Levelling-up Agenda — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall on 15th June 2021.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 2:30 pm, 15th June 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice, in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. The timing of debates has been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be a suspension between each debate.

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Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 2:31 pm, 15th June 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the levelling up agenda.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I am delighted to see the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend Jesse Norman, and I thank other hon. Members for being part of this debate. I am happy to forgo my summing-up at the end to get as many folks in for as long as possible, but I would like to talk for 10 to 12 minutes now to outline some arguments.

I have two key points to make to the Minister and I will come straight to them. On the immediate issue, the Isle of Wight Council and I, working together, are putting in what we believe is a very strong bid for a development in East Cowes. I am keen that it reaches receptive ears in Government and among Ministers.

Secondly, I would like to talk more broadly about the levelling-up agenda for the Island and ask the Government to work with us—and even to use the Island as a model, a mini region, to see what a strategic cross-Government agenda could look like. I am most concerned to talk to the Minister about the extent to which the Treasury is leading cross-Government work, rather than the Cabinet Office, and how we are developing cross-Government, coherent integrated policy making.

However, if there is one critical element that I want to leave with the Minister today, it is that the levelling-up agenda for the Isle of Wight implies many things. That includes not only economic development, important as that is, but training and skills, education, which is critical, health outcomes, greater environmental protection, housing and planning. Effectively, we want a strategic road map for the next 50 years that has more to offer the Island than we have had in the past 50 years.

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

“Levelling up” seems a fancy phrase for regional policy—for taking wealth or economic development out of the south-east and trying to spread it around the country as much as possible. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, ours is one of the most unequal countries in the G7 developed nations, which is pretty scandalous.

Specifically on the Island, for nearly two decades we have been making the case for a more assertive regional assistance programme. In 2002, our GDP, our local economy, was 60% of that in the south-east. Things have improved in the past two decades and it is now 66%, but we are poorer than elsewhere in the south-east. Our educational achievements are lower, and our health outcomes worse.

The Island has a unique identity, which those of us who live there are incredibly proud of—frankly, we love it—but there is a downside: the economic impact of dislocation and diseconomies of scale, specific to an island. In other areas of the UK, people can be physical islands, cut off, as we have seen with folks in Hartlepool and other places. That is why the attractiveness of the hopeful levelling-up agenda post Brexit rightly has such a hold on many people. What we must do is deliver on that agenda.

The levelling-up agenda, done right, is one of great hope and potential prosperity for this country. If it is done wrong, we will be letting down millions of people throughout the United Kingdom.

I want to make another point. According to all our statistics, the Isle of Wight should be in tier 1—frankly, we should be two constituencies in tier 1. My electorate is double the size of that of the average constituency in the United Kingdom and we are going to be two constituencies in three years’ time anyway, after the Boundary Commission changes. I am slightly concerned that we are one constituency in tier 2 at the moment. I think our case merits a higher priority.

I come to our bid. The bid going in this week is in relation to a series of buildings in East Cowes that we wish to transform. The purpose is to grow the number of high-paid jobs in marine, but also in the tidal, wind and offshore renewable sectors. Our bid will enable us to develop that cluster of excellence further and ensure that East Cowes continues to grow as a shipbuilding composite and green tech hub for the United Kingdom as a whole.

I would welcome a ministerial visit to East Cowes. My right hon. Friend Boris Johnson visited during the campaign before he became Prime Minister; many people remember the picture that he had taken in front of the world’s largest Union Jack—on the Isle of Wight: where else? We would equally welcome another ministerial visit to see the excellent work being done there.

This is part of a wider agenda, which I want to turn to. The council is new and we are going to work together. It is not Conservative any longer, which is a shame, but we will work closely together and I know we will have a successful relationship. The council and I are not thinking about the next two to five years, but the next five to 25 years, because we want to see a different future for the Island. That has to be primarily around the regeneration of our town centres using the levelling-up and shared prosperity fund bids.

Our regeneration approach, especially after covid, will be focused primarily on Newport. The town centre has a lot of empty shops and Newport harbour is ripe for development as a regeneration hub. As part of that, we want high-quality new house building for Islanders in sensitive numbers to drive regeneration. We need to bring back young people and housing into the town centre to drive economic growth and to provide employment, for start-up companies, for leisure and for higher education facilities, which I will come to. We need space for start-ups and, potentially, a new railway station, depending on how the rejuvenation of the branch-line project goes. If there was a single long-term item that I would interest the Minister in after the East Cowes project, it would be the regeneration of Newport to drive the Island’s economy.

This is linked to many other things, as I am sure the Minister can imagine. We need to continue to develop higher education on the Island. The education revolution that transformed Bournemouth, Brighton, Portsmouth and Southampton has, scandalously, completely passed us by. Only 23% of Islanders go into higher education, compared with nearly 40% of Londoners. That is unacceptable.

Millions have been pledged by the Department for Education—I thank the Ministers for this—to help rebuild the Isle of Wight College. Under the excellent leadership of Debbie Lavin, the college is doing great work aligning with mainland colleges to be able to offer richer and better vocational courses, as well as degree courses. We are getting there in higher education, but more needs to be done.

Regenerating our towns also means that we can protect our landscape much more. We need our landscape—not only for our quality of life, but because it is a critical part of our visitor economy. Our landscape has specific economic as well as emotional and psychological value over and above a competitive price for low-density greenfield housing.

For 50 years, we have not built for Islanders. That situation needs to stop. As part of any levelling-up plan for the Island, we need greater landscape protection and a policy of building for Islanders. That means exceptional circumstance and, preferably, opting out of national targets. We think that the best way to give long-term protection to the Island, depending on what happens with the Government’s landscape review, is for it to have a new designation—a new template to work with Government: to become an “island park”. That could involve marine protection and landscape protection, maybe up to the level of being an area of outstanding natural beauty, perhaps with some opt-out for economic development.

We should work on a new template, and it can be a template for the UK. We can start in England with the Scilly Isles and the Isle of Wight; in Wales, there is Anglesey; and many Scottish islands could benefit from a similar shared model, although I note that Scotland has the special islands needs allowance. I wish we had that in England.

More can be done, but I am trying to show that economic development and educational aspiration need to go hand in hand with other things to ensure that when we regenerate, we do so in an intelligent, sensitive, long-term way that develops our people and gives them greater aspiration, greater hope for the future, greater education and greater work opportunities, while also protecting our landscape for us and our nation in perpetuity, but also as a critical part of our visitor economy.

I am aware of the time; I will begin to wind up so that others can come in. I will be seeking separate debates on the progress of the island deal. We have made some progress on that, but we need to do more. I stress that there are additional costs to providing public services on an island, and those are not in dispute. I am delighted that the fair funding formula—championed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks), now Chancellor, whom I thank for his excellent work—contains an admission that additional costs are involved in providing local government services.

That same argument is still being played out in the field of health, specifically for the 12 universally small hospitals in England—and St Mary’s on the Isle of Wight is the most unique universally small hospital, because it is on an island; by definition, it cannot grow in any conceivable way. The population is about half of what a district general hospital normally requires for the tariff regime that currently operates within the NHS. I will also have a separate debate on ferries, which is far too big a topic just for here; likewise for agriculture.

