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Trade Fairs (London Exhibition Centre)

Volume 643: debated on Wednesday 28 June 1961

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

12.7 a.m.

The subject I wish to raise briefly at this late hour is somewhat similar to that which I was raising almost two years ago. It is a matter of great importance to the export situation in our country, and is connected with the question how best we can sell our goods abroad, or to people in other countries from a market available at home. This is a matter of considerable interest to many smaller manufacturers in this country, and when, on 19th June, 1959, I raised the question of the need for further money being made available for firms and associations in order to help them take part in trade fairs abroad, the Minister of State, Board of Trade, at the time was very helpful. I am pleased to be able to say tonight that, due to the expanding efforts of the Board of Trade and the Government in this matter, the amount of money available for this is considerably greater now and will next year reach the sum of £530,000.

This is excellent, but it is not the point upon which I want to concentrate. The activities that have been going on in this connection have tended to concentrate on a consideration of the fairs and exhibitions and the means of displaying and selling our goods in other countries. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will not be forgetful of all the work that has been done on this aspect of the matter if I use the short time at my disposal to draw attention to the other great need—the need for a new exhibition hall in the London area for special trade fairs.

More than ever today there is a great need to export. Even in the two years since we last discussed this matter on the Adjournment the situation has become more serious and the export drive more urgent. I shall not labour the point. The Parliamentary Secretary knows much more about this than I do, and his concern must be far more grave than mine. But despite the Government's help and everything that has been done in their enterprise in giving assistance to associations and industries in this matter, there are still far too few exports and far too few of the smaller firms—either through lack of ability or lack of facility—who get out into the competitive markets overseas. The small firms have not yet found it worth while, because of their lack of a willingness to take a chance, when they can find easier home markets. But more and more smaller firms are beginning to understand that if we are to maintain the prosperity of the country they must take their share of the slightly more difficult overseas markets. They are becoming aware that this is an urgent necessity.

A modern exhibition hall is needed urgently, and not only for the specialised trade fairs. The Parliamentary Secretary knows of the Report of the Working Party set up by the F.B.I., "Export Trade Facilities", published in April, 1959. On page 30 of that Report is a very relevant observation—even though it was made in 1959. The Committee did not wish to reopen the question of the General British Industries Fair, but said,
"We recommend that, with the advent of the European Common Market and, possibly, a Free Trade Area, urgent consideration be given to the provision of a British exhibition site, not too far from central London, with modern amenities, that will he suitable for a specialised international trade fair on the scale of the large European fairs of today. This would seem to call for joint financing by Government and industry, possibly through a limited company, empowered to issue shares".
I am sure that in the two years since the Report was issued much thought has been given to the matter. The opinion is now more firmly held than ever that specialist trade fairs are the best way of attracting buyers for the wares which we are displaying. I know that this is not a good time to ask the Government to spend money, but I have not yet found a good time to ask the Government to spend money. I have yet to be convinced that if one does not ask, and go on asking, one has any hope of getting anywhere. Even though we know that costs have to be considered carefully today, this proposal is worth considering.

If we are to make money we must spend money, and I believe that a trade exhibition centre or hall would pay for itself within a few years. Whether it is jointly financed through Government and industry, or whether the Government find ways of extracting the money from industry, it should be possible over a period to recoup the capital cost from the charges made. I understand that this has happened in Paris where a consortium was set up to build a trade hall with the expectation that the capital would be repaid in twenty years. I have not been able fully to verify this, but I am told on good authority that the capital will be repaid in less than half that time because the hall is fully booked for as far ahead as bookings can be taken.

Britain is about to decide whether to negotiate firmly with the Common Market about her entry into that Market and into trading agreements with the Six. We are already part of E.F.T.A. We take part in trade exhibitions and fairs in all European countries, as well as in America, Africa and Russia—indeed, practically all over the world. This is very good, and we have done a great deal in the matter, but it is not enough, because we are tending to allow London to be left on the sidelines instead of increasing London's status as the buying centre. In view of our possible entry into the Common Market, this is especially important. We must continue to keep many buying centres in London and if possible extend them.

London is the obvious centre for specialised fairs. Great Britain lags behind because we do not have a good permanent exhibition centre in London. In view of Common Market developments, it is essential that we should now, while we have time, ensure that something is done about this. Specialised fairs attract buyers. In addition, a considerable amount of business could be done with allied trades. It is not only the buyers who come and see what is on show. There is a considerable amount of perimeter work done at specialised trade fairs.

