South West MPs call for 2019 to be the year of “infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure"

Calls have been made by MPs to make 2019 the year of “infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure" across the South West.

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/south-west-mps-call-2019-2516…

The debate at Westminster Hall on Tuesday, February 5, covered topics surrounding the economy in the South West, from roads to rail, fishing, and broadband speed.

Gary Streeter (Conservative, South West Devon), said that he hoped 2019 would be the year of delivery.

He said: “I have been in the House for 26 years. The reality is that there has been under-investment in our region’s vital infrastructure for the entirety of those 26 years. At last, we have a Government who are listening, and now we need to see delivery to our ambitious region.”

Mr Streeter added his delight that tourism is flourishing, there were more places to stay and better tourist attractions. He praised the Government for the freezing of cider duty, improvements to the Dawlish Sea Wall, the new Great Western Railway trains, £10million for fisheries innovation, improvements to the North Devon Link Road, work to tackle flooding in Cowley and farmers across the region.

He added that the region has substantial companies operating throughout it, and is not just a place for people to come for a cream tea, and also praised Exeter and Plymouth University.

Mr Streeter said that he welcomed Government commitment to dualling the A303 to Taunton but that “we really need to see spades in the ground at our end of the A303 so that very important project can get underway and be concluded as quickly as possible.”

He added: “The M5 is now snarled up every Friday and Saturday from May until September, particularly from Taunton to Bristol. I do not think there is a plan on the table to consider that.

“We desperately need a new second major arterial route coming into our region—a dual carriageway at least—that can cope with the flow of traffic at peak times. That is another critical aspect of infrastructure delivery that the region is waiting to see.”

He added that the roll-out of superfast broadband had possibly been “too slow” but hoped that after a hiccough with BT internet in Devon and Somerset, Gigaclear would meet targets within the next couple of years.

He added: “What we are seeing now, and perhaps other regions have seen this before us, is that bright young things are coming to our universities and, instead of returning from whence they came, more and more of them are staying locally and inventing their internet-based businesses—in their bedrooms probably—and planting a business in our region.

“That is really encouraging, and it is transforming the bottom-up business and economy of our region. It can happen because of digital connectivity. We can do almost anything from almost anywhere if we are online and connected, and that is a game-changer for our region. We are desperate to see the roll-out of all the superfast broadband, including 5G.

“Finally, on the issue of marrying together physical transport infrastructure—the trains—and digital connectivity, we must have the capability for people to be online all the time while they are travelling on our trains. That is what the business community has demanded: it is even more important than shaving five or 10 minutes off the journey time from Penzance to Paddington. We must have connectivity, and I know that the Government are working on that. Of course, that responsibility is a cross-departmental one, but I say to the Minister that it is a huge priority for our region.

“To conclude, when we last discussed this matter in 2016, we all mentioned the South West growth charter. The first headline ask from the region was for a new Government partnership with the South West, which is starting to take shape. The second was for investment in digital connectivity and high-speed business: some progress has been made in that area, but we would like to see a bit more. The third was for investment in energy connectivity—switching on to opportunity—on which, again, there has been some progress, but there is further to go. The fourth was for investment in transport connectivity and getting business moving, on which there has been some progress, but that is still our big ask. We say to Government that our demand is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure, and may 2019 be the year of delivery, delivery, delivery.”

Luke Pollard, (Labour Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) said the South West region had been starved of investment for far too long.

“That unfairness is one of the reasons why I first thought about going into politics because as a young lad growing up in Devon, I saw other parts of the country getting stuff that we were not getting,” he said. “My friends in other parts of the country seemed to have more opportunities than were being afforded to young people in the South West, and that did not seem fair.

“Whether a person lives in Plymouth, Devon, Cornwall, or anywhere else around the country, they should have the same opportunities, but sometimes our peripherality seems to restrict our opportunities in that respect. To engage with those opportunities, we need a structural, long-term, cross-party plan, and I hope that today’s debate will help to put pressure on Ministers to create such a plan because our region needs a turning point.”

