Shopping Facilities, Middlesbrough

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th July 1953.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Molson Mr Arthur Molson , High Peak 12:00 am, 30th July 1953

Naturally I make no complaint that the hon. and learned Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr. Simon) and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) should take this opportunity of raising in the House the great needs of Middlesbrough and the surrounding districts for additional shopping facilities. The destruction caused during the war, in some cases by enemy action and in other cases by the malice of small boys, and the great increase of population as a result of industrial and housing development, all establish a very strong case not only for re-building the shopping facilities which were enjoyed in Middlesbrough before the war, but for making such extensions as are needed to meet the greatly improved circumstances of Middlesbrough and district.

The task of administering building licensing is an extremely distasteful one. We inherited it from the Government which preceded us and it is one of those controls which we have found it necessary to maintain. We have relaxed it as much as possible and we look forward to continuing to relax this building control until it can be abolished completely. In administering it, we have to take two things into account. The first is the need for the work in any specific case where an application is made; the second is the availability of investment, materials, and labour.

It is obvious that so soon after the war, when there are still arrears of maintenance to be made up, when so much war damage has still not been completely made good, when employment is full, and when building for housing estates is at a higher level than it has been since before the war, that it is impossible for us to grant licences in all cases where need can be made out.

Let me begin by making the point that we draw no distinction between private enterprise and the Co-operative Society. When the deputation came to see me no application for a building licence had been received from the Co-operative Society. Even so the applications for £1¼ million for the three departmental stores that had been destroyed was more than it was possible for us to grant at that time, in spite of the fact that the gentlemen who came to see me made out an extraordinarily strong case. If it was not made with the forensic skill of my hon. and gallant Friend, at any rate the facts were all there.

I am glad to know that my answer was not thought to be unsympathetic. I did say to them that although it was impossible to grant licences at this time, they had established a need for additional shopping facilities in Middlesbrough, which would entitle them to some measure of priority as soon as we were able to relax the rules which we apply at the present time. I should like to say to the right hon. Gentleman, now that he has advanced the claim of the Co-operative Society, that it will be considered in exactly the same way as those of the privately owned departmental stores.

My hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman have referred to the great development that has taken place in and around Middlesbrough. While they have established a great need they have also been proving part of my case, which is how extraordinarily difficult it is for us to grant licences for shops. I must be quite plain about it, shops as such do not enjoy any priority at the present time.

This Government have, in the first place, sought to give priority to all industries which could show that they were likely to be able to increase the nation's exports. Further, at the General Election we gave a pledge that we would try to increase very greatly the number of houses built, and, therefore, there has been thrown upon the building industry a great additional burden. To that has to be added the defence programme. Again, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his Budget speech that the licensing of factories was going to be very much facilitated.

During the first six months of this year there has been an increase of about 60 per cent. in the value of work licensed for factories as compared with the corresponding period of last year. In the case of Middlesbrough, the developments that are taking place are most remarkable. Imperial Chemical Industries have a programme of development in Wilton amounting in building work still to be done to £10½ million and they have another £2 million of work to do in Billingham. Dorman Long have a programme of about £6½ million.

When we look at the labour position, we find that in the Middlesbrough zone the outstanding vacancies for building operatives, skilled workers of various kinds and labourers, are very much greater than they are in any other zone in the Northern region. There is a programme of work now in hand in the Middlesbrough area which, as far as we can estimate, is likely to keep the building industry fully occupied until the end of 1954.

I turn to answer the questions of my hon. and learned Friend. We do not draw any distinction between damage done by accidents or civil malice and war damage. We try to grant our licences solely upon a consideration of need. I told the deputation which saw me on 25th June that, generally speaking, there is a ban on the building or rebuilding of shops. The two great exceptions to that are that we license shops in newly built up areas and we also grant licences for alteration of shops in cases of change of user.

The Gateshead and Sunderland jobs to which my hon. and learned Friend referred were licensed in 1947 and 1948 before the stricter rules were introduced as a result of the financial crisis which was threatening in 1951. The Leeds scheme to which he referred was given special treatment in quite exceptional circumstances. It had been necessary, largely because of danger that was arising, to allow the work to be started and it was extremely uneconomic to hold it up; but that was entirely exceptional treatment.

The Ministry tries conscientiously to treat all parts of the country fairly. We believe that, the national ceiling for investment being what it is, the treatment accorded to the North-East Coast is entirely in accordance with what has been done elsewhere. It is not possible for us to make any weightage, as my hon. and learned Friend asked, in the case of districts which perhaps before the war had indifferent shopping facilities. It is hard enough to administer a licensing scheme even according to broad general principles, but if we tried to take into account considerations of that kind, which must necessarily be largely matters of opinion, we should very soon be accused of allowing our prejudices to influence our decisions. We prefer to base them upon financial and statistical calculations.

Both the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. and learned Friend asked what were the hopes for the immediate future. The very prosperity and development of Middlesbrough at present makes it especially difficult for us to grant licences for anything which is not a matter of outstanding national importance. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman or my hon. and learned Friend would ask that departmental stores should be given priority over either the development of the steel industry or that of the chemical industry upon which the future prosperity not only of Middlesbrough but of the country as a whole so largely depends.

Therefore, I must say that, because of the great industrial development which is now taking place, it will be difficult for us to grant these licences. At the same time, the whole system of building licensing will be reviewed in the autumn. We are hoping to make it more flexible and more generous, and I repeat what I said to the deputation—that I think that the needs of Middlesbrough for shopping facilities are quite outstanding.