Industry (North-West Kent)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th November 1972.

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11.41 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Trew Mr Peter Trew , Dartford

I welcome this opportunity of raising the question of industrial decline in north-west Kent. The north-west Kent area comprises the parliamentary constituencies of Dartford, which I have the honour to represent, and Gravesend. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White) in his place tonight. He will, no doubt, be seeking to catch your eye later in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

North-west Kent has a proud industrial history. It was the home of the first British paper mill and it has for long been an important centre of cement manufacture and heavy engineering. But unhappily over the past few years it has seen a series of factory closures and redundancies. During the five years ending in 1971 there were 16 factory closures notified to the Department of Employment, involving a total of 2,350 redundancies. The effect of this rundown in the area has been most marked in the traditional industries in the area, namely paper and cement manufacture and heavy engineering.

During the nine years from 1961 to 1970 the number of jobs in those three traditional industries declined from 21,800 to 17,200—a loss of 4,600 jobs, or very nearly one in five. Perhaps the most significant fact is that by far the greater part of those jobs were lost in the last four years in the period from 1966 to 1970. Despite this, the unemployment figures in north-west Kent have not reached the high levels that exist else-where in the country, or indeed in certain areas in Kent.

I am pleased to see here my hon. Friends the Members for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) because in their constituencies they have local unemployment problems which are very severe, about which they are rightly concerned. One reason why the unemployment figures are not as high as one might have expected is that some of the redundant workers have succeeded in getting other work locally, but despite this the number of total male jobs has still fallen over the years from 42,000 in 1961 to 40,800 in 1970.

Another reason why unemployment is not as high as one would expect is that many redundant workers have found work outside the area but within commuting distance and have continued to live in it. This was revealed in some significant figures given in a written reply by the Under-Secretary of State for Employment on 5th May. These showed that the percentage of males resident in Dartford and district and employed locally had fallen from 84 per cent. in 1961 to 80·3 per cent. in 1971. In the Gravesend, Swanscombe and Northfleet area the decline was even more significant—from 89·4 per cent. to 79·5 per cent. in both cases the tendency was accelerating during the later part of the period.

In other words, the character of northwest Kent is changing gradually from that of a thriving industrial area in its own right into a dormitory for other areas. This is happening because the declining traditional industries are not being replaced sufficiently by new industries. The reason is twofold. The first reason stems from the Government's regional policy. Quite rightly, the Government are concerned to stimulate industrial development in the depressed parts of Britain, a policy that I wholeheartedly support.

As a result of that policy, however, there is a tendency to regard the whole of south-east England as a prosperous area which does not need development, which results in a tendency to overlook or give insufficient weight to the localised problems of areas like north-west Kent where there is a decline of traditional industry.

To be fair to the Government, they have been generous in their grant of industrial development certificates in the area, and we are grateful for that. But, sadly, this has not arrested the loss of jobs in the area.

Perhaps the main reason why there has been insufficient new industry is the negative planning policy of Kent County Council. This is typified in the statement on the North West Kent Draft Town Map, which is now under review, dated February, 1971. Paragraph 2.2.2 says: The policy for industrial development stated in the approved Thames-side Town Map will he continued in the North-West Kent draft Town Map, namely that new industry will not normally be permitted within the area of the map. Areas allocated for primarily industrial or warehousing purposes will be reserved primarily for the relocation of existing firms now inappropriately sited and which cannot move outside the draft town map area, and for any essential expansion of firms already tied to the area. To be fair to Kent County Council, I think I speak for my hon. Friends representing Kent constituencies in applauding its initiative in appointing an employment opportunities officer to stimulate industrial development in Kent and provide job opportunities in north-west Kent. But it seems that he is having to work against the policies of his own council, which is making it more difficult to provide new job opportunities in that part of Kent.

There is no doubt that the area is declining. Figures show that the process is accelerating. This is unsatisfactory, for two reasons. First, it represents an under-use of the existing infrastructure. It is part of the Government's policy in development areas to build up the infrastructure and to spend millions of pounds in doing so. That is a sensible policy. Equally, however, it is not sensible to make insufficient use of the infrastructure that exists in other parts of the country. In north-west Kent we have roads, schools, hospitals and homes, all to support an industrial area. It seems sensible to make use of them.

Another reason why I believe that the planning policy being pursued by Kent County Council is unsatisfactory is that north-west Kent is ideally suited for industrial development in relation to the Common Market. It has good road links with the Channel ports and, through the Dartford tunnel, with East Anglian ports. It could also receive a great stimulus to industrial development from the building of the third London airport at Maplin Sands.

North-west Kent has reached the end of an era in its industrial history. Its traditional industries are declining and contracting. Mineral workings which have been very extensive in the area are being worked out. One result of that is that there are now 1,500 acres of derelict or damaged land in north-west Kent.

