HC Deb 13 March 1979 vol 964 cc412-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Joseph Dean.]

10.24 pm
Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

I am grateful for the opportunity to air the difficulties confronting the borough of Trafford, and in particular Trafford's exclusion from aid under the Inner Urban Areas Act. On Friday 9 February the Under-Secretary of State visited Trafford to see the problems of the authority. I think he will agree that although we live north of Watford we are civilised, we were friendly, and I think he was impressed by the case that was put to him. In the town hall afterwards he stated that Trafford was a borderline case. He also said that care must be taken to see that whatever jam there was was not spread too thinly. That is all very well for areas which getting a share of the jam, but it is of no comfort to Trafford, which is getting nothing.

Neighbouring authorities, such as Manchester and Salford, benefit substantially from the Inner Urban Areas Act. Why should an adjoining area within the Trafford boundary be excluded? In my constitutency, which is in the south of Trafford, we have the Broadheath industrial estate, which is the only significant source of employment in the area. It employs 8,500 workers, but since 1971 more than 2,000 jobs have been lost on the estate. At present there are 216,000 sq. ft. of vacant industrial floor space on that estate, but most of this requires refurbishing if it is to be successfully marketed. There are also 30 acres of available industrial land where expansion and development have been impeded by inadequate infrastructure—particularly sewerage and drainage facilities.

To try to improve the situation the Broadheath joint consultative committee was set up. This committee consists of employers, representatives of the trade unions and Trafford councillors. Any help that we could have obtained from the Inner Urban Areas Act would have been more than welcome, but it seems that the Government are not particularly interested.

Trafford's main claim to aid under the Act is based on conditions in the northern part of the borough, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill), who hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before the end of the debate. In this part of Trafford, adjoining Manchester and Salford, the problems are virtually the same as in those other two areas. The only difference is that Salford and Manchester receive substantial Government finance to cope with their problems, whereas Trafford has to cope on its own. I feel very strongly about this treatment of Trafford, because Manchester and Salford are beneficiaries of what I can only describe as overlapping aid. They are helped by the inner city needs indicators, and they are equally helped by the rate support grant needs factors. Therefore they receive aid on the same factors from two separate sources.

Perhaps the Minister will explain tonight why so much aid is channelled into certain areas, whereas an adjoining area with exactly the same problems, is not only deprived of aid under the Act but sees its rate support grant cut drastically. Trafford council has heeded the exhortations of the Government over the past few years. It has been financially thrifty and has tried to look after the ratepayers interests. For its pains it receives £2,500,000 less under the rate support grant than it received two years ago. Perhaps the Minister will compare that with the £2,500,000 extra in real terms which Manchester is getting under the rate support grant and the £1,100,000 extra which Salford is getting. This money is in addition to £10 million allocated to Salford and Manchester under the Inner Urban Areas Act.

I do not begrudge the help going to Salford and Manchester. I realise that these places have serious problems. But Trafford also has these problems. I am anxious to know why certain authorities are treated so favourably, when a neighbouring authority is treated so shamefully. I suspect that there is political bias. I find it strange that Labour-controlled councils do so well under the Labour Government, while a Conservative-controlled council is treated so disgracefully.

I have already said that many of the problems are in the northern part of Trafford, and indeed the Trafford council recognises this. If the Minister checks, he will realise that 65 per cent. of Trafford council's expenditure is devoted to the northern part of the borough. This part includes Trafford Park industrial estate, which is the largest in the country. In 1975 there were 37,500 jobs in Trafford Park, 80 per cent. in manufacturing industries. One job in five was taken by residents of the inner area, thus making Trafford Park their single most important source of jobs.

There are problems on the estate and on 9 March the Trafford Park industrial council wrote to the Secretary of State. Since 1966 there has been a loss of 16,400 jobs in Trafford Park. We should remember that this is the oldest industrial estate in Britain. Therefore, there is a legacy of industrial obsolescence. In Trafford Park, 600 sq. ft. of buildings are over 60 years old. A further 300 sq. ft of buildings are over 40 years old. So much could have been done if there had been help under the Inner Urban Areas Act to improve the environment and to create new employment.

