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Marina (Ilfracombe)

Volume 77: debated on Friday 26 April 1985

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

2.31 pm

A short while ago, we gave a Third Reading to the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill. It was a pleasure to be in the House to support the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), whose Bill is important to my part of the world. I congratulate him because the preservation of the countryside is of paramount importance to Members with constituencies such as mine, which includes Ilfracombe and Exmoor, about which I shall speak.

It is now nearly three years since the Ilfracombe harbour extension became the keystone of my policy for my constituency. No one is in any doubt about the natural beauty of Ilfracombe or the unnatural decline in its business and industrial position. This is the third time that I have had the honour of bringing this matter before the House. I look forward to the reply of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who was gracious enough to reply to my debate a few months ago.

I have never seen the logic in seeking to make a seaside town such as Ilfracombe into a factory-based industrial centre. It is good to have factories, but equally it is clear that any firm locating a factory so far from its market, and probably from its raw materials, will always have difficulty in justifying that factory when times are hard. I congratulate Pall Europe, Coutant Electronics and several less-known firms who work hard, employ staff and prosper in Ilfracombe and the adjacent areas. We must consider how best the resuscitation of the economy can come about, while, equally importantly, the natural beauty and the pleasure of living in Ilfracombe are not harmed.

My conclusions are straightforward. We have the sea, we have the seashore and the beautiful hinterland from Lee to Berrynarbor and back over to Exmoor. It is on this natural beauty that we should build for the future. Development must be related to sea, to shore and to things that can be harvested from land or sea. This includes factory and industrial premises, but they will be an adjunct to the sea and the shore rather than the main employer of the future. Tourism is as much a harvest of land or sea as is farming or fishing.

I congratulate the North Devon district council—the EEC is also involved—on accepting the problem and putting its hand into its pocket to commission the Coopers and Lybrand report and for taking a positive stance over the issues raised. I was disappointed in parts of the report and do not accept in particular its low forecast of marina income. I congratulate the Ilfracombe town council on its support, and organisations such as the hoteliers and the guest house associations, which have been of the greatest help to me. I also thank the many grant-aided bodies which have spoken and offered help, provided—as always—that someone else does something on the way along.

If Ilfracombe is to expand the harbour must be expanded. I have carried out surveys along the English side of the Bristol channel and on the Welsh coast. There is no form of major safe harbour or marina development anywhere along the northern coasts of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Organisations as disparate as the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, which does not have a sea berth for a lifeboat in the area, and the Swansea city council, which has a marina but nowhere to sail to on our side, wish that we had a marina in Ilfracombe. There are some minor boating and fishing facilities but nothing that touches the potential of Ilfracombe or its potential harvest from the sea.

The first requirement is a harbour extension and an inner harbour which does not dry out. Then as night follows day, or in this case perhaps I should say as light follows dark, all the good things will follow to help Ilfracombe through into the 21st century. In 1984 the English tourist board produced, in conjunction with Wallace Evans and Partners, "The Study of North Devon and Somerset Yacht Harbours". The conclusion was that Ilfracombe would be the most desirable place for a major scheme.

We need a marina for 250 boats; harbour facilities for fishing boats, pleasure craft and ferries; harbour facilities for commercial and private fishing; and all the ancillary services to serve the new maritime extension to Ilfracombe: hotels, restaurants and allied developments to cope with all these new features. Shops, workshops and warehouse facilities will be needed. This will result in jobs, jobs and more jobs for our people. It will mean not just jobs for sailors from elsewhere, but jobs for young people in the docks, on the boats, in the shops and workshops. It will mean jobs for the young, including those without special skills, who will revel in the healthy, open-air life. It will also mean jobs for older people, including those who are possibly less skilled. There will be a great need for people to tend the shops, maintain the equipment and, not least, guard the premises. It will result in jobs in both existing and new firms.

