South-West (Regional Development)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th August 1966.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dr John Dunwoody Dr John Dunwoody , Falmouth and Camborne 12:00 am, 12th August 1966

I feel that I am fortunate at this very late stage in this sitting of Parliament to be able to introduce in the final Adjournment debate the subject of regional planning in the South-West. I feel that I am particularly fortunate because this is one of the most important subjects for my constituency and my part of the country.

The sparse attendance in the House today is to a certain extent due to the fact that many of our colleagues are at the moment in the region about which we shall be speaking because one of the most encouraging things in recent years has been the increasing tendency of hon. Members and Ministers to take their holidays in the South-West. I hope that in the next day or two some of them will read reports of this debate and will realise some of the problems which this part of the country is facing—and will also realise that the South-West is not just a holiday area but an area in which people live and work for twelve months of the year.

I have been very fortunate in the last twelve years to have lived and worked in the South-West. I am not a West Country man—I was not born there, and it takes many years truly to become a West Country man—but at least I can claim to be a West Country man by adoption. I am very concerned about the future of this region. I want to talk about the South-West as a region as a whole, and I shall try to avoid the trap that lies waiting for all of us, particularly those from the farther part of the region in being too parochial. It is very easy, because many of us have severe constituency problems, sometimes for us to look more at the local problems in our own constituencies and our own counties than at the region as a whole in the way that we should.

I am very concerned at the present position in the South-West and disturbed that we are not making the sort of progress in the south-western region which I feel we should be making. Indeed, I am particularly concerned at this time of economic crisis that the measures that have been taken by the Government—and I do not intend to discuss them in any detail—should not fall too heavily on regions such as the South-West which, to some extent, are already falling behind the rest of the country. We know from previous economic crises over the years that regions such as the South-West in years gone by have been hit particularly hard. I am very glad that the Government have seen fit in the recent measures introduced in the last few weeks to make allowances for development areas, allowances which I hope will help regions such as ours, but I can assure you Mr. Speaker, that all who represent constituencies in the South-West will be looking very carefully at the local impact of the economic measures introduced in recent weeks.

I am also disturbed about the present position in the South-West because I believe in planning, and particularly in planning on a regional basis. The keystone of progress under any progressive Government, and certainly under a Socialist Government, must be economic planning, and this must include regional planning. Over the last 50, 60 or 70 years political parties in the country and Parliament have concerned themselves with the social and economic inequalities in our society, and particularly with the in-qualities between different groups in our society—between different occupations and between people of different wage levels. This concern has produced dividends. Many of the more glaring inequalities have been ended and we have a fairer and more just society today than in days gone by.

But while we have been going some way toward solving this problem, a different set of inequalities has arisen in our country, of a vertical rather than a horizontal nature—inequalities between different parts of the country.

We have seen the gap widening between the poorer parts of Britain, like the South-West, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the richer parts, like London, the South-East and the Midlands. While the country as a whole has become more affluent, the gap between the richer and poorer areas has become wider. If we are to end this inequality, we must have effective regional planning.

I am disturbed because while we can see worthwhile signs of progress in other regions and while the measures introduced in past years by successive Governments to stimulate regional development are paying off in many areas, including some of the poorer parts of the country—with many dramatic and encouraging developments taking place—I fear that progress is not so rapid in the South-West.

The problem facing us in the South-West region is a problem partly of geography and partly of economics. First, the geographical problem. This is linked to the size of the region. By the size of the south-west region I do not mean just its population, which is not particularly large compared with other regions, or its geographical area in terms of square miles. I refer to its overall dimensions.

One cannot emphasise too frequently that the distance from one end of this region to the other is the same as, for example, the distance from London to the Scottish Border. From London to Carlisle is the sort of distance one must travel to go from one end of the South-West to the other. The distance from Bristol to London is only just over half the distance from Bristol to West Cornwall. In other words, one is only one-third of the way to the far end of the region when one has got to Bristol. People who should know better tend to think of the south-west region as a compact area based on and around Bristol.

We in the South-West are also plagued by the problem of geographical isolation from other centres of population, particularly from the densely populated areas from which we must obtain many of our supplies and to which many of our products go to be sold. We are, therefore, more dependent on transport than most other regions.

Another problem in the South-West is that it includes two different parts, the northern half based on Bristol, an industrialised area which I regard as an extension of the industrial Midlands, and what one might describe as the Far West of the region, the southern half, with its mainly rural counties of Devon, Cornwall and parts of Somerset and Dorset. The difference between the two halves of the region is dramatic. There is a marked difference in the general economic level and in employment opportunities and prospects. One need only look at the unemployment figures for the South-West generally covering the last 10 or 15 years to see the gradation of figures and the fact that the further west one goes the worse the position becomes. Wage and salary levels are not so high in the Far West as in the area in and around Bristol.

This realisation that there are two parts to the South-West and that their problems are different because of the different economic backgrounds and transport difficulties has led to the suggestion that the South-West should be subdivided and that there should be an area based on Plymouth, consisting of Devon, Cornwall and parts of Somerset and Dorset, which would be regarded as an entity. Planners should realise that these two halves have many different problems.