Finally, I leave a single idea in the mind of the Minister: regeneration—levelling up, the shared prosperity regional agenda—is, for us, about a lot of things. Fundamentally, it is about making sure that our future is better than our past. It is about focusing on development, education, wellbeing and health, but doing so sensitively and intelligently while preserving our environment. As I say, done right, levelling up can be transformative. I very much hope that I can work with the Minister on a coherent, cross-Government approach for the Island in a way that can help us all nationally as well.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Order. We have 13 Back-Bench speakers. If there is to be any chance of everybody getting in, we will have to have a tight time limit. I will set it at three and a half minutes at the moment, but that may have to come down to three minutes. I would be grateful if speeches were kept below three minutes.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Defence) 2:43 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Bob Seely on securing a really important debate.

When we talk about levelling up, there is one fundamental point that the Government would rather we all forgot: we cannot level up the country without properly resourcing local government. Councils up and down the country should be at the forefront of investment and regeneration. Councils, combined authorities and Mayors will be delivering the infrastructure and regeneration projects that will level up our cities, towns and villages, but more than a decade of devastating austerity has undermined them, and damaged our communities. It has hit the poorest areas hardest. The areas that need regeneration the most have been left with the least to deliver it. High streets that need investment to change for the economy of tomorrow have been left behind in yesterday, while local budgets have been decimated.

Barnsley Council has faced some of the worst Government cuts in the country, and has lost 40% of its income since 2010. For the services that have been decimated and the opportunities for investment that have been lost to austerity, the concept of levelling up could be a very welcome one, but one-off pots of money will not change a broken system that leaves behind so many people and so many parts of the country.

There is something wrong with the system when the Chancellor’s constituency of Richmond (Yorks) is prioritised over Barnsley in the Budget, even though, on almost every indicator, Barnsley is more deserving of funding. That leaves “levelling up” as no more than a slogan. We need to look more fundamentally at the kind of country we are and how and who our economy has been working for. The people of this country have been promised better, and deserve better. Our councils and communities deserve the resources that they need to thrive, not just get by.

If the Government want to level up for Barnsley, they should implement the recommendations of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report on the mineworkers’ pension scheme, which had unanimous cross-party backing—not just because it is morally the right thing to do and because the Government should not be in the business of profiting from miners’ pensions, but because the policy would change the lives of thousands of ex-miners, giving them an immediate financial uplift that would boost local businesses and economies when they spend.

If the Government want to level up for Barnsley, they should invest in our young people and their futures by delivering a children’s recovery plan that meets the scale of the challenge. Whereas the Labour party would meet that challenge with an ambitious £15 billion programme, this Government could not even muster 10% of what their own education recovery commissioner said was needed before he resigned in opposition to their failure.

If the Government want to level up Barnsley, they should make sure we receive the investment that towns such as ours deserve for regeneration and new, decent jobs, making sure that hard work gets a fair wage. Under this Government, in-work poverty has increased, long-term unemployment is rising at its fastest rate for more than a decade, and the Kickstart scheme has provided opportunities for just one in 25 young people. One-off pots of money for selected areas will not fundamentally rebalance our country or reverse a decade of austerity. We need good jobs, opportunities and properly funded services for every town. If levelling up truly means anything, it must mean delivering for towns such as Barnsley and investing in communities like mine.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 2:46 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend Bob Seely on securing this debate. Levelling up, as it has become known, is the biggest challenge that this country currently faces. It is about giving hope to communities that have been ignored for too long, tackling deep pockets of deprivation, giving people the opportunity to realise their full potential and bridging the stubbornly wide productivity gap that has held back the UK economy for far too long.

Levelling up must not be piecemeal, fragmented and short-term interventions. Instead, it must be a set of coherent, sustained and properly funded policy initiatives fully co-ordinated across Government.

One of the pockets of deprivation is in Lowestoft, but I welcome the investment that the Government and councils are making in the Gull Wing bridge, the flood defence scheme and the towns deal, which equates to almost £220 million of public sector funding in the heart of Lowestoft over the next five years. Our tasks locally are to ensure that those schemes are built on time and unleash a tide of private sector job-creating investment.

I also welcome the proposed freeport at Felixstowe, 50 miles down off the Suffolk coast. However, I emphasise the importance of not jumping from one intervention to the next, but instead continuing to see through proven strategies that are already up and running. The Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone, set up in 2012, like other enterprise zones around the country, has been very successful. It has an energy focus that is aligned with the Government’s clean growth strategy. By reallocating the existing footprint of the enterprise zone around Lowestoft port, more than 300 jobs can be created, 40 new businesses can be supported, and between £1 million and £3 million of retained rates can be generated.

Sir Edward, it is great to be here with you and other colleagues, but when it comes to levelling up, today we are a sideshow. The important business is taking place in the other place with the Second Reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. Putting skills and lifelong learning at the heart of the Government’s policy agenda is absolutely critical, and we must ensure that the ambitions of the reforms are fully realised. Linked to the Bill are local skills improvement plan trailblazers, and the chambers of commerce and colleges across Suffolk and Norfolk have come together and submitted a compelling application. The bid has a focus on the net zero agenda and rebuilding coastal communities. It highlights the workforce requirements across the region in offshore wind, in Sizewell C, in the emerging hydrogen economy and in the freeport.

I urge the Government to give this compelling proposal favourable consideration. We need to step up to the plate, so that local people have the skills needed to take up these exciting opportunities.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 2:50 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.

Clearly, this debate is about a con trick—a gimmick. It is actually the Tories admitting that they have continually let down communities, regions and nations for decades. However, they are now saying, “We’ll give some money back and everything will be better.”

Clearly, additional strategic investment is always welcome, but this investment is not strategic and it also bypasses the devolution settlement. We have heard from other contributors that this investment is far too piecemeal.

When we consider Westminster failures, this levelling-up fund does not even come close to making amends. If we go back to Maggie Thatcher’s flagship policy of right to buy council houses, the fact that initially all receipts went into Westminster coffers meant the erosion of council and social housing stock, with no funds available for new builds. In Scotland, it has taken the Scottish National party Government to try to turn this situation round, with record numbers of new build houses for rent. Unfortunately, England still has an incoherent housing policy that will cause further inequality.

Oil and gas produced £350 billion worth of revenue for the Exchequer and yet there was no consideration about setting up an oil fund to allow legacy considerations rather than the squandering of those revenues in tax cuts. Yet now we are supposed to be grateful for money coming back.

Look at the devastation of coalmining communities. Where is the coherent strategy for levelling them up? When opencast coalmining companies in my constituency went into liquidation in 2013, they left millions of pounds worth of outstanding restoration works and again the UK Government were nowhere to be seen. They did not contribute a penny and even refused to support a coal tax scheme that would have funded that restoration work.

We know that the levelling-up fund is labelled as money that might otherwise have gone to the EU, but the reality is that the likes of Scotland had to make use of EU structural funds to offset Westminster letting us down. Indeed, the fact that the highlands became an EU objective 1 category area under Westminster rule says everything. However, that did allow the highlands to access funding for roads and bridges, including the upgrading of the last remaining single-track trunk road in the UK. That money funded harbour upgrades as well, which was real, strategic levelling up.

Now, conversely, we have Scottish Tories demanding road upgrades for schemes that Westminster failed to deliver on, and we know that it was the Tories who labelled Scottish fishermen as “expendable”. It is those same fishermen who have now been given a poor Brexit deal, and we know that our farmers will be the next to suffer because of the trade deals that have been negotiated by Westminster.

Even when we consider the electricity grid charging scheme, we see that Scotland faces the highest grid charges in Europe, so the system prejudices development in Scotland in areas that would actually benefit from levelling up. Real levelling up would also have seen the contract for difference procurement process amended to include local content.

