HC Deb 14 February 1983 vol 37 cc133-40

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

12.19 am
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

We have dealt with the Ginns and Gutteridge Leicester (Crematorium) Bill. I trust that Hansard will subtitle this debate the Walsall industrial graveyard debate. That is the situation in the constituency that I have been proud to represent since February 1974. Both the Minister and I were part of that intake. The Minister's role in the House of Commons football team has been to prevent adversaries from shooting the ball past me into the net, a task in which he rarely succeeded. I regret that on this occasion his chances of stopping the balls flying past him into the net will be even more remote.

The plight into which my constituency has been plunged is no game. It is deadly serious because a town with a history stretching back to medieval times is in a crisis, much of which is the Government's making. I am not a dogmatist who seeks to pin all the blame on the Government, but it is dogmatic for the Government to put the blame on virtually everyone else for the current state of our economy and my constituency. Apparently the fault lies with the recession, the Government's inheritance, obstreperous trade unionists, Arabs, Japanese, and Spaniards—almost anyone except the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Employment, the Secretary of State for Industry and the rest of the Cabinet.

I had the honour of saying the last words in the last Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) replied to the debate. In that debate there was hope for my constituency. At that time there was under 6 per cent. unemployment, 6,000 jobs were saved by the temporary employment subsidy, £20 million was allocated to council housing and £17 million was allocated via the Housing Corporation. Over a few years no industrial development certificate had been refused for Walsall since 1974, and there was a housing programme to meet the town's needs. Now, three and a half years after the dawn of the new age—a dark blue age—what a different situation my constituency is in. The position is desperate. What was a difficult situation is now acute. What was unemployment is now mass unemployment. The roll call of dead companies is terrifyingly long, and growing. Unemployment is now nearly 20 per cent. even according to the Government's doctored figures. In reality one in four people are out of work. I am sure that the makers of graph paper must be enjoying a boom as the graphs are now covering more than one sheet of the paper, such is their steepness.

Many companies are hanging on by their fingertips. I visited one enterprise in my constituency last Friday. The proprietor told me: "We are talking about survival. We cannot suffer losses indefinitely."

I shall take just one part of my constituency, the township of Darlaston, which has seen the demise of some of its former industrial giants, such as Rubery Owen, GKN, Charles Richards and Eaton Axles. Many other major redundancies have been announced. Some companies such as Bradley and Foster, Rubery Owen and GKN are barely a rump of their former selves. The consequences for the constituency are almost equivalent to the dropping of some form of industrial megaton bomb.

The latest body blow is the near extinction of F. H. Lloyd, the largest steel foundry in Western Europe, making one sixth of steel castings of the United Kingdom. It has been done to death by the Lazard scheme in connivance with the Government, the EC and the owners of the company. Why was it chosen for execution? What part did the Government play? It is ironic that such a catastrophe did not even make the headlines of the local papers. I suppose that catastrophes have been routinised under the Government.

The Lazard scheme is immoral and probably illegal. Shareholders are being bribed to scuttle—to take their 30 pieces of silver and run. F. H. Lloyd has had a lot of Government funds to enable it to modernise—there is the new pattern shop and the new sandplant. That is taxpayers' money. What will happen to that equipment? I understand that under the Lazard scheme it will go under the hammer. It will be physically destroyed. If vandals broke into the factory and destroyed that equipment, they would be jailed, yet Luddism can be practised legitimately at the behest of the Government.

Is the Lazard scheme legal? Is it not in contravention of the treaty of Rome, as I suspect? I shall write to the European Court to see if it is legal and to seek to get it struck out.

The cumulative effect of these closures and redundancies has been to produce bitterness, frustration and a sense of helplessness among every generation. Men of 40 are told that they are too old. I recently visited the Darlaston redundancy action group. It had a profound effect on me to see a large number of men who know that, barring a dramatic development in our economy, they will never work again. There are youngsters for whom full-time employment is a remote possibility. Women and ethnic minorities are suffering disproportionately.

