Colliery Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th March 1969.

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Photo of Mr Robert Woof Mr Robert Woof , Blaydon 12:00 am, 14th March 1969

I will try to respond to your request to be brief, Mr. Speaker, in following the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch).

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Fred Evans) on his choice of a Motion relating to vitally important matters that affect the economic and social life of many of our constituents. His Motion has been deliberately framed to draw attention to the need of planned industrial development following the closing down of coal mines, and this development must, in the main, turn on economic and social considerations.

It should go without saying that any informed observer of such disruptive forces as have flowed in a tidal wave over whole communities cannot remain altogether unconscious of this fact. Therefore, no doubt the House will accept that this debate is of fundamental importance. It should enable us to probe much more deeply into the inner meaning of things.

It may be argued that our economic and social progress constitute the highest phase in the history of life, but nowadays we know that life for many seems a perpetual trial. Ever deeper grows the contrast between the world in which we live and the world of our dreams. With the dark shades of economy everywhere, hope itself sometimes appears to be gasping for breath.

In discussing the backlash of pit closures, I must say that for many years it was a policy of restriction carried out by Tory Governments. The mining industry suffers badly. I was just as vitriolic as anyone against the wicked Tories, but this is worse now than ever. It is cutting back production and sacking men by the thousands.

1 have no need to quote the figures. They have been clearly illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly. If the acceleration of the run-down in manpower continues, such pressure on the industry could produce even more serious economic and social problems in having to maintain men who cannot find work. They will be a liability to the nation at a tremendous cost. What it means in human terms is that it is becoming more and more difficult for men and their families to find jobs whether in mining or elsewhere.

We realise, of course, that the Government are in a position to argue that redundancy payment schemes alleviate social consequences, but, to be frank, I am convinced that no redundancy scheme will ever solve the real problem. That can be solved only when adequate and suitable employment is provided for the men who are displaced from the industry for evermore.

To see things objectively, I take my constituency as an example—and who can blame me? Pit closures in the constituency mark the end of an incomparable area. The constituency has had a mauling. Whether or not little observais made, we are forced to face a great many human problems which have become accentuated in the painful process of disintegration. What is wanted is security of the means of livelihood and protection from the miseries and tragedies of unemployment. Of course, no one wants anyone to work in the bowels of the earth longer than is necessary, but it is equally important to recognise that many jobs for young people have completely vanished with pit closures and that recruitment is now in the dustbin of history, especially in the area which I represent.

Of the leading facts in this connection none proves more challenging than that of the increasing regiment of school leavers. Responsibility for their protection and finding employment for them will always be with us. This must play a substantial part in the scheme of things, but we cannot confidentedly say, now that mining in the Blaydon area is practically non-existent, that there is enough employment waiting for them to fulfil their aspirations and expectations.

If there is any teaching in facts, we should remember that it is some time since Durham County Education Committee realised that the major shift of the coal industry inevitably involved the need for a new structure of employment in industry, commerce and administration. As a consequence, like other responsible authorities, it has recently spent £1,656,000 on new secondary modern schools and extension of grammar schools in the Blaydon area to cater for the bulk of scholars. But the range of jobs is very limited and because of the failure to achieve a proper distribution of new industry some new thinking is clearly needed about the ways and means of encouraging reasonable ambition.

In giving details of difficulties which are upsetting the Blaydon area at present, we must acknowledge that while trying to make the best of things as they are, being unemployed for any length of time, whether through pit closures or other factors, is no surer way to the gates of hell. There is nothing more devastating to the human soul than to find that one is not wanted when one is healthy, strong and anxious to gain an honest livelihood. Irritated in the very depths of their being and reflecting on their disappointments leaves men plenty of room to lament the lack of security of their existence. The inadequate infrastructure inherited from the older industrial period in which communities were strictly based and have outgrown their size, means that the only treatment and cure is to start all over again.

That is the gloomy side, but there is another picture facing us. The population in the constituency has reached 50,000 and consolation can be gained by looking at the new surge of redevelopment. This emanates from the slogan adopted by the previous Administration, "Think ahead, think big and get cracking." That was the slogan which was given a blaze of publicity. It was part of a programme to offset the dramatic effect of the contraction of the mining industry, to create employment in time to prevent the majority of miners affected having to go on the dole for any lengthy period.

Determined not to be a depressed area, but to create a sound economic structure, this is what Durham County Council and Blaydon authority are trying to do—rebuilding the communications network in and around Blaydon, rejuvenating the area by obliterating the old buildings at a cost of £3 million to Blaydon Council with an additional £1 million invested by private enterprise.

