Lowestoft – A View from Westminster

Peter spoke this morning at the Lowestoft Conference held at the Sixth Form College. The event provided the opportunity to highlight both the potential to bring new jobs to the town and also the challenges that need to be addressed.

 

1. The challenges ahead
 
Good morning Ladies & Gentlemen.   Most of what I will say will be looking to the future, highlighting the opportunities for Lowestoft and identifying those hurdles that need to be overcome if the town is to fulfil its full potential.
 
However, I shall start by looking back. Lowestoft has a rich and proud heritage, though the past 35 years have been tough, with the decline of the fishing industry, the move away from the traditional British Seaside holiday and the disappearance of many factories; Pye, Morton, Brooke Marine, Richards, Eastern Coachworks, CWS and Boulton & Paul.
 
This said, it is necessary to emphasise that important businesses remain; Birds Eye, Hoseasons, Essex & Suffolk Water and Pleasurewood Hills and their international owners have all made significant investments.  They are sending out a very clear message; they like Lowestoft and its most important asset; its people.
 
Today there are opportunities to put Lowestoft well and truly back on the map. Many of these are in the marine sector and involve maximising the benefits of Lowestoft’s strategic location as the most easterly port in the southern North Sea. However there is much work to be done to make the most of them.
 
It is important to set these opportunities and challenges in a global context.  There are 4 factors I would like to highlight.
 
a) Firstly there is the trend of the rise of the City-State where increasingly trade and wealth is concentrated in a small number of major cities. In the UK, we have London – it is good news that we do. It is a if not, the global trading & cultural capital.  However London itself presents a challenge:- the need to ensure that economic activity is not concentrated in one part of the country for the benefit of the few. There is a need to re-balance the economy.
 
b) Secondly it is important to highlight the significant opportunities in the marine sector and the role it can play in this rebalancing. The sector already contributes more to the UK economy than the aerospace and aviation industries. The Gross Value Added of activities in the southern North Sea is over £16billion. This should be compared to agricultural activity which dominates the public perception of East Anglia, of £1.7 billion Gross Value Added. 
 
c) Thirdly to ensure that the lights to not go out there is a need to invest in the UK’s energy infrastructure.  Lowestoft is strategically placed to play a key role in the provision of energy which is affordable, secure and sustainable.  Together Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth already constitute England’s largest concentration of offshore energy businesses.
 
d) Finally we need to meet the challenge of climate change, moving to a low carbon economy.
 
This transition does present challenges but East Anglia is well placed to realise the full potential of the Green Economy.
 
Lowestoft can play a leading role in meeting these four challenges but for businesses to be able to do so, they need the Government to be making the right policy decisions and providing the necessary investment.  Progress has been made in the past 5 years.  Some good decisions have been made but there is a great deal of work still to do.
 
2. We need the right Government policies
 
The Government needs to be making the right policy decisions. If Governments of all colours have not been doing this in the past, it has partly been because decision making has been centrally driven by the Man in Whitehall.
 
The creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships which are driven by local people – (local businesses supported by local councils) is to be welcomed. They have the best knowledge of their areas and are able to correctly identify the opportunities and the action that needs to be taken. 
 
As Michael Heseltine identified in his Report, ‘No Stone Left Unturned’, it is local bodies such as the LEPs who have the ability to unleash the potential of a local economy and its leaders and to enable a region’s economy to raise its game. 
 
The New Anglia LEP which covers Suffolk and Norfolk, has made a good start. They quickly recognised the opportunities in 3 sectors: energy, tourism and food production and processing. All of these are important to the Lowestoft economy.
 
They were pioneers in recognising the opportunities in the Green Economy with their Pathfinder Manifesto.
 
They are now building on this work with their new Strategic Economic Plan which they have just submitted to Government for approval. 
 
This identifies the need for rapid growth in key sectors of the economy including the energy sector and emphasises the importance of improved infrastructure, the need to support companies and the need to improve skills for business. 
 
The LEP are seeking £500 million over 6 years from Government; £200 million to be invested in transport improvements and £100 million in the expansion and development of colleges. 
 
They are now looking to secure a Growth Deal for Government funding to support their plans. 
 
The Government’s Energy Policy has taken some time to emerge.  I would have liked progress to have been quicker as there was a hiatus in investment whilst Electricity Market Reform was being debated in Parliament throughout 2013.  However it was complicated; it is now in place & developers are taking forward their plans.
 
It is through the Levy Control Framework that much needed investment in energy infrastructure will be made, both in the offshore wind and nuclear sectors.  The East Anglian Array and Sizewell will be 2 of the largest construction projects in the world.  They are taking place on our doorstep.
 
The Government has set up the Green Investment Bank which is playing an important role in leveraging in much needed private sector finance.
 
The Government’s commitment to North Sea oil and gas is extremely important not only because there are many businesses in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth active in the sector but also because its skills base and supply chain are virtually the same as those for the offshore renewables sector.
 
Incentives for opening up marginal fields and for decommissioning those at the end of their productive lives were announced in the 2012 Budget. This was very much a positive move and further announcements were forthcoming in last month’s Budget, with the Government accepting Sir Ian Wood’s recommendations which have the objective of maximising the recovery of oil and gas reserves on the UK Continental Shelf. There will be a review of the oil and gas fiscal regime and there is a commitment to work with the industry to improve its skills base.
 
3. Strengthening the supply chain
 
In the past 40 years a good supply chain has developed locally in the oil and gas sector.  This is something that we need to build on.
 