I must issue a word of warning, because a far west area based on Plymouth is not large enough in population, industrial resources and so on to be one viable region. Although we can think in terms of subdividing it to a certain extent, a rigid division of the South-West region would not be helpful.

As I see it, of all the domestic political policies, the keystone to our progress and development in this region is transport. It is a subject about which the regional planning authorities are already deeply concerned, and I hope that they will continue to be so. Our road, rail and air links with the rest of the country really are our lifeline, but it is no exaggeration to say that they are woefully inadequate. That has been said many times, and I have no doubt that we shall go on saying it. We may never be completely satisfied, but the present situation is just deplorable.

Our two main link roads, the A30 and the A38, are congested from the beginning of the year to its end. We are not just facing a dreadful seasonal problem—there are traffic problems on our southwest main roads throughout the year. I know that progress has been made, that improvements have been carried out and bypasses constructed, but not at anything like the rate the economic situation demands.

These two main link roads meet and cross at Exeter, at the infamous Exeter bypass, which is a classic example of Britain's traffic thrombosis. I am certain that at this moment queues are building up on the Exeter bypass, and if any hon. Member has any doubts about the size of the problem I would invite him to accompany me and my family by car to the West Country later today, when I know that I will be able to give him some very practical experience of our problems.

I believe that after a period of considerable doubt and anxiety we are beginning to see the light with our railway services, and that the modernisation programme and the suggestion of increasing integration of the various services holds a hope of effective rail links between the South-West as a region and the remainder of the country.

I am very concerned at the almost total absence of an air link, because I believe that air travel in such an area as this will be of increasing importance. We are a long way from other centres of population. Many of our people live well over 200 miles from London, and at that distance air travel is very competitive with other forms of transport. There is no air service to the South-West. and, outside Bristol we do not have an airport that we could regard as adequate for the needs of the South-West.

Turning to industrial development, we are desperately short of opportunities of work for many of our young people. In the Bristol part of the region there is considerable diversification of industry, and that is true also of much of Somerset and Gloucestershire. There are doubts in Bristol about the future of the aircraft industry, and doubts, as well, about the future of the docks there, but the problems in that part are not of the magnitude of those in the remainder of the region. in the far west part of the region, city and town are dependent on one industry, and it seems to matter little whether one goes to the big city or the small town. I have been fortunate in recent years to have had the opportunity to contest three different divisions in the South-West—Tiverton, Plymouth and my present division of Falmouth and Camborne. They are all very different divisions, but in each of them the same factor is present—town or city utterly and completely dependent on one industry. That is a potentially dangerous state of affairs. We must have more diversification of industry.

Throughout the region, agriculture and the tourist industry are of considerable importance. The tourist industry, in particular, is a very useful foreign currency saver though, unfortunately, not a positive foreign currency earner to the extent that I would like to see. I hope that we shall get more foreign tourists coming to the region. The trouble is that tourism is seasonal, and not an ideal solution for many of our problems. The tourist and hotel trades often explain in considerable detail the various things which they think Ministries should do to improve their prospects. If I might suggest one thing which is needed, it is to start thinking seriously about how to help the tourist industry by spreading school holidays so that we do not get the dreadful seasonal rush which we are experiencing in the South-West at the moment.

In the South-West we need improved communications. I think I am justified in calling, as my hon. Friends and I have called before, for a road of motorway standard throughout the South-West. I know that it would be expensive, but when we think of the future I think we are justified in calling for a really first-class link with the remainder of the country. We also need to give new opportunities for youngsters who are forced out of the region because they cannot find the sort of work they would like to do there.

To do these things we have to start thinking about new and more selective inducements for people to set up industry. Many of the inducements which are offered are very effective in the national sense, but in the development areas themselves there are black spots remaining and some methods of giving inducements favour some development areas at the expense of others. We have to try to introduce more flexibility and a more positive and dynamic approach to regional planning. There has to be even more consultation, and it must be a more continuous process than it has been in years gone by.

There is no doubt that those who represent constituencies in the South-West—I believe I am speaking for hon. Members on both sides of the House-believe in the region's future. We believe it has a very bright and cheery future. Some of us are rather disturbed by some recent statements made by those in positions of considerable power and responsibility in regional planning. We have to remember that from this region has come much of the wealth and prosperity of the nation which we have today. From Bristol the merchant venturers went out in years gone by and brought back much of the wealth which we still retain. From Devon explorers went throughout the world. It was in my constituency, in Camborne, that one of the greatest inventions of all time was made by Richard Trevithick. who invented and operated the first steam locomotive.

These enthusiasms and this inventiveness are still in the South-West. We need this enthusiasm and energy and this belief in our region to be harnessed in the regional planning machinery. To those who may have doubts about the future of the South-West, I say make way for others because there are plenty who believe in its future. The people who live in the South-West certainly do so. Given enthusiastic leadership and effective regional planning, we can share more fully in the prosperity of Britain and contribute more to the progress of our country as well.