HC Deb 29 July 1988 vol 138 cc790-8

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

9.36 am
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise the environmental and economic needs of south Yorkshire. It would be inappropriate to go into recess without the House having some idea of the grave problems and difficulties that my constituency and neighbouring constituencies face.

The matters that I seek to raise fall within the responsibility of three Government Departments. I suggested that it would be appropriate for three Ministers to be present this morning. The enormity of our difficulties would have justified their presence. Perhaps it would have been unrealistic to expect three Ministers to be here, but I am relieved that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), is here. I intend to refer to a matter that I raised last week at Question Time and to the answer that he gave, which appeared to suggest that the door may not be firmly locked. That door needs to be opened rather wide and rather quickly.

The debate is about the economic and environmental problems of south Yorkshire. I shall deal with the problems in my own constituency, which is in the centre of the former metropolitan county. Barnsley is to the west, Doncaster is to the east and my constituency is largely to the north and east of Rotherham. Sheffield is to the south. I understand that Sheffield's case was presented yesterday at considerable length, so I shall not stray too far in that direction.

The northern part of my constituency includes part of the Dearne valley. It is a geographical area that, as its parliamentary representatives, I share with my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett) and for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond), who support the case that I shall be presenting today. I am grateful for their support and encouragement.

I welcome the debate. The scale of the problem and the intensity of the need that we face requires parliamentary attention and high ministerial priority. My constituency and several parts of south Yorkshire suffer from some of the worst unemployment problems that are to be found in England. I understand that of all the travel-to-work areas, the Rotherham and Mexborough travel-to-work area's unemployment ranks about seventh. Our unemployment levels are dreadful.

I do not propose to refer to precise figures because an obsession with detail may cloud the issue. There is also the suspicion that the official statistics are somewhat less than accurate. I believe that in areas of high unemployment. the numbers that are excluded from the official figures are much higher than average.

One third of the unemployed in my constituency and in neighbouring areas are young people and 40 per cent. of the unemployed in the unemployment black spots in south Yorkshire have been out of work for over a year and, in many cases, for over three years. There are about 30 or 40 unemployed for each vacancy in most of the south Yorkshire area.

I suggested not long ago that the unemployment figures, grave as they are, do not represent fully the reality. It might be highly desirable to look not at the statistics for those who are unemployed, but at the statistics for those who are economically active, who are in full-time employment. Such statistics show that the position in south Yorkshire is grave. Unfortunately, the employment statistics are not available, apart from the 1981 census, which presents in detail the proportion of the population in full-time work. However, in south Yorkshire we have suffered many grave economic blows since 1981 and that census is not relevant to the present position. I should hate to have to wait until 1991 and then find that we have not made the progress that is so desperately needed.

The situation is deteriorating. The Minister may tell the House that, as a result of local and public and private initiatives, a number of jobs have been created. Indeed they have. Several part-time jobs and low-paid full-time jobs have been created, reducing the net disposable income of south Yorkshire because those part-time jobs are counted as having replaced full-time jobs in better-paid and traditional industry.

There has been a dreadful deterioration in my constituency this year. I have lost two collieries and the Canning Town glass works so far this year. That represents over 1,000 jobs. On several occasions in the House I have told the deplorable story of the closure of Canning Town Glass—a story of deceit which shows the integrity of British commerce in a poor light. Canning Town Glass was closed despite my constituents and me having been given firm assurances and although the local authority was persuaded properly and lawfully to make grants from the rate fund towards the maintenance of those works. Yet 500 jobs went. At the same time, Manvers colliery and shortly afterwards Kilnhurst colliery were closed. Those are not the only two collieries that have gone in south Yorkshire. Two or three months ago, in Prime Minister's Question Time, I recited a list of colliery closures in recent years.

I now have one colliery in my constituency, Silverwood, a successful colliery with a long and profitable record. It demonstrates what wise investment and good leadership can achieve. Although the prospects for that colliery, which has substantial reserves, should be satisfactory, the demoralisation in the industry leads some people to suspect that it may be in danger. Recently I looked at the plans for the colliery. I do not share that anxiety, although if the plans to develop ports on the Humber come to fruition successful and potentially profitable collieries are likely to be in peril.

That anxiety follows the rapid contraction of the coal industry in the central part of south Yorkshire and the Dearne valley. That valley was once green. As I have said before in the House, if one looks at the early ordnance survey maps published in the middle of the 19th century, one can detect the attractive quality of that valley, with osier beds, duck decoys and a fish population that included an abundance of salmon and trout. Although there have been modest attempts to improve the river Dearne, like the Rother and the Don, it is still more like an open sewer than a satisfactory water course. I am concerned about that because in the early 1970s, when I first became a Member of the House and campaigned to secure a much higher priority for the rivers of south Yorkshire, I was assured that I could expect them to be brought up to recreational standard by the mid-1980s. Last year I was told that they might reach that standard by the year 2000, so we seem to have made remarkably little progress.

As I live within my constituency, in the middle of south Yorkshire, and as I was a local representative in the Dearne valley area before I became a Member of Parliament, I have long been convinced of the fact that we need to ensure that our environment is properly protected and improved. I now believe it to be an urgent necessity. If we do not improve our environment, we shall not attract the incoming investment that is now an absolute necessity. For that reason, I was pleased when the planning department of Rotherham borough council, which is extremely competent, as the Minister may know, produced its concept for the improvement of derelict land in our part of the Dearne valley. The Minister has seen that plan and I believe it to be not merely desirable but absolutely essential.

As the Minister knows, there are 675 acres of land associated with Manvers and Wath collieries that are now derelict. Under the present rules governing the application of derelict land grant, there is no prospect whatever of one square inch of that land being improved. The land adjoins a substantial acreage occupied by the former railway marshalling yards close to Brampton Bierlow but within Wath-upon-Dearne. The area borders the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett). It was a hive of activity when the coalfield was centred more towards the east. On several occasions during the war, the German English-language broadcasts promised to obliterate the Wath hump, as it was popularly called. It is now a wasteland.

Under the derelict land grant rules, it seems that the area would be unlikely to qualify for grant, although I was relieved to learn in a letter from the Prime Minister the other day—I shall refer to that correspondence—that the recent application from Rotherham borough council for derelict land grant to treat the Wath marshalling yards has not been absolutely rejected. Under the derelict land grant, I had thought that there was a possibility that the application would be approved because the council could demonstrate that some of the land at least would be subject to hard use after the dereliction had been cleared.

I understand that the Minister may tell the House that the Government have helped Rotherham by supporting the Temple borough project in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther). I wholeheartedly support it because it will clear up some of the appalling dereliction between Sheffield and Rotherham. Once, 25,000 or 30,000 men worked in the steelworks area between Sheffield and Rotherham. Now there may be more estate agents' notices than jobs. It is an area which provided the sinews of material during the first and second world wars. We could certainly not have won those wars—if anyone can win a war—if we had not had the output from those plants. It is necessary for the project, of which the Minister is well aware, to go ahead, but it would not be helpful, for it to go ahead and other projects of equal necessity to be delayed.

People who read my speech may think that I am asking for a great deal, but I believe that we are one nation. That may not be a fashionable concept and Conservative Members may not endorse it entirely, but the country has a profound obligation to these areas.

I recall in the 1960s, when I was a young councillor, the chairman of my party in Wath-upon-Dearne and a schoolmaster, being extremely angry that the girls whom I taught and whom I represented had to travel by coach to work in the woollen mills in Bradford and Halifax. Girls who left school had to get up at 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning and would not get home until 8 or 9 o'clock at night. That was the only work available because there was a substantial lack of jobs for women in those days.

The local authority made efforts to stimulate and diversify the economy, but not enough was achieved, although we made some contribution. We were up against an almost structured disadvantage in that from the 1950s to the early 1970s the national strategy was that areas such as mine should not be encouraged to engage in economic diversification because the coal industry was far too important. The National Coal Board, as it was then known, built several housing estates in south Yorkshire to accommodate miners from other areas in order to guarantee south Yorkshire's coal output. We were up against objections and difficulties in seeking to ensure that we had rather more eggs in our economic basket, and we were prevented from doing so.

Then in the 1970s, when some of us were worried about the age of some of our collieries and saw how, as a result of investment, technological advance was demonstrably successful in the steel industry, although jobs were beginning to go, we pressed the case for greater economic assistance to stimulate the economy. We were told that the Department of Trade and Industry was absolutely confident that Yorkshire could generate its own prosperity from within, that we did not share the same economic difficulties as other parts, and that internal generation of wealth would meet the regional need. That was certainly not the case. With about 100,000 people unemployed on the Governments figures, the need is demonstrable.

Earlier I referred to correspondence with the Prime Minister. About four years ago I sent her a carefully considered assessment of the plight of my area. She dismissed it rather lightly and suggested that I should see about 2,800 new jobs in the mining industry. Far more jobs have gone in the period since that correspondence and we have had other blows and difficulties. About four months ago I again wrote to the Prime Minister urging her to pursue a multi-departmental study of the Dearne valley and the surrounding areas. Her letter in reply was somewhat careless—that may be a gentle word to use— and said that unemployment was falling. She was using the March rather than the April figures which was just before we lost jobs in the Canning Town Glass plant. She said that we were enjoying special priority under the urban programme. That was quickly checked and we discovered that we were not. I hope that the Minister is not unduly bored because he is aware of my point.

On balance, the three metropolitan districts of Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham are receiving about £6 a head in the current year under the urban programme, whereas other areas with less than half our unemployment are receiving urban programme funding twice or three times as much. If that is special priority, I would rather not have it. I do not mean that I would rather not have the fund—[Laughter.] The Minister must not misinterpret my comment. I would rather not have special priority if it will give us only a third as much as areas with a third or half our unemployment.

The Minister should also bear in mind that the value of our urban programme has been affected by inftation, Since inflation may be rising, albeit not vastly at this stage, the urban programme may not be as good as it should be. I was rather relieved last Wednesday when, in answer to my question, and without bidding, the Minister provided additional funding for a housing scheme in the Rawmarsh area of my constituency. If I have to ask a question a week to elicit that sort of response, I shall be happy to do so.

I am concerned about the need to enhance our environment because we shall not see economic recovery without that. My local authority, Rotherham, has not taken an absolutely hostile view to opencast mining. Several projects in Yorkshire are proceeding and some, such as the Rother valley country park, can make a useful contribution in the end. I am worried that the environmental problems are severe. We should not allow any opencast mining, whether for the benefit of British Coal or for the Government to pursue their reckless way of private profit, if it brings serious disturbance and environmental difficulties for my area.

To the north of the Wath-upon-Dearne-Rawmarsh-Swinton area we have the Dearne valley, with 1,000 acres of derelict land. If immediately to the south of Wath and Swinton and close by Rawmarsh we see the Warren House opencast site development, we would be placed between the upper and nether millstones of ugliness and squalor which would bring the population into a state of fury which I would certainly share. I hope that Conservative Members who are often concerned about the environment in the south-east—I sought to speak in a debate about housing development in the south-east merely to point out the environmental needs in other areas—will have some sympathy with the view that we should not be surrounded by dereliction from 19th century industry on one side and ill-considered insensitive development of opencast mining on the other.

In recent weeks my attention has been drawn to the case for a long-term study about the health effects of opencast mining. The other day I noticed an article in the New Statesman and correspondence in The Times which suggested that that study should begin without further delay.

Other urgent needs, which relate to environmental requirements, concern the infrastructure, and transport in particular. I know that the Minister is in the Department of the Environment, but I hope that the Department of Transport has provided him with some briefings on my next point. A new Al-Ml motorway link is needed to give the northern half of south Yorkshire a chance of achieving economic growth, development and, perhaps, eventual prosperity. I believe that it is not high enough in the programme and it does not command sufficient priority from central Government. However, I consider that that development is a necessity. I qualify that by saying that, if and when the road is built, it must be built in such a way that existing or potential railway lines are not rendered valueless by a failure to provide an adequate number of bridges. There is at least one potential railway line that would justify building a bridge where the road goes over the course of the proposed railway. We must maintain adequate rail and road networks. I hope that the Department of Transport will consider that point in due course and give it much higher priority.

The case for Sheffield was made at length in the House last night, so I shall not deal with that. However, the four local authorities in south Yorkshire—Barnsley, Rotherham, Sheffield and Doncaster metropolitan authorities—have together produced a document that I should like to draw to the Minister's attention, although it would not be appropriate to read out great chunks of it today. I hope that the Department of the Environment and any other relevant Departments are aware of the document, which was produced by the planning departments of the four local authorities and is entitled "Unitary Development Plans in South Yorkshire: Advice on Strategic Guidance from the the South Yorkshire Planning Conference". We have identified the needs of the area, which are acute, grave and vast.

I believe that we have at least begun to convince Ministers of the appalling conditions that face the area as a result of the movement of the coal industry to the east and the technological change—despite record-breaking achievement—within the steel industry. Our economy needs to be diversified if our environment is to be enormously improved. That improvement must be on a generous scale and it must be pursued with enthusiasm and without further delay.

10.3 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier)

I am delighted to respond to the matters raised by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), and I congratulate him sincerely on obtaining the opportunity to air again his concern about the economic and environmental problems suffered in south Yorkshire, particularly by his constituents and others living in the Dearne valley. I know that he is an able advocate for those whom he represents.

The hon Gentleman's concern is shared by the Government. We are, and shall remain, fully committed to helping local communities tackle the problems of unmployment and environmental deprivation by maximis-ing whatever mechanisms are available—not only through measures targeted specifically at the area, but through policies being pursued generally throughout the United Kingdom, some of which I now intend to cover in more detail.

Before I move on to that detail, I must say that it occurred to me while the hon. Gentleman was speaking that it might be appropriate for me to pay yet another official visit to Rotherham or the nearby area, perhaps later in the year—if the hon. Gentleman would like that. Such a visit could be helpful for both of us and perhaps for the local authority. I visited the area about two months ago, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It is no great hardship for me because the journey only takes me an hour and a half from my home. I am a Lancastrian, but that does not seem to bother south Yorkshire people, and from my point of view I would see such a visit as missionary work.

Mr. Hardy

It was remiss of me not to have conveyed an invitation in my speech. I intended to do so and to ask the Minister to visit the site where we should like to see the garden festival held in the 1990s. My only reason for hesitating is that most of the Ministers in the Department of the Environment who have been up to see us seem to have lost their jobs shortly afterwards and I would not want that fate to befall this Minister.

Mr. Trippier

I have visited the area before and I am still in the same job after the recent reshuffle. I shall be delighted to respond to the invitation. Such a visit is no hardship to me and I should like the hon. Gentleman to be there as well as representatives of the local authorities.

The level of derelict land grant assistance is, I know, a subject that much concerns the hon. Gentleman and which I know more than a little about. At Question Time recently, I undertook to look again at the criteria which govern the derelict land grant regime.

I fully appreciate, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that there will be cases where hard end use schemes are, for one reason or another, not appropriate to particular locations such as areas of colliery dereliction and areas where greening is considered essential to create the quality of environment to attract investment in development. I thought that what the hon. Gentleman said on that was right. I told the hon. Gentleman at Question Time that once I have the results of the derelict land survey which will come out after I visit his constituency, if it is appropriately timed I shall be in a much better position to undertake the review of the derelict land grant guidelines.

The local authorities are, as the hon. Gentleman knows, responsible for the collation of the derelict land information which, for the Yorkshire and Humberside authorities, is due back to my regional office in Leeds by 31 October 1988. It would therefore help if the hon. Gentleman could ensure that for the Dearne valley authorities, with whom he has close contact, these important survey returns are not delayed unnecessarily. The sooner I have the facts about the current state of dereliction the sooner my officials and I can begin to analyse them and consider whatever policy changes may be necessary.

The Yorkshire and Humberside region has received an initial public sector derelict land grant allocation of £7.2 million for 1988–89. Of this, almost £4 million has already been earmarked for the four south Yorkshire authorities. Rotherham alone has been granted rolling programme status for the Templeborough regeneration project, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and £2 million has been earmarked for this year and again for next. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the area is receiving a very considerable level of financial assistance through DLG although, no doubt, he will press me for more when I visit him. I should also add that invitations to local authority chief executives to make their bids for DLG resources for 1988–90 schemes will go out shortly. I suggest that those bid documents might be a useful vehicle for putting the fullest possible case of increased DLG assistance.

There will, however, always be a limit on the amount of DLG resources. The hon. Gentleman would expect me to say that. He would say the same if he were standing here. It is important that other means of funding the reclamation of despoiled land should be fully explored. The private sector can help and is willing to help, often in partnership with central and local government. A number of major private sector schemes have had financial assistance from my Department, such as the Parkgate retail centre in Rotherham, and I recently announced a private sector derelict land grant of almost £3 million for the Meadowhall retail complex in Sheffield, with which the hon. Gentleman is familiar. The Government have, moreover, recently simplified the grant assistance available to the private sector in the 57 programme authority areas.

It is important that I should stress that the reply given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the hon. Gentleman made the point that, of some 450 local authorities, only 57 attract the additional form of resource through the Department of the Environment's urban block. That was the special assistance that was made available to those areas—which is denied to the other areas. Four south Yorkshire local authorities are among the 57 authorities. Their inclusion must be justifiable otherwise they would not have been shortlisted in the first place.

City grant was introduced on 2 May this year and my officials are already dealing with several applications from south Yorkshire. This is a golden opportunity for me to suggest that the hon. Gentleman might try to act as a catalyst to attract interest from the private sector, with the support of the local authority, for city grant applications. Such an application would have to meet certain criteria, but I would consider it as favourably as possible. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have already approved a number of schemes for urban regeneration grant and city grant.

With regard to the urban programme, in 1987–88 the three authorities straddling the Dearne received £5.5 million, plus an end-of-year windfall of £210,000. Their initial allocation in 1988–89 is again £5.5 million. It is, of course, for the local authorities to decide where they wish to target those resources. The hon. Gentleman will be most concerned about his own constituency, which lies within the Dearne valley, and I leave it to him to press the authorities there.

Doncaster, in particular, has decided to focus on the Dearne, especially the towns of Mexborough and Conisbrough. These received considerable help last year and there are more good schemes in the pipeline which should greatly benefit the local economy. For example, in 1987–88, £200,000 was allocated to create a tourist centre at Conisbrough's impressive 12th century castle. Work there is now well under way and is complemented by English Heritage funding and a massive tree planting scheme undertaken by the Countryside Commission at the former Cadeby colliery.

This year, I approved more than £300,000 for the first stage of the conversion of the former Mexborough grammar school to workshop and business units. It is expected that this scheme will create some 250 jobs and help the local entrepreneurial talent to stimulate the economy. A recent small grant to a local business man under the urban programme is expected to create another 50 jobs in Mexborough as the former Royal Electric theatre is converted into a restaurant and leisure centre.

I am endeavouring to explain that the environment has not been neglected. Mexborough town centre will benefit greatly from a £250,000 pedestrianisation scheme. The urban programme also supports two members of staff co-ordinating British Trust for Conservation Volunteers initiatives in Mexborough and Conisbrough. This not only improves the local environment but offers useful training and experience to young people in the area.

Support for projects in Rotherham's part of the Dearne valley has been going on for some time as well, both under the urban programme and before, when Rotherham was classified as an ODD, or other designated district. Very substantial amounts of money have been put into large economic schemes. For example, £1 million went into the Swinton bridge at the edge of the Dearne which, with derelict land grant, opened up industrial land and safeguarded hundreds of jobs at Morphy Richards as well as allowing valuable new developments. Again., at Brampton Ellis, over the past. two years well over £500,000 has gone into converting a former school into some 68 small and medium-sized units for new and expanding businesses which offer the hope of real jobs for hundreds of people in the area.

In Barnsley, the story is much the same, with particular emphasis being placed on the environmental schemes and with more than £200,000 in the past two years going into the Dearne valley park—a major project which has also received funding in previous years. The latest stage involves the landscaping of a former maggot farm, and applications for further schemes are still arriving in our regional office in Leeds.

I repeat that we can approve schemes within the Dearne only if they are submitted to us. It is up to local authorities to prioritise, but it is as well not to be too parochial as the Dearne will also gain from the the new initiatives in nearby Sheffield. The urban programme funded science park and new employment park, the improvements which will follow rapidly now that the urban development corporation has been established in the lower Don valley and private sector projects such as the one at Meadowhall will all improve the economy of the whole of south Yorkshire. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that there will be a knock-on effect. Especially heartening for me are the two major developments at either end of the lower Don valley, the urban development corporation giving the area a head start in the type of urban regeneration that we wish to see, with the physical transformation of the landscape and the reduction of the unacceptably high unemployment in the area. I genuinely hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituency will benefit as a result.

Although the hon. Gentleman asked for higher ministerial priorities, I have attempted to show that the area already receives high priority. As a result of the important oral answer that I gave last week and my offer to revisit the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I am endeavouring to meet his request.

Forward to