Levelling Up: East of England — [Esther McVey in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 18th January 2022.

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Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 9:30 am, 18th January 2022

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the parliamentary estate. Please give one another and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of levelling up in the East of England.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. I am also grateful to the secretariat and supporters of the all-party parliamentary group for the east of England, which I co-chair with Daniel Zeichner, for the research that they carried out ahead of the debate, including their October 2021 publication, “Achieving Sustainable and Inclusive Growth: The East of England Offer”.

The east of England, traditionally known as East Anglia, comprises the easternmost counties of the United Kingdom: Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and also Essex, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The western and southern boundaries of the region are somewhat porous, and some of those living in, say, south Essex, parts of Hertfordshire and parts of Bedfordshire may not view themselves as being part of the east of England. That said, it is great that those three counties are so well represented in this Chamber this morning. Although at times understated, East Anglians are welcoming people. There is no hard border to the region, as the Devil’s Dyke was never completed and ceased to function well over 1,100 years ago.

Levelling up is in many respects the Government’s signature tune. The Prime Minister first spoke of the need to level up across Britain in his first speech as Prime Minister on 24 July 2019. The policy was the cornerstone of the Conservative manifesto at the 2019 general election, and we now eagerly await publication of the levelling-up White Paper, which will set out the strategy as to how levelling up will be delivered.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I will, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues on their attendance. He mentioned the Prime Minister. The week before last, the Prime Minister stated, during Prime Minister’s questions, that the UK must

“get on with our job of levelling up across the whole of the UK, making sure that every part of this United Kingdom shares in our ambition to be a science superpower”.—[Official Report, 5 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 19.]

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that consideration must also be given to the rest of the UK? In the north of England there will be £38 per head of population, and in Northern Ireland the money is even less. The aim must be to ensure that we all benefit—I think that the Prime Minister wants us all to benefit and that the hon. Gentleman wants that as well. Does he agree?

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I wholeheartedly agree. Northern Ireland and the east of England have many things in common: Northern Ireland is the most western part of the United Kingdom, and I represent the most easterly constituency in the United Kingdom. Levelling up must go round the whole United Kingdom—north and south, but also, as we are hearing today, east and west.

The White Paper is long overdue, but I recognise that the once-in-a-generation challenge of covid-19 has diverted attention and I acknowledge that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are still relatively new in office. Although we have yet to see the detail of the Government’s levelling-up policy, there are some early signs that the east of England might be overlooked. From my perspective, the purpose of this debate is to highlight that concern and to obtain from the Minister an assurance that that will not be the case—that our region will not be ignored and the needs of local people and local businesses will be fully and properly taken into account.

It is first necessary to set the scene as to what is happening in the east of England.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

May I intervene before my hon. Friend moves on to broaden out his argument? He was talking about the east of England being overlooked in levelling up. Is there not an additional concern that, in the levelling-up agenda, the east of England will be seen as an area where more houses can be built and taxes can be raised to be spent elsewhere? Those two considerations are important parallel aspects of levelling up that affect the east of England, particularly constituencies in Bedfordshire.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right: if more housing is to be provided, the infrastructure to go with it needs to be provided. I will comment on that. I will also address the fact that the east of England is at the moment a net contributor to the Treasury, and if we do not invest in the east, there is a risk that we will destroy the goose that lays that golden egg.

At first glance, the east of England appears relatively prosperous, even though wages in many areas lag behind the national average. In 2019, the east of England accounted for 9% of the UK’s GDP, although it had a GDP per head below that of the UK as a whole. There are significant pockets of hidden deprivation, particularly in coastal communities, such as the Waveney constituency that I represent, and in rural areas. Those are often concealed, as they lie close to more affluent places.

Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, and I fully accept that coastal communities and some rural areas suffer from deprivation. However, new towns also have some of the most deprived wards in the east of England, particularly in and around Basildon. Levelling up is about levelling up opportunity, but it is also about levelling up those people’s own environments and communities, so that they stay there rather than feel that they have to escape their local communities.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course, he is right: one of the challenges we face is that, if we do not invest in those communities, there will be a brain drain from the region. It is for that reason that we need to invest in those regions. In that way, we will level up, and get rid of that migration from the region.

As I have said, the east of England is one of three net contributing regions to UK plc, and it should be emphasised that investment and support in our region will not only deliver levelling up but add to national prosperity. Much of the hidden deprivation is focused in coastal areas such as Lowestoft, where traditional industries such as fishing and manufacturing have declined over the past 40 years, although there is hope that fishing can play an important role in economic recovery through the Renaissance of the East Anglian Fisheries initiative. Kirkley, in Lowestoft, is the 26th most deprived ward in the country, and 10 of Lowestoft’s neighbourhoods fall within the 10% most deprived wards nationally. A 2019 study found that more than 12,000 people in Lowestoft and the rural area immediately to its north are affected by income deprivation. Some 20% of households in Lowestoft live on absolutely or relatively low incomes, and 21% of adults in the town have health issues that affect their activity, diminishing their participation in society, limiting their job opportunities and contributing to wellbeing issues. Finally, although 68% of adults in the town are economically active, 15.7% are in receipt of universal credit. That reflects the low-skilled and temporary nature of employment opportunities currently available.

It is also important to highlight one particular opportunity and one particular challenge in the east of England. The opportunity is presented by the UK’s net zero target, with East Anglia right at the forefront of the Government’s plans. Half of the UK’s offshore wind fleet will be anchored off our coast. There is the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station, and there is the potential to retrofit the gas infrastructure, both in the southern North sea and on land via the Bacton gas terminal. Some 30% of the UK’s low-carbon electricity will in due course come through Suffolk alone. There is potential to completely transform the economy of the whole of coastal East Anglia, where many deep pockets of deprivation are found. To make the most of the opportunity from which the whole of the UK will benefit, the Government need to provide the necessary seedcorn funding. If that is done, we are not just talking about levelling up; we can provide a global exemplar as to how decarbonisation can be delivered to benefit local people and local communities.

A particular challenge that the region’s councils face is adult social care, because the east of England has a relatively elderly population. Following the comprehensive spending review and the provisional local government funding settlement, there is a real worry that one year of funding certainty is not enough. Councils need at least three years of certainty so that they can plan effectively and deliver services efficiently. There is a need for increased long-term funding for councils to close the funding gap that, by the end of 2022-23 for the east of England councils, will be in the order of £240 million. There is concern that the adult social care funding that has been provided is not enough and might not even cover the planned capital on care costs and changes to means testing. Councils face significant financial pressures owing to the rising costs of care, workforce pressures and national insurance uplifts.

I have highlighted the challenges that Lowestoft faces, but I should point out that the Government have responded positively and are currently making a significant investment in the town. Construction of the Gull Wing bridge and the Lowestoft flood defence scheme are well under way, and Lowestoft has secured a towns deal. Work on the projects is due to start later this year.

Photo of Giles Watling Giles Watling Conservative, Clacton

Does my hon. Friend agree that although we have infrastructure projects such as the bridge and so forth, when we talk about the anti-car debate in some of the towns, we must remember that some of our leafier suburbs do not benefit and we need transport infrastructure to keep our economy alive?

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

My hon. Friend is right that transport infrastructure is vital, and I will come on to that shortly.

