My Lords, I will say just a few words on a part of the United Kingdom so far scarcely mentioned—it is called the West Country—where there is still a sense of deep shock at how at how quickly the events of the general election changed from the predictions of the pollsters to an outcome which, for the first time for a generation, shows the peninsula with a blue political colour-scheme, save only for fortress Exeter. The implications of that will take time to assess, but we do not forget that the coalition has not been unkind to our local economy and that many of the coalition members have worked hard to highlight that the deficiencies of our infrastructure should be remedied.
It is interesting to note that the 5.2 million population of Scotland currently receives £2,000 per head more than the 5.3 million population of the south-west. Perhaps many felt, when faced with their voting choice, that the risk of this becoming an even wider gap was too big to stomach.
What next? Do we risk again becoming the forgotten peninsula—the Cinderella of the west—or will we hold Whitehall to the commitments that were made during the pre-election period? That we most certainly will. In simple terms our message is easy to understand. The south-west cannot function without effective infrastructure. Some 90% of transport needs are on the roads, but we still have only one 21st century route, in the M5. When that is disrupted, paralysis quickly follows and many hours of business are lost before normal service is resumed. The case for a second artery—the A30/A303—has been argued for 30 years. It was nearly approved 15 years ago. It is ready to go. The maths are also simple: £2 billion expenditure equals a payback of £40 billion and 40,000 jobs. The Treasury has confirmed these figures. We cannot wait another five to 10 years before this work starts.
The rail network is in a similar state of under- investment. We have the oldest rolling stock in the United Kingdom—it predates the Ford Fiesta—and journey times that are an embarrassment when we greet national or international investors. We have been promised some new train sets, but this decision is still subject to Treasury approval. These commitments simply must be honoured. When considering rail, it would be wrong to ignore how vital both the national and the local networks are to our economies. In my own area of north Devon, the Tarka line carries nearly 1 million passengers a year, many of whom are students travelling to Exeter and back. The potential for growth in local rail initiatives such as the West Somerset Railway and the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway is quite simply huge. Again, they are vital lifelines for supporting economic growth.
It would be enough for most Members of your Lordships’ House to have to live with infrastructure deficiencies such as the ones I have just mentioned; however, they are not quite the end of our woes. What is now taken for granted across the country—simple access to mobile telephones and decent broadband speeds—is still absent in many of our rural, and surprisingly urban, areas. If the south-west is to improve its productivity outputs, which currently languish 10% behind the UK average, the quickest solution, which would attract the greatest support from businesses big and small, is broadband and mobile infrastructure investment. It would create a bow wave of exciting business activities. In the last five years, the south-west has created nearly 60,000 new jobs in the private sector. A high percentage of these people are self-employed, and many are working already in international markets. Broadband will ignite these businesses, enabling them to be the new generation of entrepreneurs and demonstrate that the south-west can deliver significant value to the UK economy.
In the run-up to the general election, a number of bold statements were made on—here we go again—housing. It was said that 200,000 houses a year will be built, and the right-to-buy provisions extended. Fine words, but how and when? In north Devon, the gap between affordable housing delivery and the housing waiting list becomes bigger and bigger. The current right-to-buy arrangements have not seen a like-for-like replacement of affordable dwellings. Planning delays can hold up vital schemes for three to five years and cost thousands of pounds, which could be invested in more dwellings. The impact on my local economy is most damaging in the recruiting of skilled key workers. In the rural economy these problems are multiplied, fuelling an exodus of the next generation and destroying family succession for many in the farming industry. The housing issue is a time bomb, as so many of your Lordships have said this afternoon. Radical reform is necessary, starting with yet another major reform of our heavily overbureaucratic and protracted planning system.
This is not a list of whinges and whines. It is simply a list of some of the promises made by the Government during the election—promises that, both politically and economically, must be kept, for to renege on them would be both irresponsible and most unwise.