 1970. Indeed, one of the best things that the present Government have done is to tackle the environmental dereliction and eyesores in the regions, and with my hon. Friends I unashamedly take credit for it.

The hon. Gentleman said that the effect of unemployment in Bradford in particular had been dramatic since the institution of Operation Eyesore, and he then went on to adduce only one statistic to reinforce his argument. He quoted the case of a stone-cleaning firm in Bradford whose work force increased from six to 140 in the period, but that is only one example.

The hon. Gentleman said the scheme was a substantial factor in reducing unemployment over the past year. In my view the main factor in Bradford has been the remarkable turn-round in the fortunes of our main industry, the wool textile trade. This has been dramatic and has been a most influential factor in reducing unemployment in the area. The second factor is the general upturn in the economy as a whole, particularly in engineering and the service industries, and also the effect of the Industry Act which has worked through the economy and has helped to bring new industry and expansion to the region.

The hon. Gentleman was a Cassandra and prophet of doom and did the cause of the city and his constituents no good by saying that thousands of men would be thrown on to the dole queue in July if the scheme was terminated at the end of June as is intended. That view is unrealistic. The April figures issued by the Bradford employment exchange are very interesting. The manager of the employment exchange reports a high rate of activity in the construction industry which has created a shortage of skilled building trade workers and vacancies for scaffolders, bricklayers and joiners in particular are numerous. The construction industry in Bradford is booming and Operation Eyesore is not the only factor in reducing unemployment in that industry. A far more important factor on the employment side is to be found in the general improvement areas which are radically transforming whole districts on that side of the city.

On general improvement areas, Bradford is beaten only by the London borough of Haringey and Birmingham City Council in its record for these schemes. In addition, housing improvement grants have been a valuable stimulus to householders and others who are keen to improve their properties, if local authorities did nothing to publicise the scheme, I recall that over the past year we have laboured under a Socialist administration in the town hall in Bradford, and that does no credit to the hon. Gentleman's argument.

I recognise the immense benefits which Operation Eyesore, along with the many other environmental schemes that we have had, has brought to the Bradford region and to the wool textile district as a whole, but it must be considered in context and we must keep it in proportion.

The Department has many calls upon its resources, and recently an extra £15 million has been provided to alleviate the burden of high interest rates on people who are buying their properties with mortgages. This is a most important social subsidy and I see it as such. In these circumstances, I recognise the constraints that are placed on the Department's budget.

I believe that Operation Eyesore costs just over £30 million a year—or at least it did last year—and I am suggesting to my right hon. Friend the Minister that if he can extend it at all he should not go so far as to extend it for a full year as suggested in an Early Day Motion, but perhaps a more reasonable compromise might be found which might be acceptable to the Department by extending it for an extra six months to the end of 1973. That would halve the extra burden and it might be more acceptable, but it is only a suggestion.

What we in Bradford are thankful for is the great attention that we have received from the Government for industrial expansion and environmental schemes as a whole. Operation Eyesore has done much to clear up the image of the city not only for newcomers and people who want to set up new industries but also for those who live there. This has been a great achievement and I do not think that we should carp. We should give credit where credit is due, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all he has done.

1.50 a.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

"Operation Eyesore" was the highly descriptive name given to the rather dull phrase "Special Environmental Assistance Scheme", which was introduced in February 1972 as a short-term measure to improve the appearance of neglected and unsightly land in assisted areas, to remove local eyesores and to create additional jobs in those areas. As the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) said, it has been called a most important environmental breakthrough.

Under the scheme, which applies only in the assisted area, grants are payable to the local authorities at the rate of 85 per cent. in the development and special development areas and 75 per cent. in the intermediate and derelict land clearance areas. It was deliberately planned as a short-term measure to encourage local authorities in the assisted areas to get moving quickly and assist in reducing unemployment until the Government's longer-term economic measures began to take effect. Therefore, it was announced that it would last only until 30th June.

The response from local authorities has been very gratifying indeed. This refutes the claim by the hon. Gentleman that the scheme was badly publicised. It was taken up by the great majority of local authorities very quickly. It was difficult for us to estimate at the outset how widely it would be taken up. The earlier expenditure estimate of £5 million to £10 million soon proved wholly wrong and wide of the mark.

