HL Deb 27 November 1968 vol 297 cc1207-20

2.50 p.m.

LORD RHODES rose to call attention to the Report of the North West Economic Planning Council, Strategy II—The North West of the 1970s; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper I should like to thank those responsible for allowing it to happen. This is my first speech from the Cross-Benches and I humbly hope that it will prove more successful than a previous first speech that I made in the market place at Ashton under Lyne. There I was holding forth, when a tramcar went round the square and I could not hear myself speak. I had no more sense than to shout out, "I can't hear myself speak", and a wag at the back of the crowd said, "Well, tha' art missing nothing!" I hope that during the time at my disposal I shall not speak with the same result.

My Lords, we are discussing Strategy II—The North West of the 1970s, a publication issued by the North West Economic Planning Council. It is a very good and a very human document which is well reasoned out and presented in under- standable form. It is about an area that embraces Lancashire, Cheshire and part of Derbyshire. Geographically it occupies one twenty-fifth of the British Isles. It has the largest population of all the Regions except London and the South East; that is to say, a population of nearly 7 million people. These hardworking people produce one-fifth of the total exports of the British Isles. It is a considerable area, of considerable importance. Despite what may be in people's minds about Government expenditure, the need to cut back and the rest of it, I put it to your Lordships this afternoon that the consideration of an area like this and the economic implications that go with it are very important, not only for this decade but for the next generation.

This area produces a larger tonnage of exports than any other Region in the British Isles and one which, by value, is exceeded only by London and the South East Region. I put it to the House that it is to this area, coupled with the Yorkshire conurbation and that massive stretch of industrialisation which stretches up to the Tees, that in the 1970s this country will be looking for the expansion to pay for the imports and for the services that everybody in the country desires. Parts of this Region form what are known as development areas—Merseyside and the Furness. The difficulties and the contrasts that exist between development areas and those contiguous to them are well known to your Lordships, but I would mention briefly the situation in towns like Wigan, which are near development areas. A considerable proportion of the population there have to travel, and those towns have a unique kind of unemployment figure because they are dependent on employment in other parts of the county. The North West has been successful; but because development status has been linked only with unemployment, we in the North West, despite our great need, have not received the vast benefits that the status of a development area confers—with the exception, as I said, of Merseyside and Barrow; but they represent only 20 per cent. of our Region.

I make no complaint about Government. I am not standing here to criticise this Government or any other. All I want to do is to state a plain case for this area. It is a relatively prosperous area, despite the enormous run-down of the cotton and coal industries. Unemployment has been well contained because of the self-help that has been put into the area by those who dedicated their lives to its well-being and success. Our unemployment figures have never been above the national average. When you compare this with the heavy unemployment figures in regions like the North East, Scotland and Wales, where there has been no greater run-down of industry than in the North West, your Lordships will be able to think out for yourselves the amount of self-help which has gone into this Region.

The dedicated work has been going on over a long number of years by organisations like the Lancashire and Merseyside Industrial Development Association and people who have been dedicated to the job of bringing in new industries and trying to improve the environment, such as the Lancashire County Council; and now we have the North West Economic Planning Council whose Report we are considering. This self-help covers an enormous amount of ground. Scouts have been sent out to bring new industry into empty mills. These mills were deserted because of the run-down in the cotton industry and many hundreds of them have been closed in recent years. In many ways they are a handicap, because it means that we are bringing in industry to old buildings which were designed for another purpose, and very few new buildings are going up. My Lords, if the unemployment figures are the criterion for the establishment of development areas, some of us contend that they can be a wrong basis. In my opinion it is time that there was a review of what constitutes the criterion for unemployment. I am of the opinion that a large proportion of those on the unemployment register cannot work and never will work. They should be placed on another register altogether of a more humane character. The sooner that is done the better. Then the unemployment situation may be dealt with in realistic terms.

My Lords, this area has 10,000 acres of derelict land arising from the history of the shock tactics of the Victorian age. I am offering no criticism; it could have happened anywhere to anybody; but, my Lords, you will see that these people were pulled together as by a magnet at that time, in order that the money could be made. Communities were created round the mills. In those days no legislation existed for the control of the amenities and the environment which is so important to our life blood. People were allowed to pour into the rivers the effluents which have been so damaging to health over the years. We are still only beginning to understand this problem. It is surely a salutary thought that while the country spends £1,000 million on research—most of it on defence and that kind of thing—we are not yet able to cope with the effluent coming from the paper mills which are such a blot on the urban landscape of Lancashire. It would be better for the money to be applied to some useful enterprise, instead of allowing these conditions to continue, with the disfigurement they entail. Modern industry does not come to an area unless the ground is prepared and the services are in it. When I talk about infrastructure (and I use this term for want of a better one), I am also talking about its attendant ills.

I come now to the question of smoke. We are behind in our programme for a cleaner atmosphere. Every noble Lord who was present at the debate initiated some weeks ago knows about this problem from A to Z and I need not go into details. Suffice it to say that the North West area is behind other regions in dealing with this matter and it is time that it was dealt with. I would ask the Minister whether he will pass on to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Security our appeal for more mandatory action so that this matter can be dealt with. I am sure that any observant person who goes to Manchester or to any of its satellite towns or surrounding villages knows full well what this smoke problem is like.

In this century we cannot afford these handicaps. It might have been possible to afford them at the time when we had an Empire, but to-day we cannot afford slums, industrial or otherwise. Unless every single bit of effort, of keenness and of enthusiasm is released in our people, we cannot hope to succeed, whether we are in the Common Market or not. And if one-fifth of the total exports of this country come from the North West, think what the North West could do if it was released from all the handicaps that are holding the people back. A modest application of funds could do the job. There is no doubt that this region has received less than 20 per cent. of the average for the regions throughout the whole country. It reminds me of the little boy who came home for his Sunday dinner and said to his mother, "Why is our John having more meat nor me?" His mother replied, "Eh, lad, our John is a bigger lad than thee." So the little chap looked at his mother and said, "And he always will be bigger nor me if he has more meat."

A word on communications, which are vital if we are going to do anything to open up this area. Has anybody noticed the revolution that has come over our railway system in the last few years? My goodness! we used to hear people groaning and moaning about the British railways. People used to grumble at the five-hour journey it used to take to go from Euston to Manchester in the old days. Now they are saying, "Oh, but these trains are going too fast." But if we do not hear praise from our own people, we hear nothing but praise from the Americans, who sit with stopwatches out, saying, "Isn't this comfortable. Better trains than ever we had." And they ask, "Why can't we do this?" The same applies to Continentals, who are also appreciative. We now have electrified lines from London to Birmingham and from Manchester to London, but a question which is exercising the minds of those in the North West who are thinking about the beneficial effects of the transport system throughout the area is: Why not continue the electrification to Glasgow? Then we shall have something which is a communication system of a really grand order.

On the question of roads, we know that there is need for the A.59 to Liverpool, a road linking Aintree to the M.6, linkage of the new towns like Skelmersdale to the M.6, and a new road in North Lancashire linking Burnley, Colne and other towns with West Yorkshire. But it is on the M.62 that I want to say a word. This is the most graphic and dramatic enterprise that any roadmakers in this country have ever attempted. If one goes on that road and stands on the magnificent viaduct at Drake Wood and sees the potential of what is happening in the way of communications with Yorkshire, thickly populated and highly industrialised, one can understand that it is going to revolutionise the whole economic situation in the North West. But there is one worrying facet. Here we are spending millions of pounds on a road which is going to link one conurbation with another, a wonderful job which is going to make history, yet we are withholding the starting date for the South West link of the motorway from Manchester to Liverpool. All the details are fixed. Everything is arranged. Please, could we have a starting date for that road? Then we shall have rapid transport right to Liverpool.

We are spending millions and millions of pounds on roads of this sort, which are desperately and urgently needed, but may I ask what we are doing about the human element in this? If somebody could be moved emotionally by the prospect of a road of this sort, surely we could get a better understanding with the people who are concerned with the effects of this road. I am told—I do not know whether it is true or not—that Liverpool is losing its freight container traffic. Yet when the M.6 was debated in this House—I have looked up the Reports of the debates in this House and in another place—it was said that this road would benefit Liverpool by the container traffic that would be going there. If a graphic and dramatic effort like this could be linked with the understanding of the people who are concerned with the handling of the goods at the other end, then it could be something which would go a long way towards relieving a situation which sometimes looks as though it is chronic.

Just a word on housing. Do your Lordships know that in the North West we have one quarter of the slums of the British Isles? We cannot help it. We have grown up with it, principally in Liverpool, Salford and Manchester. Anybody who travels the hundreds of miles that I do through Lancashire at the present time cannot fail to be moved. You cannot pull down old property and move people around like chattels. Wherever the community has existed, whether it has been poor or not, if you move it you need vast sums of money for the provision of amenities. If you neglect this, you do so at your peril. Whatever you do in the way of providing clinical surroundings, you cannot altogether replace the real community life that these people had before.

By simply putting people in better premises you do not provide the friendliness of the street where they were born—the ability to borrow a pinch of salt or a quarter pound of sugar, or to leave Johnnie for half-an-hour with your next-door neighbour. Any parson or social worker knows this. That is why the situation demands extra attention on the part of the Government, to support those authorities who are trying to improve these things. This is not merely a matter of bulldozing down houses; something human is desperately needed. We need 740,000 houses in the North West before 1981. In the years 1964 to 1967 190,000 houses were built. But what a long way we have to go! How can we catch up without massive assistance? I do not think we can. There is a great need here, and I ask for special areas in the North West to be treated as development areas.

I have not time to deal with the implication of the New Town—I will leave that to others—but I want to say a word or two about the waste of money that can go on in connection with house rehabilitation. I remember that when I first put up for Ashton under Lyne there was a small town adjacent where before the war it had been advertised in national newspapers that labour was available at rates of pay little more than the dole. The housing was dreadful. I well remember, in my ignorance, standing in a street of that little town, and I started blathering about having to go all round the houses to the toilets at the back. A woman came to the door of the house and looked at me and said: "Eh, lad, give over. You don't think we should be living here if we could go somewhere else. It will take thee and tha' Party a long time to get what we all want." Well, I packed up my traps and went, and I never spoke again in that particular context.

The White Paper which was published, Houses Into New Homes, has a special application in the North West. There is an acute housing need there and a great stock of sound but decaying houses which could be restored. The whole area could be rehabilitated to contemporary standards at a fraction of the cost of building new houses. Yet we are bulldozing a lot of those old houses down simply because we have made a kind of dogmatic plan. I know that the proposed improvement grants should assist local authorities; and they are keen to undertake area improvement without recourse to compulsory powers and to encourage owners of property to improve their houses. I ask that the Government should contribute three-quarters of the cost to rehabilitate houses between 30 and 60 years old (I will leave it at that), because in that group there is a massive number that could be repaired at small cost.

I would say, in conclusion, that there is no need for this country to dream of fancy schemes for increasing exports in the 'seventies when it has right under its nose the possibility of increasing its economic wealth by improving an area like the North West. We have the biggest potential in the North West to effect these increases. Any Government who fail to accelerate the renewal of environment areas like the North West will be guilty of dereliction of duty not only co this decade but to the next. These are massive tasks: revolution in change of job; revolution in change of houses; counteraction to run things down a little; coping with a derelict environment—all conspiring to make matters more difficult and more costly for an old-established area containing all these problems. I contend that the country cannot afford to let this area, with such vast potential, just wait for things to evolve at the present speed.

To sum up, I would say this. TO deal with the need for massive restoration of derelict environment we need an 85 per cent. grant. We have 12 per cent. of the population, and we get only 10 per cent. of the money spent. Because of the amount that has been put into self-help, we have done badly out of Government expenditure and have received 20 per cent. less than other regions. We need to improve our environment, and we need the same financial benefits as development areas receive. We lay great stress on transport opening up the area, and to this end we want a starting date to the South Lancashire Waterway and the electrification of the main line to Glasgow. We must have also one or two sites for New Towns, and the Economic Planning Council policy seems to point to the Preston-Chorley-Leyland area. I do not want to comment further on that.

All I wish to do is to leave these points with your Lordships. You will notice that I have made no criticism of this Government or the last Government; but I hope that some of the points that I have put forward from observation, through being a Member of Parliament in this Region for 19 years and being closely connected with it for many more years, will have some effect on the minds of your Lordships and in the Ministries which have to do with these matters. I beg to move for Papers.

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that everyone in your Lordships' House would like me, first of all, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, for causing this debate to take place, and, secondly, to offer him our congratulations on the reason for his having moved from the Benches of his Party opposite to the Cross-Benches. I am sure that Lancashire is fortunate in having him as the new appointee of Her Majesty the Queen, and from what he has said to-day, in the striking speech he has made, he will undoubtedly be a worthy representative of Lancashire in all the corridors of power in Whitehall and elsewhere. I noticed that he was particularly careful at the end of his speech to say that he was criticising neither the past Government nor the present Government. That is indeed the role that we can expect of him, because he can no longer be the political animal that we knew so well in another place and also in your Lordships' House until a few weeks ago.

Before coming to the Motion itself, I would apologise personally to your Lordships. Many weeks ago I contracted an important speaking engagement early this evening, and so I shall not be able to stay to the end of the debate. I should very much like to do so, but I crave your indulgence if I slip away, as I must, before the debate is over.

The noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, has invited us to take note of this very striking Report, Strategy II—The North West of the 1970s. I should like to say that those who composed the Report, as well as those who did the work of its compilation behind the scenes, have done a very fine job for the North West. It is a clear, fine, well-reasoned document, and we should all do well to pay close regard to its recommendations. One or two of these are of particular importance and I should like to mention them to your Lordships. The first and, I think, most important recommendation, with a healthy breath of realism to it, is that industry in the Region should be based where it can operate most efficiently. That surely bears out what the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, had to say about the importance of the Region in the export field, because unless industry is located in the most efficient way it cannot make its proper contribution to exports.

It is true that the Region has suffered from very substantial structural changes. The noble Lord referred to the decline in the cotton textile industry. One noble Lord who is to make his maiden speech to-day has had a long association with that industry, so we shall doubtless hear some more about it. Of course the North West has suffered a great contraction of the coal-mining industry, and this, together with the decline in the cotton textile industry, might have been enough to drive the North West into the club of "belly-achers" who think that the Government must do everything possible to help them. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, has pointed out, Lancashire, and for that matter Cheshire, too, and the rest of the area, believe in self-help in getting on with the job. I think it is one of the most striking features of those parts of the British Isles constituting the North West that they have so staunchly believed in self-help and in getting on with the job for themselves. So if I make any plea to-day for extra assistance from the centre for the North West, it is because Lancashire, Cheshire and the High Peak districts of Derbyshire richly deserve to be helped because they have helped themselves so magnificently.

I received only this morning the Annual Report of the Burnley Chamber of Commerce. Burnley, as noble Lords will know, is in the North East of Lancashire and is one of those towns which might have good reason to complain about having been by-passed in the last few years. But what is said on the opening page of this Report? It refers to the stability of industry in this district from strong and virile companies who have made the area their home, and there are numerous other companies here that have survived two world wars and have moved from small beginnings to prosperous industrial concerns through first-class management and industrial relations. … Most of this progress has been achieved without D area [Development Area] status; the transition from textiles to engineering has been a near miracle and it appears to me"— that is, the author of the Report— that the 'help ourselves' policy has paid off and can still continue to do so". There is no sign of pessimism in Burnley, but if there is any help going they would like to have their fair share.

Another feature of the Report on the North West which I think is of great importance is the stress laid on the point that Lancashire, and indeed the area, should have its fair share of what is going. There is a good deal of evidence to show that new public investment in construction per head of population, for example, and other development work have proceeded at a greater pace in other parts of the country—and not just in development areas—than in Lancashire and Cheshire. The North West appears to have had a pretty poor bargain in the last few years.

