It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Aldous on securing this debate, on his chairmanship, with Daniel Zeichner, of the east of England all-party parliamentary group, and on helping to put the east more firmly on the Government’s map.
My hon. Friend was absolutely right that the region has not always advocated our case for investment to the Government, and we have not always outlined the reasons why additional investment in the east would unlock a region that already helps to bring economic benefit to the country as a whole. The east is a net contributor to the UK economy. As the hon. Member for Cambridge said, additional support for our infrastructure, connectivity and digital economy will deliver benefits for the whole region, and will help to improve the growth and economic productivity, which will raise tax revenue for the whole country. That a compelling argument for why the Treasury should support infrastructure projects in our region.
Before I touch on agriculture, food and drink, infrastructure—particularly the A12 and rail, which I am sure my right hon. Friend Priti Patel will talk about later—and the importance of looking after the public sector at a time when we are seeing private sector growth in the east, it is important to reflect on the fact that unemployment in our region has come down over the past 10 years. Youth unemployment is at lows that we have not seen for more than 20 years—particularly in my part of Suffolk—and we are seeing more vocational training and apprenticeships. Those are all good things. We can also note that average wages across the east of England, particularly in Suffolk, are above the UK mean and median, which means that we live in a relatively affluent part of the country. There are still pockets of deprivation, as we are all aware, such as those in Lowestoft and Ipswich, which need particular attention.
Agriculture, food and drink is one of the drivers of the economies of Norfolk and Suffolk, and of parts of Cambridgeshire and north Essex. There are many national names in our counties that contribute to the UK economy. They are names that we can be proud of, such as Gressingham Duck, Aspall Cyder and Adnams brewery, to name but a few. However, our agricultural sector needs additional support from the Government for the development of land-based college training so that young people have opportunities in agriculture, food and drink. One area that I ask the Minister to look at is vocational training. Throughout the region, there has been a tremendous expansion in vocational training in agriculture, food and drink, particularly in light manufacturing, and we can be very proud of that. It is the driver of our economy, particularly in Norfolk and Suffolk, but we need more support for our land-based training colleges, such as Easton and Otley College, which can provide the next generation of agricultural and land-based apprentices, farm workers and people working in the food and drink industry that is so important to our region.
We recognise that the east of England—Suffolk in particular—has benefited from considerable Government support for infrastructure. We have support for the third crossing in Lowestoft that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has campaigned for so tirelessly, and, to alleviate traffic congestion in Ipswich, we have the promise of a bridge, for which the previous Member for Ipswich campaigned very hard.
We have also had additional investment, with the A11 being dualled, but the A12 is the “motorway”—although it is not actually a motorway—for entry to Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The Government have already indicated support for improvements to the A12 approaching Ipswich, but if there is a case for additional support and investment, it is the other stretch of the A12—between Ipswich and Lowestoft—which unlocks the energy gateway and energy coasts and needs considerable improvement. It is still a single-track road, which reduces the ability of new businesses to develop on the eastern coast of Suffolk. Investment in the A12 would both benefit tourism—another great driver of our economy—and help to unlock the energy coast, with the potential of Sizewell C, renewable energies and the many windfarms. I know all MPs here will strongly support that investment.
Finally, I will touch on investment in the sustainability of the public sector. If we want a thriving private sector in productivity and economic development, we need to look after our public sector. We have to recognise that in the east of England, we have challenges in retention and recruitment. Although there are national retention and recruitment challenges in some parts of the public sector, such as in the healthcare workforce, in the east of England we face particular challenges, with a shortage of GPs. Many GPs are approaching retirement age, which I believe is also true in parts of north Essex, and we need to recognise that challenge. We must also recognise that we have a shortage of nurses in some areas, and that to continue to looking after the private sector, we need to invest in the public sector and support the east of England with financial incentives that will attract public sector workers.
That is also true of education in parts of our region; there are difficulties attracting teachers to some of our schools. If we want to maintain the engine room of our thriving and growing east of England economy, we have to recognise that the package that will attract families will also support teachers and other public sector professionals who relocate to the east of England, as well as looking after the many dedicated professionals who already work very hard there.
I hope the Minister has heard my plea about supporting vocational training and apprenticeships for the agricultural and land-based economy. If he is free, perhaps he could come and visit Easton and Otley College to see for himself some of the good work that goes on there.