HC Deb 09 January 1985 vol 70 cc869-75

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Mr. Cowans

That gave me quite a shock. I forgot that it was 10 o'clock. In his letter, the Minister said of job creation functions: There is no reason why a completed new town should be treated differently to other towns. With the greatest respect, that was the very reason for setting up the development corporations in the first place. The fact that they were given job creation functions flies in the face of what the Minister said. A town may be completed in a physical sense, but the work of the development corporation on economic matters may be far from finished, especially in the areas that I have mentioned.

It is easy to consider such matters in isolation, but we cannot do that for this legislation. The job creation function is vital because unemployment is a black spot. We must remember that when considering the large amount of finance that has been taken from those areas under the Government's regional aid policy. The budget of one of the development corporations for job creation in my area is about £7 million this year. If one assumes that the other two budgets are approximately the same, we are considering a figure of about £20 million, which is coming from areas such as Washington, Newton Aycliffe and Peterlee. That could have disastrous effects. I hope that the Minister will bear those facts and figures in mind when he comes to make a decision.

The Bill is ill-conceived, it places far too many decisions solely in the hands of the Secretary of State, and it moves undemocratic bodies, such as development corporations, even further from the people, because, when they are wound up, people must go to the commission, which is miles from them. I plead with the Government, even at this late stage, to take the legislation back to the drawing board, make a serious and considered reexamination of it and return with more realistic legislation which takes less power from Members of Parliament and takes account of the existence of areas of high unemployment, although other parts of new towns are completed.

Even now I hope that if the legislation goes to another place it will be altered to be more reasonable and more constructive. I could not support it on Second Reading, and nothing that I have heard or seen since has changed my mind.

10.4 pm

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

In May 1984, the Department of the Environment issued a discussion document entitled, "Review of the Target Wind-Up Dates for New Towns Development Corporations in the North-East of England." As part of the consultation process, the Government asked local authorities to consider whether the English Industrial Estates Corporation should take over the job promotion element of the new town development corporations.

I shall use as my example Washington new town. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) will deal with Peterlee. Washington development corporation has been established for more than 20 years. During that time, the industrial promotion element has been vital to the people of the north-east, but no more vital than it is at present, when we are suffering high unemployment and a rapid loss of jobs, especially in our basic industries. Washington new town is part of the borough of Sunderland, where about one in three males is unemployed. The most tragic illustration of the problem is that 2,675 school leavers are unemployed while only 29 jobs are on offer at the careers office. If we add the number of youngsters on youth training schemes who will soon be looking for permanent jobs, we can see the magnitude of the economic problems of the north-east.

We need a job-creating agency that is not only experienced but part of the area in which the economic crisis is occurring.

It is interesting to note that the Department of the Environment agreed to meet a delegation from each of the three north-eastern new towns. The delegation included representatives of the local authorities and the development corporations, and Members of Parliament. It represented three different locations, different political parties, and different interest groups. Yet the Ministers who were present, including the Secretary of State, must have been impressed by the logic of the case presented and by the fact that there was no dissension from the main argument that the job-promoting aspect of the new towns must stay with the development corporations for at least another five years before the Government carry out another review.

To obtain such unity, all the representatives of the delegation must have been, and were, convinced that the retention of the development corporations would benefit not only the new towns but the entire region. Even the Department of the Environment paid tribute in its discussion document to the work of the corporations. Paragraph 11 states: The development corporations have achieved a considerable success at promoting industrial growth in their areas, even in adverse economic circumstances. A powerful case was made in a leader in The Times on Christmas eve for the retention of the job-creating function of the new town corporations—

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is this relevant on Third Reading?

Mr. Speaker

It is a fairly wide debate on Third Reading, and I believe that it is relevent.

Mr. Boyes

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Times stated: The corporations of the New Towns of the North East form a component of regional aid, seeking employment for and promoting Aycliffe, Washington and Peterlee. We agree that the corporations are vital components in the life of the area.

May I briefly illustrate why I believe that the job-creating function of Washington corporation should continue? When it was established in 1964, there were about 6,000 jobs in the area covered by the new town. Nearly all those jobs have now disappeared, especially with the tragic closure of Cape Insulation just before Christmas. By September 1984, 20,000 new jobs had been generated in the town. These did not only come from the immediate area. Much has been said about the capture of Nissan for Washington, but I remind hon. Members that in Washington—

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is this really in order at this stage of the Bill?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Lady must not challenge my earlier ruling.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

This is a different point.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady knows that in a Third Reading debate it is perfectly legitimate to debate what is in the Bill. I think that that is what the hon. Gentleman is doing.

