HC Deb 28 January 1974 vol 868 cc206-16

12.5 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising a matter of some importance to those who live in the London borough of Harrow. This cannot be said to be a unique occasion, but it is fairly unusual in that we have present on the Government Front Bench my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Anthony Grant), who is also, of course, the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Since my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) is also present, Harrow can be said to be 100 per cent. represented in this debate.

Understandably, the House is preoccupied with grave national issues, such as the mining dispute and the crisis which the nation now faces. This also applies to the citizens of Harrow, who are extremely anxious and worried about the situation and hope that the miners will be prepared to accept a reasonable settlement. I mention that matter in parenthesis to underline the fact that that is the preoccupation in many areas throughout the country. But I wish to emphasise that there are other industrial and commercial matters which are preoccupying my constituents in Harrow, East—and, indeed, I know that this can be said of the constituents of all three Harrow Members of Parliament now present.

Harrow, as an outer London borough, is primarily residential and, therefore, to a considerable extent lacks industry and commerce. This problem is particularly pronounced in Harrow, and this is my reason for seeking in this debate to draw attention to our difficulties. Harrow has a lower element of industry and commerce within its own area than have any of the other outer London boroughs. There are many statistics to back up my statement, although I shall not attempt to use them in this short debate because time will not allow me to do so. However, it is interesting to note that in the total "workplace"—which is the term used in the last population census—of the London borough of Harrow only about one-third of the population resident in the borough of Harrow actually work in the borough itself. This is to be compared with a figure of 40 per cent. or more as the average for the outer London boroughs in the Northwest London area. The other two-thirds of the population in Harrow go to work elsewhere. Large numbers of the people of Harrow commute, often in difficult conditions, to other workplaces in London. There is an enormous movement of Harrow's population out of the area every day. This raises questions of balance in any community, and certainly in Harrow there is a need for an improvement in this balance.

It is fair to acknowledge the conflicting considerations by putting on record the outstanding and favourable characteristic that Harrow has a very low unemployment figure, and we all appreciate this fact. I know that we Harrow Members of Parliament have worked closely together on employment matters connected with industry and commerce in our constituencies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West for what he has done. The employment figure is very encouraging, and long may this situation continue. I accept that we must also bear in mind the shorter working week, but there is still the underlying reality that in Harrow employment opportunities are more limited than they are elsewhere.

Also to be considered is the question of the rate burden on domestic ratepayers, and this applies with greater force in Harrow than in many other London boroughs. We must bear in mind that local authorities must reckon with future increases in local government expenses and the consequent increase in domestic rates. There are high rateable values in the borough, but some domestic ratepayers will be hard pressed in the future. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will say a word about local authority expenditure. We all hope that the Harrow authority will do its best to contain expenditure and to implement the necessary reductions in 1974–75 from the programme of cuts announced before Christmas.

I regret that the Socialist-controlled authority in Harrow, with a miniscule majority, has not done more for the borough since gaining control in the last local elections. It has been very complacent. It has not approached the prob- lem of industry and commerce in the borough with any energy. It is disappointing that it has not made realistic and concrete suggestions, although I acknowledge that there have been meetings and discussions on the subject. But I feel that more could be done. The GLC has a policy of officially supporting greater development for the outer London boroughs, and in that context I am anxious to know whether my hon. Friend can give us any information about the IDC policy. I know that there has been a welcome relaxation in recent times, but I like to feel that there will be more scope in an area like Harrow for the use of IDCs in the future.

I attach far more importance to another aspect of development in a borough like Harrow, however, which is the question of office development permission. At the moment, there is a temporary stop on the issue of new permissions, and that is a rational policy which I believe to be widely supported. But I like to feel that this will not continue into the long-term future and jeopardise the scope for office development in Harrow.

Harrow is not really suitable for industrial development on any large scale. There is not the population available. It would be nice to provide a modest increase in certain industrial jobs, possibly with one or two additional industrial enterprises coming to the borough. But it is in office development that greater scope exists, especially in Central Harrow where the Harrow centre redevelopment scheme has been under discussion for far too long. I hope those discussions will proceed more rapidly in the future.

