HC Deb 09 July 1974 vol 876 cc1319-30

12.36 a.m.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

In a perceptive book on tourism which I published last year and which is still, unfortunately, available at most reputable bookshops, I argued the case for a national policy for tourism in this country. The Minister has, I am sure, read and re-read that significant contribution. I am in distinguished company in pressing the Government for a policy for tourism. The Minister's predecessor said: If any public money is to be spent on furthering tourism, it is right that the Government should set out the objectives which that expenditure is designed to secure. That is a sentiment to which no reasonable person could object.

In a report published by the National Economic Development Office, entitled, "Hotel Prospects to 1980" it was stated that The existence of an explicit national tourism policy could do much to help and guide the actions of those concerned at national, regional and local levels with the development of tourism. In last year's annual report the English Tourist Board repeated the same plea. It said: We are convinced that this country needs national guidelines for tourism—a broad strategy endorsed by the Government to which the Government will be committed. Tourism is too big, too important and affects the interests of too many people to be allowed to develop without positive guidance. Recently we had a publication entitled, somewhat misleadingly, "Tourism Policy in Britain", in which it was stated that Because of the rate of increase in tourism over recent years and the increases expected over the next few years, tourism pressures are reaching a critical stage and some very substantial decisions are required. Many people are beginning to press the Government for some policy guidelines for this vast industry, and it is a matter of regret that the Minister's Department has so far felt unable to respond to this pressure. We have no policy for tourism. We have no broad objectives which the various components within the tourist industry can follow. It has been said of the Minister's Department, as far as its responsibility for tourism is concerned, that it apparently regards this part of its task as so very delicate that year after year it has shaken it off altogether. That was said by Mr. Ogilvie in 1933. I am sure that he will be delighted to hear me repeat it over 40 years later.

If we look at measures concerned with the development of tourism we find that there is no useful guidance for the various statutory bodies and the various components of the tourist industry. As a result of the absence of a tourist policy and the absence of any framework within which to make sensible decisions, we have lurched from one short-term expedient to another, without the slightest idea where we are going. We relieve one bottleneck in the system only to create another one somewhere else.

I cite as evidence the handling of the hotel development incentives and the construction of London's third airport. On hotel development incentives, £60 million of public money went into development in the central area of London. Most of those hotels would have been built, anyway. Some of them were not needed, as we now have an embarrassing surplus of hotel capacity. Because the Government had not identified the rôle which they wanted the hotel industry to play within an overall policy for tourism they were unable to establish sensible criteria for disbursement of that money or to direct the funds involved to where they were most needed. The massive increase in hotel capacity in London was in no way related to the limited capacity of London's principal tourist attractions. If the Minister is in doubt about that, perhaps he will accompany me in about nine hours' time to Westminster Abbey, where he will see ample evidence of that statement. The hotel development incentive scheme operates in a policy vacuum.

I level the same criticism at the way in which we dealt with the siting of London's third airport. The fact that visitors, once they had landed, might need some accommodation, formed no part of the commission's consideration. As a result, the forecasts on which it worked—about 40 million tourists in 2006, as against about 8 million last year—bore no relation to London's capacity to absorb that number once they had landed. If we think about it we see that the land requirement for hotels to accommodate that number of tourists is beyond the capacity of London, given its dire housing problem.

Nor were more important strategic questions considered, such as whether it was right to divert a higher and higher proportion of London's labour force towards the labour-intensive service industries, with low productivity potential. The consideration of London's third airport took place in a policy vacuum. The implications of the construction of that airport were never followed through. The decision-making machinery was defective, and the responsibility lies mainly with the former DTI.

If we are to make coherent and consistent decisions about the tourist industry in this country, and use public money sensibly, we have to have some idea of the volume and pattern of the tourist movement that the Government envisage. We need a tourist policy against which to judge the various issues that are thrown up. I have mentioned only two.

However, it is not enough for the Minister to concede the case for a national tourism policy; he has to have the machinery for formulating the right one. I hope that he will concede that this evening. If he asked for a national tourism policy at the moment I suspect that he would get two, because responsibility for tourism has been split—illadvisedly—with one set of people, the British Tourist Authority, responsible for marketing and promotion overseas and another—consisting of the tourist boards—responsible for the provision and development of various facilities at home.