Organisers of the smaller type of fair in London have to take accommodation at hotels. They have to scramble round to find a suitable place for their exhibitions. They often have to take halls built for an entirely different purpose and which are not usually available in the buying season. We cannot afford to let this go by default. Specialised fairs cannot be satisfactorily staged in expensive halls like the Albert Hall, Earl's Court and Olympia. These halls are not suitable for smaller fairs.

We could do much more to attract buyers from overseas. We should give the smallest firms the opportunity and encouragement they need to show their wares in their own country to the people who are likely to buy them and take them back to their own country. This is one prong of the many-pronged problem of getting sufficient exports for this country to balance with the imports we need so urgently. Nobody is looking for anything which is super or frightfully expensive. We are looking for a practical, modern, suitable building. It need not cover a vast area. Nowadays there is no necessity for a large ground area to be taken up. With the new building techniques and methods of construction, some of which I have read about in the newspapers and many of which I understand have been suggested for development areas in Hammersmith and St. Pancras, it is possible to build a trade centre of reasonable size without taking up a vast ground space. In the past one of the problems was to find sufficient space. I am told that on a comparatively small ground area a trade hall of reasonable size could be built, going up instead of out. This is a technical matter on which I am not qualified to speak, but it must be remembered that this can now be done on a small space compared with what used to be considered to be the necessary large area.

Today there is a feeling among many smaller manufacturers in this country that the Government take too little interest in trade fairs in the United Kingdom. When we debated this matter two years ago one point of argument was how little the public and the people concerned with exports really knew about the facilities offered by the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade has done a first-class job in letting people know about its facilities. It has explained them to even the smallest firm. However, new firms and small old firms are not able to take the opportunity and have not the personnel and money to go abroad, even with Government help. They feel that more should be done to make it possible to hold a trade fair at home. It could be a small fair, but it would be very valuable in attracting overseas buyers. However much the Government do, they are always asked to do more. This is something which must be done if firms are to play an effective part in the export drive.

New thoughts on this matter are coming in all the time. Small firms are inclined to say, "There is not any point in asking the Government to do anything about this, because all they are interested in is shoving us out into some other country with our goods and letting us display them there." This is absolutely essential, I admit, but it is equally essential to have an establishment in this country at which different goods of a specialised nature can be shown. We could then again assert ourselves as a much bigger buying centre in the world than we are today. We could then have year after year exhibitions at which small firms could continue to show their goods. Firms often make one valiant attempt to get into an overseas market. They find that it is very expensive. They see no quick return for their outlay and cannot be persuaded to exhibit again. It is not enough to exhibit once only in a place. It must be followed through for several years.

Even with the Government help available, it is still costly and chancy, so if we could develop at home a reasonably modern and practical trade centre it would add considerably to the value of our export trade and widen its base, and include many more firms than there are today. I know that this is a very late hour to talk on such a subject as this after we have been earlier occupied with other matters, but the urgency of the situation has made me stay on, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will forgive me for being so long winded on the subject.

12.20 a.m.

I welcome the continuing interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast (Mrs. McLaughlin) in trade fairs. As she has said, she referred to it two years ago, and then, as tonight, dwelt particularly on the needs of small firms. There are two differences between that occasion and this. First, on that occasion she spoke at 12 noon; tonight, she has done so at 12 midnight. Secondly, she was then in the main dealing with overseas fairs, whereas tonight she has been dealing with fairs in this country. It is important that the issues should be clarified, and I hope that the debate will help to do that.

The Federation of British Industries, to which my hon. Friend referred, has made a great contribution to the process of clarification, not least by the appointment of the committee under the chairmanship of Mr. George Pollitzer, in January, 1958 to which she also referred. The report of that committee was endorsed by the Grand Council of the Federation, but when one looks at the summary of evidence one finds that not all the associations were in favour of the proposals, and, in particular, the proposal that there should be a new centre for exhibitions and that it should take the form of an exhibition hall with at least 500,000 square feet of floor space. I shall return to that in a moment.

It is right to admit that the existing premises in London, all of which are in private ownership, are in some respects not so attractive as some, at any rate, of those abroad but, at the same time, it would be fair to say that many of the best exhibition centres abroad have the advantage of having been built more recently than, say Olympia, which was started in 1886, and Earl's Court, completed in 1935.

However unfavourable that comparison may be—and it is possible to exaggerate the handicaps—the use made of existing premises continues to increase. Indeed, there seems to be something of a boom of exhibitions at present, which may or may not continue at its present level. My hon. Friend said that we are very short of good exhibition facilities. There are many people who hold that there is a great need for new and more up-to-date premises; in particular, a bigger and better exhibition centre.

