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Industrial Development, Sunderland

Volume 530: debated on Friday 16 July 1954

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

4.1 p.m.

I wish to take the opportunity this afternoon to raise some matters which vitally affect not only my own constituency but that of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. P. Williams), and I hope he will have an opportunity to intervene in this discussion later. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade knows, this is a matter which I have repeatedly raised in the House, and I want to say at once that I appreciate that the hon. and learned Gentleman shares my concern about the position in Sunderland. It might be convenient if I put one or two questions to the hon. and learned Gentleman and invited him to reply, because this affords him a better opportunity to do so than at Question time.

The first question I want to put to him is, can he say what the position is regarding the factory which I have already mentioned in the House and which, because it is in difficulties at present, may possibly close shortly? I realise this is a difficult matter. Proposals have been made which have to be considered by other bodies, but I should like the hon. and learned Gentleman to inform us, if he can, whether these discussions are continuing and whether—this is important—the Parliamentary Secretary is satisfied that his Department is taking every possible step to enable production to continue. I am sure that the Board of Trade will give every assistance, but I hope in this particular case it will not be too orthodox and, if it is possible to enable production to continue, that he will do all he can to help.

I would also ask him whether any pro-press is being made about the factories previously occupied by Price and Ford-ham. Would it be worthwhile endeavouring to secure local initiative and support? I know this is essentially a matter for the North-East, and, as the hon. and learned Gentleman will agree, there has been a great deal of friendliness between the different industrialists and I want to encourage initiative from that quarter. In the light of the difficulties which we have met recently in Sunderland, I should like to make one or two suggestions to the Parliamentary Secretary.

Can he encourage—I know he cannot direct industrialists to go into an industrial area—industrialists to consult him confidentially if need be when there is any question of production slowing down or discontinuing, because the case of Price was one of several factories closing, and I would say that if the question, which factory was to close, had been considered, it would have been considered not only from the point of view of Price's production but also from the point of view of development area policy. It may have been that had such a discussion taken place the result would have been the same. But we would have felt happier had there been such a consideration.

I raised previously with the Parliamentary Secretary the question of assignable leases. If there are further instances of these leases remaining, to avoid the difficulty which has arisen in other cases the Board of Trade should consider discussing the termination of such leases.

The hon. Gentleman will realise the difficulty of forcing an individual firm to behave in any particular way, and any such forcing might jeopardise the chance of getting further firms to come to Sunderland.

I appreciate that, and that is why I expressed the hope that this would take the form of consultation.

There is another important matter, which I have not previously brought to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary. It may surprise him to hear that sometimes far too little is known about financial aids to firms that go to the Development Areas. A lot is done to call the attention of industrialists to the facilities, but I have found time after time that the industrialist who has got into difficulty has not appreciated what aid he might have relied upon until very late in the day. I do not put any blame on the Board of Trade. The industrialists have not shown the resource and initiative, perhaps, that one would have expected from those coming to the Development Areas. It would be far better for them to seek aid much earlier on, when, as this help must be provided on a commercial basis, it would provide a good return.

We are encouraged by the new Edison Swan factory. Can the Parliamentary Secretary say when it will be completed, what sort of employment it is likely to provide, and whether the prospects regarding this development still remain good? I have frequently ridden two horses, but I ask this by way of inquiry. Would it not have been possible for Edison Swan to have considered the Price Factory? As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, I have previously raised the question of the full utilisation of the premises provided by the Government.

Turning to more general matters, the first of the two wide problems facing us in Sunderland is the employment of women. The Parliamentary Secretary will be as disturbed as I am by the fact that 1,500 fewer women are employed in the new factories today than two or three years ago. I am disturbed to know that this tendency is continuing and that the employment of women shows a prospect of further decline. I should like to hear whether the Parliamentary Secretary knows of any particular difficulties about Sunderland, because I am not aware of any. It seems that we have been unfortunate in that circumstance affecting us in particular.