Much remains to be done: first reclamation of derelict land; secondly, improvement of the appearance of some of the land for future development—at the moment it is overgrown and neglected and does not offer an attractive aspect to a would-be taker of premises—thirdly, improvement of traffic access, and fourthly, provision of service facilities—particularly shops for workers.

Unfortunately, the Government's strategy seems to be to encourage new industry into the inner areas of Manchester and Salford. I believe that that will be to the disadvantage of the Trafford Park industrial estate. In view of the employment that it provides for so many people in Manchester and Salford, the exclusion of Trafford Park from the Inner Urban Areas Act has no justification and is completely illegal.

This year domestic ratepayers are faced with a massive 25 per cent. increase. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) are present tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford has represented the area for only a short time, but he has been left in no doubt about the anger of the ratepayers at the way in which they have been treated by the Government. The massive increase has not been caused by the squander-mania of Trafford council. The council has followed the Government's guidelines and watched expenditure closely. Therefore, feelings are running high in the area. The Trafford Owner Occupier Ratepayers' Association—a non-political body—has taken the unprecedented step of paying for space in the local newspaper to point out to the residents that the enormous increase facing them is entirely the responsibility of the Government.

A short while ago the Secretary of State for the Environment said that rate increases should be kept to single figures. I should like the Minister to tell me how Trafford council can be expected to achieve that, with the rate support grant slashed and with no hope of help under the Inner Urban Areas Act. The only way in which rate increases could have been kept to single figures would have been for the council to reduce its services. I should like to know whether that is what the Government are seeking.

I hope that the Minister recognises the anger that is felt on the issue. We ask not for preferential treatment but that Trafford should be given its fair share of the rate support grant and that our plea for aid under the Act should be re-examined to remove the sense of unfairness that is felt.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford will follow up my arguments, because his area is greatly affected by the exclusion of Trafford from the benefits of the Act. I hope that the Minister will provide us with hope that something will be done to remedy the imbalance.

10.35 pm
Mr. Churchill (Stretford)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) for allowing me to intrude briefly in this debate for which we both applied and which he was successful in obtaining. He has raised a matter on which there is great strength of feeling in my constituency and, indeed, throughout the three constituencies that include the Trafford district of Greater Manchester.

We are discussing the inequity in the distribution of taxpayers' money. It is not the Government's money, though they often pretend that it is. It is taxpayers' money, and it is as much the money of the taxpayers of my constituency as it is of those in other constituencies. We are clearly being discriminated against by the Government in the application of aid under the Inner Urban Areas Act.

There is a strong case for the whole Trafford area to be included under the provisions of the Act, but I wish to enter a special plea for my constituency, which has suffered most in recent years. It is an area of industrial decline and environmental decay.

A total of £10 million has been offered under the Act to Manchester and Salford, which surround my constituency. At its eastern extremity my constituency is no more than half a mile from the centre of Manchester, and it is instructive to compare the positon in Old Trafford with that in Salford, which is benefiting under the Act.

Trafford Park and Old Trafford have 4 per cent. of their population living in seriously overcrowded conditions, compared with 3.3 per cent. of the population of Manchester and Salford. The proportion of population from the New Commonwealth is a major indicator of the needs of an area, and in Trafford Park and Old Trafford 11.85 per cent. of the population is in that category—three times the level in Manchester and Salford. Such a large concentration of immigrant families, who require many special facilities, imposes a much greater burden on the local authority. Successive Governments have recognised that areas of high immigrant concentration ought to have additional aid, yet our area is being deliberately denied help, even though it has three times the immigrant population of Salford and Greater Manchester as a whole. I hope that the Minister will refer to that.

In Trafford Park and Old Trafford 25 per cent. of the population are single parents, compared with 19 per cent. in Manchester and Salford. The proportion of pensioners is almost equal, with Trafford Park and Old Trafford having 11.8 per cent., and Salford and Manchester 11.7 per cent. We have 27 per cent. of our population included in socio-economic groups on low incomes, compared with 19.3 per cent. in Manchester and Salford.

It is only in the proportion of homes lacking basic amenities that Manchester and Salford marginally exceed Trafford Park and Old Trafford. A total of 39 per cent. of homes in my areas lack such amenities, compared with 45.5 per cent. in Manchester and Salford.