To be clear, I will support bids by my local authority if they bring additional strategic investment, and I will also support community groups to try to access funding. But the process is a farce. Like the stronger towns fund, it is likely to be politically managed rather than having a proper needs-based assessment. The fact that the first bids have to be submitted by 18 June and be shovel-ready to be delivered in a year confirms a lack of strategic thinking and oversight. There is a real risk that hurried bids will be accepted, leading to cost and programme overruns later on.

Pitting MPs and local authorities against each other is not the way to tackle structural inequalities. My constituency needs additional support, but this is not the way that it should be managed.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 2:54 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Bob Seely, my neighbour, on securing this important debate on levelling up. It is a really great opportunity to explore the scope of this call to action. The timing of the debate really could not be better, as it immediately follows the G7 and the joint communiqué published by the Group of Seven developed country leaders, indicating the shared agenda that we have and the central role that the Government’s agenda of levelling up has across those other nations, which are key trading partners and, indeed, key allies.

The issue of levelling up resonates across the nation, and we saw that in the general election. I believe that we need to look not just at regional levelling up, which we heard about so eloquently from my hon. Friend, but at the broader scope and vision that we saw in the communiqué that was published following this weekend’s conference. The G7 leaders agreed unanimously that in reinvigorating our economies we should be levelling up as nations, so that no place or person, irrespective of their age, ethnicity or gender, is left behind. The full power of the applicability of our vision was seen not just at home but in the wider world.

It was important to see gender equality so clearly and explicitly embedded in the G7 communiqué for levelling up. Gender equality has to be embedded into the strategy of the Government’s levelling-up White Paper when it is published later this year. We need to be talking about left-behind people, as well as left-behind areas, particularly when we look at economic underperformance, which is something we are still having to tackle in this country. It demonstrates itself through low pay and low employment levels in some areas of the country, leading to lower living standards and poor productivity. These issues are still particular challenges for women in work. We may see increased numbers of women in Parliament or in high-profile jobs, but despite that, more women, who achieve higher qualifications than men, will still end up underperforming economically through their working life.

Across all age groups men make up the majority of high and middle-income earners in the UK. Women are only over-represented in the category of low paid work. Although there are record numbers of women in work under this Government, there is a persistent gender pay gap in the over 40s and an unemployment gap of more than 6% between men and women. The Government have to make levelling up as an agenda work hard for everybody throughout the United Kingdom, wherever they live.

The Government would do well to ensure that their policy focuses particularly on the experiences of women and how we can make sure we level up for women across the United Kingdom. It is important that every single part of our country is performing as it should in economic terms. If we do not give women the support they need, particularly through employment policies supporting maternity leave, we will continue to see an under-representation of women in the workplace.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:57 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. My warmest congratulations to Bob Seely on securing the debate. We in the highlands were disappointed to be put in level 3; the leader of the Highland Council, Margaret Davidson, and I said as much. However, we are where we are.

One of the best ways to level up in the highlands and the islands—the remotest parts of Britain—is through tourism, so I want to speak in support of a bid that will be put to the Treasury in the next couple of days by the Highland Council. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight briefly touched on harbours, and I will as well. Wick harbour was once the herring capital of the UK. When the swell or the wind is in the wrong direction, it can make the harbour unsafe, so the bid is to build a new sea gate to increase the marina potential of the area.

I have often talked about a string of pearls. If we can take rich people who own boats—we call them yachties—up the east coast from the south-east, all the way up to the top of Scotland, and then get them to turn left, go along the top and go down again, not only will they have a great journey but we in the highlands, being canny Scots, would aim to lighten their wallets and their bank accounts on the way round. Doing up Wick would be a major step in that direction. It would accompany improvements to the town centre and to the industrial units next to the harbour.

The second part of the bid that the Highland Council is putting in is related to this. We have a very successful tourism enterprise, of which some hon. Members will have heard, called the North Coast 500. It is a brilliant idea supported by His Royal Highness Prince Charles, or the Duke of Rothesay as we call him in Scotland, and various local businesses. In the last few years it has been a tremendous success and an enormous number of visitors have come north. They have really enjoyed this truly scenic and amazing way around the top of Scotland. However, this has brought infrastructure challenges. One thinks of not enough car parking facilities, the structure of bridges that are starting to fall apart or congestion. If an ambulance in north-west Sutherland has to get in a hurry to the hospital at Wick, it can end up behind a lot of camper vans.

The bid is “Please, help us to finance improvements that are much needed”. I say again, that sort of enterprise will take money from the south-east and the richer parts of the UK to the poorer parts. That is levelling up without the Government having to do much more than putting their hands in their pockets to help finance the initial capital expenditure. That will include electrical charging points and other improvements.

An example of the success of the North Coast 500, the former Member for South Ribble, who was in her time the parliamentary private secretary to the Prime Minister, and her partner are going to come and stay with me in August. I warmly encourage the Minister and his colleagues at the Treasury; they would have the most enjoyable time coming up north to see where their money would be wisely spent. Of course, I would offer them bed and breakfast—what is more, it would be free bed and breakfast, which for a Scot is pretty astonishing.

Photo of David Warburton David Warburton Conservative, Somerton and Frome 3:01 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to speak on this subject today. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend Bob Seely on securing this very important debate. Much like his patch, Somerset has suffered from a historical fiscal concentration on London and the south-east. A major part of addressing that is for those outside the metropolitan bubble to be given the kind of investment in connectivity and infrastructure that will allow us to properly compete.

As Somerset’s representative on the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership, I see first-hand the need for investment and the marvellous potential that even quite modest investment can unlock. If we are to rebalance our economy and properly level up, investment in connectivity is key. That means digital and physical connectivity, such as the dualling of the A303— the major arterial road for the entire south-west—which I have been talking about endlessly for many years. I am sure that 4,000 years ago, when the ancient Britons hauled the stones to Stonehenge, they got stuck in queues on the A303. If the A303 was in a decent state, President Biden would have driven to Cornwall, purely to take in the glorious view of Somerton and Frome on the way. The real issue is that so many of my constituents rely on that road to get to work, to get to school and to visit family and friends, and not all of them have a helicopter lying around.

Connectivity also means public transport. I am delighted that, with the Langport Transport Group, we secured the funding for a feasibility study for a new railway station for Langport and Somerton from the restoring your railway fund. At the moment, the splendid people of Somerton and Langport drive miles to Taunton, Bridgwater, Yeovil or Castle Cary just to catch a train, which is faintly ridiculous.

In the 21st century, digital connectivity is as important as physical connectivity. Last week I met Wessex Internet, a local internet service provider—a family business supported by Government investment that is building full-fibre networks across south Somerset. That really is a great example of public and private sector synergy. But much more needs to be done; in my constituency, more than 90% of households do not have access to superfast broadband. There are pockets, such as Isle Brewers, Compton Dundon and many more—too many to mention—where getting a 1 megabit connection is about the best a man or a woman can get.

One of the greatest threats to the levelling-up agenda and so much more is the continuation of the covid restrictions, which will continue to harm lives and livelihoods across Somerton and Frome, costing jobs, harming the economy and depriving ordinary people of the opportunities they have worked hard to create. Levelling up is an essential component of the country’s agenda, and vitally important for Somerset. Let us get properly connected, up to speed and able to compete with the rest of the country on a level footing.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle 3:04 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Bob Seely on bringing forward this debate.

