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Economies of the UK Islands — [Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:43 am on 9th May 2018.

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Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary 10:43 am, 9th May 2018

It is appropriate that you are in the Chair, Mr Rosindell, as you are Parliament’s greatest champion of a different type of island: our overseas territories and Crown dependencies.

I thank my hon. Friend Alan Mak for raising this important issue and for enabling a range of Members from across the House, representing all parts of the United Kingdom, to participate and give a complete tour of the British Isles. One thing we have learned today is that, although the British Isles are a great archipelago of more than 6,000 large and small islands and isles, relatively few of our constituents live on them, and we are perhaps less appreciative of them than we should be. Perhaps more than at any other point in our history, we are disconnected from our coast and our coastal communities. The Government are keen to change that and to ensure coastal communities and islands are properly represented. Today’s debate is an important part of that.

We want to raise productivity, living standards and economic growth in all parts of the United Kingdom, and of course islands and island communities are an essential part of that. Members representing the Isle of Wight, Hayling Island, Orkney and Shetland, Cumbrae, Arran and others have told the stories of their communities, many of which have been very positive. An important part of what we have heard today is that, although living on an island can cause problems, to which the Government, at a national or a local level, must respond, there are also opportunities for economic growth. Wonderful benefits can come from living in communities that are close and, as Mr Carmichael said, can be very outward-facing to the rest of the world.

We appreciate that the barriers to growth can include a lack of opportunity—which can be a barrier to social mobility—poor connectivity and relatively high costs for transport, public service delivery and goods in the private sector. Although living on an island has many benefits and wonderful opportunities, which anyone who has grown up on one no doubt always lives with, the mainland can exert a strong gravitational pull, particularly to the young, and can at times lead to a drain of talent and youth. However, we have heard today about a number of islands whose populations are rising, which is very positive indeed.

Many of the barriers that island communities face are obviously a natural consequence of their geography and are common to all. Crudely, there are three types of island within the British Isles. The Isle of Wight is unique, in that it has a very large population—more than 130,000 people—and no bridge linking it with the mainland. I will turn to its specific demands in a moment.

The islands in the second category are mostly in Scotland, but there are a few off England, such as the Isles of Scilly. The populations of those islands, such as those represented by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, can still be substantial. They have no bridge to the mainland, and their remoteness poses particular problems, which require solutions, although they have smaller populations than the Isle of Wight.

Third are the islands, such as Hayling Island, that are connected to the mainland by roads. I do not want to diminish the challenges and issues they face, but they have commonalities with rural areas of the United Kingdom that have issues relating to remoteness. They are, to an extent, different from the islands that are separated from the mainland and do not have road links. I will address each of the three types. I apologise that this is a crude way of dissecting the issue, but it is at least a lens through which to look at it.

My hon. Friend Mr Seely talked about the challenges and the opportunities of the Isle of Wight, which has a substantial population and no road connection to the mainland. The Government must think carefully about how we can assist it in delivering public services and ensuring its economy continues to grow. With the exception of the Isles of Scilly, it is unique—in England, at least—and we need to think about that when preparing new formulas for schools, local government, policing and other matters. I want to consider that with my hon. Friend in the future. I will talk about some of those issues in the time available to me.

A common thread for the Isle of Wight and all the other islands we have discussed today is digital. Although they are somewhat—at times, very—remote, the opportunities presented by the new economy are huge. They can help us break down some of the barriers and enable those islands to be highly connected to the rest of the world. We heard about new broadband opportunities in Newport, and I am sure there are other examples elsewhere in the British Isles.

We are focused on improving digital infrastructure on the Isle of Wight, in particular. It is clearly a critical part of life today. The Government are investing some £1 billion to ensure our digital infrastructure is fit for the future. I believe that the Isle of Wight was one of the first areas to benefit from the £400 million digital infrastructure investment fund. That was when investors Infracapital channelled some of the allocation into WightFibre to help to roll out full-fibre broadband to more than 50,000 homes, to some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight might have referred in his speech. Alongside that, Infracapital will invest £35 million of its own money to fund the expansion of the company’s infrastructure across the Isle of Wight. That is very positive and shows what we can do working together—although of course there is more work to be done.

On transport, roads are another vital part of the Isle of Wight’s infrastructure. From 2013 the Government will provide up to £477 million to Isle of Wight Council for a highways maintenance project through a private finance initiative that is under way. That will allow the council to carry out vital improvements and maintenance to local roads over a 25-year period.

We also recognise that transport to our islands must be adequate. That was not really touched on in my hon. Friend’s remarks, but having spoken to his predecessor in the past I know of concerns about the Isle of Wight ferry. Such concerns are no doubt common in other islands served by a single ferry company. The Competition and Markets Authority is aware of those concerns, which I expressed in my first meeting with the new CMA chief executive, Andrea Coscelli. The CMA is independent and the decision to take forward any investigation is its alone—the Government have no levers to direct the CMA as to which investigations it should choose, but I have raised the matter with him and know he is fully aware of it.