The area needs to be looked at afresh. It needs a face-lift and a new start. If the process of decline that seems to be in progress is not halted it could gain a momentum which may prove very difficult to arrest. Revamping north-west Kent and providing it with industry suited to the second half of the twentieth century poses a great challenge. My object in raising this matter on the Adjournment has been to bring the necessity of rising to this challenge to the notice of the Government and, I hope, of the Kent County Council. I hope that they will prove equal to it.

11.52 p.m.

Photo of Mr Roger White Mr Roger White , Gravesend

I am most grateful for the opportunity to intervene briefly in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Trew) on securing a debate on what is to us in north-west Kent a very important subject.

Our constituencies of Dartford and Gravesend adjoin each other and we have similar patterns of trade and commerce and a similar environment. We have relied in the past on basic industries of cement and paper-making. The paper-making industry has been contracting and the cement industry has been undergoing a period of automation. This has meant considerable unemployment in my constituency. The level of unemployment in my constituency is now a little higher than the average in the South-East.

The Government deserve congratulations on their flexibility on the issue of industrial development certificates in the past two and a half years. However, the mere issuing of an I.D.C. is not the end of the story. The question whether those I.D.C.s are taken up involves a reflection of whether there is confidence among local businessmen about expanding business in the area. Just over 18 months ago we had the very sad case of the Inveresk Mills closing down, although that was followed—the news was received with some pleasure—by I.D.C.s being granted for a power station on the Isle of Grain and for a proposed oil refinery at Cliffe. While this certainly helps the construction industry, it is of only short-term benefit because once the oil refinery and power station are completed we then have to move over to other industries.

We in north-west Kent can become a springboard for the European Economic Community, and this is vital. Secondly, there is a necessity to encourage a diversity of small industries alongside the Thames and the Medway which will offset our problems. Over past years we have relied upon large industries such as cement and paper-making. We can solve our problems only after some measure of support is given by the Government and by local authorities to businessmen to encourage them to come into what I call the pocket areas in a Cinderella region of the South-East which enjoy no support in terms of development area or intermediate area status.

I remind the Under-Secretary that there is a feeling among the people of northwest Kent that the area is becoming a dormitory area of London. That is not part of their character or history. The people of north-west Kent are independent. They are a tough and hardy lot and they are prepared to work within their area provided that they are given the opportunity to do so.

11.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr Anthony Grant Mr Anthony Grant , Harrow Central

I should like to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Trew) not only on obtaining this opportunity to discuss north-west Kent but on presenting in such a persuasive and coherent manner the problems faced by his constituency and its neighbours.

I am grateful for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White). I entirely agree with what he said about the EEC and Government aids and diversity. As Minister with special responsibilities for small firms, I was particularly interested in his second point. If we had time, as I hope we shall on some other occasion, I could explain to my hon. Friend the enthusiastic action which the Government are taking regarding small firms which will be of great help to my hon. Friend's area.

The way in which both my hon. Friends have approached the matter is consistent with their activities in the past. I remember discussing some of these problems in the past with them when they came to see me, together with my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and Faversham (Mr. Moate), as a deputation last November. I also know that they met my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industrial Development as recently as June to talk about the paper industry which is so important in the area with which we are dealing.

I am sure my hon. Friends recognise that the Government are far from indifferent to the difficulties they have mentioned. We are of one opinion in thinking that male and total unemployment rates are too high in both the Gravesend travel-to-work area, which includes Dartford, and in Chatham, although in the former and figures are still fortunately below the national average. But we know that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford is not concerned only at the present statistical situation but at what has led up to it and about the prospects for the paper and board industry in particular.

North-west Kent is a highly important centre for the United Kingdom paper and board industry. There is no doubt that the industry as a whole went through a bad period last year and during the earlier part of this year. This general recession arose from a shortage of orders and from keen import competition, particularly from EFTA countries. The inevitable result was a cutback in production leading to the redundancies from which north-west Kent, as well as other areas, suffered.

However, there are some indications, particularly from the fact that no large redundancies have been reported for some time—over six months in the case of north-west Kent—that the worst is over. On present indications the next year should show a significant improvement in the industry's situation.

A major factor is entry into Europe. I know that the paper industry expects to benefit from the progressive abolition of the Community's import duties, which should allow exports from this country of certain grades to improve materially. There is also the impact of the Special Relations Agreements which were recently concluded between the EFTA non-candidate countries and the enlarged Community. In the transitional period these agreements should benefit the British paper-making industry. The Government will be keeping the overall interest of the United Kingdom industry in mind in later negotiations on tariff levels and quotas.

