HL Deb 28 October 1981 vol 424 cc1065-7
Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether their attention was drawn to the recent series of articles in The Times, entitled "Crumbling Britain", and what long-term plans they have for dealing with the deficiencies exposed thereby in the infrastructure of this country.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, the Government are aware of the articles and the problems to which they refer. They are committed to maintaining and modernising Britain's infrastructure and will continue to do so within affordable levels of public expenditure.

Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that Answer, may I ask whether or not he thinks that the scale of the problem as revealed in the articles referred to is really beyond the scope of local councils and should receive serious attention from central Government? Secondly, does he not think that the implementation of a large-scale scheme of remedial action in these areas would bring relief to probably the most hard-pressed area of British industry; namely, the civil engineering construction industry, where unemployment at the moment is running at about 25 per cent.?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I think that the problem generally goes beyond merely that of local government itself. If we look carefully at the various headings that the articles cover, we see that they cover a wide range of matters many of which are the responsibility of central Government, the nationalised industries and other bodies. To answer in detail one would have to enumerate all that is being done—and there is much that is being done—because quite clearly one recognises that the problems presented by the articles are very fairly put and one should not try to get away from dealing with them. However, if the noble Earl would wish me to do so, I should be glad to send him the lengthy list which I have before me as to exactly what is being done to try to deal with this particular problem.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the first article in The Times that whatever has happened in the past, the causes of decay lie in successive Governments cutting back on building and repair programmes? Will he also agree that, in this terrible economic decline, when everyone except the Government sees the need for increasing capital investment, the Government should be taking steps—indeed, very strong steps—to stimulate the construction industry, which is the single largest employer and in which, as the noble Earl pointed out, unemployment is 25 per cent.—almost double that in any other industry? Would that not generate the industrial activity and employment that is so absolutely urgently needed in this country?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I think that one really cannot suddenly decide that all the problems of the construction industry can be laid at the door of the Government. They have been leading up to this situation for a long time. However, I think that what is perhaps noteworthy is that the latest figures for new orders for the construction industry are encouraging and they raise considerable hopes of recovery in 1982. Total new orders for the June to August quarter are up 21 per cent. on the same period last year and 17 per cent. on the previous three months; orders for private and industrial work have risen by 8 per cent. compared to a year earlier and by 33 per cent. over the previous three months; commercial orders are up 34 per cent. and 23 per cent.; and public orders, excluding the new Heathrow terminal are up 17 per cent. and 3 per cent. respectively. There is no attempt in giving these figures to deny that the industry does have problems that are a matter of concern, but I hope at the same time that it will be felt that the figures that I have just given are encouraging.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, when the noble Lord saw this Question on the Order Paper, did it ever occur to him to wonder, or even to indulge in a bit of research, about what the grandfather of the noble Earl who has asked the Question would have said about "Crumbling Britain"? Did he take the same line when he fought the war as perhaps Winston Churchill fought it, in order to gain victory? Would the noble Lord agree that our problem is not crumbling Britain, but grumbling Britishers? Why do we indulge so much in stinking fish? Are we the only country in the world suffering from recession? Are we the only country in the world suffering from high interest rates? Are we the only country in the world which has to suffer from letters written to The Times by people who seem to think that they have knowledge on military matters? Is that not our real trouble?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his assistance in the matter, and I entirely concur with everything he says.

Lord Hale

My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that the first Lloyd-George of Dwyfor fought a general election with the support of J. M. Keynes as a candidate and many others, of course, including me, on the necessity of keeping full employment very largely through road development in 1929? Will he also bear in mind today that one of the tragedies in the urban areas concerns the interconnections beneath the roads, which are getting into a state of real danger?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, we certainly bear in mind the last point that the noble Lord has made. As to his earlier comments, I thought that he was about to give me something of a lesson and was willingly looking forward to learning something new, as I do each day.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, if the Government are to tamper with local government—and there was a hint of it in the noble Lord's original reply—will the Minister please take care to ensure that local patriotism is not destroyed?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am not quite sure how far that question, in fact, relates to the original Question. However, I think I know what the noble Lord means.

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