When one considers all the various aspects of the structural future of a borough like Harrow, a number of salient features emerge. I say this having had many discussions in my constituency, and having discussed it with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West, with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, with representatives from all parts of the life of the borough, with local authority officials, and so on. My overwhelming conclusion is that the citizens of Harrow, above all, want its basic intrinsic character to remain unchanged. It is a residential borough. It has developed over many years since before the war as a commuter's residential dormitory area for people working in the centre of London and in the boroughs round Harrow where there is more industrial development already for historical reasons. That is the overwhelming consensus of the citizens of Harrow.

At the same time, there is scope for getting away from the imbalance in development, with an increasing incidence of what might be called residential exclusiveness at the expense of any non-residential development. Although the scope for industrial development must be severely limited, there is scope for commercial development, even if it seems axiomatic that commercial office development will be clustered and concentrated in that part of the borough known as Harrow Town rather than in outlying areas.

The other salient feature is that if the character is to be preserved but the existing imbalance is to be rectified to a moderate extent with Government and official GLC support—bearing in mind that that imbalance has worsened in the past few years—a compromise must be maintained by preserving the green belt. I appreciate that this matter is not within my hon. Friend's departmental sphere, but I hope that he may be able to tell me something about it. I mention the matter because I recently noticed in the local Press that some small areas of green belt in both Harrow, East and Harrow, West are to be earmarked for development, whereas several months ago I understood from my right hon and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that the additional green belt land to be taken for housing purposes, announced in the autumn, would not apply to Harrow in any way.

It would be easy for everybody to assume that the status quo could continue without difficulty. There are demands by people in Harrow for expenditure by the local authority. Yet we all know that, because of other conditions, that expenditure will have to be contained.

I hope that my hon. Friend will give me some information about rate support for domestic ratepayers who will be increasingly hard pressed in future. We had a sizeable rate increase under the Socialist-controlled local authority last time. I hope that the rates will be contained and that the increase will be modest next time. I hope, too, that those in the local authority responsible for the future development of Harrow will always have regard to preserving the character of the area when considering the need to attract commerce primarily and, to a lesser extent, some industry into the borough, with the basic, unavoidable and highly attractive criteria attaching to all that, and to those developments bringing in and offering employment opportunities to people already resident, not to people who have to travel into the borough from outside, thus adding to the congestion and pressures. That will relieve some reluctant commuters out of Harrow every morning of the need to do that.

These are serious, though local, matters on which I hope that my hon. Friend will reply positively tonight.

12.17 a.m.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) has pointed out, this is a pan-Harrow, an inter-Harrow and a trans-Harrow occasion. I congratulate him on having raised this important subject and say, because we have had no preparatory talks in depth on this matter, that I agree with everything that he has said tonight.

In Harrow, West there is virtually no manufacturing industry at all. The commercial side is largely confined to the retail trade and services. I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree that, as I have said in the past, there are more people in the world who would rather live in Harrow than anywhere else. London is the greatest conurbation in the world, North-West London is the most popular part of the world, and Harrow, West—I do not wish to be controversial—is the most popular part of Harrow. Therefore, we have a particular responsibility here.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East tended to point out that the residents of Harrow have a schizophrenic attitude to development in the borough. He said that more people go out of Harrow every day to their work than from any other borough in London. That means that the narrowest belt of industrial and commercial ratepayers leave a larger burden on domestic residents. I hope that we shall hear about the Government's attitude to future rate support. Although the residents of Harrow do not like long journeys every day to their work, they do not want to see Harrow subtopia-ised. They would prefer to see their communities unaltered and unchanged, particularly, as my hon. Friend said, in the preservation of sensible and real parts of the green belt.

There is financial advantage to private residents and commercial concerns in Harrow in further commercial development, but it must not be introduced at the sacrifice of the character and appearance of Harrow in general. This means that we hope that the Government will go for conservation of amenities. That conservation should be in the forefront of any proposals that my hon. Friend may make tonight on behalf of the Conservative Government.

