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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:31 pm on 15th June 2021.

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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.