Again, I know the difficulties, because this must be regarded essentially on a proper commercial basis, but can the hon. and learned Gentleman satisfy the House that against this background every proper advantage has been taken of Government contracts? Would it have been possible to have slowed the run-down by making exceptional resort to Government contracts?

I realise that one cannot give any particular advantage and that there must be equality between Development Areas and between firms in an area, but I have recently had a complaint from another Sunderland firm which regards itself as not being fairly treated. It is possible that the firm means it has not been treated more favourably than other firms in the Development Area. As we have had these misfortunes, however, I wonder whether some formula could be devised to give exceptional priority in such a case as Sunderland.

The other problem is the employment of men. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South and I have previously raised in the House the prospects regarding shipbuilding. I do not want to repeat what I have said on previous occasions, but this is becoming an increasingly urgent problem for us in Sunderland. As I see it, I do not know whether the hon. Member will share my view, this is a question of structural unemployment. In other words, this will not be a temporary depression. It will be unemployment to some degree—I should not like to hazard to what degree, different estimates have been made—caused by a permanent decline in the size of this basic industry.

I mention this because it seems that we have reached a stage when this problem of providing employment should be considered in this light, because male employment on the scale required to meet such a problem can, it seems to me, only be forthcoming from the larger industries, and within those larger industries from the larger enterprises. So that really we have to regard the problems of Sunderland in the light of nationally expanding industries and to face the problem of seeking to persuade those industries, which are expanding in the national interest, to come to places such as Sunderland, and, of course, Tyneside, which will face similar problems.

I have one or two questions to put to the Parliamentary Secretary in this regard. He knows my view about advance factories, but I press it again. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will say that I was premature when I raised this question about two years ago on the Adjournment, but I think we are now reaching the stage at which the Government really have to say, "We will build in advance because we are assured that such a development is necessary and desirable in the national interest." I am not saying that we should direct industry there but that facilities should be provided for industrial expansion.

I turn to a second matter which I know seems a little inopportune in view of the points I have already made about the lack of full utilisation of the present factories. It is because of this wider problem of providing male employment that I think we should look again at the question of a trading estate for north of the river. The Parliamentary Secretary knows that some time ago a survey was made. I understand that at that time it was estimated that such a development would cost about £100,000.

The reason why I urge this development now is that the basis for the suggestion then made was that when a survey had been made of Sunderland it was decided that no site in its present condition could be shown to a large industry with any hope of attracting it to the town. That is, if one likes to put it in this way, a variation of the other theme that we should provide advance factories. At any rate we should show that we have developed a new estate which will take heavy industry and so in itself provide an attraction to industry to come into the town.

I wish, very briefly, as I have promised to afford the hon. Member for Sunderland, South an opportunity to speak, to deal with a few broader considerations. It is implicit in what I have said that I am really asking for some sort of national review of industrial development. I will say no more than that I am approaching this from the point of view put forward by the Barlow Committee. Speaking from a constituency point of view, it seems that a case is made out.

I should like to know, if the Parliamentary Secretary has time to reply to this point, and I know I am covering a broad field, what use has been made of all the research departments and staffs in the Board of Trade and outside in looking at this major problem and in looking at the local problem in Sunderland. May I also mention the vexed question of the Schedule to the Act. The Development Area problem is becoming increasingly one of particular parts of the areas and I am prepared to support the President of the Board of Trade if he will look at the Schedule again. It is clear that some parts of the North-East Development Area are more hard hit than others, and the Parliamentary Secretary's reply has often been "We are doing well for the North-Eastern area," which only aggravates my particular case regarding Sunderland. I would ask him to review these general problems because our particular local problems are essentially a reflection of these general problems.

