Orders of the Day — Brick and Tile Industry, Wrexham Area

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th June 1958.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

10.8 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Jones Mr James Jones , Wrexham

I wish to draw attention to the position of the brick and tile industry in the Wrexham area and the need for Government action lest conditions should deteriorate much further. It might be appropriate if I said a few words about the background of the industry and about its setting in the Wrexham industrial area. There the brick and tile industry is an old, well-established industry. Its products vary from fire-bricks made from fire-clay and fire-bricks manufactured from silica, to bricks made from shale and surface clay or marl.

The Ruabon terra-cotta bricks and tiles once had a world reputation because their rich red colour appealed to the tastes obtaining half a century or so ago and complied with the fashion of that period. In consequence, it had a very wide market at home and abroad. Indeed, some new towns built at the turn of the century, such, for example, as Llandrindod Wells, in Wales, were built almost entirely with Ruabon brick and tiles. The industry is, therefore, one of the major industries in the area.

It will be agreed, I believe, that a wide variety of industries is desirable in an industrial area. The greater the variety, the less will be the danger of having to endure the economic hardships which sometimes follow from having too many eggs in one basket. Diversification in industry is the key, I believe, to economic stability in an industrial area. In the Wrexham industrial area, the four heavy industries are coal mining, brick and tile manufacture, chemicals and steel. The fact that the area had four industries helped the district considerably during the inter-war period from becoming a derelict area, as was unfortunately the case in other parts of the Principality

The introduction of light industries in the Wrexham Trading Estate through the Distribution of Industries Act, 1945, helped the area substantially by increasing this diversification of industries to balance the traditional heavy industries to which I have already referred, but although we are anxious to get more light industries into the Wrexham Trading Estate, even so very little would be gained if in the meantime we were to allow an integral part of the industrial structure to collapse through lack of attention at this critical time. That is what we are afraid is happening at the present time in the case of the brick and tile industry.

The industry is in danger. It should not be in danger, because all the necessary resources are on the spot. If it were to pass out it would not only be a regrettable misfortune but an unpardonable episode in the industrial history of the Wrexham area. There is a wealth of raw materials—the famous Ruabon marl, which is incomparable. There is an abundance of traditional skill, that valuable asset to an industrial area, handed down from father to son. And there are excellent transport facilities, for nearly all these works are situated near railway sidings.

Thus the materials are there, the skill is there, the transport facilities are there. Yet, since last November, two brick works have closed down, one permanently and the other for an indefinite period, whilst the third has announced its intention to close. I am not referring now to the brickworks at Caernarvon and Llandudno and Buckley, which are already closed down. In addition to the actual closing down of the works, there is a general lack of confidence through the industry. Even where works are not closing down they are stacking their output or working on short time. This stacking of output cannot continue indefinitely. Sooner or later, if the demand for the output is not quickened, other works will have to close at least temporarily and maybe permanently.

The following figures which refer to North Wales are both revealing and eloquent. In 1956, the number of bricks produced totalled 104 million, but by 1957 this had fallen to 88½ million, a fall of 15 per cent. That fall is continual and, I believe, worsening. This agrees generally with the sales position. In 1956, 101 million bricks were sold compared with 87 million in 1957, a fall of 14 per cent.

Now it is because the Government cannot escape their responsibility for this state of affairs that I have sought this debate this evening. Why is the position deteriorating? The causes cannot be traced back to the industry, nor are the workers engaged in the industry responsible, because it is a fall in the demand for bricks and tiles. Why has there been a fall in demand? Local authorities have cut down their house building programmes. Some have stopped building altogether, at least temporarily. There has been a general slowing down of building, not because there is no need for building, not because we do not need houses, certainly not because we do not need factories, but mainly because of the general economic policy of the Government, especially in its monetary aspect. The credit squeeze and the continued high Bank Rate have dealt a blow to the building industry, and this is having its effect in the Wrexham area and in other parts of the United Kingdom.

I believe that it is my duty as the Member of Parliament for Wrexham to draw to the attention of the House the effect of Government policy upon the industrial activity of that constituency. Indeed, if it were peculiar to Wrexham we might have to seek a local cause for the situation, but it is not so. In the northern area 29 works have closed down in the past two years. In the north-east one of the most up-to-date works, built in 1946–47, has had to close down. The same is true of North Staffordshire and Devon. In Scotland a firm responsible for about 9 per cent. of the total production recently closed one of its works and another is half closed.

That the phenomenon is general suggests that there is a general rather than a particular reason for it, but I hope that the Minister will not expect me to be satisfied with the position in Wrexham because the trends are not dissimilar to those elsewhere. It is no comfort to a boy with toothache to be told that there are other boys suffering from toothache elsewhere. What the boy needs is a dentist and not a useless comparison with other boys. Nor is it much consolation to brickmakers in the Wrexham area to be told that brickmakers in Staffordshire or Scotland are in a similar position. What is required in Wrexham and elsewhere is the solution to the problem, and that is why I am raising the problem tonight.