Further afield from Lowestoft, the region will benefit from two freeports at Felixstowe and Harwich, as well as the Thames freeport. However, while we await the detail of the Government’s levelling-up proposals, there are some early warning signs that the needs of local communities in East Anglia might be overlooked, and there is a worry that we will not be able to realise the full potential of those projects for the benefit of local people and local businesses.

With regard to funding allocated in the comprehensive spending review, the east of England received the second lowest per capita spend of any region at £92 per head. Only London received less. The UK average is £184 per person, and in Yorkshire and the Humber the provision is £359 per head. In the first round of the levelling-up fund, the east of England secured £87 million. That is £13.88 per capita compared with a national average of £23.91 and £41.72 per capita in the east midlands.

There is also concern about the prioritisation of both the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund. As I have mentioned, Lowestoft has deep pockets of deprivation, yet it is neither a priority 1 area for the levelling-up fund, nor a priority place in the community renewal fund. It is essential that that inequity is put right ahead of the next round of the levelling-up fund and the introduction of the UK shared prosperity fund.

There is also a worry that, notwithstanding opportunities in the east of England in such sectors as low carbon, agri-tech and life sciences, the Government are actively seeking to discourage Government spending on research and development in the east of England. In the Budget Red Book, the east of England is coupled with London and the south-east, which are very different from much of the region, as an area from which Government spending on R&D will be diverted and where it will be discouraged.

No debate on the east of England would be complete without highlighting the region’s infrastructure deficiencies in traditional modes of transport—road, rail and bus—and digital connectivity. In many ways, we are a victim of our own geography, which in other respects is one of the region’s unique selling points—a relatively dispersed population with relatively small urban centres, and a network of market towns and villages interspersed with attractive countryside—which serves not only as the breadbasket of the UK but as the home to many flourishing rural businesses. If that infrastructure, both old and new, is not upgraded, I fear that the region will not realise its full economic potential and it may be difficult for it to continue to be a net contributor to the Treasury’s coffers.

I will highlight five compelling reasons why we need to upgrade the region’s connectivity. First, the east of England, with 13 ports, including two freeports and four airports—Stansted, Luton, Southend and Norwich—is the UK’s international gateway. If we do not have good road and rail networks from these access points, through and out of the region, it is not just East Anglia that suffers—there will be a negative knock-on impact for the whole UK. Half of the UK’s containerised goods are moved through the region; 70% go to the north of England and support businesses and communities right across the UK. Air freight is critical to maintaining and growing the UK’s ability to trade globally. Stansted is the only London airport with the capacity and infrastructure to support increased demand for cargo aviation over the next 10 to 15 years.

East Anglia’s road and rail network is crucial to the smooth movement of these essential supplies coming into the UK, whether by sea or by air. Poor connections lead to slow, unreliable journeys adding delay and cost, which ultimately the consumer ends up paying for. For this reason, roads such as the A12, A14, A120 and A47 urgently need to be upgraded.

Secondly, linked to this, our railways need to be improved, to accelerate the shift of freight off the roads and improve services to London, to which many of the region’s residents commute. The upgrades at Haughley junction and Ely junction are long overdue. Thirdly, improved transport infrastructure is needed to tackle those pockets of coastal deprivation to which I have referred. Many of these communities have poor transport links without dual carriageway connectivity and with low-frequency train services.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and making such an excellent contribution to this debate. I notice that on transport infrastructure, he seems to be looking at a very 20th-century model, as if the climate crisis was not happening. Will he talk a little more about the kind of rapid transit systems that he envisages would take individuals off the roads in their cars and move them on to buses and trains, freeing up more of that road network system and helping the environment and ecological systems that are in place?

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention—he is right. As far as road investment is concerned, we have to make up for work that should have been done a long time ago. Rail network improvements are vital to the future, as he has mentioned. I have mentioned two junctions at Haughley and Ely; I could be greedy, we need Trowse in his constituency and Bow to improve the access to London as well. Those need to be addressed.

I will now briefly address the digital connectivity which is so vital to the future.

Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock

Before my hon. Friend moves on to the very important issue of digital connectivity, may I highlight the fact that in the south of Essex there are some proposals to consider a tram network? There is one very important road that he missed out of his list—the A127. It is not part of the national infrastructure, but it provides a vital route out of London down to Southend, through some of the busiest areas and areas that have the greatest opportunity to deliver the levelling-up agenda. I will just put those points on his radar.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for doing so, and I apologise if my speech is somewhat focused on the east of East Anglia. He is quite right to highlight the challenges and opportunities in the south of the region.

Finally, I will say that full-fibre connectivity for all households and businesses is vital if East Anglia is to reach its full economic potential. There are projects to deliver that connectivity in many towns across the region, including Cityfibre’s £15 million investment in the network across Lowestoft. However, there is a concern that digital deserts may emerge in some rural areas, so it is vital that the Government’s Project Gigabit programme is ramped up and is fully comprehensive.

For East Anglia to realise its full economic potential and provide local people with the opportunity to work in the exciting new emerging industries, a skills revolution is needed. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill provides the framework to deliver that revolution, but there is a concern that the region may again be bypassed.

Sizewell C is an enormous project, which can bring great benefits to Suffolk, Waveney and further afield. It is estimated that during the 12-year construction period, £2 billion will be put into the Suffolk economy. During that period there will be three apprenticeship cycles and 1,500 apprenticeships. There is an opportunity to leave an enduring legacy of knowledge and skills, which in the long term—once Sizewell C is completely constructed and becomes operational—can make Suffolk and Waveney a compelling location in which to set up and grow a business.

Sizewell C is exactly the sort of project that requires a gear change in training, which an institute of technology would help to deliver. However, the proposal from the University of Suffolk, East Coast College, the College of West Anglia and Norwich University of the Arts has not been successful in the institute of technology competition, in which the second wave of successful bids has just been announced. In the first two waves, 21 institutes of technology have been created, which provide comprehensive coverage across the country; and yes, there is one at South Essex College at Chelmsford, but there is a vacuum in the east. I will follow this matter up with the Minister for Higher and Further Education, my right hon. Friend Michelle Donelan, to find out why the bid for our area was rejected, but there is alarm that the necessary investment is not being made locally to ensure that the region fully benefits from the exciting opportunities that are emerging.

I have spoken for far too long; I must allow others their say. Generally, I am excited about the future economic prospects for East Anglia, as they provide the opportunity to reverse 40 years of economic decline in coastal communities such as Waveney. However, I have concerns that these issues are not fully taken into account in the emerging levelling-up strategy. In the east of England, it is crucial that the Government recognise the challenges faced in many coastal, rural and urban communities, and that they upgrade connectivity and invest in skills. If we do not do these things, we will not eliminate those deep pockets of deprivation, there will be a negative spin-off across the UK and the region’s ability to continue to be a net contributor to UK plc will be in peril. I hope that the Minister can allay these concerns in his summing-up.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

We want to get to the Front-Bench spokespeople by just before 10.45 am—that is five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister. We are well supported today, with lots of people wanting to speak, so there will be a limit of four minutes per speech.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:54 am, 18th January 2022

I congratulate Peter Aldous on securing the debate. His introduction has been very thorough, and I will not go over the same points. He and I work closely on the East of England all-party parliamentary group, which I thank for its work. I also thank those who have supported us and other all-party parliamentary groups, such as the APPG for the innovation corridor. We have been trying to keep the idea of the east alive.

