Economic Growth: South-west — [Albert Owen in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:51 pm on 5th February 2019.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport 2:51 pm, 5th February 2019

It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour, Sir Gary Streeter. I believe I was just 13 years old—probably causing as much nuisance then as I do now—when he was first elected, and it seems as though some of the issues that affected our region in the 1980s and 1990s were similar to the ones that we face today. There is still a lack of investment in our strategic infrastructure, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to signal road and rail as areas in which we need investment. We also need skills and investment in education, delivering benefits for all young people right across the region, so they can stay in our region and create jobs and future prosperity.

Similarly to the hon. Member for South West Devon, I want to distinguish between the south-west and the far south-west. When I talk about the far south-west, I mean Devon and Cornwall, because there is sometimes a temptation for Ministers to lump together improvements in Swindon and in Bournemouth as part of the overall benefit to the south-west. We need to break down the larger region and focus on where some of the benefits can best be felt, particularly around the peninsula of Devon and Cornwall, as well as further up in Somerset and Dorset.

As a region, we have a lot to be proud of. We are a region of immense beauty, immense skill and talent, real professionalism, and huge potential for job creation. However, we do not always talk enough about how good we are as a region. That is certainly true of Plymouth, but I realise it can be true of our wider region: we hide our light under a bushel, and then we hide the bushel. We are not always as good at talking ourselves up as we need to be. If we are to get our fair share from Government, we need to be bolder about our ambition, clearer and more relentless about where we need help, and prouder about the areas in which we do so much and excel. That unfairness is one of the reasons why I first thought about going into politics, because as a young lad growing up in Devon, I saw other parts of the country getting stuff that we were not getting. My friends in other parts of the country seemed to have more opportunities than were being afforded to young people in the south-west, and that did not seem fair.

Whether a person lives in Plymouth, Devon, Cornwall, or anywhere else around the country, they should have the same opportunities, but sometimes our peripherality seems to restrict our opportunities in that respect. To engage with those opportunities, we need a structural, long-term, cross-party plan, and I hope that today’s debate will help to put pressure on Ministers to create such a plan, because our region needs a turning point. As the only Labour Back Bencher in this debate, with my regional Tory colleagues sitting opposite me, I feel as though I am up against a very tough job interview—the question is whether I would like the job at the end of it, if it involves working with that employer. I know that the other Labour MPs who represent the region—my colleagues from Bristol and Stroud—would echo this point; sadly, the Whips have timed statutory instrument Committees very well in order to avoid their being present here. However, if we are to succeed as a region, fairness and cross-party working are important, and my Labour colleagues would like me to emphasise the benefits that come from working together in order to achieve that.

We know that as a region, we have been starved of investment for far too long. We know that our education, health and transport spending per head is well below the national average. We know that those structural problems have affected our region, not just since 2010 but for decades prior to that, and we know that we need to change that. I am mindful of the fact that, with the Government’s entire majority sitting opposite me, we have a power and a voice that we should be using more. The sooner our region starts standing together across parties, and being louder and more determined about our key asks, the more likely it is that Ministers will listen to Members from the far south-west. It should not be only the Democratic Unionist party and its 10 Members of Parliament who hold sway in this House. The DUP received about 300,000 votes at the last general election, but 260,000 people live in Plymouth, and we need to start evening out our influence as a region, because there are still some problems that we need to address.

There are also some opportunities, which I will briefly dwell on. The hon. Member for South West Devon spoke about Dawlish. I honestly wonder what went through the minds of Ministers in the Department for Transport when they decided, knowing that today was the fifth anniversary of Dawlish being washed away, to park the announcement on funding until two weeks hence. I cannot understand why that has happened. Equally, at the end of the funding—I anticipate that it will come in a couple of weeks’ time; if it does not, I hope there is an almighty stink about it—we will still only have a train line at Dawlish that closes slightly less than it does at the moment. That funding will not deal with the structural inequality and slowness of our service, or its capacity.

The superb Peninsula Rail Task Force report, which I recommend to the Minister and to all colleagues who have not apprised themselves of it recently, talked about our long-term investment from Penzance at one end of the region to Paddington and other destinations. Some £8 billion of investment over 20 years could transform our economy. Just imagine the transformation if an average journey of three hours and 30 minutes from Plymouth to London could be reduced to two hours and 15 minutes, as the PRTF suggests. Imagine the potential for job creation, greater investment, more tourism and greater connectivity, and the broader horizons for our young people that that transformation could create. I realise that the Minister is not a Transport Minister, but any nudges and winks that he could give to his colleagues in the DFT to encourage them to push out the announcement we know is sitting in their press office, waiting to be announced in a couple of weeks’ time, would be greatly appreciated. It is not just rail that we need to improve: we need to extend the M5 from Exeter to the Tamar bridge, and we also need to be bold in some of our vision.

Finally, I will mention the huge potential that our natural environment presents to the region and our economy. I want Plymouth sound to be designated as the UK’s first national marine park. That project has the support of Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the University of Plymouth, the Marine Biological Association and many of the genuinely world-class institutions that just happen to be based in Plymouth. Being able to protect and value our coastal waters is incredibly powerful, and I know that there are people on both sides of the House who recognise the importance of protecting our coastal waters and valuing them more.

Having the UK’s first national marine park in Plymouth sound could send a strong message that Plymouth is open for business not only for marine sites, marine engineering jobs and fishing, but for marine conservation. It could send a message that our wider region is open to the job creation potential that could flow from greater investment in our marine sector, in terms of both science and the exciting element of marine autonomy, keeping our Royal Navy jobs and the marine refit jobs that accompany them in the city of Plymouth. It is an exciting project, and I hope that Government Members will join the increasingly large numbers of individuals who are getting behind this campaign on a cross-party basis. If it works for Plymouth sound, it could work for coastal waters right around our peninsula, and indeed around our country. It could be really quite exciting.