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Portland Stone Industry

Volume 715: debated on Monday 28 June 1965

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

3.37 a.m.

I represent that part of what used to be the English countryside that was once represented by Sir Christopher Wren, the most distinguished of all our Dorset Members; and I like to think that if from the Elysian Fields he is listening to us tonight he will be content with what we shall say.

Portland contains an island people who think of the Queen not as Queen of England but as the Lady of the Manor of Portland. To Portlanders we are kimberlins—strangers. The Portland people, like so many island peoples, are men of strength, skill, tolerance and individuality.

I want to raise tonight the question of Portland stone. Portland stone is part of the capital wealth of this country and it must not be wasted any more than we waste coal or iron. It is an indigenous natural resource and it must be our duty, as with previous generations, to see that we cherish the natural resources we have inherited. We have a great heritage. Our minds turn to the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall of Indigo Jones, to the great churches of Wren, to the Bank of England, Bush House and right up Kings-way and Holborn—all across England we see Portland stone. The Roman Catholic Cathedral at Liverpool, St. John's College, Cambridge, Brasenose College, Oxford—all derive their beauty from Portland.

Still today, in the modern idiom, the American Embassy, the Economist building in St. James's, are built of Portland stone. Our stone has crossed the ocean and the United Nations building in the United States of America is built of Portland stone; and so is the Rotterdam Cathedral and the Sabena building in Brussels. Recently stone firms have taken a joint share in Belgian masonry works and opened up markets in the Low Countries and Germany for Portland stone.

It is one of our most ancient industries but it is also one of our most modern. Many hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on capital equipment.

This industry blends craftsmanship and mechanisation. Research is constantly devising new techniques. A recent development is one in which one-inch thick stone-faced giant precast concrete panels have been used, for example for the Crawley Civic Centre which was recently opened by the Queen.

Portland stone is specialist material. It is appropriate to great buildings, to universities, schools, municipal buildings, office blocks, stores, banks and hotels, and—I emphasise this—the workers in it are part of our national inheritance of skill. In this tiny island of Portland there is a great tradition of stone masons which is vital to us and vital to the maintenance of the fabric of this House.

That is the industry and those are the people. Against that background I want to say a few words about the present and, though I do not seek to be controversial, I must report that the Labour Government have, since they assumed office, done a measure of damage to the people of Portland and its industry. I speak of the sudden ban on office building in the London area. There has always been in London a constant demand for Portland stone. The stone firms have always tried to take account of that demand in planning their budgeting and expansion.

The Government's keynote, and rightly, is the word "plan", but how can a firm plan if at such short notice as this a substantial proportion of the work which it would normally expect to be doing is cut off?

It is reasonable to ask what alternative proposals the Government have to replace that work. When that ban was announced had the Government even considered the economic effects? Do the Government even now know what is happening in Portland? Not long ago 400 men used to be employed in masonry works. Today that number has gone down to 250. I do not seek to make a point about unemployment. These men have found other jobs often at reduced pay. There is no substantial unemployment in Portland, but I make the point as important that if we once begin to run down that highly-skilled stone industry with all its inherited skills we will not so easily bring it up again.

We have made tremendous efforts over the years to get young people to enter the industry. The apprenticeship scheme itself may now be at risk. Parents become nervous of the prospects. There is in most years competition between apprentices who seek to be masons. In the last competition the tiny island of Portland entered 30 apprentices and the whole vast population of London with all its teeming millions could produce only eight. Here is the measure of importance of Portland to the whole conception of producing masons as they must be produced. If, therefore, these masons do not come forward in an even flow a great industry can be in danger and with it the buildings owned and maintained by the National Trust, Oxford and Cambridge colleges, cathedrals, all our architectural wealth which depend on adequate supplies of masons.

I here pay tribute to the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers, to the chairman of its masonry section, Mr. Sanderson, and to Mr. Booth and Mr. Trevett on the quarrying side who have done a great deal of work, as indeed have the employers, in supplying me with the sort of information which I seek to convey to the House tonight. I am responsible for what I say and not they, but I am authorised to say that all of us who love Portland are exceedingly anxious about what may come.