Some of us have been involved in regional policy for many years, and I sadly recount that I attended my 35th annual regional Labour party conference at the end of last year. I am not sure whether that is cause for celebration or concern, but we have been thinking about this issue for a long time and have discussed it in Westminster Hall before. I looked back at the previous debate on the east of England, which was in April 2016 —during the referendum period, as I recall. The discussion at that time was about establishing a three-county system with an elected Mayor. It was introduced with enthusiasm by the then Minister but it died a death a few weeks later, as the Government fell. I gently suggest that slogans come and go and things come and go, but the regional issues stay with us for a very long time.

It is sometimes said that there is no such thing as the east, although the hon. Member for Waveney bravely defined it in the correct way. It is a question of regional identity. We know it is an odd construct sometimes, but I also think that what bring the east together most of all are our television regions—I do not say that just because Andrew Sinclair is sitting in the Public Gallery. It is the excellent work that is done by journalists such as Emma Hutchinson at ITV Anglia, Andrew at “Look East” and Deborah McGurran, and particularly by people such as Stewart White. I say that again in the context of the current debate: those people bring the region together in a way that very few others have managed to do.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Conservative, West Suffolk

Will the hon. Gentleman add his congratulations to Mark Murphy of BBC Radio Suffolk, who was awarded an MBE for services to broadcasting in the new year’s honours list?

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am happy to do so.

On the question of the funding issues, the difficulties and the relative lack of understanding of the challenges that face our region, I agree with the statistics that the hon. Member for Waveney presented. I would also point out that if we take the London effect out of the east, we very quickly see that our region is, by UK and European standards, not nearly as prosperous as some of the initial statistics suggest. I read the House of Commons Library briefing, and one would think it is all fine. Actually, it is not all fine; it is a much more complicated picture than that, but it is not necessarily an easy question to solve. I would also look back historically and reflect that at the end of the last Labour Government we had a Minister for the East of England—I make no secret of my ambition to be the next Barbara Follett.

I have four questions to put to the Minister. As he is not a regional Minister, he may well not be in a good position to answer them, but these are important issues. East West Rail and the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc are absolutely crucial. Without talking too much about my constituency of Cambridge, AstraZeneca’s Discovery Centre—a life sciences cluster that generates over £7 billion turnover and employs over 20,000 people—opened in November and is absolutely key. Can the Minister confirm that the project is on track, and that there is no question of any further delays?

Secondly, Ely junction, as the hon. Member for Waveney mentioned, is absolutely critical to unlocking the freight issues. My third point is that the West Anglia main line is absolutely key to improving links to our regional airport and gateway to the world, which is Stansted.

My final point is on bus funding. There is a critical point coming in the next few weeks, when the covid funding runs out. Bus operators are having to make decisions this week as to which routes will be cut. In my city of Cambridge, that is already happening. What is going on?

In conclusion, slogans may come and go but we need a proper regional policy. Scotland and Wales have the freedoms, but England is getting a rough deal.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk 9:59 am, 18th January 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Peter Aldous for securing such a fantastic debate and for setting out so many of the themes that many of us will champion in our remarks.

I will start by sharing a true story. Someone made a slip of the tongue in a conversation with me last week, when they referred to the Government’s flagship programme as “levelling up the north”. That is not that funny to an MP speaking in this debate and representing a constituency such as mine—North Norfolk—in the east of England. I had to stop them and explain that it is not about levelling up just the north. Levelling up is about the entire country, but it is so often perceived as not that. It is about equality throughout the UK, which is why I am delighted that in the east we are proposing to launch our own group to represent our region for the powerhouse that it is. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, the east of England is already one of the most economically successful areas in the country. It is a net contributor to the Treasury—one of only three, as he said. So you might think, why are we standing here with this plea? Because we can do so much more for a small marginal investment. The gains in the east will be felt throughout the country.

I could say plenty on many of the subjects that have been mentioned, such as transport connectivity and the like, but in the time available I shall limit my thoughts to two sectors that would need only marginal investment to unleash their power across the area and help tackle the skill and labour shortages, already mentioned, that go hand in hand in so many of our constituencies, which are often rural and coastal.

North Norfolk has the highest age demographic in the country, as I have often said during my time in the House. As such, the opportunities to invest in people, specifically in medical and social care, are second to none. We are crying out for more carers, more nurses and more dentists—the son of a dentist is allowed to get away with saying that; I share that passion with my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney.

We also need more mental health practitioners. Could there be a better region, in a country that often shares those traits, for people to train and gain those valuable skills and apply them throughout the east? We should be investing in dental training facilities, alongside the University of East Anglia’s flagship medical training facilities. Is it right that anyone who wants to progress as a nurse has to travel, on what we know are not very good connectivity routes, all the way to Ipswich to further their career? The demand is enormous in our region and we need the investment to fill those plentiful jobs.

The same goes for green jobs. We have a third of the UK gas supply coming in at Bacton, a very rural area in my constituency. That is ripe for improvement with R&D research. Why should those jobs be going to Teesside? We have the skills, entrepreneurs, talent and young people who have their lives ahead of them. Those jobs must also come to the east—not to mention that we have the highest proliferation of wind turbines off my coast as well.

We need the Government to recognise that we have the demand, the people and the skills. Invest in the east and we will give a bigger bang for our buck than any other part of the country.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 10:03 am, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I congratulate Peter Aldous on securing this vital debate. I speak very much for the west of the eastern region.

Forgive the idiom, but there are more holes in the Government’s levelling-up strategy than in a block of Swiss cheese. Rather than improving living standards and changing lives, the reality is an extension of the underfunding that existed during the decade-long Tory austerity agenda. As has already been mentioned, it has been used to pit regions and nations against each other as they vie for a cut of limited funding.

The funding available in the levelling-up fund and the towns fund restricts communities’ ability to decide for themselves how to spend money, bring in investment and jobs and revive their towns. Instead, it empowers Ministers to decide from Whitehall which projects might receive funding. The Government’s spending review also failed to resemble a genuine plan to support areas neglected during austerity. We have already heard that the eastern region received the second-lowest per capita spend of any region. The east received £92 per person, compared with the UK average of £184. How can that be considered to be levelling up our region?

It is not hyperbole to say that continued underfunding, especially in deprived areas of Luton South that have suffered huge cuts to vital local services under the coalition and Conservative Governments, will only exacerbate inequalities in our communities. The Government’s various regeneration schemes do not come close to making up for the £15 billion of Conservative cuts to local government since 2010. Local councils have seen 60p in every £1 cut, resulting in almost all discretionary and preventive services being cut.

Against that backdrop, I was very happy to support Luton Council’s bid to the levelling-up fund and was pleased that it was successful, but let us be frank: £20 million in one-off capital project funding will be limited in making up for the more than £100 million stripped from Luton Council’s overall budget since 2010. In that context, the Bute Street car park redevelopment project that secured the levelling-up funding is fewer than 100 metres from our decrepit Luton town train station. How can the Government claim that they are levelling up communities when our Luton station is not fit for purpose? Its lack of accessibility marginalises many disabled and elderly people and young families from rail travel. While the station has been allocated long-awaited access for all funding, this hardly represents levelling up; it simply makes the decrepit station usable for many by putting in lifts. The gateway to our town should reflect the 21st-century town that we are. The station needs full redevelopment. A modern, accessible train station would play a critical role in truly regenerating our town, encouraging prosperity in our community through potential new investment and job creation.

