Levelling-up Bids: North Somerset

– in Westminster Hall at 4:05 pm on 23rd June 2021.

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Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 4:05 pm, 23rd June 2021

I remind hon. Members that they should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave, and that Mr Speaker has recommended that we wear masks.

I call John Penrose to move the motion.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered levelling up bids in North Somerset.

It is good to have you in charge of our process, Mr McCabe. It is also good to see my fellow Somerset MP and constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend Dr Fox, who is here to support the debate and is expecting to speak later, as well as the Minister, who I hope will respond fully and positively to some of my questions and provide reassurances during the course of the debate.

The debate is about North Somerset Council’s bids last week for both the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund. The bid documentation is somewhere in the bowels of the Minister’s Department and is being gone through in huge detail, so I do not propose to take up an enormous amount of time by dwelling on what it says, other than to summarise briefly and say that my right hon. Friend and I strongly support both bids. It is quite noticeable that, at the moment, North Somerset Council is being run by a rainbow coalition, which is political speak for anybody except the Tories, yet here we are—my right hon. Friend and I, as the two local Conservative Members of Parliament—supporting the bids too. This is a cross-party, non-party political and pretty much unanimous set of proposals, which we urge the Minister to take very seriously indeed.

It is true that Weston has come an extraordinarily long way in recent years. Since I was elected 16 years ago, the place has become unrecognisably better, but even its most ardent supporters—I put myself right at the front of the queue—would say that we still have a great deal more that has to be done. The two bids for the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund are a key part of taking the next steps in North Somerset’s journey overall, but particularly Weston-super-Mare’s journey.

Without going into too much detail about what is in the detail of the bids, I will highlight three main areas. One is the renewal of our local heritage assets. Weston-super-Mare was primarily built during the Victorian seaside town heyday, and it has some beautiful architecture. It has many beautiful bits of local heritage to it, with some of it going back much further than the Victorian era—for example, there is an iron-age hill fort. However, renewing those assets and making current use of them, so that they can continue to be used and looked after—they should be part of the town’s future, not just its past—is essential. That is a key part of the bid. They give the place its character and its sense of place, and are an absolutely essential part of the bid.

Equally, the bid involves a whole series of proposals for more festivals, activities and attractions—everything from street theatre to buskers—in order to create a sense of theatre, a sense of dynamism and a buzzing atmosphere, which will make the place great not just for local residents to visit and live. As we are a seaside town and a visitor destination, that will also make it a great place for visitors. Of course, visitors have traditionally been one of the town’s lifeblood industries, because we are a tourist destination, so that is an essential piece of the bids.

Last but not least, the bid dovetails with the Weston place-making strategy, which means that we have input from local businesses and residents, and from the council, to try to ensure that Weston as a location has a sustainable mix but also a balanced mix of reasons to live there, to visit there and to do business there and create wealth. The place-making strategy is essential, and it is also a key part of what the council has put together for the two bids.

So, if the bid is so flipping brilliant, why am I worried, why have I asked for this debate and why do we have the pleasure of the Minister’s company this afternoon? The answer is very simple. It is that in spite of the quality of the bid and of the cross-party backing that I mentioned earlier, there is one fly in the ointment. It is that, as the Minister will know, North Somerset Council as a whole—the entire district—is currently designated as a priority 2 area for both the funds that we are bidding into. It is not a priority 1 area, but a priority 2 area. Potentially, that is a problem because it might demote us in terms of the importance—even the urgency—and eligibility of our bids for those funds.

I am here to argue today that that designation is actually a mistake—or it would be a mistake if it were to happen—simply because North Somerset as a district overall is a place of stark contrasts. The constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset is one of the wealthiest constituencies in the country, whereas, to put it simply, my constituency of Weston-super-Mare is not.

For example, we can compare my constituency with two neighbouring district council areas, both of which are designated as priority 1 areas. I am sure that the Minister will be familiar with them; they are Sedgemoor District Council and Mendip District Council. They are right next door to the town of Weston-super-Mare. They are almost identical in terms of their populations to the population of my constituency as a whole. So, if my constituency was a district council, it would be pretty much the same size as they both are. Yet my constituency has a higher proportion of people claiming benefits than either of those two priority 1 areas, even though my area is technically designated as a priority 2 area.

My constituency has a lower healthy life expectancy than either of those two neighbouring districts, even though they are designated as priority 1 areas and my area is designated as priority 2. My constituency has a worse average travel time to employment than either of those two districts, even though they are designated as priority 1 and my area is designated as priority 2.