The Minister may argue that the policy of the Government is to try to prevent inflation and yet not bring about any large-scale deflation. I will not argue that point tonight, for we are not discussing the economic situation as such, but I will merely say that where there is a measure of deflation building is the first casualty. A recession in the building industry is one of the first symptoms of a deflationary tendency. That, I think, is a fact accepted by all.

The Minister may seek to justify the use of the Bank Rate in support of the Government's disinflationary policy because a change in the Bank Rate can be made quickly in either direction according to circumstances. That is the theory, of course, and I do not wish to argue that point either, except in so far as it is relevant to my point tonight, and it is relevant.

The manipulation of the Bank Rate is indiscriminate. It is, as it were, a blind force operation and hits those firms which are not too handsomely placed with regard to capital reserves. Large firms are able to weather the storm, whereas smaller firms, though reputable ones, are bowled over. That is happening in Wrexham today. So we today see London bricks offered in North-East Wales and brickworks with generations of traditional skill and plenty of raw material closing down in that very area.

The skilled labour is being dissipated and there is a tendency for the industry to be concentrated on a small number of works, largely round London, and so conditions approaching a monopoly may result. In this way a large section of the Wrexham and Ruabon brick and tile industry may be knocked out. I do not want this to happen. I do not want to see repeated in this industry what has already happened in the slate industry of Caernarvon and Merioneth. It should be easier to prevent the collapse of an industry than to resuscitate it when a serious decline has set in.

Nor is it an answer that those workers rendered redundant have to some extent been placed in other employment. While we welcome the fact that that has been possible to some extent, we cannot stand idle and watch an industry declining and in some instances dying. Even assuming the correctness of the general Government policy—an assumption which will not be expected of me—is it beyond the wit of the Ministry to devise ways and means, even within the ambit of that policy, to help the industry to tide over this period of stringency?

After the war, there was an unprecedented demand for building materials. The demand was far greater than the industry could hope to cope with, yet the industry responded and sought to meet the new situation by increasing both production and productivity. Now there has been a sudden fall in demand. Now is the time for the Government to reciprocate. Just as the industry in the past responded to the Government, the Government should now respond to the industry.

In any case, the effects of Government policy are showing themselves in the Wrexham-Ruabon area, and I am in duty bound to call the attention of the House to the effects of that policy and to ask the Minister to do what he can to arrest this marked and dangerous tendency in the brick and tile industry in the Wrexham area.

10.24 p.m.

Photo of Sir Harmar Nicholls Sir Harmar Nicholls , Peterborough

I know that I can congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Idwal Jones) on the painstaking and tenacious way in which he has presented his point of view on this industry to the House, not only tonight but at Question Time over the past weeks. I also congratulate him on the skill he has shown in using this debate as a base for launching a criticism of the Government's general economic policy. He knows that the general economic policy and matters to do with employment or schemes to minimise unemployment come within the scope of other Departments whose Ministers would have been answering this Adjournment debate if it had been matters of that sort which the hon. Member wanted to pursue in any sort of detail.

While I cannot do that in the Ministry of Works, I can say with confidence that the hon. Member's criticism of the Government's actions involving the Bank Rate and such matters are contradicted by the national results attained, for the facts show—and the hon. Member is aware of it—that the general policies which he has criticised have resulted in a strengthening of the general economic base upon which all industries, including the brick and tile industry, have to work. We have the new level of gold reserves, maintenance of export markets and stability of prices which have been reflected very satisfactorily in recent months.

All those improvements justify and confirm the rightness of the policies which have been pursued by the Government and which were so astutely criticised by the hon. Member. I can only hope that the prolongation of strikes and industrial difficulties will not interfere with this very satisfactory trend. Having said that in a general way on the hon. Member's general criticisms, I know that his real keenness, as has been shown tonight and at Question Time, is for the good health of the brick and tile industry generally and particularly as it affects the Wrexham area which he represents in the House.

Frankly, at this moment the super-dismal picture painted by the hon. Member is not fully justified. It is true that the consumption of bricks in 1957 as compared with the years 1954, 1955 and 1956 has shown some falling off, but the 1957 figures—and I quote those because 1957 is the last full year for which we have records—show a reduction of 3 per cent., but a reduction over the three years which were bumper years and the best for production since the war.

In those years we were making up for lost time. We saw house building increased from 200,000 to 350,000 houses. School building and factory extensions, hospital buildings and all those projects which consume bricks had been going on and an accumulation of these things built up a backlog. That was what caused the terrific figures in those years. I do not think that anybody—I am certain the hon. Gentleman did not—expected this boom to last indefinitely. While production may have gone down by 3 per cent., if we are to have a reasonably fair comparison, it must be compared with the fact that while it was 3 per cent. lower than 1956, it was 12 per cent. higher when compared with 1951.