Levelling up can only be considered a success if deprived areas receive investment and targeted policy initiatives that directly improve the living standards of all communities. It must be about people, not just projects. By that measure, levelling up cannot be considered as anything more than a hollow Tory strapline. My town, Luton, and our region, the east, still suffer shameful underfunding and inequality, with no sign of the Government proposing change on the scale needed.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Second Church Estates Commissioner 10:07 am, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Aldous on bringing this much-needed debate. Sometimes gratitude is in slightly short supply where the Government are concerned, so I start with a thanks before I come on to my shopping list, because the town of Houghton Regis in my constituency received £19.9 million for a new community wellbeing centre hub, which I am very pleased about. It is much needed. We have a new one in Dunstable, and the local authority just committed to a new one in Leighton Buzzard, so this completes the piece. I am extremely grateful.

An enormous number of new homes are being built in my area. Around 14,000 are going up—about 8,000 north of Houghton Regis and around 6,000 to the east of Leighton Buzzard. My particular concern, which I have raised repeatedly and will go on raising until we get a solution, is the need for infrastructure to come in at the same time as the new houses are built. I see a few nods—in fact, quite a lot—around the Chamber, because I think we all agree that that should be the case. I believe other European nations sometimes manage to do this a little bit better than we do. I think we all agree that that should happen, and I think every Government have been committed to its happening, but it has not happened under previous Governments and is not quite yet happening in the way it needs to.

I will just put a few figures from August 2021 on the record relating to the number of GPs per 10,000 registered patients in my area. In the three primary care networks in south Bedfordshire it is only 4.5. In the east of England it is 5.3, and in England as a whole it is 5.9. We are starting at a disadvantage and we have these 14,000 new houses coming on top. There is a serious amount of levelling up and catching up to do to make sure that all those residents can get to a doctor when they need to. The same is true for direct patient care roles. The full-time equivalent per 10,000 registered patients in the three primary care networks in my area, south Bedfordshire, is 1.6. For the east of England it is 2.9, and for England as a whole it is 2.3. South Bedfordshire is already at the bottom of the league in terms of the number of GPs and direct patient care roles per 10,000 patients, and all these new houses are coming. We really must do better.

If there is one thing that I want my hon. Friend the Minister to take back to his Department, it is that when the levelling-up White Paper comes out, if we do not have a solution to ensure that general practice capacity is installed at the same time as the new homes come up, I, for one, will not be happy. I will keep on raising this issue until we get a solution. We can do better as a country; we are a bright, capable country, it is within our power to do it and we need to do it.

In my last 40 seconds I will raise police funding, where we also need levelling up. Sometimes, I think that the Home Office views Bedfordshire as a sort of corn-chewing county out in the sticks somewhere. However, I am afraid that we are quite busy, in policing terms. We are the fourth-highest, nationally, for county lines. When Operation Venetic came out—the deciphering of the EncroChat criminal communications system—there were 26 packages for Bedfordshire, only 11 for Hertfordshire and none for Cambridgeshire. We are a busy police county, and we are surviving, I am afraid, on one-off grants. It all goes back to damping in 2004. We must amend the national funding formula to treat Bedfordshire police fairly.

Photo of Mohammad Yasin Mohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford 10:11 am, 18th January 2022

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate Peter Aldous on securing this important debate.

The East of England Local Government Association has found that the region has been disadvantaged from the outset of the Government’s levelling-up programme, and it is not receiving its fair share. Just three of the region’s seven priority 1 geographical areas will receive funding, creating a risk that deprived areas in the region will be left out and left behind. I am deeply disappointed that my constituency is one of them.

The Government are yet to explain to my constituents in Kempston why its levelling-up funding bid, which had a strong economic and social case and would have contributed towards a much-needed new health hub, was rejected, while neighbouring Central Bedfordshire received £26.7 million, despite being among the least-deprived fifth of local authorities in the country.

Actions speak louder than words. This decision makes a mockery of the Government’s hollow levelling-up agenda, and it is yet another example of the Government ignoring the real needs of our towns. As a member of the newly named Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, I know just how important it is that we revitalise our high streets and towns, particularly after the pandemic.

The failure of the funding formula for towns that really need funding demonstrates the problem of having a system of bidding for funds, rather than an ongoing, fairly divided allocation of money for our towns, which would allow us to plan a steady programme of improvements. The whole bids system appears arbitrary and opaque, and I am not alone in thinking that.

In July, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee published its report, “Post-pandemic economic growth: Levelling-up”, describing the levelling-up policy initiatives and funding announced to date as “disjointed” and

“lacking any overall coherent strategic purpose”.

If the Government had ever been serious about their levelling-up agenda, they would have presented clear priorities, a road map and timeline for delivery, and robust metrics for measuring success, with routine reporting on progress. However, I have seen no evidence that it is any more than a slogan.

It is telling that, as the Prime Minister puts the whole machinery of government into saving his own bacon, the delayed White Paper to finally tell us what levelling up might mean in practical terms is part of his Operation Red Meat policy platform. It is desperate and undignified behaviour. If the White Paper emerges in the coming weeks, I hope that it will not have been thrown together in the way that yesterday’s announcements on the licence fee and migrant crossings obviously were. However, I suspect that, by then, the Prime Minister’s levelling-up agenda will be too little, too late.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Conservative, West Suffolk 10:14 am, 18th January 2022

I rise to strongly support the levelling-up agenda, in particular in the east of England. I strongly support the way in which my hon. Friend Peter Aldous put the case. He speaks for the east of England, for East Anglia and, indeed, for the east of East Anglia. Devil’s Dyke, which he mentioned, runs right through my constituency, and is best seen in between the two racecourses in Newmarket. In that sense, my West Suffolk constituency is absolutely at the heart of the east of England.

The east of England is a net contributor to the Treasury, but its GDP per head is below average. To pick up on a point that was very well made by Daniel Zeichner, if one takes out London from the east of England, the figures look very different; indeed, if one takes out both Cambridge and London, the figures look more different still. The hon. Gentleman was modest—he represents undoubtedly the greatest economic powerhouse in the east of England.

We have heard from other Opposition Members a critique of the concept of levelling up, but all we have had are accusations; we have not had a constructive set of proposals. The point of levelling up is that the attitude that prevailed under the last Labour Government—that we enhance opportunity by helping people to move out of their areas—is being replaced by the principle of levelling up. Levelling up is about enhancing opportunity in an area and in a community. It turns on its head the principles that underpinned the last Labour Government.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The right hon. Gentleman made a point about people wanting to stay in their towns and the places where they live. However, under the last 10 years of this Government, the levelling-up agenda has meant that many people have been forced away because they cannot afford housing, particularly in towns such as Luton. We have to be careful here. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Conservative, West Suffolk

I strongly agree with the need for more housing that people can afford, hence the increase in the level of house building from the record lows that we saw in the last couple of decades.

What does levelling up mean in practice? First, it means infrastructure, on which, again, I strongly support everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said. The improvement to the A14 shows that, in the east of England, we can do it—on time and under budget. That is a magnificent improvement scheme. The A11 needs continued improvement, as do the Fiveways junction and the A1307. The Ely junction scheme has been mentioned. We need to continue the railway from Cambridge to the coast and make sure that, on the Norwich to Cambridge and Ipswich to Cambridge lines, some trains continue directly all the way through to London.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Conservative, West Suffolk

I am not an expert on the A12, but I am sure that it is a wonderful road, and I am sure that my hon. Friend thinks it needs improving.

