HC Deb 01 July 1983 vol 44 cc874-80

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

It is as great a pleasure for me to have the Adjournment debate in the daylight as it must be for you, Mr. Speaker, to see the end of long Adjournment debates, of which you have had many more than I have in the past few years. It is a great privilege and pleasure to see you in the Chair now, knowing your long and attentive listening to my long and possibly tedious speeches about constituency matters. I make no excuse for continuing in that vein. It is not just an honour but a positive pleasure to be the Member of Parliament for Devon, North.

If I say north Devon, Mr. Speaker, you might think of cattle, sheep, farms, Exmoor, Lorna Doone, the rivers Taw and Yeo, Henry Williamson and "Tarka the Otter", surfing at Croyde, sailing at Instow and shopping in the pannier markets of Barnstaple and South Molton. You would be quite right to think of all those things, Mr. Speaker, but perhaps you would not know that we have six manufacturing or processing firms supplying Marks and Spencer—three with textiles, one with meat, one with woodware and one with bath salts! Specialist doors from Shaplands in Barnstaple go to Ascension island and the middle east, Time magazine in Arabic is printed in Barnstaple and air freighted to the middle east each week. I believe that it takes longer to get from Barnstaple to London airport than it does from the airport to the middle east. Haversacks for middle eastern armies, sleeping bags for the Dutch and parachute webbing for the French are all made in north Devon. Engine parts for the Tornado strike aircraft are made in South Molton, as are perfumes for California.

North Devon has many excellent, smaller, high-technology industries, but road transport is our first problem. Our county capital at Exeter is more than 40 miles away along a winding road—little better than a lane in parts—that is known jokingly but accurately as the A377. That vital artery is the busiest major road year round and it is probably the worst of its sort in England.

Almost every major firm has a supply depot or regional office in Exeter 40 miles away. From us they can supply Plymouth to the west along 40 miles of dual carriageway, Taunton to the east along 30 miles of the M5 and Torbay to the south on dual carriageway. It is only to the north towards Barnstaple and Ilfracombe that the roads are utterly inadequate. We are promised the north Devon link road from Tiverton and the M5 to Barnstaple during 1986–88 and the Barnstaple urban relief road, a Devon county council project, by about 1987.

To survive and prosper I must ask the Government to confirm that our road programme will be maintained or, better still, expedited. Of course, there might have to be a public inquiry or inquiries based on conservation objections, but with minor adjustments to the preferred route it might be possible to avoid them. Our local paper, the North Devon Journal Herald, is full of the argument between environmentalists who fear for the natural habitat of Hares down or Crooked Oak valley and are often anti any road, versus the industrialist who accepts the need for conservation measures but demands the road to hold existing industry in north Devon and, I hope, to attract more into the area. My support goes entirely to Mr. Arthur Sparks on the business side and to Mr. Brian Peace of the link road action group, who accept that the roads must and will be built, while accepting also that there is room for common sense and compromise on the line of the road. I do not wish everything, including existing negotiations to purchase land, to be delayed. People's livelihoods depend upon the jobs that the link road will bring or preserve, and farmers affected by the road deserve full compensation and no delays in the completion of purchase so that they in turn can purchase or exchange land.

We are not seeking just the sympathy that we have always received. We want rather more than sympathy in this case, because we have the example a few miles south of us of the Okehampton bypass, where the years pass but a decision is still awaited. That is the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir P. Mills). Inquiries have been conducted, but no decision has been made because no one can or will make up his mind. The need for better roads is a major problem that we have had for 25 years, but thanks to this Government alone progress looks like being made and a solution is now within reach.