There is no doubt that the negative effects of covid have been felt in the most deprived areas of our country, in education, in work and in health outcomes. That has made the task of creating a society where a person’s life chances do not depend on where they were born more challenging, and all the more urgent. There are opportunities to be grasped, but only if the Government has the wit to recognise them, the will to act on them and the courage to provide investment.

Lockdowns have brought changes to the way many of us work and some will be permanent. Businesses have had to take the plunge into homeworking and found productivity held up or even improved. They have found themselves looking at the cost of large, permanent office space as an unnecessary burden. Employees found themselves relieved from long and expensive commutes and, for those who can move, an exodus is under way from the big cities.

That movement has seen rents in city centres such as London, Manchester and Leeds fall, while they are on the rise in areas such as Wigan, Keighley and Durham. It is bringing more disposable income to parts of the country that have been largely neglected for more than a decade and has obvious benefits for local economies, but there is a greater prize to be had.

Residents of those areas need to see more than a rise in rents and a few more jobs in upmarket shops and restaurants. They now have the opportunity to do the same well-paid jobs—jobs that were previously unavailable in that area. There are reasons beyond the financial for people wishing to remain local, such as family ties, caring responsibilities, a sense of community and belonging to a place. That is certainly the case in Hull, where there is a strong local identity. The desire to remain in their community means many instinctively look at what is available and adjust their aspirations to fit. The new possibilities contained in remote working are a way of broadening horizons and opportunity, while maintaining social cohesion and community, but that can only happen with action.

Fast, reliable broadband needs to be universally available. Schools and colleges need to be properly funded and pupils need to be made aware of new career opportunities. Not everyone has the space at home to work comfortably and successfully, so digital hubs and hybrid workspaces will be necessary to support this new way of working.

I am proud to say that Hull is well placed for all these changes. It is blessed with the best fibre-optic coverage and upload speeds in the country, provided by KCOM. As a result, we have also seen the opening of the kind of digital hub I have described in the Midland Bank in Whitefriargate. What is available in Hull should be available to all other areas that have been on the wrong end of de-industrialisation and ruinous Conservative austerity.

The Irish Government have already set about redistributing jobs and opportunity and are aiming for 20% of Ireland’s 300,000 civil servants to have moved to remote working by the end of the year. To ensure jobs are distributed across the country, they are creating a network of more than 400 remote working hubs and introducing tax breaks for individuals and companies that support homeworking. This Government could and should embark on the same path. Will they? It will require foresight, intelligent planning and a determination to invest in the future of all of this country’s people—qualities that have been in short supply so far.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 3:08 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend Bob Seely on securing the debate.

I am delighted to say I see no conflict between levelling up in Stoke-on-Trent and improving quality of life across the whole country, including the Isle of Wight. There is a clear win-win in relieving housing pressures by levelling up development opportunities in places such as Stoke-on-Trent, which I have discussed previously with my hon. Friend. We have multiple hectares of brownfield land and an eagerness to build, but the clean-up costs for former heavily industrial land are considerable and often unviable in lower priced housing markets. We have a proven track record in Stoke-on-Trent of delivering. Last year, Stoke-on-Trent built more than the average London borough, with 99% on brownfield land. We are one of the busiest housing markets nationally.

I welcome the investment we have seen through the housing infrastructure fund in the north of the city, but we also need similar sites in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent South. Will the Minister help us to deliver even more and ensure that we get a good slice of the £100 million brownfield fund?

Of course, people need more than just a good house. They need skilled, well-paid jobs, better transport and an improved quality of life. Levelling up is about all those things. If anywhere in the country reflects the need to level up, it is Stoke-on-Trent. It is 12th highest in proportion of deprived neighbourhoods and, after decades of neglect and decline, it has huge potential just waiting to be unleashed.

We are unparalleled in our friendliness, right at the heart of the UK and now with the best fibre gigabit-connected city in the whole country. I slightly disagree with the previous speaker, Emma Hardy, who said Hull was the best connected. Stoke-on-Trent is now the best connected in terms of fibre broadband connectivity.

We submit our fantastic levelling-up fund bids at the end of this week. We have been working closely with the city council. I hope the Minister will support our plans. It will be particularly important to capitalise on our authentic industrial heritage in the Potteries to create a modern, dynamic and prosperous city. In Longton especially, we must build on the PSICA—partnership schemes in conservation areas—and heritage action zone schemes we secured in partnership with the city council and Historic England, attracting new residential, leisure and employment uses.

Stoke-on-Trent is on the up. It is one of the fastest-growing city economies nationally and is a centre for world-class advanced manufacturing and the digital revolution. We recently launched our Silicon Stoke prospectus, led by my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis, which is about building on the fast-growing cluster of digital firms taking advantage of our investment in gigabit broadband and strengthening what we are seeing at Staffordshire University in games design and e-sports. Attracting these sorts of industries is key to raising aspirations and boosting opportunities locally, as is ensuring that people have the skills to access them, through schemes such as the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee, the kickstart scheme and T-levels. That is especially important in places like Stoke-on-Trent, where high-level skills and wages and far below the national average.

Access to better jobs and opportunities is also critical in a city where a third of households do not even have access to a private car. We need to level back our transport following decades of local bus and rail decline, and I am glad that we are working on just that. Building on the success of the transforming cities fund, we now need to reopen Meir station and the station at Fenton Manor on the line between Stoke and Leek, and we also need to secure important investment from the bus strategy fund.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General) 3:11 pm, 15th June 2021

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Sir Edward; it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate Bob Seely on securing the debate.

There is of course an evident need to level up the nations of the United Kingdom and the regions of England, but rather than bringing communities and nations together for the common good, the Government have used this agenda to make light of our democratically mandated institutions. Nothing more clearly demonstrates this than the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020—legislation so hostile to devolution and destructive to joined-up economic development that even the Welsh Labour Government tried to take the UK Government to court. The “Westminster knows best” school of thought has already left the UK with one of the most regionally unequal economies in the west.

The Government’s regional development funds may be dressed up as silk purses, but the most cursory inspection reveals them to be sows’ ears. We know that the UK Government have now broken their 2019 manifesto promise that Wales would receive the same level of financial support from the UK as from the EU. Allocated funds are a pale shadow of what Wales received and had control over from the EU. The EU takes a needs-based approach, which resulted in Wales receiving four times the UK average per person. Why? Because that was recognised as necessary to challenge chronic deprivation. What are the UK Government doing? They are taking a competitive approach, which guarantees Wales only 5% of the levelling-up fund. The Welsh Government themselves reckon that Wales could end up getting as little as £50 million a year—a fraction of the £375 million a year that we received from the EU.

On top of that, rather than working with experienced Welsh institutions, UK Government institutions such as the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which has no track record whatsoever with devolved affairs, will now bypass the devolved Governments and control funding directly. The consequences are already clear. Local funding will be tied to the effectiveness of representations by local MPs, just as Westminster cuts the number of Welsh MPs by a fifth. How is Wales supposed to receive its fair share? I reiterate that Wales is one of the poorest countries within the EU, the United Kingdom and the western world. We have not received what we needed in the past, and we are set to receive considerably less.

Equally outrageous is how the Tories have engineered a system so that they can indulge in patronage politics. The Chancellor is set to funnel public funds to his own constituency and other Tory seats. My county of Gwynedd was prioritised under previous EU funding, without fear or favour, for the simple reason that it is one of the least developed regions of Europe, let alone the UK, yet now Gwynedd is put at the bottom of the list in the levelling-up fund tiers.