May I put to the Minister what I believe to be the direct connection between housebuilding and the use of Portland stone? We all know that the conventional building trade is overheated. One of the difficulties in producing the number of houses which we want produced is the shortage of labour and materials. Here is a means by which that overheating could be reduced. It must be wrong that a substantial part of the building industry, such as Portland represents, should be under-used although it could take a great load off the conventional housing programme. Here is one figure to indicate what the surplus capacity is. Our capacity has been, and still is, to produce between 7,000 and 8,000 cu. ft. of stone a week. We are now producing 4,000 cu. ft. Here is unused building capacity which, I hope, the Minister will be able to put to proper use. For every stone building erected by the stone firms conventional building resources are released for house building.

My second practical point is price competitiveness. We are all conscious of the importance of this in Portland. I have little doubt that the Ministry has read and studied the fascinating speech by Dr. Stone to the R.I.B.A. He drew attention in his research to the amount of money and resources now being spent on repairs. The great advantage which Portland stone buildings have over conventional buildings is that the repair bill for many years is almost nil. Dr. Stone pointed out that, on average, about one quarter of the total cost of the ordinary non-stone building would go on maintenance. Therefore, if comparisons of cost between Portland stone and other buildings are to be made, something like a quarter of the cost should be added to the initial estimate for the non-stone building to give a fair picture.

To put the same point in a slightly different way, I imagine that the Minister realises that we are spending today about £1,000 million a year on repairing buildings, and by a great part of that sum we are diminishing the amount of resources, whether of labour or materials, which ought to go into new house building. Further, each year that figure goes up. Therefore, I emphasise the importance of making the uttermost use of materials which have, in effect, little or no maintenance cost. This is one of the ways in which the Portland stone industry could help to solve a national problem and add to the stock of houses, an increase in which we all want to see.

The policies of some Governments, of no matter what party, has tended to encourage a situation—I am sure that it is unintentional—which has a damaging effect on the stone industry. If a builder puts up a badly built office block which will need annual repair at high cost, the amount spent each year on repairs will be allowable against Income Tax. Hence, it may be financially preferable to put up a bad building, and it is a fact that some people do just that. On the other hand, if having foresight and taking a long view, one puts up a building in Portland stone or a building intended to last in good order for a long time, the repair bill will be low; but there will be no initial Income Tax allowance in respect of it.

I realise that this is more a Finance Bill matter than one for an Adjournment debate, and I mention it only so that the Minister may have a chance to consider it, as I have put down an appropriate Amendment to the Finance Bill which I hope will be considered. It is wrong that the Government should encourage the erection of buildings on which the repair bill is heavy when, as I say, about £1,000 million a year is already being extracted from the building industry and devoted, needlessly, we suggest, to repairs instead of going into the building of new houses.

Now, exports. The sums here are modest, but we have been exporting in a single month as much as £20,000 worth of stone to the Low Countries and elsewhere. We make our contribution to the export trade. I am sure that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury would agree, if he were here, that that contribution could be greater if the industry received the encouragement which it ought to receive.

At one time, it was wealthy private individuals who gave great building contracts. That time has gone. It is no longer in the hands of the private individual to give the assistance for which we look. Nowadays, it is the Ministry of Works and other Government Departments or, perhaps, the great institutions which have in their hands most of the letting of contracts for the large prestigious buildings in which we are interested. We are living in a decade, we all hope, in which part of the inspiration of our times will come from the erection of new universities, new schools, new libraries, new hospitals and new civic centres.

Ahead of us there is all this, and I ask the Minister to say that these buildings shall be worthy of the generation in which we live. I speak of beauty in buildings, for aesthetic considerations should have their part as much as anything else and I submit, in conclusion, that the people of Portland—those who work in this industry and who, in many cases, had fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers in the same trade—have deserved well of their country. Here is a reservoir of skill, diligence, and strength supported by capital resources of a high order; here is mechanisation as modern as any in the world.

Here, in short, are the men and the materials, insufficiently used at a time when the building industry is overstretched. I hope that the Minister will say that he will make the utmost use of these materials and men.