Photo of Mr Anthony Greenwood Mr Anthony Greenwood , Rossendale

Can the Parliamentary Secretary say how the monthly averages this year are comparing with last year?

Photo of Sir Harmar Nicholls Sir Harmar Nicholls , Peterborough

I could have done, had I been given notice, but I wish to answer the general case advanced by the hon. Member for Wrexham. Perhaps I can give those averages at some later date.

The general picture is not quite as dismal as the hon. Member for Wrexham has presented it to the House. Although a reduction is something we do not like, particularly when it affects one's own constituency, this 3 per cent, reduction, when compared with the bumper years does not deserve the extreme strictures voiced by the hon. Gentleman. I am glad to say that the delivery figures of recent weeks suggst that the 1958 figure will not be far short of 1957. For the month of April of this year, which is only the beginning of the building season, brick deliveries have amounted to 544½ million. In 1957 the monthly average was 576 million, but if one goes back again to the 1951 figure, one finds that it was down to 507 million.

This overall figure covers all types of bricks in all areas. In some places the demand for locally-produced bricks has been affected by the sales of cheaper, mass-produced bricks imported from other areas, to which the hon. Gentleman referred with sadness. But that is happening all the time and I do not think that even by inference any Government may be accounted responsible for it. It is normal progress and does not relate to any aspect of Government policy. One can see that sort of thing happening in the building industry generally. Alternative materials are being used, often to the detriment of conventional materials.

That is part of the normal process of development in the industry. Concrete blocks or reinforced concrete walling systems are taking a bigger share of the building programme, and that is bound to affect the consumption of bricks to some extent. Nor is the problem of the closing of two brickworks in the Wrexham area attributable to the Government or to Governmental policy. One closed because its supply of clay was exhausted and another because it had reached a stage where, in order to compete at all, it is having to modernise and re-equip and it was found better to do this after suspending production for, I hope, only a short time.

I was glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to the reservoir of skills in this great industry. Brick making is an old and traditional industry. Although we cannot see a continuance of the unprecedented boom of 1954, 1955 and 1956, I am certain that there will be a continuing healthy demand for clay products for many years to come. At present in the Wrexham area, despite outside competition of which I have spoken and new materials and ideas, and in spite of the closing of two factories for the reasons I have explained, the figure of employment in the brick and fire clay industry is maintaining itself reasonably well. I agree that toothache among young men does not give much satisfaction, but in order to give a clear picture of the problem, it is worth while reminding the House that in 1956, which was a peak year, employment in this industry was 1,370. In 1957 it had fallen to 1,260, a fall of 110. That is the extent of the problem which has been described by the hon. Gentleman.

Looking at the national situation, it will be seen that, despite all the charges which have been levelled at the effects of the credit squeeze and so on, in April, 1958, there were 1,022,000 men still engaged in the building and civil engineering industries. This is 30,000 men more than in 1951, although it is 50,000 less than in the peak year of 1956 to which I have referred.

The position as to tiles is not quite so simple. There are three types—roof tiles, wall tiles and floor tiles—but I will refer only to the floor tiles, because that is the type that is manufactured in the Wrexham area. I must say that the hon. Gentleman was very interesting in his account of the development of the Ruabon tile. He gave us the history and the background of that development in a useful and helpful way. As he said, these tiles stand out prominently in the new towns which were built at the turn of the century.

It is a fact that in 1957 production of the high-quality Ruabon floor tile was 10 per cent. higher than in the peak year of 1956 to which I have referred, and I think that the first four months of this year show that that rate is likely to be maintained. It has gone down slightly, not because of the demand or the general efficiency of the industry but because of the closure of one of the factories at Ruabon for modernisation. I suppose, therefore, that when that factory comes back into production it will be in a better position to meet the demands which will be made upon it.

Here again, I do not think it is right to give the impression that because there has been this slight falling off in the last month or two, for the reason which I have stated, the death knell has sounded for this great industry. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is desirable to have a variety of industries in any area. It helps to get over the quirks and difficulties which are bound to come to any industrial area.

On the general position, once we have won the battle against inflation—and I must say that the prospects of this seem brighter now than seemed possible a few months ago; all the evidence seems to point in that way—a measure of expansion which will assist all industrial areas can once again be put into train. But I do not think it would be fair to give the impression that the peak years of 1954, 1955 and 1956 should be considered to be the norm. With the changes that have taken place and the alternatives which are revealed, we must face the fact that the industry must be prepared to set itself on a lower level, but at a level which will not justify the dismal prophecies in the hon. Gentleman's speech.

I can promise the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works is watching the industry very carefully. He is in contact with all the trade associations and those responsible for the industry as well as for all sections of the building and civil engineering industry. He will certainly take into account all that has been said tonight. I know that he will advise his colleagues. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welsh Affairs, who is very assiduous in his attendance when anything touching the Principality is discussed, is here, as is my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. They will take into account all the points which have been made tonight, and it will not be for want of keen attention and fair stewardship if this industry does not have a better future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock