HC Deb 07 February 1983 vol 36 cc663-76 5.57 pm
Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

In moving the debate rather abruptly from crime in the United Kingdom to the Bristol channel, I trust that the House will allow me to refer to notes rather more frequently than I would normally wish to do. In speaking about development I shall have to choose my words rather carefully from time to time.

Industrial development and employment have always been assumed to go hand in hand. New factories have been built in areas like north Devon. They have been sited in rural areas and firms have been induced, through grants and rates and rents, to inhabit them. When the winter wind of recession blows, it is not surprising that many of these firms go out of business or withdraw back to their original base.

Despite this, north Devon, in or around Barnstaple and South Molton, has below the national average of unemployment because the area has new and modern industry. Ilfracombe, which is the key point of my speech, does not have that advantage. It suffers, as all seaside towns suffer, from the problems of holidaymakers going abroad, of having a large, temporary labour force and, alas, of having few permanent jobs. In years gone by the labour force would come down to the west country to work in hotels for the summer and perhaps go to London for the banqueting season. Nowadays, many members of this seasonal work force stay put, and we have 27 per cent. unemployment in an area that has no year-round industry capable of absorbing young people and those who have come to stay among us in, perhaps, early retirement.

My theme is that Ilfracombe has tremendous potential for tourist and allied industrial development if only we can extend the harbour to take advantage of this uniquely beautiful north Devon location and its available resources. Situated on the Bristol channel, it has no major competition on our side of the water from any harbour for trawlers, roll-on roll-off ferries or coastal and marina-type business. There is no competition anywhere along the north Devon, north Cornwall or Somerset coastline because there is no reasonably safe harbour anywhere along the coast. As a result, there is comparatively little small-boat activity. Small-boat sailors, such as I, fear to go too far out to sea in the absence of a speedily achieved safe harbour for when the weather turns rough.

Ilfracombe has superb natural beauty with plenty of hotel and catering facilities. In addition, it has full development area status. The north Devon link road from the M5 is at last under way. It is 25 years too late, but at last things are happening and I thank Her Majesty's Government for that. Power supplies are being boosted and both electricity and gas boards are adding new links from Barnstaple to Lynton and Ilfracombe. This means that we shall soon have both roads and power supplies, two of the key necessities for industry.

Our unemployment rate is probably higher than anywhere in England at the present, not least because of the extremely short summer season, and despite the success of several hoteliers in building up coach connections, and in offering highly competitive terms for the senior citizen end of the package deal market. None the less, it is a depressed area and, in short, Ilfracombe needs an industrial shot in the arm that is more compatible with a location that is distant from mass markets, and that takes account of the available work force and existing facilities.

Many innovative attempts have been made to provide more jobs. We have thoughts of a ski slope—we have plenty of hills for it. Industrial development committees have been established, and work experience schemes have prospered. I hope to seek, at another time, help from the Government in establishing major projects under the new community programme.

My scheme is simple in concept and would provide a major stimulus for Ilfracombe and North Devon in particular, and for the whole of the channel coastal ports in general. Mr. Alan Kift, an Ifracombe man, has provided one outline. It may not be the best, and it is certainly not the only idea, but its essence is simplicity itself. He says that we should extend our harbour wall in a curve from its present line by perhaps some 500 ft in total. We have a new flood prevention wall adjacent to the pier, which shows that it is possible to build walls even into our wave swept channel. I hasten to add that this is the Bristol channel, which is not exclusive to Devon.

What would happen from the provision of one simple wall extension? Initially we thought of the trawlers that have no haven in the winter months when the fish are more bountiful in our waters. We then thought about a marina for the small boats, then about a fishing quay for the trawlers. We went further and considered the advantages for small workshops, for the net-maker and the net repairer, for the small boat manufacturer, for fibreglass working, for the building industry, and for the repair and marine services. We already have hotel and catering establishments. All of these are available but good access to the water is not. It is rather like having a house with no access road. Ilfracombe is beautiful and fine, but at present there is no access by good road nor by good year-round water and we need both.

I can list some other benefits that would accrue. There would be a safe harbour in a coastal area where bad weather has always been a major hazard. Trawler berths and fish market facilities would be of especial economic value in winter. A roll-on/roll-off facility would reunite us with our friends in Swansea across the water. They have marina facilities and many boating activities which at present we cannot receive with the open arms that we should like. If we take this a stage further there is the prospect not only of the small boats and people crossing to and fro, but of facilities to allow lorries to cross and make their way south from Ilfracombe towards Plymouth and the ferry to Roscoff.

Better launching facilities for a lifeboat may seem a small matter to raise in a debate on industry, but our lifeboat has to be towed to the sea, which is a slow way to launch a lifeboat in a crisis. The RNLI, before my scheme was even thought of, had been discussing spending a vast sum on providing a safe berth in the water for the lifeboat. It is no secret that every year there are two, three or four new stories of vessels being wrecked, perhaps at Hartland point or further up the channel, because they have no harbour to go to when the weather becomes too much for them.

If we had the bigger harbour, weekend sailors would maintain their boats and extend the season. They would buy the occasional beer and bring their wives, children or girlfriends along to enjoy the pleasures of the Devon coastline. The season could be extended so that instead of being virtually the school holidays, plus a month at each end, it would extend to six or eight months, which is at least two months more than it is now.

The service industries would boom for all those associated with the marina, marine activities or tourism. There would be extended business for hotels, restaurants and shops. The scheme would boost our moribund property market. It is fairly well known that along most of the coast, many hotels are for sale at an unreasonably low price. The poor suffering ratepayer will do far better if rateable values and property values increase.

We have industrial development status, but I would not personally put a factory so far from raw materials and markets. With industrial development status plus the ability to bring in boats and lorries, with the marina and the trawlers, people would take logical advantage of this status. Ilfracombe could once again become the booming and bustling place that it was 50 years ago.

The scheme would create permanent, temporary and seasonal jobs. There would be major work opportunities as construction progressed, and permanent work would be created in the service industries associated with a busy harbour and port. I hope there would be jobs in an educational spin-off of the outward bound sail training, and all the interesting and pleasant pursuits that at present we have to travel so far to find. Our own family boat is maintained at Dartmouth because it is easier to go 50 miles south to get on a boat that can be at sea in minutes, than it is to wait on the north Devon tides. One simple extended sea wall could help bring all these good things about.

If I talk about the channel it is because we also have the prospect, I hope, of the Severn barrage. If this comes about, there will be a need for a marine work base. Ilfracombe will not become the Aberdeen of the south but, none the less, those of us who believe that the Severn barrage is a good and sensible idea point out that vessels will need a base and a refuge when working on the barrage because the Bristol channel can be an unpleasant place in nasty weather.

When asked how such a plan should be controlled, I must tell the House that the whole project is in the hands of the north Devon district council. This is the local authority concerned, and during the next few weeks it will be discussing whether it wants to promote the scheme and, if so, how. With the help of our local newspapers, the weekly North Devon Journal-Herald and our weekly give-away, the North Devon Advertiser, I have been conducting a simple inquiry by questionnaire. Coupons have been put in the newspapers that ask not just "Is it a good idea?", but also "Is it quite a good idea, not a very good idea, or just a waste of time?" We also added a long list of the things that people might like to see in Ilfracombe. It is interesting that I have already received over 300 replies, which is not bad going in a week. Of the replies, 97 per cent. say that the scheme is a very good idea and most of the replies come from the Ilfracombe area, where the people have seen their area declining over past years.

I was surprised to find that the first preference of the people who replied was roll-on/roll-off ferry facilities. This was followed by more maritime facilities, including those for trawlers. Again, the people of the area were reverting to their old natural position and saying, "We have the sea, let us use the sea." Inevitably, this preference was followed by that of tourism, then light industry, more car parks and, for our occasionally inclement weather, a leisure centre. Three options did not find favour—a big hotel complex, as we have plenty of small ones, language schools or a casino. I am quite pleased that the casino did not find favour. It was a realistic trade and industry reply from sensible citizens.

At this stage, all I ask of the Minister is encouragement for a sensible project, which will doubtless come to different Ministers for grant aid sooner or later. At least as important, the scheme will need the co-ordination of Ministers and Ministeries to back our search for funds in Europe. We are fortunate in our Member of the European Parliament, Lord O'Hagan. He has already been with me to look at the site and to talk about what we may be able to extract from our friends in Europe and how to extract it.

We need four specific types of help. First, when the Ilfracombe initiative is further advanced and has been fleshed out to the satisfaction of the appropriate Ministers, will the Minister be prepared to submit an application to the EC regional development fund? I am not asking for a categorical "Yes", but the Minister must know the conditions, and whether the scheme is worthwhile.

Secondly, can he assure me that the Government would hope to back realistic applications for money for a fishing quay, adjacent to the sea wall and for other allied activities? New funds may be available under FEOGA following the recent fisheries agreement.

I cannot pronounce the words that the FEOGA initials represent, but these grants are available for agriculture and tourism and my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) will doubtless explain, as he is well acquainted with how grants are extracted.

Thirdly, will the Government seek to ensure that the facilities of the European Investment Bank are made available to the scheme? Finally, and perhaps most important, when the applications are ready, will my hon. Friend the Minister let me know in due course which Department will co-ordinate the scheme? It is always the same problem. If one makes a poor application, one gets an unsatisfactory answer. It is vital for my constituents and for those who live along the coast on both sides of the water that sufficient help should be available to get the project started.

Interestingly, and again surprisingly, I have received telephone calls and letters from major international construction firms, and international and national banks—whose names are familiar to all of us—asking how they can help. They say that the idea is good and viable and want to know how much finance is needed. The project has caught the imagination of many outside our small part of the country. We are not just saying "Please do this for us." We want help along the road. I was sorry that the editor ended his leader in this week's North Devon Journal-Herald by saying Lord O'Hagan and Tony Speller will have to work hard. We shall be watching them. There is an inaccurate belief that Members of Parliament are magicians, with better or worse rabbits in the hat, or that we have magic wands. This is a case not for magic wands, but for the local council to think through and to decide how a project should be organised and controlled. The council has yet to agree that it should be organised at all. However, if that is agreed, then the people must have the will to make it work, because without that it will not work. We have no magic wand, much as the Minister should like one.

I sought general approval from the public through the press; then from Lord O'Hagan, Devon Member of the European Parliament; from the chairman of our district council, Mrs. Freda Avant; and from the the chairman of Devon county council economic development committee, Mr. Michael McGahey. In addition, letters came pouring in from such bodies as the Barnstaple chamber of commerce, the Ilfracombe and district chamber of commerce, Ilfracombe harbour association, the hoteliers association of Ilfracombe, Ilfracombe publicity association, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Ilfracombe sea cadets. Everyone seems to think that this project is a super idea, and so do I.

The Government spend vast sums on promoting employment in sometimes rather ephemeral ways. I ask only that they should think not so much of a lovely new factory stuck on the edge of Exmoor, where no one wants to go to make widgets, but of promoting the beauty of our country, the extension of our seascape and our old friendships across the channel. Many Devonians live in Wales and many of my friends are of all or part Welsh origin. The sea was our old road and perhaps some time soon it will be the new one.

6.13 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I offer hands across the channel. From the Welsh side of the Bristol channel I am delighted to extend a hand of welcome and congratulation to the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller). Like many Swansea people, I have the happiest memories of Ilfracombe. I also have blissful memories of summer trips across the Bristol channel on the Campbell steamers. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a thriving Devonian society in Swansea, and I am sure that there is a Welsh society in Ilfracombe and other parts of Devon. Of course there are traditional links. The predecessor of my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) was a Vivian, from the Devon and Cornwall side of the channel.

We can easily see Ilfracombe and the lights of Ilfracombe from our side of the Bristol channel. Indeed, as you well know, Mr. Speaker, there is a local story that if we can see Ilfracombe it will rain, and if we cannot see it, it is already raining. I am sure that the Welsh side would give the greatest possible support to an investment project that would increase those traditional links, as outlined by the hon. Member for Devon, North. Swansea already has a success story in the new marina and a new lock gate was opened in December last year. That marina—the proud initiative of Swansea city council—is greatly oversubscribed. Therefore, I do not foresee any competition between Ilfracombe and Swansea in that respect, but rather an opportunity for cross-fertilisation between both sides of the Bristol channel.