3.52 a.m.

Those hon. Members who have remained for this debate will, I am sure, feel indebted, as I do, to the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) for having raised this most important subject. Stone is, of course, a very important component in the building industry, but it has tended to be neglected because of the advance of other means of building, and particularly because of the use of what we now call industrialised systems. But, from what the hon. Member has just said, he appears to blame part of the reduced demand for stone in the construction industry on to the Government for their decision to control office building.

I suggest to the House that this is not a correct analogy. At the time that this decision was taken there was full cognizance of the fact that the building industry would be fully employed, despite this control of office construction. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the use of stone in present-day construction. For many years it has been one of the chief components in the construction of very large buildings, particularly in the City of London, which attract much attention from tourists who come here.

It is in the interests of the construction industry that stone should continue to play a full part—a vital part—in the realm of building, but there is the point that, in the term of previous Governments, there has been some neglect of this section of construction work. The affairs of the stone industry have been fully understood in the recent past, but there is great difficulty in recruiting apprentices to carry on this trade, which is one of our greatest crafts. If we are not very careful, especially when there is a shortage of other building materials, in utilising the stone industry to its greatest capacity we shall run the risk of not being able to meet the growing demand for development throughout the country.

I ask the hon. Member to bear in mind when raising this aspect of construction that this is not a problem which is peculiar to Portland. We realise the domestic problems with regard to Portland, but we ought also to appreciate that it is, in addition, a national problem. We have the stone centres of Scotland, Shap and other areas where there are very important resources available to be utilised in the completion of the building programmes envisaged by the present Government. I am sure that my hon. Friend who will reply to the debate will agree that it is absolutely essential for the completion of the building programmes that we have in view that stone should be utilised to its fullest possible extent.

Finally, I suggest that it may be somewhat premature for the hon. Member to have raised the subject at this time bearing in mind the possibility—I suggest this to my hon. Friend—of negotiations being undertaken between representatives of the Government and the stone industry, the employers and the trade unions responsible, for the fullest utilisation of the valuable product of stone in our forthcoming building programme.

3.56 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Public Building and Works
(Mr. James Boyden)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) for raising this matter and for his courtesy in letting me know the outline of his speech.

I am not a complete foreigner to Portland. My grandfather was born there, and, in fact, ran away to sea from Portland. In those days things were much more difficult then they are now, and it is doubtful whether he could have found a living there in those harsh days.

Fortunately, employment in the stone industry in Portland, as the hon. Member said, is good. Perhaps I should explain to the House that the Bath and Portland Stone Group, with its head office at Bath, operates in Portland through three companies: Dorset Limestones Ltd., a quarrying and transport undertaking; Stone Firms Ltd., which runs masonry shops and yards; and Portcrete Ltd., which manufactures precast concrete products. I visited that firm in Portland with the hon. Member's predecessor, Mr. Guy Barnett, in the spring of 1964. So I had the opportunity of renewing my acquaintanceship with Portland fairly recently.

What seems to be happening is that Stone Firms Ltd., is reducing its labour force and Portcrete is recruiting a good many of them. Thus, Stone Firms Ltd. discharged 53 men in August, 1964, but only 13 registered as unemployed, and they quickly found other jobs, the majority of them with Portcrete Ltd. This month 18 more workers were given redundancy notices, but 17 found other work before the date of discharge, and only one man, a stone machinist aged 63, is registered as unemployed. During the last year Stone Firms Ltd. has run down by about 130, but Portcrete has increased its labour force by about 80, taking many of them from Stone Firms Ltd. While I would be the last person in any way to diminish the difficulties caused by unemployment, the situation in Portland is therefore very different from that in some other parts of the country—indeed, in my own constituency.

Portcrete Ltd. has a very well organised factory for industrialised systems. Its interests are best served by long runs of orders, and, of course, this is the policy that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and my own Department are anxious to encourage. To reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin), what seems to be happening with the Group in Portland is that it is working out a sensible system with regard to both the traditional use of stone and the mechanisation and industrial use of systems, as Portcrete Ltd. is doing.