In all the other parameters which I should have thought were central to the consideration of an area's worthiness for inclusion under this special legislation and aid we have graver problems in that part of Trafford than are found in the rest of Manchester and Salford, which receive generous handouts from the Government. The effect of aid being denied to Trafford will be serious, combined as that is with the fact that just 100 yds across the Manchester Ship Canal aid is being freely given to Salford.

Already we suffer from a serious decline in employment. At the height of wartime production, Trafford Park, the oldest and largest of all Europe's industrial complexes, employed 80,000 people. Even until the early 1960s 60,000 people went to work each day in Trafford Park. Now that figure is down to well below 40,000. More than 20,00 jobs have been lost in Trafford Park over the past couple of decades. I should have thought that that consideration was worthy of note by the Government.

Coupled with our exclusion from the grant under the Inner Urban Areas Act, we find that our needs element and resources grant have been slashed by £2½ million by the Government over two years. It is ironic that almost the identical sum should have been accorded to the city of Manchester. There was £2½ million extra for the city of Manchester and £1.1 million extra for Salford. I am sure that my hon. Friend would be wrong to suggest that there was anything remotely party political about that. I hope that the Minister will at least do us the courtesy of answering that point.

Many people—not all of whom are members of the Conservative Party—have a shrewd suspicion that the matter is being gerrymandered by a Labour Government to benefit Labour councils in Salford and the city of Manchester and deliberately and blatantly to discriminate against a Conservative-controlled council which has scrupulously followed the Government's guidelines, unlike some other councils which have preferred to spend as though there were no tomorrow.

As a result of this discriminatory policy the Government are placing in jeopardy the jobs of people in the constituencies of Stretford and Altrincham and Sale. Our area provides the main source of jobs for the residents of Greater Manchester and Salford. They come into Trafford Park each day to earn their bread and butter. If the industrial estate is to be discriminated against, it must be widely known throughout the area where the responsibility lies and what the consequences will be. The decline of jobs and employment will accelerate in consequence of this discrimination.

We are here this evening to press the Government to reconsider their decision and to include preferably all of Trafford, but at least Trafford Park, Old Trafford and parts of Stretford, in the legislation. I hope that the Minister will go out of his way to make clear that there is no party political bias against the residents of Trafford and that they may benefit even under a Socialist Government.

10.44 p. m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Guy Barnett)

It is useful to have this opportunity to review in the House the relationship of our policy for inner cities and the problems of Trafford. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) for raising the matter. I have taken a personal interest in Trafford's situation, and, as he said, only a month ago I visited the borough to see some of the problems for myself, and I might add, I was received very cordially when I was there.

Both the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) concentrated their attention on the Inner Urban Areas Act 1978. They both referred to the rate support grant. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale was present when I met representatives of the borough council on 9 February, and on that occasion I undertook to write to Trafford about its treatment in the recent rate support grant settlements. I hope to write soon, and I shall send the hon. Member and his hon. Friend the Member for Stretford—and also to his hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne), who represents part of the area—a copy of my letter to the borough on that matter.

I turn now to the Inner Urban Areas Act, because I think that in the wider context within which this matter has been considered the House may find it helpful if I give a brief outline of the Government's policy in selecting districts for designation under the 1978 Act.

Faced with limitations on the amount of resources which are available for use in the inner cities, we have had to follow a policy which is deliberately selective. We have decided that the best use can be made of the resources which are available if they are concentrated on the areas with the most severe problems, with the aim of bringing about substantial improvements as quickly as possible. The strength of that conviction finds further expression in the fact that, even within the districts designated under the Act, we have made provision for some powers to be focused on smaller areas still.

I refer, of course, to the special areas and improvement areas. We have established an order of priority. In England, the seven partnership areas are our first priority. They are faced with urban problems on a massive scale and of severe intensity. Because of this, they have been given the largest allocations from the urban programme.

Next come the 14 programme authority areas, which have been invited to prepare programmes for action in their inner areas. They have also had substantial resources allocated from the urban programme. This two-stage selection of those areas was generally accepted as recognising just where urban problems were at their most intractable and pressing. Most people agreed that these areas deserved priority in any policy which aimed to tackle deprivation, which is the main symptom of those problems. All the partnership and programme areas were designated under the Inner Urban Areas Act.