We have other interests, inevitably in a part of the world that is as beautiful as ours, such as tourism. Tourism is an industry, but no Government have ever treated it as such. That is not unique to north Devon, because tourism as a whole suffers from the neglect that comes from being treated as a form of shopkeeping, so that none of the capital allowances or other industrial assistance that is granted to even the smallest workshop or factory is available to the hotelier or the restaurateur, although he may employ many more staff than even the busiest of workshops in these automated days. It is not the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, but I hope that the forthcoming Finance Bill will provide capital allowances, because service industries such as tourism will take up the employment slack in areas such as north Devon and in many other parts of Britain.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to one area that has interests in both tourism and more conventional industry. Along the beautiful north Devon coast is the spectacular scenery of Ilfracombe with, in the near neighbourhood, everything that is lovely in the British countryside, from Exmoor, Lynton and Lynmouth, Combe Martin and Ilfracombe on to the sands of Woolacombe, Putsborough and Instow. From almost any of those places we can see the south Wales coast, the Mumbles and Swansea. We can almost see the Welsh tourists who will be so welcome in north Devon when the water bridge to Ilfracombe is reopened and the ships ply back and forth once more across the Bristol channel. With EC and other aid, private enterprise funds will be available to reopen the harbour of Ilfracombe and to redevelop and upgrade this tourist and water-based amenity industry. The Severn barrage a few miles upstream might well be built from a safe base at Ilfracombe. Ilfracombe is a development area. The industrial and commercial spin off from, for example, a roll-on, roll-off ferry service with Swansea would be vast, while the effects on the tourist industry on both sides of the Bristol channel would be dramatic.

We need not just sympathy but sympathetic treatment of applications for grant-aid and loans as north Devon helps itself and develops its special industry of hospitality and tourism, tied in with the appropriate industrial development for such an area. However, industrial development must not mean the destruction of beautiful towns and villages or the countryside, which is why we must ask the Government to work with our excellent Devon county council and with North Devon district council to provide the infrastructure needed so that we have the opportunities already available to many other coastal resorts in perhaps less beautiful, but also less remote, parts of Britain.

I thank the Government for their work during the last Parliament to help to maintain our major industry of agriculture. I shall not dwell on agriculture today because, during the past four years, the improvement has been great, for which credit is due to the Government. Today I ask for three things and I summarise the points that I have made. The first is that we keep to the proposed timetable for the roads that are needed to get produce out and tourists in and out. The second is that we encourage our modern high-flying and efficient industries to expand and, last but not least, that we accept that tourism is a major industry and treat it accordingly—as an industry high in labour content and in need of capital investment. We would get more British jobs, provide more British goods and earn good money from sources at home and abroad.

Those are the very simple aims of the essentially simple Member of Parliament for Devon, North, who seeks to plead his case not because the Government have not worked well— indeed, they have— but because, over many years, we have been starved in north Devon of the funds and services that we need. Now I seek not just our fair share but to make up ground for the less than fair share that we have had in the past.

2.40 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr. Norman Lamont)

I have previously had the pleasure of replying to Adjournment debates initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller). It is always enjoyable to listen to him because he speaks of his constituency with such enthusiasm and feeling, in graphic terms, and demonstrates such enormously detailed knowledge. Today he emphasised once again the critical importance of road development to the future of north Devon. He stressed the importance of keeping to proposed timetables for roads—a point that I shall certainly pass on, emphasise and stress to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government retain a strong commitment to both the north Devon link road and the Barnstaple bypass. The initial stage of the link road is under construction from the M5 to Tiverton and is scheduled for completion in April 1984, but there are good hopes for the achievement of an earlier date. The period for objections to the draft orders for stage 2A from Tiverton to Newtown ended on 23 June 1983. The need for a public inquiry on that stage is now under urgent consideration by the Department of Transport.

It is expected that the draft orders for stage 2B from Newtown to Barnstaple will be published later in the year. That is the position also with the Barnstaple bypass. The completion of the bypass is particularly significant for the development of the Roundswell industrial estate, Barnstaple.

Some will argue that progress should be faster, but statutory procedures, as I know my hon. Friend recognises, have to be followed to ensure a fair hearing for all those concerned. There is also criticism that stage 2 of the north Devon link road is to be built as a single carriageway. However, the road is designed to make possible upgrading to a dual carriageway if that is justified by the volume of traffic.

It is necessary to weigh carefully major items of public expenditure against the economic benefits which are meant to arise from such projects. I believe that critics of the proposed road will be more than satisfied by the final product. It should provide good service both to existing companies and to new developments attracted by the improved communications to the area. Not least, it will serve the needs of tourism, to which I shall return, and on which my hon. Friend rightly laid great stress.

The second assurance sought by my hon. Friend was that the Government should encourage the modern highflying industries, the high technology industries, of north Devon to expand. We shall, of course, do just that. We have, as my hon. Friend knows, various departmental schemes designed to do just that. The regional offices of my Departmant are available for advice and we are always willing to give support to new firms and existing firms in the area.

My hon. Friend provided a graphic account of the variety of manufacturing products from his constituency which sell successfully, both at home and overseas. The overwhelming impression is one of vigorous and enterprising management working in harmony with adaptable and hard-working employees. There is certainly no lack of evidence that the entrepreneurial drive and working spirit flourishes within the present boundaries of my hon. Friend's constituency.

IBL Ballscrews, Barnstaple, has reached an agreement with Siemens and Fafnir Bearings to market in Europe a combined package of ballscrews, associated bearings and drive systems. That represents a considerable opportunity for the company. Companies like those elsewhere are beginning to report increased profits. One such company is Aaronson Bros which manufactures laminated and veneered chipboard. It reports that it is operating very efficiently and almost at full capacity.

A further development is the decision by the General Guarantee Corporation, part of the Great Universal Stores group, to base its west country activities in north Devon. The corporation has allocated £2 million for business investment in the south-west, and north Devon should be well placed to take advantage of this initiative.

The important contribution which small firm growth can make in an area is dramatically illustrated by a business which my hon. Friend has drawn to the attention of my Department. In 1979 the Carpenter's Workshop, Barnstaple, employed nine people. It now employs nearly 100 and is a real acorn to oak tree story. It is a splendid example of what can be achieved by energetic management and co-operative staff.

Such success reflects in part the Government's policies for regional and industrial development. The previous Conservative Government achieved a concentration of regional assistance on those areas in greatest need. The Ilfracombe travel-to-work area retained development area status. The Barnstaple area, although down-graded, has benefited from intermediate area advantages. The much reduced spread of the assisted areas nationally has focused attention on incentives available for development in remaining areas, including Barnstaple and Ilfracombe. The Department's south-west industrial development office at Plymouth is always ready to assist firms to obtain full advantage from the various schemes available.

In the Barnstaple and Ilfracombe areas during the period from 1 May 1979 to 31 March 1983, 11 offers of assistance were made under section 7 of the Industry Act 1982 to a total value of £1£3 million with associated project outlays exceeding £20 million. Arising from this expenditure, it was estimated that 650 new jobs would be provided and 25 existing jobs safeguarded. In addition, there were seven offers of assistance made under section 8 of the Industry Act, worth £200,000. That is for projects with costs approaching £1 million.

In addition, English Industrial Estates is pursuing an active policy of advance factory construction in north Devon. On the Mullacott Cross industrial estate, work was completed on 11 units in March 1983, of which two have been let and two are under offer. In Barnstaple 19 units are scheduled for completion in November 1983. A feature of these schemes is the concentration upon small units. That at Barnstaple includes eight units, each of 650 sq. ft., while the largest unit is 2,000 sq. ft.

The Department's small firms service is also playing a part stimulating small firm development in north Devon. There are area counselling offices and clinics offering advice to individuals considering setting up their own business as well as to established firms.

Proposals by other bodies to aid small firms include those by the Dartington North Devon trust and by the North Devon Manufacturers Association to set up local employment agencies. Devon county council has offered to support both initiatives which are expected to contribute in different ways to the encouragement of small businesses.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned the excellent work of the Devon county council, which I have had the pleasure of visiting in the past, and the north Devon district council. Devon county council's support for the provision of improved water services and other infrastructure at the Mullacott Cross and Roundswell industrial estates is particularly worth highlighting.

It is vital that Government Departments, local authorities and local representative bodies should co-operate fully to provide the development necessary for the area. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to two recent examples involving the Manpower Services Commission. The first involves the youth training scheme, for which the Commission estimated a need for 740 places in north Devon. Already, more than this number—840—have been made available from a wide range of sources. Those include 350 places on a broad-based scheme put together by the North Devon Manufacturers Association. That reflects the association's recognition of the importance of attracting young people into manufacturing and confidence in the future of the employment that it can offer.

Mr. Speller

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that, since he received that information, we have found that we have more than three places available for every young person seeking a place under the youth training scheme in the coming year. That proves the excellence of the county, industry and commerce working together.

Mr. Lamont

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing that further information.

Another project involves community programme project support for the Ilfracombe and district industrial development committee. Work will be provided there for the long-term unemployed on such schemes as the conservation of Torrington commons to increase their attractiveness to the public.

I am aware that there have been employment setbacks in north Devon during the past year, including the closure of some small firms. Ilfracombe continues to pose employment problems for much of the year. Even in June, with the summer season having started, the unemployment rate of 18.5 per cent. was very high compared with the national rate of 12.3 per cent. Barnstaple is less affected by seasonal employment patterns and the rate is much better at 10 per cent., well below the national average.

The employment needs of Ilfracombe, although not large in absolute terms, call for imaginative proposals, such as the one mentioned by my hon. Friend for the development of Ilfracombe harbour. The project has attracted much interest and support including that of the West Country tourist board. I am glad that private commercial interest has emerged. If the project is to succeed, it will be essential to obtain firm support from such sources. The central role remains that of the North Devon district council, which is the harbour authority. I look forward to hearing of further developments on the project. If a definite proposal emerges from closer examination it would be appropriate to consider funding from European sources.

There is the possibility of aid—up to 50 per cent.—for a feasibility study under article 12 of the European regional development fund regulation. Such aid is seen as a prelude to a programme of assistance from the fund. If a sound proposal for the project can be developed, there will be good prospects of Government support for aid to be given from the fund. That aspect is primarily one for those concerned with the proposal to pursue with the Department of the Environment.

I assure my hon. Friend, therefore, that not only will the Government seek to encourage the well-being of the best of existing industries in north Devon, but we are ready to look at the promotion of viable new activities.

My hon. Friend asked the Government to treat tourism as a major industry. He said that previous Governments had not done that. He may not know that I have just taken on responsibility for tourism. My other responsibilities in the Department are nationalised industries — steel, shipbuilding and so on. I was thinking of altering my notepaper and describing myself as Minister for Heavy Industry and Tourism. That might sound an unlikely title, but perhaps it would convince my hon. Friend that tourism is being treated as an industry.

Tourism is an important industry, because it has a tremendous capacity to create some of the jobs that we need for the future. Last year, the total turnover of tourism in this country was about £8.5 billion and the industry employed more than I million people. It contributed about £4 billion to the balance of payments and was responsible for 13 per cent. of invisible earnings. It is of great importance to the local economies of major holiday areas, such as north Devon.

We have demonstrated that we take seriously the need to encourage the tourist industry. This year assistance available for tourism projects under section 4 of the Development of Tourism Act 1969 has been increased from £5 million to just over £8 million, and is available right across the country, not just in assisted areas.

I am pleased to note that tourism projects in north Devon are among those which have benefited from this assistance. In the past two years, 12 projects in north Devon have been assisted by the English tourist board with section 4 grants totalling £138,000. This has helped to stimulate at least £500,000 of investment.

Capital allowances for hotels and other aspects of tourism are, as my hon. Friend recognises, matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is a point on which many representations have been made. It is one of the points that was made in the review of tourism that was being undertaken by Iain Sproat, the former Under-Secretary of State for Trade. There is a great deal of feeling in the tourist industry about this.

I assure my hon. Friend that I am studying the issues raised in the review urgently. I hope to announce conclusions in the near future. I am confident that those conclusions will be welcomed by my hon. Friend and all who are active in this important industry. I emphasise to my hon. Friend that tourism is viewed extremely seriously as a major economic activity and one which will become more important.

Although not wishing to minimise the continuing problems in north Devon, the overall impression, as my hon. Friend spelt out, is of an area of improving infrastructure and of a preponderance of good news emerging from local manufacturers. The right spirit and energy are clearly present. The various representative bodies are contributing to a better understanding of the difficulties and possible solutions, and, above all, my hon. Friend plays an active part. North Devon could easily become a forgotten peripheral corner of Great Britain. It is in no small measure due to his efforts that its strengths and needs retain the Government's attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o' clock.