Mr. Boyes

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

A number of factories have already come from other countries to Washington because their companies recognise the expertise of the workers, and much more perhaps than some other people in Britain they recognise that the north-east is a super place in which to live and work and provides a good environment in which to establish new factories. Philips has arrived from Einhoven, Danavox has come from Denmark, Littelfuse has come from Austin, Texas, Cooper Tools has come from Houston, Canadian General Electric has come from Quebec, NEK has come from Norway, Nike has come from Oregon, and Rayovac has come from Wisconsin in the United States.

Of the many new companies that have established factories in Washington, 325 have been attracted by the job-creating agency, the Washington development corporation. I am informed by the corporation that there are 166 current live inquiries. Given such an achievement amid the difficulties in the north-east, and with 166 live inquiries on the table at the moment, is this an appropriate time for the corporation to be wound up? Would not it be a tragedy if some of those 166 companies were lost because the delicate negotiations taking place broke down following an announcement that the corporation was to be wound up in a few months and another, totally different organisation — I do not criticise English Industrial Estates, but it is a different organisation—would have to start many of the delicate negotiations again?

I have appealed to the Minister a number of times to consider what the decision is doing to the staff. The staff working for the development corporations are loyal, hardworking people who cannot possibly know what is to happen to them. We have been continually told that the decision would be made in the near future. When we met in July it was expected that the decision would be made at least by October, and we always had a closing date of 31 December because that was when notices had to be given to the staff, with a closure date of 31 December 1985.

We have not yet had an announcement, and I can tell the Minister that morale amongst the staff of the new town development corporations is decreasing all the time. The absence of an announcement is having a catastrophic and depressing effect. The people there are working and existing on rumours. As might be expected at such a time, a number of rumours about the future are flying round the corporations, but no one will give an exact date on which an announcement will be made.

At present, a Standing Committee is considering a Bill proposing the abolition, among others, of the Tyne and Wear county council. I can assure the Minister that that council's employees are taking careful note of the way that the staff of the new town corporations are being treated.

I have two simple questions to put to the Minister. I should like to know what is causing the hold-up. I hope that it is not just a matter of saving a few pounds because one organisation is a bit cheaper than another. People's lives and jobs cannot be measured in those terms. It may be a few pounds cheaper to run English Industrial Estates compared with the development corporation, but the long-term effects must be considered.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Fletcher), who is described in a Scottish Office press release as Scotland's industry Minister, said: It remains the Government's view that the new towns should continue to maintain their important contribution to industrial growth and increased employment opportunities and that none of the development corporations should be wound up before the end of the 1980s. I am pleased that he said that about the development corporations in Scotland, but I wish that the Minister would make the same announcement about the development corporations in the north-east of England.

10.15 pm
Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

I shall be brief indeed in dealing with three points which arise from the Bill. The Under-Secretary of State is probably aware that I have spoken in every debate on the new towns since I came into the House. Therefore, he knows my views well and I shall not repeat them.

My first point arises from a genuine desire for knowledge. What is to be done about possible direct payment to owner-occupiers in new towns—this is dealt with in the Bill — where faults have been found in properties after purchase and after what can be called a reasonable survey of the property? I mentioned that on Second Reading and the Minister has written to me with his usual thoroughness. He sent me a two-page letter but, in all fairness, I must tell him that I have been studying it for most of the day and I cannot understand it. That is untypical of the Minister.

I thought that I had better raise the matter again today. Perhaps the Minister will write me another two-page letter, or possibly even a three-page letter. I say that in all seriousness, because there are people in the new town in my constituency who feel sufficiently strongly to form an organisation. I am trying to help and advise those people. Frankly, I have not had a satisfactory answer. My hon. Friends raised the matter in Committee and the Minister for Housing and Construction did give a reply, but I must say, in all fairness and seriousness, that I was not satisfied with that. I was not a member of the Committee, as the Minister is aware.

There is a lot of feeling about that matter in the new towns, because many people are affected. Will the Government consider issuing a circular to local authorities spelling out clearly the position. If that is done, perhaps he will send me a copy.

Another important matter was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Cowans). He referred to the possibility of land being retained or sold where it is intended to have a hospital. I have exactly that position in my constituency. I have been endeavouring for well over a decade to have a community hospital provided for Peterlee. Last week the Durham health authority issued its strategic plan for the decade 1985 to 1995, and I find that there is a possibility of that happening towards the end of the decade. My goodness, that is another 10 years. Therefore, we are talking about 20 or 25 years. However, that is not my main point.

I should like an assurance from Ministers tonight that there will be no pressure from the Government on Peterlee development corporation to dispose of the land which it has held, much to its credit, because it knows the overwhelming need for a hospital for the area, not just for the new town. I may be doing the Government an injustice, but I should like an assurance that there will be no pressure from them on Peterlee development corporation, or any other corporation, as a matter of principle, to dispose of land. That is a matter for local people and local authorities.

Finally, I underline everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) has just said. I have said it many times, but I shall say it again, because there is a new factor. There is an absolute need to retain the development corporations in the north-east—that includes the one in Peterlee—because of their work as job-finding agencies. The record speaks for itself. It is known, and I need not repeat it.

I have said that there is a new factor, and that is that there are 12,000 miners working in my constituency, and the Government are proposing to close pits. That will lead the utter devastation of the mining communities about which Opposition Members and the NUM have been talking. In my constituency, the only other job-finding agency is the Peterlee development corporation.

It is foolish in the extreme— I have used stronger words before in the House — for the Government to consider, particularly now, abolishing the corporation on the last day of this year. The record has been proved over and over again and is a repetition of what is happening in Washington and Aycliffe. I know the staff of the development corporation well. They are dedicated people. Men and women in their 30s and 40s, and at a critical time in their careers, are wondering what on earth will happen to them.

We are talking about perhaps another five years. The unemployment problem in the north-east will not be solved in another five years, so we are making a very restrained and moderate appeal. About two months ago the Under-Secretary of State first promised me a decision. It is also on the record in Hansard that a second promise was made that a decision would be reached before the Christmas recess. As has been said, the Minister then rather rushed it, and I think that I have his assurance on that point. But the decision has been put back again. That puts us in something of a dilemma. As Ministers have taken so long, they are becoming wiser all the time. I put it to them that it is such an important matter that they should take another five years to consider it, and then perhaps we can have a decision.

In present circumstances—I have to put it bluntly, although I have been trying to be neutral—abolition would be pure doctrinaire Toryism. I know that the two Ministers involved are far too intelligent and sensible to do that.

10.22 pm
Sir George Young

The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Cowans) urged the Government at this late stage to think again. But, with respect, he produced no compelling new arguments to persuade the Government to alter their view. I should point out that the House gave the Bill a Second Reading with a majority of 135, and at that stage we made our views quite plain and said why we felt that it was the right Bill for the new towns. Nothing has happened to alter that perception.

However, I shall deal briefly with the point that has been raised about the new towns in the north-east. The hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) said that I promised to do something. Ministers give promises very reluctantly, and I see from Hansard that I said: I hope to announce a decision before the House rises for the Christmas recess." — [Official Report, 20 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 234.] I regret that it was not possible to fulfil that hope.

It has been alleged that our consultations last year were a formality to rubber stamp our views. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Easington said that we had a doctrinaire approach. But I think that Opposition Members will agree that we have not been doctrinaire. Clearly, the decision is difficult, but we want to take it as soon as possible. However, it is worth waiting a little in order to get the right decision.

It is worth pointing out that the Labour Government proposed to wind up Washington development corporation on 31 December 1982. That puts into perspective some of the criticisms about our action in not renewing it from 1985. Nevertheless, I realise the impact on morale as well as the good work that has been done. We are quite clear that a firm decision is required. We must either confirm the target date as 31 December 1985 or replace it with a later date which is not subject to review. The corporation and its staff have been hanging in the balance for long enough. We must not prolong that period. But proper consideration of the issues and the alternatives available has taken longer than any Ministers in the Department would wish. We shall issue a decision on the future of these towns as soon as we have reached the right conclusion. I give the House that assurance. In the meantime I can only ask hon. Members who have spoken to be patient and we shall come back to the House the moment we have some news.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.