Regional Economic Development

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:59 am on 13th February 2001.

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Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton 9:59 am, 13th February 2001

Absolutely. I was about to reflect on the achievement of objective 1 status and to pay tribute to several groups and organisations, some of which the hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned. I did think that he underplayed the role of the regional development agency and was rather unkind about it. After all, it was the first regional development agency in the country to get off the starting block, go to Brussels and present the case just made so well by Mr. Tyler. I also pay tribute to Mr. Robin Teverson and to Ms Atherton, who is carrying out several longstanding engagements in her constituency today.

Many of the groups mentioned by the hon. Member for St. Ives lobbied to ensure that the voice of Cornwall was strongly sounded. Without the energy of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne and Mr. Jamieson, the ear of the Prime Minister would not have been obtained. Without the Prime Minister's attention, I doubt whether the representations from Cornwall--however strongly made--would have been pressed at the right time and in the right place.

I am sure that the hon. Member for St. Ives would agree that the previous Government left a dire legacy: the role of the regional development agency has probably been more significant than he allowed. I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman speak a little more positively than usual about progress made under objective 1. He referred to the annual report. In a news statement, the leader of Cornwall county council, Pippa Englefield, said:

"This is brilliant news which should go a long way to silencing the doubters who have been criticising the Objective One programme. It is clear evidence that Objective One is working and working very well in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. We have achieved a huge amount in the first year and will now build on these successes in the remaining seven years of the programme."

The hon. Gentleman's speech was in marked contrast to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne in her Adjournment debate on 31 January, which gave a comprehensive account of progress in her constituency, where she has worked hard to enable her constituents to benefit from all the Government's policies that contribute to the region. I was impressed to hear the Minister refer to the progress made in the opening five months and I congratulate those who have been party to making that happen, including those in the RDA who have supported the work.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the difficulty and complexity of working with the many different funding streams, and that is echoed by my own experience. I, too, was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate about this time last week when I drew the Minister's attention to the complexities that my constituents often bring to me, and looked to her for some observations on the role of the local strategic partnerships. I am not sure whether hon. Members know that Plymouth aims to be one of the first local strategic partnerships; the 2020 partnership is a well-established private, voluntary and public sector partnership organisation that is laying the final plans to be in that position, hopefully within the next few months.

I will not rehearse all that I said in that speech, save one fact, of which we in Plymouth can be proud because it demonstrates the success of our economic regeneration and that we are on the right path: youth unemployment has dropped by 90 per cent. and long-term adult unemployment by 60 per cent, in my constituency. Those figures are a sign that regeneration is happening in Plymouth.

The RDA in Plymouth is working closely with local partners and the community and has investment commitments of some £18 to £20 million, including the Tamar science park, the Plymouth international business park on the former Seaton barracks site and, at long last, the Royal William yard. The Phoenix trust project, which is headed by the Prince of Wales, is at planning application stage. I went to meet members of the local community in the area surrounding the Royal William yard, who are delighted to see the progress that is being made, for which they have waited for many a long year. That progress is in part a tribute to the way in which the RDA has taken up that difficult site in the middle of my constituency, which is of not just regional but national significance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Western Morning News survey. I looked long and hard for a named business person in my constituency to whom I could speak about the issues that it raised. The survey seemed to reproduce the same anonymous voices that predicted cataclysmic consequences if we dared to introduce a minimum wage when that was being discussed before the last election, telling us that unemployment would escalate and get completely out of hand. The figures that I have quoted speak for themselves and I shall not repeat them. Time is short and I want to let the Minister reply.

I was particularly surprised by the criticism of the Language Energy Centre--criticism which is not borne out by my experience. It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I was not among its original enthusiastic supporters as I had grave reservations on environmental grounds. However, when businesses approached me, I decided to find out what the regional development agency thought about the issue, and received a positive response. The successful outcome of that contact was announced by Mrs. Liddell shortly before she became Secretary of State for Scotland. I was accompanied by Sir Michael Lickiss and business partners throughout the region in lobbying for the BAE consortium backing for Airbus. That important investment affects people throughout the country, especially in the south-west, where the supply chain is extremely important to the defence sector in my constituency and in parts of Cornwall.

The sea surrounds the entire peninsula, from Poole to Penzance, from Avonmouth to St. Ives, and the hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned the maritime sector, on which the RDA has a task force. It is a good example of why a bigger, wider RDA has advantages and synergies for the region. I hope that the Minister will remind us how important regional growth and development is for the country's well- being.

In conclusion, I want to say something that may not suit the hon. Gentleman's agenda. The RDA has the unfortunate tendency of topslicing bits of Plymouth's budgets for the single regeneration budget and objective 2 funds for rural areas, but urban areas are the engine houses of the regional economy. I hope that the Minister will keep her eye on any such tendency in future. Plymouth needs a thriving rural area, but the rural areas need a thriving economic engine. In Plymouth, our glass is half full. Our economic policy is set fair to fill the glass gradually, year by year, and to keep it topped up above the half-full level, rather than letting it decline, as it has in the past 20 years.