Nortel Networks, Paignton

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 10:11 pm on 25 April 2001.

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Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:11, 25 April 2001

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise an important issue for my constituents and people in neighbouring constituencies.

I shall begin by plotting some of the history of my constituency, which like all seaside resorts in this country, and certainly the big important ones, developed during the Victorian era, very much as a result of the railways. Much of the infrastructure in such communities has not been renewed, although it has been repaired, and perhaps, in some cases, updated. Tourism has had to cope with a number of competitive changes. The most significant was the development of the jet engine, which brought the package holiday in the Mediterranean and other parts of the world much closer for the domestic tourist. Other changes include the growth of farm and inner-city tourism, often through nationally funded developments of museums, galleries and other attractions. There has been little investment in tourism over the past 50 years, and each seaside resort, my own in particular, has sought to diversify its economy.

One of the main motives for diversification is the fact that many seaside resorts have become unemployment black spots, with rates above the national average. Torbay has been lucky, in that in the 1960s Standard Telephones and Cables built a plant that was taken over, in the 1980s by ITT, and in the 1990s by Nortel, which later changed its name to Nortel Networks. Up to 5,000 people have been employed on that site, engaged in what was the very basics of the electronics industry, and has now become the modern-day fibre-optic industry. It became the largest private sector employer in the area covered by the Government office of the south-west. Last year, for the first time, manufacturing overtook tourism in its contribution to our local economy.

When I say that 75 per cent. of all internet traffic in north America is carried on equipment made by people in my constituency, and that firms such as Sifam, better known today as JDS Uniphase, are located there, the House will realise that the area has become the centre for the fibre-optic industry in Europe.

Last Christmas, we were in the unprecedented position of having job vacancies in hotels and catering over the Christmas break. Then, in February, came the bombshell that 700 short-term contract employees would no longer be required; in March, we learned that a further 700 redundancies were required on site. Today, the news is that JDS Uniphase, formerly Sifam, is going to lay off people in the fibre-optic industry in Torquay and Plymouth. Those devastating bombshells, together with foot and mouth, have highlighted the underlying fragility of the economy in south Devon. For years our dependence on one industry, tourism, was effectively shifting to dependence on one employer.

However, I must tell the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce, the House and people outside that it is not all doom and gloom. Torbay is in a magnificent, attractive environment and we have good schools and a skilled labour force. We even have a climate that is kinder than that in the rest of the country because we are on the gulf stream and surrounded by hills. In fact, we have all the factors necessary for those wishing to relocate or start a modern business everything is there for inward investors.

However two major factors are missing, which go back more than 100 years. Our strength was founded on tourism because of transport links using trains, and the investment in infrastructure. If I tell the Minister that no new hotels have been built in my constituency for more than 50 years, and contrast that with Mediterranean resorts, she will see the difference between the two areas. Most of our parks were constructed by the Victorians, as were our gardens and beach facilities. We have tried to develop a business park but, unfortunately and ironically, that was turned down because of poor transport links.

The previous Government de-trunked the A380, so responsibility for it now rests with the local authorities. Yet a bypass on that road has been talked about since 1957. One can travel from the north of Scotland all the way down to Newton Abbot on either a three-lane motorway or a two-lane dual carriageway, but then one has to crawl in and out of the Torbay conurbation, which is the second largest conurbation in Devon and Cornwall and the fourth largest conurbation in the south-west region, south of Bristol

Our rail links are vulnerable to coastal erosion at the seaside and flooding at the junction at Exeter. We have precious few through-train services from Torbay to other parts of the country Fifty years ago, there were several trains an hour to different locations around the country, which carried holiday visitors during the summer months, but today their journey has to be planned with almost military precision to meet connections from one end of the country to the other.

We also suffer from poor air links. There is no link between the south-west and Heathrow. The other week, I met a pharmaceutical company which is looking to site its European headquarters somewhere in the United Kingdom. It wants that site to be within an hour and a half of Heathrow because an executive flying long-haul from Japan does not want to travel far when he arrives. A Nortel Networks executive flying in from Canada wishing to fly to the south-west arrives at Heathrow, transfers to Gatwick, then has to get down to the south-west. The last part of the journey is often along the A380 crawler single-lane road.

May I thank the Minister, who has met me and given me some extremely helpful ideas? Indeed, she followed that up with a letter. However, we need to look at five factors. In an economy in a small constituency like Torbay, which is based on a small labour market, the effect of 1,400 redundancies is severe. We have a declining tourism industry, and also the worries caused by foot and mouth. That has a big impact on the amount of money that is circulating in the economy. We are, unfortunately, on the periphery of the United Kingdom, and that tends not to be recognised by government.

First, we need emergency assistance for all the businesses that are affected by foot and mouth. There is a fear that businesses that are deemed not to be rural might not qualify, but whatever is available to rural areas should be available to seaside resorts, given the way in which their businesses are being affected too.

Secondly, we need to consider council funding, which seems to lag behind that in other areas. There have been overspends on personal social services year after year, which is common among seaside resorts. They are magnets, and people move into them Perhaps the census will catch up, but it is the local authority's estimate that there are several thousand people resident within the council area who are not accounted for in terms of government grants. I emphasise the need for a revision of the standard spending assessment. If it were possible, I should also like a revision of our qualification for any form of assistance from government to ensure that we are not missing out on anything to which we may be entitled.

Thirdly, I would like a commitment to improve our transport links, and a recognition that we cannot do that ourselves. We are already suffering because insufficient money is made available to our local authority and other Government agencies. That limits our ability to do the big things that need to be done to improve transport links.

Fourthly, I would like to see the area become a priority for inward investment within the Government office of the south-west. The Minister helpfully suggested that she would pass on our plight to Invest. UK, and I hope that that has taken place. That should be backed up by our becoming a priority area within the Government office of the south-west for inward investment and regional development agency support.

Finally, I would like a sympathetic response from government agencies, and especially from the planning arm of the Government office of the south-west, when any proposals come from my area seeking to diversify our economy. A proposed business park was turned down three years ago by the planning office in Bristol because it said that we did not have the necessary transport links. If the project had gone ahead, it could have taken up some of the slack caused by the redundancies that have recently been announced. I know that the council is working on a revised and perhaps smaller business park, and there needs to be as much assistance as possible with that.

I am aware that Government cannot wave a magic wand in a global economy. I am well aware that decisions taken in other parts of the world can have an impact on our constituencies. However, we can surely have an expectation that when we have a problem, it will be recognised by Government, and that they will do all in their power to assist the area to get itself out of the problems in which it may find itself.

Even if the Government cannot wave a magic wand and say, "Yes, you can have a road here tomorrow," they could give a green light and say, for example, "We shall consider re-trunking the A380." It would help us to attract the inward investment that we desperately need if the inward investor knew that the infrastructure would be improved in future.

I look forward to the Minister's reply.