Prosperity will not come from talk. If it did, every hon. Member would be a millionaire. None of this is a pipe dream. All of it is readily attainable, but, first, we need the will to carry out the work and, secondly, an organisation which can pull together the strings of economic Ilfracombe, beautiful Ilfracombe and environmental Ilfracombe, not forgetting the residents of Ilfracombe, so that neither commerce nor conservation reigns supreme but work together for a harmonious and prosperous future.

The loss of development status was a heavy blow to Ilfracombe but, although useful, it was never the key. To some extent it may have been the lock on our minds, as we sought grants when we ought to have sought opportunities. My believe is that the way forward is to find that genuine, good body which has the experience and the reputation to be acceptable not only to the population of north Devon but to the economic and environmental bodies in the great world outside. I do not believe that such a body is impossible to find. On the contrary, I have spoken to a number of organisations which might fill the Bill.

Today I am happy to be able to announce publicly for the first time that one organisation which is interested in helping fills my bill entirely. The trustees of the Dartington North Devon Trust decided last week that they wished to help Ilfracombe, if at all possible. I welcome their support with open arms. Dartington is well known and respected in the west country. In north Devon in particular the Dartington North Devon Trust has done a great deal to help us with youth training and many other projects, both social and economic. I pay special tribute to Dr. David Davies, the director of the trust. It is no coincidence that a man of his calibre should have been appointed to the Warnock commission.

A first meeting was held in this House between Dartington "chieftains", the chairman and the chief executive of the North Devon district council and myself some weeks ago. I believe that it will prove to have been a fruitful meeting. But the trust is by no means the only body that is interested. I hope that other commercial interests, including marina operators, which have been in touch with me will join us in the battle for prosperity. The locally based Ilfracombe and North Devon Heritage Wall Committee, soon to become a trust, I hope, has received substantial pledges of cash support and has, in turn, promised that this money will be made available to help build the harbour wall. Mr. Alan Kift, who originally brought to me the concept of the Ilfracombe initiative, and Mr. Nigel Vince are among the main sponsors of this committee. I pay tribute to them and to their fellow committee members, Mr. Peter Rawle and Councillor Ron Green. Councillor Green, who owns the Harcourt hotel, has offered free accommodation to an interested group of investors. Those men typify the hard workers of Ilfracombe. I must not fail them, and nor must the committee.

There is no shortage of well wishers. Devon county council, North Devon district council and Ilfracombe town council will support us. I trust that the British Tourist Association will sell us overseas and that the English tourist board and the West Country tourist board will participate. Locally, the North Devon Manufacturers' Association is one of the best, if not the best, of such organisations. Various chambers of commerce and trade and many other excellent voluntary organisations will help.

As I said earlier, the RNLI would like a water berth for its lifeboat. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food must surely approve of a decent fish quay and fish landing facilities and the Welsh tourist board — yes, Welsh—would wish to see a port on our side of the Bristol channel. Lovely Lundy Island needs a port of embarkation for visitors, and Exmoor national park will get welcome tourists from across the water in Wales.

The list of those who can offer support is almost endless. There is the Countryside Commission, the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, which has done so much to help in our part of the world2 English Industrial Estates, builders of many local light factory developments, and the Sports Council, which will provide the water sports in the extended harbour.

The Department of Trade and Industry will be involved as we improve both the trade and industry of the whole area. As we improve the environment the Department of the Environment, too, must come to us. If the next step is to find an organisation to research and put together a package, along the line somewhere finance will be needed from within the area. I understand that the Government cannot provide everything for everybody.

The sea wall extension in itself will not earn money. I praise the efforts of the Heritage Wall committee which will help us and which has pledged money running into tens of thousands of pounds. That shows the extent of local support and so far that support is still local. I am prepared to subscribe to whatever development corporation or company takes up the challenge and I believe that many others will do the same as well, with faith in the project and hope for an ultimate dividend.