We also need support for enterprise, such as the very successful EpiCentre, in Haverhill, which benefits from being close to Cambridge but is much cheaper than Cambridge. A brilliant company called CodiKoat, for instance, is revolutionising antimicrobial and antiviral coatings. This expansion is necessary.

Finally, in addition to all those points, will the Minister address the need for devolution? Through devolution, we can help to level up. In Suffolk, there is support from the county council, the district councils and all the MPs. That devolution should include the devolution of health, because there is no greater levelling up than in health. By combining health and social care in a devolution deal, we can improve people’s lives as well as their economic prospects. That is what levelling up is all about.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South 10:19 am, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend—I mean Peter Aldous. [Laughter.] I have often thought that the hon. Member is on the wrong side of the House; as a centrist, he would be far better over here on the Labour Benches, where I could berate him for his lack of ideological purity. None the less, he has brought this fantastic and important debate forward. Sorry—I will get him into trouble.

I want to make a few key points and observations, some of which I can pick up from Matt Hancock. One of my appeals is that, when we talk about the regeneration of the east and investing in the east, we must not base that simply on 20th century infrastructure. We must recognise that we have an opportunity in the eastern region, which has been underfunded and under-resourced.

One of the reasons we are net contributors to the Treasury is probably that it spends so little on us in real terms. One of my appeals to the Minister is that we should take that weakness and use it as an opportunity so that we can jump over the failures of the 20th century—the pollution, the carbon, the ecological destruction—and move to a 21st century, sustainable, wellbeing-based economy with mass-transit systems. There may be a need at times to invest in roads, because road infrastructure is required, but let us ensure that we are not simply doing so because that is what we have always done. There is an opportunity to think about rail and public transport, and I think that is critical for the future.

I also want to talk about how devolution is done. I will quickly read an extract from an IPPR report on levelling up, which stated:

“Crucially, the competitive nature of existing devolution deals pitches areas against one another – making them race for increasingly small and centrally controlled pots of money. This has exposed disparities in terms of institutional capacity across local authorities: not all places have a history of cooperation, or indeed the resources, especially after over a decade of austerity, to enter good bids.”

Another area we need to look at is how levelling up is done. The key rule should be subsidiarity, meaning that powers to make decisions on key local political, economic and social issues should be closest to the people affected. Some Members have discussed this already. In my city of Norwich, which is obviously the cultural capital of the east, as most people will acknowledge, we have some cases where infrastructure is being done to us. The Wensum link is deeply unpopular across much of my city because of the ecological damage it will do to vast swathes of our ecosystem.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

It may be unpopular in the hon. Member’s part of the city, but does he recognise that it is very popular in the county of Norfolk?

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Yes, I do. The opposition to the Wensum link is more a cry for a decent public transport system instead of building yet more roads. The evidence shows that the more roads we build, the more cars and congestion we have. This has been happening for 50 years and I see no reason why that should change. We have an opportunity to make a real difference.

My city has the second worst social mobility in the country, and our city council has been the worst hit by central Government. The key thing when we are talking about devolution and levelling up is—I take this analogy from my time in the military—mission command. Basically, that means centralised intent with decentralised execution; the Government set the “what” and the local people do the “how”. If we can apply those principles and give people a real say in how they get to those objectives, we can make devolution work. In Norwich, we know what our priorities are. They often interlink with the Government’s priorities, but let us get there in our way. Give us the resources to do that. If we are given the opportunity, we will add to this country’s economic and wellbeing output, as will the rest of our region. I hope that the Minister listens to that.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 10:23 am, 18th January 2022

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Peter Aldous for calling this debate. We have limited time, so, inevitably, all the high-falutin’ arguments that I was going to express have been ditched in favour of the shopping list. I apologise in advance for that.

So what are we talking about? I think levelling up is about investment. If I were to put my finger on it, I would say that it is about increasing productivity for the future so that we get the growth in the east of England that then pays for all the good stuff that everyone in the Chamber wants for our residents.

If we want to increase productivity in the east, the key element will be connectivity in all its forms. Levelling up is not really about north versus south, as it is often portrayed; really, it is about urban versus rural. In rural areas, we are under-served by the connectivity, both physical and digital, that is increasingly important in the developing economy.

That starts with mobile phone coverage. According to a relatively recent survey, 82% of calls by mobile phone in Norfolk are connected. That means that 18% failed. That is incredibly annoying and makes it much harder to undertake business as well as everyday life. I very much welcome the shared rural network project, but the 95% coverage that was promised by, I think, about 2030 is only for coverage outside buildings. That is fine if people are in the garden, but in rural areas where we have quite substantial buildings, typically of stone or brick construction, connectivity inside buildings is much worse. I invite the Government to look at that.

Superfast broadband is a huge opportunity, particularly for rural growth. Some 80% of rural businesses tell us that the single biggest thing that the Government can provide to improve their economic prospects is superfast broadband, so let us focus on that. As I said, the first priority is mobile phone coverage, and the second is superfast broadband. I welcome Project Gigabit and I celebrate the recent milestone of 50% coverage in the UK, but we need to go further, particularly in the east.

Not all connectivity is digital; we also need physical access to markets. I disagree with Clive Lewis about the western link road. We have created, essentially, an orbital route around Norwich, but rather like the situation with the M25 and the Thames, we have decided not to build the bridge. It is very damaging to connectivity, particularly for the north-east of the county getting access to the physical markets in the rest of the country—

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

The hon. Gentleman talks about a bridge over the Thames, but this is a massive road bulldozed through an ecologically sensitive area. There were options to go over the most ecologically sensitive parts, but they were a bit more expensive and were rejected. I think that point needs to be made.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. It is also a bridge over the River Wensum, as he knows. A consultation was undertaken and, taking that into account, the best route was reached. It deals with a huge amount of rat-running and links north Norfolk to the rest of the country.

In relation to the A47, I welcome the imminent work for the Tuddenham to Easton dualling, but what about the Acle Straight? What about linking Great Yarmouth to the rest of the country? That is overdue and much needed.

On rail, regularity of services is an issue. Norwich to London takes about two hours; London to Birmingham, which is a shorter distance, takes about 80 minutes. That has a huge impact on the economic potential of our part of the country. It is the same for the Ely junction and the Haughley narrows.

We need access to markets, and that means access to staff. We lose 50% of our graduates from Norfolk. We need to change that, and one thing that we have to look at is the quality of life in our community. That includes health and dental services. We have a real paucity of dental services in the county. It would assist the situation if we had a teaching facility at UEA. I have run out of time, so I will have to conclude at this point.

Photo of Giles Watling Giles Watling Conservative, Clacton 10:28 am, 18th January 2022

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I would like to thank the hon. Member behind me—pantomime season is over—my hon. Friend Peter Aldous, for securing this incredibly important debate. Yes, the A12 is incredibly important. It is the road that comes to our area—it goes all the way up through Essex—and it is probably one of the worst roads in Britain. I therefore make the plea to whoever is listening that we need that road upgraded, and soon.