Gwynedd, Wales and indeed the UK are owed more and deserve better. The Government must keep their word and ensure that in future, Wales gets at least the equivalent of what we previously received in EU funding. They should work with the devolved Parliament on the principle of mutual respect and parity of equals. The Tories of all Parliaments should respect their political traditions and repudiate the in-built centralising instincts of Westminster. Public money should be spent on the long-term public good, not on short-term political glory.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes 3:15 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend Bob Seely on securing this important debate. The Government have shown clear signs in recent months with the levelling-up fund and the towns fund that they intend to make sure that the future is, indeed, better than the past, to quote the opening speech. On this occasion, I come not to criticise the Government but to praise them.

In the past, there have been certain times when I have been critical, but the levelling-up agenda is benefiting my constituency and, I hope, will continue to do so. When the Government published their industrial strategy four or five years ago, they introduced the concept of town deals. The Greater Grimsby town deal, which includes the town of Cleethorpes, was the first one to be established.

The important point is that, rather than focusing on one-off projects, valuable though they are, applicants need a comprehensive programme that will continue through and therefore attract the different funding streams that Governments introduce. Key to that is getting a team together that knows its way around Westminster, understands local government and has entrepreneurial flair. We created a town board chaired by the local entrepreneur made good, David Ross. We also had the former resident of Grimsby and former Chancellor, Lord Lamont, on our board and the former head of the civil service, Lord Kerslake. We assembled a team that understood the workings of Government and the needs of the area, and they put together a comprehensive plan.

Coupled with that, the Government recognised our freeport bid. The bid for the Humber port was successful in every category and scored high, above all others—congratulations to the team that put the bid together. The Humber is the energy estuary of the UK: we have carbon capture, hydrogen and the offshore renewables sector. The development of the marine energy park by Able UK at Killingholme, close to Immingham, has attracted £75 million of Government funding in the last year. That has taken 10 years to achieve. When I was first elected in 2010, one of the first calls was from Able UK. It has been a long, hard road, but we are getting there.

Connectivity is vital. Sir Edward, you will know of our campaign to get the through train service from Grimsby and Cleethorpes through your constituency to London. We are making progress with that. LNER has pencilled it into next year’s timetable, but we need to keep up the pressure.

On local government reform, at long last in Lincolnshire the three top-tier authorities have agreed on a scheme that I hope the Government will push through over the next year or two. If we can align local government with the town board and a comprehensive plan, I think the successes of recent years will continue.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:18 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Bob Seely on leading this important debate.

Levelling up is a concept that I strongly support. For it to work, we have to identify disadvantage and take action to tackle it. There is a lot that I could ask the Minister to consider today, but he will be delighted to hear that what I am asking for will not cost very much money and could be absolutely transformational in much of rural Britain.

Over the last 15 months of the covid crisis, a housing crisis in areas such as mine in the lakes and dales of Cumbria has turned from crisis to catastrophe. Members who have been monitoring the housing market will have noticed things similar to what has happened in my communities. We have seen an increase in the number of holiday lets in my constituency of 32%. From talking to dozens of estate agents across the county, I know that the proportion of houses purchased during this period that are going into the second-home market is anything from 40% to 80%. At the beginning of the crisis South Lakeland had an average household income of £26,000 and an average house price of £250,000, which shows a serious problem from the start. That problem has been massively exacerbated during this time.

What does that mean for our communities? Hospitality and tourism are critical to our economy and I am proud to stand behind them, but people involved in that industry know that vibrant communities are vital to the survival and strength of the lakes, the dales and the rest of Cumbria. The increasing proportion of homes in the second-home or holiday-let market means no permanent population. No permanent population means no kids at the local school, so the school closes. It means the loss of the post office, the pub and bus services. We end up with beautiful places that are empty. We must surely recognise that as utterly unacceptable.

I have provided some top-line statistics, but on an anecdotal level, people who pay £600 a month for a flat in a lakeland village are being kicked out so that the landlord can charge £1,000 a week for a holiday let. That is happening, and many people are calling it the lakeland clearances. Extreme circumstances require drastic responses if we are to level up here and not leave rural Britain behind.

I am pleased that the Government are closing the loophole that allows people to pretend that second homes are holiday lets, when they are not, and so avoid paying tax. That is a good thing. The Government, however, must accept some responsibility for the stamp duty holiday fuelling this crisis to a large degree, leading to a huge spike in purchases.

The really important thing for the Government to do is to change planning law. They need to ensure that holiday lets and second homes are distinct categories of planning use, so that local authorities can say that there are enough homes of that sort in the community and, therefore, protect it.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I agree wholeheartedly. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on the Isle of Wight, although there are not that many second homes on the Island as a whole, in some communities 80% of villages are second homes? It is a thoroughly excellent idea to require change of use for a second home or holiday let.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

That is a free measure the Government could take to have real power. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The Welsh Government have given local authorities the power to increase council tax on second homes. Liz Saville Roberts talked about Gwynedd, which has been able to double the council tax on second-home owners in those areas. What has that done? It has provided a disincentive in some areas for excessive second-home ownership. It has also led to revenue that can be spent on supporting schools, post offices, buses and other local services, which are losing resource because of the lack of a permanent population. I call on the Minister to do something free but powerful.

Extreme circumstances that come about quickly require a response equally extreme and quick. If the Government are not to get a reputation for taking their eye off rural Britain and leaving rural communities behind—for example, leaving areas such as mine in level three for levelling up—they need to act, not in autumn or winter, but before the summer, to save my communities from the new clearances.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Conservative, North East Derbyshire 3:23 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend Bob Seely for calling this hugely important, timely and useful debate.

I had thought about how to lever North East Derbyshire into a debate about the Isle of Wight, but my hon. Friend drew the boundaries of the debate so generously that many of us can talk about our constituencies. I hope he will not mind my saying that one of his forefathers lived in North East Derbyshire—that was going to be my way into the debate. In the century since his forefather lived in Wingerworth Hall, places such as North East Derbyshire and the Isle of Wight have been at the forefront of great change, tumult and, at times, great difficulty. That is the same in my part of the world as it is in his.

We went through a period of huge changes 40 years ago when the mines closed down. We have long-standing structural issues around skills and jobs, and ensuring that school leavers get the quality skills that allow them to thrive over many years. Pre-recession, we did not necessarily share in the benefits that came in the 1990s and 2000s, but we have made huge progress in the past four years. Some Members in this debate have—perhaps understandably—focused on greater challenges, but there is so much coming down the line. It is important that we understand that. We must recognise that in my constituency alone, there is a £25 million town deal for Clay Cross and a town deal for Staveley worth nearly £26 million. Those are huge opportunities for regeneration.

Broadband is being rolled out not only in places such as Stoke-on-Trent South, but in my constituency, as well to villages such as Spinkhill. We have finally moved on the Staveley bypass, which has been stuck for 80 years in design, and the Government enabled us to move that further along in the Budget before last. We are tackling congestion problems on the A61, we had the opportunity to bid to restore new rail for the Barrow Hill line, and we now have the quickest trains that we have ever had to London. Things are really on the up in many parts of the country, including North East Derbyshire, although there is much more to do.

My hon. Friend’s question about what levelling up is is the most interesting and important part of the debate today. For me it is important to articulate the point that it is not all about money. We can have as much money as we want, but, ultimately, if that does not achieve anything for people and we do not focus on the outputs, it will not get us anywhere. We can put as many trains on as we want—I would like a lot more trains in my constituency—but if we put loads of trains on that nobody knows what to do with or where to go with them, or how to get to the jobs to transport them, it will have little meaningful effect.