It may be that whoever builds the sea wall, if we cannot get national or international Government to do the work for us, or at least subscribe considerably, may also have to be given the right to some part of the rewards from the business that will follow, perhaps through a right to marina, hotel or fish quay development. In a commercial world, those who give their time and effort are entitled to a fair reward.

I am in constant contact with the most important body in the whole matter—the North Devon district council. It controls the harbour and owns much of the adjacent land. It is a good council, full of truly independent men and women of all political shades. It is now up to that council to decide what priority and, in due course, how much finance it may be able to make available for Ilfracombe.

I look forward to the day when one ferry will be back from Swansea as another leaves for Lundy. I look forward to the day when trawlers will be landing fish for sale or for processing at Mullacott Cross. I look forward to the day when young people can carry on water sports in the extended outer harbour as the older generation perhaps watches from seats around the harbour. I look forward to the day when the tourists come to mess about in boats in the inner harbour, buying their food, fuel and sails from the traders of Ilfracombe, while the young people of Ilfracombe work to support the fun and the finances of that lovely town and the surrounding areas, all of which will benefit, from Exmoor to Barnstaple, from the success of Ilfracombe harbour.

Finally, and from my side, I look forward to the arrival of the link road, far more important than all the development grants, together with the improvement of the road from the motorway up over Blackmoor Gate and the A39 from the Exmoor side as well.

We are awaiting a ministerial pronouncement on stage 2A of the inquiry into that road. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to help on that because the decision is overdue. That on stage 2B from South Molton to Barnstaple should be with us by the end of the year and work completed around 1988.

There are so many national, provincial, local and statutory bodies that may be able to help, without mentioning the EEC social and regional funds.

The Department of the Environment has responsibility for environmental management, regional affairs, environmental protection, and sport and recreation. Ilfracombe is not within the Exmoor National Park but is, as agreed by the National Parks Authority and the English tourist board, an integral part of the park economy.

The Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for regional assistance under the Industry Act, regional policy, tourism, and small firms. Would not Ilfracombe make an ideal enterprise zone. Many departments are involved—the Department of Transport and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The problem is, which will be responsible?

The fish quay and fish landing facilities might qualify for grants under section 2 of the Fisheries Act 1955. The tourism part might receive aid from the English tourist board, for which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is responsible, although the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry deals with the subject.

Surprisingly, there are no specific grants that I can find available from the Department of Employment for starting a project which will improve employment. It might be possible to employ people on the youth training scheme or the community programme. Whether the EEC can help, now that we are no longer receiving regional funds, I do not know, but I believe that the EEC has been asked by the district council—it did so in time, by the end of March—to see whether funds can be made available to help Ilfracombe's fine but somewhat derelict pier, which is an integral part of the harbour.

The grants system is so complex that it is possible that in some way other grants might be available which I have been unable to find. Whoever takes up the job of "umbrella" man or woman to the project, with a base in Ilfracombe town, and employment for, say, two years, will have to take up the many and varied ideas that have been floated, to discuss their finance, to check on environmental considerations, and to seek prospective developers.

I ask the Minister to give me some assurance on the Government's attitude to this essay in self-help. Will he list now—or later in correspondence, if the list is too long—where we may look for help and whether the Government will look with favour on our request?

I am proud to represent an area which is fiercely proud and independent, where we Devonians have been joined by many "incomers" from up country, and where we all work together for the health and harmony of our most beautiful part of Britain.

As a footnote for the Minister — we entered the House together on the same day; he is a young man—I should like to say that, thanks to the Outlandos trust, founded by the Police pop group, and chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), a generous award has just been given to the Ilfracombe youth and community centre to help with the purchase of musical instruments. I am delighted that arrangements are in hand for me to make the presentation. But I offer my hon. Friend the promise that, if he can help us, we shall serenade him on his next visit to Ilfracombe. Since the money is funded by the Police, perhaps their hit single, "Message in a bottle" would be the appropriate tune. I look to the Minister to be tuneful and helpful to a good area.

