Orders of the Day — Industrial Development (Small Boroughs and Towns)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th April 1961.

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

11.9 p.m.

Photo of Mr Henry Pott Mr Henry Pott , Devizes

After the long debate which we have had on the Budget, it may appear that the subject which I am raising is somewhat mundane and of little importance, but in my opinion it is very closely connected with the major problem of industrial output in this country. Although in any small town the area of industrial production will be small, if it is aggregated over the whole country it becomes a fairly large factor in our output.

I raise the matter tonight because in my constituency, the ancient borough of Devizes, we have just had a further factory close and are finding the greatest of difficulty in enticing new industries to come into the area. Failure to do so means that the capital invested in buildings and industrial hereditaments goes out of production. Also, rate revenue is lost on the sites. Much more important, however, is that the skilled labour force has no employment in its home town.

Largely as a result of the efficiency of Conservative policy during the past ten years, we have no serious unemployment in south-west England, but we do find that, if a factory closes in one of our smaller towns, skilled workmen are often forced to commute 10, 15 or 20 miles a day to have new employment. It is my experience that it has an ill effect on the efficiency and output of workpeople if, day after day, through all weathers, they have to make such long journeys to their place of employment. Also, after they have done it for some months, they are very tempted to try to find accommodation nearer their place of work, with consequent complications in stimulating the demand for houses in areas already short of accommodation.

A further ill effect occurs when large numbers of children leaving school wish to receive training either as apprentices or in a skilled trade. Many parents who take their responsibilities seriously decide that they must move their homes to another area where the skilled man can have employment and, at the same time, supervise his children during their period of training. This leads to a serious imbalance between the skilled and unskilled sectors of the labour force, and, as I think my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will agree, we have had plenty of experience recently to show that, where we have an imbalance between the unskilled and the skilled sectors of our labour force, the area becomes supersensitive to even quite minor trade recessions.

I have made inquiries to find out why new industries have been unwilling to come into the small towns. This kind of thing has frequently happened in the past. The factory which closed down in my area was the ultimate successor of a clothing industry in the seventeenth century. It became a snuff factory, then it became a tobacco factory, and now it has finished altogether.

Incoming industries face two major problems. The first is to find houses for key workers who are needed if a new factory is to be opened. My hon. Friend has no responsibility in this. It is a matter for the local authorities. In passing, I should say that, if it is to the benefit of an area to have new industries coming in, many local authorities will have to reconsider their method of allotting available accommodation. I know how difficult it is for small authorities. I know only too well the enormous pressure that is brought upon them if they give a house to anyone who is not an old inhabitant in the area. If, however, it is in the national interest and in the interest of the locality that industry should be maintained in their areas, they must be willing to make the housing available.

The second problem that arises falls fully within the province of my right hon. Friend the Minister. I am told that when inquiries are made regarding vacant industrial sites, the next step is to inquire through the local or provincial offices of the Ministry concerning the labour situation in the area. The Department, with its usual accuracy, informs the applicant that there is no pool of unemployment in the district. I can therefore well understand why some of the firms decide that it is not an area into which to move, but I believe that those facts do not give the true position of the labour situation in the area. If one were able to point out to the would-be industrialist who wants to open up in the district that there was a potential skilled labour force of a considerable number of people who had to seek a source of employment outside the area, we might find industrialists much more willing to come to the district.

If we are to maintain virile and efficient small communities of a semi-rural nature, it is essential that we create a balanced community which enables the skilled section of the community and the young who wish to enter industry to get opportunities in their home area. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary whether it would be possible for him to consider not only making available to would-be employers the number of people on the unemloyed register, but to give an idea of the skilled staff who daily leave the district to find work in other areas.

11.17 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Thomas Mr Peter Thomas , Conway

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Pott) has raised an interesting and, as he said, an important problem. It is interesting because it arises not from a situation of depression and unemployment, as so often we find in Adjournment debates, but from prosperity and full employment. My hon. Friend has referred to his constituency and the area and he has said that thanks to the activities of the Conservative Government, there is no serious unemployment in the area. There is, in fact, very low unemployment in the area.

In the latest figures which I have, the provisional figures for Wiltshire, for example, show that on 10th April the percentage of unemployment for the county was 0·7 per cent. In the town of Devizes it was 0·6 per cent., in Melksham, which is seven miles from Devizes, it was 0·8 per cent. and in Chippenham, 0·4 per cent. Therefore, this is an interesting and important point that my hon. Friend has raised. It is important because it shows that even in areas of full employment such as that, real problems can arise.