I mentioned the financial provisions and, apart from making these facilities wider known, I would like a review of the provisions themselves to see if they can be simplified. My own solution would be—I know this has not yet been found acceptable by the Parliamentary Secretary—-that it would be best to set up a national industrial corporation. That point of view has been canvassed in many quarters. I should like to see such a corporation, with the responsibility for development area policy, subject, of course, to overall Government policy. If we took that step, we might at the same time meet some of the points which have been raised.

I think it only fair to say—because I recently had an opportunity of meeting the Parliamentary Secretary on another occasion in connection with a Development Area matter—that I fully appreciate that he is concerned about the anxiety in Sunderland and that he will do his utmost to assist us.

4.16 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. F. Willey) for sparing me literally two minutes, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will add another minute-and-a-half.

The hon. Member referred to the tying up of capital in the planning of advance factories. I know he puts that forward as a tentative suggestion, and that he will be aware of the danger of tying up capital which might be used for more immediate and vital purposes. It is a suggestion which appeals, but there are obvious dangers attaching to it.

I have said that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he will not object if I quote a couple of words he used about me from the "Sunderland Echo" dated 12th July. He accused me of adopting a "cowardly attitude" to this matter. That is in slight contrast to the way he spoke this afternoon. I hope that he will not mind my saying that I did not altogether agree, but I think it better if we tried to go forward together rather than to try to make party political differences. The hon. Member will accept that there sometimes is a limit to one's approach, depending upon which side of the House one sits.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sunderland. North in that he has been so moderate this afternoon. It makes it much easier for him and myself to urge the need for action upon the Government. I think it would be fair to say that from this side of the House at any rate there has been urged upon the Government the need to do something about this matter. I think it also fair to say that we still need some alternative employment in Sunderland, and to remind the House and the hon. Gentleman in particular of the achievements during the last three years. There is the development of the Bristol Aircraft Company and the Edison Swan—the hon. Gentleman mentioned the second company by name. I think it right to say that in all probability the people who will be working in the factories will be largely male workers and unskilled, or semi-skilled, which helps his argument that we are still short of employment for women workers. That, I think, is something to which the Government must address themselves.

During April and May there were, in fact, 23 industrial development certificates, involving a total factory area of 614,000 square feet, issued in the North region. That is not an insignificant amount. It is an indication that in the North-East we are getting somewhere, but it does not meet the point that we are not getting it in Sunderland. I see the problem in this light; that the ability of the Government in that direction is extremely limited, and should remain so. It is our duty in Sunderland to try to entice people to come. Because we have the skills and trades and the managerial ability, and because we have the labour available, we should try to entice them, by advocating the benefits of coming to Sunderland and the advantages of using that town as a factory area.

I would put only one point to the Parliamentary Secretary. I am not altogether happy that D.A.T.A.C. has been as helpful in the past as it might have been. We want to be convinced that we are getting value from the Government services which are available. I should like some assurance that D.A.T.A.C. will be more helpful in future than some people feel that it has been in the past.

4.20 p.m.

I should like to thank both hon. Members for their contributions to this debate and, indeed, before it. This is the third Adjournment debate with which I have dealt on the North-Eastern Development Area, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. F. Willey) for doing what is his courteous custom of giving me an indication beforehand of the matters he intends to raise.

I had no idea that even in a Press report my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. P. Williams) had ever been accused of a lack of courage. I can only say that, in the matter which is the subject of debate today, if he has asked fewer Questions in the House than the hon. Member for Sunderland, North, he has not consumed less of my time on the problems of his constituents. I am grateful to him for his many consultations with me on these important matters. I have liked the method of his approach.

I think hon. Members will agree that the impression that we want to give of Sunderland—and it is a true impression—is that it is a very vigorous area and companies are not asked to come as a charity, but because Sunderland is a good place to come to and because they can get a good factory with good people to employ.

I have not much time, and I must come to matters of detail. At the factory which I know the hon. Member for Sunderland, North has in mind, where employment continues, but about which he has some fears, a receiver has been put in at the instance of a bank. The receiver is at present carrying on business and maintaining employment. There is hope that it will be possible to continue the business under new management, but it is too early to speculate on what the prospects may be.