2.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Mr. David Trippier)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) on his speech, and on his customary diligence in raising important matters which affect his constituency. As he has indicated, the various matters that he has drawn to the attention of the House traverse a number of Government Departments, including my own. I shall endeavour to cover as many points as I can in the time available to me. In any event, I give him an undertaking that I will draw the attention of the various Departments to the subjects which have been raised in the debate.

Since the Government published the White Paper on "Regional Industrial Policy" in December 1983, I have been impressed by the enthusiasm with which the people of north Devon have drawn to the attention of Ministers the problems of Ilfracombe and the ambitions and plans that they have for the town's future. I venture to say, however, that enthusiasm needs to be generated and nurtured. That has been done in no small measure by their representative in this House, my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North, whose advocacy on behalf of his constituents is second to none. They are indeed fortunate to have such an able and tenacious MP. He saw my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, last December and has managed to secure three debates on the subject in just over two years. As a result of those debates, and the dozens of letters received from his constituents, Ministers can honestly say that they are fully aware of the problems of the area.

My hon. Friend has drawn my attention to the economic study of Ilfracombe and the associated feasibility study of packages of schemes which might be promoted in or around Ilfracombe, and which was commissioned by the North Devon district council. I have seen the final copy of the report, and the number of schemes put forward for consideration by the council is very impressive and ambitious.

A seaside resort containing such facilities as a fishing quay, winter gardens, cable car, first-class hotel and other facilities would, I am sure, be attractive to many people but, like most things in life, as my hon. Friend has implied, such schemes do not come cheaply, and finances have to be secured.

The five possible options put forward in the report each contain different combinations of the schemes assessed. The common factor in them is that all have a grant element of one form or another written into costings. That is not a bad thing, provided, of course, that grants are available, but, as my hon. Friend has pointed out on numerous occasions, access to grants from the European Regional Development Fund was lost — except during the transitional period—when the Barnstaple and Ilfracombe travel-to-work area lost its assisted area status.

In four of the options, it would appear that if grants were not available the packages would fail on purely financial grounds, but interestingly one package appears to be financially viable even if no grants were available. Admittedly, that option excludes the marina scheme which I understand from the report would be extremely popular with local people.

My hon. Friend has stated today and on a number of other occasions that there should be a good road link from the M5 motorway to the north Devon coast. The proposed north Devon link road, together with the planned bypasses of Barnstaple and Bideford, will provide an excellent route.

The first stage of the A361 of the north Devon link road between the M5 at Sampford Peverell and Tiverton has been open to traffic for just over a year, and progress is being made on the other two stages of the link road.

A public inquiry was held in the early part of last year into stage 2A of the link road between Tiverton and Newtown. The inspector's report following the inquiry was delivered towards the end of October 1984 and is under consideration. My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for the Environment hope to announce their decision shortly.

My hon. Friend will be aware also that the public inquiry into stage 2B of the link road, between Newtown and Barnstaple, was concluded last month. The report of the inspector is awaited.

Proposals for the A39 Barnstaple bypass similarly were the subject of a public inquiry and my hon. Friend may know that the inspector's report was submitted last month and is being considered.

My hon. Friend has stated the importance of tourism in Ilfracombe and I accept that tourism there has been in decline for a number of years and the town is currently one of the most depressed of the south-west's traditional seaside resorts, with relatively poor facilities and accommodation. A further erosion of its market position is likely if steps cannot be taken to reverse the decline and, against that background, I understand the district council attaches considerable importance to the harbour and marine proposal which it sees as a catalyst for revitalising the local industry and attracting new investment from the private sector.

The council has been in touch with the non-statutory West Country tourist board to discuss its proposal and the WCTB agrees that a major tourism development is necessary if Ilfracombe is to have a brighter future as a resort town. Funds for the section 4 tourism grant scheme administered by the English tourist board are limited and, although some help might be available via the scheme for individual elements of the development, I accept that it could not provide a material contribution towards the cost of the harbour project as a whole.