The British Tourist Authority is basically a marketing organisation. Of the £5.7 million that it spent last year, £4.4 million was spent promoting Britain overseas. Its policy is essentially demand-oriented; it wants to bring as many people here as it can. To quote from a recent annual report: Never before has there been a clearer need than now to promote this country hugely overseas and encourage the world to come to Britain. Its policy would involve a continued increase in visitors, more airports, the diversion of more labour towards the labour-intensive industries and, in the long term, more hotels in London and other tourist destinations, with scant consideration for the needs of the natives.

On the other hand, from the English, Welsh and Scottish boards we would get a different policy. These boards have a strong regional presence, particularly in those areas where the tourist pressures are most acute. From them we would get a supply-oriented approach, related to the capacity of the tourist areas to absorb tourists. It is this approach that we see beginning in an enlightened document called "Tourism in London", in which the tourist boards have collaborated. The division of responsibility between the marketing people and the development people—which I believe to be a mistake, anyway—will lead to a delay in the formulation of a unified national tourist policy, because the two organisations start from different premises. My view is that we should start with the supply-oriented approach and derive the marketing policy from it.

We must redefine—I put it no stronger—the rôles of the BTA and the tourist boards. I believe that they should be part of an integrated structure, with marketing and development clearly related, rather than autonomous bodies with overlapping and conflicting responsibilities, which can only lead to confusion and ill feeling.

The Minister having been kept from his bed until this late hour, he may not be overjoyed to hear me say that I believe he is the wrong Minister to respond to this Adjournment debate. On the other hand, he may be delighted to know that the problems which I have described should fall on other shoulders. I think it is clear from what I have said that the key issues in tourism are planning, rather than trading ones. Of course, tourism generates foreign currency, but for this to be the prime motivating factor behind the formulation of a policy would be wrong, and one has only to look at what has happened to the coasts of Spain to see why it would be wrong.

I therefore believe that the right Department to tackle this problem is the Department of the Environment and not the Department of Trade, because the need is for an approach based on our capacity to absorb tourists and not on our ability to persuade them to come here. The Department of Trade is principally interested in foreign exchange, and therefore has a somewhat narrow approach to its responsibilities in tourism.

I am encouraged by the thought of what may happen if we switch tourism to the Department of the Environment by looking at what happened to the former Ministry of Transport when it was absorbed within the new Department of the Environment. Previously, the Ministry of Transport was responsible for building roads. Predictions of traffic flows were carried out, lines were drawn on maps, and roads duly appeared, but then the public started protesting. The Chiswick Flyover caused a lot of resentment among those living near it. There were protests about Westway, and a greater protest about ringways for London. People started asking whether the fact that roads were needed was the sole criterion for building them, and whether broader planning considerations should not be a factor.

The integration of the Ministry of Transport within the Department of the Environment had a beneficial effect, because engineers had to justify their proposals to their environmental colleagues, and often they had to put a few kinks in the straight lines, or rub them out. Few people would dispute that the approach to highway planning is much better now than it used to be because it is integrated with overall planning. I seek the same results by placing responsibility for tourism with the Department of the Environment, and I have sufficient confidence in that Department to believe that I should not be disappointed.

A national tourist policy would start by the Department of the Environment requiring all the local authorities to identify the rôle of tourism in their areas. A summation of these local plans would give the Department an idea of the country's capacity to absorb both domestic and overseas tourists. This would then be the input to the market policy, which would reverse the present process. It would also be an input to a policy related to hotels, airports and a general tourist infrastructure. It would reverse the process whereby marketing policy is the tail that wags the dog. The BTA tells us how many tourists it hopes to bring here, and the destinations respond by making the facilities available, often at some cost to the environment. I seek to reverse this process.

Other countries to which we often refer as underdeveloped are light-years ahead of us in managing their tourist industries both coherently and sensibly. They have identified the rôle which they wish to see their tourist industry play, and they have related it to other national objectives. They have been able to harness the energies and wealth which a growing tourist industry generates to secure desirable objectives, instead of allowing those energies to destroy the destinations and the wealth to slip out of the country. It is this enlightened approach which I ask the Minister to adopt tonight.

12.49 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Eric Deakins)

I must first say how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) for having raised the question of tourism tonight. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way that he presented his case. Outside this House he is already recognised as an authority on tourism, notably through his book in the Penguin series "Tourism—Blessing or Blight?" which I read with great interest almost immediately on taking up my post as Minister.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take it amiss if I say that he has good reason for wanting to make his mark in the House before the next election, I think we can all agree that he puts his case with distinction, and I hope that, regardless of the outcome of the next election, it will not be too long before the House has an opportunity to hear from him again.