We think of the east of England as having wonderful rolling countryside and an incredibly powerful economy, and it does have a powerful economy, as we have heard today. We had this report, “Achieving Sustainable and Inclusive Growth: The East of England Offer”, which was our offer to Government and made the case that some of the most deprived areas in the country are in the east of England. That is despite the fact that Essex, my county, is an economic powerhouse.

Understandably, the Treasury thinks that the east can take care of itself. It can, to a great extent, but we all have issues in our own areas. As we have heard, the east of England received the lowest per capita spend of any region—£92 per person. It is clear that the east of England is not being levelled up as many other areas of the country are. Within the east, we have coastal areas that have intense issues, so if the east is not being levelled up fairly, the coastal areas within the east are suffering even more. The “east” is a deceptive catch-all term for that rich and leafy region.

The east not homogenous. We have far from common levels of wealth. In my constituency of Clacton, Jaywick is consistently and regularly, on many indices, the most deprived ward in the country. That not something I am proud of, and it is not something any of us can be proud of. My local council, Tendring District Council, is working hard and making great strides by purchasing land and building flood-proof houses. However, this problem has been stuck in the mud for so long, and we keep missing out on funding.

I realise that we are short of time, so my plea is: treat coastal areas as the data tells us—they are, in fact, in need of funding, as are many northern towns—and do not just lump us in with the richer parts of the east. When we talk about levelling up, it is vital that we talk about levelling up sideways, as well as up and down.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich 10:30 am, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend Peter Aldous for bringing forward this vital debate. We are very lucky in the east of England to have the oldest town in the country, which of course is Ipswich, but we also have the second oldest town, which is Colchester, so I think we are quite lucky.

We have significant pockets of deprivation in the region, which has been referred to and that includes in Ipswich, but it is that mix of deprivation and potential that means East Anglia should be right at the forefront of a levelling-up agenda. I must say it is in among the most deprived parts of the town that I have the honour of representing that I have met the best people, and some of the most honest people with the best values and the strongest communities, but they do need investment in education, tackling crime and everything else.

Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock

My hon. Friend talks about pockets of deprivation. While individual projects can help levelling up, it is actually about lifting the whole area—the whole pocket—up by improving housing and education, which will keep people there and enable the whole area to improve.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I think we need to balance the educational provision of technical skills and apprenticeships as well as academic education.

As for some good things that are happening on levelling-up in the east of England, particularly in relation to Ipswich, we have benefited from a £25 million town deal and 11 exciting projects, many of which relate to skills, which we know is at the heart of levelling up. Also, the freeport in Felixstowe, if done in the right way, could bring forward about 10,000 new jobs, so my constituents stand to benefit almost more than anybody else.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has already mentioned the fact that we were unsuccessful in the institute of technology bid, which is very disappointing. It is also worth mentioning that we were not successful in becoming a pilot for the local skills improvement plan. That was slightly disappointing because we know there is probably nothing more important than skills for levelling up.

What do we need to tackle the levelling-up issue? First, we need to look at how we fund our core public services. Of course, things like the levelling-up fund and the town deal are important, but it is simply not right that when it comes to education, particularly special educational needs provision, and police funding, Suffolk gets an incredibly raw deal, and that has been the case for decades. The east of England does badly from a lot of those funding formulas, but I argue that Suffolk does particularly badly. I was pleased to support a recent letter to the Secretary of State for Education on special educational needs provision.

The Government need to go further and extend the good things they have already done in terms of the towns deal and freeports. I think they need to get fully behind the Felixstowe and Harwich freeport, which the Government are doing and should continue to do, but they need to look at how we fund our core public services. That means bringing forward things, such as the review of the police funding formula as soon as possible, and in terms of the levelling-up fund, being imaginative about the way in which it can be spent. I would be excited about the prospect of a grassroots sports club fund, because we know that clubs and grassroots sports are incredibly important for levelling up.

In terms of infrastructure, I echo the comments made by other hon. Members about Ely North junction. It has been promised for a very long time, but it keeps being delayed, and it is amazing how many things are linked to it. There is also Haughley junction, and the “Ipswich in 60” service is vital. Small things, such as the hourly Peterborough to Ipswich train, would also make a big difference to many of my constituents in getting about the region.

I simply say this: I have never thought the Government see levelling up as purely about the north and the midlands. That has never been my view, and there is a lot of evidence that that is not the case, but that is not to say that I do not think the Government could go further. If I was going to say one thing, it would be about the way in which we fund our core public services, because for too long Suffolk has got a raw deal.

Photo of Gagan Mohindra Gagan Mohindra Conservative, South West Hertfordshire 10:35 am, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Aldous on securing this important debate. He represents the most easterly constituency in the east of England, and I probably represent the region’s most westerly constituency, so there is a nice balance.

Levelling up is about being inclusive and making sure that people really are able to achieve the best of their opportunity. It is not always about money—my apologies if that is controversial. As a Conservative, I believe it is about empowering communities to help themselves as much as it is about giving them a ladder to raise themselves up. It is not just about business, but about education, health, transport, broadband—especially in rural areas such as mine—and high streets.

My constituency of South West Hertfordshire has great transport links, north to south, to London. As someone who commutes every day, the worry that I have is about the east-to-west transport links. If I were to go to the neighbouring constituency of Hemel Hempstead or Watford, it is a bit of a nightmare from where I live, whereas getting to London or Birmingham is relatively easy.

It is a real shame that one of my more affluent villages, Belsize, has a really poor mobile telephone signal as well as really poor broadband. During the global pandemic, when people were reliant on home deliveries and on communications that they were not normally used to, that became quite profound. One of my personal tasks and ambitions is to resolve these things over my parliamentary career. Levelling up is not always about spending money; it is actually about making communities viable for private sector businesses to get more involved.

As a former furniture retailer, I remain quite concerned about the level of usage of our high streets. I would argue that we have seen businesses with a real customer focus survive and prosper during the global pandemic, but I say to residents and communities up and down the country that if they value their high streets, they need to use them. It is all well and good using high streets during the global pandemic, but if people want to retain their local butcher or grocer, they need to use them in better times as well.

Healthcare remains a really big issue in my constituency. I have Watford General Hospital down in the south, and St Albans City Hospital to the east. Although I may not have an acute hospital in my constituency, healthcare remains a big issue because of my ageing population, and I look forward to hopefully having further conversations with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on how we ensure that we are able to offer first-class health provision, which is not necessarily always aligned with the big white elephant that a primary acute hospital may be regarded as.

Although my constituency of South West Hertfordshire is regarded as an affluent area, there is quite a large commuter population. About 10,000 people use public transport to get to work—that is quite a dated figure, and obviously from before the pandemic—which is a significantly higher number than the average in the east of England and nationally. Making sure that local transport provision is having an impact—while not necessarily being the most expensive—will ensure that people can stay in the community and do not have to resort to moving to more urbanised areas. I would argue that that is a better outcome for the community.

Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about development. I represent a community that is 80% green belt, which remains a big issue, and I look forward to further discussions on what levelling up means for housing numbers and population growth post pandemic.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

I thank everybody for keeping to time, because we managed to get in everybody who wanted to speak. We will now move to the Front-Bench spokespeople.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:39 am, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McVey. I sincerely thank Peter Aldous for securing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.

