Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

EU Structural Funds: Least Developed Regions — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:38 pm on 26th June 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities & Local Government) (Planning) 3:38 pm, 26th June 2019

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms McDonagh, and I thank my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield for securing this debate, and for all the work he has undertaken in Parliament to champion the issue of EU replacement funding and what to do about those regions in greatest need.

This debate has shown Parliament at its best. We have colleagues from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the north-east, and Cornwall, but I think the star must go to Yorkshire, which is out in force this afternoon. There has been near unanimity across the Chamber, and we heard a number of powerful, well-argued speeches on the need for more information about the prosperity fund, to find out when it will be sorted out and how it will be disbursed, and what the Government will do about the regions in greatest need. I hope the Minister takes on board that it is a cross-party argument and that he listens, rather than simply chuntering from a sedentary position.

This is a timely debate. I am not sure we could be in a more uncertain time on Brexit, and the whole issue of how the prosperity fund will operate and replace EU funding has not been resolved, which is creating uncertainty for many regions. Even at this late stage, we are not entirely sure what the prosperity fund will cover. Will the Minister confirm that it will include all the European structural investment funds—the regional development fund, the social fund, the cohesion fund, the maritime and fisheries fund and the agricultural fund for rural development—as well as funding for youth unemployment and European territorial co-operation? It would be helpful to know exactly what it will encompass and how much money will be attached to it.

The second issue, which is at the crux of the debate, is what the Government will do about the recent research from the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions that shows that regional allocations from the EU would increase in the period from 2021-27 and affect positively at least five regions—Tees Valley and Durham; South Yorkshire; Lincolnshire; west Wales and the valleys; and Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly—and indeed up to seven regions. Over that period, it is estimated they would receive an additional €13 billion in funding, up 22%. We need to hear whether the Minister accepts that research and what the Government will do about it.

We have heard from hon. Members that such an increase is necessary because of a worsening of the relative position of the UK regions, with many areas falling behind the EU average for regional prosperity. Research cited in the House of Commons Library document as well as Eurostat data show that regional inequalities in the UK are growing. That is a terrible indictment of the Government’s policies; we need to know what they will do about it.

The Minister will know that the UK’s less developed regions have called for an ambitious new UK regional policy to recognise and address that need. My own council in County Durham got together with leaders from the other affected regions to ask the Minister for a long-term, urgent approach to tackle widening regional inequalities. They argue that particular attention must be paid to the regions furthest behind in terms of economic activity, areas with increased deprivation, rural and island areas, areas affected by industrial transition, and regions that suffer from severe and permanent natural or demographic challenges.

The leaders wrote to the Minister asking the Government to make five commitments: an ambitious regional policy for the UK that recognises the need for a specific mechanism for those regions furthest behind; the UK shared prosperity fund should be adequately funded and at least match the €13 billion that UK regions would have received under the next EU programme, which is in addition to existing national local growth funding that under current EU programmes is often used as match funding; the UK SPF should be appropriately devolved; the UK SPF should reduce the administrative burden for applicants; and a guarantee that UK regions will not be worse off in funding available for regional development beyond 2020 because of our leaving the EU. In fact, they are asking the Government to make some of the commitments about Brexit we heard before, during and—not so often but sometimes—since the referendum.

I must say that the Minister’s response to the council leaders was very weak; he said what we already know. They were asking about those five points, wanting lots of commitment and detail from the Government, because they are anxious and want to know what will happen about future funding in their areas, which is so important. They got a letter back saying basically that we have an extension until 31 October before we leave the EU—this was in May, by the way—and that the Government are considering all options and will consult on how to carry forward the prosperity fund.

We are all saying to the Minister that that really is not good enough. We need, at this very late point, some detail from him about how the fund will operate and under what criteria. What sort of money are we talking about? Will it be disbursed in the same way as it has been under the EU? Will the Government take need into account and focus in particular on the regions with the greatest need?

Like all hon. Members in the Chamber, I feel strongly about this issue because our constituencies are in regions that need to be supported to reach their full potential. This is not just pleading and bleating. These are amazing regions with huge skills and talents among the population, and they all need development in digital and higher level skills. They need to use our universities and colleges to drive up skills development. There is need for investment in renewable energy in the north-east, and in pharmaceuticals. We also need to upgrade the transport system and ensure that everyone in those regions can reach their potential and contribute to the future prosperity we all want to see. I hope the Minister will tell us something about how we can ensure that prosperity can be achieved by everyone.