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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:49 pm on 5th February 2019.

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Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:49 pm, 5th February 2019

That is why we have heard from 10 Conservative colleagues, but only one Opposition Back Bencher. It is a sign that we are a Government who listen to colleagues in the south-west and ensure that economic growth in the south-west is at the heart of our approach.

We have had an interesting debate that has focused on three areas. The first is infrastructure, which we have to accept is one of the building blocks of any vibrant economy outside the capital. We have described this year as the year of delivery for digital, road and rail infrastructure, so it is important that our debate has addressed how we can ensure that we continue to deliver for everyone living in the south-west of England, particularly after years of under-investment. That is the real similarity between the north of England, where we have the northern powerhouse, and the south-west region: for far too long, under different Governments, the country has focused on infrastructure and industrial growth in London and its surrounding hinterland. It is about time we moved beyond that.

We have heard some good speeches today about human capital, in relation both to education and productivity. It is right to focus on how we can drive opportunity to people young and old across the south-west for a more varied educational picture, whether that is through the brilliant universities that have been mentioned or the great businesses that drive productivity. There are huge opportunities for productivity in cyber-security, spaceports, civil and nuclear developments in Hinkley, tourism, agriculture and our maritime economy.

I applaud the south-west local enterprise partnerships for their creation of the Heart of the South West economic co-operation and growth area. I hope that that combined effort will be reflected in their local industrial strategy, because this year needs to be the year of our regions, not just of our capital city. As Minister for local growth, I firmly believe that our biggest opportunity after leaving the European Union will be regional, and that is what the Government should be measured on.

In the limited time available, I will attempt to deal with the questions raised by hon. Members. First, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon spoke about tourism’s value to the economy. The Government continue to invest in tourism, particularly through the “Great” campaign to attract overseas visitors to this country. I encourage him and his LEP to engage with BEIS to discuss the developing potential of the tourism sector deal and pursue the idea of putting natural capital—the beauty that exists across the whole south-west—at the heart of their local industrial strategy.

Many hon. Members raised transport, particularly the Dawlish line. Colleagues will acknowledge that the Government have already invested £70 million in the line to date. I have heard the calls from Members across the parties to use whatever influence I may have over the Department for Transport to get it to fast-track its announcement about the line and ensure that we complete our commitment to making sure that it remains a robust and reliable connection for their constituents.

Hon. Members also raised the transforming cities fund, which we announced in the Budget. Some of that £2.5 billion fund has already been devolved to areas with Mayors, such as the Bristol city region, and the remaining £1.2 billion in the pot is subject to the competitive bidding process. The results of that process will be announced after the assessment of the bids; the Department for Transport tells me that that announcement will be made shortly.

My hon. Friend Rebecca Pow raised geothermal energy, which the Government recognise as a large opportunity. I encourage her to ensure that clean growth continues to be a priority, not just for the Government but for her area’s local industrial strategy.

Luke Pollard, who made the only speech from the Opposition Back Benches, spoke with real passion and in a very non-partisan way about the opportunity for a marine park in Plymouth Sound, which takes me back to the point that we need to ensure that local industrial strategies and our national industrial strategy accurately reflect the value of natural capital. When we talk about things like productivity, it is all too easy to ignore what may be on our doorstep.

I hope that in 2018, when the landscapes review undertaken by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consulted on whether the current network of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty should extend out to sea, partners in Plymouth and Devonport made a strong case for that marine park. There is no update from DEFRA yet, but I will continue to watch developments with interest because the marine park is an important idea that could be rolled out across the country—not least in your Anglesey constituency of Ynys Môn, Mr Owen. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is right that we need to be bold and clear about our passion to grow the south-west’s economy; his speech made that point very well.

My hon. Friend Derek Thomas spoke well about the UK shared prosperity fund. He will be aware of the Government commitment to ensure that the current round of EU structural funding has the benefit of a Treasury guarantee until March 2021, but our specific aim in introducing the UK shared prosperity fund is to provide a single domestic local growth fund without the bureaucracy of EU funds. As my hon. Friend Mrs Murray noted, we need to ensure that our UK growth funds concentrate on what we need to grow in this country. That is one of the opportunities that leaving the European Union will bring.

My hon. Friend Steve Double spoke about the desired growth of the Cornish economy. Of course the spaceport has already received funding of £2 million from the Government, and the Space Industry Act 2018 will enable spaceships—I guess—to take off by 2020.

I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon an opportunity to wind up, so I do not have time to answer all the questions asked by hon. Members, but I will write to them about any outstanding issues. This has been a wonderful debate. This is the year of regional growth, and the south-west must be at the heart of it.