I will confess that I love fielding debates for the Opposition in this place. No other parliamentary moment offers the chance to hear the hon. Member for Waveney talk in such depth and with such thoughtfulness to make his case. I was glad to be here and learn plenty from it, as I am sure the Minister did, although I have my own reflections. It set the tone for what has been a brilliant debate. He said at the beginning that his purpose was to highlight the possibility of the east of England being ignored by the levelling-up White Paper and to seek to avoid that. I suspect he managed that with aplomb, with the support of colleagues across party. His case was very well made.

As the hon. Member said, it has been two and half years since the Prime Minister spoke of the need to level up Britain. Two and half years later we are still waiting to find out what that means. It appears we may not have to wait too much longer. I hope the Minister will give us a little sneak preview among friends, including a sense of the timing, though I suspect he might wish to keep his powder dry, as might I to an extent. I might disappoint Matt Hancock who wants a detailed response and an alternative, but the Government will have to show their hand first. After all, we have waited two and half years. The case made around regional and local authority disparities is important. As the conversations on levelling up evolve, that will become even more important.

I will reflect on contributions from colleagues. My hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the East of England, made an important point about the London effect. We need to have that understanding at a regional, sub-regional and local authority level about how data can be skewed. So that, in trying to ensure that communities are not left behind—not a great phrase but we know what it means—we do not create a new collection of left-behind areas.

I share a lot of the frustrations of my hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) and for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) around how things have been done previously. It is sad, avoidable and reductive, and does not serve an agenda of trying to move the country forward together, that we seem to be constantly pitted against each other in bidding rounds, where some must be winners and others must be losers. The funding is one off, so maybe someone wins today and loses tomorrow, or vice versa. In reality, no community that has been funded through levelling-up programmes so far that is not worse off when losses to the local authority are taken into account. That test must be passed, and it must be a comprehensive settlement that everybody has a stake in.

I will reiterate a point made by colleagues of all persuasions. The Opposition do not accept the framing of levelling up as north versus south. That was a point made by the hon. Members for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew). I represent one of the poorest communities in the country, based in the east midlands, and I hate the assumptions that come with that. That cuts both ways and I should not make assumptions about communities that might be better off according to their top lines. I should not assume that that is a place with streets paved with gold, with no social problems, challenges or pockets of deprivation. That is not what the evidence shows.

This is an all-regions approach, and the east of England is a study in that. Taken as a whole, looking at those top lines, the region is a net contributor, with an above average GDP growth rate over the past decade, which is forecast to continue, above average employment, below average unemployment and above average house prices. That would suggest that the east of England is fine and that levelling up should happen elsewhere. As we have heard, the reality is different. There is a different experience for those in the south of the region, which makes up the London commuter belt, while much of East Anglia would not. Even within those communities, there are pockets of deprivation.

We have heard that there are many areas that suffer high levels of deprivation. Those could be coastal communities, such as Lowestoft, referred to by the hon. Member for Waveney, Great Yarmouth just up the coast, and Clacton-on-Sea, as Giles Watling mentioned, or they could be rural areas with associated challenges, such as Thetford, March and Wisbech, or parts of cities such as Peterborough and Norwich.

When the levelling-up White Paper is finally published, that nuanced understanding of regional variation will be one of the tests by which colleagues will judge it. However, the key point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South made in a couple of different contexts, is not just adopting the same approaches, because they will get the same outcomes. He made an important point about sustainability, saying that levelling up is not just about helping different communities to catch up on the same development model, because we know the impact that will have. That is profoundly true globally, and the question of how we support global development so that we do not just repeat the old models is a thorny question that we must address. However, it is true at home, too.

The East of England Local Government Association’s analysis of the autumn Budget was interesting, showing once again that 40% less—considerably less—was being made available for the east of England than for other areas. Of course, that was repeated in round one of the levelling-up fund bid, with just three of the seven of the region’s priority 1 projects having success. The EELGA is worried and says there is a clear risk that other deprived areas in the east of England will be left out and left behind, presumably on account of the wider region’s overall performance. Again, that creates a profound challenge, which applies across the region.

Transport is another key theme. I dare say that the Minister and I will participate in a lot of debates about different regions and different communities, which I very much look forward to, and transport will be a constant theme. It sometimes felt necessary to have an A to Z to follow things in this debate, but the sheer volume of A roads referred to was illustrative, telling us an awful lot about the natural geography and the infrastructure of the east of England, and about the challenges that come with that sort of road. The focus over the last year has been more on city region settlements, particularly around rail, but that focus alone clearly will not pass the overall test, because otherwise this becomes a long-running, self-perpetuating cycle.

The publication of the White Paper really ought to be the moment that that cycle is broken, because many rural and coastal communities—across the country, but particularly in the east of England—have faced significant challenges for a long time. As the hon. Member for Waveney said, over the past 40 years good jobs have left the region and not always been replaced, forcing young people to leave the area and seek opportunities elsewhere, taking their spending power away with them, which causes high streets to struggle, local institutions to decay and transport networks to close down. And so it goes, and so it goes. More of that decline just begets even more and more, until we break the cycle.

I will conclude there, because I know that colleagues will be keen that the long list of issues that have been put to the Minister are all comprehensively addressed, with a commitment today to addressing them. However, I will just say finally that in preparing for this debate, I thought that we were perhaps a couple of weeks—three or four weeks—too early, and timing is everything in politics, because we do not yet know what the Government will say on levelling up, I suspect that they may not quite know themselves yet what they will say. Actually, though, the timing for this debate was perfect, because the east of England offers an illustrative case of what has happened in the past, which we do not want to see repeated, and it is better for the Minister to hear that before the Government make their statement than it would be afterwards. I look forward to hearing his response to the debate.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

I call the Minister to respond, and also mention that Peter Aldous needs a couple of minutes at the end to wind up the debate.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 10:47 am, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey.

I start by thanking my hon. Friend Peter Aldous for securing this important debate. He is a tireless—indeed, relentless—advocate, not just for his own constituency, but for the whole of the east of England.

I will address a huge bugbear of mine, which is the idea in the media that levelling up is about north and south. Recently, I was in Norwich—with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, and Clive Lewis—to visit an amazing new digital facility, which was part-funded by the towns fund. The first thing I said then was that the east of England is absolutely central to our vision for levelling up this country; indeed, the levelling-up agenda is for the whole of the UK. There was an intervention earlier by Jim Shannon, who is obviously part of the “greater” east of England, showing the cultural reach of the area. [Laughter.] The levelling-up agenda is an agenda for the whole UK, and the east of England is absolutely central to it, as I say.

Let me take on, right at the start of my speech, a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney asked: the east of England will absolutely not be overlooked by the levelling-up agenda. Let me also take on, right at the start of my contribution, some of the other questions that were put. My hon. Friends the Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) both talked about the challenges of growth in their areas, particularly in housing. We are absolutely conscious of those challenges in the fast-growing parts of the east of England and the need for infrastructure always to match that new housing development. That is a passion of mine and of my hon. Friends.

I will also take on the point made by my hon. Friend Stephen Metcalfe by saying that we absolutely do not regard the situation in the east of England as “job done”; there is a lot more to do. I say that because although the east of England has an economy with many strengths, it also has massive untapped potential that we must unleash, because the Government’s belief is that a more balanced economy is not just a fairer one but one that is stronger overall. If parts of the economy are overheating with sky-high house prices and people being unable to get on a train, and at the same time we have parts of the country crying out for investment, we can see the potential for a win-win that can benefit the country as a whole and make the economy stronger overall.

