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Doncaster-Finningley Airport

8.49 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): It gives me the greatest pleasure to present to the House a petition from 21,000 residents of my constituency and the surrounding area, including Mr. Andrew Bosmans of 14 Strutton close, Cantley, Doncaster, who is a member of the Finningley "Say Yes" campaign, which organised the petition.

The petition states:

I should like to add that that petition has my full support and that of my hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis).

To lie upon the Table.

Silver Springs Motel, Tenpenny Hill

8.50 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): It is a great honour to present the House with a much humbler petition, which, though signed by a mere 370 people, comes from a village in my constituency that is home to a mere 800 or so souls.

The petition states:

27 Jul 2000 : Column 1383

To lie upon the Table.

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Industry and Employment (Dunstable)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

8.53 pm

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire): It is three years since I had an Adjournment debate on the position of industry in Dunstable. That was in May 1997 and, while I did not expect immediate action in the first month of a new Labour Government, I hoped to put Dunstable's industrial problems at the top of Minister's in-trays and I think that I achieved that.

Three years on, however, industry and employment in Dunstable are again sliding backwards. By that I mean that there have been job losses and no improvement in the infrastructure, which harms local industry in Dunstable and the next-door town of Houghton Regis. Last year, the TRW steering group left the area, with almost 300 jobs losses. Of immediate concern to Dunstable and the surrounding area was an announcement on 4 July by Automotive Sealings Systems, BTR. In a press statement the company announced

BTR manufactures rubber seals for car doors and windows for all the major European car manufacturers. The press statement went on to say that the company

That was a bad blow for the town. The company followed it up with a request to me for three forms of action--three areas of financial assistance that would help. The first was relocation assistance in establishing a new greenfield site. The second was training grants in connection with the multi-skilling programme for the work force who are going to transfer to the new site. The third was local employment assistance for those people seeking alternative jobs as a consequence of the reduction in employee numbers--alas, 400 jobs are going.

Other auto-component manufacturers in the town are not finding it at all easy. One cause is the high value of the pound. One month ago in June, Mr. Richard Marton, the chief executive of Britax plc, made the most ominous comment on the sale of his company's automotive components business. On 26 June, he said:

Decoded, one could say that that means that there is strong global competition and car manufacturers are putting heavy pressure on components manufacturers to keep prices as low as they can.

The good news in the past 24 hours was the announcement of the new assisted area map, and I am grateful to the Minister for Trade, who is to answer the debate, and to his civil servants for keeping me informed as to local developments. The Minister says in his letter to me of 27 July:

I am very pleased--

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That is good news, but when the company made its press announcement on 4 July it said:

The site is not in any of those three wards; it is in the Priory ward. I do not know where the company will move. If it goes into one of the three wards that now have assisted area status, it will get help.

Also, I draw to the Minister's attention the fact that we want the London road site to be redeveloped, but for industry. I do not want another derelict site in Dunstable. I want someone to go to the London road site and provide jobs. If such a company needs help to restructure and alter the site, I hope that there will be a way of finding that help. BTR has said that it will have a new site locally, with 130 jobs. That is fine, but finding a new employer for the other site is equally important.

In our area, we are not merely sitting back and wondering what on earth to do after these employment difficulties. As I understand it, the East of England development agency is involved in an infrastructure benchmarking study--a fair bit of jargon, but I hope that it means that the development agency will help us in the Dunstable area to re-use a number of brownfield sites for industry.

If our assisted area status is to be of lasting benefit to south Bedfordshire, we must use this opportunity to make those sites suitable for 21st century usage. That means high-tech companies. However, as the study notes, infrastructure funding must also be provided. We need help from the EEDA on that problem.

Furthermore, we are considering a scheme described as an Oxford-Cambridge technology arc. That too is jargon; it means a proposal to build on the international reputation of Oxford and Cambridge universities to create an English silicon valley. It offers a possible way to spread the pressures and benefits of the Cambridge phenomenon sub-regionally to areas such as Bedfordshire, Luton and, of course, Dunstable-Houghton Regis by the provision of suitable infrastructure links.

The proposal is fine, but the EEDA has not yet agreed to part-fund the study. I hope that it will do so, because I think that our area can become a silicon valley between Oxford and Cambridge. When the Minister replies, will he say whether he can give the EEDA a shove forward?

I want to go into a little more detail on the infrastructure. There is a disused railway line between Dunstable and Luton. Detailed proposals for its conversion into a busway are on their way to the Government; work will be completed and submitted within the next few months. Do the Government think that it would better for us to restore the rail link between those two industrial towns? In Dunstable, there is strong opinion in favour of reopening the disused line. In one parish poll, 80 per cent. of people said yes. There will

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be another poll in the autumn. It would be helpful if the Government could give us their opinion during the next few weeks. In which direction--railway or busway--do they guide us?

A much bigger infrastructure problem for industry and individuals is the complete lack of progress on Dunstable's bypass and the effect that it has on industry. I have studied the glossy publication issued by the Deputy Prime Minister last week. I searched it until I was dizzy for a mention of Dunstable's bypass, but there is none, so I asked the right hon. Gentleman a question. He replied that

that is, local transport plans--

The crucial words in the reply are:

Is there a chink of light there? Is it possible that, by December, the Government will nerve themselves to say that we can go ahead with a public inquiry into the Dunstable bypass--not least for industrial reasons? I cannot hold my breath until December, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or I shall pass away; a by-election in my constituency would not be welcome. However, I very much hope that, by December, the Government will agree to a public inquiry in Dunstable and that a bypass will be constructed.

I shall not seek re-election to Parliament at the next general election. After 30 of the happiest and most challenging years of my life, it is time for a new person to represent my constituency. It has been the greatest privilege for me to have served my constituents for those 30 years. While this Parliament continues, however, I am drawing up a list of leaving presents; not for myself--because I do not want to wreck my parliamentary career by having a row with the sleaze buster, or the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards--but for my constituents. Here is one which I hope the Government will consider, and which I think will help us in our difficulties.

I refer to the final report by the Rover taskforce, which the Minister now has. The taskforce identified five areas in which action was needed to help industry in the Birmingham area: modernisation of the automotive base, diversification of the regional economy, regeneration and creation of new opportunities, support for the work force and support for families and communities. All of those apply to Dunstable and Houghton Regis. That is almost tailor made for our area in view of the industrial setbacks that we have had. There would need to be some modification. Those are five excellent aims that are just as relevant for us.

What I hope the Government can do--they will get my full support if they can--is to take Dunstable and Houghton Regis and the industrial area next door forward on the basis of those recommendations. We need to diversify our local economy. We need regeneration and creation of new opportunities. My goodness, we need support for the work force in view of what has happened

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in the last few years and support for families and communities, who are used in Dunstable and Houghton Regis to working for a thriving industrial base.

Therefore, I am reaching out to the Government and the Minister this evening, as this Session almost comes to an end, to ask him for help, because if the Government will give such help they will get a superb response from people in Dunstable and Houghton Regis, who want to rebuild their industry and economy and who want to go on doing what they have done for years--making a substantial contribution to the economy and well-being of this country.

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