So I hope the Minister will understand why I am concerned. If my constituency was a stand-alone piece of geography, and not part of the broader North Somerset Council area, we would easily qualify as a priority 1 area. However, because of the accident of postcodes, if I can put it that way, and because of the averaging effect, we do not qualify as a priority 1 area. Of course, that is not to say that the need in my constituency of Weston-super-Mare is not extremely serious or, indeed, every bit as serious as that in the other district councils I have mentioned, both of which are priority 1 areas.

I will go further and say that I have just given the Minister the figures for my constituency as a whole. Within my constituency, the situation is even starker. If we look at two wards in the centre of the constituency, Weston-super-Mare South and Weston-super-Mare Central, they have indices of multiple deprivation that would rank them in the top—or worst, depending on how we look at it—3% or 4% of wards in the entire country; in fact, parts of one of them are in the worst 2%. They are equivalent to anywhere else that is right at the top of the priority 1 areas. It is not just that we would scrape into priority 1 area designation: we would be right at the top of the Minister’s list of concerns, and rightly so, because of those indices of multiple deprivation scores.

So, what do both I and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset hope to hear from the Minister when he gets to his feet in a minute? The answer is very simple. We hope to hear from him that he is able to give strong weighting to those overall scores—scores that are at a more detailed and more granular level than the scores for the district as a whole—when assessing the bid. As I mentioned right at the start, I hope that it will qualify under its own steam in any case.

We do not want a strong and capable bid to be disallowed because of an accident of postcode and because of the averaging effect. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be able to reassure me and the residents of the constituency of Weston-super-Mare that that will not be the case, and that the bureaucratic process can be bent and manipulated sufficiently within the rules to allow the genuine need—as shown by the genuine levels of multiple deprivation—to be properly taken account of when these bids are finally totalled up.

If the Minister can do that, I may not be able to guarantee that we will erect a small statue in his name somewhere in the middle of Weston-super-Mare, but I can at least promise him that we will easily be able to carry him shoulder high along the Weston seafront, given the importance of the bids to the people of Weston-super-Mare. I will now sit down to make sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset has an opportunity to add to what I have already said and to explain the perspective from the other part of the North Somerset district council area.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset 4:15 pm, 23rd June 2021

I am here to support the case made by my hon. Friend John Penrose. I am all too aware that my constituency does not qualify for money from the levelling-up fund and we have only a small chance of getting any money from the community renewal fund, but I am here to give my support for two reasons: first, the generic, and secondly, the specific.

On the generic case, too often in our country, as many of us will attest from our time in Parliament, areas of deprivation that happen to be in the same district or constituency as areas of relative affluence can disappear in the data. The sensitivity and specificity of the data can mean that they do not show up at all. That is certainly the case with the town of Weston-super-Mare, where, as my hon. Friend has said, the data is very clear. However, if we add the data of the rest of the parliamentary constituency, we see that it is not at all clear, and if we then add the data from the rest of the North Somerset district—which, as he has said, includes my constituency, one of the most affluent in the country—it can all but disappear.

When we consider the differences in Weston-super-Mare itself, we find that the unemployment rate is twice that of my constituency next door. The health profile of my constituency is much better than that of Weston-super-Mare. Income is higher and the quality of jobs is better.

Lest anyone thinks that this is a case of pure altruism, let me turn to the specifics. Given that Weston-super-Mare is the biggest town in our district, its status matters. It gets many more tourists than places such as Clevedon, which is a very well-kept, upmarket Victorian tourist town in my constituency. Most visitors, however, go to Weston-super-Mare, and the quality of the services they receive is important to the status of the district as a whole.

It is also very important that, just because someone lives in a relatively poor part of a wealthy area, they must not be disregarded. I have often felt that the two things that nobody in this country wants to be is poor in a rich area or sick in a healthy area, because when it comes to services, they tend to be not ignored but not seen by those who plan public provision. Therefore, this debate is important for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has set out today and for the purposes to which the money could be put. Although my constituents recognise that they would not benefit directly from the money, they would benefit indirectly by the improved status that Weston-super-Mare could enjoy.

