HC Deb 09 April 1974 vol 872 cc388-400

2.53 a.m.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

Even at seven minutes to three in the morning I do not apologise for detaining the House for another half hour to debate the important matter of the progress of development in the Borders. On previous occasions when I have raised this subject—and it has not been all that frequently—I have usually had to begin on a note of gloom or complaint, and it is therefore a welcome change to be able to begin by looking back over recent years and noting that considerable progress has been made in the Border region in Scotland.

The Economist, in its survey of Scotland in November 1973, which was controversial in some respects, contained a section on the Border region headed "Boom in the Border "and rightly pointed out that part of the economic battle had been won, that unemployment was now lower that in much of England, that new investment was rising and that people were coming to the counties rather than leaving them. It concluded that in the first six months of the operation of the Border build-up campaign, 400 families had returned to the Borders and another 2,500 families have said they are prepared to return as soon as houses and jobs are ready for them.

One reason for my seeking this debate is that at the moment in Scotland, quite naturally, there is overwhelming concern about development associated with North Sea oil. The Border region so far is not connected with this development and I am concerned that the proper impetus behind that development should not result in any loss of momentum in the continuing progress of economic development in the Borders.

I therefore welcome the Chancellor's decision to extend the payment of the regional employment premium, which I have always regarded as one of the most effective means, as did the Select Committee, of encouraging regional development. This is not a specific Scottish Office responsibility and I do not expect an answer tonight, but I hope that the REP will not, as in the past, just continue to be paid indefinitely; I hope that it will be adapted as an instrument of economic development in two respects.

First, it should be used as a deliberate weapon in the Government's armoury to help those parts of the country, such as the area I represent. where wage levels are, on the whole, well below the national average. Second, it might be extended beyond the regional concept that it had when introduced, in association with the selective employment tax, to the service industries in general and particularly to agriculture. I hope that this will be considered in the Government's national policy.

If there is a complaint at the moment about development in the Borders, it is that the housing programme has been allowed to slump. This more than anything else is crippling future development prospects. From a high peak of 709 houses completed in the public sector in 1970, the number fell last year to 231, the lowest figure since 1964. This is regrettable, particularly because it has happened both in the local authority sphere and among those houses completed by the Scottish Special Housing Association.

A number of factors contribute to this. One is that, until recently, the tendering procedures of the SSHA were such that, in a time of inflation and shortage of building materials, it was difficult for it to obtain realistic tenders for relatively small schemes. That matter has now been put right, but there is a need for far faster processing of housing demand from a given area in association with the Department of Employment and the Scottish Office and through to the SSHA. In the last couple of years I have found more than once that a good deal of prodding has to be done to get accepted a future need for housing that cannot actually be shown from hard figures for a particular firm at any given moment.

We had a regrettable incident in Peebles when part of the production of an American company went back to the parent company because the housing which had been expected was not available. We have had the threat of a repeat of that experience in Jedburgh which I hope will now be avoided by the recent decision to build further SSHA housing there. But there is something far wrong with the time lag between the demand for housing in any given town and the actual supply of that housing. If there is anything the Minister can do to look into this and speed it up I shall be extremely grateful.

As a Member of Parliament I am finding now, as I found when I first came to this House, that my daily mail contains the sorry story of local people unable to get houses—people about to be married, people leaving tied cottages and people who are retiring. There is a great danger that unless local authority programmes are maintained alongside the increased SSHA programme there will be once more that unhealthy rivalry between the claims of the local people and those of outsiders coming in to meet industrial expansion. I consider the lack of housing and the drop in the programme to be the most disturbing feature of economic life in the Border area.