Other parts of Walsall, which may be more oriented to Birmingham, such as Pheasey, are also suffering dramatically and drastically from unemployment in the north Birmingham area. The west midlands was once second only to London and the south-east, with virtually zero unemployment in the 1960s. Now 41 per cent. of the unemployed in our region have been out of work for a year or more. The ratio of unemployment to vacancies is 48.7:1, lower only than Northern Ireland.

At one time Walsall's unemployment was way beneath the regional and national average. Now we are higher than both. We have the worst figures in the West Midlands county council area. Government policy is not creating jobs; it is destroying them.

Why is it, when our unemployment figures are as high as they are, that we are virtually the only west midlands authority which is not part of a Government programme, partnership or designated status authority? We have no enterprise zone. Why was the scheme for Darlaston to be created an enterprise zone slung out by the Government? Enterprise zones are not the solution of industrial problems—far from it. We are desperately trying to attract industry and there has been some success with starter factories, but we are becoming increasingly isolated and hampered in seeking new industry.

A sensible business man, with a choice of locations for setting up premises, will examine the merits of rival locations. Increasingly he will look at the package of financial aids available. It is a sad fact of life that adjoining areas to Walsall benefit from the powers of the Inner Urban Areas Act and can compete for industry in a way that we in Walsall cannot. We want to be able to compete equally with our neighbours. We do not want to be in a situation, as one person said, of going to the wicket to face a hostile bowler with no bat and pads.

Will we have that equality of status? What assistance will be forthcoming to prevent the haemorrhaging of our economy from becoming fatal? Will the Minister help to infill the large areas of the town that have been undermined by limestone caverns, blighting housing and industry? The Department of the Environment report has been postponed to June? I wonder why? I hope that it will announce for us a considerable assistance in filling in the limestone caverns.

Public finance is used to trigger private sector money through urban development grants. How much money will Walsall get? Are these funds open to non-designated areas?

Going on to housing, Government assistance has not met the needs of the town. Under this Government, housing has taken three quarters of all cuts. Council house building is lower than at any time since the 1914–18 war. No council houses are being built. We need 2,100 units of municipal accommodation, yet none is being constructed. The net increase of the waiting list since 1978 is about 14,000 and no new contracts have been let since 1979. Rents are up 134 per cent. nationally. In Walsall in April 1979 the average gross rent was £9.54 a week; in April 1982 it was £21.50. It is the rent payer who is paying for management, for repairs, for the homeless and for the elderly, because there is no public subsidy to the housing revenue account.

The housing stock of Walsall is deteriorating, as is proven by the recent West Midlands house condition survey—3,500 public sector dwellings are unfit, and more than 6,000 properties require major repairs. People are paying more and more for less and less. Waiting lists are growing longer and many of the elderly who seek appropriate accommodation will probably die before it is made available. With the break-up of marriages and the number of people unable to pay for mortgages joining the queue, the problems are becoming acute and they are not being met.

We need resources to build private and public housing and to save houses from dereliction. The pittance that we are allowed to spend is grossly inadequate. We need a massive building programme to begin very soon, a freeze on all rents for a year, a right to repairs, full protection for direct labour organisations and better protection for private tenants. Tenants should no longer be second class citizens, and proper tenant democracy should be introduced. We want to give authorities the right, if they wish, to take over the property of absentee landlords, and we want to provide new forms of aid for first time house buyers to get the industry moving. It is a tragedy that while so many people in the building industry are out of work hardly any houses are being built in the public or the private sectors.

The Government have failed Walsall, the West Midlands and the nation. Industry has been slimmed down to such an extent that if and when there is a recovery we shall be too weak to capitalise on it. There is no time today, and it is outside the Minister's competence, to talk about Government policy on public transport and their failure to implement a proper transport policy. Nor is it within the Minister's competence to talk about the recent crisis in our area health authority or about the Government's confrontationist policies in seeking constant fights with organised labour. It is also not the Minister's role to seek to defend the Government's policy of reducing inflation at such a heavy price.

Today is St. Valentine's day. The kiss from the Government to my constituency is the kiss of death, delivered with the same affection as that of a certain infamous Transylvanian and with the same lethal effect of removing blood from a healthy body. I am assured by books on the occult that the way to rid oneself of that demonic influence is a goodly supply of garlic, a wooden cross and a stake. I trust that the cross that will dispose of such pernicious influences will not be a wooden one held at arm's length but, more appropriately, a cross on a ballot paper to consign the Government to the fate that they deserve. They have failed the constituency that I represent. That is not the Minister's fault. I am sure that he is sympathetic to the plight of many people whom I and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) represent. In fairness, however, I think that he will see and admit that the Government must change their policies because our St. Valentine's day message to the Government must be that the people of Walsall have had enough of unemployment, and if the Government do not create employment they will reap the whirlwind.

12.33 am
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) to intervene?

Mr. George

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Winnick

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for allowing me two or three minutes of his time. We both represent the same borough and we are both deeply concerned about the situation there. The Minister may say, as Ministers have said in previous replies, that there was unemployment in Walsall before the Government took office, as indeed there was. What did not exist, however, was mass unemployment and all the problems associated with it. In May 1979 when the Government took office the unemployment rates in 222 travel-to-work areas in the United Kingdom were higher than in the Walsall travel-to-work area. Today, there are just 70 that are higher.

When the Government took office unemployment in the Walsall travel-to-work area was 5.1 per cent. It is now officially 18.8 per cent., although probably nearer to 24 per cent. or 25 per cent. Devastation has occurred as a result of massive redundancies and factory closures. My hon. Friend has referred to the latest bombshell, the closing of F. H. Lloyd. This means tremendous problems. Many people in their 40s and 50s in the area believe that they will never be able to work again. There can be no hon. Member who feels happy or complacent about such a terrible situation in which our fellow citizens, who have reached their 40s and 50s and been made redundant, believe that the opportunity to find other work has disappeared.

On Wednesday, the west midlands group of Labour Members is meeting the black country district of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, when there will be a frank exchange of views. Of course, as Labour Members, we know what needs to be done. Our intention is to do our utmost on the Floor of the House, at Question Time and in debates, to try to persuade the Government that there must be a reversal of policy and that we should not accept mass unemployment as inevitable.

In the black country alone, there has been an increase of over 75,000 in the number of unemployed since the Government took office. The statistic was given to me in a reply by the Prime Minister. We in Walsall do not wish to become the Jarrow of pre-war years. We do not want the tremendous difficulties of continued mass unemployment and all the poverty and social problems that arise from it. We want to give the people in our area the opportunity to earn their living.

This Government are denying our people the right to earn their living. We believe that there must be a change of policy. The most effective method—it will probably arise some time in 1983—is to get a change of Government and for a Labour Government to pursue policies to reverse the tide of mass unemployment. I do not claim that a Labour Government will be able overnight to solve the problems. However, the Labour party possesses positive policies that are very different from those of the Government. If those policies are put into effect, the problems of mass unemployment and the fact that no council houses in Walsall have been constructed in the past three years can be resolved. The present Government have failed the people of Walsall.

12.37 am
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

It is a pleasure to respond to a debate initiated by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). The hon. Gentleman and myself have played together for the parliamentary football team. If any goals were conceded, he cannot blame them on me. I was a striker and not a defender. The football team suffered the unique handicap of having two captains, one Conservative and one Labour. This meant that the united approach that the occasion called for was not always implemented.

Both the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) sold their constituencies short by emphasising the bad news that has affected Walsall without emphasising the good news. It might have been helpful had they mentioned Woden Electrical Products of Bilston, which is now recruiting 20 more workers after receiving a rush of orders for its products, Merrol Fire Protection Engineers of Bilston, which has won a £2 million contract from Qatar for a power and water station, Tyler Mall Superstores, which has plans to invest £5 million in a project involving a supermarket, a do-it-yourself centre and electrical wholesale premises at Cannock, the Albert Mann division of the Darlaston based Wellman Mechanical Engineering, which has won an export order worth £500,000 to supply Aluminium Bahrein with an automated billet saw and ancillary equipment, Zeeta Sales Batevale Ltd. of Brownhills, supplying scissor lifts which has won a £30,000 contract to supply steel stacking equipment to a factory in South Africa.

I quite understand why the hon. Members emphasise the down side in their constituencies, but I am sure that they would not want to give the impression to the country that everything was on the decline in their constituencies and that there were not significant successes there which also needed mention.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South mentioned the problems facing F. H. Lloyd. As the hon. Gentleman said, we had last Friday's announcement by Lazard Brothers that the general sector of the steel castings industry had reached agreement on a major self-help rationalisation scheme, and I quite understand the hon. Gentleman's distress that jobs with F. H. Lloyd at the Wednesbury foundry and at nine other United Kingdom foundries are to be lost. However, radical action of this kind is essential if the long-term future of the industry is to be safeguarded and it is to be made fit to compete internationally and to grasp new market opportunities.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South mentioned in passing the Walsall and limestone caverns. As I think he knows, the present study of the limestone caverns, which is being jointly undertaken by my Department in partnership with Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell MBCs and the West Midlands county council is drawing to a conclusion. The consultants hope to present their final report, which will include an assessment of the risks, if any, that these caverns represent, in late spring or early summer this year. That report will be published and should remove much of the air of doubt and suspicion about the caverns that currently exists.

If the consultants find that some areas are at risk, of course the Government, in co-operation with the local authorities concerned, will urgently consider how best to remove or minimise the risk. But it would be quite wrong at this stage to anticipate the consultants' report and to assume that some areas are in immediate need of remedial work. We must await the outcome of the investigations now drawing to their conclusion.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South also pleaded for improved status for Walsall under the Inner Urban Areas Act. The Government are reviewing the bids of a number of authorities, including Walsall, and we hope to come to a conclusion and make an announcement within a matter of days.

Both hon. Members spoke of the problems facing industry in Walsall, and it is salutary to remind them of the extent of industrial support that is available to firms in their area. Aid is available under section 8 of the [Industrial Development Act 1982 to help with investment that will lead to substantial improvements in performance or the introduction of new projects or internationally mobile projects. At 30 November 1982, 56 projects had been offered almost £1.2 million on project costs of £5.2 million. We also recognise a role for the Government in encouraging the development of high technology industries operated by the Department of Industry. These schemes—including the support for innovation package and the microprocessor application project—are designed to encourage the development and application of microprocessor and other advanced technology. Exact figures for expenditure in the hon. Members' constituencies are unfortunately not available. But it is growth in precisely these sectors which is of particular importance to any economy such as that of Walsall.

As a housing Minister, I was particularly interested in what both hon. Members said about the housing problems facing Walsall council. This is not the first time that the council's problems have been debated in the House. On a previous occasion, some 18 months ago, the matter was raised by the hon. Member for Walsall, North, and the Government's response was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw). The broad approach of that response remains the same, but fortunately, since then there have been distinct changes of attitude by the council.

Before commenting on these changes, I should like to restate the Government's general position on housing. This is pertinent for all authorities, many of which face housing problems similar to those facing Walsall. The Government are committed to improving housing conditions. But this can be achieved only on the basis of a sound economy and by increasing the country's resources.

For this current year, in real terms, housing capital allocation has been set 6 per cent. above the provisional allocation figure for 1981–82. In cash terms, that is 30 per cent. more than local authorities' housing capital expenditure for 1981–82. For next year we have allocated nearly £2.5 billion, which is expected to be some 15 per cent. more than local authorities will spend on housing capital projects this year. In addition, we have told local authorities that next year they will have access to capital, over and above their allocations, to finance home improvement grants where their expenditure on grants is more than 10 per cent. above that for which they had planned.

It is for authorities to take advantage of these increases in allocations; and they can increase activity in the knowledge that we have tried to bring some measure of continuity into housing programmes for the first time ever by promising now that the allocations for 1984–85 will generally be set at a minimum of 80 per cent. of 1983–84 levels.

I mentioned earlier the noticeable change in Walsall council's approach since the previous debate. I find that encouraging. Initially, it seemed reluctant sellers of council houses. As the House will know, the right-to-buy provisions of the Housing Act 1980 came into effect on 3 October 1980.

Six months after that date, the council had not sold a single house under the right-to-buy provisions and had not even sent a single case to be valued for sale. That was despite the fact that more than 2,300 tenants had by then applied under the 1980 Act to buy their homes.

Not surprisingly, the Department received numerous complaints from tenants about the lack of progress with their applications. That generally unsatisfactory situation prompted the Department to take up formally with the council its rate of progress in implementing the right to buy. I am pleased to say that the council's current progress is much more encouraging. House sales are now moving apace—more than 2,200, to the value of £17½ million, were sold by the end of last year giving the council £6 million to £8 million in immediate capital receipts and the ability to augment its housing capital programme by £3 million to £4 million.

The council initially also showed scant interest in the initiatives recommended by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, but there are now signs of changing attitudes. It is increasing its involvement in the improvement of older houses for sale. A number of small derelict sites have been improved with the help of derelict land grant and will be used to provide about 100 low-cost homes.

I also understand that the council is considering selling a 50-acre site for housing and taking payment for the land in completed houses to add to its stock. It is also, I believe, turning its mind towards involvement in that more difficult area of homesteading. That involves selling run-down houses with the promise of an improvement grant backed by substantial Government assistance. It has also experimented with a small scheme of enveloping. By that I mean using public moneys to carry out essential work to the external fabric of privately-owned dwellings to prevent decay into unfitness and to provide the incentive for owners to up-date their dwellings internally.

I hope that the council, and other authorities, will take advantage of the Government's latest provisions to save more houses and areas in that way.

The effect of all these initiatives has been to meet housing need which might not otherwise be met and, equally important, to increase the capacity of the council to augment its housing capital programme for 1983–84 by some £7 million. When added to its HIP capital allocation of £10.091 million, the council will be able to sustain a housing capital programme of about £17 million next year.

I turn now to the way in which that capital might be spent. The hon. Member for Walsall, South mentioned the lack of a new-build council house programme. The council is, of course, free to decide its own priorities. I understand that it is inclined to devote the bulk of its resources, some 80 per cent., to modernising and repairing older homes—about three-quarters to be spent on council housing and one-quarter on renovation grants to private housing.

It is not for me to deny that that is a wise choice. The council estimates that more than 22 per cent. of the borough's housing stock is either unfit or in need of substantial repair—for the council's own stock, that figure is 24 per cent. Faced with a decay problem of that magnitude, renovation must have a large measure of priority. I certainly would not have the temerity to argue with Walsall council's inclinations in that respect, because, as the House will know, the Government have taken a number of steps recently which recognises the importance of tackling vigorously the problem of older housing.

Walsall council has been able to take advantage of the recently increased grant rates and increased capital allocations. This year alone it expects the increases to have enabled it to add nearly £500,000 to its spending on renovation grants—an increase of some 34 per cent. on its originally planned expenditure on grants. It expects to pay grants on 448 applications this year and to increase that number next year. That compares with an average figure of 204 payments a year over the previous three years—nearly 120 per cent. I hope that his trend will be repeated in other parts of the country where the need is to tackle the problem of older housing.

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

Adjourned at eleven minutes to One o'clock.