I turn from the paper industry to the more direct activities of my Department. I am well aware of the feelings of many people in the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, and indeed others who represent non-assisted areas, about our industrial development certificate policy. I was glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesend and for Dartford put this matter into perspective. The IDC policy is a vital part of our overall attack on regional problems. Necessarily the IDC control is strictly operated in the South-East Economic Planning Region, but the Government are well aware that some parts of this region have real problems. Therefore, the control is operated flexibly to take account of factors such as these. No IDCs have been refused for northwest Kent during the past year.

My hon. Friend will have noted the Government's decision in March to raise the exemption limit for IDCs in the South-East from 5,000 to 10,000 sq. ft. Those who criticise the policy in this area might recall that when we took office in 1970 the limit was only 3,000 sq. ft. What is more, certificates will in future be granted to firms which undertake a modernisation project with some modest increase in labour requirements.

With regard to the expansion of local industry, we are generally sympathetic, bearing in mind our obligations to the more serious difficulties of other regions, particularly the assisted areas and new and expanding towns. However, firms which can prove a tie to the South-East and this include service industries, are normally allowed some expansion in that area.

I have said that the Government have very much in mind the problems of north-west Kent, including the prevailing unemployment rates and the redundancies which have occurred in traditional industries such as paper and cement. The first point I should like to make on this is that, although serious, these are not problems which should be dealt with through the Government's regional policy. That policy must necessarily concentrate on the areas of greatest need which face not only substantial problems of industrial decline but difficulties arising from the remoteness, industrial dereliction, poor infrastructure, and so on, of those areas.

As I mentioned previously, the unemployment rates in the Gravesend travel-to-work area are below the national average and it is also a fact that the rate in Chatham, although slightly higher, is still below that in the intermediate areas elsewhere in the country. North-West Kent has a variety of industries, particularly in the manufacturing sector, and many of these are by no means those which are likely to be subject to decline.

More particularly, the area is undeniably very well located as a site for future industrial expansion, particularly with reference to our entry into the European Community, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend recognised. The right answer for an area such as this is national economic growth. My hon. Friends know well the steps the Government have taken to bring that about. The measures we have taken to expand demand through reduction of taxation and to stimulate industrial investment through a nation-wide system of taxation allowances add up to the most comprehensive plan for growth that any Government have undertaken since the last war.

It would be wrong, therefore, to leave the impression that prospects for north- west Kent are gloomy. Too often the decline taking place in traditional industries can obscure the growth prospects in other sectors. There is a positive as well as a negative side to the natural and inevitable process of industrial change. The basic fact is that the national economy has at last picked up and is moving forward again. The latest economic indicators show this and suggest that we are moving well in the direction of our 5 per cent. growth target. Both the CBI's Industrial Trends survey and the Financial Times monthly survey confirm that the economy is ail set for expansion.

There is already some evidence of this in north-west Kent. The rate of unemployment has, after all, fallen over the past year from 3·9 per cent. to 3·5 per cent. in the Gravesend travel-to-work area. Unfilled vacancies have risen since the winter. I am sure that this trend will accelerate now that we have a growth climate in the economy. Firms in the area will see the prospects open to them as a result of our entry into Europe and will now have, for the very first time, the benefit of free depreciation on plant and machinery and the 40 per cent. initial tax allowance on industrial building that we introduced nationally in March. I am confident that north-west Kent particularly, because of its favourable location, will benefit from the economic revival that the Government have worked so hard to achieve.

I know my hon. Friend appreciates that dereliction is a matter primarily for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, but he may rest assured that my right hon. and learned Friend will take note of his comments. I know that that Department and the Kent County Council are aware of the extent of the problem in northwest Kent, and a committee on minerals and planning control has been set up to examine the problem of surface mineral working in Kent. So I believe that my hon. Friend can take to his constituents a message of good cheer that the answers to the area's problems lie in national economic growth and expansion. These, I believe, are well on the way, and Kent will take advantage of them.

Photo of Mr David Crouch Mr David Crouch , Canterbury

Before my hon. Friend concludes, may I draw his attention to some aspects of the problem of the whole of north-west Kent, and the whole of north-east Kent as well, which came up during the Committee stage of the Industry Bill? It was pointed out to the Government that apart from the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry there is also responsibility on the part of the Department for the Environment in the granting of office development permits. In these areas of declining industry and manufacturing there is the development of the service industries, and the responsibility for the issue of office development permits lies with other Departments as well. I hope that my hon. Friend will not neglect to draw this to the attention of his colleagues in the Government.

Photo of Mr Anthony Grant Mr Anthony Grant , Harrow Central

I certainly recall how forcefully my hon. Friend made this point in the Standing Committee. He put the case in that respect very well indeed. I assure him that I will call the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends to what he says.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.