The general employment situation in the area as a whole is satisfactory. On 14th June, 159 men were out of work in the area. The total unemployed was 199, or 1.2 per cent. This was rather better than the situation a year before under the last Administration.

I was not making any point about general unemployment. The transfers are to jobs at lower wages. I was concerned with the case for the masons.

I am coming to that. I was anxious to demonstrate the position that, whatever may be happening in the stone industry, although it may be causing some dislocation to a very limited number of people it is not serious at the moment. A year ago there were 174 men out of work, a percentage of 1·3 per cent. I do not make a great point of that but the situation was slightly worse a year ago than today.

Of the present unemployed, only four men and one boy had last been employed in pre-cast concrete manufacture and there were seven vacancies for workers of that type. There were no men out of work in quarrying and transport and no vacancies.

As for the present position, on 9th June there were general vancancies for 310 men and a total number of vacancies of 576. The difficulty in the stone industry is that there is a shortage of masons. In the country as a whole in May, 1965, there were 31 masons wholly unemployed and there were 113 unfilled vacancies. Again, this is slightly better than in May, 1964, when there were 47 wholly unemployed and 150 unfilled vacancies.

The industry is doing very well. The Bath and Portland Group in 1958 had, after tax, profits of £86,000; in 1963 this was £200,000, and in 1964 the profits were doubled to the highest figure since 1958—£409,000. I pay tribute to the way in which the group has produced a balanced economy between the Portcrete part of the company and the traditional part.

The Chairman's Report for 1959 said:
"A great deal of mechanisation had already been put in hand last year, but since then further mechanisation has been and is being carried out to enable natural stone masonry to complete successfully with the challenge of synthetic wall-cladding materials. This has been fully justified and natural stone is not only holding its own but demand for it is increasing steadily."
The Government's control of office building in London is not having any effect yet. Possibly it will in future, but the effect will be gradual. There is still a large volume of office building work contracted for and this will go on. I agree that stone is a pleasant building material and, indeed, I looked up a little book I was very fond of called "Purbeck Shop—A Stoneworker's Story of Stone" by Eric Benfield. I think that it reflects my own feeling and accords with that of many other people. It says:
"A stone house, even if it is only a low stone cottage, has something of the monument about it. … That stone is carved out of the solid and not manufactured puts it on a different footing from any other building material."
The difficulty is that taste has changed and presumably the hon. Gentleman would not wish the Government to legislate for taste. It is conceivable that modern taste for the Vickers Building in preference to the Foreign Office may change. Victoriana seems to be coming back, even Victorian Gothic. Therefore it is quite possible that natural changes in taste, which the Government can hardly legislate for, may produce the situation the hon. Member wants.

My Department is a good patron of Portland stone. It is using it in the Royal Courts of Justice, in the Custom House reconstruction, in the Chelsea Hospital north-east wing, and in No. 36 Whitehall. Equally, the Department is using the Porcrete artificial stone, capstone, in the beams and columns of the large office block in Horseferry Road and at the Brentford County Court. The Horseferry Road development is a large block of Government offices. My Ministry has a continued interest in the working of stone and the preservation of the skills needed in the maintenance of historic buildings. Not only do we do our own, but we also advise private owners and we make grants for repairs. I was pleased to see in the last company report that there was a section which said that the Bath Company is doing very well on the building restoration side.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly stressed the lower cost of maintenance in stone buildings. He has already conceded that this is a more appropriate matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to deal with and, if he is fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye, I have no doubt he will put the case. My right hon. Friend is well aware of the problem and will no doubt give the hon. Gentleman an answer.

The fact is that Portland stone has to be competitive. It would seem as though its costs are something like 5 to 12½ per cent. higher than other materials. It is also true that maintenance costs are not sufficiently well established. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that my Department is setting up a committee to study the whole question of maintenance. I am taking the chair on this committee and it is hoped that, as soon as possible, we shall be able to establish what the true costs of maintenance are and perhaps whether there is some tax—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seven minutes past Four o'clock a.m.