Various projects have been considered for providing regular daily services between both sides of the channel, with perhaps a link through from Swansea to an Irish port and a link from north Devon to Plymouth, and from there to Roscoff. With the potential road links to Plymouth, the people of Wales may be provided with a speedy holiday link to France if the project goes ahead and if both sides of the channel are linked.

The relevant factors in promoting such links include the high cost at present to commercial vehicles, the tachograph—which means that many operators have to employ two drivers or allow for an overnight stay, which only increases costs—and the possible restrictions on commercial vehicles using the Severn bridge as usage increases over the years. In addition, such a development could save distribution costs, increase business between both sides of the Bristol channel and, as the hon. Member for Devon, North rightly said, increase job opportunities on both sides on the channel.

One major snag to the development of cross-channel links has been the lack of facilities for roll-on, roll-off vehicles on the Devon and Cornwall side of the channel. Another problem is the high tidal range at several ports. For example, two of the ports mentioned in this context—Padstow and Hayle—would mean an unacceptably long voyage time from Swansea, with consequent high charges and low vessel utilisation. The sailing time to those two ports would be five to six hours, which, with turn round time added, but with no allowance for any time lost through tidal restriction, effectively means one voyage a day. Therefore, that route would not be commercially viable.

I imagine that the voyage time to Ilfracombe is about two and a half hours. If the project goes ahead, that will be far more viable than the Padstow and Hayle route. Of course, substantial capital investment would be needed. An unproven route is unlikely to attract people unless they are prepared to take a high risk. Therefore, public money will almost certainly be needed. I am attracted by the suggestion that we should tap some European sources and the hon. Member for Devon, North was very up to date on the fishing possibility. I hope that the Minister will respond to that suggestion as positively as possible. At present, the commercial volume would be insufficient to justify a service, so I am attracted by the multifaceted approach of the hon. Member for Devon, North.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is great good will on our side of the Bristol channel and that all the projects for increasing links will be examined sympathetically by the port and local authorities in Wales. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his enterprise and initiative, and assure him that we in Swansea and in South Wales wish the launching of his project a fair wind and look forward to an increase in the number of links between the two sides of the channel. I am convinced that such an increase in links will be to our mutual benefit.

6.19 pm
Sir Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) on introducing this debate. As we say in Devon, it is a brave idea, and highly suitable for the area. As many of us know, the winds in North Devon are pretty strong, but I wish it a fair wind in the future.

It may interest you, Mr. Speaker, and the House, to learn that I have Welsh ancestors. My mother came from Cardiff, and one of the delights that she and I experienced was to go from Penarth to Ilfracombe on Campbell's boats, working forward to the marvellous cream teas that we used to have when we reached Devon.

The idea of a harbour of refuge and a place for seafaring men to go appeals to me very much. My great-uncle was a gentleman called Pilot Evans. He was one of the early pilots who used to go as far as Lundy to pick up the steamers coming into Cardiff and Barry docks. Unfortunately, in a howling gale off Lundy, he drowned, along with all hands. So I have some connections with the area, apart from being a Devonian, and with the people on the other side of the water. I am also proud of my Welsh ancestors. Perhaps that is why I have some little ability to speak, which I know comes from the Welsh rather than the Devon side.

I fully support my hon. Friend's proposal. It will greatly benefit north Devon. I am particularly attracted to the idea of the marina. Boating and sailing are "in things" at the moment, and I see no reason why north Devon should not have facilities for them, as well as roll-on, roll-off facilities for more important industrial matters.

One only has to consider the Plymouth-Roscoff ferry, as a result of which there has been tremendous growth of business between the two countries. The same thing could happen with this project in north Devon. I only hope that the lessons of the Plymouth-Roscoff ferry will be learnt, and that British ferry firms will seize the initiative.

Mr. Tony Speller

I spoke only this afternoon to the retired managing director of the Campbell line, and he said that a decade and a half ago his company surveyed both Swansea and Ilfracombe and decided that Ilfracombe harbour could well serve a British ferry, but the problem was that there was nowhere on the Welsh side at that time to receive it. In fact, the Welsh have now jumped over us with their Swansea marina.

Sir Peter Mills

That shows that there has been some advance in the plan, which I welcome.