The companies working in the sector are a vitally important resource.  We need to provide them with every opportunity to grow and to also encourage new businesses to move in to work alongside them.
 
The Enterprise Zone and the Centre of Offshore Renewable Engineering (CORE) designations help do this.  If parts of Lowestoft & Yarmouth are included in the Assisted Areas Map for 2014 to 2020 then this will also help attract business to the area.
 
It will enable additional regional aid to be made available to businesses under the EC state aid rules. 
 
4. Developing the right skills
 
To make sure that these jobs do come to Lowestoft, it is important that local people do have the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills.
 
There is a need for an increased emphasis on the teaching of STEM subjects in the classroom, this is something where you can’t start early enough.
 
What I find really encouraging is that all 4 of the town’s High Schools are fully engaged and focussed on the importance of renewable energy to the future of their town.  I have attended events at all 4 schools at which students have highlighted these opportunities.  East Point Academy are undertaking the Comenus project, highlighting different energy technologies in association with schools from France, Portugal and Germany. Ormiston Denes are regular winners of Suffolk Greenest School Award.  Last autumn Benjamin Britten put on an energy presentation to visitors from their twin school from India last autumn, whilst Pakefield High School are putting strong emphasis on engineering and are working closely with business.
 
Here at the Sixth Form College there is a similar acknowledgement and Lowestoft College over many years have built up an international reputation in the maritime and engineering sectors.  They are now making significant investments so that they are ready to meet the additional training needs of businesses.
 
Apprenticeships have an important role to play. There has been a significant increase in the number of apprenticeship starts in the area in recent years; from 540 to over 1000 in 3 years.  More needs to be done to make it easier for small and medium sized enterprises to take on apprenticeships.
 
The announcement in the Budget of an extra £85 million out of which grants can be made to those businesses who otherwise would not have taken on apprentices will help, but this is an area where I believe we can do more.
 
An excellent initiative which has just been launched by the East of England Energy Group is the placement of a recruitment expert in Job Centre Plus.  His role is to help facilitate recruitment in to the energy sector.
 
The importance of Research & Development cannot be under estimated.  Orbis has been here since the millennium whilst CEFAS have been here since the beginning of the last century & I hope that they will be here at the end of this one.  Both are carrying out pioneering and innovative work.
 
I recently attended and spoke at a conference which CEFAS hosted on the harvesting of seaweed.  There is a lot of work to be done before this becomes a commercially viable process. Indeed it is possible that it will not become one, but such research & development is so vital & it is a continuation of something that we have done so well in Britain for such a long time.
 
Orbis is the original home of Extremis.  David Watson along with Mark Aspinall invented the shelterbox there, a shelter which is designed for use in areas hit by natural disasters.  It is now being tested and in the next few years I sense that it will be used around the world to bring relief to many victims of hurricanes and floods and it will be seen regularly on our TV screens.  When I see them I shall always think to myself “Made in Lowestoft”.
 
5. Infrastructure
 
Finally infrastructure.  Good infrastructure is vital, if Lowestoft is to realise its full potential with good links to the rest of the country and the ability to move more freely around the town 
 
The Government are currently carrying out 6 route based strategy studies to identify investment opportunities on the national road network that will promote economic growth.  The A47 is one of these 6 roads and thus it is important that we lobby hard for the road to be extended to Lowestoft so that it starts at Lake Lothing.  This will put the town on the map and will provide us with a much better opportunity to improve roads both to and in the town.  The Government have recognised the strength of our case and the northern section of the A12 from Great Yarmouth to Lowestoft has been included in the study.
 
An upgraded A47 provides many advantages; better access to Norwich and its airport, a better link to London via the shortly to be fully dualled A11 and better roads to the Midlands and the North.
 
Being properly on the national road network will make it easier to secure funds for better roads in Lowestoft, including a new crossing of Lake Lothing, for which work to identify the optimum solution is now underway.  
 
The other pinchpoint in the town’s road system is the Oulton Broad North level crossing. Network Rail are currently working up plans, for which funding will then need to be secured, that will lead to the barriers being down for a shorter period when trains are in the station.  This should reduce the congestion that builds up down Gorleston Road, up Normanston Drive and down Bridge Road.
 
The 1953 floods sounded the death knoll for the Beach Village. The December Sea Surge confirmed that improved flood defences are vital if we are to attract new investment to the town. The fact that Suffolk County Council and Waveney District Council have quickly submitted their Lowestoft flood defence proposals to Government for approval is very much welcomed but I am concerned that the Government’s current arrangements for evaluating such projects does not take proper account of the economic growth and regeneration potential that such a scheme will provide. This is something on which I am lobbying the Government.
 
The investment in superfast broadband, the 21st highway, is well under way and whilst problems remain in the rural areas, the roll out is moving ahead quickly in and around Lowestoft.  The importance of the railway with Lowestoft Central at the heart of the town should also be emphasised.  The new hourly service to Ipswich and the improvements around the station are welcome but much work remains to be done.
 
6. Conclusion
 
In conclusion, I am optimistic.  There are clear opportunities to revitalise Lowestoft, to build on the town’s heritage, its strategic location and its most important resource, its people.  There is no one silver bullet though the foundation stones have been put in place but with much work remaining, to build on a future that compares favourably with Lowestoft’s rich and proud heritage.
 
 

Surgeries

Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

Next Surgeries - 2018: 
Beccles, Saturday 14th April
Lowestoft, Thursday 31st May

 

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