Up to the end of March, nearly 14,000 individual projects had been approved in England, to a total estimated value of £32 million. This involved local authorities in a great deal of preparatory work carried out against a tight timetable, and I express my great appreciation of the work done by local authorities and others in connection with the scheme.

The projects carried out under the scheme have been mainly ones of visual improvement and have included, as the hon. Gentleman said, things like the tidying-up of neglected sites, the cleaning of buildings, the removal of rubbish from rivers and canals, the tidying-up of tow-paths and the planting of trees to screen unattractive areas. The results of this massive facelift are there for all to see.

The scheme has enabled transformations to be made in the appearance of many of our northern cities. It is true perhaps that the North West was quicker to take advantage of it than was the North East, or even the Midlands. Whether there was any reason for the North West's getting quicker off the mark, I do not know. Great advantage has certainly been taken of the scheme there, but not to the exclusion of the other areas of the North. York was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and there are many areas where the scheme has proved most beneficial. But most of the projects have been relatively small. The average cost is about £2,300, but their cumulative effect has been very large.

The scheme has been by no means confined to large cities. Of the 540 eligible local authorities in the assisted areas, about 450, or nearly 85 per cent., are participating, so the benefits have been applied over a very wide area. The cleaner environment which the scheme has helped to create not only boosts local morale but also makes the areas more attractive to industrialists to set up new enterprises in these towns.

As the hon. Member for Bradford, East stressed, in addition to the undoubted immediate visual effects there have been substantial direct employment benefits. The expenditure of £32 million is bound to have provided a large number of jobs which would not have been provided otherwise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson) said, however, the hon. Member for Bradford, East is exaggerating when he says that a great number of men will be thrown out of employment if we cease this operation. The improvement in the economy and in the industry of Bradford is obvious over the past months, and I cannot imagine that the cessation of the schemes under Operation Eyesore in that town will have any devastating effect on employment.

Mr. Edward Lyons

When I spoke of an increase in unemployment, unlike the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson) I was speaking not of Bradford alone but of all the people employed on the scheme in England, Wales and Scotland. I was not making a parochial speech about Bradford.

Mr. Page

I appreciate that but. taking the scheme as a whole, I do not think that at this stage cessation of the operation is likely to cause bad unemployment. Some people will be thrown out of work, but a great number of specialist contractors have been employed on this work and they will readily find other contracts of a similar nature. The cleaning of buildings is an example of what I have in mind.

We have had a large number of requests for an extension of the scheme from right hon. and hon. Members, local authorities and other bodies and organisations. Some have been concerned that projects may not be completed by the closing date, 30th June 1973. for various reasons such as strikes, bad weather, unforeseen delays in preparing a scheme, the overloading of certain types of specialist contractors and the general overloading of resources occasioned by the scale on which the scheme has grown against a tight timetable. I should be delighted if I could enable local authorities to complete, with the generous grant aid available, all the schemes for the improvement of their areas which they would like to carry out. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State recognises the force of the arguments that certain schemes are in hand, that it would be beneficial if they could be completed and that there are other schemes in contemplation. There will certainly be schemes started in good time and in good faith but which for some unfortunate or unforeseen reason will not be completed by the due date. In many areas there will also be further projects which local authorities would have wished to prepare, submit and carry out under the scheme but which could not be got ready in time.

The problem of an extension is essentially one of competing resources. The scheme has already grown to a size much greater than was originally envisaged and, even if it comes to an end this June, projects to a value of about £35 million to £40 million will have been approved in England and Wales; the great bulk of them will have been carried out and will be eligible for grant. This is a sizeable programme and a substantial contribution both to visual improvement and to employment in the areas.

I apologise to both hon. Members for being unable tonight to give any definite statement about the continuation of the scheme. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is urgently considering whether resources can be found for any extension of the scheme. He is taking into account all the views which have been expressed to him—they have been many—and I know that he will take into account all that has been said in this debate.

We are perhaps victims of success. It has been an extremely successful scheme. It has run away with itself. We anticipated about £5 million a year but it has run up to £32 million and will run into £40 million before it is finished. We would like to invest in that success but it is a matter of competing resources. I can assure the House that my right hon. and learned Friend will take into account all these matters when he is considering whether the resources can be found for an extension of the scheme.

Question put and agreed to. Adjourned accordingly at Two o'clock.