In conclusion, given that this is being done on a constituency basis, one of my councillors asked, “Why won’t our constituency get levelling-up money?” I had to point out to him that it is the status of our constituency, as demonstrated by many of the indicators, that people are levelling up to. It is not something to level up from. I can therefore say, with the greatest sincerity, that we are completely as one—including our council, whose leadership does not share our political views—in believing that this would benefit all of the people in North Somerset, whether they be direct recipients of the money or indirect recipients of the benefits it would achieve. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the bids to both the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund are entirely cross-district bids, for all the reasons set out so eloquently by my constituency neighbour. I hope that the Minister will take fully into account the point that deficiencies in the sensitivity and specificity of data should not mean that, just because someone happens to be poor in a wealthy area, they are not seen by this Government.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:20 pm, 23rd June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Penrose on securing this debate. He spoke with eloquence and passion about the importance of supporting his constituency and the need to level up in Weston-super-Mare. His desire to support his community is shared by all parts and corners of this Government and certainly by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Levelling up is a crucial part of our Government’s agenda. We are committed to unlocking economic prosperity across all parts of the United Kingdom. That is why we will publish the levelling-up White Paper later this year. We will set out bold policy interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunities in all parts and all corners of the country. It will set out the next steps in our plan to enable more people to get on in life without feeling that they have to leave their hometown or home community just to get the job or types of services they want.

We want to address these long-standing geographical inequalities. We want to deliver economic opportunity and improve livelihoods in all parts of the country so that, wherever someone is born, they have the chance to achieve what they want to in life. That means creating new, good-quality jobs. It means boosting training, productivity and skills in places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry, and not through a broad, one-size-fits-all approach, but by nurturing different types of economic growth and building on the strengths that different types of places and communities have.

Nowhere is more important in these types of conversations and debates than places such as Weston-super-Mare. We have heard about how skills and wages lag behind the average in the south-west and many other different parts of the country. That is why the levelling-up fund as a concept is such an important vehicle for investing in communities just like Weston-super-Mare. We want to work with councils such as North Somerset Council to invest in the type of everyday infrastructure that my hon. Friend outlined, regenerating town centres and high streets, investing in transport and supporting cultural and heritage assets right around the country. That is a key part of the levelling-up agenda. It is about local communities and councils such as North Somerset determining and identifying their own priorities and using the funds as vehicles to develop and submit proposals and to level up in their area. It is about empowering communities.

The deadline for bids was last Friday. We have received significant interest from right around the country. The assessment process is just starting, but of course we were delighted that North Somerset submitted its bid last week.

We have heard some information about the proposal this afternoon and it is important for us to assess its impact. It is interesting to hear about the transformation of the pier building and the Tropicana Weston, two of the historic buildings that bookend the north and south end of the pier, which is so important to the town and to the regional tourism economy. It is also about bringing back into use vacant spaces in the main shopping area in Weston, helping to create new employment spaces and enhanced wayfinding and connections through the town centre.

I completely understand the passion and importance associated with these bids. I understand my hon. Friend’s belief in them, his desire for them to succeed and the importance he places on the potential to transform Weston’s future, enabling economic growth, improving the town’s economic resilience and tackling deprivation.

The bids focus on regeneration, town centre improvements, cultural assets and transport improvements. They accurately reflect the themes of what we are trying to achieve with the fund, so I thank North Somerset for its bids. I also thank my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend Dr Fox for their support for them and for making clear how important they are to the community. I hope they understand that I cannot comment too much further on the bid itself today. However, we will certainly work to the timescales set out in the prospectus, ensuring that the decisions are delivered in a timely way.

On the levelling-up fund’s methodology, the bids will be assessed against the criteria set out in the prospectus and the strongest bids will be shortlisted. My hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend note that Weston-super-Mare, which is part of North Somerset, falls into category 2, despite it having similar characteristics to a number of category 1 places. When we designed the fund we tried to purposely make sure that councils are able to target the pockets of deprivation within their local authorities, as my hon. Friend has identified.

In the case of North Somerset’s bid, two supportive MPs have helped to shape a bid within a council area, as will be noted as part of the process. The bid aims to tackle the most deprived part of the local authority area. That is noted as part of the assessment process. We will look at how the bid addresses challenges in the town and whether they relate to issues to do with health, unemployment or the availability of well-paid jobs for people living in Weston-super-Mare. The focus on tackling deprivation in Weston is in line with the objectives of the fund.

The methodology that sits behind the index of places is set out in the prospectus that we published on gov.uk. It is based on the metrics covering places’ need for economic recovery, regeneration and improved transport connectivity, as clearly identified by my hon. Friend in his speech. Those metrics do not determine either the outcome of the bid or the place’s eligibility to bid. Again, we certainly take account of the fact that two Members of Parliament have supported the bid, targeted at a pocket of deprivation. I do not know if that warrants a statue in Weston-super-Mare—a sandcastle, perhaps.