Perhaps I may refer to the Tweedbank development. I hope that it is not the case—it may be—that the natural concentration of both the Scottish Office and the SSHA on the projected development at Tweedbank has diverted attention off other similar schemes elsewhere. I understand that the programme for Tweedbank is running slightly behind schedule. I wonder whether the Minister can give up-to-date figures on that. Will he also assure me that all departments in the Scottish Office will be co-ordinated in the Tweedbank project? We have already experienced the primary school at Tweedbank coming out of the 1974 instead of the 1973 allocation because it had not been realised it would be started in 1973. There is some concern that the community services—for example the community centre—will not be available at the same time as the housing. It would be regrettable if that were so.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Berwick and East Lothian)

Before the hon. Member leaves the question of Tweedbank may I ask him whether he is aware of some of the dangers that exist from the whole concept of the project, not so much to the part of the Borders around Tweed-bank but to the outlying counties, such as Berwickshire, in my constituency? Is he aware that there is a great danger from the Tweedbank concept, that industry will be attracted solely to the Tweedbank complex and that this will cause damage to the aspirations of towns such as Greenlaw, in my constituency, which are desperately in need of industry? There is also a danger that if Tweedbank goes ahead as presently planned, it will drain both labour and materials away from viable communities within the outlying counties and will render them unviable.

Mr. Steel

I accept the point that there is a danger and it would be a matter of concern if the Government and the local authorities in the area were not determined to avoid that happening. I have always believed that Tweedbank need not be a rival to the expansion of the existing communities and the fact that a town like Peebles has enjoyed considerable expansion during the time that Tweedbank has been under consideration shows that what I am saying is true.

The figure I quoted earlier, of 2,800 families still on the Border build-up books as willing to go into the area, shows that there is a considerable reservoir of incoming labour which could be attracted to Tweedbank and which need not be derived from other Border communities. However, I agree that if one of the consequences of Tweedbank were to drain population from established communities in Berwickshire or elsewhere it would run against the whole ethos of the scheme.

I turn now to the development of the new hospital to serve the area. Part of the housing at Tweedbank will, I imagine, be taken up by the hospital staffs as they move into the new site adjacent to Tweedbank. The previous Government—I am glad to see the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) in his place at this late hour —made the welcome decision to speed up the building programme for the new hospital to replace Peel Hospital. In a letter which the hon. Gentleman wrote to me when he was Minister in December last year, he gave me certain reassurances on the timetable which it was proposed to adopt for the new hospital.

The pointed question which I put to the new Minister of State is this. Are the present Government adhering firmly to that timetable? It may be a rather unfair question, since the new area health board has been in office for only a matter of days, but in December I was certainly given to understand that it was the Government's intention that the new hospital would be provided within about six years. May we still expect that timetable to be adhered to, and shall we see the hospital ready for occupation by the end of 1979?

I turn now to the question of transport and road developments. I refer first to the recent decision of the Scottish Office on the routeing of the A7 trunk route through Galashiels. I greatly welcome the decision that this is not now to be routed—as had been planned for some time—through the centre of the town. I am sure that this is widely welcomed in the town. But the new proposed line along the railway line and through the old railway yard raises a secondary problem, in that it will run through or adjacent to a new industrial site, and there are at least two major and several minor applicants for factories on this site at the moment who have been pressing for some time to get access to the site.

On 25th March, I asked a Question about the new line of route of the A7 through Galashiels, and the Secretary of State gave the not very precise reply: I hope to publish proposals later this year". —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March 1974; Vol. 871, c. 54.] May I press the Minister of State about that now? I am not saying that there has been delay—I do not think that there has been, and obviously it takes time to work out the precise line of route—but is the hon. Gentleman seized of the urgency of the matter and of the demand for the placing of these factories now? Every week lost literally means a week lost of potential production and employment in the area. Will he give a more precise guide as to when we shall have the line route of the trunk road through the town?

I now go further south on the same trunk route—the A7 at Hawick. As the Minister knows, the Hawick working party, in which his Department has played an important part, has recently recommended that trunk traffic should be removed from the High Street of Hawick to west of the river. The working party in its report cast some doubt on whether the cash would be made available to translate this ideal into reality. Is it the intention of the development department to finance the removal of the trunk road from Hawick High Street?

Next, what is the Department's view now on the evidence given at the public inquiry into the proposed reconstruction of the Drumlanrig bridge by Mr. Sampson, an independent bridge engineer, that the bridge could be strengthened without demolition of the adjacent buildings? This matter is still causing concern in the town.

In Peebles, as the Minister may know from previous Questions and debates, over the last two years there has been a continuing dispute about the proposed alteration to the A72 route through the town. It is not a trunk route, which affects the matter somewhat in that any proposal there is subject to 75 per cent. grant. As a result of public agitation in the town, the county council reconsidered its proposal to demolish what was known as Buchan's House in order to widen the Cuddy bridge, and it has now come up with a new proposal—to demolish Buchan's House and then rebuild it a few yards further along the road.

This, I suggest, will be a scheme of considerable cost. My initial reaction, while certainly being more favourable to this proposal than I was to the original proposal for demolition of the house, is to question whether, in this time of economic stringency, we can afford a scheme of this kind. I should have thought that it might be better for the Department to examine further the suggested use of the old railway line for a new east-west route at some time in the future. I do not think that it is justified at present in Peebles.

Lastly, on transport in general, reference was made in a debate a little earlier this morning—if that is the right description of the time—to the Transport Act 1968. In an area like the Borders, the system of subsidies provided by local authorities is not really satisfactory when we have very large areas and relatively small rating authorities. There is anxiety about the fact that we are suffering a continual dwindling of bus services, and at the same time, in the Budget, we have had the statement that petrol tax for the private car is to rise further, as though the private car, as in London, were a luxury. In parts of the country such as that which I represent, the private car is very often a necessity. I hope that the Government will consider this matter seriously, and not treat transport as though it were transport in London mirrored all over the rest of the United Kingdom.

We are confident that development will go forward in the Borders, provided that the attention of the Scottish Office can occasionally be drawn to those matters which are of concern to us.

3.12 a.m.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) for raising the issue of development of the Borders at this stage and for allowing me the opportunity of mentioning Berwick's problems. There can be no more eloquent testimony to the points that I want to make than the absence of any English Minister from the Government Front Bench. I welcome the presence of a Scottish Minister and look to him to remind his English colleagues of something which his own Department—the Scottish Development Department—has said several times, namely, that Berwick is the key to the eastern Borders and that Border development at the eastern end is dependent upon what happens in Berwick.

I hope that the Minister will remind his colleagues that we are awaiting a decision on the Berwick shipyard and that there will be a great deal of anger if a favourable decision does not emerge within a few days.

But there are further points which the Minister must note. Berwick is operating under a handicap by virtue of being on the English side of the Border. The whole process of development on the Border, affecting both sides of it, is suffering as a result. I mention two respects in which this is happening. First, in relation to factory building, the system of locally determined schemes for capital allocation which operates in England, and not in Scotland, makes it much more difficult for towns on the English side of the Border to engage in advance factory projects.

But currently of even greater importance is the housing situation to which my hon. Friend has referred. There are problems on his side of the Border but they are even more acute on the English side. In housing terms, Berwick follows the pattern of Scottish towns, 60 per cent. of its dwellings being council owned. That is a high proportion of council houses. This means that under the Housing Finance Act any further major house building programme places an impossible burden on the ratepayers of the town concerned. Yet a recent Eastern Borders Development Association report indicated that the present industries in Berwick—not the new industries, but those already established—will generate a demand for upwards of 1,000 new houses. Those houses cannot be built without some injection of capital. On the Scottish side this can be provided by the SSHA. I should like the Minister to indicate that he is prepared to consider allowing the SSHA to operate in Berwick, because failing any alternative injection of capital into Berwick there is no means by which the level of house building expected for Borders development can be achieved. I hope that the Minister can give some assurance on that matter.

3.14 a.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Bruce Millan)

Even at a quarter past three in the morning, I do not think that I can give assurances that the SSHA would be enabled to operate in England as well as in Scotland. I do not think that I can answer most of the points raised by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). Apart from anything else, there is no time to do that. But it is appreciated by my right hon. Friend that there is a certain anxiety about the decision being reached on the shipyard proposal. There was a certain amount of delay occasioned by the election. Otherwise, the decision on the inspector's report, which I understand was received at the end of January, would no doubt have been made by now. But my right hon. Friend is very much aware of this, and hopes to give a decision on the matter very shortly.