12.21 a.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) for raising the subject tonight and to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) for his contribution. It is, I believe, a rather unusual experience for the Minister replying to an Adjournment debate to have a constituency interest in it. I cannot find a precedent for it, certainly not during my time in this Government, but I do find myself in the position of sympathising with the views which my hon. Friends have so ably expressed on behalf of the borough which we all represent, while at the same time I recognise the importance of the Government policies on which they have commented.

Trends in industry and commerce in London have been a cause of some concern to the GLC and the London boroughs, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industrial Development met a deputation on this subject last summer. The more local concern was voiced by a deputation which my hon. Friends brought to see me last November. The ground is thus quite well rehearsed and tonight we can do little more than put it upon the public record, for I am sure my hon. Friends will realise that there has been little change in the situation since November, except the fundamental change of the industrial action by the miners and the train drivers. The best service that can be rendered to industry and commerce, and every man, woman and child in Harrow, London and the country is for those two sections of industry to return to full-time working.

I propose to deal with the matters my hon. Friends have raised first in the London context. Some parts of London have been affected by a series of unconnected closures within a small area. Inevitably there must be change. Buildings and machinery wear out; some businesses prosper but others do not. We cannot expect any community, Harrow or anywhere else, to remain static if it is to prosper.

London is fortunate in not being heavily dependent on one or two industries—the same applies to Harrow—with all the consequences that brings when one falls on hard times. Such dependence is one of the problems of the assisted areas, where unemployment rates are so much higher than in London. London is the largest manufacturing centre in the United Kingdom and benefits in many ways from its diversity of employment.

The latest figures I have, for December 1973, show unemployment rates in individual development areas averaging from 3.5 per cent. to 5.0 per cent. compared with a mere 1.1 per cent. in the GLC area. While vacancies are about one third of the number unemployed in the development areas taken as a whole, there are more than twice as many vacancies in London as there are unemployed people. I entirely appreciate that we are talking about human beings, not cyphers, but I stress that the scale of the problem is different and that London has little to complain about.

As my hon. Friends have mentioned, there is the considerable impact of the travel-to-work habits of Londoners. We all know that there are very large movements of people between boroughs, apart from the many people who live outside the GLC area but work within it. But this has to be seen in the context of our policy for industry as a whole. Therefore, I should like to comment on the policy on industrial development certificates, which has been the subject of some controversy and has been specifically referred to tonight.

It has been said many times—I repeat it now—that it has been the policy of successive Governments since the 1930s to assist the areas of worst unemployment. Since the 1940s the chosen means have been the financial inducements payable by the Government combined with the IDC control which was introduced in 1948. Both of these have had some influence on the decisions of firms to locate away from the South-East and in the assisted areas. As a Government we shall continue to promote the establishment and expansion of industry in the assisted areas. At the same time, however, we recognise that there can be sound reasons why particular firms should settle or expand in the more congested areas.

It is sometimes suggested that the IDC control that we operate is in some ways inflexible. That is not true. But even if it were, compared with our policy, the policy adopted by the previous Government would not have been inflexible; it would have been rigor mortis. When we come to offices the exemption limit below which no certificate was needed, within the GLC area, was only 3,000 square feet, which is an area just smaller than this Chamber. That limit was set in 1966. The present Government raised the limit first to 5,000 square feet in December 1970 and then to 10,000 square feet in July 1972. Further, as part of the regional policy changes of that year, we also made IDCs more readily available for schemes of modernisation and efficiency involving little additional employment.

These relaxations will themselves have removed from our scrutiny some smaller projects which might have been secured for the assisted areas, and they have also made it easier for many firms to plan their expansion programmes. This has generally been welcomed by industry.

It has been suggested sometimes that industrialists are inhibited from applying for an IDC because they do not think that their application will be successful. I have not seen any evidence to suggest that this happens on a significant scale. There is no need for it if the firm is convinced of the soundness of its case. No firm need hesitate to make an application. Each one is examined very carefully by my Department with the firm concerned, so that all relevant information and considerations can be brought to bear in reaching a decision. It is an indication of the care with which this is done, and of the limited number of projects which are genuinely mobile, that the refusal rate for IDC applications since July 1972 has been less than 9 per cent. for the Greater London area.

I turn to the specific question of Harrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East has referred to the imbalance of employment in Harrow. He was referring to an analysis from the 1966 census, showing that there are fewer jobs in the borough than there are resident workpeople—in round numbers, some 60,000 jobs and 105,000 workers only 35,000 of whom work in the borough. In other boroughs the pattern is the other way round.

But this is a matter of history, of the way in which London has been developed. If he looks at Harrow and his constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East will see large areas—for instance, from the Edgware Road across to Queensbury and out to Stanmore—which were developed during the 1920s and 1930s as dormitory areas for commuters, by their own choice. My constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West were also developing in the same way during that period.

Without going into details—because a different Department deals with the matter—I should like to say that we would all wish, including myself, to adhere to the green belt policy. This is important. But it means that there is little room left in which new industrial development can take place. I wonder, too, whether there is the labour available in the borough to man many new enterprises. In Harrow, even the register of unemployed is nearly doubled by the number of vacancies, and there are many more unregistered vacancies appearing every week in the columns of the Harrow Observer. Therefore, the scope is limited for industrial development in this respect. As regards industrial development in Harrow, I assure my hon. Friend that we will look carefully at all applications for IDCs and evaluate them against our normal criteria, with which my hon. Friends will be familiar and which we summarised in a Guide to the IDC Control which was published in "Trade and Industry" last June.

I turn to the question of clerical work and office development. My hon. Friends indicated that the main imbalance concerns clerical jobs. This brings us straight to the control operated through the office development permit system administered by the Department of the Environment.

My hon. Friend is probably familiar with that Department's general approach. I am informed that it has been the Department's tendency to approve custom-built proposals for a named user where the applicant has a particular tie to the area and where existing offices are not available and to approve speculative schemes which are basically rebuilding schemes or which contain substantial identifiable planning advantages. In addition, applications from named users demonstrating a need to move from central to outer London may be approved. In general, speculative development with no outstanding public advantage has been most unlikely to attract approval. Although this has been the general approach, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said on 18th December last that there would be a ban on the issue of ODPs for the time being. This is to lessen the demands on the construction industry so that more resources can be channelled into house building which is necessary for Harrow as well as for the rest of the country.

In spite of this temporary standstill, applications can still be submitted for processing; and, putting on my constituency hat, I shall certainly join my hon. Friends in helping Harrow in this respect.

The question of the rate support grant, to which both my hon. Friends referred, is also a matter for the Department of the Environment. It is true that Harrow has rather less commercial and industrial property than some other parts of London. Nevertheless, Harrow's rateable value per head of population is still high in comparison with local authorities generally, and as a result Harrow does not receive the resources element of the rate support grant in the current year.

Just before Christmas the Government had to take action to restrict the domestic element as a result of the energy crisis. In consequence, local authorities were told that they would have to accept further reductions in their expenditure for 1974–75; but this still allows for a modest growth. Of course, local authorities will be faced with problems in achieving these reductions, but the Government in their rate support grant settlement are making available generous domestic relief, and this should ensure that, provided that local authorities make the necessary reductions, no domestic ratepayer need face increases of more than about 9 per cent.

It is not possible to say yet what will happen to rates in 1974–75 because the rate equalisation arrangements which operate in London will have to be reviewed in the light of the new Government grant arrangements. I understand that the London Boroughs Association is considering proposals which might provide some additional assistance to Harrow.

Both my hon. Friends have rendered a great service to the borough by raising this important subject of Harrow in the House tonight. It is the desire of the Government and of myself as much as it is that of my hon. Friends to obtain the right balance for the citizens of our borough, and, indeed, of London. Harrow is one of the healthiest and most prosperous of boroughs. It has a character of its own. It is the envy—as one who is concerned with regional development, I am able to tell my hon. Friends this—of many less fortunate areas of the country. Like my hon. Friends, I am proud to represent part of the borough. It is vital that it maintains that reputation and that it has the proper balance of activities in accordance with the wishes and needs of all its citizens. It will be my purpose to see that it does so in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to One o'clock.