It is true, as my hon. Friend has said, that many of the residents of Devizes and similar small towns work outside the place where they reside. In Devizes, I believe that they go to Trowbridge, Melksham Calne and Chippenham. To our knowledge, those seem to be the main centres, and not many people go much further a field. I agree that long journeys to work may well impair efficiency and that it is desirable, where possible, to avoid adding to the existing congestion in large urban areas. No doubt, it is true that the ideal situation is an industrial structure which is well diversified from the point of view of both industries and occupations. But unfortunately this is an ideal which is extremely difficult to achieve particularly for this crowded island of ours, and with modern transport it is natural for travel-to-work links to develop between nearby areas.

I think it is right to say that it is not reasonable to expect a small town by itself to provide a full range of employment opportunities. One does not even find that in the large towns, because many large towns are heavily dependent upon one or two important industries which, as my hon. Friend said in relation to a small town, would be super-sensitive to trade recessions.

But I agree that diversification of industry is desirable everywhere possible. I know that my hon. Friend will agree when I say that as far as the Government are concerned, our priority of activity must be the needs of high unemployment areas, and our distribution of industry policy, both in the incentives offered under the Local Employment Act and the controls exercised under the system of industrial development certificates, are framed to that end. I am sure my hon. Friend would also agree that it would not be in the interests of an area itself to encourage industrial expansion where labour is scarce, and the Government's main efforts must be directed to seeing that developments are steered to the areas where they are most needed.

However, that does not mean that industry cannot go to other and more prosperous areas such as the areas that my hon. Friend has mentioned. If, for instance, there were a vacant factory in Devizes, the prospective employer would not need an industrial development certificate. But this, as I understand it, is the problem as my hon. Friend sees it, and I hope that I am right. He says that if a factory closes, such as the case that he mentioned—the impending closure of the Imperial Tobacco Company factory in Devizes—then people who may be redundant when that factory closes are very soon absorbed and there is no obvious pool of unemployment. There is a prospective employer coming into the area looking to see if it is worth while taking up that empty factory, and if there is no skilled labour available he is not interested in taking up the factory.

Before I deal with the points which ware raised by my hon. Friend, it may be as well if I refer to the impending closure of the Imperial Tobacco factory, which is due to close on 31st May. Obviously, the first and most important question concerns the men and women who are employed in this factory and who will become redundant, and on this at any rate I can give my hon. Friend encouraging information about the employment position.

About ten of the workers concerned have already found other jobs and are shortly leaving to take them up. In addition, some of the skilled workers are being offered alternative jobs by their present employer in Bristol if they want them. Meanwhile my officers in Devizes have arranged to take advance registrations from the remainder. As far as the women are concerned—and they form the bulk of the labour force of this factory—there are good prospects of placing those who become redundant in food, processing, distribution and footwear firms in nearby areas. I understand that these firms will be able to arrange transport to bring these women to and from their new jobs.

As to the men, I am sure that the younger men will not find any difficulty in getting other jobs. They should find openings fairly easily in engineering firms within the area. But I should add that there may be difficulties in placing some of the older workers who become redundant, and our officers in the Ministry of Labour will make every effort to find them jobs as quickly as possible. I am also informed that the Imperial Tobacco Company has agreed to make severance payments, based on the length of service, to those who become redundant. I mention that because I know that my hon. Friend is extremely interested in everything that happens in his constituency and will be anxious to know what is happening to those who will become redundant.

The main point that he put was in relation to information which is given by our local offices to prospective employers. I think that is the particular point on which he would like information. When a firm is thinking of setting up or occupying a new or vacant factory, one of the first things it looks for is an available supply of labour.

Will there be enough men and women to fill the new jobs, particularly the skilled jobs? Obviously such a pool of labour is more readily available in towns where there is high unemployment, for example in the development areas but, as my hon. Friend suggested, in towns where unemployment figures are low, such as in his own constituency, a different problem arises. Skilled labour often lives in the town but does not go to work there; that is, the skilled workers commute to other areas.

My hon. Friend asks whether we could not encourage small firms to develop in towns like Devizes by telling them of the potential supply of skilled and unskilled workers now travelling long distances to work and who would prefer to work in their own area. My officers would certainly refer prospective employers to the potential supply of labour from among commuters, but my hon. Friend must appreciate that those workers may not wish to change their jobs because of the better wages or conditions they already enjoy or because they find their present jobs more congenial. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that it would be quite wrong for the Ministry to try to encourage employers to poach labour from one another, but some who commute would prefer local employment and they register at our local offices for this purpose. They would be registered for new vacancies in their own areas when they arose and the prospective employers would be informed of their existence.

My officers, of course, do not have comprehensive information about workers who travel to work in other areas but I assure my Friend that the staffs of local offices do their best to explain the full implications of the pattern of local employment to prospective employers. They do not rely simply on unemployment figures which, I agree, do not tell the whole story in many cases. This was the real matter which my hon. Friend directed at me, and I assure him that every assistance will be given by the officers in the Ministry of Labour to any prospective employer who wishes to go into Devizes to take over any vacant factory space that exists.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.