HC Deb 05 February 1985 vol 72 cc911-8

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

3.18 am
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

We have heard a great deal in previous debates about the cascade of gold. I hope that some gold will cascade in the direction of my constituency. It is certainly long overdue.

I have made regular appeals in Adjournment debates to the Government to halt and reverse the decline of the west midlands and the town of Walsall, yet the situation deteriorates. A few statistics support that assertion. The west midlands has had the lowest rate of growth of any region in the country in the last 10 years. Between 1980 and 1984 the unemployment rate in the west midlands rose by over 10 per cent.—the worst regional figure in the country. Over half the unemployed are classed as long-term unemployed. The official unemployment figure for Walsall South is 7,675. But the actual figure is much worse, as it excludes much of Darlaston and, as we are aware, the unemployment figures have been skilfully manipulated to mask the real total. Without doubt, national unemployment is way over 4 million. In the Walsall area, 17.8 per cent. of the population is unemployed, way above the regional and national figures.

No doubt reassuring words will continue to emanate from the Government. Lord Young assured us a few weeks ago that Britain was not in recession. Try telling that to the army of workless in my constituency. I have the statistics of the increase in unemployment between the 1981 census and the figures for December 1984 on a ward basis.

In the St. Matthew's ward, the increase in unemployment between those few years was 45 per cent.; in the Bentley and Darlaston, North ward, 46.6 per cent. was the increase, much of it due to the collapse of engineering, of the nuts and bolts industry and of many large, well-known factories; and the allegedly more prosperous area of Paddock saw unemployment go up by a staggering 61.9 per cent. Where is the economic miracle that we were promised? What has happened to the so-called recovery?

Recent events have shown the Government's financial strategy to be bankrupt, as they have marched the nation on six years' hard slog in which the public services have been slashed and public works starved of investment so as to cut Government borrowing. The pay-off was the promise of lower interest rates. That has not happened. Now, the pound is at parity with another great currency, the rouble. That shows the depth to which we have sunk.

Regrettably, the Chancellor will not pay the price of the Government's failure. The rest of us will pay. House owners will pay the price by way of big increases in their monthly payments; industry will continue to pay because the big increases in interest rates will cost British industry at least £600 million this year; the unemployed will pay because the interest rates squeeze will force probably another 100,000 out of their jobs and into the dole queues.

If the Prime Minister succeeds in reducing unemployment in my constituency to the level it was when the Conservatives came to office in 1979 — when it was 5 per cent.—I will put a good word in with the principal of the West Midlands College of Higher Education and ask that she be awarded an honorary degree of the Council for National Academic Awards—that is, if the Secretary of State for Education and Science has not closed the college down first. I cannot guarantee that my constituents will be as generous or forgiving as I am.

The Minister will, no doubt, tell the House of initiatives that will yield dividends—notably, assisted area status—but not everyone is as enthusiastic as the Government about the efficacy of the economic aspirins that my region is being given. I have a letter written by Mr. G. Bates, president of the Wolverhampton Association of Building Employers Confederation. He went to a seminar recently in Birmingham which looked into what would happen to the region because of assisted area status. He wrote: I therefore attended a seminar staged by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce which was to inform management of what was available to them under the new policy. I left the seminar completely deflated. I hope he is wrong and that the measures will bring relief to an area that a few years ago was one of the most prosperous in the country.

Not only in employment and industry has my constituency suffered, but also in housing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) knows well, we have made representations to the Government because their housing policy has been a disaster. Public sector housing has been halved and house improvement payments are drying up. Walsall has reached a crisis. Our surgeries are a weekly testimony to the failure of Government policy and to despair. There are over 12,500 on the housing waiting list and there are 30,000 unattended repairs. The local authority asked for £37 million under the HIP scheme and it received £9.5 million about a quarter of what it requested. The problems of single parents are appalling and the problems of single parent families are severe. In an excellent report entitled "Singled Out in Walsall" it is stated: the problems of homelessness among single people of all ages are growing rapidly but especially among the young. There has been such little house building. Surely one way in which the local economy can be boosted is by improving the infrastructure and getting the building workers back to work. This should happen, and I hope that it will.

One of the rays of sunlight over the sad events of the past few years has been the way in which some local individuals and groups have responded and are responding to the crisis. The Pleck Community Association has produced a most imaginative set of schemes to relieve unemployment in the area. I am following closely, as I hope the Minister will, one of the schemes that it is submitting. It seeks to remove much of the responsibility from the shoulders of small business men and to arrange for it to be taken on by experts from the association and by those who they will employ.

There is another experiment involving Darlaston and an experiment which is being undertaken by Roap hall. This is a sign of the way in which local individuals and groups can respond.

Another problem that besets the area is that of derelict land. Walsall has many attributes, but it is not among the most beautiful towns in the land. That is the consequence of industrialisation in years past. Much of the land in the town is derelict. It consists of 225 sites and extends over 560 hectares. Despite the immensity of the west midlands and black country problems of dereliction, Government aid has been cut, though I must acknowledge in fairness that Walsall is getting a slightly larger share of a smaller cake. Derelict land is blighting housing. It is making it difficult to attract industry to the area and it is a sheer eyesore. Dereliction is growing at a faster rate than the rate at which land is being brought back into use. Walsall has 29 per cent. more derelict land than in 1983. There is a need for land to be brought back into proper use and we need central Government funding. The Government should not seek to rape the green belt in my area instead of pursuing a proper policy of land reclamation.

Linked to the problem of derelict land is that of limestone. The current position is severe. About £75 million worth of property is undermined by limestone. That is the legacy of limestone mining and other works. These works have resulted in the sterilisation of land and the retardation of industrial development. The failure to provide a proper solution to the limestone problem could contribute significantly to a downward spiral in the borough's economic fortunes. Action must be taken.

The Ove-Arup report must be implemented swiftly, especially by infilling where this is necessary. I shall comment briefly on the Mineral Workings Bill, which is passing through another place. Clause 8(3)(a) gives an authority power to carry out works where there is "imminent" danger of collapse. We know that it is a moot point whether the risk of collapse in many of the workings is imminent. The wording of clause 8(3)(a) seems to be unnecessarily demanding. I can foresee mining engineers and lawyers arguing for years over whether the danger of collapse in any particular case is imminent. Some words such as "where there is the prospect of collapse" would provide an easier test to satisfy.

I propose a limestone workings compensation scheme to supplement the solutions outlined in the extensive and brilliant Ove-Arup report. Such a scheme has been put to the Department of the Environment by local authorities and it would provide a cost-effective option for the mines and zones in which the potential for collapse is low. For example, imagine the plight of a householder in my constituency who recently purchased a £50,000 house. He has paid for a search, yet he now cannot sell. He probably has no claim against the local authority, the solicitor or estate agent. His insurance may not cover that contingency, even if there is physical damage. The insurance does not cover loss of value.

The NCB has a scheme for compensation under the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 and there are other precedents. I believe that certain minimum requirements should be covered in a compensation scheme and that the Government must be sensible about this matter. Compensation should be payable if damage is caused to property by limestone subsidence and where the landowner is unable to obtain redress from any other source. Compensation should be on the basis of the actual cost of repair or market value at the option of the agency responsible for dealing with compensation claims. This would restore confidence in the property market and, because the risk of collape is low, the number of compensation would be small.

I should like to refer to the restoration of ancient monuments, of which there are some in Walsall. The Guildhall goes back many centuries, although the present building dates from the 1850s. I am the chairman of the Guildhall restoration committee and, on a number of occasions, I helped to keep the bulldozer away from this fine building. An excellent scheme has been put up by a local architect, Gordon Foster, and has been supported by the local authority. The scheme has now been submitted to the Department of the Environment. I urge the Secretary of State to look favourably on this scheme, to make a quick decision and to provide financial assistance to those at the heart of the scheme. I am afraid that, if there is a delay, the Guildhall, which has been suffering the effects of erosion, may not survive another bad winter.

I do not expect the Government to change course. They will soldier on with failed policies. The Government will be protected from the consequences of those policies by the Opposition's failure so far to present their alternatives and to have those alternatives accepted. When the party's head bangers have finally been subdued and we can concentrate on presenting the real alternative to this Government's policies, the Government's days will be numbered.

3.32 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. David Trippier)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for the opportunity to debate the industrial and environmental position in Walsall. As usual, the hon. Gentleman has made his points cogently and diligently. Although I can never agree with his politics, he is a vociferous and able advocate on behalf of his constituents.