On the point that a lot of Members made about total public spending, it is completely fair for Opposition Members to talk about the difficult decisions we had to make in the coalition years. No one denies that they were difficult decisions, but it is also fair to flag that things have changed since then, particularly since 2019. From 2016-17 to 2020-21, total public spending in the east of England rose from £49.7 billion to £78.25 billion—a 57% increase. There is public funding, but we also need a different plan.

Levelling up is about four different things: growing the private sector and boosting living standards, particularly where they are lower; spreading opportunity and improving public services, particularly where they are lacking; restoring local pride—that je ne sais quoi—in important local institutions that mean so much to us all; and empowering local leaders and communities. There are no good examples around the world of places that have turned themselves round and taken it to the next level without strong local leadership, which is something that we are bringing to the east of England.

Levelling up is an idea that cannot be distilled into just one thing—there is no single magic bullet—but it fundamentally addresses the problem that, for too many people, geography has turned out to be destiny; where they are born and happen to live determines, and perhaps limits, their life chances.

At the moment the east of England finds itself on the wrong side of two averages, with qualification levels below the national average, as my hon. Friend Tom Hunt pointed out, and the proportion of people aged 16 to 24 not in employment, education or training above the average. We have to address that. As everyone has said, addressing things at a regional level does not give us a sense of the huge differences within a region. As my hon. Friend Giles Watling pointed out, Jaywick in Essex is the most deprived place in the entire country. Other places, such as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, have great strengths, but at the same time there are significant challenges that we have to address. We absolutely must take that granular view.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney pointed out, the east of England is one of only three regions in the whole country that makes a net contribution to the Exchequer, and that is a testament to the host of amazing companies and institutions that have built the east of England’s reputation as a powerhouse in fields such as life sciences, clean energy, agrifood and so on.

Over the last 18 months of incredible turbulence, we have done everything that we can to preserve the great strengths that we have already in the east of England, with financial support of £1.18 billion to help 100,000 businesses and more than 1 million individuals to preserve their livelihoods in the east of England. As we come out of the pandemic and have more good news about omicron, we can look forward to not just building back, but building back better and strengthening the underpinnings of the economy in the east of England.

One difference that a few colleagues have pointed out is the new Freeport East, centred on the port of Felixstowe, Harwich International port and Gateway 14. The freeport status will help the area to realise its potential of becoming a real energy capital for the UK, which my hon. Friend talked about. Meanwhile, the Thames freeport also opened its doors for business on 15 December, paving the way for a lot of new investment and growth in and around Thurrock.

We have talked about the different funding streams backing local opportunities. As a few people mentioned, the levelling-up fund is putting £87 million into a range of different local priorities, with transport upgrades in Bedfordshire, new science facilities in Peterborough, upgrades to the coastal attractions in Southend, and £20 million to help Great Yarmouth to recapitalise on its cultural heritage and the unique strength that it has in green energy. New money from the levelling-up fund could help to transform the fortunes of a town such as Luton, with new housing in the centre of town or the new community and business space. Those are important things to help turn around the fortunes of that town.

All these injections of cash are being complemented by our investments through the town deals and the lasting partnerships for enhanced growth. Some £280 million is going into the east of England through 12 town deals, including Norwich, Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Ipswich, Harlow, Stevenage and Grays. At the same time we are putting £23 million into the east of England through the future high streets fund to help regenerate the high streets that have been battered by online shopping in places such as March, St Neots and Great Yarmouth. Through the community renewal fund, we aim to support at a local level the people in communities that are most in need by investing in their skills, their communities and their places. There are lots of different funding streams to try to build on those local strengths, while addressing the big infrastructure challenges that have been central to so many Members’ brilliant contributions.

In recent years, we have seen some really big road investments, such as the completion of the £1.5 billion upgrade to the A14, the dualling of the A11 and the new trains on the Greater Anglia franchise. Meanwhile, the lower Thames crossing, which forms part of the biggest investment in roads for a generation, will connect Essex to Kent via a road tunnel, supporting thousands of new jobs across both counties. We cannot stop there, which is why the Department for Transport is investing £73 million in the Gull Wing bridge, which has been mentioned, to link the northern and southern halves of Lowestoft, and to save commuters and families thousands of hours in an average year. In the western part of the region—there are, of course, huge difference across the east—£162 million is being provided for the A5 to M1 link road in Bedfordshire.

While we are upgrading the physical connectivity, which is hugely important for an area where often it feels surprisingly difficult to get to places that are not that far away, we are also focusing on digital connectivity. The east of England was provided with £233 million from the £5 billion Project Gigabit. We now have 60% of premises able to get gigabit-capable broadband, up from just 4% in 2019.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Conservative, West Suffolk

The incredible improvement in digital connectivity has been noticeable in the east, including almost all parts of my constituency, but we must complete the job. Will the Minister say a word about devolution? In his four elements of levelling up, the fourth was local leadership. In Suffolk, we have excellent local leadership under Matthew Hicks, the head of the county council. There is very strong support for a devolution deal, which will help to unleash the potential of Suffolk.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My right hon. Friend is totally right. I will just finish addressing the question from my hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew: 4G is essential. Dropping calls are incredibly frustrating in rural areas, and the shared rural network will enhance connectivity across the east of England.

Let me turn to devolution and local leadership. While no single place got everything right in the pandemic, we saw the incredible importance and strength of local government. Around the country we have seen trailblazers such as Ben Houchen and Andy Street—amazing local leaders who, when properly empowered, can really change the fortunes of the area. We have already seen how deals such as the Cambridge and Peterborough devolution deal can be a way to tackle important local issues such as affordable housing in Cambridge.

Local leadership simultaneously gives places a champion—to be their strong voice and provide leadership—and a single point of accountability. County deals will be a core part of that, and they will look different in different places. A few years back we tried to bring devolution to a wider part of the east of England, but we can return to that. We have seen some impressive, joined-up bids from leaders in the east of England who are seeking county deals. Nothing, including the health issues raised by my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock and my hon. Friend Duncan Baker, is off the table. That could be a big win for the devolution agenda. Those deals will bring together all the local partners to really strengthen them, with the powers and funding they need to turn things around in their areas.

There is a lot still to do to realise the full potential of the east of England. A lot of exciting change is already happening. By working together on a cross-party basis with all local leaders and MPs in the region, we can realise some of the incredible potential in the east of England.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 10:58 am, 18th January 2022

We have had a comprehensive debate. I apologise if I took too long setting the scene. I would like to highlight some of the issues that have arisen. There has been great emphasis on bidding for capital projects, but improvement to our core funding—education, health and police—is vital. Likewise, on new housing, the infrastructure must come at the same time.

We heard from Daniel Zeichner, my APPG co-chair, who mentioned the importance of noting that if we take out the London effect and the Cambridge effect, suddenly the east of England really does have challenges. I focused on coastal and rural deprivation, but there are deep pockets of deprivation in our urban centres that need to be addressed. On connectivity, there is no debate on East Anglia that does not highlight our poor infrastructure—both the deficiencies in the past, and looking to the future with that digital connectivity. On devolution, I liked what Clive Lewis said about the importance of centralised intent—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).