The most difficult stage of selection then followed. The Government had to decide which other districts to designate under the Act. Hon. Members will recall that the Act gives local authorities in designated districts powers to help industry and commerce in their area by means of loans and grants. We had to face the fact that resources were limited. It was clearly not going to be possible to designate every district with significant problems. This would have meant, as the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale said, spreading resources so thinly that their effect would have been negligible. The Government were determined that the Act should have a real impact wherever its powers were used, and this again led us to restrict the list of designated districts.

Including the partnership and programme areas, there are now 43 designated districts in England, five in Wales and nine in Scotland. Those districts were chosen on the basis of the scale, the intensity and the concentration of their urban problems, and we are as reasonably convinced as we can be that we have included those districts where the problems are most severe. By the same token, we have excluded for the present those districts which were not so severely disadvantaged. But the Government are well aware that there are other areas with significant inner area problems which could benefit from the use of the powers in the Act if the resources were available.

Trafford is one of a number of boroughs and districts which, as I said when I was in Trafford, we regard as borderline. I have been anxious to examine as many of these cases as possible, and I have now received deputations from several of them, including Trafford. In many instances, as in the case of Trafford, I have visited the areas to see the situation for myself, and I found the visit to Trafford particularly instructive.

For example, I know that Manchester county council has identified Trafford as an area with one of the worst concentrations of problems. But, by and large, the area has a low percentage of socio-economic groups with low incomes. I know, too, that it has a high percentage of ethnic minority groups, as the hon. Member for Stretford said, but again there is not a high percentage in the area of dwellings which lack basic amenities. Indeed, I know from my visit that the housing action areas have generally been successful. I am aware, too, of the importance of the Trafford Park industrial estate to the Greater Manchester area and to the Manchester and Salford partnership area.

But the impression which I gained in travelling around it was that there was a good deal of economic activity, some firm proposals for future development, and a high proportion of larger firms which showed every sign of being firmly committed to staying in the area. I have no doubt that they will be ready to co-operate with the council in promoting the economic viability of the area in the way which I believe they have already co-operated in making environmental improvements in the industrial park.

I am also aware of the problems at Partington and in the Broadheath area of Altrincham. But I think we have to recognise that they are on a limited or relatively limited scale. I know that there are many such areas around the country. But they cannot at this stage be the first priority for statutory recognition, though I have no doubt that the local authority will continue with its existing powers to alleviate the worst problems there.

I do not think I need continue further with this catalogue of problems because I want also to indicate something of what the Government have done in the area. For example, in 1977 my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a package of resources to help the construction industry. In that package the borough of Trafford was allocated £415,000. Last year's allocation to the borough, under the housing investment programme, was increased by 17 per cent.

I can assure hon. Gentlemen that we recognise Trafford's problems. But I must also tell them that we are at present unable to consider adding to the list of designated districts. There are a number of districts with cases roughly comparable with that of Trafford. All have inner urban area problems, and I should very much like to be able to include them in the list of designated districts. But present circumstances forbid that, as I hope I have made clear. I am sure hon. Gentlemen will appreciate that it would not be possible to designate one or two of them on a piecemeal basis.

I have told Trafford that when the question of extending the list of designated districts arises at some time in the future its case will be most carefully considered. In the meantime, I hope that the borough will continue its efforts to improve its inner urban areas with the powers that it already has available to it. As I have often said to districts which make representations, the Inner Urban Areas Act is not the only route to economic regeneration. To listen to Conservative Members, one would have believed just that. The Act is very much intended as a supplement to local authorities' existing powers.

Powers of land assembly—

Mr. Montgomery rose

Mr. Barnett

My time is a little limited.

Powers of land assembly, traffic management, planning powers, education and housing powers can all help in local industrial development. My Department issued advice in 1977 to local authorities on ways of tackling industrial problems in these areas using existing programmes. The resources available through the Inner Urban Areas Act are not, of course, negligible. But in cash terms they do not add proportionately very much to local authorities' budgets. I hope it will be realised that if we were to designate more districts they would add even less. Moreover, the suggestion that local authorities should look carefully at the problems of their areas—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock 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 six minutes to Eleven o'clock.