The title of his book is a provocative one, as I think it was intended to be. There is a tendency in certain quarters to think that tourism is an unqualified blessing, and I share the hon. Member's view that some of the assumptions underlying this view need to be carefully examined. But, if some of the blessings have been overstated, we must not immediately swing to the other extreme by arguing that tourism is an unqualified blight. I know that in his speech the hon. Member dissociated himself from both extremes, but I put it to him that in drawing attention to some of the disadvantages of tourism, particularly foreign tourism, he has in fact rather overstated his case.

We must first of all remember that more people leave these shores as tourists than arrive here; in 1973 there were 11.3 million trips abroad by United Kingdom residents and there were 7.6 million overseas visits to this country. So, if we play the numbers game, the growth of international tourism might be considered positively advantageous from the hon. Member's point of view. If we take holiday visitors alone the balance could be said, on this argument, to be even more in our favour. The problem is that those who go abroad are drawn from all parts of the country, whereas those who arrive here from abroad for their holidays tend to congregate in London and the south of England generally. I know this to my cost, because I live right in the middle of it, in Piccadilly Circus.

What can we do about it? The hon. Member speaks almost—and this emerges from his book—as if he wanted to give a licence to every visitor telling him when he should come, where he should go, and how long he should stay. The fact is that in a free society we shall not be able to prevent people from coming here for their holidays if they wish to. We can make them pay for the privilege by taxing them or we can make them so unwelcome and so uncomfortable that they stay away, but experience suggests that a tourist tax would have to be very high indeed to slow down the rate of growth significantly, and I believe, on the second point, that there is a limit to which we should go in restricting the supply of facilities which tourists demand.

The House will know that thousands of our own people flock to the resorts during the holiday season and are quite content to sleep in their cars if they fail to find a bed for the night. Overseas visitors could well do the same, adding to the blight of which the hon. Member rightly complains. We must also remember that we are tourists when we go on holiday and that if we resent the increase in the number of foreign tourists here, they may also resent our presence there, when, unthinkingly, we enjoy the delights of, for example, Paris or Rome.

The problem—as the hon. Member points out in his book—is essentially one of distribution. The number of home tourists far exceeds the number of overseas tourists, but the great bulk of home tourists continue to patronise the traditional tourist areas, and over the past century adequate facilities have been developed to cope with their needs. Blackpool would not be Blackpool if it were not crowded with visitors, and I suspect that very few of its inhabitants complain about tourist congestion. Indeed, their fear is that one day the visitors will go away.

The problem raised by the growth of overseas tourism is that the visitors are mainly drawn from the prosperous sections of their respective communities and do not generally come to spend a week in a boarding house by the sea; they come to see our historic buildings and ceremonial pageantry. Our problem is to persuade them to go further afield, and this is, in part, a problem of persuading the tour operators and others that an enjoyable holiday can be had in other parts of the country and, in part, a problem of persuading independent holidaymakers, who outnumber the others by nearly three to one, to venture forth from London by public or by private transport to discover what we have to offer.

It has been said that there is a limit to the extent to which the British Tourist Authority can persuade visitors to move outside London and the South-East. This is obviously true, but the question is whether the limit has been reached. I am not convinced that it has. Most people who come here will want to visit London at some time during their stay, but London promotes itself, and in promoting Britain overseas we should perhaps put even more emphasis than we do on the attractions of the regions, particularly the development areas and those areas which depend on tourism for their prosperity.

The fact that tourism is a very labour-intensive industry is in this respect a positive advantage. Employment in manufacturing industry may be preferable in areas where manufacturing industry is prepared to go, but where it is not there is everything to be said for introducing or strengthening the tourist industry as a means either of providing new employment or of avoiding depopulation. I have in mind particularly upland areas, where it is hard to wrest a living from the soil and where the farmer and his family can use a spare room or build additional rooms to accommodate tourists.

It has been suggested—and this emerged from the hon. Member's book—that the balance of payments advantage of tourism is illusory, or, at least, overstated. It is true that in the extreme case a foreign tourist may be brought here by a foreign tour operator, in a foreign aircraft, to stay in a foreign-owned hotel, to be waited on by foreign waiters, but that is an extreme case. There can be no doubt at all that overseas visitors contribute substantially to the balance of payments and, in particular, earn a surplus over expenditure by British residents travelling overseas. The larger the share of the trade taken by British operators the better, and I hope in this connection that some of those who find that their trade in taking Britons abroad is dwindling will turn their attention to bringing overseas visitors here. The situation may be different in some other countries, but I have no hesitation in saying that the Government welcome the contribution which the tourist industry is making to our balance of payments at this present particularly difficult time.