We have tonight heard a great deal about the industrial situation in Walsall, and the west midlands, together with the reasons to which the hon. Gentleman attributes the present industrial situation — a situation which must be improved, as I am the first to recognise. However, we must remember that the present position did not come about overnight. Industry in Walsall and the west midlands generally was experiencing a decline in its fortunes long before the present Government came to office in 1979. The decline was greatly accelerated by the world recession which, with hindsight, is not surprising given the region's over-dependence upon a relatively narrow industrial base concentrated on precisely those industries most vulnerable to recession.

Walsall is similar to many other parts of the west midlands in this respect and has not been sheltered from the effects of the recession. Firms — especially those which had for so long experienced overmanning—could not be sheltered from the recession and have shed a considerable amount of labour during the last few years. The result is the historically high levels of unemployment in parts of the region, and Walsall has one of the highest rates in the region—17.8 per cent. in January 1985—which have rightly been of interest to the hon. Member tonight.

As time went on, it became increasingly obvious that the recession alone was not entirely responsible for that situation—although it played a considerable part. There were weaknesses in the structure of some industries of importance to the region. The motor industry is an example often quoted.

Although the Government's general economic policy has laid the foundations for a successful entrepreneurial spirit, and my Department's national schemes of assistance to industry were available throughout the country, it became clear that the worst hit parts of the country, and particularly parts of the west midlands, were at a disadvantage when competing for new industrial investment. Plainly further action was necessary to help rebuild the region's industrial base.

We have responded to that. In December 1983 we published a White Paper entitled "Regional Industrial Development" which made it clear that changes had made the assisted areas map out of date and areas with less acute problems than the west midlands no longer justified assisted area status. That was a point that was frequently being made to us by hon. Members representing west midlands constituencies including the hon. Gentleman.

As a result, and after a comprehensive review, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Industry announced to the House on 28 November 1984 the changes in the Government's regional industrial policy, including the new assisted areas map.

The biggest change in the map was that a large part of the west midlands region was included, for the first time, as an intermediate area, including the hon. Member's constituency which falls mainly in the Walsall travel-to-work area, and a small part of the Birmingham travel-to-work area. Approximately 77 per cent. of the working population of the west midlands now falls within an assisted area.

The new policy, which accompanied the new map, is designed to focus help so that it will have the greatest direct impact on employment at a lower net cost per job. It is intended to be less costly, and more cost effective. However, the increase in coverage of the map from 27 per cent. to 35 per cent. of the working population will mean an increase in selective assistance with the balance between automatic grants and selective assistance throughout the country shifting considerably towards the latter.

What does that mean for Walsall? For the first time, the Walsall and Birmingham travel-to-work areas will be eligible for regional selective assistance under section 7 of the Industrial Development Act 1982. This takes the form of, first, a project grant which is available for projects in the manufacturing and service sectors.

Secondly, under the in plant training scheme grants may be made to cover up to 80 per cent. of eligible training costs. Thirdly, there is the exchange risk guarantee scheme which covers firms against the exchange risk on foreign currency loans in return for a service charge. Fourthly, there are loans from Europe. Fixed interest loans from the European Investment Bank of up to 50 per cent. of fixed project costs are available. Similar loans are available from the European Coal and Steel Community for projects which create employment opportunities for redundant coal and steel workers.

In addition, the hon. Gentleman's constituency will qualify for support from the European Regional Development Fund. That will give his local authority access to the ERDF for its infrastructure projects for the first time. Although I appreciate that under the temporary arrangement agreed with the European Commission, Walsall metropolitan district has been eligible since January 1984 for ERDF aid for infrastructure projects by virtue of its Inner Urban Areas Act 1978 designation, intermediate area status will ensure that that eligibility continues. Only last week the European Commission announced a further batch of projects in the region which have been allocated ERDF funding. Those include £52,000 for two projects submitted by Walsall metropolitan district council, and a further £1.8 million for the black country route which will help to open up that part of the region for industrial investment and which is warmly welcomed in the hon. Member's constituency.

Clearly the west midlands' industrial structure and that of Walsall is such that large numbers of companies will now be in a position to benefit from assistance. The amount of aid coming to the region will, however, depend upon the response of the business sector, since regional aid is demand led. The west midlands assisted areas represent 20 per cent. of the total map coverage, and it is important to the region that it receives a fair share of the assistance available.

Initial response has been favourable. Since last November's announcement, the Department's west midlands regional office has received over 3,500 inquiries about regional selective assistance. These have, so far, generated 135 applications that are being examined by the Department's officials. Of those active cases, nine are in the Walsall travel-to-work area.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying anything that will give hope to the unemployed in my hon. Friend's constituency and my own constituency? Can he say that the misery of mass unemployment in the west midlands and the black country will come to an end in the lifetime of the present Parliament?

Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman should not be so negative. He is directing his question at someone who represents a constituency not dissimilar to his own or that of his hon. Friend. Only two and a half years ago, the unemployment level in my own constituency was far higher than the level in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, to which I have referred. As a result of concentration on small firms and the assistance given by the Government to that area, we have reduced unemployment by a third. That is not hypothesis. It is a fact.

Intermediate area status is not alone in working to regenerate Walsall's industrial base. The designation of intermediate area status was in recognition of the area's need for greater employment opportunities. As I have already mentioned, this is in addition to the Government's general economic policies which are of paramount importance. The stress on stable prices, a low rate of inflation and a favourable climate for enterprise are prerequisites for a modern industrial economy. There are also specific policies operated both by my Department and other Government Departments. For example, under section 8 of the Industrial Development Act 1982, firms in the old Walsall travel-to-work area have received 97 offers of assistance totalling over £2.5 million for projects involving costs of £11.6 million since May 1979.

There is also the small firms sector, which has greatly benefited from our measures in this field. The small firms service, for which I am responsible, continues to offer its services to small businesses in the region. Inquiries have been averaging over 660 a week for the last month compared with just over 600 this time last year.

With regard to other Departments' policies, in 1983 Walsall was made a designated district under the Inner Urban Areas Act and has received urban programme allocations of £461,000 in 1983–84 and £550,000 in 1984–85 — with a further £550,000 allocated for 1985–86.

Walsall has also benefited over the years to the tune of £1 million from the traditional urban programme, the fund open to all authorities seeking grant aid to support social schemes in urban areas of special social need other than in those areas designated under the urban programme as partnership or programme authorities. This represents one of the highest levels of support in the country under the traditional urban programme.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is advised by a panel of experts on appropriate remedies and resources to tackle the legacy of limestone mining in the black country. Under the guidance of this panel a programme of remedial actions has started, including considerable activity in the Walsall area. The Department of the Environment and the local authorities funded a major report from consulting engineers, and so far about £1 million of derelict land grant has been spent assessing the Walsall problem in more detail. Major remedial action in Walsall is planned to start in January 1986 with infilling of the Littleton street mine near the town centre. My right hon. Friend hopes to announce shortly the 1985–86 allocation under the derelict land grant for remedial works to limestone caverns in the black country generally including Walsall.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to Walsall guildhall. I understand that applications for listed building consent and urban development grant for the restoration of the guildhall complex have recently been submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for his consideration. In the circumstances, it would be inappropriate for me to comment about the applications at this stage.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me to respond on matters relating to housing, although it is the responsibility of other Departments. In recent years, Walsall borough council has given priority to the modernisation and repair of the substantial numbers of council houses in its ownership. It has also launched a major initiative to renovate pre-1919 houses in the private sector through the development of what has come to be known as the block repair scheme. These priorities have been very much in accord with national housing policy, which is for the private sector to assume a greater role in the provision of new housing.

The hon. Member mentioned the level of housing investment programme allocation to Walsall. The indications show that Walsall has had its fair share of housing resources available to the west midlands region recently. For 1985–86 Walsall has received £9.636 million, which represents some 91 per cent. of last year's allocation. Walsall has done markedly better than almost all other authorities in the region as most others received only 82 per cent. of last year's allocation. Housing investment allocations have to be seen in the context of the overall need to contain public expenditure. Within this constraint, the extent of housing need in Walsall has been fully recognised in the level of recent capital allocations.

The hon. Gentleman correctly highlighted industrial circumstances in Walsall, but his approach, like that of many in the Labour party, was rather negative. We can all recognise the problems, but some of us can see the steps that have been taken to overcome them. Following the granting of intermediate area status to the industrial heart of the west midlands, the Government have demonstrated their positive commitment to help the regeneration of the region's economy. Intermediate area status will bring many opportunities for those in Walsall to respond positively to take full advantage of what this status offers. I am glad to say that the signs of this are already apparent. Long has been the plea from the west midlands for the opportunity to compete on equal terms with other parts of the country. The opportunity is now to hand and we are looking to see the west midlands generally, and Walsall in particular, strong and vigorous once again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Four o'clock am.