We also have to emphasise the important point, which was lost in a few of today’s contributions, that we have the ability to solve some of these problems ourselves. I congratulate places such as Killamarsh Parish Council for sorting out a 20-year problem with our sports centre and the council tax, which it managed to do on its own.

There is also a broader perspective and the important questions about future jobs. We can fix levelling up now for our constituencies, but if the hearts of our constituencies are to be ripped out by AI and automation and all of those challenges over the next 20 or 30 years, we must think about that as well. Where do we get the education and skills from? Process is important. We have to involve people in these debates and discussions. Lots has been done in North East Derbyshire, but there is lots more to do.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:27 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir Edward, and to follow Lee Rowley.

I am wholeheartedly behind the Prime Minister in his calls for us to level up, and indeed the action behind those calls in the form of funding. I was grateful to hear that each region will receive a share of the funding to strengthen and enhance areas of excellence. In Northern Ireland, it not just a matter of what we could spend the money on; we have so many areas that are on the cusp of the next level. As the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire alluded to, it is not just about the money; it is about how the money can help us build on what we have. That is what I will speak about.

We are widely considered to be Europe’s cyber-security capital. We could easily take that to a global level if we invested more fully in our infrastructure and connectivity, and increased the number of tech placements and learning courses. We have the skills and a pool of available people, so we want to build on that. With more levelling up, we could take it to the next stage.

The film industry has taken off with the success of “Game of Thrones” and “Line of Duty”, which featured Strangford lough in my constituency. It was always a challenge for me to find which part of Strangford lough it was on, but it was good to be able to put the two together. Anything from TV series to major film releases, based in any period of history or in the modern day, can be produced in Northern Ireland. Where better to find built-up cities, beautiful countryside and ocean views—we have it all. I say that unashamedly, and investment will certainly bring about dividends as we attract more global companies to our shores.

The agrifood sector is doing well and creating jobs, and the investment has been great. We have the highest standard of products. I look to Lakeland Dairies, Mash Direct and Rich Sauces, to name but a few global entities that are well-grounded and employing local people in large numbers to supply to China and America, as well as Europe. We have the product; we need the marketing and the support to see what level we can get to. Again, it is about levelling up what we have.

We have not even scratched the surface in exploring the tourism potential we have, from spa breaks to second holidays, from walking groups to cruise ship stop-offs, from water sports to mountain hikes, from high-end boutiques to antique treasure troves. We have much to offer. With a bit of levelling up, our borders will not be able to contain the volume of visitors flocking to our shores. With levelling up, we can build on what we have. We need to level up our connectivity and disengage from Tourism Ireland. We need an entity concerned only with promoting what we have to offer in Northern Ireland. I challenge anyone who has come to Northern Ireland to say that it was not more than they expected.

We must also give local councils the ability to get funding to host more global events, such as the golf opens and other sporting events. Northern Ireland is also awash with culture—we have such a tale to tell and we need to attract investment to match that. Again, we must level up.

In the short time allocated me, I have indicated three diverse areas in which we are ripe to level up, and yet the funding allocated cannot carry out all the work. The infrastructure work required is immense and our connectivity requirements are huge, but so too will be the reward. I therefore ask the Minister, whom I greatly respect, and the Government to deliver our share of the funding. If they do so, everyone in Northern Ireland will benefit, operating at the top level at which we are designed to operate. We are already levelling up; we need that extra bit to level up and do even more.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:30 pm, 15th June 2021

I thank the hon. Gentleman for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for securing this debate. Although the sentiments behind the levelling-up fund are laudable at first glance, it has a profound and far-reaching effect on the devolution settlements and the democratically elected Governments of each of the devolved nations. Alongside the UK shared prosperity fund, which also breaches the devolution settlements and UK Government promises, the way in which the levelling-up fund is to be administered encroaches on devolved areas in unconstitutional and unacceptable ways.

It is all very well for the UK Government to huff and puff and protest that the devolved nations should shut up and be grateful for the boundless munificence of their paternalism, but funding should not be tied to riding a coach and horses through the democratically elected Governments of these nations, and nor should it be designed to undermine the democratically established Parliaments in each of these nations.

For the UK Government to reject that analysis plays to the agenda not of levelling up but of exerting undue power and influence over democratic instructions, the very existence of which is due to democratic support for them. These Parliaments in Wales and Scotland were designed, in part at least, to address the democratic deficit that has existed between those nations and Westminster Governments. How does attempting to circumvent, undermine and emasculate those institutions address that democratic deficit?

Yesterday the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government gave the game away, because he accepted that there is no formal requirement for local authorities to work with the Scottish Government on devolved policy areas, and that this levelling-up fund is

“about local authorities and communities working directly with the UK Government”.—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 13.]

Given that this work goes to the heart of devolved powers, that is quite an admission. The idea that each different local authority will submit bids for much-needed funds does not in any way negate the cynicism and political opportunism in the way in which this fund is being distributed, as indicated by my hon. Friend Alan Brown. This is piecemeal stuff, with no strategic thinking whatsoever.

The Scottish Government expected £400 million in consequentials from this fund, but that is now to be decided by the UK Government sitting in Whitehall. How that money will be deployed across local authorities is a nonsense and offensive. There will be no opportunity for a regionalised, Scotland-wide approach. The competitive nature of this process will set authority against authority, while we know that the most effective way of boosting local economies requires collaborative working.

Why does the Minster believe that Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall, with little or no detailed knowledge of Scotland or her local authority areas, are equipped to judge the merits of competing bids? If levelling up was truly the agenda, why would they not build into that process the strategic expertise of the Scottish Government and local MSPs? Funding should be allocated by formula instead of competitive bidding. That would improve transparency and guarantee support for those places most in need, as pointed out by Liz Saville Roberts, representing Plaid Cymru.

As it stands, bids will be at the mercy of the whims of this Tory Government and which local authorities are able to submit the best bid—not those most in need. Given the towns fund, will the bids be judged according to which are considered to be the best—whatever that means? Who knows? There is every reason to fear that the bids may be subject to the same pork barrel politics that we have seen in all its glory in the towns fund.

Despite the fact that the Tories have a majority on the Public Accounts Committee, it has delivered a damning verdict on the Tory towns fund, saying that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has

“not been open about the process it followed and it did not disclose the reasoning for selecting or excluding towns” for funding. Despite the Government’s refusal even to acknowledge that and other damning verdicts and concerns about the Tory towns fund, we are now expected to believe —and, better still, trust—that the levelling-up fund will be shiny, new and bright and we need not worry about transparency because, as the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government said in the main Chamber yesterday:

“The answer to that is that it is all published on gov.uk and it has been for months now.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 14.]

I do not know about you, Sir Edward, but if it is published on a website, I am certainly reassured.

The fact is that this Government have shown that they cannot be trusted to deliver this funding in a transparent way and it has been deliberately designed to undermine the devolved Parliaments. The good people of Scotland and Wales are not so easily fooled as the Tory Government seem to think, which is why they reject Tory Governments repeatedly—at every opportunity. Since the Brexit vote took place, this Government have taken to themselves the power to take decisions on spending, economic development, infrastructure, culture, sporting activities, domestic educational and training activities and educational exchanges, and this fund will further allow the UK Government to bypass devolved decision making and override the democratic process for allocating spending in Scotland. That means that more than £100 million a year could be spent in areas that are usually devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

In this Government’s ham-fisted attempt to undermine devolution, they are in fact cementing support for independence in Scotland. If devolution is indeed the opportunity to do things differently, that opportunity is being eroded bit by bit by this Government, who seem desperate to govern devolved areas in Scotland. They could govern those devolved areas if only they could win an election in Scotland, but they have given up on that, and we see now an agenda to undermine the very institution that the people of Scotland will not vote to permit them to control—the Scottish Parliament.

