Northern Region (Economic Situation)

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th February 1971.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Urwin Mr Thomas Urwin , Houghton-le-Spring 12:00 am, 19th February 1971

It is not nonsense: it is the absolute truth.

We can also claim that a system like this must provide a strong attraction for new industries which are thinking of changing their industrial location. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned three, four or five sewerage schemes which he has or will authorise. Is it not a fact that there was a scheme in preparation when he took office, and that some work had already been done with the objective of stepping up the allocation of public expenditure in this field? I know that some work was done: whether he has inherited that or whether it is entirely new, only he can know.

What I claim is that the Northern Region, in a period of severe economic strictures, has been heavily cushioned against the worst impact of the national economic situation. The right hon. Member referred to £1,000 million injected between 1965 and 1969; it is a matter for conjecture whether his Government, in a similar situation, would have been as generous as that.

The plain fact of life is that, by 18th June, 1970, there was a new feeling abroad in the Northern Region. There was a buoyancy, a new spirit beginning to develop, despite the high unemployment figures. [Laughter.] The hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) may laugh. I am not surprised; after sleeping so long and talking so long, she is entitled to laugh. But what I am saying is the absolute truth.

The Secretary of State himself this morning paid me the compliment of saying that, of all the Ministerial visits paid to the region when I was Minister for the North, half were made by me. I was flying between here and the Northern Region seeing people twice, sometimes three times, a week. I regarded that as part of my responsibility and I wanted to see the problems at first hand so that I was better able to try to resolve them with my colleagues in Government. As I said, a new spirit and confidence was beginning to be formed in the Northern Region.

The Motion refers to the doctrinaire weakening of regional policies by Her Majesty's Government". The doctrinaire approach to which my hon. Friends have referred began a year ago, at the famous Selsdon Park weekend of hibernation. It was as a result of that conference that the Conservative Party emerged fully equipped, we were informed, with policies clearly defined and ready to swing into action. They had a prescription to provide the cure for all the ills of the nation when they became the Government.

No doubt they had already decided on the measures that were necessary to reduce unemployment and prices "at a stroke". We have seen the abysmal failure which has attended those much-lauded promises. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) dealt effectively with these matters in their excellent speeches yesterday.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) spoke, when in opposition, in the debate last year and gave the first glimpse—afterwards more fully revealed in the Conservative Party Manifesto—of the strong regional policy that the Conservatives intended to pursue, should they be elected. The announcement at that time—that investment grants would be replaced by investment allowances and that R.E.P. would be withdrawn by 1974—first precipitated the crisis of confidence. That was aggravated when the official statement was finally made last October, though it was not even a shock to us because we had steeled ourselves to that sort of situation developing.

It was the mechanics, the manner and the timing of the announcement which caused apprehension to both hon. Members and observers outside. When the whole situation cried out for consolidation or a retention of the status quo, at least until the much-vaunted review of regional policy was completed, hon. Gentleman opposite did the reverse.

The Motion is in precise terms and typifies the actions of Conservative Governments. Their political dogma must be satisfied. Time does not permit me to quote extracts from Press reports which show how concern over the situation spread far beyond the confines of this House. Suffice to say that as early as 11th November, a couple of weeks after the statement was made in the House, the Business Editor of the Northern Echo commented at length on the subject in an article headed: The North cries out in the dark for more jobs". He castigated the Government for creating uncertainty and pointed out the fear that existed that something worse was likely to follow.

It was revealed that there was a continuing and alarming decline in the number of inquiries for I.D.C.'s. Peter Jay, Economics Editor of The Times, wrote an excellent article on 17th January last headed "Northern advance in jeopardy". I urge hon. Gentlemen opposite to read it. I put the blame for the present situation fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Government and not on those of their predecessors who left office on 18th June last. It blames them quite properly for the situation which they had allowed to develop. Local authorities, too, shared this deep concern. The Government have most certainly created a situation which can scarcely be described as conducive to badly needed industrial investment in the Northern Region.

The effect of the new industrial policy has been appalling. A calamitous situation has developed, which is reflected by the information about I.D.C. approvals for 1970. One sees from OFFICIAL REPORT for 1st February, 1971, that for the first two quarters of 1970—and this includes Selsdon Park, and all that—a total of 5,613,000 sq. ft. of factory space was approved, estimated to produce 13,900 jobs. The crisis of confidence is clear when we look at the last two quarters, when only 2,793,000 sq. ft. of industrial space was approved, giving an additional 4,400 jobs when that development took place.

My hon. Friends have gone a little further this afternoon by referring to January of this year, the next following month, when, horror of horrors, one industrial development certificate was approved for the whole Northern Region—a region with over 60,000 people unemployed. This is the Government which dare to attempt to lay at our door the responsibility for the present unemployment situation in the region.

No doubt the 35 people who will get new jobs as a result of the grant of that one industrial development certificate for 22,000 sq. ft. of factory space will rejoice—they may have a wage packet to take home at Christmas—but it is doleful news indeed for the rest of the 66,000 unemployed in the region, including many school-leavers of 16 and 17 years of age who have yet to obtain their first employment in a region which has been so badly neglected for so long by Conservative Governments. Is this indicative of a much-vaunted strong regional policy, or is it not a deliberate attempt to keep unemployment at this level, or even to push it higher?

The right hon. Gentleman has talked of the difference between investment grants and tax allowances. He has said—and others of his colleagues are on record as saying the same—that the North will benefit just as much under this as under the previous system. It has been estimated that the very fact that one system replaces the other means that the whole package as it existed becomes 15 per cent. less in value to the developer.

At least one Minister described the North not very long ago as a pensioner. He will probably rejoice in the saving of subsidies to these people who have so long been denied employment. The hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth, speaking from these benches in a similar debate last year, said that the Motion then moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) was somewhat fulsome; that she could not agree with it but that she could understand why he wanted to poke his Minister. She said that she would like to do the same because that was how to get things done. I agree entirely.