On the question of Price's and Fordham's factories, I cannot add to the information which I have already given, except to say that there are possible tenants who are showing an interest: but I cannot say whether this will result in a tenancy. I cannot add to what I said in a recent Parliamentary reply.

I was asked about local initiative. I have no reason to think that either the Estate Company or ourselves are not doing everything possible. At the same time, we certainly welcome help from all sources. If either hon. Member or anyone locally knows of possible tenants who may have escaped the notice of the Estate Company or ourselves, I hope that the information will be brought to our notice or to the notice of the Estate Company.

An appeal was made that we should ask people who come to the Development Areas to consult us before making important changes in their businesses. Frankly, I believe that to adopt that suggestion would do more harm than good, for the reason given by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South. I say at once that we do our best to keep in close touch with our tenants. They often inform us in advance of any proposed changes. We welcome that, but there is no obligation on them to do so.

I think that it is important when we are trying to attract businesses to a Development Area to take the attitude that I adumbrated at the beginning of my speech. We should say that it is a good place to go to and that they will get a good factory and good people to employ. We should not tell them that they will be under any disadvantage or obligation to which they would not be subject if they went elsewhere. They should have the same right to commercial freedom and to privacy as they would in other circumstances. I should not wish to give the impression that they would run any abnormal risk of having their affairs discussed or questioned in the House. I agree with what the hon. Member may have had at the back of his mind, that it is a very good thing if we have consultations in good time. That very often happens, and I think it generally will, but I do not believe that to issue a general appeal such as he has suggested would serve the cause which he has at heart.

The hon. Member also dealt with the question of leases. It is true that until 1950 the leases contained the ordinary covenant not to assign or under-let without the consent of the Estate Company, such consent not to be unreasonably withheld. Since 1950 there has been an absolute covenant with respect to assigning or under-letting. The recommendation was made at the end of the period of office of the Labour Government, and that has been the practice since 1950. In the case of earlier leases, however, we must observe the contract.

I did not know that any late approach to the Development Areas Treasury Advisory Committee—D.A.T.A.C., for short—was due to ignorance of its existence, but I will certainly consider the point. I thought that the existence of the Committee was generally known, and I am surprised to be told that that is not so.

With regard to the Edison Swan factory, work on the site has started but I do not wish to speculate about the completion date. The Edison Swan Company and the Estate Company are both anxious for it to be completed as soon as possible. It is not usual to disclose the amount of employment hoped for, but I do not think I shall be giving away any secrets if I say that it will be some hundreds of persons. My hon. Friend is right in thinking that it will be mainly male employment. The lack of employment for women is accidental. It has nothing to do with the essential facts of Sunderland. Price's alone accounts for nearly 1,000 jobs.

With regard to Government contracts, firms in the area have exactly the same advantages, and they are important advantages, as all other firms in Development Areas. I do not think we could give them more.

With regard to shipbuilding, and ship-repairing, employment on the North-East Coast as a whole is steady and there has been a small increase on Wearside. The yards have at present about two years' work in hand. As to the future, the new Investment Allowances may have a good effect.

With regard to the building of advance factories, we still believe that this would not be the best use of available resources. It is better to build factories and extensions, as we are doing, to meet known needs.

To sum up, the Board of Trade have shown their appreciation of Sunderland's problem by approving the erection of the 210,000 square ft. factory on the Pallion Estate for Edison Swan. Greater employment is likely to result from that one project than from all the projects started in Sunderland between 1948 and 1951. Although it is true that there are two unoccupied factories in the Sunderland area for which we have not yet found new tenants, the total employment in the factories of the North-East Area Trading Estate Company is greater than it has ever been.

Is it not a fact that a lot of the female workers formerly at Price's are now employed at other trading estates on the North-East Coast, for example at South Shields?

I should not like to answer that question without further inquiry, but—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Five o'Clock.