Of course, every local authority will wish to bid for levelling up funding. Why on earth would they not? But the towns fund shows that we are wise to be concerned about the transparency of this process. We know that the real agenda on the devolved nations is cynical, to say the least. Any local authority in Scotland and Wales receiving money from this fund will be expected to doff its cap in gratitude for the munificence and benevolence of the UK Government, but the UK Government need to understand that riding roughshod over our democratic institutions, which have huge support from those living in the devolved nations, cannot be excused by fanfare about funding that is not new. We are not so easily bought, and our democratic institutions, including our Scottish Parliament, cannot be so easily bought. Nor can trust in this Government be bought. Some things, such as democracy and trust, are not commodities; they are values and principles, and this Government would do well to remember that.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury) 3:38 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate that you are chairing, Sir Edward. I congratulate Bob Seely on securing this debate. In his opening remarks, we heard about the very full set of interventions that he believes are needed to fix challenges in his constituency, including jobs, transport, education, housing, long-term economic development and so on.

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the decade of under-investment and the impact that that has had. I know he said that he would not speak later in the debate, but I wanted to ask him who he thinks is responsible for that decade of under-investment and whether he can see in this room a Minister from the party that has been in charge for the past 11 years—because meeting those challenges will need a level of sustained investment in devolution that goes well beyond the one pot of money that is currently on offer in the form of the levelling-up fund. One pot of money will not undo the 11 years of real-terms cuts to public services, stagnating real wages and inadequate investment in the future. One pot of money will not change our country when decisions will still be taken in Westminster by Conservative Ministers, rather than democratically in our communities by locally elected politicians.

As my hon. Friends have set out, far more comprehensive change is needed. My hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock explained how local government must be in the driving seat and have the resources it needs, and my hon. Friend Emma Hardy set out the importance of having real determination to invest in the future of all people in this country. It is also telling that as we engage in this debate, my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) are in the main Chamber right now, pressing the Chancellor and the Treasury to come clean on why they blocked the comprehensive plans put forward by Sir Kevan Collins, the Prime Minister’s appointment as education recovery commissioner. The truth is that the Government’s decisions on education recovery are very far from achieving anything that looks like levelling up.

When the chips are down—and after months of school closures, the chips are very much down for the children of this country—the choices that Governments make betray the reality behind the rhetoric. We are in no doubt that the Government have chosen to betray a generation. Their expert commissioner set out plans that matched the scale of the challenge, focusing on extending the school day, improving teaching and targeted tutoring. In February the Prime Minister promised that no child will be left behind, and Sir Kevan’s proposals sought to make that a lived reality for our children in the years ahead. Drawing on research from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the proposals were informed by the knowledge that urgent, sustained and multi-year expenditure on children’s educational recovery has the biggest impact on those who are furthest behind.

That would indeed have been levelling up. Instead, the plans that have been announced are but a truly pale shadow of the programme we need. The money announced is a tiny proportion of the money invested for the same purpose in the Netherlands and the United States, and I and my colleagues refuse to believe that Dutch and American children are five or 10 times more deserving of sustained Government support than British children.

As the Financial Secretary is due to speak shortly, I want to pick up briefly on a discussion that he and I had yesterday in the main Chamber relating to the G7 communiqué, which Mrs Miller mentioned and which I believe is also relevant to this debate. A key part of any levelling-up agenda for our country must include the Government doing all they can to create a level playing field for British businesses that pay their fair share of tax, by preventing them from being undercut by a few large multinationals that do not.

I asked the Minister and his colleague three times yesterday to explain why the UK Government’s position has been to push for a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15% rather than to back the ambitious 21% proposed by President Biden. The Minister said it was

“completely inappropriate for a Minister to comment”.—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 50.]

However, the Exchequer Secretary, who I think spoke after the Minister had left the main Chamber, seemed quite happy to defend the Government’s backing of 15%. She said that it was settled on because it would leave

“appropriate room for countries to use corporation tax as a lever”.—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 70.]

There we have it: an admission that the UK Government supported a lower rate thanks to a desire to keep alive the possibility of a future race to the bottom.

This is a once-in-a generation opportunity for an ambitious global deal to prevent large multinationals from avoiding paying their fair share of tax, but our Government are letting it slip away. That is a shocking failure. Had they supported an ambitious 21% deal, that would have brought in an extra £131 million a week for public services in this country, while preventing a few large multinationals from undercutting British businesses that pay their fair share of tax. That would have been levelling up.

Lastly, I want to ask Conservative Members why they think this country needs levelling up. It has been 11 years since a Labour Prime Minister left Downing Street, and 11 years since a Labour Budget spread power, income and opportunity across the country. For 11 long years, spending decisions in this country have been under the control of the Conservative party, leaders chosen by Conservative Members, and Conservative Chancellors.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

I am just about to finish. There have been 11 years of real-terms cuts in so many public services, stagnating real wages and inadequate investment in meeting the challenges of the future—11 years in which so many of the problems that we face have been ignored and their solutions underfunded. We can only conclude that levelling up is a nebulous, undeveloped and yet-to-be honoured attempt by the Conservative party to address the problems that it has created.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 3:44 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, as it was to serve under your predecessor, Mrs Miller, when she was in the Chair. I thank her very much for stepping into the breach.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Bob Seely on securing this debate. It is testimony to the importance of the issue and the breadth of the debate that he has created that so many colleagues have made interventions and speeches today—and very welcome they were, too. I am replying for the Government on behalf of the Exchequer Secretary.

My hon. Friend is right that this is a very important public issue. It has been the mission of this Government to seek to overcome geographical disparities—disparities of prosperity and of opportunity—and to do so through what we have called levelling up.

By and large, this has been a very good debate and generally good mannered. I think everyone would acknowledge that it has been a bit of a gallop, given the number of speeches, but that is testimony to the huge interest in the topic. I congratulate colleagues who have passed the conversational baton seamlessly from one to another on the vigorous and effective way in which they have put on the public record their own local concerns. I will talk a little about the wider agenda before turning to some of those contributions.

It is plain that the Government believe in the substance and the importance of levelling up. What does that mean? It will mean different things in different places, but the core idea is that everyone should have access to good jobs, good wages and good economic prospects, wherever they live, whether that be in Barnet, Birmingham, Bolton, Bristol or, indeed, Bembridge.

It is built into the energy of our society that at different parts of their lives many people will want to move to different parts of the country to seek work and opportunities, but some may not wish to do so and many will not. We want people to be able to take pride in their local areas and to see them as vibrant, exciting places to live their lives and build their livelihoods. That is at the heart of levelling up and that is why the Government announced a series of significant policy measures designed to begin a longer-term process of redressing geographical imbalances.

Those measures include, as has rightly been touched on, freeports, which are going to be an important catalyst for regional economic growth. We want them to be magnets for innovative businesses, to provide a platform to generate the greater prosperity that will revitalise each area, and to create great jobs and great economic growth.

At the Budget, the Government announced the locations of eight freeports across England, ranging from Teesside in the north-east, to the Solent, close to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. That is a potentially very significant intervention, but they are only one part of a wider picture, which is, of course, infrastructure.

