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English Estates

Volume 165: debated on Wednesday 17 January 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the future of English Estates.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade
(Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

As already announced, a consultant's study is looking at a variety of aspects of English Estates' activities.

Given that his father was a founder director of the enterprise as long ago as 1936, does the Secretary of State accept that there must be some remorse and resentment because the Government may dismantle the corporation in the near future when the consultant's report is produced? Will the Secretary of State make a statement on that? About 5,000 factory units provide a large amount of employment in areas such as the north-west that are experiencing industrial decline. At 1989 prices, since the last year of the Labour Government—1979—the north-west has suffered to the tune of about £180 million through lost regional selective assistance and regional development grants.

I shall take the hon. Gentleman's points in the reverse order. First, 1979 was a bleak time indeed for the north-west and the regions, but the situation has greatly improved since we have had 10 years of sound Conservative Government. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's acknowledgement of that. Secondly, I have no intention of dismantling English Estates. It might be of value to use the large amount of capital that is invested in factories in more productive directions in future, but that will not affect the factories themselves. Thirdly, I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tribute that he paid to my father for responding to the needs of the time when he assisted in setting up English Estates. I, too, intend to respond to the needs of the time in the most helpful way possible.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the headquarters of English Estates is on Tyneside. May I draw his attention to the considerable part that English Estates has paid in the success story of the transformation of industry and commerce in the north-east? In particular, I commend the quality of management of English Estates. We should retain that asset in future.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree that the cradle of English Estates' birth was in the north-east, and its activities there have been immensely beneficial to that region. Needs and requirements change at all times, and it is correct that we should look at how best to help the regions, particularly through the vehicle of English Estates and, if necessary, make changes. I have not received the consultant's report, but when I do I shall report to the House on the Government's conclusions on it.

Hon. Members are interested in what the Secretary of State has said, but there are bleak times ahead for small and medium-sized businesses. It has already been pointed out that English Estates operates about 5,000 small and medium-sized businesses around the country, with a value in excess of £400 million. Will the Secretary of State give a clear commitment that English Estates will not be privatised and that, when he receives the consultant's report, he will consult widely with people who have been assisted and people who, in future, will look to English Estates to help small businesses with a technology base?

I do not believe that there are bleak times ahead for small and medium-sized businesses in this country. The future holds great prospects, provided that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are kept out of office.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable success of English Estates in my constituency, the only county in the United Kingdom that is a development area under the Rural Development Commission. Might an alternative be for English Estates to divest itself of its property on the market and start all over again in areas where private enterprise is still not always providing the nursery units that are essential to the Government's policy of self-employment? The Government have achieved a tremendous record in start-up businesses and self-employment—the largest number in the history of the country.

The function that English Estates has performed so valuably has been to provide factory space, both large and small, managed and unmanaged, in areas where the economic situation was so unfortunate that the private sector was not prepared to do that. However, that situation has changed in many parts of the country, but not in all. We now want to see how best the large capital that is employed by English Estates can be deployed for the benefit of the nation as a whole.