The hon. Member has drawn attention—again in his book—to the demands which tourism makes on land. I would not for one moment pretend that the huge increase in the number of hotels in London in recent years has not reduced the supply of land for housing and other purposes, but the increase has resulted in a substantial surplus of capacity in London and I do not think that we need worry too much about further large-scale encroachment by hotels on building land in London in the foreseeable future.

The hon. Member referred to the hotel development incentive scheme. There has been renewed pressure for a new hotel development incentive s theme, particularly in the development areas. Such proposals need to be treated with great care. There is good reason to believe that most of the hotels built in recent years would have been built without Government assistance and, while there may be a case for Government assistance to hotel building in some locations, particularly when the season is short and where manufacturing would not be a realistic alternative, the fact that there is a shortage of accommodation would not in itself be a justification for a Government grant.

Indeed, I would not expect new hotels to be built unless there ha d been a shortage over a period, and [...]o encourage a new hotel to be built as soon as a shortage appeared would be [...]no use Government money to take away business from existing suppliers. The English Tourist Board has shown in a recent survey that hotels are being built in most areas. The very exceptional cases to which I have referred can be dealt with under Section 4 of the Act.

So much for the pillars on which the hon. Member has rested his case. He will see that I have not dismissed his arguments. What he has said is important, and he deserves to be congratulated for being among the first to voice his doubts about tourism in a systematic form, but his doubts are doubts and not certainties. Moreover, he gives Government—and here I include the previous administration, as well as this one—less credit for intelligence than they deserve.

It is not, of course, true to say that we have not got a national tourist policy. Our policy, like that of the previous administration, is to encourage the development of tourism to and within Great Britain. The hon. Member may not agree with the policy and, indeed, may wish to reverse the tourist tide. What is really at issue is the question of tourism strategy and the question of Exchequer support.

On this we have been feeling our way forward in the light of the experience gained in the first four years of the operation of the BTA and the tourist boards under the Development of Tourism Act 1969. More and more emphasis has been and is being put on the return to the community as a whole from Government expenditure on tourism rather than on the return to the trade interests concerned, whose influence is not negligible, as the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) recently discovered in introducing the Local Revenue Bill. We may not have to come to such firm conclusions that we now feel able to proclaim that we have a new tourist policy which is in some way sharply different from that of our predecessors. Indeed, we do not believe that in a constantly changing situation there is a simple answer to the problems which tourism produces, but, if Governments have shunned the rôle of sage and prophet, the hon. Member may at least take comfort from the fact that we continue to resist the claims of those who believe that indiscriminate and open-ended expenditure by Governments on financial assistance to every aspect of tourism is necessarily in the public interest. The idea of cost-benefit has long ceased to be a monopoly of the universities! The hon. Member referred to Maplin and expressed some doubts on the split between marketing and organisation in the tourist industry. He asked whether, because of its responsibilities for civil aviation, the Department of Trade is the right body to sponsor the tourist industry and oversee the work of the tourist boards. The question of who looks after tourism is, of course, for the Prime Minister, but the hon. Gentleman cannot in the same breath complain about lack of coordination in Government and about one Department looking after two or more aspects of the same problem.

I cannot say how our predecessors arrived at their decision on Maplin. What I can say is that this Government have taken the tourist potential fully into account in examining the need for a third London airport. In saying this I do not deny that there are other considerations and I have no doubt that these will be given due weight as our policy evolves. Decisions may have been made in a vacuum by the last administration. I hope and, indeed, believe that we will do considerably better.

In conclusion, I will say again what I said at the beginning of the debate—that I am grateful to the hon. Member for having raised this subject tonight. Governments almost everywhere have been reexamining their assumptions about tourism, if only because of the implications for tourism of the energy crisis, but I can assure him that this Government will certainly not ignore the kind of considerations to which he has referred, even if we do not end up by coming to precisely the same conclusions. The tourist industry should not be regarded by government either as a blessing or a blight, but as one of the number of industries which play an important rôle in our economy but which need to be constrained only where there is clear evidence that the economic and social advantages to the community as a whole are more than offset by the disadvantages.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past One o'clock.