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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:01 pm on 15th June 2021.

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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.