Moreover, the spin-off would be important, all along the coast, down the length of the Bristol channel towards Cornwall. My hon. Friend will know Appledore, which would have ship repairing facilities for any ships using Ilfracombe and the coast. I played a small part in getting Appledore Shipbuilders off the ground a few years ago, when I was the Member for that area, and that would be a plus for the scheme.

The spur road from the motorway to Barnstaple, which will eventually be built, will open up the whole area. We need something at the end of it, and my hon. Friend's proposal would help in that respect. In my opinion, industry would use its speedy access to the United Kingdom's motorway system. The spur road will help the plan, too.

This is a brave and useful idea, which I support not only because of my connections with Wales but because I want progress in the Bristol channel, particularly in north Devon, both economically and for the tourist industry. I hope, therefore, that Ministers will give it a fair wind.

6.25 pm
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Since this brief debate started, I have noted the Minister's face paling. He is facing that most dangerous and unusual phenomenon in the House of Commons, a consensus across the Floor. It is a matter on which the Government Whips will have to act.

Our links in south Wales are well established with Ilfracombe on the Devon and Cornwall side of the channel. That part of my constituency is the Mumbles. The fishing communities are intermingled, and there is considerable intermarriage between the two sides of the channel. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) spoke of blissful recollections of crossing the channel on the Campbell steamers. My recollections are best summed up in an unhappy alliteration—nautical but nauseous. Little fits less into my recollections of that crossing than an Ilfracombe cream tea.

However, we welcome the development of a roll-on, roll-off facility between south Wales and the south-west peninsula. We commend the imagination of those who developed the idea. I hope that the Minister will view it favourably and see what can be done to help. There is little doubt that it would qualify, in terms of infrastructure, under the EC regulations. Regional fund money and social fund money would be available for a project of this nature, if it were given the appropriate Government backing. For us in south Wales it has the attraction, as my hon. Friend said, that it would represent a shortening of the transport times between the two areas. That would benefit both sides, because the markets would be more accessible to industry on both sides of the channel, and we would welcome the cross-trade that that represents.

The proposal would also benefit our two holiday industries. The Conservative Members who have spoken in this debate are justifiably proud of their tradition in the tourist industry, but with the Gower peninsula and the lovely stretches of south-west Wales that are easily accessible from Swansea, we, too, would benefit from holidaymakers coming in our direction.

In welcoming this proposal—I hope that what I shall say will not be seen as an attempt to undermine its objective—we do not want it to be thought of as an alternative to the ultimate recognition of the need for a second bridge across the Severn. For many technical reasons, which I shall not go into, it is well known that there is an urgent need for such a project. I hope that the Government will not view this proposal as a low-cost alternative to a different transport need, meeting a totally different requirement.

Finally, the hon. Member for Devon, North spoke with optimism of the benefits that would accrue to Ilfracombe from improved road access. I warn him of the sad fact, which we in Swansea are learning, that roads have a strange habit of going in both directions. We have just learnt of the departure of Dragon Computers, which was seduced away from Swansea by the Government through the use of grants. As I say, access can be a way out. We have lost jobs because of that factor.

However, we would not want to appear to be impeding the project. We hope to be kept informed of its development. Any help that we can provide in developing a project that we believe might also benefit our side of the channel will be available.

6.30 pm
Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

The House is greatly indebted to the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) for raising this subject. I have close personal knowledge of his constituency. A story often told against me in my family, which causes me to blush to this day, is that when I was aged about six or seven I was heard thanking God that I had been born a human being, secondly that I had been born a Briton, thirdly, that I had been born an Englishman and, fourthly, that I had been born a Devonian. I did not at that stage particularise between north and south Devon. I was, in fact, born in north Devon, between Bideford and Appledore, and spent much of my boyhood there.

The hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about the economic situation of the peninsula. In Bristol, we have more than our fair share of unemployment and the figure is increasing. Further west, as the hon. Gentleman stated, unemployment mounts to greater heights. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's figure of 27 per cent. in north Devon is right. The difficulty is that much of the employment is seasonal. The area depends, as it has always done to a great extent, on tourism. An area of considerable natural beauty, it is attractive to visitors but seriously lacks industrial employment to add to agriculture where employment has steadily fallen, as elsewhere, over the last 100 years due to mechanisation and other changes.