I turn to the points made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel). I am glad that he started by saying that the economic and general position in the Borders was basically very healthy. In the migration figures, compared with what they were a number of years ago, and in the unemployment figures one can find confirmation of the fact that the Borders have—in comparison with the rest of Scotland, and perhaps even in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom—been doing very well in recent years. We all much welcome that.

It is true that, as the hon. Gentleman said, our minds are at present directed in Scotland very much to North Sea oil developments, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not unaware of the continuing needs of the Borders of Scotland. I remind him, though he perhaps does not need reminding, that under the previous Labour Government in 1966 the Borders received development area status. We wish to see a continuation and enhancement of prosperity in the Borders.

On the regional employment premium, we have taken the first and important step in our announcement that the premium will be continued beyond September 1974. Tremendous uncertainty was being caused, and I think that that announcement by itself will have done a good deal of good. We are considering the future of the premium, or a similar kind of labour subsidy. The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to say anything about that tonight. In any case, it is by no means wholly, or perhaps even at all, a direct Scottish Office responsibility.

The extension of service industry and other suggestions will be taken into account, but I cannot commit my right hon. Friend as to what the final decision is likely to be.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am very distressed that there should have been such a substantial reduction in the number of public sector completions between 1970 and 1973. What has happened in the Borders is only a reflection of what has happened over the whole of Scotland. The situation causes the present Government considerable concern. I hope that we shall be able to build up the public sector housing figures during our term of office both in the Borders and elsewhere.

We recognise that the provision of housing is an integral part of planning for industrial development and expansion. This is particularly relevant in the Borders because, as the hon. Gentleman fairly said, there are potentially many people who would be willing to return to the area. There are jobs either actually or potentially available for them. One of the key factors in getting those jobs going in the Borders is the provision of housing for the workers concerned.

My right hon. Friend recently authorised the SSHA to build an additional 50 houses in both Jedburgh and Kelso. That is only an early indication of the importance we attach to housing in the Borders and elsewhere. The SSHA has, in Scotland as a whole, a considerable programme committed ahead for the next few years, and much of the commitment is in relation to oil expansion. There is considerable urgency there.

I am not saying that we shall be able to give quite the priority to the Borders that the hon. Gentleman would like, but we shall do everything we can to improve the situation. There has been a certain amount of trouble about tenders, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but some preparatory work was done by the SSHA in the intervening period, so the time has not been completely lost.

I agree that there has always been the potential danger that Tweedbank would draw away development and population from elsewhere, but I do not think that will happen or need happen. We are well aware of the danger of that happening. I remain, as were the previous Labour Government and the previous Conservative Government, a firm supporter of the Tweedbank concept. We shall do everything possible to ensure, after what has been a protracted period of delay, that matters go ahead at Tweed-bank as rapidly as possible.

We accept the decision that was taken by the previous Government last December, that the new Borders hospital should be built as a single-phase and not a two-phase project. Unfortunately, last December we also had the public expenditure cuts, which affect the hospital building programme as well as other programmes of public expenditure in Scotland. We must also bear in mind the responsibility of the new Borders Health Board and the fact that planning for a hospital of such size and complexity is in any case a fairly lengthy process that is normally expected to take something like three years. I cannot commit myself to a timetable.

I am not sure that I know exactly what was written to the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) last December in a ministerial capacity, but we recognise the importance of the Borders hospital. I answered a considerable number of representations about it when I was previously at the Scottish Office from 1966 to 1970. I know that it is a long-standing need in the Borders. That has not been denied. I hope that it will be able to go ahead and that there will not be any unnecessary delay. I am not able to give a precise timing tonight because there are at present considerable pressures on the hospital programme.

The hon. Member raised a number of questions about roads. I take his point about rural transport in general. The intention is that the present system of direct Government contribution under the Transport Act to local authority arrangements for grants to rural bus and ferry services should be abolished and replaced by a transport supplement in the rate support grant system. We shall have an opportunity to discuss that matter and wider issues on rural transport when these proposals come to fruition.

So far as the—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes past Three o'clock a.m.