The entire town centre of Blaydon and major road improvements will link the town with all parts of Tyneside and the proposed major roads network for the region as a whole at a cost of £3 million to Durham County Council. This is a tremendous task, unprecedented in the history of Blaydon.

It could prove to be the axis upon which future employment could be based, carefully planned and controlled with the highest standard of design and this development will be a source of considerable pride in years to come. A transformation on such a scale is difficult fully to appreciate at this point of time, but, as new roads and new houses are built so we shall be able to visualise the new Blaydon. The scheme has arisen from a combination of circumstances and it is welcomed for the reason that while such a flourishing coal producing area of the past was vital to the existence of interdependent communities it seemed natural enough that, in the conditions, the internal structure would mould social relations of human life.

But let us not overlook the fact that, with this redevelopment, we look also for modern industrial development. New roads, houses and shopping centres are all desirable, but so also are the means to work. It is to be hoped that this will come. Indeed, we must work with this objective in mind, because the disproportion of opportunity for employment must be judged by the absence of any development for the opening of new employment.

Important as it is to improve the environment and adapt ourselves energetically to changed conditions, we need to set a pattern and policy which will produce a new industrial structure to replace what we have actually lost through pit closures. I appreciate the magnitude of the task, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly has outlined. We do not under-estimate the Government's policy of positive discrimination in favour of such areas, with the highest-ever level of financial inducement to industrial firms which wish to expand there.

Having said that, and living in obedience to the relation of things, it is not astonishing that some of us who represent areas which are experiencing the ravages of such industrial misfortune are a bit fed up with being accused of not making enough noise in the House. We are charged with not speaking up in an effort to remedy the initial weakness of industrial reconstruction and advancing material benefit. What can we expect when people are helpless on a weak economic foundation? The thirst for material things is the criterion that blazes the trail and is an aspect which, I suppose, we must regard as being a characteristic of modern times.

On the matter of pit closures and the need for new industries, we have tried by every device to obtain information that is of vital importance to the future development of such areas and have tried to persuade the Government to attract new industry to remove the fears which perpetually besiege us. Without flouting common sense, what more can we do to bring about changes in the quality of economic health and all the things which touch upon the prestige of personal happiness?

At a time like the present, while advertising the fact that we are very worried about the run-down of the mining industry, we wonder where it is all going to end. If the miners are limited in their ability to produce extra wealth—the experience of the last few years does not encourage the view that jobs on a scale required will emerge in time—it carries the risk of increasing social costs.

One of the principal points in my hon. Friend's Motion is the appeal for an urgent examination of measures required to stimulate employment of males in those areas likely to be affected by pit closures". The Government are on record as having previously promised to encourage the development of new industry in areas affected by pit closures. Therefore, the Motion is a clear reminder. It is a direct appeal, meaning, in effect, that factories should be established.

I know that my hon. Friends representing mining areas will acknowledge that, before factories can be finally located, among the chief problems of the controllers of industry is that of deciding what forms of production shall take place. Together with this and other matters that are of crucial importance to the conduct of successful business, it is essential to find the means and the markets in which to sell the goods that factories are capable of producing.

I agree that the business of running an industrial economy is formidably complex. It is more than an exercise in public relations. We accept that there is no foolproof solution to our economic difficulties. I personally fully acknowledge that the Government have been overtaken by external events outside their control—the fears and meaning of continual pressure on the £ sterling, rising high Bank Rate making industrialists reluctant to borrow for investment, thus retarding employment, and the meaning of liquidity getting less and less, thereby hampering trade.

If the Government would only say, "Sorry, old boy. Staggering from one financial crisis to another, in which we ask people to make greater sacrifices, we cannot guarantee full employment until we surmount our difficulties", we might not react so despondently. I suppose that we act according to our different temperaments. Fortunately, one might expect the scope of self-help that is being brought about by Durham County Council and the Blaydon authority, to which I have referred, to reap reward within a few years.

By looking forward expectantly to the future, the idea of promoting improved communications to attract industry within travelling distance of communities affected by pit closures is something that we should not solely rely on. My hon. Friend's Motion also asks for a programme for the establishment with Government aid of industrial sites". I go further and remind the House that it has been suggested several times that the Government should use their order book as an instrument. Government contracts should be given to suitable firms on conditions that they are prepared to expand in development areas.

In the circumstances, and in the event of any absence of reliance on private industrial growth, particularly within the Blaydon area, I wish to make an outright appeal for public investment by Government Departments, which will lay a new foundation. It will give new hope, in that constituents will not feel that they have been isolated. What they really want is a chance to satisfy their impulses for work, compatible with their happiness, and we look for such support from the Government.