Last year we published a national infrastructure strategy that contemplates £600 billion-worth of investment over the next few years—half from the private sector, half from the public sector. Very high levels of capital investment are already being made in many different areas up and down the country, including in roads, through the road investment strategy, in railway, through High Speed 2 and other works, and in many other modes of transport and activities. The transforming cities fund has done a huge amount to support cycling, walking and greener transport across the country.

That investment also includes the towns fund. One or two colleagues have been rather dismissive of the towns fund, and wrongly so. One cannot say that there has been inadequate transparency but then grumble when the details of the fund and the methodology by which the selections were made have been put on the internet for all to review or interrogate. The fund itself is turning out to be a remarkably effective and interesting way to build a holistic local platform for economic growth, because it is not something that can be dominated by local authorities. It requires voluntary and private sector leadership to work with local authorities and, in doing so, bring the best ideas to the table, build long-term pipelines, pump-primed with public money, that will, certainly in many cases, last for years. It is going to prove to have been a very important intervention.

It goes a long way, picking up the point made by Tim Farron on the importance of supporting rural areas. I come from a rural area myself, in Herefordshire, and I am keenly aware of that. He will be aware that although many of the effects of covid will be, in some respects, negative, they will also be positive effects. People will move out of cities, often at earlier points in their lives, to conduct effective and successful careers, no longer fettered by geography as they might have been, adding new energy and vibrancy to areas that are already vibrant. That is another good thing, in many ways.

We are working on the creation of the new UK infrastructure bank, which will be an important intervention. We will announce its launch soon, but many details are already available for colleagues to look at on the internet. It is designed to act as a cornerstone investor for infrastructure projects, to partner with the private sector and local government to develop major infrastructure projects, with the twin goals of green growth and levelling up.

The bank will act across Government as a place to pool expertise, so that people can pick up the phone and get a cross-governmental view about how projects should be financed, which will itself be very important. It will prep and prepare important development work in sectors of green economic growth that we have not yet seen—for example, hydrogen for powering the next generation of transport or potentially for home heating, carbon capture and storage, and the like. About a third of the initial £12 billion in funding for the new UK infrastructure bank will be earmarked for local and mayoral authorities, which will make a huge difference. If we can, as we anticipate, then crowd in private sector investment, that will make a remarkable difference.

It is important not to talk about levelling up without mentioning some of the most important aspects of it, which are to do with skills and training. The Chamber will know about the work we have done on the lifetime skills guarantee, on employer-led skills retraining and on apprenticeships. They all point to a holistic approach, designed to tie skills and infrastructure together, with a local perspective that brings a fuller understanding of local needs to bear.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I thank the Minister for his extensive response. That brings to the fore one of the problems here. When he stood up, he said he would answer to the Exchequer section or the economic section, but who is leading? How are Government going to deal with a coherent, integrated approach that brings in everything from landscape protection to stamp duty for second home owners, to the skills and education agenda, to immediate economic progress? Who is dealing with that?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Of course, my hon. Friend is right to point to this. In many cases, the core is going to be effective local leadership that brings the different elements together. As a Member of Parliament, he knows that the stronger towns fund has shown that energy can be brought in. For example, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government can have a view on the housing aspect of a stronger towns fund bid, and what expertise and expectation will be there. The same is true of other aspects of Government. It may be a bid with a heavy environmental component or a heavy transport component.

Government also need to be joined up. At the Treasury, I lead on the national infrastructure but on levelling up specifically it is the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend Kemi Badenoch, who leads—she would be here under normal circumstances, but she is in Committee at the moment. However, she and I work closely on this issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight would imagine.

I turn to some of the points that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight rightly highlighted aspects of his own bid, including East Cowes and Newport. I could not hear him talk about the development of the Isle of Wight without thinking about my own uncle Desmond, one of the founders of Britten-Norman, who designed the aircraft whose wings came off in “Spectre,” the James Bond movie, and that went skiing as a result, which was built on the Isle of Wight. Indeed, he was one of the developers of the first hovercraft, the Cushioncraft. I am well aware of the technology and the genius of the Islanders and the espoused Islanders, one of whom Desmond certainly was.

Stephanie Peacock mentioned the importance of local authorities. She is right about that. They have been a very important part of stronger towns fund bids. It is quite interesting when local opinion is surveyed about the public services delivered locally. Whatever one may think about the local authority funding settlement, which was very generous in the past year and before that in many cases, it has not led to a perceived reduction in public services—quite the opposite. In many local areas, public services are regarded as having gone up in quality over the past 10 years.

My hon. Friend Peter Aldous talked about skills. He was absolutely right and I thank him for that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke talked about the importance of women and gender equality. That was absolutely right and I salute what she said, because that is an important part of levelling up. There is some wonderful evidence from India, where they looked at the effect of women mayors and leaders in villages. It turns out that, based on the regressions that economists have done, women leaders in those contexts have been more co-operative, more effective and less prone to forms of corruption than their male alternatives. That is an important lesson that we will reflect on.

Jamie Stone invited Ministers to bed and breakfast —a very fine offer that will receive deep consideration in the Treasury—for which I thank him very much indeed. My hon. Friend David Warburton reminded us that Stonehenge would never have been built if they had to drag the stones down the A303. I fully concur, having been more or less parked outside Stonehenge, as have many others.

My hon. Friend Jack Brereton talked about the bid that he is putting in for the levelling-up fund. I congratulate him on that and encourage all Members to do that, because the levelling-up funding will be a very important national initiative. I have touched on the remarks of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. I am glad he mentioned cutting out the loophole on holiday lets, because that was important. I hope he also noticed the speed with which we acted on that, because the tax process is never an instant thing, but we have moved as quickly as we could, given the circumstances, to try to address the issue. Obviously, it has become particularly important in the context of covid.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Once the announcement was made, they did act swiftly, but I first raised the issue with the then junior planning Minister, who is now the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It took quite a long time to get to the stage where they made the announcement, but I thank the Minister anyway.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Minister, could you please give Bob Seely a couple of minutes to make his closing remarks?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I think I have 30 seconds before we get to that point.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am very happy not to speak again.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I will end in 26 seconds to allow my hon. Friend plenty of time to speak.

I want to engage quickly with the points made by Opposition Members. It is not paternalistic of the UK Government to wish to take a view and to support people up and down the country. It is not paternalistic of the UK Government to offer enormous support for the devolved Administrations on an agreed basis, as we have done in a time of crisis. It is non paternalistic for this country’s collective resilience to have seen Scotland through three periods of crisis in the last 15 years: the financial crisis of 2008, the fall of the oil price and most lately in covid, which might have had disastrous effects but for our collective resilience.

In answer to James Murray quickly, it is not appropriate for me to accuse another Member of Parliament of hypocrisy, but I remind him that this Government are raising corporation tax from 19% to 25%. On 24 February, he himself said, in relation to the Budget and the question of corporation tax, that

“we don’t want to see tax rises—this is not the time to do that”.

I do not think he is in any position to lecture the Government about corporation tax.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 3:58 pm, 15th June 2021

I thank everyone for taking part in the debate. I thank the Minister for his eloquent and detailed responses, and I thank you, Sir Edward, and my right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), for your chairmanship.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Thank you for a very good debate on the levelling-up fund—I wish that Gainsborough could get some levelling-up fund too, but that is not for me to say.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the levelling up agenda.

Sitting suspended.