The Report is practical in stressing that of course there is not an unlimited measure of public expenditure which can be made available. But it suggests that, within the total of resources available to the country, perhaps a slightly larger share should go to the North West. I would commend this point of view to your Lordships, because I am sure that in present circumstances it is right. Here again I think that the priorities put forward by the Planning Council are right. They think that the need to improve transport and other public investment should be put first; secondly, there should be improvements in the housing programme, and, thirdly, improvements in school buildings. The second and the third can be of little value unless the first is achieved.

The Report urges that transport should be planned for the Region as a whole. The noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, referred to some of the major transport improvements which are required, and the Report itself lists (very tactfully, I thought) not in alphabetical order but in order from North to South, the road improvements which they think should take place. I might perhaps be allowed to pick out my favourite, which is item 6(d): early completion of road improvements in progress and planning between North East Lancashire and Manchester". Although that may not be a spectacular motorway, it is I believe the road improvement which is most urgently required if Nelson and Colne, Burnley and adjacent towns are to have rapid and smooth access to the great commercial and industrial centre of Manchester itself. The Report, I must admit, rather stresses the need for more Government money to go into the area: all too many of its recommendations stress the need for more money. I would only underline what I would suggest: that more money should be made available for Lancashire and Cheshire and perhaps a little less for elsewhere.

It has been customary to refer to new towns all over Great Britain, but I see that this Report urges that further detailed consideration be given to the development of a city in South Cheshire. Also, it gives firm support to the early development of a central Lancashire new city. So we are going from new towns to new cities. I query whether this is wise. In view of the already very dense population of the area, I query to what extent we should try to create in this area new cities, when at the same time the Report is recommending not only the overhaul but also the expansion of the Region's older towns and cities. Obviously, there is not time for me to elaborate this point in detail, but I thought I would just draw the attention of noble Lords to this matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, referred to the Lancashire and Merseyside Industrial Development Association. I should like to pay my tribute to the excellent work they have done over the years in drawing the attention of Whitehall and of Ministers, whichever Government has been in power, to the needs of Lancashire, and to their very practical and far-sighted views. Although faced with the problems of contraction of some industries, they are equally concerned to ensure the expansion of existing industries and the development of new ones.

At the present time I feel that some of the problems arise through the present Government's policy in regard to development areas. I may remind noble Lords that the policy of the Conservative Administration was to have what were called development districts. These districts were relatively small, but into those districts went all the Government funds that were available in order to reduce unemployment. In that way Government funds were concentrated on the localities of greatest need. Then, when the needs had been fulfilled, the area would lose development district status and the funds would be directed elsewhere to other districts. The policy of the present Government has been to create very large development areas and to provide additional funds, not only over a much wider area but also to many companies which do not in fact require the money and for which the receipt of funds, in the form of regional employment premiums, greater investment grants and so on, was granted whether the companies needed them or not and whether they were going to increase employment in the areas or not.

Lancashire, containing as it does a development area around Merseyside and bounded by development areas to the North, finds that because the vast majority of its area is not development area it is apt to lose industry and population and personnel to the neighbouring development areas with their very considerable and attractive financial inducements provided by the Government. In what are colloquially called the "grey" areas in North East Lancashire and one or two other places it should be possible for the Government to arrange a kind of "halfway house", to offer financial assistance, perhaps by being a little less generous to the development areas, now that they have had all these benefits for four years, and to recognise that there are some areas, such as even Bolton and Wigan, which need an injection of Government finance to get them on their way, and not let it all go exclusively to the parts which are within the boundaries defined in the Industrial Development Act 1966. In this way some of the industrial problems of the North West could be overcome.

I do not want to give the impression that this is a depressed or down-in-the-mouth area; it includes the prosperous and go-ahead County of Cheshire. I was fortunate enough only last week to visit Wilmslow and Stockport, where existing and new industries are going ahead well and vigorously, and where housing programmes by local authorities are visible to all. That is true of the whole of the area covered by the Report—North Lancashire, Cheshire and the High Peak of Derbyshire. They are determined to succeed, and they are sure they will. What they want is a fair deal, and I hope noble Lords will help to ensure that they get it.