Parliamentary Debate - Economic Growth: South West

Yesterday I led a debate on economic growth in the South West in Westminster Hall.

A number of local MPs made contributions highlighting the successes and challenges we are experiencing across the region but especially in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset.

As we wait for news on the railway line upgrade for Dawlish, there were plenty of other positives to highlight and plenty of good news stories to share.

It is good to know that the Government are listening, that they are supportive and that they are committed to regional growth, especially in the south-west.

It is my belief that collectively, we are a good team of MPs for our region—we are all committed to working across the parties and to doing the best for our constituents. We already represent a wonderful region. If we can just get our infrastructure right, my firm hope and belief is that our best is yet to come.

Below is my speech - the full debate can be found here and the recording of it above.

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Economic Growth: South-West

Sir Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con)

Today it is my intention, and I think that of my colleagues, to build on the debate we had about two and a half years ago regarding the successes and challenges of our great region—the south-west—and to reiterate the requests that we make of the Government to make our area even better than it is at the moment.

I am a great believer in summaries, partly because I only ever read the executive summary of any report. At any event, a summary of my speech would be: our region is doing well, many businesses and sectors are flourishing, and we are grateful for the commitments that the Government have made to us, especially regarding infrastructure, but we want 2019 to be the year of delivery.

I have been in the House for 26 years.

Thirteen of those years have been under a Conservative Government and 13 under a Labour Government, and the reality is that there has been under-investment in our region’s vital infrastructure for the entirety of those 26 years. At last we have a Government who are listening, and now we need to see delivery to our ambitious region.

First of all, I will just say a few words about what our region actually is. I suppose that the best way of describing it is variable geometry. For some purposes, it is the seven counties that are in the European region—dare I use that expression in the company of some of my hon. Friends? For some of us, it is the two counties of Devon and Cornwall. Increasingly, however, we can talk about the four counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset working together. There are four counties and three local enterprise partnerships working together to make the peninsula.

I will describe that which is going well, what we welcome from the Government already and what we still want to see. First, what is going well? Of course, our natural assets are still there and they remain unrivalled: the sea, the coast, the moor, the areas of outstanding natural beauty, the stunning landscapes and the beautiful towns and villages. The south-west is a region like no other.

I am delighted to say that tourism is flourishing. We have more quality places to stay, and better visitor destinations and tourist attractions. Mr Owen, you might be interested to know that I will make the case that we are not just a tourist region—far from it—but 311,000 people were employed in the hospitality sector in 2017 and it provides roughly 11% of the overall regional employment. So tourism remains significant and it is doing well, thanks partly to the fact that we had some wonderful weather last year and the roads were full all the time.

The second thing that is going well is the collaboration between our local enterprise partnerships, and our local authorities and national parks. That collaboration is the closest and most effective since records began, and in all my time in this House I have certainly never seen our various component parts working together as they are today. There is also a close working relationship with the private sector. Some colleagues in Westminster Hall today will recall the “Back The South West” campaign that we launched in 2016, with the charter—the south-west growth charter—that I will refer to shortly. All of that is driven by private sector companies that are ambitious for our region and determined to deliver.

At the 2016 Exeter conference, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government came down and made a great and passionate speech, and told us to speak with a single voice in the south-west. We have done that; we are more joined-up than ever before, and I think it is beginning to make its mark upon Government.

Far from being just a tourist area, our region boasts some wonderful companies. For example, Princess Yachts in Plymouth employs 3,000 people and Babcock employs 4,500 people in the dockyard and naval base. That is to name but two; there are many other companies and I am sure that colleagues will mention some of the high-performing companies in their constituencies.

I will single out just two companies from the south-west that are doing particularly well. First, there is the Pennon Group. Brilliantly led by Chris Loughlin, it includes South West Water, which is a leading national water and sewerage company that will make £1 billion worth of investment in our region by 2025. Its business plan has been fast-tracked by Ofwat for the second time in a row, which I think is unique among the water companies. Pennon Group also includes Viridor, which is the UK’s largest recycling company, so we have this successful and ambitious green company that employs over 5,000 people UK-wide. It is a company that our region is rightly proud of and it generates over 6,000 jobs in our region alone through direct and indirect employment. We thank the Pennon Group for all it does for our region.

The second company is Thales, which is a major global defence contractor that employs over 1,100 people in the wider south-west, including in Cheltenham. Thales stated recently that it sees huge potential for its business in the south-west and the region as a whole:

“There is the opportunity to put the region on the map in the digital technology and maritime space and with the support of Government we think the region can go from strength to strength.”

It recently opened a Maritime Autonomy Centre at Turnchapel Wharf in my constituency, which I know the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has also visited. That work includes capital investment of over £1 million, which represents the company’s commitment to its future in the south-west as a place where it can invest in digitally transformative maritime technologies—not a phrase to say after a glass or two of wine. This facility will act as the key maritime integration, test and evaluation centre for the combined United Kingdom and French maritime mine countermeasures programme. It is very impressive.

Our region therefore has substantial companies operating throughout it and is not just a place for people to come for their cream tea, although of course, Mr Owen, you would be very welcome to come down next summer and enjoy one.

Our universities are also doing well. Exeter, of course, is a world-renowned university and part of the Russell Group. Plymouth University is also making great strides as a university and it is really transforming the city of Plymouth, so I pay tribute to the work that it has done, particularly in the marine engineering and science departments. However, let us not forget Plymouth Marjon University—the colleges of St Mark and St John. It has experienced significant growth over the last two years, bucking the current trend and producing ever-greater results for its students. Intellectual capital in our region is powerfully underpinned by excellent places of learning.

The south-west is also home to one of the largest engineering projects in Europe, at Hinkley C, which represents a massive investment in our region and is producing many skilled jobs.

All of what I have said so far is about the things that are going well in our region. What we have welcomed from the Government in the past 12 months or so includes some of the things that were mentioned in the Budget. The transforming cities fund is hopefully of great benefit to Plymouth, and perhaps the Minister will say something about the timescales for decisions on that. The freezing of cider duty was well received by the apple producers of Somerset and, indeed, throughout the region. We have seen the improvements to the Dawlish seawall get under way in the past few months, and I will come on to talk about the major announcement that we anticipate. We welcome the new Great Western Railway trains, which are having a gradual impact on our crucial Penzance to Paddington link—a very pleasant travel experience. We welcome the £10 million for fisheries innovation, to help local fishers.

In January 2019, planning permission for the north Devon link road was given, and I pay tribute to the persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones). When he started talking about the link road, we all thought, “That can never happen. There is no money in the jam jar for that. He is just off on ‘a frolic of his own’, as Lord Denning once said”. Well, his frolic is bearing fruit, and well done to him for being such an incredible campaigner for his constituents.

We welcome and celebrate the major work to tackle flooding at Cowley, east of Exeter. We all remember the red sausage, or the balloon, that was in evidence some two or three years ago. That should now be a thing of the past, thanks to Network Rail’s investment.

We welcome the Government’s industrial strategy and the fact that our local enterprise partnerships are working hard with officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to develop a local industrial strategy, looking especially at productivity, which I know will be music to the Minister’s ears.

Finally, we must not forget our farmers. We have excellent farmers throughout the region and they welcome the fact that the Government are listening to them and helping to shape our UK-wide agriculture policy post Brexit. I have said two words that I know some of my friends will be very, very pleased to hear.

What do we now need from the Government? I will focus on that for a few minutes, and I will then conclude and let others have a say. We await, of course, the major Dawlish announcement. Today is the fifth anniversary of those extraordinary images of the railway line waving in mid-air and everything beneath being washed away by the winds and waves of that winter’s storms. I will never forget the journey we have been on since then, via Downing Street, the Peninsula Rail Task Force, the 20-year plan and the negotiating with Government. Of course such things take time but, even though the announcement will, I hope, come next week, and even though I think it will be a good and fully funded one that we will all welcome, for me, it has taken at least 12 months too long. The region has become impatient. It will be fine, provided we get what we are looking for, and perhaps the Minister can say something about that.

Many of us in this Chamber have often said that our biggest challenge in the west country and the south-west is peripherality and that the answer is connectivity. When I started my political career in 1992, connectivity meant road and rail, but these days it most certainly means digital connectivity, which is probably more important, or at least as important. I will come on to say that we want to see the roll-out of superfast broadband speeded up and that we must have 5G in our region. I am getting towards the end because I know so many colleagues want to speak.

First, there is the rail announcement next week—fingers crossed it is what we have been waiting for. It is so important to our region and we look forward to it.

Secondly, there is the A303. I am grateful to the Government for the commitment to dualling it to Taunton and am glad that the work at Stonehenge has started, but we really need to see spades in the ground at our end of the A303 so that that very important project can get under way and be concluded as quickly as possible. The M5 is now snarled up every Friday and Saturday from May until September, particularly from Taunton to Bristol. I do not think there is a plan on the table to consider that, but the Minister may know more than I do. We desperately need a new second major arterial route coming into our region—a dual carriageway at least—that can cope with the flow of traffic at peak times. That is another critical aspect of infrastructure delivery that the region is waiting to see.

Coming on to what my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) mentioned, digital connectivity is absolutely essential in our region. Possibly the roll-out of superfast broadband has been too slow. We have had the hiccough with BT internet in Devon and Somerset, and we now have Gigaclear. I hope that all the targets will be met in the next couple of years. That is critical.

What we are seeing now, and perhaps other regions have seen this before us, is that bright young things are coming to our universities and, instead of returning from whence they came, more and more of them are staying locally and inventing their internet-based businesses—in their bedrooms probably—and planting a business in our region. That is really encouraging, and it is transforming the bottom-up business and economy of our region. It can happen because of digital connectivity. We can do almost anything from almost anywhere if we are online and connected, and that is a game-changer for our region. We are desperate to see the roll-out of all the superfast broadband, including 5G.

Finally, on the issue of marrying together physical transport infrastructure—the trains—and digital connectivity, we must have the capability for people to be online all the time while they are travelling on our trains. That is what the business community has demanded: it is even more important than shaving five or 10 minutes off the journey time from Penzance to Paddington. We must have connectivity, and I know that the Government are working on that. Of course, that responsibility is a cross-departmental one, but I say to the Minister that it is a huge priority for our region.

To conclude, when we last discussed this matter in 2016, we all mentioned the south-west growth charter. The first headline ask from the region was for a new Government partnership with the south-west, which is starting to take shape. The second was for investment in digital connectivity and high-speed business: some progress has been made in that area, but we would like to see a bit more. The third was for investment in energy connectivity—switching on to opportunity—on which, again, there has been some progress, but there is further to go. The fourth was for investment in transport connectivity and getting business moving, on which there has been some progress, but that is still our big ask. We say to Government that our demand is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure, and may 2019 be the year of delivery, delivery, delivery.