My hon. Friend dwelt particularly on the needs of small industries and small trade associations. In this, she is not quite in line with the recommendations of the Pollitzer Committee, because that committee talked in terms of a more up-to-date and larger centre which would cater for all the needs of trade exhibitions, be they large or small.

We will certainly give close attention to what my hon. Friend has said. But whether the centre is to be for the largest possible trade exhibitions or for the smaller trade exhibitions, the question that arises is this. If the demand is so great and if the need is so great, why is it that private enterprise does not provide the new premises required? That question is relevant because, of course, in all the countries west of the Iron Curtain where new exhibition centres have been created since the war they have not been aided from central Government funds, though in certain cases they have been aided by local government funds.

One must admit that previous experience of providing exhibitions has not been entirely happy for those putting up the money. The fact is that today there are two large exhibition halls and other halls where exhibitions can be held. Quite a large number of the associations which were consulted considered that the facilities at present available in London were adequate, certainly in so far as the proposal to have a still bigger and better centre was concerned.

Sites in London today are very scarce and very costly. My hon. Friend pointed out that for the smaller type of centre we should not need a very great deal of space. All the same, ground floor space is essential for a successful exhibition whether it be on a large scale or a small scale, and that involves a good deal of space being taken up. The capital cost of such provision is very heavy. For the type of centre which the Pollitzer Committee had in mind, estimates have ranged up to £12 million.

The fact is, of course, that while industry would certainly like more convenient and more attractive premises, there is a limit to what individual firms will pay. It seems unlikely that industry would be prepared to pay the much bigger rents that in all probability would have to be charged for a new centre if it were provided entirely from the funds of industry itself. So it may well be that both the capital cost and the running cost of a new centre would be beyond the resources of industry.

Quite naturally, my hon. Friends says that this is a project which is so important for us as a nation that the Government should make good what industry cannot provide for itself. She appreciated that this is not an uncommon claim, and she said that there was no time at which an appeal to the Government to spend money was particularly well received. It is a fact that if the Government were to acquiesce in all such claims we as a nation should certainly be trying to do too much too quickly. Therefore, we have to consider this question in the context of the national economic situation. Indeed, there are other considerations which are relevant to the matter. One consideration which immediately springs to mind is the one my hon. Friend mentioned; what size should a new centre be? Is a specialised centre for small specialised trade fairs required, or do we want a new centre of a still larger size than the existing ones, such as that suggested by the Pollitzer Committee?

There is the difficulty that if this kind of need is to be met by private enterprise, the firm which puts up the capital and which provides the facilities has really no obligation to consider the effect on others trying to meet that need. If, on the other hand, the Government or a public authority intervenes, it must necessarily have regard not only to existing physical resources and to the general economic situation of the country, but it must also consider what will happen to unsubsidised exhibition halls which will be in competition with the proposed new centre.

The hon. Lady considers that this would bring great benefit to the smaller firms. Might I remind her that, on the last occasion she raised this matter, she pleaded with us to give assistance to smaller firms to go abroad and exhibit overseas and she referred to the fact that the estimates for this year of Government contributions towards exhibitions for promoting trade have risen considerably. They have, in fact, risen by about £200,000.

If we were to provide specialised facilities for the smaller trade associations at home, might we not also be discouraging them from going abroad to sell their goods? We must, therefore, consider which is the best encouragement to give. I am merely putting the considerations before the House tonight. I am not arguing for or against the hon. Lady's case.

It is certainly reasonable to suppose that any new centre would bring some benefit from the export point of view, but we must consider just how much would be that benefit. That is the real question. I am not disputing the importance of this matter, nor am I saying that this is a subject with which the Government need not concern themselves or in which they have taken no interest. Indeed, my right hon. Friend discussed the Pollitzer Report with the President of the Federation of British Industries soon after it was published and my right hon. Friend has followed the developments that have taken place since then.

The hon. Lady will be interested in one recent development. Use was made this month of the Crystal Palace site for the International Construction Equipment Exhibition. It was organised by the firm which organised the British Trade Fair in Moscow. It was an admirably arranged exhibition—and I attended it—and it represents one more feather in the cap of the company which organised it. It was an open air exhibition, but it enabled us to gain firsthand information about the transport problems involved at the Crystal Palace site. It is an excellent site and its future will be considered by all concerned.

All I can say is that the main responsibilities must always rest with industry, particularly with those industries for whose needs any such development would be catering. The Board of Trade will continue to keep in close and sympathetic touch with the representatives of industry in their consideration of this matter.

We are very grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised this matter and giving it an airing in Parliament. It cannot do anything but good for the whole matter to be considered by the public in general as well as here in Parliament, and in particular by the various industries concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to One o'clock.