My hon. Friend also raised a point about the indices of multiple deprivation and asked about them not being included in the methodology of the fund. That is an important point. We considered looking at the IMD as part of the index, but it is important to consider that IMD does not represent in all circumstances a one-size-fits-all approach to measuring economic need. It does not completely accurately reflect, in this circumstance, the policy outcomes of the fund that we have established, which is about transport, high street and cultural regeneration. There are some things that IMD does not consider—for example, productivity. Raising productivity is a key part of what the fund is trying to address. Therefore, IMD was considered but we think that the way in which the indexation was set up is ultimately right.

My hon. Friend also referenced the UK community renewal fund, which is another important funding stream that this Government are delivering. We think it will improve the overall funding landscape available to places like Weston-super-Mare. We have tried to establish a one-year transition programme that is free of some of the shackles and bureaucracy of the EU structural funds, to allow places to design bids to tackle the problems that they identify. The £220 million fund will be available to communities next year.

We have received North Somerset’s £2.8 million bid. It includes a number of employment-based bids, including tailored support for jobseekers in the most deprived communities. That will be noted. Among the proposals is a financial inclusion project, a network of community hubs in rural areas and targeted business support, so we were interested to receive that. It sets out how, taken together, these will all work to create new education and training opportunities that will lead to the establishment of new local businesses and help to steer people towards the right employment and education opportunities.

I want to highlight the importance of the role of Members of Parliament in this process. This debate is a prime example of the way in which we have designed the fund to put such importance on Members of Parliament coming together, bringing communities together, including local authorities and local stakeholders, and acting as facilitators in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset have highlighted that they have managed to do that in Weston-super-Mare, working together to tackle the challenges in the way they have outlined. We have given MPs the opportunity to write formally in support of bids, and we have received that letter from my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare

The Minister is being very helpful and is showing that his Department is already getting to grips with the details behind the bids, so I thank him for his remarks so far. Could he just make sure that in the five minutes or so that are left, he focuses on the point about priority areas? He has been helpful on that topic, but I am still not quite clear whether starting from a priority area 2 designation automatically relegates us to being a long way down the list of projects being considered, or whether the other factors that I have talked about and which he has also mentioned—very carefully and fulsomely—will allow us to vault up the list of eligible projects and get a better showing in the eventual decisions on allocations.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is really important to say that that indexation is just one part of the wider assessment process. Yes, the categorisation—category 2 in this case—is taken into account, but the assessment also takes into account a number of other factors, such as the support of Members of Parliament. I think it is really noteworthy that two Members of Parliament are backing a bid that is targeted at the areas of deprivation. I urge my hon. Friend to look at the information on gov.uk, which clearly sets out that the categorisation is just one part of the assessment process. Yes, the weighting has an impact, but so do the bid’s strategic fit, deliverability and value for money. Those are all important parts of the process. It is not solely determined by the categorisation level 2.

I would also like to remark on the importance of other investment in North Somerset, outside of just those two streams of funding. Across the south-west, the Government are investing over £400 million in the region through the getting building fund, the future high streets fund, and the towns fund, which is delivering so much for the south-west. If we look at the business support that we have put into North Somerset, for example, we see £73 million of support for businesses and business grants. We have also ensured that Weston has benefited from the getting building fund. I think it is receiving a £1.7 million investment in the town centre, as part of the wider £13.5 million package across the area, for shovel-ready projects in Weston.

The need for regeneration and investment in the high street is also evident in so many of our communities. The funding that has been allocated is already going to be supporting the vacant Weston General Stores site, creating new work spaces for entrepreneurs, micro-manufacturing, events and community spaces. That will help to breathe huge new life into the town centre as well, so that is not to be underestimated. Residents can also look forward to the reopening of the Portishead rail line for the first time in 50 years. That is going to be a vital transport link between North Somerset and the surrounding employment areas.

Of course, these interventions—the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund, the getting building fund and the other policies I have outlined—build on the £200 million we have invested across the wider area in recent years to support housing, skills and transport. That includes the two state-of-the-art training centres providing work-focused education at Weston College, the almost £12 million with which we have supported the Food Works innovation centre near Weston—a regional centre of excellence in that growing sector—and the major town centre transport improvements, including new cycle and pedestrian links across the town centre. There is huge investment in the region, and in Weston-super-Mare as well.

I hope that some of my remarks have helped reassure my hon. Friend that a number of factors go into the assessment of this bid, and it is not just the category place that determines the outcome. I very much look forward to seeing all the detail of the bid. We have had a number of them and we now have to look through them in detail. I know that he is as passionate as I am about levelling up in communities in the south-west and, of course, in Weston. As we have set out, we want every community to have the opportunity to shape its own future through locally designed solutions. I very much look forward to working with him on doing that as we look forward to the road to recovery for Weston-super-Mare.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.