Neil Parish (Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton) said: “The South West is a great place to live, work and do business, but more needs to be done to attract and retain the high-skilled jobs that we need to boost wage growth and offer opportunities for young people.

“Hinkley Point will play a useful role in that. The availability of labour and skills continues to be a significant challenge to many South West businesses affected by factors such as transport, housing affordability and an ageing population.

“In areas such as agriculture, hospitality and tourism, we continue to rely on a high proportion of migrant labour. We need a system in which we have control over migrant labour and have enough migrant workers in future. As we leave the EU, not only do we need to ensure that we can still get access to EU migrant labour to fill the jobs, but we need to devise a South West strategy to retain graduates and skilled labour, boost investment in our infrastructure and grow business in our region.”

Mr Parish also called for more to be done to improve broadband coverage.

He said: “With everything online now, from tax returns to farming administration and farm payments, and from online shopping to school homework, it is imperative that we get the improvements to broadband and mobile coverage that we need. In some areas, the mobile system will deliver broadband to some of the very hardest-to-reach areas. Mobile and broadband speeds might not be such a problem here in Westminster, but in the South West, it is a constant handicap for many farm families and businesses. In my own farmhouse, there is very little connectivity. Sometimes it can be a blessing when the Whips are trying to get hold of me; I can be completely unconnectable and off the page.

“Despite the best efforts of colleagues here today, we still have some of the worst mobile coverage of any region apart from Wales. It is getting better, but we need to do more. We have to make sure that the mobile companies do not keep the masts all to themselves; they must share them more. Joining everything together will make things work better with the same resource. Delays to broadband in the Devon and Somerset area have been extremely disappointing, mainly because we know how transformational superfast broadband will be to our rural economy and home lives once it is delivered. We need the Treasury to provide state aid.”

Sir Hugo Swire (Conservative, East Devon) said the key question was how to attract high-value, non seasonally dependent jobs.

He praised Exeter science park for bringing innovative, science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine companies in a campus style setting.

He said: “The main impediment to the business growth of Exeter science park is the fact that it has to repay loans on its science park centre. The science park had to take out loans of £6.5 million—mainly from the local enterprise partnership, at a commercial rate—because grants were unavailable during its start-up phase in 2013. Private sector loans were not available because Exeter science park had no assets; they were held in trust by a local authority. Given the vast resources going to the part of the world with which the Minister—he is responsible for the northern powerhouse—deals, he might find that extraordinary set of circumstances difficult to recognise, but it is yet another example of how we in the South West feel slightly discriminated against.

“My first request—this is the Minister’s road to rehabilitation—is to consider how we can use Government capital infrastructure spending to reduce, or ideally erase, those debts. Secondly, how can the Government assist in encouraging Government-backed technology and projects to locate to the science park? If the Minister were able to assist with both those matters, it would provide a huge endorsement for our often-overlooked region. Why, for instance, would an engineering giant such as Rolls-Royce, or a defence contractor such as Babcock—it is already strong in Plymouth, as we have heard—not expand alongside the innovative tech start-ups that are already located there?

“Members often lament how our neglected South West gets limited airtime compared with other UK regions. Local authorities, LEPs and businesses up and down the land compete vociferously for a pool of Government investment. However, we should talk up areas where our regional economy is doing well, and talk practically about how we can do even better. That is surely the way to sell the benefits of economic growth to the public, and attract new jobs and companies to our South West.”

Peter Heaton-Jones (Conservative, North Devon) reiterated the need for road and rail links across the South West.

He said: “Connectivity is a vital driver of the economy not only in North Devon but in the entire South West. That includes roads such as the A361, the A303, the A30 and the A358, but it is also about railways.

“I also wish to mention the railway line in my constituency, and I declare an interest because I am proud to be the honorary president of the Tarka Rail Association. It is one of the roles that I am proudest to hold because that organisation has done much to promote the need for investment in the line that links Exeter and Barnstaple and will continue so to do.”