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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:31 pm on 5th February 2019.

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Photo of Peter Heaton-Jones Peter Heaton-Jones Conservative, North Devon 3:31 pm, 5th February 2019

Oh, it is a town—well, there we are; even less of a reason.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and to speak in this debate initiated by my hon. Friend Sir Gary Streeter. I thank him for his kind words about the campaign to get funds for the north Devon link road. Yes, that is something I have gone on about. As a relatively new Member, my name popped up on the Order Paper to ask a question of the Prime Minister. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, approached me in the Lobby and said, “I bet you’re going to bang on about the north Devon link road.” I said, “Absolutely, Prime Minister, I am.” When he said that to me, I thought, “Well, we’ve won this battle, and I am proud to be banging on about it.” We made that happen with the success that comes with £83 million of Government funding, plus £10 million from Devon County Council. The north Devon link road is a vital bit of our infrastructure and part of the connectivity that my hon. Friend and other colleagues so correctly identified.

Connectivity is a vital driver of the economy not only in north Devon, but in the entire south-west. That includes roads such as the A361, the A303, the A30 and the A358, but it is also about railways, which have been mentioned at some length. I echo what has been said to the Minister. This is not his Department, but perhaps he could have a quiet word in the ears of his hon. Friends in the Department for Transport and ensure that when we have an announcement, it will be the news that we need about long-overdue investment in the resilience of the vital route that connects the south-west peninsula with the rest of the country. I look forward to that happening; I hope it will be in the next couple of weeks.

I also wish to mention the railway line in my constituency, and I declare an interest because I am proud to be the honorary president of the Tarka Rail Association—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you. It is one of the roles that I am proudest to hold, because that organisation has done much to promote the need for investment in the line that links Exeter and Barnstaple, and will continue so to do.

In 2019, connectivity also means digital connectivity. I have had numerous meetings with Connecting Devon and Somerset, British Telecom, and Airband, which unlike in the rest of our region—it is not Gigaclear—is the contract holder to provide fast and superfast broadband in north Devon. I have had a number of meetings with Airband to try to push that agenda forward. It is vital that that continues, because although a lot of good work has been done so far, we need to do more.

Those who put together the south-west growth strategy reckon that properly investing in our region’s connectivity could produce gross value added economic benefits of more than £41 billion and create 22,000 jobs—that is how important it is to get connectivity right. Colleagues have also mentioned agriculture, which is extraordinarily important in north Devon and the greater south-west, and a great contributor to economic growth. There are excellent farming businesses in my local economy, and it is well documented that they can help to close the productivity gap.

Let me acknowledge David Ralph, who is in the Public Gallery. He is head of the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership, and it is good to see so much support for the region as a whole. According to the excellent report by the South West Rural Productivity Commission, our rural local authority areas account for 60% of all workforce jobs—far above the figures for elsewhere in England—which shows how important it is to get growth right in our rural areas.

Let me raise a couple of other issues that I think are important. We have placed a bid for a south-west institute of technology in our area, which is vital. Petroc College and other institutions in my constituency are really pushing hard for that, and part of it will be based in Barnstaple. That could be a real driver as far as the Government’s economic and industrial strategies are concerned. I see that time is running away, so I will end with pretty much the same phrase as the one with which I ended another debate on this subject, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon about 18 months ago. We hear a great deal about the midlands engine and the northern powerhouse, and of course they are important. In the south-west, however, we are like a coiled spring. We have so much potential ready to be unleashed, so I say to the northern powerhouse, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”