The difficulty is how to add to the stock of industrial investment without detracting from the natural charm and amenity of the south-west and its appeal to tourists. For a number of years, the south-west regional council of the Trades Union Congress, at one time under the leadership of Mr. Brian Bailey, now Sir Brian Bailey—knighted for his public service and service to trade unionism—has given attention to these matters. I do not claim that efforts to promote employment have made much impression on Governments of either party.

It can perhaps be stated in defence of the Labour party that we have little south-western parliamentary representation in the House apart from in Bristol itself. Hence, Bristol Labour Members see themselves as the trustees of the Labour cause in the south-west until we can win back constituencies such as Exeter, Falmouth and Camborne, Taunton and Plymouth that we once held.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Devon, North raised the issue of more industrial activity and better harbour facilities at Ilfracombe. There has been reference to Appledore. However, judged by the statement made in the House today, the hon. Gentleman will not get far with present Ministers. It is bad news that the cable-laying ship required by the Central Electricity Generating Board to help provide the cross-Channel connection between the British and French electricity grids is to be built in Korea. There were protests from both sides of the House today. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), I wish the hon. Member for Devon, North a fair wind and all success in his representations. There is a common interest among all hon. Members representing the south-west.

The hon. Member for Devon, North mentioned the Severn barrage briefly. If the barrage were constructed, it would be a source of employment not only in the southwest but all the way along the Bristol channel on both the Welsh and English sides. It would also be a considerable source of employment for the whole of British industry. A vast amount of engineering work—mechanical, civil, and electrical—would be involved. The project would embrace the whole range of British engineering.

If constructed, the barrage would be one of the engineering wonders of the world. The Severn estuary is one of the best sites for tidal power anywhere in Europe and probably ranks third or fourth in the world, due to the physical nature of the estuary. In my view, as an hon. Member who takes a close interest in energy matters, it is the only practicable renewable energy source that will provide electricity on a truly large scale. It has been talked about for half a century. Before the war, there was the Brabazon report. However, had the barrage been constructed at that time, it would have now proved so small in relation to the total electrical load of the country that we would have to be thinking about a second barrage.

Today, the output from the barrage, if it was constructed to full capacity, in tidal terms of the estuary, would match the total output of the electrical grid. In the 1970s, the Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I had the privilege to be Chairman, recommended an up-to-date study of the subject. The suggestion was adopted by the then Labour Government. Sir Hermann Bondi, a distinguished scientist and a man of all-round technical knowledge, was appointed as chairman I was appointed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) as a member of the Bondi committee.

We worked hard for two years and reported 1981. Our proposal was and is that there should be a barrage from near Weston-Super-Mare on the English snore to Lavernock point near Cardiff on the Welsh shore. That barrage will give an electrical output of between 7,000 and 8,000 MW, which is equivalent to the output of about four large modern power stations, whether they be coal-fired, oil-fired or nuclear stations. We had much expert assistance and were able carefully to calculate the Arming costs. Without giving the exact figure, the cost per unit would fall at a point between that of producing electricity by nuclear power and that of producing it by coal. It would be less expensive than coal and rather more expensive than nuclear power.

The barrage would be a great power station driven by tidal power. The intention would be to feed the electricity into the national grid, producing in this way between one sixth and one eighth of Britain's electricity needs.

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many Conservative Members endorse what he has said and believe that such a project would be a valuable source of jobs and provide much pollution-free power? Many Conservative Members would like to see the Severn barrage scheme go ahead as soon as possible. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will touch upon the fact that a consortium exists which even now is looking into the prospect of building a Severn barrage. I mention that because, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the General Electric Company in Rugby, which produces turbine generators, is very much involved in that project.

Mr. Palmer

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support and I hope that he will join me in prevailing upon the Government to take some action.

There is of course a problem, in that tidal power moves according to the lunar cycle, which means that its unit output relative to capacity is not so good as that of, say, a nuclear station or a large coal-fired station that can be kept continuously on the base load. However, we need not go into that here.

The scheme would create much employment throughout British industry. We are not dealing here with some difficult new technique. There are undoubtedly serious civil engineering problems to be solved, but, generally speaking, a barrage would use well established and understood techniques. It would give the electricity supply industry—I declare my interest here through my trade union and industrial connections—an extra security of supply because, in addition to coal, oil and nuclear fission, we would have a fourth primary source.

The Bondi committee proposed further technical studies, costing, I think, between £12 and £14 million, without necessarily a commitment to proceed with the barrage, though I think that the two would go together. The House and the country—certainly the west country—are still awaiting the Government's decison. It will soon be two years since the Bondi committee reported and we were once promised a decision or a statement within six months.

The financing of such a project with its enormous initial cost is a difficulty, which I do not minimise. It requires a great effort of political will to make the decision. I appreciate that. I do not think that the CEGB would want to put up the money because it would adversely affect its public sector borrowing requirement. I favour the creation of a Severn barrage authority, a public corporation, uniting both sides of the channel with some general amenity and social obligations in addition to its primary task of generating electric power through the barrage. It would need to have the right to raise capital from both private and public sources which could be done by means of Treasury guarantees as the original bridge scheme was financed in the 1970s. The operation of the barrage would be best organised under contract to the CEGB, which would purchase the output, of course.

I hope that the Minister will say, if he can, when the Government will make up their mind. As I have said, a scheme of this size and potential would create a vast amount of work, certainly in the Bristol channel area and, in engineering contracts, for the rest of Britain. It would also provide a fine new area of water for recreational purposes. The Government should not dither any longer. They should at least decide to go ahead with the next stage, as Bondi recommended.

6.47 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. John MacGregor)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) on raising this matter this evening. I know that it is, or could be, one of great importance to his constituents. Therefore, I shall confine my remarks to his proposal rather than deal with the speech made by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), which ranged more widely, and I hope that the latter will forgive me for so doing. However, I shall ensure that his remarks on the Severn barrage are drawn to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

I shall concentrate my remarks on the four questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North. I am sure that he will be grateful for the support that he has received from all hon. Members tonight. I would tell the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) that I was in no way paling before his remarks; I was simply reflecting on the fact that, like every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate, I know the area of Ilfracombe extremely well. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North knows, my family when younger always, holidayed in Ilfracombe and we have many happy memories of that town. Indeed, we return to it from time to time even now. I recognised all the spots that he showed me on the map that he gave me earlier with the harbour proposal on it. Therefore, I appreciate what an attractive spot it is, as do all the other hon. Members who have spoken, and I understand the hazards of tides and winds and the problems of communication for industry on the land side of Ilfracombe. I understand why my hon. Friend has made his proposal and I recognise the town's considerable tourist potential.

Although I do not want to suggest that the unemployment problems of Ilfracombe are as severe and intensive as those of other parts of Britain, I recognise that Ilfracombe has an unemployment problem, particularly a seasonal one. Therefore, I understand that as one of the reasons for my hon. Friend's proposal.

My hon. Friend's proposal for the development of Ilfracombe harbour is interesting and imaginative. It is worth a close examination—first, locally. I cannot comment tonight in detail, having just seen the proposals. The north Devon district council, as the harbour authority for Ilfracombe, will wish to give these ideas the closest attention. My hon. Friend will be the first, I have no doubt, to agree that such an important and potentially costly project will have to be approached with a keen sense of realism. The proposal is still very much in embryo, and wide-ranging considerations will need to be examined before the local authority can reach any firm decision to proceed. These are considerations which must be pursued locally, and I would not presume to comment tonight on the merits of a project in so far as it must first be considered locally. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is taking extensive soundings of his constituents about the scheme.

Although capital investment projects such as these can naturally bring welcome relief on a short-term basis to the pervading problems of local unemployment, it is important always to look to the longer term to ensure that today's scarce resources are sensibly directed into projects that will bring lasting benefits to the economy of the local community.

Ilfracombe is an historic town and resort lying in a beautiful corner of the South-West. Its harbour is one of its attractions to visitors, including my family, who appreciate the scenic qualities of north Devon—an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Any development of the harbour would clearly have to be undertaken sensitively to ensure that its attractions were not lost but enhanced. I have little doubt that the local authority, as harbour undertaking, will wish to take the best possible advice on the range of viable development options that may be open to it. The local authority, and Devon county council as highway authority, will also want to consider fully the implications of major development on the town's traffic and general environment.

I wish to be as helpful as I can to my hon. Friend in giving guidance as to the various considerations that he will have to take into account.

Beyond that, the district council will no doubt appreciate that fresh statutory powers may be needed to authorise the extension of its harbour; and any project costing over £3 million will require the authorisation of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport under section 9 of the Harbours Act 1964. Officials of the Department of Transport are naturally always ready to advise on these matters if required.

Assistance towards the cost of important new infrastructure works that contribute to the economic development of assisted areas is available from the European regional development fund. Ilfracombe is a development area in recognition of its unemployment problem.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Mullacott Cross industrial estate in Ilfracombe and the reinforcement of the Barnstaple-Ilfracombe gas main have both received 30 per cent. grants. My colleagues in the Department of the Environment will be happy to consider further applications for qualifying projects at Ilfracombe, consulting as necessary with other Departments that may be involved.

I make it clear that port undertakings in assisted areas may apply for grants towards infrastructure projects, usually at 30 per cent., from the fund. To qualify, the project needs to be viable and in line with the regional policies for the area.

The north Devon district council will not need to be reminded that it would require a capital allocation under the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 before it could embark on a major capital project of this kind.

It might be appropriate to say a few words at this juncture about the Government's general policy towards the development of ports in this country. The central theme is that the port and harbour authorities should manage and develop their undertakings on a clear commercial basis. The Government are also encouraging ports to look to the private sector for capital finance and to be less dependent on Government loans. The main type of development, which in part is what my hon. Friend is proposing, could well be suited to financing as a commercial venture rather than as a charge on the ratepayers.

I was interested in what my hon. Friend had to say about the response in terms of inquiries that he has already received from banks and others since this project was mooted. I hope that the local authority will consider this as a possible approach among the options open to it in developing such a proposal.

The Government have already recognised the need for improved communications in north Devon. The north Devon link road will bring relief to several routes in north Devon, especially in the summer months, and will contribute to removing one of the major barriers to further development in the north Devon area. The link road will eventually replace the A361 as the trunk road from Taunton to Barnstaple. As my hon. Friend knows only too well, and as I know from time to time, the present A361 is a very tortuous and narrow route, not capable of improvement except at great cost; hence the decision that a new corridor route would be a more viable solution.

Stage 1 of the link road from the motorway to Tiverton is now under construction, with completion expected in the spring of 1984. The Department of Transport is about to publish the statutory orders for the first phase of stage 2.

On my hon. Friend's comments about the fishing potential in the Ilfracombe area and his question about FEOGA, I am informed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that he has no knowledge at present of significant unexploited fisheries potential in the Bristol channel area. If commercial assessments of such a potential suggested a need for harbour development in north Devon, a grant might be considered for approved costs under fisheries legislation to the extent that it could be demonstrated that there would be a benefit to the fishing industry. Any aspects of the development involving marketing and processing activities could be eligible for consideration for the FEOGA grant. Further information on this aspect can be obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

My hon. Friend asked me about the European investment bank, and the viability of EIB funds for the Ilfracombe scheme. It will be for the local authority, as harbour undertaking, in the first instance, to decide whether the EIB could be an appropriate source of finance. He obviously would not and could not expect me to give him an answer at this early stage on whether that would be the procedure to employ.

I turn finally to the question which Department would co-ordinate the applications towards European Community sources. I think that that depends on the shape that the proposal ultimately takes. If it is fundamentally an environmental proposal or an infrastructure proposal on the port side, it would be a matter for the Department of the Environment. Other Departments will be involved as well. If my hon. Friend will see me when he is ready, I will be willing to guide him to the correct Department.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative. I do not have a magic wand in my kit on this occasion. He himself said that there were no magic solutions for most of the issues we face as politicians. His suggestions, I am sure, will be given serious consideration by the local authorities and others concerned for the future well-being of the Ilfracombe area.

I have outlined some of the considerations which need to be taken into account, which I hope will be helpful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that my colleagues and their Departments stand ready to offer what advice and assistance they can in their respective spheres of responsibility.