On a more positive note, the Government will continue to provide support for the area's tourism industry through its funding of the statutory English tourist board's promotional and development activities, including the scheme of selective financial assistance for tourism projects which the board administers under section 4 of the Development of Tourism Act 1969. As I have said, the West Country tourist board has already had contact with north Devon concerning the proposed harbour and marina project and will be happy to provide advice on any other development proposals that the council and local entrepreneurs may have.

A number of local tourism projects have also benefited directly from assistance under the section 4 scheme. Since the scheme was extended to the whole of England in August 1982, grant offers totalling £154,700 have been made to 21 tourist projects in north Devon.

My hon. Friend has spoken of the desirability of reviving the fishing industry around Ilfracombe and I should like therefore to explain about the aid available from the FEOGA farm fund. The aid is available for investment projects which improve the conditions under which agricultural and fisheries products are processed and marketed. To be eligible, projects must meet the conditions laid down in EC regulation 355/77 and must involve investment facilities covered by programmes submitted by member states and approved by the Commission. New fisheries programmes for England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland respectively have been submitted to the Commission and are awaiting approval.

The scheme is discretionary and if a project is successful it will receive up to 25 per cent. of eligible costs from the EEC. The Commission selects for aid those projects which most closely meet the aims of the scheme and awards are made, by the Commission, twice a year. I should emphasise that an important condition of the scheme is that work should not have started on the project before the Commission acknowledges receipt of the application. Grant cannot be awarded for work already started.

I am informed by my colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that, although aid has not yet been sought under this regulation by processors in the Ilfracombe area, developments involving marketing and processing activities at Ilfracombe could be eligible for consideration for FEOGA grant. Since 1977, seven applications from within Devon and Cornwall have been successful in attracting aid, receiving some £400,000 from the EEC funds.

If it can be shown that there is real potential for commercial fishing development from Ilfracombe, very limited grant might be considered under the Fisheries Act 1955 for that part of the harbour cost which could be identified as relating to that development.

The position with regard to fishing potential remains as stated in the debate on 7 February 1983, when it was explained that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had no knowledge of significant unexploited fisheries potential in the Bristol channel area. I can only reiterate that if commercial assessment of such a potential indicated a need for harbour development in north Devon, grant might be considered for approved costs under fisheries legislation to the extent that it could be demonstrated that there would be a benefit to the fishing industry. My colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be pleased to give any assistance concerning eligibility of projects in Ilfracombe.

My hon. Friend will be aware that on 23 April the Ports (Finance) Bill had its Second Reading. Clause 6 repeals section 9 of the Harbours Act 1964 which gave the Secretary of State for Transport power by order to prohibit harbour development works. This completes the process of the freeing of port development started a year ago when my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport revoked the Harbour Development Order which gave effect to section 9. It reflects the Government's earlier decision that it was no longer appropriate to retain this regulatory control, which latterly applied only to harbour developments over £3 million. The effect of ending the control has been that, subject to compliance with other relevant statutory requirements, promoters of port development are free to proceed with commercially desirable developments if they can secure adequate financial backing.

Before concluding, I would like to quote a few words used by my hon. Friend in the debate in February 1983 on Ilfracombe harbour. He said:
"There is an inaccurate belief that Members of Parliament are magicians, with better or worse rabbits in the hat, or that we have magic wands. This is a case not for magic wands, but for the local council to think through and to decide how a project should be organised and controlled." —[Official Report, 7 February 1983; Vol. 36, c. 666.]
It is clear from what we have heard today that the local council has taken an initiative and started the wheels in motion.

We recognise that there are problems in Ilfracombe and also that the people who live and work there want to see a halt in its decline and to put the town on a sound industrial and social footing through the harbour project. I sincerely hope it will succeed. I can assure my hon. Friend that when any project in Ilfracombe appears to be eligible for assistance under existing schemes of support it will be given every consideration by the relevant Government Department.

I once again thank my hon. Friend for drawing these important matters to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock.